The day started with a chance encounter by the side of the road – beautiful, majestic, incredibly smelly Icelandic horses! Jules and I took our selfies and patted their little frozen heads. Their breath was warm and huffy and frost hung from their manes and noses.
Then, it was onwards. The first stop was Kerið, the volcanic crater. It was frozen solid and some brave (idiotic) tourists were walking on it and stomping. You can walk all the way around the top of the crater which provided us with some lovely photos of the sunrise.
Haukadalur contains amazing geothermal features, the most famous of which is probably Strokkur, a fountain geyser that erupts extremely frequently. The walk up to Strokkur is peppered with miniature hot springs and fumaroles. It’s incredibly weird to see the steam issuing from the earth and from the surface of the water. The streams are incredibly tempting, especially in the cold weather. All you want to do is put your hand in to see if it is as warm as it looks. Don’t. The water is generally between 80 and 100 degrees Celsius and will burn you.
Just a hop, skip and a jump down the road is Gulfoss, an absolutely mind-blowing waterfall in a canyon of the Hvítá river. There is plenty of viewing platforms and opportunities for photos, but they don’t do the size of it justice.
We went in search of lunch afterwards and stumbled across Efstidalur, a lovely hotel on a dairy farm that served excellent, fresh lunches made with entirely local produce (either their farm or a neighbour’s farm). You could eat and watch the cows, or the snowstorm outside. Afterwards we bought enormous ice creams and said hello to the farm dog, who wasn’t supposed to be inside and knew it. It’s been a good day for animal encounters!
Our last major stop for the day was Þingvellir, the national park. The national parliament of Iceland was established there in the year 930 and the split between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates can be seen clearly in several places. This is another one of those parts of Iceland that simply does not look real. I can’t believe a place like this exists on the same Earth that I live on.
We’re staying in Borgarnes and are off on a Northern Lights hunt tonight. Wish us luck!
Reynisfjara was dark when we left this morning, closing up our little cabin and driving back into Vik for sustenance for the road ahead. The view from our cabin would have been mind-blowing in full light. Perhaps next time there will be a return visit…
Coffee and tea in hand, we set off into the snow. The landscape of South Iceland (Suðurland) is a brilliant, beautiful, extremely changeable beast. The lack of trees in this country is striking, and is most noticeable when the terrain is flat, stretching away from you on all sides in a sea of white. It doesn’t feel like Earth. It feels like something out of this world. We were driving alongside the largest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajökull, but the mountainous sides were not always visible.
We stopped for photos at the foot of the Öræfajökull volcano and wondered at the intense blue of the glacier that shone through. It continued to flirt with us all the way along the Ring Road until we finally arrived at Jökulsárlón. This is the iceberg graveyard, the lagoon where the glacier breaks apart before floating to the Atlantic Ocean. The blue of the ice is visible for miles and it looks like a painting come to life. You can walk right to the shore (carefully) and pick up the ice. The water tastes salty from the sea tide. It is one of the most exquisite sights I have seen in my travels.
It is a long drive – about three hours from Vik – and we were headed back past Vik to Selfoss so we had a long day of driving. It passed quickly enough – you can never get sick of the Icelandic scenery – and we stopped for a quick, surprisingly tasty truckstop burger for lunch. By the time we had arrived back in Selfoss, it was pitch black again. We are staying in an absolutely gorgeous farmhouse just out of town and Jules and the boys cooked a fantastic meal of chicken carbonara. I washed my hair (long overdue), and there is wine and playing cards and music. I think we’ll all sleep well tonight, but we might be up for the Northern Lights if the forecast is good…
The airport at Keflavik is bathed in grey light when we finally get off the plane. Julia and Damon have brought the car to collect us – a fantastic luxury – and on the drive back to our accommodation, the darkness grows. There are tantalizing glimpses of the landscape in shadow, but nothing can be seen clearly. The sun doesn’t rise the next morning until 10.52am.
