Iceland essay — Part 2
The only place to be is on the road.
Meeting people and having fun is what we do!
My second week in Iceland was mind blowing — an experience never to be forgotten.
Ryan, the young but mature American I had met, and I hit the road for a drive around Iceland’s coast on a journey of inspiration and soul enlightenment. For me, it was a chance to travel by road and gain yet more adventure of titanic proportions. We learnt much, became life-long friends and discovered a little more about ourselves, life and humanity, while simultaneously expanding our knowledge of each other’s emotional and intellectual boundaries. It was not a journey for the faint-hearted.
On an early morning in late October, Ryan and I obtained a small car, the cheapest in the lot and after signing the necessary insurance papers, we set off on our journey of great discovery. The car was tiny, made of the flimsiest metal imaginable and looked like it would not withstand half an hour of any off-road conditions. We threw our gear in the back and with three CDs between us, we set off.
Our first stop was the small harbour town of Vik on the south coast, which means ‘bay’ in Icelandic. It was only a two and a half hour drive and once Ryan had his bearings, the journey was straightforward. Once we were on the highway, a ring road that circles and services the entire island, we made good progress, only getting slightly lost once. The road was empty apart from the occasional vehicle that would try to shunt us off the road. It was a bleak landscape outside of Reykjavik, nothing but dark, rocky, barren land with no trees or vegetation. We saw some occasional sheep, the coastline near Vik and some odd looking shapes that Ryan described as marshmallows! They were bundles of hay tied up with white plastic sheets to protect them from the elements — a frequent sight throughout our journey.
We drove through the small town of Vik, past the bay and fishing harbour and up a hill to the hostel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A small, upstairs/downstairs, stone structure that resembled an old prison, at least on the inside. It was quiet and warm enough, which was all we needed. It was the downstairs dorms that reminded me of a prison-like atmosphere more than anything. After we had stowed our gear and settled in, we got directions from the young receptionist and went exploring. Everything was reached by car, it was the only way to get to any of the attractions; this being such a remote landscape and country. Public transport would have taken me to the major towns, but that would have been it. Ryan as guide, driver and great company made the trip much more accessible and entertaining for me.
Our first stop was Sonheimajökull — a peninsula of Myrdalsjokull, a very large glacier. Ryan described it as a hand with five protruding fingers and we were going to try to find one of them. It was a good half hour drive back before we pulled off the road and headed down a track. Ryan had his first moment of indecision at this point, as our small car was not built for off-road driving and he was unsure about the insurance. I said go for it. He grinned and agreed. We headed down the track and the car bounced and wobbled and careered from each ditch. Ryan gripped the wheel and concentrated intensely, but I could hear the fear in his voice. I just grinned and egged him on. Stones flew as we slowly crawled along. At one point we crossed a ditch of water over three metres wide, the wheels went under. Ryan asked if we should go back, I grinned and said “No place to turn, keep going my friend.” Finally, the track finished and we reached a car park. Ryan pulled in where there were other vehicles, and said there was a trail. He could see some of the glacier up above, looking white, large and magnificent. Now it was just a steep climb and the elements to face. There was a large group walking on the glacier on an organized trek, but we did not have the equipment to do this. Ryan talked briefly with one of the guides who said, “Go walk the trail up and get some good views.” I pulled on my waterproof jacket and zipped it up against the biting, freezing wind and we went for it. Ryan is around 6 feet in height and sturdy, so helped me along and was magnificent as a guide.
The first part of the upward trail had loose rocks and protrusions. We followed a small stream where Ryan constantly took pictures. We stopped at the first point to get a good view and listen to the flowing water. Ryan got his bearings and we continued along the track, which broadened out and became sandy. There were large mounds that sloped quickly into large valleys, and soon we were trudging up and down these soil hillocks like a series of mountain ranges. One moment heaving up and then next sliding down. The soil underfoot gave way with our combined weight. It was hard going and I became breathless, but it was great fun. Eventually, this finished and the steep climb began. It was full of small stones and big rocks, mostly gravel, which gradually got steeper. At the top, we were promised a great view of the ice protrusion, with flowing water all around. Ryan helped, pushed and guided as I used my cane to get me up the rocks and slope. I grunted, sweated and panted. I stopped at one semi-level point and got my breath, as it was getting vertical now. Ryan, amazed at my stamina and ability not to give in or turn back, asked if I wished to continue or go back. I said, “No I’ll go up on hands and knees if necessary!” This is what I did after just a few more steps. I scrambled up the terrain holding on to big rocks and pushed with my feet, stretched for the next foothold or handhold, what ever I could grip and lever myself forwards and upwards. Ryan just marveled at my tenacity.
