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East past the Icecap, to Djúpivogur

Published
October 25, 2021
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The first stage of my road trip ran from Reykjavík eastward to Djúpivogur

MY first stop was a deviation off my route. A short twenty-minute drive to the south of Reykjavík were the Blue Lagoon hot pools. The Blue Lagoon pools are considered by some to be one of the 25 top wonders of the world, though they are not a natural wonder. The Blue Lagoon consists of hot pools in a hardened lava landscape, created by the outflow from a modern geothermal power system.

The water is a milky-blue colour caused by dissolved minerals precipitating out as ‘rock flour’, as the formerly superheated groundwater cools down during its progress through the machines. Well, I found the Blue Lagoon worse for overcrowding than the Pacific Baths in Rotorua, a New Zealand tourist destination of similar fame. Even in the off season they were ridiculously busy at the Blue Lagoon!

I parked the car up, got out, went to the reception area, caught glimpses of a crowded pool, and decided against it. I thought, stuff that, I’m not going to get any relaxation time here! I knew there were other outdoor hot pools further north in Mývatn and in other places. So, I decided I would wait until I got to those.

Mývatn is probably the second-most-famous of Iceland’s large spas. But as it’s in the wild north-east, at the opposite end of the country from Reykjavík and the Golden Triangle, it’s much quieter than the Blue Lagoon — which actually has a reputation nowadays for being packed out to the point of ‘avoid if possible’. There’s almost a kind of snobbery about travel to Iceland, which holds that the Golden Triangle, handy to Reykjavík with all its clubs and bars after a day’s sightseeing, is for tourists, while the rest of Iceland is for discerning and intrepid travellers. The sights of the Golden Triangle are still worth seeing. But I can understand how that point of view comes about.

While I was checking out the Blue Lagoon, I came across the Viking World Museum. That was a good find. I changed my plan and went there instead. Inside, I found a replica longboat built by ship maker Gunnar Marel Eggertsson.

Eggertsson started the boat in 1994 and completed it in 1996 using only traditional methods and tools used by the Vikings. I was amazed to see that, in 2000, Eggertsson and a group of Icelandic people went off on a voyage that traced Erik the Red’s son Leif Eriksson’s journey to America, stopping off at various countries and islands along the way! Eggertsson’s boat is now stored in a specially crafted house so it can be viewed by tourists — like me.

The Ring Road had areas that were only fully safe to drive on for two months of the year, in the height of summer, insofar as the Icelandic summer can be said to have a height. After my unsuccessful trip to the Blue Lagoon hot pools and more successful trip to the Viking World Museum, I finally set out on the Ring Road. It headed northeast up a part of the coast that was known for its mountainous scenery. It was snowing, and I was a bit nervous because in New Zealand, where the winters are mostly quite mild, we normally drive in all-season tyres. If it snows, we need to get out and put chains on. Which is a real drag.

But in Iceland, where people are more used to the cold, they had winter tyres. These turned out to be a dream. Winter tyres made travelling over the icy road easy. When I got back to Queenstown, which is in one of the snowier parts of New Zealand, I made sure to purchase a set to use there.

In Iceland, the Ring Road was fully paved and quite good. But there were a few wow moments when I was suddenly at a one-way bridge or turning into a blind corner. It did remind me of the back roads around the South Island in New Zealand. The road rolled along flat plains that stretched into the distance before colliding with huge snowy mountains and ranges. I did notice that there were not a lot of barriers, so there wasn’t much stop you from skidding and heading over the edge. Thank goodness for winter tyres! There are also not a lot of lights along the roadside. I learnt how dark the nights can be in Iceland — like, pitch black!

I do recommend the 112 Iceland and SafeTravel apps, and to manually report where you are as you move around using the green button on 112 Iceland, in addition to making use of the red panic button on 112 Iceland if you need to. So, if you do find yourself in a slippery situation, the right people know where to find you. Just in case!

Iceland is full of walks, treks and hikes — you name it! I wanted to do one that would take me two weeks. But the weather wasn’t going to be great, and I realised that it would be safer viewing everything from my car.

I soon learnt how just lucky I was to be in a car, for the shelter it afforded! Not to mention the heater.

Vík í Mýrdal and Thórsmörk

One of the first places I popped into was the picturesque coastal village of Vík, or Vík í Mýrdal, which is not only the southernmost village in Iceland, or on the mainland at any rate, but also the warmest inhabited spot in Iceland.

