ICELAND - Landing in Iceland makes you feel like you are arriving at the very edge of the world.
For avid trekkers, this place is paradise because of the incredibly rich topography and varied landscapes.
Also known as the Land of Fire and Ice, it has stunning blue glaciers, black sandy deserts, more than 130 volcanoes, obsidian lava fields, multi-coloured snow-capped mountains and explosive geysers.
Indeed, Iceland's very existence is a geographical oddity. It marks the point where the European and American tectonic plates meet and are pushed apart by volcanic activity, making it one of the most geologically active places on Earth.
Our team of 12 women arrive in Reykjavik on an August day towards the end of the Icelandic summer.
We are for the most part based in Asia and no one has set foot in Iceland, except for one person.
Part of HER Planet Earth, a Singapore-based non-governmental organisation that promotes female empowerment and environmental conservation, we are trekking to raise more than $50,000 for underprivileged women affected by climate change in Asia.
We will spend five days traversing one of the most active, volcanic and alien landscapes of Iceland, Laugavegur, a trail in the Southern Highlands originally formed by an eruption in 1477.
After a bone-shattering three-hour drive east of Reykjavik on the rough dirt road, we reach our first camp in the late afternoon, at the start of the Laugavegur trail.
The area is open to trekkers only from June to August because, the rest of the year, the weather is simply too ferocious to risk hiking.
We set out the next day under clear blue skies and, as soon as we step out of camp, we are greeted by the most extraordinary landscape. The hills are breathtaking, barren with 50 shades of amber.
That day, the place makes us feel like characters from The Lord Of The Rings.
It is no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien was fascinated by Iceland. They say this part of the country is as close as you will ever get to Middle Earth, the fantasy land he describes in his novels.
As the day progresses, we make our way to the heart of this geothermal wonderland and come across heart-stopping scenery at every turn: lunar surfaces, volcanic rocks, majestic waterfalls and steaming hot geysers with their bubbling sulphuric acid pools.
Respect for the landscape grows deeper with every step.
It is this otherworldliness that brought the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to Iceland on numerous occasions to train astronauts for the geological conditions they would encounter on the moon and Mars.
Throughout the next four days, we camp outdoors and experience a range of temperatures from beautiful sunny days to cold, windy and rainy spells, with 5 to 6 deg C temperatures, for the most part.
We hike about 10 hours a day and the team is relieved and joyous when we finally reach our campsite each night for warm food and rest.
The landscape is ever-changing. Descending into the valley, we go from slopes covered in electric green moss to lunar landscapes and Arctic trails, before entering a thick fern and birchwood forest called Thorsmork, named after the Norse God of Thunder, Thor.
Despite the challenging conditions, Iceland has drawn us in.
The team has covered close to 80km of undulating mountainous terrain, crossing numerous freezing rivers and enduring capricious micro-climates.
The whole experience is surreal and, for many of us, almost spiritual. The uncommon beauty of Iceland has kept us transfixed throughout the journey.
Pushing our limits for a worthy cause has made the whole experience even more meaningful.
The team returns home with an unforgettable impression of this truly wild and inspiring Land of Fire and Ice.
We flew from Singapore to London on British Airways, then took another British Airways flight to Reykjavik, capital of Iceland.
The Keflavik International Airport is located outside Reykjavik. It is typically a 45-minute drive to the city.
There is also a regular bus service, located right outside the terminal - this is the cheapest option to get into Reykjavik (1,950 Icelandic kronur, about S$21).
The bus will, by default, take you to the central bus station in Reykjavik, called BSI. For 2,500 kronur, the bus will take you to your Reykjavik hotel, after stopping at the bus terminal.
You can also take a taxi to the city (pricier but more direct option at approximately 15,000 kronur) or pick up a rental car at the airport.
Last-minute flights from Singapore to Iceland can easily go upwards of $1,500, so I suggest searching and monitoring flights early to get the best deal.
• Midnight sun and warmer temperatures make summer the best season to visit Iceland.
Hikers will want to consider July and August as the best time to travel. But if you want to see the Northern Lights, you will want to go in February, March, September and October.
• Choose hostels instead of hotels. Unlike their Western European counterparts, hostels in Iceland are really clean, safe and comfortable. Hostels also often have communal kitchens, which means you can cook from time to time to keep costs low.
Christine Amour-Levar is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and mother of four. She set up non-profits Women On A Mission and HER Planet Earth to take all-female teams on expeditions to off-the-beaten-track locations around the world as a way to support worthy causes.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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