Saturday, December 1

Not so terra firma

Not so terra firma
A week hiking the legendary Laugavegur Trail in Iceland

Iceland can seem daunting and impenetrable. And that’s just placenames which are as much of a challenge as the topography. In fact, while there trekking one of the world’s greatest trails, one struggles for the vocabulary to do justice to a breath-taking land thrown up – literally – by its precarious perch on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Volcanoes and geysers, tumbling waterfalls and bubbling hot springs, the terra is far from firma. And trolls seem to have as much substance and often better press than Icelandic bankers.

I was there with a group of hikers who spend most Sunday mornings on the Wicklow Mountains, followed by a spicy goulash in the Roundwood Inn. We’d been tempted to the Laugavegur, a world-famous walk of some 55km from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk in Iceland’s south-west.

First however, there was the not insubstantial matter of duty free. As intimidating as the hiking was said to be, talk of the price of drink had prompted much pre-trip speculation. But we’d discovered duty free can be bought in Reykjavik’s Keflavík Airport on the way in. Moreover, it can be ordered in advance. The spartan practicality of huts along the route was to be somewhat ameliorated by a couple of trolleys of wine and beer. There was the risk of dehydration for 16 thirsty walkers after all.

The following day we were to tackle Mount Hekla, which last erupted in 2000. Before that, a stop-off at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction. Described as “one of the earth’s most awesome places” (OMG!) by National Geographic magazine, it’s a smoky-azure blue lake with frosted edges of crusty silica, whose water is a bath-like 37ºC.

Reputed to have all sorts of beneficial skin effects, the greatest surprise of this fabulous natural wonder is it’s not at all what it seems. The hot geothermal saltwater which feeds the lagoon has actually been cooled before its arrival by a visit to the local geothermal power station which initially uses the super-heated steam surging up from 2km underground to drive turbines and harvest heat. Iceland’s perception-twisting begins.

“The Gates of Hell” is how Mount Hekla was known for centuries, with up to 30 eruptions in recorded history and goodness knows how many unrecorded. We climb it on an unseasonably gorgeous day, while our expert guide, Jon – who along with our driver, also Jon, meant the entire gang totted up no less than eight “Jons” – casually gave us geology 101.

At the summit, there’s a vulcanologist’s station and an aluminium box protecting a visitor’s book. We spot entries from an Irish father and daughter we know who had climbed it together earlier in the year to mark her Leaving Cert. Sitting down on a narrow gravelly strip to have our sandwiches, the realisation dawns that the ground isn’t exposed through climbers’ boot steps, but because it’s piping hot. Catch the light right and you see steam rising. And this is at 1,500m with snow on every side. Fire and ice indeed.

Helka's "hot" strip across the snowy summit

The Laugavegur trail starts the next day and we’re driven cross-country to the hut at Landmannalaugar in a customised mini-coach, with four monster tyres and four-wheel drive. This Top-Gearesque transporter is soon nicknamed “The Beast”. Off-road is on-road as far as driving Iceland is concerned. You have to tip-toe fat tyres across snowfields and ash deserts and zigzag fast-flowing glacial rivers. Jon the Driver and The Beast make it look easy.

Huts along the route are maintained by the Icelandic Touring Association and Landmannalaugar’s are spotless, if ascetically furnished. Dorms with bunk beds are standard. As is no electricity, separate chemical loos at a distance, and running water, a lottery. It’s like paradise following a hard day on the trail. After a dinner of chicken stew rustled up on a gas ring and the first few bottles of duty free are uncorked, we don head torches and swimming togs to brave the freezing night for a spot a few hundred metres from our isolated hut. There’s a hot spring pond. We lie in waist-high hot water among reeds, gazing up at a spilt galaxy of Milky Way untroubled by light pollution. Except for the nascent glimmering of distant Northern Lights. Later, world-class snoring kicks in and tomorrow, it’s 25km to Hvanngil Hut. 