The wind was cold to freezing, but it was mostly dry, which was a bonus. Eventually, after much pushing, grunting, panting, stopping and scrambling, with soil and mud all over my hands and clothes, we made it and went over the top. What scenery! A breathtaking expanse of water, with a delightful little stream running through the rocks and down the mountain. Ryan could see the ice protrusion and people walking the glacier. He said it was beautiful, large, cold and expansive. I just enjoyed the silence except for the falling water. It was cold with a crisp wind, quiet with rugged rocks and raw terrain all around — nature at its finest. A bleakness, which transcended beauty.
Twenty minutes later we began the descent, and that was fun I can tell you. I held on to Ryan’s arm and we slowly stepped, stumbled and slid down the mountainside. The slope was nearly vertical in places and I marveled that I had managed to climb such a steep gradient, almost completely unaided. That’s the adventurer in me! We slipped and slid, moving rocks and almost fell several times, Ryan caught me, and I caught him when he slipped. It was a joint effort that cemented our friendship. Half way down the route the rain moved in and as we neared the lower slope, it became almost torrential just to add to the fun. The wind drove it into our faces and my hands became frozen. The adventurous traveller does not use gloves! Tired and soaked, we eventually returned to the lower trail and back over the sandy hillocks to the car. Now we had the slow and bumpy journey back along the track, if we dared. The wind blew the rain away and we headed back to the coast. The ice protrusion had been magnificent. I had a sensation of a large expanse that was bleak and cold protruding into the dark sky. A large, jagged finger, splendid and foreboding. Everything was rugged and bleak. I felt almost like we were the only people there and in many respects we were.
We went on to Dyrholaey, Iceland’s most southern promontory. It was another long drive to find the trail that lead to this open and isolated area. Ryan eventually found it, but there were no signposts or lights anywhere. It was just a windy, open expanse of rock protruding into the North Atlantic Ocean, but what a place. The wind hit me like a boulder and threatened to blow us both off the island. It just threw itself at us. This was just an open expanse with nothing to stop it — terrific but destructive. I just stood there listening to the sea crash against the rocks below and felt the wind constantly hitting me, rocking me off my feet. Ryan described the empty expanse, then we walked along the cliff path to a spot where Ryan could see the ‘Needles’, Reynisdranger — black lava columns rising out of the sea. Legend has it that these are trolls frozen in time! I stood on a mound of rock to get a better feel of the elements and enjoyed it all. It felt like the edge of space and time, with the forces of wind and sea mixed together producing its own orchestra, with Ryan and I its only audience — solicitly brilliant. One final intake of breath and we returned to the car and headed back to the hostel, stopping in Vik for a hot meal on the way — the lamb soup is highly recommended. We spent a quiet night in the hostel kitchen, talking to a couple from England and four people from Lithuania — I meet them all when I’m traveling.
We left early next morning after acquiring a woolly hat for me to protect my ears from the ever changing and aggressive elements. Our next destination was along the east coast to Skaftafell — Iceland’s largest national park and the site of its largest glacier, Vatnajokull. With provisions of water and non-wheat bread for Ryan and Sprite and potato chips for me, we went in search of this ice monstrosity. We alternated between conversation and the three CDs, making the journey slide by productively. I learnt about Ryan’s family and he mine, along with information about our siblings. I mentioning my older brother and sister and highlighting the closeness with my mum. We mainly debated history vs. philosophy, when Ryan suggested history is pointless as it is subjective and reflective. I argued that without history we have no present, but recognized that occasionally it is good to pause and examine the authors of history and their epistemology. The banter was good fun and amusing.
It took little time to discover the park in the mist, but it took considerably longer to locate the entrance, as it appeared to have more than one. Another bumpy trail finally led us to an area with walkable paths. Again, we saw nobody apart from one couple at a stop where we inspected part of a metal bridge that was washed away during a stupendous storm one winter. We were now in the land of the Gods and anything was possible, blizzards, snowfalls, volcanic eruptions and avalanches. The park naturally was deserted. The weather had been abysmal ever since leaving Vik, with forceful winds and heavy rain. The precipitation was curious, one minute it fell in heavy droplets, then next blowing away.
