My time in London had come to an end, and a new adventure was about to start in San Francisco! As luck would have it, the cheapest (one-way) flights from London to SF were actually via Reykjavik. And since I was paying for my own flights, fate was ensuring that I visited Iceland.
I’ve wanted to visit Iceland for about as long as I’ve known about Iceland. You’d think that having lived in London for an excess of two-years would have provided plenty of opportunities to go and visit, but it was always a case of it being put off until a more opportune time. It was late February, which wasn’t the best of times to be visiting. It also wasn’t the worst of times to be visiting, which in my mind would be the short dark days in the midst of winter, or during the hectic crush of tourists during the summer months.
Due to the remaining snow, there were still going to be plenty of places that were not accessible. But, due to it still being the last few days of winter, there was still opportunities to experience some of the treats – icebergs, frozen lagoons, and an evening sky dark enough to see the Aurora Borealis!
As mentioned in the preface, I was flying from London to SF, stopping here in Reykjavik en-route. It was a discount flight from London Luton airport, and for once I arrived relaxed (though a little sad) and with plenty of time.
I ended with an aisle seat, behind a group of a dozen hard drinking Brits – they managed to get so drunk that they struggled to get out of their seats, dropping overhead luggage on each other! I digress. The sad part about the aisle seat was missing out on the glimpses of Iceland through the clouds as we strafed the southern coast. I knew there wasn’t much to see, but I still wanted to see it.
Once again, I’d rented a car using economycarrentals.com, and even though it was a last minute rental, the rental fee would work out to be less than the fuel. But, being a budget rental, it meant that I would have to wait for a shuttle bus, and then wait again once I arrived at the rental desk. It was well after 8PM by the time I’d received the keys to a Fiat 500 – which I’d wanted on several previous occasions, however, this time I would have been happy with a free upgrade to a larger vehicle. The road outside was slippery with a thin layer of ice, it was dark, and more snow was falling. Thankfully they use studded tyres, so even driving on the icy road I had a controllable amount of traction.
I was staying at a hostel a fair distance outside of Reykjavik (Vibrant Hostel), but since I just wanted a cheap place to sleep, it was ideal. I planned to cook a simple dinner in the shared kitchen, but by chance the first supermarket that I came across was an Iceland. It felt a little like recursion, going to an Iceland in Iceland. Whatever, I bought some frozen pasta/pizza, as well as basic food for breakfast/lunch, cooked, ate, showered, passed out.
I’ve rambled long enough. I knew that I was going to have a very big day ahead of me, so rather than listening to my body and sleeping in, I was up at 7AM. It might not sound early, but the sun wasn’t set to rise until nearly 8:30AM. It was 8AM by the time I’d eaten, cleaned, and packed. The car was coated in a light layer of snow, as were the roads. It was still very dark, and the snow was still falling. I was starting to wonder if I’d made a mistake planning to drive nearly 500km today.
It was still quite dark by the time I’d cleared the boundaries of Reykjavik. The roads got a little hillier, and the snow on the road started getting a little deeper, and deeper, and deeper. I eventually caught up to a snowplough, which was making slow progress. I was now really starting to think that I’d made a monumental mistake booking a hotel nearly 500km away for tonight. I eventually managed to seize an opportunity to overtake the plough, only to be suddenly become buried in the spray of the snow that the plough was clearing. The slushy mix hammered down on the little Fiat, burying me in a dark cabin. It might have only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to be terrifying, especially since the little Fiat was also getting pushed and pulled through the uncleared snow in the other lane. There was part of me that was lecturing myself for being so stupid and impatient, but another, and larger and stronger part of me that was thrilled to have clear space in front of myself again.
The sky was finally starting to lighten, though it was still a flat overcast morning, with severely gusty winds and occasional heavy showers. I was going to have to drive back along the same roads tomorrow, but I still planned to stop at several sites along the way, since I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get it all finished in a single day.
