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The Great Epic Iceland Road Trip: Volcanic dust storms, blizzards, and my first time driving with snow tyres on the right

Published
October 25, 2021
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I HAD not really been keen on the idea of hiring a car to drive myself around Iceland, but it seemed that was going to be my only option. There were no train or bus services that went to the area I most wanted to visit: the Icelandic East Coast. A lot of the roads had cameras on them, I noticed: presumably to keep track of maverick travellers like myself who may go astray with the potential to get lost. I was thankful for that: because it was a new country, and I didn’t know the roads. The last thing I wanted to happen was to get stuck out in the ice and snow with no help. Indeed, a lot of the roads do close in winter and are only open in summer, because you just can’t get through once the snow arrives.

There are quite a few national parks around Iceland beyond the so-called Golden Triangle or Golden Circle, the short day-tripper sightseeing loop in the Reykjavík region that is all some tourists ever see. The Golden Triangle takes in Þingvellir National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the Great Geysir (or geyser), and the Gullfoss Waterfall, all of them epic attractions and enough for many people of course.

In addition to its historical significance as the site of what is perhaps the world’s oldest parliament still in existence today (albeit in abeyance for some of the time since 930 CE), Þingvellir also contains sections of the great mid-Atlantic crack, which because of its straightness almost seems artificial. The result is a line of high, straight, stone walls, with uplifted land on either side and land that has dropped down in between, including the parts that are underwater in the great, crystal-clear Silfra Fissure.

Scientifically speaking, America is on one side of the rift and Europe is on the other. The same, scientific definition puts Greenland in the Americas, since it’s west of the crack. And for that matter the western part of Iceland too, though by convention all Iceland is classed as part of Europe.

Iceland’s national parks, Þingvellir included, are popular for outdoor pursuits. You can rock climb, hike and visit the many waterfalls, volcanic landscapes and glaciers. Camping and backpacking seemed to be really popular in Iceland, and I was surprised at how many other people were doing these things even in the off-season!

There used to be four national parks in Iceland, but two, Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur, were merged in 2008 to create Vatnajökull National Park, so now there are three. Still, that’s two more than Greenland, even if they’re smaller! Iceland also offers nature reserves and protected areas on top of the three national parks. So, there is no shortage of things to do outdoors!

The car I hired was an old white thing that looked like it had seen better days. It was a 1997 Toyota. It wasn’t pretty, but I know Toyotas are reliable and trusty, so that made me feel slightly better about the whole thing. I paid US $300 for ten days which I didn’t think was too bad from the rental company, SADcars, a name that must have a more cheerful significance in Icelandic. I figured it would take me ten days to drive around the whole country on Route One and enough time to make my stops and treks along the way.

Route One is the main road that connects all the main towns around Iceland, it literally does a circle of the whole country — Icelanders also call it the Hringvegur, or Ring Road. Route One is a mostly coastal road, but you still pass by some stunning landscapes like geysers and volcanic mountains. Route One was about 1,340 km long so it really wasn’t impossibly far to go by New Zealand standards: roughly the equivalent of driving around the South Island, which is about the same size as Iceland in actual fact.

I had read that weather in Iceland can change in the blink of an eye, and that gusty winds and bad weather can turn a two-hour trip into a five-hour trip quite easily. I checked the daily report on the roads and the forecast weather for the week ahead, and it all looked fine to me. It was unusually cold for this time of year. Summer was coming in, but the warm weather hadn’t quite switched on yet.

I wasn’t the only one who was a bit confused by the weather, I found. A few rather worried-looking tourists loading their hire cars up with tents and camping equipment, obviously hoping that the weather would not ruin their holidays. I think we must all have been on a summer holiday that’s turned into an epic tale of survival — a saga — in the face of rain and floods and the tent being blown down. I know I have.

My itinerary included driving along the East Coast, checking out birds, National Parks and walkways along the way. I was going to drive through all three of the major National Parks, Snæfellsjökull, Þingvellir (which is also spelt Thingvellir) and the huge Vatnajökull.

The word jökull means glacier in Icelandic, the same as the Danish word isbræ, and it’s significant that two out of three national parks in Iceland have jökull in their name. Jökull is also cognate with the word ‘icicle’ in English, in other words the nearest Icelandic equivalent in terms of its linguistic ancestry, and similar sounding as cognates usually are, though the meaning has shifted, and it now means glacier. Anyhow, best to wrap up well when visiting these parks, even in summer!

There were a few nature reserves I wanted to get to as well, in Mývatn and Skaftafell, as well as a glacial lake at Jökulsárlón. Before I left, the woman at SADcars told me to be careful when you get out of the car, that I should hold onto the doors because the winds are very strong and can come out of nowhere and blow the doors out. I looked at the car and figured that had already happened to it more than once!

There was a coding system for the roads too. One or two digits were okay and the old Toyota I had would make it over these fine. Anything with three digits or more was a no-go zone: you would need a four-wheel-drive, the more serious the better, to go on those roads.

Everything was cheap and cheerful at SADcars, no doubt in the view that there was no point sending posh cars over Iceland’s rough terrain or they wouldn’t stay posh for long. Overall, though, the company was great to deal with. They provided me with a map of the roads, with a key so that you could see which ones were four-wheel drive roads.

At times, it’s impossible even for four-wheel-drives to go right through the middle of the island. That’s why the Ring Road is so important, even if it is often the long way around.

I felt ready to roll. Let the adventures in Iceland begin!

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

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