The village has a history that dates back to Viking times but only became permanently settled in the twentieth century, as there is no harbour. Instead, Vík is a tourist town and road service centre, accessible both to daytrippers from Reykjavík and those pushing on further east.

Vík has black sand beaches that are beautiful to look at but not safe for swimming or even for walking too close to the surf, as they are swept by huge ocean waves and violent currents: there is no land to the south but Antarctica.

The coast at Vík also sports basalt columns (a common sight in Iceland), needle-like rock stacks and a puffin colony. There is a mountain above the village that you can climb, and a spectacular lookout that you can drive up to, as well as waterfalls and other hiking trails in the vicinity.

Unfortunately for Vík, the area is hugely volcanic. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which shut down European aviation in 2010, is close nearby, as is the much larger Katla volcano, which last erupted in 1918, before the town was built. Whether Vík will survive the next one is an open question. Vík is the setting for the 2021 TV series Katla on Netflix, though as the series is set in the aftermath of an eruption of Katla in which the town is more or less destroyed, it doesn’t do Vík’s present scenic qualities justice!

This is also the part of Iceland where the notorious eruptions of Lakagígar, the Craters of Laki, took place in 1783 and 1784. You can visit the craters, which are in a finger-like extension of Vatnajökull National Park, the area’s national park and Iceland’s largest.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that this volcanism is a two-edged sword today. For it has also created one of the area’s greatest tourist attractions, a valley called valley called Þórsmörk, or Thórsmörk.

Þórsmörk is named after the Norse god Thor and means ‘Thor’s Mark’ or ‘Thor’s Valley’: a valley which has Eyjafjallajökull on its southern side. The valley includes hot springs and the wastelands of Landmannalaugar, one of those places you see on the Internet where otherwise barren hills have bright patches of colour and even rainbow-like stripes as though they have been painted.

These colours are created by a volcanic mineral called rhyolite which can display many different tints depending on slight variations in its composition. One eruption may lay down rhyolite of one colour, the next of a different colour, and so on — whence the stripes. And the colours really are bright.

The area is particularly popular over the summer, when the colourful rhyolite is not covered in snow and when the weather is better in any case.

As its name suggests — jökull meaning glacier — the Eyjafjallajökull volcano has a glacier on top, as does the much larger Katla which is at the head of the valley, and a couple of other peaks nearby including one to the north of Þórsmörk, which thus sits nestled between glaciers — really, I think Iceland is a glacier within a glacier: truly the land of ice!

I had wanted to do a five-day trek through Þórsmörk, but couldn’t because of time constraints. But actually, I was glad I didn’t organise to do Þórsmörk in the end, because the road ended up closed the whole time I was there. It was the end of an unusually cold winter when I arrived, and many of the walks that were usually open by now were still shut. People were normally out and about by this time of year, but not yet when I was there.

Beware of Sandstorms!

There is a lot of volcanic sand and ash just lying around everywhere in this area, in ways that contribute to huge volcanic dust storms, sometimes visible from space, as in the following photograph.

‘Dust Storm off Southern Coast of Iceland’. NASA public domain image, photographed on 28 January 2002, via NASA Earth Observatory

As I mentioned in Chapter Two it pays to get Sand and Ash Protection (SAAP) insurance and to follow the wind and weather forecasts carefully as well. You can get volcanic sandstorms elsewhere, but the south is supposed to be the worst.

Until I got caught up in one, I had no proper understanding of the reality of these dust storms and how terrible they could be. I got to Skaftafell at the southern edge of the Vatnajökull National Park, where the winds had picked up dramatically, and I thought “this is great!” That is, until I saw someone else’s car windows get blown out. The wind blows all the dust and dry sand across the ground, and you end up with wind blowing in your face, all full of grit and dust.

I wasn’t able to drive, so I made a video.

I spent one night in a tent at Skaftafell waiting for the storm to die down and was woken during the night by another group who just argued for hours over how to put the tent up! I didn’t want to risk opening my boot in the ferocious winds, so I left all my gear in the back seat of the car, which was much safer.

