It was the final approach to Keflavik airport that the feeling that we were actually in a distant land kicked in. Seeing snow capped mountains, cliff faces accumulating ice, and dormant volcanos tends to give one that feeling. We also got a boost to this feeling when we stepped outside and it was about 5 degrees and blowing an icy gale.
Still, I couldn’t have been happier. Getting out of the airport was the polar opposite of getting through to the gate at Luton; fast, efficient and friendly. At Luton, I was pulled aside and checked for explosives in my undies, right there in the line, and the guy didn’t even buy me flowers. The whole experience at Luton was really rather unpleasant and hopefully we can avoid this sort of thing in the future.
We picked up the hire car and headed into Reykjavik to have a look around. Driving in Iceland is pretty stressful, as not only do they drive on the wrong side, the signs are all new and rather cryptic. We parked on the outskirts and wandered around for a bit, but lack of sleep was taking it’s toll and Jess and I were getting short with each other. We decided to check in at the Hostel and get some rest. Dinner was Mexican at a local fast food joint, and it was here that we discovered how expensive everything is here.
The day after that, Monday, was spent looking around at Reykjavik. It was off to a great start when waiting at the bus stop in the pouring rain when we were informed that it was a public holiday and that the busses don’t start until 10am (it was currently 8:45am). So, we went on foot to the centre of town, about a 2km walk, and checked out the famous church (see above), the name of which I seem to have forgotten. One thing I have noticed about Iceland is that they really put effort into their church buildings, even in small towns. We took the lift up to the top and enjoyed Reykjavik in all it’s soggy glory, before heading to the National Iceland Museum.
On the way however, we came across a historic graveyard that had moss growing on all of the tombstones, and eerie trees densely planted all around, and I momentarily felt as though I was in a Tim Burton film.
The museum itself was good, but nothing spectacular. It was the next museum that we visited that I really enjoyed. During recent construction in the centre of Reykjavik, builders came across the remains of a Viking longhouse from around the year 870. The museum is built around the actual ruins, and has plenty of interactive screens to give information about what it would have been in it’s heyday. To be close enough to a real piece of history was incredibly thought provoking and made the connection to history tangible in a way.
Unfortunately, the photography museum was closed due to the public holiday, so after looking up the times to the ferry, we quickly made our way to the pier to catch the ferry to Vi∂ey Island. We made it just in time to find that the ferry wasn’t running today. D’oh! After checking out the Art museum, we slowly headed back towards the Hostel, checking out various shops. We returned to the hostel exhausted and with tired feet.
Tuesday was the day that we set off around the island, first going to Þhingvellir National Park, which was where the parliament convened from the year 930 to the year 1798. Right near the information centre was a strange canyon type of structure that had a very strange but peaceful atmosphere to it. The wind was blowing a gale, but as soon as you step down into the crevasse, there is silence.
After Þhingvellir, we headed to one of the most famous destinations in Iceland, Geysir. The word Geyser is taken from this actual place, as this was the first of it´s kind discovered in the western world. Geysir is a series of hot springs, a couple of which explode with hot water and steam at regular intervals. Geysir itself is just one of these springs, and doesn’t actually erupt anymore, except after earthquakes. However, a smaller geyser called Strokkur, is right near by, and explodes every eight to ten minutes with a jet of water and steam about 20 meters high.
Just behind Geysir is a hill, that once climbed provides some spectacular views. Both Jess and I are having this same feeling of sensory overload with all of these wonderful surroundings. It´s really hard for the brain to process the images you are faced with here, as everything is on such a huge and unfamiliar scale.
Once we had taken in all of the sights, sounds and smells (there was quite a pungent aroma of sulphur in the air) of Geysir and it’s surrounds, we drove to Vík, a small seaside town. On the way, we came across two incredible waterfalls, and proceeded to get saturated as the weather turned on us. The temperature dropped to about 5 degrees and the wind was blowing at least 60 km/h, driving freezing rain into us. We returned to the car happy but soggy and shiverring, and made our way to Vík. Due to arriving too late to check in at the hostel, we opted to sleep in the car, which resulted in both of us waking up tired and grumpy.
Vík itself was on a black sand beach with some fantastic rock formations at the end of the bay. A black sand beach does not sound all that inviting, but it really is quite beautiful.
Driving further east, we went though a few strange and amazing landscapes. The first was a lava field where all of the rocks had a think layer of moss. The sheer size of this area is what gave a slightly alien feeling.
The second was what could best be described as a black desert. Volcanic ash as far as the eye could see in all directions, a monotone charcoal colour all the way off into the distance. It was a surreal experience, but sadly I don't have any photos.
Finally, after seeing some glaciers of Vatnajökull off in the distance, we came to the Jökullsárlón lagoon, which had the ocean at one end, and a massive glacier at the other. The icebergs would break off and come very close to the opening, and there was glacial ice everywhere.
After meandering around for a bit, we headed onto our next destination, Höfn, a small fishing town on a peninsula. This is where we set up to camp for the first time, waiting for a break in the rain to set the tent up. The host was from England, and when asked why he came here, he replied “It was a woman. Isn’t it always?”, like some line out of a b grade Hugh Grant film. He was an extremely nice bloke, and gave us advice about the next places we should check out.
The next stop was Egilssta∂ir, a medium sized town in the east, a bit inland. On the way however, we passed the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. I’ll just show photos, as words cannot do justice.
We stayed at the campsite in Egilssta∂ir, which was unattended when we arrived, but it had a sign saying to camp anyway and pay in the morning. This is one aspect of campsites in Iceland that we really like, as the facilities were open for us to use. A hot shower was a very welcome thing at this point.
