After living in the tropics for a year I yearned for a day that I could escape the heat and humidity. To once more feel the cool air on my face and exchange the modern concrete landscape that is Singapore, for a landscape so unique and beautiful that it has etched its’ mark on my soul. That’s Iceland for you.
For an avid geologist this place is paradise, and that was why I found myself sitting in a quiet London airport terminal, ready to leave another major city for the start of an adventure. Flying into Keflavik International Airport with the black lava fields and rising steam jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, makes you feel that you have just landed on the edge of the world. With the modern airport arrivals lounge somehow protecting you from the rawness that you have just witnessed, you step outside, and the chill of the wind reminds you that this is not air conditioning. I am hit with a buzz of excitement as this is the start of my journey.
Driving around Iceland.
I have chosen to drive around Iceland clockwise on a 14 day road trip. For a place that will eventually become a new continent resting between America and Europe. It is remarkably easy to drive around, yet it is packed full of volcanoes, lava fields, mountains, glaciers, lakes, gorges, geysers and hundreds of waterfalls. My hire car awaits me. It’s not the latest model, but they know that I am not a local and the hire duration gives the game away. I have all the necessary insurance in place, but I am glad when I am walked around the vehicle looking for signs of damage.
I smile for this car has seen plenty of Iceland’s gravel roads, and any damage that I may inflict will be long lost in the existing dents and road chips. More importantly it has 4 wheel drive, an oil sump guard and SAT NAV for Iceland’s roads. This is going to be my trusted companion as I journey around a place which is as close as you can get to Tolkiens’ Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth fantasy landscape.
As I drive around the empty car park getting used to driving on the right hand side of the road, using the door handle to try and change gears, I take the plunge and escape from the potential onlookers and head out to Reykjavík. Home to two thirds of Iceland’s population it’s Norse name means “bay of smoke”. Rather apt as you leave the lava fields behind and head to the “city”.
Exploring around Reykjavik, Iceland.
Once you have mastered the navigation and the seemingly unpronounceable road names clearly marked on the signs, you realise that the city is a lot smaller than you imagined, in fact it has the feel of a small town.
Which is perfect, as I gladly abandon the car in the hotel car park and make my way to the ocean, and the short walk into town. You can sense that Reykjavík is very connected to the ocean. From the Viking longboat sculpture overlooking the Faxaflói Bay, to the various commercial fishing vessels that await maintenance. It’s the historic whale hunting ships tied up in the port against the whale watching vessels, which highlights the fact that this is also Orca whale territory and home to a large fishing industry.
Only when you fly over the city do you realise how small it is, yet walking the streets you immerse yourself in the Scandinavian architecture and the colourful graffiti murals that add colour to the urban environment. A night spent in town and there is already an itch the following day to explore the ice-capped Snæfellsjökull volcano overlooking the city.
Free coffee along the way.
Conscious that I am embarking on Route 1, The Ring Road encircling the island, I top up with diesel fuel and I am given a free voucher for coffee. The coffee is strong and I realise that after a while you need to visit another service station to offload, where another free coffee awaits. It’s a good excuse to stretch the legs and I marvel at the marketing ingenuity.
The roads quickly empty as you head north but the journey is slow. There is just so much to look at. For starters there is over 130 volcanoes and growing, with hills that are less than six months old. I am constantly stopping at the roadside to look at tourist information signs that are written in clear English. They show a variety of information from the road network, to local accommodation to surrounding beauty spots. It’s a treasure trove of knowledge which I am willing to exploit.
Discovering unexplored waterfalls.
You can’t stay in the car long before you are diverted to a waterfall. The road signs and pictures have already lured you there. I am on a detour to the Glymur waterfall and my feet are wet as I cross a fast flowing river clinging on to a taut wire strung between boulders at the bottom of a gorge. My adrenaline is pumping as I sense the danger, but it is the only way to see the waterfall, the second highest in Iceland at a cool 198 metres drop. The beauty of Iceland is that you can just look at the landscape and a story is told. The ‘U’ shaped valley carved from the actions of a glacier. The conical shaped brown hill. That’s a volcano with a lava flow. You very quickly realise that this is one of the most geological active parts of the world.
