Planet Earth

Basalt outcrop, Iceland. (JAMES FLINT)

Basalt outcrop, Iceland. (JAMES FLINT)

The great outdoors as the new drug of choice. Now there's a thought. Not that much of a new one either - after all, the Romantic poets schlepped all over the Alps in such of the natural sublime, an experience which had by all accounts had a lot in common with that obtained from a healthy slug of laudenum. A while or two later, the hippies were spending most of their time gettin' down and dirty (sans vêtements) in fields full of 'poisonous' mushrooms. And only a few years ago ravers discovered that chemicals could save you the trouble of getting up early to see the dawn by helping you to dance all night instead. But trying on a pair of over-designed Nike hiking trainers off Oxford Street the other day I had a epiphany. Maybe you don't need drugs to appreciate nature! Maybe you can just, like, hike and walk and stuff. It would be like a natural high! And before I knew it I was on a plane to Iceland with a photographer, several very large cameras and a tent.

It's difficult not to find landscape in Iceland. The youngest landmass in the world, the country - continually wracked with volcanic activity and glacial flow - is still forming in a very real way. Reykjavík itself, Iceland's capital, stands on a peninsula that appears to be one enormous lava flow, and most Icelanders live in this area, which goes some way to explaining why the roads are terrible as soon as you leave it.

The nearest trippy place within easy reach of Reykjavík is the Thingvellir ('assembly plains') National Park, which lies along the line where the continental plates of Europe and North America meet and abrade, a fact made almost unbearably poignant when you discover that it is also the site of Europe's oldest democratic parliament, founded in 930. This is a magical place, not least because the river that was rerouted to make the natural basalt podium seem more impressive has created a microcosmic landscape of rock pools and irridescent moss, subtle lichens and purple-flowered heather beneath the majestic basalt folds of the continental rift. The Icelander's clearly adore it - 60,000 came here in 1974 for a party to celebrate the 1,100 anniversary of the settlement of their country. Tourists do too - there are lots of them. Mainly middle-aged French and Germans in state-of-the-art hiking gear, travelling in packs of twelve. Presumably they all gave up drugs a long time ago.

The Thingvellir area also boasts an enormous waterfall and a majestic 20ft high geyser (it used to boast an even more majestic 60ft high geyser, until that was blocked up by sightseers chucking rocks down its spout in misguided attempts to set it off) but they're both too mundane for us. Instead we urge our trusty steed - a Honda Civic - off across across the extruded landscapes that surround the volcano Hekla, which last erupted in 1991. The track (road's too good a word for it) winds across tortured fields of magma that are terrifyingly inhospitable in the rain that's now drizzling down, up a mountain made completely out of tawny fist-sized pebbles, and through a charcoal desert rimmed with mountains coloured by iron, sulphur and lichen. This last is an astonishing place. When we drive back through it that evening the sun has burnt off the clouds and the area now languishes beneath a pure sky, revealing its luxuriant, other-worldly beauty to us. I never knew the Earth could be like this: a plain of sable sand punctuated with jagged cinereous outcrops, and on the horizon a smooth, whale-backed ebon hill enfolding two smaller, self-similar hills before it: one rusty red, one streaked with emerald green.

The following day - having survived a mad drive across plains of salt-and-pepper pumice, so mad that at one point we span off the road - we arrived at Skaftafell, another national park. This one is situated where a series of great glaciers curl down from the Vatnajökull icecap (1km thick in places) to meet the sea. I'd always expected glaciers to be white and pure, but the one I find myself scrambling across that morning certainly isn't. It has chewed off entire mountains on its trip to the coast, only to spit them out as dingy heaps of glacial flour down by the sea, and the ice is laced with mud. The glacier's back is home to the strangest panorama we've yet seen - an undulating carpet of black diamonds, riven with secret fissures and bright blue bore holes.

The Skaftafell glacier is presently in retreat, as is the one we come to a little later that day, Breidamerkurjökull. As it has inched backwards from the ocean, Breid-amerkurjökull has left in its wake Jökulsárlón, literally 'glacial river lagoon' (many Icelandic place names translate like this). This deep patch of water feeds into the sea via a narrow exit through a gravel spit over which the road bridge runs. The entrance is too narrow, however, to afford egress for the icebergs calved by the glacier, so they remain inside the lagoon until they melt away.

It is cold, damp and foggy, weather which lends a mystical air to the scenery, and we take a rubber launch out into the lake and among the the massive 'bergs. High as three storey buildings some of them (and that's only the 15% that juts out above the water), their striations of trapped moraine and bluey white ice give them the appearance of gigantic mint humbugs, although these humbugs have been sucked into shapes to rival those of any Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth.