The next target was Lake Myvatn, or rather the town of Reykjali∂, which is on it’s shore. The road to here got a bit hairy in places at it went through some very high mountain passes, with snow all around. It was a bit nerve-wracking in our little hyundae i10.
Just before the town was a geothermal area called Hverir. One thing I haven’t mentioned so far is the hot water in Iceland. It has a mild to strong sulphur smell to it depending on where you are, and this is due to the hot water to buildings being sourced directly from hot springs in the local area. Even when strong, the smell is not too bad, and doesn’t linger so you can shower in it without any problem. The reason for me bringing this up is that you would expect something similar at a geothermal area with natural steam vents. IE, a sulphur smell, but not completely unbearable. Not the case here.
The pungent aroma had a base note of very strong sulphur, with a chord or two of festering mud, topped off with the heady scent of burning dogshit. Jess had enough after about 5 minutes, but I braved on and wandered around a bit. While the smell was overpoweringly foul in some places, it was a nifty place, and well worth the walk around.
Just over the hill was the aforementioned town of Reykyali∂. The road down the hill was in stark contrast to the way up. While the Hverir side was orange and stained with sulphur, the Reykyali∂ side was black, with steam rising up out of various factories and a hot pool with signs everywhere stating that you will die if you swim in here due to the temperature.
After checking in at the campsite, we had pizza for dinner, mainly just to see what Icelandic pizza was like. It wasn’t bad, but not really a patch on what you get in Melbourne. The campsite itself was in the lava field, and still had some snow that had not melted yet. It was really quite pretty.
The next day we went to Dimmu Borgir, an area of the lava field that has some unique structures created from steam rising up out of the lava when it went over a marsh about 2000 years ago. According to Norse-Christian folklore, this is where Satan fell to earth after he was cast out from heaven. This place sounded seriously Metal.
We get there, and it is a little more touristy than I was expecting, but not overly busy. During December they have a bunch of people dressing up as santa’s elves running around, due to some folktales stating that it’s during that time that they come down from the north to help prepare for Christmas. The place was becoming less metal by the second.
However, the walk around the area was well worth it, especially the Church, which is a massive lava tube that has a large cave inside (can’t think of a better way to describe it).
On the way back there was a path that wasn’t on the main maps that were up everywhere, and about 500m of twisty paths around rocky outcrops, you come to an area that has been dressed up as the elves house.
On the way out of town, we stopped briefly at some pseudo-craters, and then headed onto Akureyri, with a quick stop at another waterfall, Go∂afoss. This is where a lawspeaker threw all of the pagan idols into the water at the time when the Christian faith was replacing paganism, and this is where the waterfall get's it's name.
By the time we arrived it was fairly late, and we looked at the weather report. It didn’t look that great, and since we didn’t know what the roads were like, we decided we would head all the way back to Reykjavik. This would give us an extra day to spend in the city, and since our first day there was dampened by the fact it was a public holiday, we didn’t mind that this meant driving most of the day.
The drive was pretty much what we have come to expect. By this time, perhaps due to constantly being exposed to it or just because we were getting weary, the incredible sense of awe that this place was inspiring earlier on in the trip was starting to wear off a little. Not to say that we could no longer appreciate the beauty of this incredible place, but that the landscape didn’t cause the adrenaline rush in the same way that it did when we first got off the plane.
We checked into the same hostel as on the first night we arrived for our remaining two days. We got to chatting with a couple that lived locally, and they spent way more time with us than they needed to giving us hints and tips of places to see. I wish that we met these two earlier on in the trip, as they had some great advice for places we went earlier on in the trip. Oh well, such is the way of things.
They next day we spent in Reykjavik again, and went to Vi∂ey Island, a short ferry ride from the city. The place was home to thousands of geese, and had a number of historical buildings as well as a sculpture designed by Yoko Ono to commemorate John Lennons death.
Back in Reykjavik proper, we got to experience some of the most changeable weather imaginable. It started to snow quite heavily for about 5 minutes, and then literally 10 minutes later, the sun was shining and it stayed that way for quite some time. Melbourne cannot hold a candle to the unpredictability of the weather here.
On the evening before the day of our flight, we went to Gullfoss, the biggest waterfall in Iceland. This place was enormous, spraying mist all around for hundreds of meters.
After some reluctance, we decided to go to the Blue Lagoon, the premier tourist trap of the country. We were given some advice from the locals I mentioned earlier about some natural hot pools that are just out in the wild, but unfortunately our little i10 would not have gotten us there. The Blue Lagoon place is an area where seawater is heated by volcanic rock 2kms under the ground and is forced up again into pools on the surface. The waters are supposed to have medicinal benefits, but I’m a little skeptical. We lounged around for a bit, and had a beer (in the water, which was nice), and ran through the freezing cold to the change rooms. I think we both felt refreshed afterwards.
Finally, it was time to go. The next day, we headed for the airport, and flew back to London for the next leg of our trip, which starts in Glasgow, in Scotland. This will be the first time that we will be without a hire car, so things will be quite different.
So, how would I sum up Iceland? This is a place of extremes, in weather and landscape. One moment you can be driving through a lava field, the next, a black gravel desert as far as the eye can see, the next a high mountain pass with snow all around, and after that you could be driving through an area of grassy meadows and fields. If we ever come back here I will be sure to get a more capable car, as although you can see so much of what Iceland has to offer just by going around the ring road, it is the interior that is where some of it’s best natural attractions lie.
Stay tuned for the next mildly interesting instalment!
-- Thomas, 2015.05.27