The idea of travelling on a less-trodden path has always seemed attractive to me. I can count in one hand, the number of people I know who had been to Iceland. With almost no expectation, other than an absurd imagination of a landscape covered by ice, and an innate inability to pronounce any of their names, I booked my tickets to Reykjavik and was enthusiastically joined by Sahana and Irene, my partners-in-crime. We decided to go in September, which turned out to be a great idea because it’s the shoulder season during which you avoid the summer crowds but it’s not yet cold enough to freeze your butt off and at the same time, you get dark nights which give you a decent chance to observe the night sky (unlike the peak seasons, July and August when you have 24-hour daylight).
We landed at the extremely windy Keflavik airport and the first thing we noticed was how pristine the air was (we later found a store which was selling cans of “Fresh Icelandic Mountain Air” for $10 apiece!). After a bit of confusion we made it to the car rental place and got into our 4WD manual transmission Dacia Duster, which we had booked in expectation of some rough mountain roads we planned to drive on. Only towards the end of the trip did I discover a switch that engaged 4WD and I pretty much drove the entire trip in 2WD mode! We had a delicious breakfast at Bergsson Mathus in Reykjavik and set off on our road trip around the country along the Highway 1 a.k.a. Ring Road.
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park (the “Þ” is pronounced with a “th” sound). We visited Geysir, which, like most things in Iceland, was an aptly-named natural geyser, and Strokkur. We then visited Gulfoss (or the Golden Falls), first of the innumerable-yet-each-unique-in-their-own-way waterfalls we would be seeing in Iceland. We would be returning to Þingvellir National Park on our way back for something more exciting but for now we left the national park and drove towards our accommodation.
I need to make a special mention about our host on the first day. We stayed at a farm ranch called Beindalsholt, which was just off the Ring Road near Hella. The ranch was at a wonderful location, surrounded by rolling hills covered with lush green grass in all directions, with a view of the active-volcano Eyjafjallajökull (eyja-island, fjalla-mountain, jökull-glacier). Our host was really friendly, which was going to be the hallmark of any Icelander we would be meeting, and gave us useful information about our next day’s adventure. That night we also caught very faint traces of the Aurora Borealis but we hoped that it would be stronger in the coming days.
The next day was my personal favorite day of the entire trip. We headed to a place called Landmannalaugar (meaning, the people’s pools). This place was a 200km diversion from the Ring Road, into the mountains. The drive was nothing like we had experienced in our life. It was an F-road which meant that we were glad for the high-clearance vehicle that we had. It was mostly a narrow dirt road winding through mountains and occasionally opening up to give us panoramic views of the valley in between. This region was formed by volcanic eruption so the entire landscape is black, sort of like you would see in a Sci-Fi movie depicting a different planet.
Occasionally we also had to cross rivers, which was pretty scary in the beginning but turned out to be quite a lot of fun if you were careful. I would wait for somebody else to cross the river and roughly follow the same route through the water since I knew it was not deep where the other car passed. Also it greatly helped to have a manual transmission in these situations.
Landmannalaugar itself turned out to be quite stunning. It is, in fact, a base camp to do the very popular Laugavegur trek, which is done over 3-5 days. We were visiting Iceland at a time when it was a little too cold to be camping outdoors so we had decided not to do this trek. Instead we did a day hike which turned out to be quite fantastic. The place, as it’s name suggests, is surrounded by natural hot springs, geysers and peculiar rocks formed as a result of volcanic eruptions.It was a pure visual delight walking around that area.
The next day we decided to drive to þórsmörk. This drive turned out to be one of the most scenic roads I have ever driven. The view on the right was the enormous Eyjafjallajökull with it’s stunning glacier. Ever so often, there would be a waterfall from the top of the glacier which would flow across the road we were driving, often in the form of a feisty river. There were several places on the road where we crossed these rivers and eventually we got to a point where it was no longer safe for us to cross it in our car, so we turned back. If you do end up going here, I would highly recommend renting the services of “super-jeeps” which take you all the way to þórsmörk.
That evening we were meant to stay at a farmhouse in Hofn but we somehow lost track of time and had to drive in pitch darkness along the highway during which we were constantly distracted by the dancing Auroras appearing above us. I was going at least 100kmph when I suddenly heard a sharp gasp from Sahana who was sitting next to me. The next instant I noticed a herd of black sheep sitting bang in the middle of the highway, calmly enjoying their meal. It was too late to brake so I swerved slightly so that I narrowly avoided running into them. It turns out that Icelandic sheep love hanging out on the highway as we discovered many times during the course of the trip. We finally reached the farmhouse at midnight and found that our room was right next to a sheep enclosure. The next morning Sahana complained that she could hardly sleep a wink with the sheep constantly bleating all night. I, on the other hand, had slept like a log.
Over the next few days, we came across plenty of waterfalls, each one lovelier than the previous.
One of the highlights of the trip was visiting the beach area of Jökulsárlón (glacial river-lagoon). It was an out-of-the-world scene where we found hundreds of blocks of glacial ice, of all sizes, strewn on the beach and floating in the water. These glaciers were thousands of years old and formed the outer edge of the gigantic Vatnajökull glacier, which is one of the largest glaciers in Europe. We drank in this sight till our senses were satisfied and also took a boat ride through the glaciers.
Our destination that night was Borgarfjörður Eystri, on the eastern-most edge of Iceland. This turned out to be the best night of all the nights we stayed in Iceland because the Auroras made a grand appearance that night and we saw it right from the backyard of the lodge we were staying. It was truly an awesome sight and totally worth the difficult drive that led us here.
The next few days we made our way through the northern part of Iceland. We travelled through the geothermally active Myvatn area which had some spectacular acid pools, geysers and dead volcanoes. The most prominent among these was the Hverfjall, which was a tephra cone. We hiked up to the top of this mountain, which had it’s top blown off during some past volcanic eruption, and managed to hike all along the rim of the crater. We stayed at Akureyi that night, the second biggest city in Iceland.
We spent the penultimate day of our stay in Iceland exploring the western edge of Iceland, a peninsula named Snæfellsjökull. Here we spent our time exploring the deep underground caves and the lava tubes formed during volcanic eruptions. The most prominent one we saw was the Vatnshellir caves which was about 35m deep and 200m long. We took a walk through the cave discovering a whole new world underneath filled with folklore about ogres and trolls. Somebody pointed out that one of the rock formations resembled Trump, more than a cave troll. We then, went to the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum which both Sahana and I had seen on the Iceland episode of “Departures” and wanted to visit ever since. We were given some shark meat to taste, which turned out to be an interesting experience.
We again went back to Þingvellir National Park, but this time to try our hands at some snorkelling. The exciting part of this experience was that we would be snorkelling at a called Silfra which formed the fissure between the continental plates of North America and Eurasia. We were given dry-suits because the water at Silfra was going to be below 0 degrees at that time of the year. It was a truly unique experience for me since it was the first time I got to see the world under the surface and it blew my mind.
We got back to Reykjavik with the feeling that comes towards the end of any great trip, knowing that we would be saying goodbye to this tiny, yet wonderfully diverse country. I would love to come back here to do some of the things which I missed out on this trip like, doing the Laugavegur trek, or drive to Askja, or hike in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, or travel all the way to Þorsmork in a better-equipped vehicle. I guess, you know that you have travelled to a truly amazing place when you come away with a feeling of unfinished business.