I met a woman called Joan who was a teacher from San Diego. She had broken her arm in Oslo and was travelling around in a brand-new car. The winds had picked up and she was too scared to drive. I asked her on earth did she did drive with a broken arm, and she said she changed the gears with her knees. She was on her way back to Reykjavík because of the weather and was cutting her holiday short.

On to Vatnajökull

Next was the Vatnajökull (‘Water Glacier’) National Park, the biggest park in Iceland, containg Europe’s biggest glacier, the Vatnajökull. Much of the National Park is covered by a large ice cap of the Greenlandic type, though much smaller in comparison to Greenland of course. It was stunning. It was all mountains with glaciers and snow-covered everything. It was such a diverse natural landscape. I noticed few tour buses parked up in places and avoided those.

On the way to Vatnajökull, I went past the spectacular Fjaðrárgljúfur or Feathers Canyon, fjaðrár meaning feathers and gljúfur no doubt related to the English word gulf. This involves a bit of a detour, and unfortunately I missed it.

Sunset at Fjaðrárgljúfur. Photograph by Andrés Nieto Porras, 2 October 2014, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. The photo as posted was very dark, presumably for artistic effect and on a page headed ‘Into the Darkness’; I have lightened it to show more of the detail.

There is a very good article about Fjaðrárgljúfur, with more amazing photos, on guidetoiceland.is, which also has a page on Vík.

(As you can see, even the gnarliest-looking Icelandic place names such as Fjaðrárgljúfur aren’t so difficult to remember, once you learn what their parts mean: parts that are often related to English terms anyway. Thus, if Vík í Mýrdal was in England, it would be called Wick-in-Moordale. And so on.)

Still, I made sure not to miss the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon on the coast. This is an ice-choked lagoon that lies between the Vatnajökull icecap and the sea. Half the lagoon is in the national park, and half is outside it.

At Jökulsárlón, I got chatting to a few people and it was then I met a kindred soul by the name of Rita. She was travelling in around in a proper off-road SUV while here I was in my Toyota bomb. We exchanged numbers and I would later meet up with her for a coffee with her in her hometown of Brussels. She was lovely. We swapped cameras and took each other’s photos in front of the glacier.

Apparently, this was an area where some of the first settlers to Iceland came. It was beautiful: stunning blue water with icebergs floating across the water’s surface, occasionally revealing old ice that had its own shades of blue. I stood by the edge of the glacier and breathed in the crisp Arctic air and smelled the rain and stopped to let myself enjoy the peacefulness of the moment.

Everything was a variation on blue: light blue, white with a bluish tinge to it, deep blue and greenish blue. It was just amazing. Then the rain couldn’t hold off any longer and began to pour again. That meant I had to get back into the car and carry on. I said goodbye to Rita, for now, and went on my way — places to go and places to see. I warily eyed the darkening skies and the winds started to pick up a bit.

Initially, I had booked two tours online with Icelandic Mountain Guides. I wanted to climb Iceland’s highest peak Hvannadalshnjúkur, also spelt Hvannadalshnúkur, which was 2,110 metres high, and to do a glacier walk over the largest glacier in Iceland at Breiðamerkurjökull.

You can imagine my absolute disappointment when the tours were both cancelled because of the weather. Still, I didn’t have time to mope, and I didn’t have to reschedule. I learned a very good and hard lesson for travel in places like Iceland, or anywhere else that has a fickle, coastal climate, New Zealand included: don’t book anything till the day and till you can see the weather yourself. The weather in Iceland is so changeable that it really doesn’t pay to be organised!

Anyway, while I was looking into all these different walks all over Iceland, I came to be really impressed by the number of them. There were heaps! You could do tours through deep caves under the ice and snow, and treks up mountains and hillsides. So, I added some of these walks onto my to do list, although I knew I’d be better to wait until the weather fined up!

Trekking is one of the most popular things for tourists to do in Iceland. It’s an excellent way to get out and about discovering rich landscapes teeming with wildlife! I’m so glad I didn’t just stick to the touristy Golden Triangle, which would have been too busy for me anyway, just like the Blue Lagoon baths.

A Land of Special Horses

Off the beaten track, there are the Icelandic horses and the arctic foxes that live wild, inland from the coast. I saw a few groups of wild horses grazing off to the side of the road as I drove along. That was amazing! I wasn’t brave enough to stop and take photos, though.

