Day 1 – A night flight and a wet welcome to Iceland
Iceland never really seemed to be on anyone’s radar until the last few years. It was always forgotten. Some little island stuck up there between Canada and the UK. The last few years though has seen tourism explode there. Everyone has heard the stories of it’s beauty and we are flocking there.
It is the last stop on my way home to Canada. I take a night flight from Heathrow and arrive in Keflavik at almost midnight. On the descent in I see the faint greenish glimmer of the Northern lights and it awakens a growing excitement inside me for the adventure ahead.
I have booked a camper with GO Iceland car rentals http://www.goiceland.com/campers/ and I have to walk a short distance from the airport to their office. It’s raining, the kind of rain that comes at you horizontally and feels like a hundred little needle pricks on your skin. The wind makes it hard to walk. I’m tired and ready to find a place to curl up and sleep. The guy at GO Iceland seems tired too but he is very helpful and answers all my questions. I am nervous about driving a camper around a country I don’t know. It is a manual transmission and it has been a long time since I have driven one. It’s dark out and the weather is crazy.
He sets me up with everything I need, gives me a brief orientation of the camper and I’m off. There is supposed to be a campsite in Sandgerdi where I plan to park for the night. Thank goodness the camper has a GPS. I pull out of the airport, a little rusty on the clutch and onto the main highway. The darkness seems impenetrable. There are no street lights. The wind is blowing me around on the road and the pelting rain makes it hard to see. I drive for a while, following my GPS. It brings me through the small town of Sandgerdi and then I turn off the main road down a gravel one. I can see waves crashing up over the side of the road to the right of me. It’s still raining hard and I can’t see much in front of me. The gravel road is poorly maintained. It has large potholes and I’m worried about damaging the camper. I slow down to a creep. The GPS is telling me to take a left turn. I follow it down a small bumpy track. I see some cottages. There are a few lights on. There is nothing else here. I don’t see a campsite or a place to check in. I am tired and all I want to do is stop driving for the night. I finally give up looking and pull into a drive way. The cottage at the end is in darkness. Hopefully there is no one in it. I park and settle in for the night. I feel grubby from the flight but there is nowhere to wash or brush my teeth. Once I am comfortably in the back of the camper in my sleeping bag I have to pee. Frick. I climb back out into the cold and rain. I pee in front of the camper. The wind carries it, whips it and flings it back at me. Great. I’m too tired to care at this point and jump back into my sleeping bag. It is almost 2 am.
A little more info about GO Iceland campers: You can rent several different kinds, I chose to rent the smallest one available that sleeps 2 people. It is a manual transmission and uses diesel fuel. They have several options for insurance while you are there. I chose to pay for full insurance so I didn’t need to worry and because I didn’t know what to expect from the roads. The campers are equipped with the following:
· Sleeping room and seats for 2 people. Double bed (140 x 200 cm)
· Two Sleeping bags linen and pillows.
· Heating system for cold nights. (this only runs for an hour off the battery though)
· Chairs & camping table.
· Camping Gas & Griddle.
· Pots, Pans, dishes and cutlery.
· Free Wi-fi & GPS navigation system.
· Unlimited km/miles & CDW Insurance.
There is also lots of storage room under the bed frame for bags and food etc.
Day 2 – The blue lagoon, Reykjavik and the ring road
I wake up early and look outside. No one has noticed me yet. The weather is slightly less crazy but the wind is still savage. I’m cold and still groggy from lack of sleep. I start the camper and head off to find fuel, groceries and my bearings. Back in Keflavik I find a bakery that sells coffee. Nothing else seems to be open. I have 2 coffees before I can face the day again. The weather is not looking like it is going to cooperate anytime soon. I decide to head to the blue lagoon where I can soak for a while and hopefully have a shower before I drive to Reykjavik.
