It soon became clear that with every small blue or yellow sign we drove past – in a language we couldn’t remotely fathom – it signalled another place we’d never heard of, accessible via a marked road, track or trail. What did we just miss? Admittedly on arrival, we were as far from informed to opine on the diverse wonders of Iceland as one could be.
Ordinarily, we’d be impassioned about knowing what we wanted to see, after having bargained against time and resources available, weighing up our options balanced with following our hearts — consulting local intel while strapping a GPS tracker on a pigeon and monitoring its flight. But no, not this time.
As voyagers with no more knowledge than recognising Reyjavik isn’t Iceland – we headed upcountry, to accept that taking in the entirety of Iceland’s nature and landscapes would span several lifetimes. All we could do was sail forth from tooling around the Faroes, to seek and find.
My organ of curiosity couldn’t help wonder if Iceland would live up to a world of expectations and astonish eyes that have been spoiled through decades of global travel. When you see its unparalleled beauty preserved by a constant process of change, you’ll form your own conclusion.
Tread lightly as much as carefully
Thanks to meeting Ryan and LeeWhay (Overland with us), we learned from the get go that one of Iceland’s most well-respected maxims is “Nature first, safety second”. Treating the sensitive environment with the utmost respect is imperative. Enveloping many lava formations lies thick woolly fringe moss, for instance, delicately forming a continuous layer. Not for tramping over, it takes 200 years for the moss to grow so one step can scar the landscape and take a decade to grow back.
Driving every undulating gravel yard in White Rhino, winding around hairpin bends, over all-but-impassable mountain passes and walking each footstep gingerly over pearls of nature – we ventured nowhere on a whim without checking the local weather and road conditions (safetravel.is) beforehand.
Renowned as the most heavily visited part of the country not least because of the prominent waterfalls and glaciers at your fingertips, the South is also where the contrasts of the Icelandic landscape are the clearest. Verdant valleys surrounded by cliffs, gorges and green slopes meet jet-black deserts.
Volcanoes are silhouetted against the skyline. Dotted along the coast, icy glaciers streak with black ash from fiery volcanic eruptions, and jagged cliffs drop dramatically to the plains below. Welcome to the Golden Circle. Overcrowded it maybe – even during our arrival in the shoulder season before winter sets in – yet the South accorded us an easy sell to get going.
Surrounded by incredible views on all sides, Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital, and one of its smallest. Despite the modest size, the now diverse city is home to half the nation, attracts the masses by the globe-load – it’s bustling with energy, and there’s always something going on year-round. Mostly because Reykjavik is a colourful hub for music and entertainment, creativity and technology, it’s the heart of artistic and cultural life, and historically, the root of the nation. It’s where everybody meets or regroups at some point.
Reykjavik has come a long way since being a medieval society, more so in the last 30 thirty years when beer was illegal, all bars were closed on Wednesdays, city residents were prohibited from owning a dog, and the country’s only TV station didn’t broadcast for the month of July.
A UNESCO Global Geopark, Reykjanes Peninsula is crammed with volcanic and geothermal activity. It’s the only place in the world where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible above sea level. Amazingly, subterranean seawater is heated when it makes contact with cooling magma. Aptly placed to be a geopark, the heated seawater is used by the geothermal power plant to heat cold water, which provides hot water to all the local residents.
Reynisdrangar and Reynisfjara
An iconic black beach fringed with basalt columns and photogenic sea stacks always look great to the unassuming tourist. Although don’t be fooled – there is a raging power underpinning this place.
When we ventured down to the beach, waves smacked against the stony bulkheads along the shore, and foamy water sloshed onto the beach. I shivered at the thought of getting dragged in, as the cold plucked the last vestiges of heat from my body.
Jokulsarlon and Fjallassarlon glacial lagoons
Both within a stone’s throw of the Ring Road, Jokulsarlon and Fjallassarlon glacial lagoons see calving icebergs, often glowing in a luminous blue, float lazily through the lagoon and drift out to sea. They create dazzling ice sculptures that later wash up on the beach, better known as Diamond Beach.
Seals swim in the lagoon or rest on the bergs, while they barely bat an eyelid to the fierce Arctic winter wind often chopping the surface of the sea.
Home to charming pockets of far-flung fishing villages and tucked-away natural harbours in a rugged landscape cleft with countless fjords cut off from Route One, the East feels off the tourist’s radar. Like all of Iceland, it’s unspoiled despite the string of eccentric stops we made and the sights we saw. The Eastfjords of Iceland are, geographically, one of the oldest areas of the country, and the furthest from the capital.
Vatnajokull National Park
Vatnajokull is an ice-capped national park that embraces 14 per cent of Iceland and over 200-kilometres of Iceland’s Ring Road, few places in the world possess such a wide range of natural phenomena. We’re talking glacial lagoons, sparkling rivers, booming waterfalls, black sand beaches and glistening-blue ice caves. Indeed, the battle between fire and ice still rages within the park boundaries.
South Iceland is where we found the actual “ice” of Iceland, including Vatnajokull glacier, a giant white unmissable blob on the map. The glacier seems so close to the locals of Southeast Iceland that they often refer to the ice as if it were part of their backyard. There was nothing quite like seeing the glacier descend into black sands and hot streams erupting from frozen banks of ice. What a place to live!
The landscape on the Southeastern side was remarkable. Think mountains jutting out of the earth close to the sea. Sweeping areas such as Stokksnes attract not just globetrotters to see this pristine, stunning wonder in the Southeast, but Game of Thrones cast and crew as well. Located between Skardsfjordur and Papafjordur fjords, it’s one of the few plutonic gabbro formations in Iceland dating back 8-11 million years.
Vestrahorn is a 454-metre high magnet – and no wonder, it’s an impressive sight to behold – hailed by photographers that come in droves from all nooks and crannies. Including baked-beans-on-toast loving Troy Crowder (a first for him!) from the States, and Jürgen Maria Waffenschmidt from Germany – what a card and an eccentric character, respectively. Loved hanging out with them both. Thanks for the book and coffee, Jürgen.
So much did we gush over the unparalleled piece of rock, we stayed for days on four different occasions. By the end of the final visit, Jase still couldn’t seem to get his fussy out of the place.
Nearby on the other side of Lonsvik bay lies Mount Eystrahorn. Long sandy rifts enclose the inlet, and adjacent mountains have been gouged out by gullies and chasms. Just up the road from Vestrahorn, you’d be mad to miss this out of your itinerary.
The pair of us were tingling with excitement to witness and capture Iceland’s Northern Lights inspired by photography Jason has drooled over for goodness knows how long. Latin for the “northern dawn”, the aurora borealis displays a solar-powered jig of shimmering green swathes rippling across the sky.
Bearing witness to the coronal mass ejection in this dark corner maybe 15 times or more over our ten weeks, meant enduring inhuman temperatures. Keeping all but my eyes covered and my face glued to the sky, some auroras glowed a gentle emerald. Others flashed in a fleeting moment. When the miracle exploded into the phenomenon that it is – lasting through the night sometimes.
End of part 1
The Japanese have especially expressive words for the profound joy that can come as a response to beauty: uttori is to be enraptured by the loveliness of something; aware describes the feelings created by ephemeral beauty; while yugen goes beyond, conveying an awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words. Iceland leaves you feeling all that and some.