This was the first stop of the day, and somewhat unplanned. I knew that foss meant waterfall, and after seeing a sign, and passing over river that was raging down a volcanic canal, I had to turn around to investigate.
It was said to be the most voluminous waterfall in the country, which after visiting several others (including Gullfoss), I question the accuracy of the claims! Titles aside, it was my first time to walk around and enjoy the Icelandic scenery, and I was loving the raw energy of what I was seeing. I did my best to not be blown over walking down the icy off-camber path in the gusty wind. Years of practise of shuffling like a penguin while living in Hokkaido have served me well.
The skies were starting to get lighter just as the scenery was starting to become more dramatic. The flat plains that seemed endless were now punctuated by rugged and icy peaks far off on the horizon. It gave the long straight roads some point of reference.
This was a short drive further east, and was clearly much more popular. The queue of cars entering the car park were visible long before the actual waterfall was. There was a 600ISK (£4) parking fee, which thankfully was by a machine that accepted card, as I’d not withdrawn any cash yet.
There were a few waves of Chinese tourists running amok, frantically chasing their possessions that were being blown clean off each time the wind picked up. Seeing them dressed in their thin, garbage bag-like rain covers reminded me of the foolish preparation from my brother and my journey up Mount Fuji.
The water crashing over the waterfall was doing so with supreme grace. It was hard not to be enchanted as the stream turned into wispy clouds. I enjoyed the waterfall for a few moments, but continued along the path, hoping to find a quieter vantage point.
This plateau above us seemed to be riddled with waterfalls. I desperately wanted to see what was above and wished I had the drone – however, with the exceptional winds, I knew that it’d be far too dangerous to be flying. I tried climbing up one of the flatter sections to get a higher perspective of the area. It was great, and I felt much closer to the secrets that lay above. However, attempting to walk back down this steep, wet and muddy trail was destined to fail. I slipped onto my arse, and in an attempt to compensate, ended running and falling forwards, too. Thankfully only my pride suffered wounds – I really wish I could have see the spectacle.
Only a short walk from Seljalandsfoss, along a well trodden path, was this thunderous spectacle. By the time I’d arrived, the stiffness of my earlier fall had gone.
As I walked around to get a better view, I realised that there was a queue of people waiting to climb into the canyon to take selfies. There wasn’t an actual path, and people were using their ingenuity to pile rocks up in the 20cm deep water to gain access. It still looked sketchy, and I saw a few people with severely wet pants approaching me. I only had the one pair of shoes, and had little faith that they’d dry overnight should I have a mishap, so for once I was content to watch the others flail about as they tried to get inside the canyon.
It did look amazing, and I was considering taking my shoes off to go and appreciate it myself. But, to be honest, the main thing that put me off was the queue to be able to do it. Well, like at least 60% of the reason!
Looking back towards where I’d come from was the infinite expanse of volcanic wasteland. The kind of scene you’d expect to see in a dystopian film. I was in awe with the vastness in front of me.
As I continued on my drive towards the east, I saw what at first looked like the smoke from fires. It looked like there was something major burning just behind some cliffs. I was a little amazed, given how wet everything seemed, but, as I got closer, I realised that it wasn’t actually smoke, but rather the spray from a pair of waterfalls. Here gravity was losing its battle with the wind and failing to reach the ground. Though, to be honest, my little Fiat 500 was also struggling with its battle against the headwind – and I could only imagine how poor Gunter would have coped under such conditions!
I wasn’t quite sure what the traffic boards were saying (Vindhviður seems to mean squalls), which leads me to believe that they were seeing gusts up to 33m/s (120kph). My biggest worry with the rental car was entering a sand storm and having the rough volcanic ash obliterate the rental car – this wasn’t covered by the company’s insurance policy, but was pretty confident it was covered by my separate policy I’d undertaken. Like 60% confident.