The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The spa is located in a lava field in Grindavik, it takes me about 20 minutes to drive there from Keflavik. You can see the blue waters right from the road as you drive in. I am lucky enough to arrive on a day when it isn’t packed and they allow me to enter without pre-booking. There are numerous options available and I take the cheapest. It costs me 40 euros. I change and head out into the lagoon. The wind and rain buffet my face but from the neck down I am cocooned in the warm healing waters. It is a great place to chill, unwind and relax after the late flight and stresses of last night. I stay a while and before I leave enjoy a shower and make use of their facilities to make myself look presentable for Reykjavik. It is about a 40 km drive on to Iceland’s capital on a beautiful highway. I don’t stop long in Reykjavik as I don’t know my way way around and I get lost just trying to find a place to park. I stock up at a grocery store with some basics for camping and plan my drive to my next destination on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.
I can’t help but feel disappointed in the weather as I drive. I find a few places to stop and take pictures, including the famous Kirkjufell, but it is pretty near impossible with the wind and rain to get any good ones.
It only takes me a couple of hours to reach Olafsvik on the Pennisula. I run into some heavy fog at one point and some steep inclines. I am feeling more comfortable with the camper now and despite the weather am beyond stoked to actually be here in Iceland. The rain hasn’t stopped and I find the tourist information centre in Olafsvik to check into the campsite. There are basic facilities – a wooden hut with washrooms, sinks and a cooking area. There are a couple of other campers parked with people glumly snuggled up inside waiting for the weather to change. I decide to take a drive towards Snaefellsjokull National Park. I only get a little way down the road and see that it really requires a 4X4 vehicle. There are large ruts and potholes and the rain is making everything slick. As much as I want to explore I decide to turn around and not take the risk of getting stuck or damaging the camper. I find a small takeout diner in town for supper, not much selection but it will do. I am realizing Iceland lacks good restaurants and coffee shops outside the Capital. Back at the camp site I curl up and try to sleep as the wind whips us around for the second night.
Day 3 – On the road again.
I already feel like I have missed most of the West coast of Iceland due mainly to the weather. I feel the need to push on though, to get out of the weather system. I originally had wanted to hit up the Westfjords – in particular in order to see the Puffins and Dynjandi waterfall. I decided though that it would cause me to rush the rest of the trip and I wanted to be able to enjoy the drive, not be on a time restraint. I later found out the Puffins had already left anyway and I wouldn’t have been able to see them. I eat whatever I can find for breakfast and manage to find a coffee at the gas station.
I have no real plan for today other than to drive and see how far I get. The further inland and North I get the better the weather gets. Finally there is no rain and I can enjoy the drive. The road is in great condition and I am smiling as I lean back and plug my Ipod in.
I make it as far as Akureyri. Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest City but there are only about 18,000 residents. It is a lively little city though – think cool cafes, good restaurants and a handful of art galleries. Akureyri is nestled at the end of Eyjafjörður, Iceland’s longest fjord (at 60 km). Large container ships and cruise ships speckle the harbour. I find a campsite and settle in for the night. This one is busy. People are huddled in the kitchen area preparing supper and exchanging stories. I shower and exhausted settle into my bunk to catch up on some sleep. Tomorrow there are cool things to see!! I can’t wait.
Day 4 – Waterfalls and walking on the moon
I wake early and creep out of camp before anyone else is awake. I fill up at a gas station and grab a rather gnarly tasting coffee before turning left past the harbour and out of town.
The sun has decided to shine today and it is a beautiful drive towards my first anticipated stop – Godafoss. Legend has it that in the year 1000 a local chieftain decided that Icelanders should adopt Christianity and threw all his statues of pagan gods into the waterfall – hence it’s name – waterfall of the gods.
I arrive with a smattering of other tourists. I set up my tripod for some pictures and then just sit and enjoy golden hour.
After Godafoss I keep heading East. As I get closer to Myvatn lake the landscape changes drastically. It is how I imagine driving on the moon would be. I stop at the Namafjall Geothermal area and walk around, amazed at the huge bubbling mudpots. There are a lot of tourists here.
From there I head up to Krafla, one of Iceland’s most spectacular and active volcanoes. I take a short walk around the edge of the Viti crator with its beautiful blue water.
