Where Mountains Let Off Steam

Iceland, Reflections, Travel, Uncategorized

There’s a place high in the North Atlantic where day by day America and Europe grow further apart in matters unrelated to politics. It’s no fun being the subject of a custody battle between mother Eurasia and father America.

Tectonic limbs all wrenched and popped from sockets by the selfish jostling of parents who should know better, this ‘kid’ is a work in geological progress. Only Hawaii experiences growth spurts like this.

There but for the grace of an ever-widening Atlantic goes it. It, of course, is Iceland. It, in its physical manifestation, looks like a green and white lesion on the skin of the Earth when seen from space. As lesions go, this one’s made of tough stuff: of gabbro, rhyolite, andesite and all the inanimate stuff of inner Earth, stuff whose quality reassures in both its lastingness and the sure-footing it provides our little feet on these hair-raising trips around our parent star.

When least expected, the lesion seeps hot puss onto Earth’s skin in the form of hot mantle rock. By night glowing rivulets of lava channel down from the frigid heights to where nature spins this rarely seen material on the loom of time. What spent aeons riding the currents of the hot, viscous ocean under the earth’s crust is now cooled under grey skies in these sub-polar environs. Evidence of it lies strewn everywhere, petrified fragments of magma now little charcoal-coloured sponges dissolved full of holes.

Iceland is rightly known as the land of fire and ice. There, hot geothermic forces that on most landmasses remain under a 70 km cap of insulating crust bring the insanely-hot upper mantle so close to the surface that green mountains blow jets of steam from their flanks. The sight is akin to seeing the smouldering embers of dozens of hillside campfires, except water is the fuel, and not the smouldering remains of firewood. Correspondingly, in rural Iceland, which is practically all of Iceland, drainage trenches cut into the roadside verge create curtains of hot vapour steaming up, making the driver feels he’s driving on a whistling kettle made of tarmac.

Known as Thule to the ancient Greeks, this place of black sand, ice-capped highland, stunted trees and primeval lime moss below the Arctic Circle is by no means mythical in spite of a temptation to deem it so. For to be mythical is to be ancient, and compared with granny Scotland to the south, Iceland is a geological laddie. Plus, its status is real enough to have a runway on its southwest peninsula bringing in an ever-increasing number of people curious to see what all the fuss is about. Not far out of the airport, and one can see why. A volcano, constructed by nature only yesterday so perfect is its conical shape, stamps the country’s character almost immediately.

The south cape of Iceland is a sight like no other. Giving the savage beauty of the cape a human face is the village of Vik. Man, this is one cape that makes Superman’s look pointless. With its super-cooled hexagonal columns of basalt (think Fingal’s Cave in Iona, Scotland) propping up grass-coated cliffs that double as high rise apartments for legions of fulmars, puffins, terns and other tenants, the magic oozes right from the word go. Then there’s the headland that juts fearlessly into the freezing Atlantic. The sea stack at the outer perimeter of the headland is carved into the perfect stone arch which reaches high into the sky and through which a ship could pass unhindered. Pushing south into the North Atlantic, this point is the nearest Iceland will be to warmer waters, that is until it spews more submarine eruptions that give it that extra-territorial reach. No other island can undergo geology’s answer to a cosmetic makeover quite like this one. Stay alive long enough and you’ll see it morph into something else.

The innards of the earth ground down to grains, its black sand beaches stretch away into the past one way and into the future the other. We’re standing on a convergence point of time as it was, as it is, as it will be. All a bit disconcerting, in the nicest possible way. Behind it all looms the presence of the same Eyjafjallajokull volcano that belched thousands of transatlantic flights to a standstill five years ago. Iceland’s famed ponies stand in a huddle against the sheet rain. An endless supply of fresh grass is their only recompense for finding themselves stuck shivering in steel-grey of the mid-Atlantic.

All is not what it seems. Unlike most other places, where heat originates from above, Iceland feels it from below. A skein of hydro-thermal pipes run over old lava fields turned to moss. Blink and the pipes could be running oil. Denuded of trees, this place could be the hellish twin of the Persian Gulf, with its crude oil pipes running over equally barren lands. And like the deserts where winds blow sands into new arrangements, in Iceland it’s the restlessness of what lurks beneath that ensures that timelessness is no more than a cruel illusion. At least, Tolstoy would back me on that one if he were still around.

(The photograph was taken in Vik, on Iceland’s magnificent south cape).

Cry Me a River (Just Make Sure First it’s Ephemeral)


On Oman’s highway 9 running inland from the little coastal town of Al-Khabourah on the road to Muscat, the Batnah plain comes up hard against a bottom row of mountains that would not go amiss in the mouth of a demon god.

Ahlan Wa Sahlan. Welcome to the sublime world of the wadi, Wadi Al-Hawasina to be exact.