Walking on the oceanic crust.
The fact that Iceland it is a piece of oceanic crust that has been pushed up to the surface from the depths of the ocean, as the continental plates of Europe and America are pushed apart, is hard to comprehend. The landscapes none the less are just breath-taking. Which is a problem when you are driving. As I head along an empty road which disappears into the far distance with incredible landscapes passing me by, I approach a ridge heading towards Hornafjörđur and I survey the panorama ahead of me. In the distance below I spot two cars slightly off the side of the road. My pulse races a little. I haven’t seen a car for hours and for a split second I wonder whether this is bandit country. I am not ready for a carjacking, I am too in love with the landscape.
Getting lost in the incredible landscape of Iceland.
I slow and approach the cars, one of which is well and truly stuck in the wind blown sand. They are both young couples travelling independently, not knowing each other but having the good fortune to be passing by within hours of the sand ploughing. Sheepishly the girlfriend admits that she was admiring the incredible view and drove off the road. It’s easily done and panic started as the reality of the vast landscape sunk in. We manage to push the car out without hitting the others, and I let them drive away, their pride somewhat dented but my spirits soared as I helped out fellow travellers.
The slow pace of the driving 50mph [80km/h] on the gravel roads, 56 mph [90km/h] on tarmac roads, gives me plenty of time to spot the wildlife and avoid any off road action. I glimpse an arctic fox in its spring plumage, the white winter fur giving way to a light brown colour, as it pauses to look at me whilst foraging for bird eggs to steal.
Making the most of Iceland’s wildlife.
With only three months of growing season. Iceland’s wildlife makes the most of the conditions before the weather once more changes. As you drive through the various landscapes, it is the emptiness that you notice. The lack of traffic on the roads. I am somewhere unpronounceable and I have just entered a road tunnel that cuts through a mountain for about 5km.
I enter the tunnel just as the weather turns bleak, and I realise that I am the only one in there. So in the middle of the tunnel there is a small area where you can turn around and head in the other direction. I park up and reach for the free coffee stored in my thermos flask, and contemplate my bizarre surroundings. I revel in the fact that in any other country I would probably be arrested for enjoying this very simple moment, and also wondering if the mountain were to suddenly move what future geologists would make of my pancaked remains.
Looking for Eyjafjallajökull.
My journey has taken me to the south of the island and I am at the gates of a farm with a lush green field buffering the farm buildings from the road. I am looking for the “big E”. A volcano not the drug. Eyjafjallajökull is so easy to pronounce “AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-Kuutl-uk” the printed T-shirt announces. Next to it another T-shirt shouts “Don’t Fcuk with Iceland! We may not have cash but we’ve got ash!” It’s an exhibition in a converted barn and I have finally solved the riddle of the explosive tephra volcanic eruption that started on 14th April 2010. I am lucky, the farmer whose lush green field I was admiring earlier is giving a talk to the locals in Icelandic, about how close he was to losing the family farm to 20 million cubic metres of rather viscous lava. Just looking at the exhibition photos sends a shiver down my spine. They are an awesome sight.
Exploring Geysir & learning to drive through volcanic ash in Iceland.
So I am heading back to Reykjavík for the end of my journey after exploring the geothermal geysers at Geysir. It has been a good sunny day, but the roads now seem busy with traffic all heading to Reykjavík. The sky in the distance also now looks a dirty brown and the passing cars with their lights on are whipping up a dust. This is volcanic dust or more precisely “don’t mess with Iceland dust!” It’s for real and somewhere in Iceland another volcano has just cleared its’ lungs.
I drop the hire car off at the airport, after giving the car a good pressure wash to remove all the ash. The attendant surveys the seasoned car, and nods that it is okay. Other newer cars stand to the side, they will all need a re-spray at the cost of a few deposits. I have been lucky and my Icelandic road trip has etched its journey onto my soul.