There’s something about the position of Reykjavík’s city centre—perched on a hill, with the sea and mountains on all sides—that invites daydreams about seeing it from above. Standing at the top of Skólavörðustígur, the flat top of Mount Esja seems just a small gravity-defying jump away, over the rippling, steely waters of the Faxaflói bay.
It’s not as much of a fantasy as it might sound. As well as domestic flights, Reykjavík’s conveniently situated city airport also acts as a base for helicopter tours, offering people the chance to feel their feet leave the ground, for a while at least. Taking off several times a day, the available routes cover most of Iceland, from the Reykjanes peninsula to the Westfjords, Snæfellsnes, Vatnajökull, Mývatn and beyond. Some routes take hiking-shy travellers up to the top of glaciers, volcanoes or other hard-to-reach wilderness spots, while others offer an aerial version of the Golden Circle, or fast access to remote areas for fishing, skiing, or just relaxing far away from anyone else.
We meet at the Norðurflug office to take the geothermal tour, which will take us over two major geothermal energy plants, and various volcanic craters, lava fields and hot springs. After a cinematic video in the waiting lounge in which Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller extol the virtues of Iceland’s nature, a loud roaring sound from outside alerts us that our helicopter has arrived.
Whirlwind, heat and flash
Our pilot for the day is Guðjón, a jovial chap with 20 years of flying experience, who explains our route for the day. First we’ll fly due east to the Nesjavellir power plant, before touching down on Hengill, the nearby volcano that powers the station. Next, we’ll circle over the Hveragerði area, home of the famous Reykjadalur “hot river,” and the Hellisheiði power plant, before doing a flyby of some large volcanic craters, and an aerial look at Reykjavík’s cityscape.
After strapping in, we don headsets so we can hear Guðjón speak as he warms up the helicopter. The rotor gets louder for a couple of minutes, until we lurch up suddenly from the ground. Within seconds, the colourful roofs of 101 Reykjavík are sinking away beneath us. It’s a freeing feeling, and a broad smile crosses my face as I look out at the unencumbered views to Esja on one side and Reykjanes on the other.
Soon after, we’ve left the city limits behind entirely, and we’re out over the open lava plains of South Iceland. Away from human habitations, the landscape changes dramatically—the temperature at ground level seems to have taken a nosedive, with wide drifts of frozen snow punctuating grey lava and yellowish moss. Before long, the distant ground is completely white, held under a smooth icing of deep winter snow.
Guðjón talks to us along the way, pointing out Iceland’s geographical position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We’re actually flying right along the fault line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, where heat leaks up through the Earth’s crust, and before long we can see the resulting steam pouring from the ground.
Guðjón takes us over some mountains and banks steeply towards Nesjavellir, past twin plumes of steam silhouetted dramatically by bright sun. After the power station, we hover down lower, towards the foothills of the snow-covered mountains. “It’s time for a look at our little secret valley,” he says, and suddenly we’re coming in for landing through a sheet of steam.
It feels surreal, after such a short flight, to step out onto the side of a volcano. The small geothermal hotspot we find has melted the surrounding snow into graceful, undulating natural sculptures, and the ground is tinted umber and green from the minerals seeping into the soil. We take a walk around a bubbling natural cauldron of pearlescent water, and some vents that violently spew out hot sulphurous steam from the earth. There are some short red posts sticking out of the snow nearby, indicating that we’re on a hiking route, but there’s nobody around—only foolhardy hikers would be here at the tail end of such a bitter winter.
Hold on to your butts
We take off again, and swoop up a deep, dramatic valley as if in some thrilling Hollywood chase. Over the crest of a high ridge, the town of Hveragerði comes into view with its ranks of glowing greenhouses. The road down into the town looks like a tiny scribble in the snow from up here, and there are conspicuous snow-filled volcanic cones on the tops of the mountains.
After a steep, stomach-churning circle of the Hellisheiði power station—apparently the second biggest geothermal power station in the world—we cross Road One and come in low over a field of craggy, broken lava. In the centre of the lava field lie two huge craters. “These craters are probably responsible for much of the landmass you can see around here,” says Guðjón, turning the helicopter around so everyone can get a good look. At times we’re looking straight down at the ground, pushed back into our seats as Guðjón manoeuvres the ‘copter for the best view.
As we start making our way back to the city, everyone falls happily silent. The shadows and colours on the ground change constantly, and the roads and houses look truly tiny from this elevated perspective, immersed in Iceland’s vast, wild and rugged landscape. We circle the city centre for landing, taking in amazing aerial views of Harpa, Halgrímskirkja and the 101 area on the way in.
As we walk back over the tarmac, Guðjón says he has one more flight today—that very hop up to Esja’s summit that I’ve so often daydreamed about. I feel a twinge of jealousy—after a wonderful hour spent looking down at Iceland from above, aerial sightseeing seems like it could become an expensive addiction. I leave the airport feeling lighter on my feet, and sure I’ll be back for more.