I’m writing this from a room at the Leifur Eiriksson Hotel in Reykavik, Iceland. The cathedral and Leifur’s statue are across the road. You can see him striding off to discover the new world (although Christopher Columbus stole the credit.)
You would certainly be forgiven for thinking that this is the wrong day for Iceland: isn’t Thursday supposed to be Africa? I’m here for a conference on hyperspectral image processing and remote sensing, but I don’t intend to bore you with that. Iceland is much more interesting. But what can I possibly write about Iceland that Yrsa can’t write better? The answer, of course, is nothing. But perhaps some impressions of a first-time visitor might have some interest because Iceland has a lot of interesting things that make you think about your own country. For example, I was thrilled to see arctic terns – back from their winter holidays in the Antarctic. Apparently they are very aggressive about their nests. I suppose I would be grumpy, too, if I’d just flown halfway around the world. (I leave at 5am tomorrow for the thirty hour trip back to Johannesburg so I think I know how they feel.)
As a visitor, I get a comfortable feeling about water and energy. It makes one feel really good to have hot water supplied – directly or via heat exchanger – from geothermal sources. No pollution, no depleting resource, no significant running cost. And plenty of water, too. You let the shower run a bit longer and hotter with no guilt. And it makes one think. Why can’t countries in southern Africa do more with their plentiful solar energy? Yes, set up costs are high but there’s a big long-term payoff. In fact, in Gaborone many houses do have solar water heaters, and there is a subsidised plan in South Africa for people who want to install them. What makes people hesitate? It’s the cheap electricity. But the price of electricity in South Africa is set to double in the next three years, and already areas are suffering blackouts as heavy usage strains the system. (Don’t worry; the World Cup has top priority and there are backup generators as well.) And surely more can be done with solar energy for electricity generation, fuel-free cooking, and so on? South Africa is blessed with extensive coal reserves, so coal-fired power-stations are still the order of the day. But the coal has a finite life and variable quality which results in significant pollution. At one stage – before the government clamped down – the region of South Africa which hosts the major coal mines and power stations had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted area in the southern hemisphere.
Yrsa and Ole kindly drove me around Reykjavik on Monday pointing out the interesting buildings and sights. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t kind and drizzle obscured some of the views of the rugged coastline. The sea was calm, though. Apparently at its most violent it will toss the boulders used to form a breakwater into the road. Despite the weather we had a chance to walk around the artificial beach built around a charming cove with the sea heated! Quite an undertaking. The hot water is supplied by leftovers from the geothermal hot water systems. They also took me to a seafood restaurant situated right at the harbour. Unpretentious to look at, the restaurant quickly established the sea as another source of Icelandic bounty as a wave of succulent sea food kebabs continued until we had eaten ourselves to a standstill. I can’t comment on the price because Yrsa and Ole refused to allow me to pay for anything. A few local beers completed the experience. Again I wondered about South African industry. Overfishing has led to lower catches and higher prices.
Certainly Iceland seems to have most things right – including a pervading sense of humor which Yrsa and Ole say is necessary here, especially in the winter! Of course, there was the small issue of the banking crisis. South Africa was protected from the worst excesses that led to the “financial downfall” (as someone here called it) by exchange controls that everyone howled ought to go. Now Iceland has them too...