The Icelandic horse is more of a pony then a horse and used to be called the Icelandic pony, a name that for some reason has gone out of fashion. Icelandic horses/ponies are small and quite stocky. They have five gaits: walk, trot, gallop, ‘tölt’, and flying pace.

The tölt is a variety of what’s called the ambling gait, a medium-speed gait roughly as fast as a trot or a pace, but in which all four legs are moved independently. Ambling is the ideal gait for riding cross-country as it is safe and smooth, and reasonably quick even if it is slower than a gallop.

Trotting and pacing, in which the horses move two legs at once and rock about as a result, are normally used for pulling carriages in harness and not for riding. If you watch harness racing closely, you can see that the horses are moving quite jerkily. Having said that, the Icelandic horse is sometimes ridden at the flying pace.

Some horse breeds amble, others don’t. Horses and ponies that amble are often slow gallopers. For that reason, thoroughbreds can’t amble. It’s in their nature to go flat-out the moment the gates open.

Most breeds of warhorses also had the ability to amble bred out of them. A thunderous cavalry charge was at risk of becoming a lot less thunderous if the horses had the option of deciding that, as they were going cross-country, they should amble for safety’s sake!

As people say — there are horses for courses!

One rule they have in Iceland is that no horses can be imported, and horses that are exported can never return. That’s because there are no major horse diseases in Iceland, and therefore the animals are healthy and live longer. Norse settlers originally brought ponies to Iceland with them in the 9th and 10th centuries. The Icelandic horse was created out of these.

When the volcano Laki erupted to form the Lakagígar, most of Iceland’s horses perished. Conservation efforts were later introduced to build the numbers back up again.

Back on the Road Again

Next, I was driving to Höfn, about three and a half hours north of Jökulsárlón. It was along the Route 1 road and on the way to a town called Egilsstaðir. I noticed a lot of reindeer on the roads around here, and that made my trip quite a bit slower, because I was scared to hit one in my old Toyota. I didn’t even know if it had airbags. The reindeer seemed to know when a car was approaching, and to get out of the way, because when they heard me coming, they would hurry off over the road. It was amazing watching them stride across. They were quite fast, and so much bigger in real life than I expected!

I ended up having to find a hostel to stay in at Höfn because the road north to Egilsstaðir was closed. So, I found myself in Höfn for two nights.

I found a guesthouse which I had seen advertised on a sign on the side of the road. Thankfully they had a spare room because the winds were picking up to over 50 knots. They weren’t warm either! So, I wasn’t keen to try camping again! Höfn is quite a busy tourist area too. It is really close to glaciers and borders the national parks. The main economic activities are fishing and tourism.

My bedroom window in Höfn had a view to die for. The view looked out over four glaciers. There were seals and birds swimming amidst the glacier icebergs, which was strange to me as I had only seen them swimming amidst rocks in New Zealand. I saw a puffin and got close enough to get a quick photo — they were quite hard to spot because their feathers just blended in with the rocks and snow! There are heaps of nesting grounds for the Icelandic puffin all along the coast, quite a tourist attraction themselves. There are also these amazing falcons — gyrfalcons — that can be seen circling in the sky along the coast.

I got up early the next morning to try the road to Egilsstaðir a second time and went to the town’s information centre to ask if the road was open. They said they had a snow plough going through soon and if I wanted to get to Egilsstaðir, then I could follow right behind it. I ended up following the snow plough on a completely different road. The car almost got stuck and they told me I could always sleep in the car if it got bad and the road couldn’t be cleared.

To top it all off I had a cheap insurance plan that didn’t cover damage caused by going out of control on an unsealed or gravel road; that was another reason I didn’t want to venture onto the rough roads. I was used to dirt roads in New Zealand, but not here; and I had a crusty old car that did the trick but made me nervous. There were actually a few gravel stretches on the roads I did take, and that slowed me down again.

I was not going to race around: in fact, I mostly stayed well below the speed limit of 80 kilometres per hour. It was nice, though. I got to just take my time and enjoy the scenery along the way. There were also some areas where I hit fog, and that made it quite hard to see anything. There were huge power pylons beside the road. They emerged from the fog looking ominous: big dark shapes looming into the distance.

The weather seemed to clear the closer I got to Egilsstaðir, and I began to see a different kind of scenery sweep past my window.