Iceland is being wrent asunder. And not just because of the “economical” crisis which the Jons patiently field questions about. The island’s existence results from being at the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. And they’re drifting apart, pulling two sides of Iceland east and west by as much as 2cm a year.

There are all sorts of manifestations of this shifting underworld. Sulphurous steam pumps out of holes in the ground. Hillside streams might be glacial cold or scalding hot. Shiny obsidian fields give way to black ash deserts. Vast, sheer canyons are deep-etched by improbably powerful rivers. Beautiful vistas unfold, and yet they’re unlike anything any of us have seen before, as if it’s an old Polaroid where the colours are doing their own thing.

Surging rivers must be waded. Some of us roll our trousers up, while others strip to their undies. Boots are slung around necks. It’s all a bit touch and go as the icy water rushes up around our nether regions. A slip would be bloody cold – if hilarious to the rest - and the current can be so strong that we have to cross with arms linked like some demented can-can troupe. We agree that photographic evidence of these crossings is to be strictly controlled: there’s little dignity in the knickers and shell-jackets look.

Ludwik the cook somehow arranges packed lunches for all each day. Foal (yes) sandwiches are euphemistically referred to as smoked lamb. He calculates our diet in terms of kilos per person and we need it. The days are long and tiring, and the wind, bone-cuttingly cold at times.

We make Emstrur huts and then Þórsmörk, the most spacious accommodation to date with a fantastic view and coin-operated hot showers: five minutes for 500 Kr. Luxury. The classic Laugavegur ends here, but we’ve signed up for an extra day to hike a further 25kms over a pass to the coast.

Vast glaciers slip off their high mountain homes along the horizon. About a tenth of the island is ice-capped, many sitting over volcanoes, including Eyjafjallajökull, responsible for the infamous plane-grounding ash cloud. 

Next day we greet Michael O’Leary’s nemesis face to face, as we skirt its still smoking flank. We get to climb a brand new mountain spewed out in 2010, one side steep and thick with a leg-wearying fine black ash. Almost blown off the top, the surface is so hot, it’s painful to sit on. Later we follow a eye-watering series of waterfalls, one more spectacular than the last until we clamber (in fact, we run, but that’s another story) down the side of Skógafoss Waterfall, as it tumbles 60 meters to our journey’s end at Skógar.

A week in Iceland saw us making more of a fist of the placenames, but still lost for words to evoke a proper sense of this incredible land, this geological toy-box. We only saw one amazing corner of it. It blitzes expectations of a solid earth and bombards the senses in every way. The Gates of Hell? I don’t think so.

We flew with Iceland Express via Gatwick. The excellent Jons, Ludwik and The Beast are with Find The Icelandic Touring Association at

This appeared in The Irish Times Magazine on Dec 1, 2012

Saturday, November 24

Paul Smith on his Leica Collaboration

Fashion designer Paul Smith has been a photo-fanatic all his life. His father was a keen amateur photographer who gave his son his first camera when he was just eleven. Smith shoots many of his own advertising campaigns, so he’s more than a casual snapper. Though he’d readily endorse the benefits of that too. Here he talks about his collaboration with Leica on its X2 special edition.

Wednesday, June 13

"Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?"

"Dalkey is a little town maybe twelve miles south of Dublin, on the shore. It is an unlikely town, huddled, quiet, pretending to be asleep. Its streets are narrow, not quite self-evident as streets and with meetings which seem accidental. Small shops look closed but are open. Dalkey looks like an humble settlement which must, a traveller feels, be next door to some place of the first importance and distinction. And it is – vestibule of a heavenly conspection." 
The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien

It's now the home too of an entertaining, interesting, charming Book Festival celebrated on Bloomsday Weekend  - Ulysses' opening is set here also - and it ends with a Quiz for anyone who has ever opened a book at all.

Saturday, June 9

Gadgets Round-up June 2 & 9

Walkies for your fingers with a remote control dog walker, the personal, portable bidet and a transparent kayak to watch the world go under are all featured on here on June 2.

