An Unobscured View in Iceland
Story and photos by Glen Retief

A midnight sun on an island near the Arctic Circle finally banishes the author's fear of the dark.

Iceland landscape

The sky above us was crystal ultramarine, morning-glory blue. No Floridian or African could ever look up and imagine midsummer noon. Where was the sun's searing brilliance, midway between dawn and dusk? Out of a rocks-and-dust moonscape rose the dome of the now-abandoned Latrar radar station, gleaming in the soft midday light.

Then we were at Bolafjall, one of Iceland's most famous cliff views. Two thousand feet below, fingers of the sea webbed the world into green grass, black rock, and white snow. Gulls wove and cawed. Ahead lay Hornstrandir, a wilderness of puffins, glaciers, and Arctic foxes. I dropped my day pack and crawled forward on my stomach to the edge, a middle-aged college professor turned drunk adolescent. Here, here! I waved my arms in empty space. Thus, in our moments of strongest feeling, young and old parts of ourselves coalesce; life eras mingle; and real and imaginary landscapes blend together.

Iceland bolafjall

I grew up in an opposite topography. On the umbrella-thorn studded savannahs of the Kruger National Park, South Africa, where my father and uncle worked as researchers, our roof creaked and clacked on hundred-degree afternoons. Outside, the air shimmered up in wobbling, hallucinatory eddies. Maribou storks rode the convection currents, their wings stiff as children's kites. It might well have been, as our teachers reminded us, the garden of Eden. Homo sapiens evolved two million years ago here. Two thousand plant species, five hundred bird types, and a hundred and fifty kinds of mammal surrounded us.

Too Close to the Food Chain

author as a child in AfricaMy family fell in love with the place. Today my cousin, Neil, works as a game guide. His sister built herself a bush home, while my siblings and parents still visit every chance they get. Not me. The savannah never clicked. The ochre browns and yellows that delighted wildlife painters bored me. While the rest of my family oohed at hyena pups or giraffe fights, I read Tolkien novels. Even today, a coral reef will quicken my heart; a glacial lake will lift my spirits. But acacia thorns tire me.

The great South African author JM Coetzee says a human being can deeply love only one landscape. If so, the love of my life is a non-geography, anything without warthogs. How did I remain so indifferent? With landscape as with people, attraction is mysterious. Yet instinct tells me anxiety was a factor in my dispassion. A close family friend got his leg pulled off by a crocodile on a fishing trip. Our village was unfenced, and one early winter morning, as I arrived at my elementary school, a teacher directed me to the neighboring Dutch Reformed Church: lions were warming themselves on the asphalt basketball courts.

The nights were the most perilous, since that was when the cats hunted. One Sunday morning, in the dark hours, lions killed a kudu yards away from where my sister, brother, and I slept in a blue A-frame tent, at a research camp. "Stay still, Glennie!" my father called from his nearby trailer. I spent several hours, with clammy hands and a belt of terror around my chest, listening to the beasts tear flesh off their carcass.

Author's uncle in africa

Pining for the Fjords

At age ten I handwrote twenty or so letters to all the embassies whose addresses I could find in the Pretoria yellow pages. I explained I was still in fifth grade, but wanted to travel the world. I said—I remember this clearly—I also want to live abroad. So before my voice broke, I had a desire to emigrate.

Of all the pictures that arrived—Japanese cherry blossoms; French cobblestone squares—the Norwegian fjords took my breath away. Sea and mountains, emerald grass. It helped, in apartheid South Africa, that the pamphlets also mentioned peace, equality, and human rights. I cut out and posted those fjord pictures above my bed, where they stayed for my adolescence.

I ended up settling in central Pennsylvania. A husband; a college teaching job—pragmatics ended up guiding me, more than a passion for topography, although I have certainly grown to love bucolic green hills and blue rivers. For thirty years, however, I got nowhere near a fjord. Then, last June, I piggybacked a weeklong apartment rental in Iceland's West Fjords onto an academic conference, and there I was, in something at least close to the landscape of those long-ago pictures.

Into Magical Iceland Finally

Iceland, of course, inspired Tolkien—although I had no idea of this at age fifteen, immersing myself among elves to avoid hippos. In the Sorcery Museum in Holmavík—a place stunningly reminiscent of South African diviners—we examined Norse runes. We read of the ancient Volsunga saga, which features an accursed ring.

We hiked through green, empty Alpine valleys and along rocky mountainsides belching steam. This country had heat, like Kruger, but here it came from below: it was easy to picture dwarf foundries. Evenings, we joined the after-work crowd in the municipal hot pools, letting the bubbling, sulphuric water soothe our muscles.

Iceland hote springs

Some things reminded me so much of Africa I laughed out loud. Potholed, gravel roads, with signs warning us to look out for livestock. As back home, if you hit a sheep or goat, you had to pay off the owner. Other experiences were downright exotic. One night we asked the crew of a trawler where we could buy fresh fish, and without ado they tossed us a cod large as a honey badger.

But when I think back on the meaning of the trip, my thoughts gravitate to an early night hike we did, following a sheep path along the Onundarfjördur. Brown marsh water squished underfoot. Below us, boats pulled in their nets. Gulls and guillemots dived for fingerlings; the fjord's ocean shallows shone crystal aquamarine.

Nothing about this, I reflected, could have existed when I was a kid. Not the juxtaposition of sea and ice; not the stark, treeless beauty; and certainly not the night sun, which, given the absence of trees and bushes, would have made it difficult for lions and leopards to surprise prey.

Icelandic guidebooks warn about blizzards and avalanches. Yet these seemed far away, that mild summer evening, everything so green, lush, and clear.

Iceland geography

The truth was that as a child I had never really experienced the common illusion of safety in nature: picnics in Central Park; maple leaves dappling moss. Instead, cold mortality pooled in my gut every time I checked a log for poisonous mambas. Now, I let myself breathe in nature's beneficence. The smell of sea. The gentle warmth of the night sun.

Travelers in Iceland were full of stories of disrupted slumber. Yet I never slept as well as I did that week, in the relentless all-night luminescence—ten-hour nights, unconscious as a boulder.

Was this, then, what I'd longed for in my childhood Eden? For the freedom to be in nature, without having to keep watch? Perhaps I longed for a broad, unobscured view, without a clock somewhere ticking off the hours to chaotic darkness.

Glen Retief's The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lamda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.

Related Features:
Strange Sensations in Iceland - Tim Leffel
Where is the Where? Hiking to the Horizon in Iceland - Lea Aschkenas
The Darker and Wetter Side of Bergen, Norway - David Nikel
Denmark al Dente - Tony Cohan

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Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood

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