At the park, Ryan studied a map and chose the middle trail of three, after explaining the distances of each. Heavy rain attacked us as we discussed tactics, but once we began walking it disappeared completely only to start again the moment we arrived back at the car park several hours later. Luck was with us, as a three-hour good weather window gave us a delightful, comfortable walk. The ramble up hill began with a fairly easy path which only became steep once or twice. We climbed, stepped over roots and stones, and enjoyed the stillness and beauty of the environment. Ryan said he could sense the giant glacier, but he could not see it as yet. We eventually discovered a flowing stream that led to several tributaries and one or two waterfalls. We continued climbing. At one point, I had to clamber over several rocks and boulders with Ryan’s help. There were several wooden bridges and mud, so we had to watch our step carefully. The bridges had no rails so was fun trying not to fall off. I used my cane and Ryan relaxed. The waterfalls were delicious and the sound, tranquil — one was quite large and the sound rumbled. The water cascade made me feel remote and calm, at peace in a fascinating landscape of wilderness. Eventually, we escaped the rocks and hiked up onto a smooth, wide path that led to some grasslands where there were houses and a paved path that paralleled some fields and a farm or two. This led to more fields where horses were quietly grazing. We hit a dead end and re-traced our steps. I walked ahead and I felt like I was in a wonderland, no sound anywhere, it was blissful.
We returned a different way taking an alternative trail that took us down more rocks, across yet another river-stream and down several rough steps. Ryan was able to get a glimpse of the glacier, and I sensed the cold expanse, but to get nearer to it would have meant another hike of over 5 miles (8 km) and daylight was fading. Back at the car and with rain returning in sheets, we decided to head for the town of Hofn — pronounced ‘Hep’ which means harbour. The weather deteriorated further as we drove around the park so we slowly made our way to the southeast coastal town. There were no lights to guide us nor any signposts and the traffic was remote to say the least, a ghost road, but wonderful to be on it. It was after 9.00 pm by the time we found the town and somewhere to eat. Tired, cold and hungry, we had an expensive meal and then went to find the hostel. By this point, the rain was torrential and windswept. We eventually found the hostel in the dark only to be rudely informed it was full and to go down the road a way. Ryan was tired and irritable, and was struggling in the horrendous weather conditions. I was little help, but gave encouragement wherever possible. He found the building, but as we drove up he overran and we hit an unseen step in the dark. I felt the bang and bump and heard the front bumper cave in. Ryan swore and tried to reverse. I got out and went into the hostel with the owner, a smug bastard who was just standing there, watching. Ryan was swearing profusely and tried to repair the damage.
The next morning, the light of day showed us that the front bumper was hanging off at one corner. Ryan managed somehow to push it back on and we retreated from Hofn a little worried, but determined to continue in high spirits and in pursuit of more adventure. However, we did not bargain for what came next.
Once the bumper was back on and all our bags were reloaded, we hit the road. The weather was still horrendous, with swirling winds and driving rain. Ryan was in better spirits and even though we had not seen any of Hofn, apart from the warm but expensive restaurant the previous evening, it was enough. Our first adventure was a drive back the way we had come to Jökulsarlon, a glacial lagoon or lake. It is situated at the south end of the large glacier Vatnajökull, between Skaftafell National Park and Höfn. It had large sheets of ice floating in a river and sounded fantastic. It took us about an hour to find it. I was mainly interested in it because the James Bond movie, ‘A View To A Kill’, was filmed there. The movie company had to get permission from the government to freeze the salt water so that they could drive sports cars on the water! However, when we arrived, the weather was still abysmal and the rain was torrential.
The vast open area was expansive and the sight must have been amazing. I imagined large lumps of ice floating downstream. However, because of the disgusting weather and the fact that I could not see it, it seemed silly to get soaked for nothing. The extreme degree of the elements took any sense of atmosphere away from me. Therefore, we continued our journey north.
We had been told that the east coast held some of the most beautiful and remote scenery of the entire island; mainly mountainous terrain and coastline before a series of fjords where there was only fishing villages. It was a drive along an empty highway with just the mountains, coast road and cliffs for company. The rain continued and the wind howled. We chatted and drove, I slipped in and out of sleep. This is where it began, the wind and rain, darkness and deadly dangerous scenery, intrepid high peaked mountains with ice water cascading down it on one side and a treacherous, narrow cliff edge coast road with a sheer drop into the freezing Atlantic, on the other side. The wind increased; Ryan and I looked at each other, and suddenly realised we were in the midst of the fight of our lives. The tiny tin car was bumped and buffeted by the wind, but Ryan drove on with intense concentration, eyes straight ahead and hands tight on the wheel. He said visibility was down to only a few metres and it was getting darker, wetter and windier by the minute — and also gas was getting low!! I grinned and said, “Keep going, we will find one of these fjord towns eventually.” It felt like we were the only people out there and at times we were the only vehicle on the road, all alone in this bleak, but impressive landscape that was destructive, but beautiful.
