The Iceland Air 3-hour flight from Heathrow is functional enough, but a little clinical. A drinks trolley eventually arrives, and it all needs paying for. Local time on arrival in Reykjavik is midnight, and that means ice on the hire car and a first trip in the dark. It’s route 41 out of Keflavik airport on the Southwestern tip of the island, and then a sharp right on the 43 to our hotel for the first night.
This is the very specifically named Northern Light Inn, which is determined to clarify that there may be only one light. It is in a location unlike any other I have seen – smack bang in the middle of a lava field, next door to a geothermal power station. Ghostly plumes of white smoke drift across an illuminated black lunar landscape. I go to bed wondering if it’s a dream. Waking the next day verifies that it isn’t. A red and blue haze clears to reveal the power station in all its glory. This is the home of the famous Blue Lagoon, where people bathe in the heated water.
After breakfast strangely in earshot of the former Labour MP Clare Short, it’s time to hit the road. Our first hour is a bit of a cock-up, as we head south to Grindavik, intending to hug the coast all the way to the east of the island. It’s a lousy plan, and there are no signs, so we opt for the main 41 in to Reykjavik, with a supposedly cunning detour on the 417 to avoid the town centre. It’s another mistake, as we soon hit a dirt track and we might as well be traversing Mars. It’s desolate here – volcanic charred lava for miles, and not a tree or animal in site.
Regaining route 1 gives us a clear run through the picturesque Selfoss, Hella, Hvolsvollur, through low-lying farmland populated by hardy Icelandic ponies, cattle, and very woolly sheep. As we regain the shoreline, the island of Vestmannaeyjar swings into view on the horizon – one of sixteen smashed out, jagged volcanic crags. The latest – Sertsey – emerged from the sea in the sixties. We stop for a breather at the impressive Seljalandfoss waterfall – 180 feet tumbling off the end of the escarpment. Typical of Iceland, it’s barely labeled, and there’s hardly anyone here. The source of the water is Eyjafjallajokull, the unpronounceable volcano that erupted for six weeks in 2010. In a roadside display, the farm just below it is shown in a range of photos with the sky sometimes pitch black.
We move on, skirting round the vast Myrdalsjokull glacier, through the small town of Vik,and on to our destination for the night, Kirkjubaejarklaustur, more usually and easily called Klaustur. None of the names here come easily, but it really just means church farm. The terrain between Vik and Klaustur is utterly extraordinary. It’s a lava field called Skaftareldahraun, which flowed from the Lakagigar volcano in 1783. It is believed to be the largest lava flow ever in one single eruption in the history of the world. It became known as the Skafta Fires, and it covers 16 square kilometres. It goes on for 30 minutes of driving, and looks like blobs or bubbles covered in peppermint green moss and lichen – soft to the touch if you fancy braving the sub-zero temperatures to have a feel.
Klaustur only has 120 people – a frontier town with a petrol station, a hotel, and not much else. But there is a hidden gem. Up a turning signposted Hunkubakkar, there is a stunning gorge called Fjardrargljufur, cut by a river flowing out of a retreating glacier. A bracing walk to the top is rewarded with other-worldly views – towers of black lava with green and yellow moss on top, periodic waterfalls cascading off the ridge, the monumental peppermint lava field dropping away to black rivers, and eventually, the sea. To cap it all, there’s nobody else there at all. It’s time to retire for a hot bath.
The next day we rise to iced-up cars and a low, golden sun. This is the prelude to a staggeringly beautiful drive along the coast, across the vast boulder field of Skeidavarsandur (approximate translation ‘Sky your arse under’, or ‘asunder’ – details unclear), and in front of the snouts of the Skeidavarjokull, Skaftafellsjokull, and Svinafellsjokull glaciers. They all fan out from the largest ice field in Europe – the huge Vatnajokull glacier that gives its name to the national park. Black sand spills down to the foaming sea. Blue sky frames white glaciers. Green moss covers ancient lava balls in seemingly never-ending fields. And at the end is a pile of rubble.
Or so it seems. Peeping over the top is the ultimate surprise – a huge lagoon full of icebergs. This is Jokulsarlon. As the Breidamerkurjokull glacier receded from the sea, a lake formed. It’s full of icebergs of all shapes, sizes and colours – blue, grey, white and black. An amphibious craft takes us round for a closer look and some history. The beach beyond the bridge is surreal – black, but covered in white and blue icebergs. The onshore breeze is bracing.
On the way back we make a good decision to climb Skaftafell. This is a charming 40 minute climb to a superb waterfall called Svartifoss. It has a bizarre backdrop of basalt columns – each one almost perfectly hexagonal, just like those of the Giant’s Causeway, and looking like those in a Roman temple. On such a clear day the view is breathtaking – all the way out to sea from the plateau, down into the black plain strewn with lava, and all backed by snowcaps. We arrive back to find that alcohol can only be purchased for a limited period on Saturdays, and not at all on Sundays – except in hotels, which is where we retreat for well-earned baths and dinner.
