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North to south

Monday, March 7th, 2011

FIRE AND ICE: The smaller volcanoes below Snaefellsjokull in western Iceland with winter snow and the the lava fields that coagulated on their way down to the Atlantic ocean

It was a geography teacher’s dream: to fly from near the Arctic Circle to its antipode in the southern hemisphere when one is in the throes of deep winter and the other is in the full glare of mid-summer. Always wanted to go from the North Pole to the South Pole (as it were) at one go, and a recent back-to-back lecture tour allowed me to fly from Kathmandu to New Zealand via Rekjavik.

Even before the plane starts making its descent into Keflavik airport, you realise that instead of Iceland, this country should be called Lavaland. It is Greenland should have been called Iceland. And as soon as you step out of the airport, you are greeted by the smell of rotten eggs: the sulphur dioxide that is endlessly seeping out of vents on the island’s surface. That smell never leaves you, even the hotel shower spews hot sulphurous waters normally found in spas. At the famous outdoor Blue Lagoon hot spring near the airport, you can soak yourself the healing waters at 37 Celsius while the outside temperature is -5, a bit like the Tatopani on the banks of the Tila in Jumla. The word “geyzer” and “saga” have come to the English language from Icelandic.

All this is because Iceland was formed along a hotspot along the mid-Atlantic ridge, the 8,000 km S-shaped crack on the earth’s surface where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are sliding apart. 2010 was a bad year for Iceland, it suffered from the aftershocks of the banking crisis and then the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull which closed down European air traffic for weeks. But Icelanders are practical folk, and have cashed in on the volcano by making souvenirs from the volcano ash. They have also made prudent use of the magma frothing under their feet, and nearly all homes in the country are heated by hot water pumped from underground. All the electricity is either geothermal or hydro, and the country only depends on fossil fuels for transportation. Wish Nepal’s planners had the common sense and foresight to harness the boundless energy flowing down from the mountains.

Icelanders are a hardy, unconventional lot (they are the longest-living humans on the planet). The first settler in 865, Viking Hrafna-Floki, totally underestimated the first harsh winter and lost all his livestock. He sailed back to Norway in disgust, naming the island Iceland. Centuries later, his descendants also underestimated the vagaries of the global financial system and had all their assets wiped out. The other famous Icelander, of course, is Bjork (her surname is Guðmundsdóttir and like all Icelandic women her name ends in ‘dottir’) with her distinctively unique voice and song compositions. The current prime minister, Johanna Siguradottir, has become the first Icelander to marry a person of the same sex under a new marital law. The new mayor of Rekjavik, Jon Gnarr, is a stand-up comedian who forewarned his voters he would break all his election promises if elected. He drives around Rekjavik in an electric car and when asked by a reporter what he liked about the Internet, he replied: “Porn.”

My friend Anil Thapa is with the computer department at the University of Iceland and is actively involved with Help-Nepal, regularly runs marathons to raise money for charities in Nepal. There are a couple of dozen other families, mostly from Kaski, who work as guides for rafting companies in the summer and work in bakeries through the winter, and are well regarded for their diligence and integrity.

It took a full 24 hours sitting inside a plane, flying with the rotation of the earth to travel Rekjavik-Oslo-Bangkok-Auckland and on to Queenstown in the south of New Zealand’s South Island. If you haven’t done a crazy flight like that, take my advice: don’t. Landing at Queenstown, I was a walking zombie and a prime candidate for deep vein thrombosis.

SNAKE LAKE: Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand’s South Island is shaped like a serpent and it is when it is disturbed that the Maoris say earthquakes happen.


What a lot we could learn from the Kiwis about how to integrate tourism with adventure sports. Professors at Lincoln University are the gurus of most of Nepal’s renowned conservationists (see blog below about Pat
Devlin) and there is great potential to build on the eco-tourism model started by Chandra Gurung and Mingma Sherpa.

New Zealand has great names for its mountains and lakes: the Remarkables, Mt Aspiring, Lake Doubtful, Deception Pass. New Zealandis the last large island on the planet to have been settled by humans (even later than Iceland) and its modern constitution could teach us a thing or two about how to treat the indigenous people. The Maori have 15 or more different words for clouds, and their name for New Zealand (Aotearoa) means “land of the long white cloud”. Most official functions are opened with a Maori elder (a “Kaumatua”) delivering a prayer sermon and like most animistic cultures the mountains, streams, lakes and the oceans here are all animate and possess souls. Maori beliefs have a creation myth about the union of the Earth Mother and Sky Father, and how family discord among their children explain tidal waves, floods and earthquakes.

In Christchurch, we saw the ruins of the September earthquake. But all the exemplary rehabilitation work was destroyed by the much more devastating earthquake on 22 February. Mayor Bob Parker had just returned to Christchurch after attending an earthquake preparedness conference in Kathmandu when he had to deal in New Zealand with precisely what he had warned would happen to Nepal.

Iceland is located at a point in the ocean where two plates are spreading apart, whereas New Zealand is where the Pacific Plate and the Australian Plate are grinding past each other, unleashing volcanoes and earthquakes. Both countries are a sobering reminder for us here in Nepal about how things can go drastically wrong in a few seconds if we are not prepared for nature’s upheavals.

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2 Responses to “North to south”

  1. Emil Viskupic on Says:

    .. this is a bit off-topic, kunda kaji … i´m trying to locate any working contact … to no avail, though . .. who knows, you may read the comments under your blogs … just hear you speaking on the Slovak radio … amazing … will you drop a line … ?? … haryo ban, nepal ko dhan …

  2. Arpan Sharma on Says:

    What a piece dai ? Infact what a journey from Iceland to New Zealand……….

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