The Burton Sleeper Hoodie with its built-in pillow, a bag that claims to hide your DSLR and Sony's SmartWatch that's smart enough, but not really a watch are here on June 9.

Gadgets is in the Irish Times Magazine each Saturday.

Saturday, May 19

Doing The Social Act in Copenhagen

Though the table-setting suggests I may have wandered into some sort of therapeutic craft class, the krone soon starts to drop that I'm in for an interesting night with hot Copenhagen culinary innovators, I’M A KOMBO.

It's a evening that includes blind-tasting the first course, carving open the table top with a box cutter to get at sauces and baking my own bread roll over an open charcoal brazier. 

When it comes to The Social Act, I'm a konvert. Read about it here in The Irish Times.

Gadgets May 19

It's the sort of thing Q might be pushing on 007. Only it'd probably all fit in a suitcase too. This is the Flying Hovercraft. (Hopping hovercraft just doesn't have the same ring).

Trvel lght wth th nw VSTR Nomadic Pack. Great attitude from Quiksilver surfer-travel spin-off.

And  Contigo's Autospout don't-spill-it-all-over-yourself Drinks Bottle.

Read it all here on your way back from Twickenham.

Monday, May 14

May 12 Gizmology

It's the love child of a pair of wheely-crossed lovers: the Segway and the Unicycle: behold the SBU.

A floating boombox. And self-service bike stations. In the Irish Times Saturday Magazine.

Wednesday, May 9

How to save the Selp Help Book

It's the view of some that there's nothing more destructive than a self help book. They certainly get bad press. And are often shunned among those that regard themselves as upwardly literate. Alain de Botton begs to differ. He's made self improvement or perhaps, more pointedly, self examination something of a crusade. A stylishly written, beautifully crafted and highly engaging crusade at that. Lifestyle philosophy it's been called - but probably not by AdB - as he's unpicked and parsed modern life. Travel. Love. Proust. Architecture. Religion (or Athesim) have all come under the pen. He took his thinking onto the street with The School of Life where sermons and workshops on making more of life comprise at least some of the curriculum. And a shop of interesting gifts too. Retail therapy cures many a short term ill.

Now comes TSOL's How To series by some fellow teachers at TSOL. De Botton asks us to think more about sex. My piece in the Irish Times on Saturday May 5 was about a bit more, not that you'd know it from the headline here.

Saturday, May 5

Gadgets Irish Times Magazine May 5

Get all Minority Report with a Magic Cube projected portable keyboard. Ditch the cables for USB connectors that clip like pens. And a GPS plotter for sailors that takes tacking into account, The Sailing GPS.

Read it here.

Thursday, May 3

Hitchcock on the mysterious MacGuffin

Love this graphic take on Hitchcock's riff about the much-loved movie MacGuffin. Don't know what that is? You gonna just have to watch the vimeo then.

Saturday, April 28

Irish Times Mag, April 28

The Borismaster aka NB4L aka a new bus for London by Thomas Heatherwick; a holy grail of sorts for the great outdoors: water resistant down and not once, twice here; and how being dragged underwater can be fun with a SubWing. Irish Times Saturday Magazine.

Friday, April 27

We All Need a Manifesto.

We all should have a Manifesto for Life, even if we don't actually articulate it and write it down: life's too short. This piece ticks lots of boxes if you're a box-ticking type and is guaranteed to attract sarky sniping from glass-half-empty cynics. So that's a big win. And it makes a damn fine poster too.

Holstee Manifesto Poster

Sunday, April 22

Irish Times Mag Gadgets, Apr 21

From this Saturday's Magazine: reject suitcase size fascism with the anti-carry-on Blackhawk Secretary Trunk, catch big water with the JetWave for surfboards and the perfect chair to boldly go where no inflatable furniture has gone before.