The boatman brings us round in front of the glacier face and kills the engine, letting us float on the sluggish, glassy water (about 2 degrees above freezing) in complete silence. The experience is total, sublime. You feel like time itself has stopped. And then our guide proceeds to tell us, shockingly, that this apparently sempiternal landscape was only formed fifty years ago and will be gone in fifteen more when the sea finally eats away the gravel spit, taking the bridge and the road with it and releasing the icebergs out into the sea. Not only that, but the icebergs themselves, those seemingly motionless mountains, can move up to two kilometers a day around the lake and melt away to nothing in a mere three or four years.

When Wordsworth, Shelley and the other Romantics, among the first to travel through the European alps for purely aesthetic reasons (in search of that elusive landscape drug), developed the notion of the sublime, they drew its infinite and eternal elements from the ageless appearance of the overwhelming scenery that they discovered and which they considered beyond human comprehension. But they clearly didn't come to Iceland, because here the land both suggests and undermines this idea - everything here is completely temporary, in geological terms capable of changing or even vanishing instantaneously. A tiny temperature change, a pressure shift in some deep volcanic gas bubble and thousands of square kilometers may be transformed within a matter of years or even hours. Beauty and fragility are one here, and this taps into the growing understanding we have of the fragility of the interweaved systems that make our planetary crust a habitable place. In Iceland you can see the earth at work, and the combination of the colossal forces involved and the ephemeral nature of the terrain produced is so affecting, so real, it's almost capable of reducing you to tears.

Due north of here, far away on the other side of the icecap, is another popular area: Lake Múvatn, 'Midge Lake', a higgeldy-piggeldy arrangement of trout-rich waters embellished with grassed over lava islands and peninsulas. On its southern shore is a dead volcano that reminds me of the nature of my mission. It's Hverfell, a dead volcano, huge and perfect and completely made out of a fine, slate-grey grit. The surprise here is that the crater is full of enormous graffiti written in stones and directed at the sky. The whole thing resembles nothing less than an enormous speaker cone, designed to pump bass beats into space. Dance culture and landscape collide right here. Note to the government: can we use this as a venue for the world's greatest millennial rave, please?

Across from this mega-woofer is a tweeter - a huge magma bubble that solidified and then collapsed under its own weight, leaving behind a circular zone of arches and spires and piles of broken rock that affords enough shelter for bushes and trees to grow and resembles nothing so much as the ruins of a Mayan city. And about five kilometers to the east of this is my favourite place so far - if only for the historical connection. It's an area called Lúdentsborgir, which was selected by NASA to train Neil Armstrong and team for the 1969 moon landing. It was thought to be the nearest thing the earth had to the surface of the moon, although with its covering of moss and population of hardy sheep it doesn't really look it. We drive the Honda Civic there, just because we can.

Still, the Honda's not going to get us to our next destination, Askya, an enormous volcanic crater deep in the Icelandic interior, with a caldera fifty square kilometers in size. When this erupted in 1875 it covered most of western Europe in dust and created a magnificent range of utterly psychotic landscapes across some 6000 square kilometers of the surrounding area. To cross those, we need a Lada four-wheel drive.

Thus equipped, we bowl across emulsioned basalt plateaus and wind our way through miles of lava bubbles like great bitumen domes. South of the famous plug-shaped Herdubried mountain (created when a volcano erupted underneath an icecap) the road smooths out and we find ourselves on a yellow plain of pumice and ash, an undulating bed of the lightest of materials ribboned with delicate grey wind patterns. The low dunes are interrupted by occasional outcrops of lava like fossilised dinosaur eggs, cracked open from within and littered about, time-transmuted into rock, grey and black in the shade and beaten to purples and blues in the sun.

Walking across the crust of polystyrene-like frozen stone-foam chips my footsteps boom as if on the skin of a drum. Now and again I happen across small clumps of honeycomb rock, spun out of the earth like demerara candy floss, more delicate than the chewed paper of a wasps' nest. I sit, and the silence is absolute, so total that my ears begin to hum, aware of themselves as machines. The distant howl of a plane, the idle chat of a squadron of migrating geese open up the dimension of the sky, today a pure, clipped, windless blue. In the distance the ice cap, a dim variegation of frozen water and rock, is mantled with a smooth smear of cloud whiter than snow. Forget the area that they trained Neil Armstrong - this is the moon for me. It's an unbelievable place, a landscape from Ballard, simultaneously eternal and fleeting. I achieve lift-off - I'm totally high.

- Frank Magazine, November 1998