It was just last week that six of us, Geoff Maynard (above) Pete Henton, Stuart Tod, Brian Havell, Jason Lacny and I discovered what it must be like on the moon, the near-empty coast road from Reykjavik to Selfoss flanked for some fifty miles by fields of rocks, piles of rocks and still more rocks unmoved and untouched for some twenty million years, a land seemingly fly-tipped with builder’s rubble since the dawn of time.
Geologist, Stuart, found a modicum of interest in this volcanic No-Man’s Land but the untrained eyes of his colleagues sought the comforting red of a KFC…a petrol station…a house… but all we got was an interminable, undisturbed eternity of immortal, black, solidified magma. A freezing, thick sea-mist completed the picture, throwing into doubt our long-awaited intention of fly-fishing for trout.
En route we’d dropped in at the Blue Lagoon Hotel in Grindavik to pick-up the towels and bedding we’d need for our week-long stay in a lodge ten miles south of the famed Lake Thingvellir. Strangely enough, the hotel takes its name from the famous Blue Lagoon, a man-made pool of mineral-rich geothermally-heated water pumped from the nearby power-plant. Doubtless the water’s special properties do, indeed, provide comfort to sufferers from psoriasis and other skin complaints but, visually, the site was little different to my old Essex gravel pits during back-filling. But the water was blue and warm, and it steamed, so the surrounding back-drop of puffing power-generating plant and miles of associated pipework is, presumably, of little concern to the thousands who make the pilgrimage to this expensive Lunar Paradise. I’d rather have psoriasis.
But take heart. Selfoss was the gateway to less formidable terrain, a region where horses, a few sheep and even people were to be found. This latter species was occupied in small businesses, filling stations, and shops where a woollen jumper could set you back six- hundred quid and a small bottle of water and a ham roll did set me back twelve quid.
But the landscape between here and our holiday-home in Belfur was a little gentler with the odd tuft of green grass reaching out from between basalt boulders, yearning for the sky and a spot on ‘Life on Earth’. More grey than green, lichens (or ‘litchens’ as us former Essex Boys so correctly referred to them) served to soften the scene, while a variety of bird species brought welcome life to the desert of rippled rock and natural foundry-slag. We saw gyrfalcon, skua, whimbrel, golden plover, and lots of snipe plummeting headlong to produce their curious ‘drumming’ sound through their tail-feathers. The bar-tailed godwit was, of course, renamed by the coarser element of our number, as was the great northern diver…
But the real excitement started on finding the salmon rivers of our dreams; boisterous, roiling beasts pummelled by thundering falls, clear as gin and ten times as expensive. Like everything else in Iceland, fishing ain’t cheap: a day’s fly-fishing on a relatively modest lake commands £200.00 – that’s nine ham rolls and seven bottles of water – but it does ensure these national treasures remain pristine and unexploited. One of our guides (both of whom were named Arni) told us of one pool producing 800 salmon last season; oh, that the Wye was so prolific!
In Belfur we found our home from home, a beautifully-built, spacious wooden lodge fronted by acres of decking and an annexe which Stu bagged as his own for the week. There were no radiators in the house, warmth provided free of charge by under-floor geothermally-heated pipes which maintained a perfect temperature throughout our stay, day and night. I say ‘day and night’ but there is little difference, the sun retiring just below the horizon at around midnight for nothing more than a short power-nap, its glow bathing the land in a dull ecliptic yellow until it rises again at about 03.30. Weird. We were on holiday so nobody was clock-watching and evening meals were intuitively timed – only to find ourselves peeling the spuds at 11pm! Thank heaven it wasn’t winter. Icelanders suffer up to 21 hours of darkness at this time, not to mention deep and genuine depression. Suicide rates are high and alcohol is prohibitively-priced to deter those who would drown their sorrows a little too thoroughly – or literally.
Our introduction next morning to Lake Thingvellir truly was a baptism of ‘fire and ice’ An absolute hooligan-of-an-icy-wind was pushing 4ft waves onto the black-sand beach but we accepted this as the normal trout-fishing conditions one must endure on Thingvellir and set about our quest for a 20lb trout with undimmed enthusiasm: we knew no different. Certainly, our guides were brimming with optimism and showed us how to wade out knacker-deep to where the shelf dropped into deeper water beyond a river-inlet. Here, we made a pretty respectable job of whipping our lines out and allowing them to swing round with the flow, parallel to the shore – not bad when you’re half-mummified within four inches of lagging and chest waders! We persevered for hours, two groups of 3 battling against the waves of an inland sea on private beats at different locations – but without success.