The wind became stronger still and just as I was dozing off again, BANG, the wind really hit us and rocked the tiny car. I thought it was an avalanche from the adjacent mountains where the tributaries of rivers were running down them like veins through the barren rock. Geographical blood lines in an otherwise land of rock and ice. We were rocked, shaken, blown and rained upon — the elements were wild and visibility was decreasing constantly. Notwithstanding the weather, we were continiously pelted by roadside stones; one of which cracked the windscreen. It was a hair-raising journey, on a narrow cliff edge road, battered by all elements while Ryan was doing his best to keep us in one piece, even though he knew that one slight slip could send us off into the ice chilling Atlantic below. All I could do was keep him company, confident in his determination and my self-belief in my ability to survive anything.
We eventually came across a tiny cod-fishing town called Stöðvarfjörður, in the east fjords. It was early afternoon when we pulled into the ghost town. There was a petrol station and a small supermarket that naturally was closed. We had been sharing the petrol cost equally and it was Ryan’s turn to buy. The machine was automatic, where you just used your debit/credit card. Ryan only had a credit card, but the machine wanted a pin number. I suggested getting some food and shelter — the rain was still torrential. The gas indicator was pointing to red, but food and warmth seemed more important. We found a restaurant that was open and the owners invited us in. Two drowned rats from the road!
We had not realized until the locals in the restaurant told us, that we had just driven through a full-blown hurricane. One lady said, “The winds are up to 40 metres per second and small log houses are coming off their foundations.” “Unbelievable” I said. We had been very lucky and could easily have been swept away. We were served a local fish called luðo, which is pronounced ‘lutho’. It was delicious and was accompanied by mash potatoes and vegetables. We then gathered provisions from the local store that was attached to the restaurant and made plans for our next destination.
After finding there were no hostels open anywhere on the east coast, we decided to drive all the way to Akureryi in the north. Well fed and a little warmer and dryer we hit the road once again; we returned to the petrol station and with a little intellectual thought, Ryan worked out his pin number, purchased some gas and we drove out of town, travelling up the east coast heading north.
The hostile weather finally abated sometime around early evening when we began to climb into the highlands, where driving became easier and even pleasant. Ryan and I laughed about our near death adventure, exclaiming that we had become stronger and better men for the experience, however, more was to follow. We continued climbing and eventually it got completely dark. There were no lights anywhere, not on the highway or in the hills and mountains. The air was very cool and much thinner; I opened my window to taste the air on occasions and it was delicious. We pulled into the large stylish city of Egilstaðir, which means Egle’s Place, around 9.00 pm and drove around investigating the city. Ryan was impressed, he discovered this electric crucifix and a pretty looking church – oh the joys of digital cameras!
We continued north. The darkness deepened and the mountains appeared higher; soon we were driving through them, along a roadway cut through massive peaks, where the air was crisp and clean — an idyllic paradise. Things were quiet for a while, we drove in companionated silence until, suddenly, from nowhere, the sky just lit up — that was Ryan’s description! We came over the rise of a hill and Ryan suddenly braked and said, “My God”. He just froze, amazed. Ahead of us in the sky he could see the Northern Lights, a chemical atmospheric light display. He described them as green clouds dancing gently in the sky. We got out of the car and stood on the roadside in complete darkness, except for these twinkling lights. It was truly amazing; I jumped with joy as the atmosphere was just astonishing. They are difficult to see at the best of times and in Iceland, particularly difficult due to the constant dramatic change in weather. We were inspirationally lucky; the weather for once was still, with a cloudless sky and no wind. We were blessed by magic. I felt privileged just to be there beneath them. It is true I could not see them and Ryan could have made it all up, but his astonishing verbal outburst suggested otherwise — it was the Northern lights alright — we both felt elated. The air around us was very still and cold, and the landscape was vast with a concentration of eeriness.
“On a dark and deserted highway…” (The Egles, Hotel California, 1976)
Spellbound, we continued our electrifying journey and reached Akureryi, Iceland’s second largest city around 10.30 pm and tried to find, first the hostel and secondly food. However, we were unfortunate as the only hostel in the complex city was closed. After exploring several alternative establishments of accommodation and being told in one place that we couldn’t afford the price, we decided to sleep in the car with the weak, but functioning heating. An uncomfortable and fitful night sleep was presented to us both. Next morning, just as I was taking a toilet break behind the car, someone displayed a sign on the hostel, ‘Closed for renovation’. We could not believe our bad luck, swore profusely and then laughed about it. We decided to go and explore the city, get some coffee and see what, if anything, the locals had to offer.