The landscape was very rocky, and instead of grass there was a sort of green moss covering the ground in tufts. Small areas had patches of what I thought was an alpine grass. There were dark tunnels under the hillsides that always gave me a bit of thrill to go through. There were places where it was just a sea of blue flowers, which was such a stark contrast to the foggier rock areas and white snow. It made it all the prettier, though apparently this were an invasive weed called Nootka Lupin or Alaskan Lupin.

The plant was introduced in 1945 to combat soil erosion and brought nitrogen into the soil for fertility. It has since spread across most of Iceland and people can’t seem to decide whether it’s a good or a bad thing. I thought it was pretty!

(We’ve got a similarly colourful species called the Russell Lupin growing wild in similar mountain terrain in the South Island of New Zealand. As in Iceland, somebody thought it would be a good idea to introduce it to boost fertility, and then it got away from them. Vistas of pink, blue and purple lupins in flower with a mountain lake and a snowy peak in the background are now among the most iconic tourism images of New Zealand, even though the Russell Lupin is quite harmful to New Zealand wilderness ecology and is now classed as a weed. So, it’s interesting to see that Iceland and the South Island of New Zealand both have this identical issue. The Russell Lupin in New Zealand is said to be ‘beloved by tourists and hated by environmentalists’: and it sounds like the situation with the Nootka Lupin in Iceland is the same.)

I was told the East Coast of Iceland has more ancient rocks then in the west. And I was also aware that the summer season, when the small country gets overrun with something like 1.7 million tourists, was fast approaching!

Along the way, there were pockets of warmth and steam because of Iceland’s geothermal activity. The whole of Iceland runs on natural power sources, so heating was cheap and unlimited. Alongside the geothermal energy resource are the hydroelectric stations, which generate most of Iceland’s power. I thought well, why not.

They have these fantastic resources that are all natural and part of the environment, which can be harnessed and used for the benefit of the people living there! Iceland was on the expensive side too, and so I thought that it was good to get some savings on something, so that they didn’t end up with the same degree of unemployment and poverty as in parts of Greenland.

As I drove further up the coast the Ring Road wove around mountains that dropped into the sea. It was amazing to look out over the ocean as I drove. It was right there! The sea was rough, and waves splashed up the sides below. I got to a place that was about halfway between Höfn and Egilsstaðir called Djúpivogur, at the end of a peninsula next to a fiord called Berufjörður.

Djúpivogur was just a small smattering of houses and was originally a Danish trading post. It was a slight deviation off the main road, but I needed the break. There was a huge outdoor sculpture I heard was worth stopping at. It was just to the north of the small town and so I parked my car up and went wandering around for a bit. The sculpture was quite a well-known one and consisted of all these eggs atop stone columns. They were quite neat and represented 34 different types of nesting birds in Iceland. The sculpture was called Eggin í Gleðivík, created by the artist Sigurður Guðmundsson in 2009.

Eggin í Gleðivík means the eggs of Merry Bay. Eggin is practically the same as eggs, or the eggs, in English while gleð, meaning merry, looks like the English world glad. As I say, Icelandic placenames really aren’t as tricky as you might think at first.

I was surprised at how modern the town of Djúpivogur was. And there were rows of newly planted trees around the town, which made it feel more homely.

The backdrop to Djúpivogur was really pretty. A huge, pyramid-shaped mountain was the central feature of the horizon, and on either side of this mountain there were yet another two glaciers. I found out that the pyramid-like mountain was called Búlandstindur. Like many other sorts of pyramids, Búlandstindur is said to harbour supernatural powers. And you can see why people might have thought that way.

One thing about Iceland is all the mountains: while not very high, they are spectacular nonetheless!

Even though the weather was terribly cold, Iceland just comes alive through the magical landscapes and the natural raw beauty, whether it be rain or shine (or blizzards).

There is something about the stunning natural setting of Iceland: no matter the weather, it brings out different elements of everything. On a cloudy day the sea becomes a dark haunting grey, and then on a sunny day the sea shines with blue and green and grey all swirled into one. The water sliding off moss covered rocks in the rain gives the moss a completely different beauty than on a sunny day.

I think that the only way to find the best-kept secrets of Iceland, or any country for that matter, is to head to the smaller towns; to the rough-edged backroads and twisted mountain paths that wind their way through incredible settings.

This post comes from my new book Incredible Iceland, available on this website a-maverick.com.

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