The views to my left were stunning. I couldn’t help by compare it to the pictures I’d seen of Isle of Skye. These weren’t the views I was expecting from Iceland. They’re not the typical Instagram friendly scenes of waterfalls, blue lagoons, and icy lagoons. However, in my mind were more a true reflection of the endless rugged beauty. Just behind these hills, and hidden in the clouds was the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano that caused havoc to European airways in 2010.
Drangurinn í Drangshlíð
As I continued along the drive, still more than mesmerised by the stunning beauty of the cliffs to my left, I spotted what looked like a small wooden house built into the side of a large rock. I was able to find a place to pull over and enjoy the stunning view. I honestly stood there on the side of the road and just drank these views in finding untold amounts of details – I mean, there is even a damn rock window way up in the background!
I made my way a little closer to the buildings, which were sadly losing their battle with the elements. Still, the grass rooves and the basic concrete construction had an undeniable charm for me.
There were even some even older stone buildings, and I dread to even think of the conditions inside during a winter!
This was meant to be one of the main attractions along this route, but due to a combination of waterfall overload (this would have been my fourth in two hours), and concern about the long drive still ahead of me, I didn’t pull over. OK, 60% of the reason I didn’t pull over is because I missed the turnoff because I was distracted by the views. The waterfall is actually visible from the ring road, so I should have had no excuses. I thought rather than turn around, I’d catch it on the way back tomorrow – except it was dark when I finally made it back tomorrow, so I didn’t get to visit. Carpe Diem, my friends. Carpe Diem.
I really wanted to visit a certain lighthouse perched up high on the cliffs near this beach, but it turned out the final access road was 4WD only. I moderately considered walking, as it didn’t look far. But, checking the ever faithful Google Maps, it showed it was over 3km, which I briefly considered, before remembering that I was already skipping things due to time constraints.
Instead, I drove a little further and came to the edge of this raised bluff. The wind was as aggressive and relentless as it was cold. I don’t know how the birds were flying around in these gusty conditions. But the wind wasn’t the exciting part, the black beach and the jagged rocks were. I’d seen black/volcanic beaches before in Australia, but nowhere near as black as this! It was almost like looking at carbon. The light didn’t seem to reflect back from it, instead soaking up all luminance. Then the bright white foam of a wave would come surging up the beach, making this incredible contrast of infinite darkness, and blinding brightness. It was beautiful, and despite how cold, damp and uncomfortable I was feeling, I sat and gazed out at this otherworldly view.
I drove a short distance further, not knowing about the tessellations in the cliffs at Reynisfjara. It was slowly but surely getting dark anyway and needed to keep moving. I had a short walk out to the black sands of the beach here, but had a feeling I’d be seeing more of them tomorrow, so didn’t venture too far.
I loved Reyniskirkja standing proud on the barren hill, surrounded by the jagged peaks of some equally barren mountains.
But, another thing that really caught my attention were the Icelandic horses. I don’t like horses. In fact, I would generally go as far as saying that I almost hate them – at least as a transportation option. There was something so beautiful about these horses, standing out in the cold and wet. They were shorter and stockier, and far hairier than normal horses. It was an enormous surprise to later learn why I’d seen so many horses in the farms here, and so few other agricultural animals – horses are livestock here! My Airbnb host sung the praises of horsemeat, but (mostly due to laziness), I didn’t find any for sale to try cooking for myself.
I now focused on making it to my night’s accommodation in Hofn, which was still nearly 300km away. The views remained just as dramatic and intoxicating, which meant I knew I was going to have a long drive ahead of me.
The views were incredibly varied, too. With cliffs, waterfalls and glaciers one moment, and expansive plains of moss-covered lava fields the next. It was great to get out of the car and get up close to enjoy appreciate just what I was driving past. From a distance the moss made the whole area look soft, but up close and underneath the shallow layer of moss were rough and harsh black volcanic rocks.
And this pattern would continue – expansive plains, followed by dramatic cliffs, all right beside the edge of the Ring Road.