The road starts deforming, clamming up in fear as it probes deeper into rugged backcountry. It twists and turns, up and over, around and down. Great pyramids of rock, ultrabasic as the underworld where they formed, are too monumental to tunnel through. So the road follows the geology of Oman by buckling, by going up and over. Few other places anywhere on Earth lay bare the earth’s upper mantle to the atmosphere like here. These are geomorphic rarities indeed, truths that refuse to be buried a second time. The road is as serpentine as the mineral of the same name that characterises these mountains. Serpentine is the green stone, burnished to the most beautiful glazed jade when immersed in the water that courses down the normally dry wadi beds. Serpentine is also, figuratively, the dragon’s blood of this mountain range. Weirdly, the topography is not unlike the teeth that run down the dragon’s back.

Parked under a lone acacia in temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I am alone in a quick-drying riverbed on a scale continental. This is Oman on a cool day. The world’s only Sultanate built on ophiolite rock, here Islam is practiced on hardened molten plastic normally found in the earth’s asthenosphere beneath the kilometres-thick crust that makes the planet habitable. Here, as in a few other spots located on geological faultlines, the innards of the earth seeped out some 90 million years ago. Looking around, I could be in the late Cretaceous without ever knowing how I made it there. Much as I revere my VW Touareg’s capabilities in transporting us into this rugged backcountry, redshifting me back in time is not one of its advertised selling points.

So, I’m parked under an acacia that must be tapping some deep aquifer, the real river under the one that’s been dry longer than mammals have been around. The rock, not unlike human skin, has blistered, dried and cracked under a sun that simply will not relent (unless you call evening a defeat for his coronal highness). What has to be, in its very primordial nature, pristine is anything but. Detritus of the human variety is strewn under trees. Even polymers need cowering from the sun lest they start cracking up, too.

This writer cannot sit for broken glass. I mean, how do you create so many jagged pieces unless you’re a ignorant muppet, probably local, who is so plagued with emptiness in this big, empty land that smashing bottles against geology’s holy grail (not that the locals care for the orogenesis of their Terra Madre) seems like the only fun to have? Or else, maybe what the offending vandals are trying to do here is create a tortured artistic representation of the violence that brought the mountains into being 90 mya.

Two local lads, sitting under the other acacia across the wide expanse of boulders that form the creek bed, spot the foreigner and mosey over. Their tall, skinny physiques shimmer in their white Bedouin dress. If I didn’t know these sorts better, I would take them for a couple of robbing opportunists. But that’s not the way these Omani’s roll. Assault and battery is rarer than a sod of grass in these parts. One asks for a selfie with the white man (who is going a shade of red in the blistering heat). He must be expanding the narrow definition to include himself, myself, yourself, ourselves. We watch the birdie and like that they are gone back to the shabab sitting cross-legged, encircling the tree. The glass glints in the sun. Even an apologist now has to admit the bottle-smashing was an exercise in wanton loutishness, Arab-style, and not wanton art, Dada-style.

The panorama is bleak as it is dazzling. Pillow lava, dark and basaltic. There is no policy to it, as such. It’s enough that the earth is scorched without we scorching it more with our bloody policies.

The mountain at whose base the glass and plastic discards threaten to take a starring role: the gravel, come weeping from the pinnacle in an auburn avalanche, forms a burnt topping. It’s not your average mountain. The iron in them hills makes the mother mountains look all fired and glazed and ready for market. Against a sky mottled by higher than high cirrus clouds going it alone in an island archipelago of blue, the sky is an ocean, the world is a vampire, and the land bearing the whole load belongs to another time and another planet, say Mars.

When the sun starts dipping beneath twenty degrees from the horizontal plane, the mountains lose that glare. What replaces the washed out dictatorship draped in that fake ultraviolet flag are what I like to consider the true colours. A spell is put on the hour. Magic is come. Revealed is the face behind the mask, a face crumpled with ruts. Think of your grandfather and those bristled lines of age you ran your hand down when your hand was half the size it is today.

The strata of rock tells a history of violence even though the only white supremist was the sun and that’s mellowing with age now. Some bands of rock have been thrust up, extruded, born on their belly and sat bolt upright until, like the beaverskin-hatted queen’s guards, they matured into the role. Not even idiotic tourists can irritate these rock sediments into sitting back down. On a promontory a village, who can tell in this desiccated landscape how ancient, lies part in ruins. The bones of man’s archeological past are so delicate as to crumble at the faintest touch. Whoever lived here in the distant past knew how to crush pigments to make paste for topaz walls. They had a flair for geometry, too. Then again, this is Islamo-mundo where God speaks in fractals of geometry. He’s 90 degrees when perfection, and 45 degrees when He is more perfect still. The doors hanging on ruined dwellings (see image) might not lead to perception, yet they do embrace a kind of fleur-de-lys, heraldic beauty. Long after the walls have crumbled, these iron doors will remain upright and non-corroded, like the upturned layers of rock shaping this valley in a bowl.

On the way home the sky behind the mountains is glowing orange. I stop. A wedding party ride by in a cavalcade of four-wheel drives. Bits of bunting flap from roof racks. Horns blow and the hands wave at the sight of the lonesome European standing roadside, bewitched by the umbra that the mountains have now become. The shadow of black serrations. The object between you and the source of light. Finally, after hours, of playing dead under the surveillance of the sun, the mountains finally come to life. The place is alive with the spirits of ninety million years of life on earth, and it’s not quite dark yet.