Day three. Apparently it’s our wedding anniversary, which neither of us remember until lunchtime, when we are standing on a glacier, which is one way to do it. We have driven back west to the Solheimajokull glacier, an extending tongue of the mighty Myrdalsjokull, which has one of the world’s biggest volcanoes, Katla, underneath. Most are aware of its mini-sister Eyjafjallajokull which erupted in 2010. Katla usually follows 2 to 3 years later, and so is now due, if geological time can be relied upon. When it goes, the flash flood will come out with more water force than the Amazon. Glacier walking is great fun. Strap on the crampons, grab an ice pick, wrap a harness round your midriff, and you’re off. It’s crunchy work. Three hours later, and we have done some successful ice wall climbing. You have a pick for each hand, and ram your cramponed toes into the ice wall, one step and pick at a time. Great stuff. Crevasses. Moulins – holes drilled by ash rock and water action. Changing colours. And then we’re back down on the black gravel and finished. Tired and keen for a shower, there’s just enough time to pick up a 37,500 Krone (£200) speeding fine on the way to Fludir, where the next stage of our adventure continues.
A decent dinner of steak and chicken sets us up for the next day. We strike out north to visit Geysir and Gullfoss. Geysir is, unsurprisingly, where hot springs bubble, smoke and sulphur billow, and every three minutes Strokkur sends a decent spurt of superheated water into the air. The guidebooks claim its 98 feet high, but we see fitful bursts much smaller. The main geyser has given up completely, and the whole thing is a bit of a damp squib. The mighty Gulfoss (“golden falls”) is thoroughly worth it. A many-layered gorge provides huge steps and the volume of water is tremendous. On a cold, bright day like today, foot-long ice spikes create a crystal garden effect on the banks. We manage to enjoy the scene before the school coaches and Korean tour buses wheel in.
By noon we have located our intrepid guide, and we’re off to the Langjokull glacier for a spot of snowmobiling. Through the usual rocky moonscape we rise to snowy wastes and
don very necessary all-in-one luminous body warmers, balaclavas, and crash helmets. The snowmobiles are big enough for two. I’ve never ridden a motorbike before but the principles appear roughly the same – lean into a bend and accelerate uphill. Our guide falls off, which doesn’t inspire confidence, but the scenery is staggering. We thunder up and down the slopes – it’s a loud, petrol-fumed experience until we cut the engines to admire the mountains and listen to the silence. A snapped off crevasse fronting an ice lake is dramatic stuff. Sitting astride is John Wayne-like, and handling the hammering vibration of the snowmobile is a bit like drilling a road. Finally it’s time to return to our unfeasibly high 4×4 with its massive wheels, and return whence we came. Highly recommended.
It’s a misty start the next day, dodging the chain-smoking orientals parading outside the hotel to de-ice the car. Driving through the Hvita valley takes in the now familiar scene of golden hillsides populated by Icelandic ponies, sheep and cattle. Formidable rock structures are all around, bathed in green moss, with bursts of black and red. We stop at Thingvellir, the place where parallel columns of rock reveal how Iceland is being pulled apart by the mid-Atlantic Ridge. A beautiful waterfall intersects a long tunnel-like passage that could almost be man made.
We head directly west towards Reykjavik, and then turn north, pay the toll for the 6km tunnel at Akranes, on to Borgarnes, and onto the Snaefellsjokull peninsula. Grundarfjordur is a less-than-one-horse town and nothing is open. A 30-minute drive to Stykkisholmur yields similar results, and the best we can do is gather a few provisions as the weather closes in.
The restaurant is closed in the Framnes hotel, so we walk past the fish factory in the harbour to the only place in town – Kaffi 59, which is a pub serving as the town social centre. It’s a crèche, a restaurant, sweet shop, and gathering place to watch the football on TV. There is a strong sense of community here. In the hotel they are dismantling an entire sheep and making goulash for the whole town. Kids as young as ten are out riding the dustcarts and helping to collect rubbish. And even after dark a guy with a forklift truck from the harbour is delivering palettes of materials house to house. We stroll home after a pint and a pizza. The beers here are fine: Egils and Viking lager, Thule (which is pleasantly pokey), and the Danish Faxe.
The next day is so overcast it doesn’t look like the sun has come up at all, so we sleep in till nine. On the way to Olafsvik we encounter a young Arctic fox. He’s slate grey and about to moult into his winter white. He tentatively skips across the road, and potters off into the fields to harass a pair of ravens. It’s the main wildlife encounter of the day, as we circuit the peninsula – through Rif, Hellisandur, Hellmar and Arnastapi. There’s nobody anywhere, and the Snaefellsjokull volcano is completely obscured in cloud. All we can do is imagine it from a hint of snowline and admire the moss-covered lava flows that spew out in all directions. The day ends with a long distance experience, watching a pod of orcas eating off a headland. It’s good to see them doing their thing without a soul around.
It’s time to go, and it’s only with a change of weather we get to see Snaefellsjokull in all her glory – in the rear view mirror as we leave the peninsula. It’s so enormous it can still be seen from Reykjavik, and even from Keflavik airport – quite a contrast to the previous day when we couldn’t see it even though we were right underneath it.
Iceland has been excellent. Snow and ice events provided the highlights, with glacier walking, snowmobiling, and the ice lagoon at Jokulsarlon. The scenery was always great – volcanos, waterfalls, lava fields, escarpments, and rivers. The people were great and everything worked. On the downside is the price of everything – certainly 50% more than UK residents would be used to, and sometimes double. The built up area around the capital could be anywhere, and was so unappealing we chose not to go to Reykjavik on the way back to the airport. That can wait for another day, when a return trip beckons, it will probably be round the north coast.