Eventually the immortal words of Fred J convinced us we’d be glad when we’d had enough, so it wasn’t long before we were in our vehicles and heading back to the lodge for a beer, something to eat and planning for the next day.
Perpetual daylight does strange things to the body-clock. The expectation of dusk followed by darkness – neither of which arrives in any meaningful sense – gives a false impression of the time, so finding it to be around 11pm rather than 7.30 when Jason started preparing our evening meal was quite unsettling. Out on the decking, the rest of us quaffed liquid gold (it might just as well have been at Iceland prices) while taking in the view and the distinctive whistling of whimbrel. Snipe, too, remained active, treating us to their unique aerobatics before zig-zagging back to their nests in the tangled scrub just yards from where we sat. We’d noticed this confidence in the bird-life earlier at Thingvellir where pairs of terns would land just three or four rod-lengths from us alongside the red-necked phalarope – the British twitcher’s dream-sighting. These needle-beaked little waders had no fear, pottering around the margins unconcerned and totally oblivious to the odd tele-photo lens being shoved in their faces. And there were pomerine skuas: egg-snatching, dark destroyers that zoomed-in from nowhere to send waves of panic through the wading species.
Conditions were only slightly milder back on Thingvellir the following day. Stu, Brian and Jason returned to their beat while Geoff, Pete and I returned to ours, accessible only via a remote-controlled barriers operated by someone, somewhere, with that day’s code. Boy, do these Icelanders protect their fishing! Thingvellir is vast, the surrounding area desolate, the population low, yet access to anywhere other than the National Park section is very, very limited.
It was Stu’s birthday and Thingvellir presented him with no fewer than five hard-fighting, beautifully-wrapped gifts; no 20lbers but among them was a brownie of around 4lbs that leapt repeatedly and ripped-off a fair bit of backing before Stu could bring it to the net. Others were in the 2-3lb class including one fish to Jason so, all nice fish, but a million miles from what we sought.
There are 3 species in Thingvellir: trout, char and sticklebacks, and it’s on the char that the monsters of this inland ocean wax big and fat; fish in the mid and high twenties not that rare; fish that will run unstoppably for hundreds of yards until the spool is bare. We came to believe after wasting a couple of days at the popular National Park beats that the chances of contacting these beasts were pretty slim given the exclusivity of the warm water areas and, of course, the associated cost. Perhaps there, on calmer days in high summer, it would be possible to emulate those fortunate fellows on YouTube chucking a ‘dry’ and latching into the double-figure monsters. And they truly are monsters; descendants of fish isolated within Thingvellir’s 84 square kilometres 100 metres above sea-level since the last Ice Age. Take a look at these…
and especially THIS…
Three day’s staggering around like an over-dressed drunkard on treacherous rocky banks had taken its toll on my poor carcass, so our windswept arrival the next day at a more modest lake close to Reykjavik saw me take sanctuary in the car while my hardier colleagues braved the elements in search of success. We’d been given free access and a day’s fishing on this £200 per day water by its owner, Christian, who also owned the hotel close to our lodge in Belfur. Jason and Brian had gone there the previous evening to enquire about fishing possibilities, explaining truthfully that our guide had been forced to change his plans. Success! I had lunch and a long, glorious snooze in the wind-rocked Peugeot while master-caster, Pete, now 78, lifted into no fewer than five fish up to an estimated 5lb. The rest of the gang took fish too, stripping their lines back through the waves to take brownies averaging around two and a half pounds. Again, not monsters, but they were Icelandic brownies.
It must be admitted that the rest of our fishing was sporadic and all a bit uncertain with Stu, Jason and Brian being politely ejected from a beat they’d believed to be free fishing: sight-seeing it was then…
All had a genuinely good time with many thanks going to Geoff Maynard for his generosity; fantastic food courtesy of Jason; exciting fishing; good banter with good friends and trouble-free flights back to the UK. As ever, the sight of so much green brought a lift to the spirits and that dash of patriotism we all feel after a spell in less pastoral lands.
Before long, Stu and I were back on the tarmac and heading west for home in the Land of Song. Were it not for his phone racing across my dashboard, straight out of the window and onto the M25 up-ramp at Staines, the trip would have been absolutely perfect!