Though, after a period, I entered one of the apocalyptically barren flood plains. This was what I was warned about during high winds, with the rough volcanic sand stripping the paint from vehicles – which wasn’t covered in my rental insurance (though, probably included in my separate excess insurance). It had been crazy windy all morning, but since leaving Vik, I’d noticed it gradually decreasing, until it was now barely a concern.
Still, the completely monotone views that stretched out at infinitum in front of me were mesmerising in the bleakest of ways. Monotone other than my pumpkin coloured go-kart. But, the lack of immediate features made it hard to stay focused, especially after having completed several hours of driving already.
Vatnajokull National Park Glaciers
Thanks to the vast plains, I was able to watch these soaring peaks slowly creep into view. They started off as lumps on the horizon, then built into hills, and finally once I was close, I could see that they were proper mountains, and flanked by several tongues of glaciers. It felt so strange to have these mountains suddenly rise from the plains – but I guess the plains are recent developments from volcanic activity.
As a visual reminder of the forces involved, they had a warped and twisted section of one of the bridges that was destroyed from flooding after volcanic activity. These giant beams of steel were spectacularly warped, as though they were made from wax and left out in the sun.
By the time I’d made it to the iceberg lagoon of Jökulsárlón it was too dark to really enjoy, but I knew now that I only had another hour-or-so to drive. I pushed on through the pure darkness, broken up only by other vehicles. I had been watching the range on the fuel tank all afternoon, showing that I should arrive in Höfn with about 30km range to spare. However, by the time I was 30km from town, the range was down to 50km, which is where it stopped providing me an estimate, and instead gave me a warning alarm about the empty tank. There was nothing I could do other than push on, hoping that the earlier range estimates had been accurate – or at least cautious, rather than optimistic. I made it to a small 24hr pump, which frustratingly didn’t take my Revolut card. I had the choice of driving a further 10km into town to try another station (at 8PM on a Sunday night), or accept that I was going to have to pay conversion and foreign transaction fees with my regular UK card – I sucked up the fees rather than risk running out of fuel, which was difficult for me to do.
It was 8:30PM by the time I’d arrived at my Airbnb for the night. Inside were a few other guests cooking and eating dinner, and talking with our Icelandic host, Elin. I had hoped to pass by a supermarket, but hadn’t seen one since Vik, so instead I made some more of my ryebread sandwiches that I’d planned to have for my lunch tomorrow. I showered, downloaded the photos from the day, and crashed exceptionally hard into bed.
I had hoped that maybe I could get lucky to see the Northern Lights again, but it was too cloudy – and the forecast was for more of the same for the rest of my time in Iceland. Disappointing, but was realistic about my chances.
I’d set an alarm to make sure I could get a full day of driving and sightseeing in today, but I’d awoken to darkness. I ate my breakfast and killed a little time while the skies slowly began to brighten. It was incredible stepping out of the Airbnb and seeing the views of these stunning mountains, which were part of the same Vatnajokull National Park I’d driven around yesterday – and were back to visit again this morning.
I’m really glad I got the chance to see what I’d driven through last night in the dark. This view wasn’t new, nor exceptionally dramatic (compared to some of the other views from yesterday), but I was distracted enough that I had to pull over to fully enjoy the scenery. I could see the glaciers and peaks again in the distance, and now I could also see the plates of ice still covering the flood plains.
I arrived around 10AM, which I thought would be earlier than other tourists. I was stunningly wrong! The main car park was already full, and I had to search out somewhere a little further out. There were buses of tourists running around, but even with the chaos, when I caught my first sight of these small blue icebergs lazily floating in this calm lagoon, I tuned the tourists and rest of the world around me out.
The skies were dark and menacing, which I kind of enjoyed. Some of the smaller icebergs were starting to make their way out of the mouth of the lagoon towards the ocean. They must have been dragging on the ground, as the current seemed to be racing past them.
I followed the outlet to the beach, where I knew there were ‘diamond-like’ pieces of ice on the black sandy beach. What I didn’t expect was the sheer number of other tourists!