Our accommodation is a tiny cabin made from shipping containers about 20 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The hosts live in the house in front of us, and are warm and welcoming and kind. The place is decorated in coloured scarves, windchimes, dreamcatchers, and fairylights. Huge amounts of artwork line the walls. On the first night, we eat noodles and plan our week.
The next day we are up early and out by 8.15am. The moon is high in the sky and I have never seen darkness like it. Jules and Damon are off on the trip of a lifetime – snorkeling in Silfra National Park between two tectonic plates and then hiking through lava caves – but Sean and I are going to stay in Reykjavik. Breakfast is delicious, in a cosy café. We walk to the old harbor and get caught in the sideways rain, seeking shelter in the maritime museum and in a coffee shop to dry ourselves out. The hot chocolate is dark and bitter and perfect.
We visit a flea market and I find a copy of Peter Pan in Icelandic. One more for the collection! We buy kleinur (a type of Icelandic donut), smoked lamb, and flatbread made with Icelandic moss for our lunch. We walk back down to Tjörnin, the lake in the middle of the city, and see the birdlife. Some are swimming in the small area of thawed water, others walk across the frozen surface. All of them are noisy and greedy for bread.
We walk back to Austurvöllur to meet a walking tour and learn about the Reykjavik Cathedral and Parliament House. There is hardly any security in Iceland – you can walk into the park behind Parliament House and knock on the door and all. They have such a low crime rate – 1.3 murders a year, and 650 policeman in the entire country. We learn about the history of the country under Danish rule and the journey to independence. We walk downtown, through streets of houses made from colourful corrugated iron, then up to Arnarhóll and the statue of Ingólfr Arnarson, the founder of Reykjavik according to the sagas. He named the city Reykjavik – ‘bay of steam’. We end at the Harpa Concert Hall and I have a bacon hot dog with Icelandic mayo on the way back into town. We wait for Jules and Damon at a restaurant, taking advantage of Happy Hour, and then return back for one more night at our arty cabin.
The next morning we move more leisurely and the sun has risen by the time we are packed up and ready to leave. The landscape takes my breath away, and we drive into the country, mountains and valleys and rocks and rivers covered in snow. We take more photos than we should, and stop in Selfoss for a coffee and some groceries and lunch. I buy The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness at a gorgeous bookshop/café called Bokakaffid.
We hit the road again, headed for Seljalandsfoss. This waterfall is enormous, but the weather conditions have made it dangerous for climbing the stairs to get behind the curtain of water. People are doing it anyway, but we realize quickly it is not for us – the smallest bridge is iced over and nigh impossible to climb. We improvise! It’s fun and only a wee bit risky. The sound of the water is deafening.
We drive down the road to the coast, to a ferry terminal named Landeyjahöfn. In better weather, they run a ferry from here to Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. The ferry is not running, but the black sand and crashing waves make for nice photos. Next time I want to take the ferry – Vestmannaeyjar is full of puffin.
It is not a long drive to Reynisfjara, our home for the next night. This place is world-famous for the black sand beach, and our cabin sits on the shore, overlooking the grey line of mist where the sea and sky meet. We trek down to the sand and the surf and take our photos. I cannot believe the sand – fine, coarse, and absolutely pitch black, mixed with snow and smooth black pebbles. This beach is dangerous – more than one tourist has drowned on this coast, dragged out by a freak wave. We stay well back and marvel from afar.
When the sun goes down, we drive into Vik. We find a swimming pool, and, like people who have taken leave of their senses, we change into our bathers and sit in the thermal pool in the middle of a snowstorm. My toes freeze on the dash from the spa to the changing rooms. Other people join us – just tourists, no Icelanders. They are sensible. Inside.
We go to the only restaurant in Vik that is open, and have an absolutely delicious meal – burgers and pizzas with fresh, Icelandic ingredients. A piece of meringue cake to finish, and then we drive back to our beachside cabin, the snowfall getting stronger and stronger as we drive. It is eerie, driving on a dark mountain road with the snow rushing at you. Then, we are home. Snug inside our cabin with some flatbread and hummus and cheese and alcohol. The forecast for the Northern Lights is not great. We will perhaps be lucky another night.