Ryan found the people somewhat unfriendly and snooty, though one lady in an information centre gave us some tourist ideas and was helpful with information and directions. A plan was organized and we managed to book a hostel in a town in the western region before heading back towards the northeast.
We headed to the Myvatn region in search of hot pools and a large waterfall plus anything else that was of interest. The drive was pleasant and the weather, though windy, was dry — which was something of a bonus. Eventually, we came across Goðafoss — the waterfall of the Gods. It was a nice waterfall, although in my opinion, not quite as impressive as the golden waterfall near Reykjavik. The sound was delightful and in a country void of humans and most other life forms, it was both soothing and comforting. Ryan had been driving for four days in horrendous conditions with little sleep. It was time to get him some relaxation, so we headed for Myvatn Geothermal hot Pool. Similar to the blue Lagoon, but not as hot, it still improved our tired bodies immeasurably. Again, I found it strange lying in hot water with my head stuck in freezing wind. There was nobody about save for one local and a couple from England. The five of us relaxed in the naturally heated minerals, let the elements soften our skin and remove toxins from our body. Ryan could breathe normally again after our experiences.
Afterwards we drove around and explored Myvatn Lake, which was surrounded by volcanoes. The huge lake had a strange mist emanating from it; the smell of sulphur was very strong, to say the least! We explored Dimmuborgir, which are peculiar lava formations formed during the fissure eruption of Ludentsborgir volcano. The terrain was amazing; rough and rugged lava formed rock and huge craters, most of which we could not actually reach. We returned west heading for the western edge of Iceland for a night, before heading back to Reykjavik. Our destination that night was the small town of Hrutafjörður.
We saw nothing of the town and stayed in a creepy hostel called Saeberg Hostel — a lonely ghost house on the lake. It resembled something out of the ‘Shining’! We arrived around dusk, to find the large place unoccupied and the door open. After a brief inspection, we discovered the two level building held nothing of interest or danger and settled in for an early night. Our final day took us to Grabrok , a volcanic crater in the north west. We started late, not departing until midday. We just left the payment for our stay under the phone. The owner was obviously very trusting. It was meant to be a long drive back to Reykjavik, but it turned out to be quite leisurely, and we were able to stop along the way. The volcano crater was pretty unimpressive, just a large dent in the ground, and reached by climbing a series of dodgy wooden steps. We found the area and set off up a gravelly trail that took us to the steps. The weather that morning had been frosty, and as we travelled it became colder and began to snow. There was snow on the steps, which I found a challenge to climb. At the top of this first flight , there was another path that led to yet more steps, where I decided to wait while Ryan went and explored. He said there was little to see so we retraced our steps. Descending was even more of a challenge as the wooden planks had become slippery and one or two were broken.
We continued our journey and while driving back to the capital, we spotted the most unusual item of the entire trip — a giant stone coke can, very scenic! It was huge — just standing in a field surrounded by a moat of mud. We went and explored it before heading to the uninteresting town of Akranes, and its geological and maritime museum. After a quick inventory we headed to Reykjavik, arriving just as dusk fell. Our plan on arriving back at the car hire was to ditch the car and run! However, with three bags, this was rather difficult. The car hire was closed, so we pushed the keys through the door, collected our bags and went in search of the nearest bus stop. Two hours later, we arrived back at the Reykjavik Youth Hostel where we had met and our journey had begun five days earlier.
What a journey and what a story! We had survived in almost one piece, and the only damage sustained was a knocked off bumper and a cracked windscreen! Noone would notice would they?! Ryan and I had created a friendship to stand the test of time, partners in crime, travellers together, his young, dry wit and my old synical humour. We had undertaken an adventure Mark Twain, the late nineteenth century novelist, would have been proud of. Thank you Ryan for making it such fun and an even better adventure than I would have had alone.
It is not every day you survive a hurricane and stand under the Northern Lights!
Iceland was magical and exploring its entire outer perimeter was breathtaking. I would recommend it to anyone; you would have fun and be blown away by its uniqueness and beauty — we certainly were.
I saw Iceland through its textures of rock and ice, its hot pools and chilling winds, the smell of sulphur, its sound of rain and its warm people. Eating whale meat and lamb soup was a pleasure and walking, hiking and crawling over its rough, harsh, but beautiful, intriguing terrain was marvellous. Iceland I will not forget.