I think I’d run into a Chinese photography tour group, as they all had exceptionally expensive hardware, and were taking things seriously, with wading boots (or makeshift ones made from shopping bags). I did my best to find some peace and quiet to just enjoy the waves lapping at these amazing chunks of ice – though, where they were situated was the highest density, and it tapered off quite quickly.
I’d read warnings about the freak waves that can wash away tourists, so I tried to keep an eye on what was coming up the beach, as well as not getting too close to the water. This Spanish group was a little more daring, taking turns to pose on the small iceberg!
I wandered around for quite some time, finding all the incredible shapes and colours of ice, washing the way the waves crashed and pulled at the ice. Eventually, my face went numb, as did my fingers. It was only 3˚C, and felt very much like 3˚C. Still, I was mesmerised and not ready to leave. I walked around the lagoon a little further, aware that I wouldn’t have enough time to walk all the way to the glacier at the far end of the lagoon.
A very short drive further west brought me to a smaller iceberg lagoon, hidden behind a small hill. It might have been smaller in size, but I found it far more beautiful.
The majority of the lake was still under a rather thick layer of ice. There were groups of (again, Spanish speaking) tourists walking out along the ice, and while I was envious of their photo opportunities, the risk seemed far too high for Instagram likes.
Still, since the lagoon was smaller, I was much closer to the glacier that fed the lagoon, and could clearly see the cracks and crevices. Even in the dull light the glacier had a beautiful blue glow that made me want to get closer to fully appreciate it.
It was now well into the afternoon, and I had a very long way to still travel. It’s hard to leave, but I’d satisfied my eyes, and was ready to see more of Iceland.
Thankfully it wasn’t much further to drive to get to the Svartifoss car parking area. It was also the point of departure for a heap of longer hikes that take you to the foot of some nearby glaciers – however, it was early in the season, and there was significant ice and snow covering the trails. Plus, most of the trails were still shut for the season. It would have been amazing to have spent the day hiking out to the glacier, as well as seeing the other sights in the area. Hopefully I can visit again and spend a little more time here exploring.
The trail to the waterfalls was well made, easy to follow, and not difficult to hike. That said, the final 500m was still under ice – which was a whole different category to snow. It was challenging to try and navigate down the off-camber uneven icy areas, but I managed to survive.
But, before that dangerous final descent, there was a glorious view point of the falls and their amazing tessellated amphitheatre.
I’d run into another Chinese photo tour group, and once again, they were taking things very seriously, climbing out into the freezing water to get the shot/angle that they wanted. I was annoyed to have them getting in the way, so it was a guilty pleasure watching them argue with each other for getting in each other’s shots!
I walked past to the end of the view platform and was now fully immersed in the amphitheatre.
It was mesmerising to watch the way the earth had been formed into these columns, which twisted and bent in all directions. The waterfall was nice, but it only because of the beautiful tessellations.
It was now time to cover some serious ground. It was 250km to my hostel for the night, and all I could think about was dinner. By eating my bread last night, I was now left without lunch, and instead was surviving on muesli bars. My hunger and discomfort were my own problems, since there were small restaurants, I just chose not to spend the inflated prices. By the time I’d arrived in the large supermarket in Vik, I was ready to buy everything they were selling. The problem was I still had to keep driving at least another 90-minutes before I could cook or eat any of it.
I’d wanted to visit some of the places that I’d missed yesterday, like Skógafoss, but it was now dark. The wind was picking up again, and the rain that had mostly been absent today was returning. Around 7PM I’d arrived in the surprisingly charming Snotra Hostel, some 20km south of the Ring Road, the spots of rain had turned into a downpour lashing the side of the hostel. I had my frozen pizza and pasta with great satisfaction, had a hot shower, and was in bed a fraction after 9PM!
Tomorrow morning will be my final full day exploring, and I’ll go bath in some thermal pools and drive the Golden Circle.