Saturday, April 14

Irish Times Mag Apr 14

Today's column in the Irish Times features the Tentsile tent that suspends you in the air - on purpose, sort-of bifocals reading glasses for cyclists and runners; and Motorola's latest stab at the iPad with its Xoom 2.

Saturday, April 7

Irish Times Mag Gadgets from 7 April

Missed a trick today: it's Easter Weekend and there's not a whiff of a chocolate egg or Easter Bunny in the column. The closest I come is with the Handpresso Auto for instant in-car expresso on the go; otherwise it's Flylite's latest super-lightweight wheelie ( and a real boy's own gadget, the Brass Stow-away, with all important built-in compass.

It's all here.

Thursday, April 5

Judging a book by its cover: Penguin's 30 Essentials get a new look

Last year, for a round of questions in a quiz for a local book festival, I'm afraid I ignored copyright law completely - apologies to all -  and Photoshopped off the titles and authors of 10 books. You had to identify each just from the artwork. 

Penguin have revisited 30 classics or Essentials from their backlist and let a heady roster of designers, illustrators and artists loose on them. What a dream project! As you'd imagine with so many executions, there are some exquisite designs, some so-so but all are interesting, if only in a WTF fashion. Kudos to Penguin for the effort and starting the debate: are these the 30 Essentials? And which is your fav?  Penguin Essentials - Penguin Books

Monday, April 2

Gadgets on Sat, Mar 31

Welcome back the tactile delight of an actual printed-out photo with the new age of Polaroid; a back-up phone that can last years on an AA battery and a cyling shirt saver.

Find them here: Irish Times Magazine, Sat Mar 31

Monday, March 26

Avoca: colouring the world since 1723

Just finished this short film for Avoca about the original mill in Avoca Village. It's a pretty amazing place full of Heath Robinson-looking machines, clicketing-clacking away. All the handweaving looms are held together with bits of twine and a prayer. Not surprising since it's been around since 1723. Even the power looms, which are needed to keep up with demand, involve continuous hands-on craft and care to thread up and set the warps and repair breaks. Anyway, enough chat, have a look.

Avoca Mill since 1723 from Avoca Ireland on Vimeo.

Camera: Joe Edwards  Post: Piranha Bar  Sound: Beacon Studios  Produced & Directed by Tom.

Chasing the Northern Lights, Norway March 2012

I spent a couple of amazing days chasing the Northern Lights up Norway's breathtaking Arctic coast. Went dog sledging with a team of huskies, visited Nordkapp - continental Europe's most northerly point (almost) and took off on snowmobiles across Lapland at night hoping for a sight of the elusive Aurora Borealis.

Here's my piece about it in The Irish Times Magazine on Sat, March 24:  Chasing the lights

Saturday, March 24

The Politics of Style

The Mahon Tribunal hadn't come out when this was written for Brown Thomas Menswear Magazine. Neither the anorak nor the pin-striped suit seem to able to give us a sense of the substance underneath.

Go Gadgets, Irish Times, March 24

Polaroid's camera that thinks it might a smartphone, an ingeniously pocketable USB adapter and a stylus to use with your iPad and other tablets. Oh dear, think I hear Steve J turning....

All here.

Saturday, March 17

Gadgets, March 17 in Saturday Magazine

It's Paddy's Day and not a solar-powered shamrock nor an iLeprechaun in sight. I may have missed a trick here. Instead, it's a hi-viz biker vest with a difference - oh and it's Irish. The VW camper van lookalike caravan. And a solar-powered snake repellershaped like a crozier... nah, only a charger, but a neat one.

Gadgets be here.

Friday, February 10

Skinny Pizza TV for Four Star

Who doesn't want to start cutting stuff up? Here's a TV spot for Four Star's new Skinny Pizza range which I was creative director and producer on.

Skinny Pizza for Four Star Pizza, Ireland from Tom Kelly on Vimeo.

Agency: BradleyMcGurk  Prod Co: Speers Film  Post: Screen Scene  Audio: Beacon Studios