At the entrance to Dimmuborgir National Park, on the evening of the summer solstice, a sign warned us to look out for elves.
This wasn’t really a big surprise to us. On all of the Icelandic signs we’d read so far on our adventure, legends and folk tales had been written as undisputed fact. “A chest of gold lies behind this waterfall,” claimed implausible signs at Skógafoss, our previous stop, “and its broken handle lies in the town’s museum.”
You’re never sure what’s true and what isn’t in Iceland.
Nonetheless, even though the sky was high in the sky, it was gone eleven at night; we were satisfied that any ‘elves’ would have gone to bed by now.
And so we continued into the park, on a looping track through a craggy panorama. The only sound was our relaxed footsteps on golden rock, save for an occasional bird clattering awake in confusion at the midnight sun. Basaltic fingers of ancient lava clung to the volcanic ground, alien figures among plush sprouts of grass. We rounded the corner.
On the path stood a spindly man, wearing a green jumper and brown breaches.
He waved wordlessly, tipped his emerald hat to us, and disappeared off the track.
I stood, rooted.
“It’s an elf!” I hissed, incredulous. Either that, or a complete madman. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to explore unknown trails late at ‘night’, even if it was as bright as day.
Creeping on, and struck between giddy, childlike excitement and embarrassed confusion, we promptly stumbled across a second elf, who smiled warmly and beckoned. “Let me take you to our home.”
Curiosity overcoming shyness, what choice did we have but to follow?
Off the path we tiptoed, through untamed turf and imposing lava columns, and down a rugged slope. And sure enough, in a sliver of a gap under crusted tree roots, there was his home.
Seven beds for seven mystical elves, a simple kitchen, dried meat hanging from a low ceiling. Small candles lit the darkest corners. The elf pointed at various rustic tools and explained their use for cutting wood, for cooking. A third elf waved from the corner.
It took me a while to find out how lucky we’d been. One night every summer, these elves, known as the ‘Yulelads’, come to greet park visitors. The attraction is never advertised; locals just turn up with their children to see if they can find them.
Quite by accident, I had wandered like a dreamer into a little corner of legend brought alive.
I decided I would never doubt the Icelandic again.