A quick drive back down the road leads me to the parking area for Leirhnjúkur Lava Fields. Think steaming sulphuric terrain and lava scorched landscape for as far as you can see. You can walk 20 minutes to get to the edge of the area, or if you have time, it’s worth spending an hour or two wandering the trails that go right through the heart of it. With weird textural formations, sweeping views across the caldera and few tourists, this is a magical chance to walk in an active volcanic area. No life grows here and there is an otherworldly feel to it. I walk slowly and take lots of pictures.It is like nothing I have ever seen before.
Next on my list is Dettifoss. I keep heading east on the ring road and then North on a secondary road to the access point. It is a half km or so walk from the parking lot to the waterfall and I’m not sure what to expect. You can hear the roar of it a long time before you see it and as I round that last corner it literally takes my breath away.
I stand there in complete awe as thousands of tons of water crash 45 metres into the long canyon below. The spray kicks up as far as you can see. It is the biggest waterfall I have ever seen. As I stand there is is like all my worries and cares thunder over with the water and disappear below. It is a feeling of complete calm. I don’t want to move from here. Eventually I get up and take some pictures but nothing can capture the immensity and feeling of just standing there on the edge, in the middle of the nothingness watching all that water. I look around to see if everyone else is feeling what I am and I think that they are. Wow Iceland, you really know how to deliver. I think everyone should come here just once. If you come just once you will always want to return. It has that essence of greatness and wildness you want to hold onto.
I wander down to Selfoss which is just a short walk upstream. It is smaller but just as beautiful.
There is nothing around here as far as restaurants or food or campsites so I get back on the road around 5 and carry on. I’m not sure where to stop for the night. I want to see the Reindeer but heard they are tucked away in the highlands at this time of year and it would take a 4X4 and a lot of searching to find them. So I guess the Puffins and the Reindeer will have to wait for my next trip.
I end up driving all the way to Egilsstadir for the night. The campsite is right in the middle of town and isn’t too crowded. I stock up at the grocery store and pay for a shower. The sunset is beautiful and I sit outside enjoying the last light before curling up into my bunk.
Day 5 – Icebergs
I find a coffee in the morning, fill up and drive on towards Hofn. The weather has changed again as I get towards the south coast. It’s raining and the wind is blowing. The road conditions also change. I hit a patch of the ring road that is not paved, it is gravel and not well maintained. I pass by little houses and villages and wonder how isolated these communities must be in bad weather. I slow down to save any damage to the camper and stop a few times to take pictures.
The road climbs steeply at one point and then disappears into a large tunnel. I stop in Hofn and find a hotel that serves breakfast. It is cold and still raining so I go in and enjoy a hot coffee by the window. It is a quiet, sleepy town and the harbour is full of quaint little boats bobbing on the waves.
I fill up again here and carry on towards my next stop – Jokulsarlon. I have seen many pictures of the iceberg lagoon and have heard how spectacular it is but somehow it still manages to amaze me. As I get closer I can see the towering blue icebergs off to the right of me. This is a busy place, there are buses full of people. The weather is gross, sideways rain and howling wind. I put on all the sweaters I have and my rain pants and stomp off for a look. You walk up over a little lip of land and there they are – huge blue icebergs just floating around in this big lagoon. People are lined up on the side taking pictures.
I stay at Jokulsarlon most of the day. There is a break in the weather and the sun shines through at one point giving us a glimpse of the Glacier far off on the horizon. Hundreds of sparkling icebergs, blue blue waters, white clouds and the slowly changing colours of sunset. It is a magical moment. Iceland continues to surprise around every corner. I think it must be one of the most beautiful places on earth, despite the weather. I wander down to the beach on the other side of the lagoon and play on the giant icebergs. So cool, so very cool. A fellow photographer offers to take some pictures for me and we chat for a few minutes.
People are always in awe that I travel alone but I honestly think it is the best way to do it. You go at your own pace and have interactions with strangers that you may never have if you were in a group. You gain so much confidence in your ability to survive and adapt and see the world through your own eyes and not someone else’s. You recharge, you let go of all the things that bog you down in life. You come here, to these beautiful places, to worship something greater than yourself. To see how small you really are in the big scheme of things.
It’s getting dark and I try to find somewhere to camp for the night. I head about 4 km West and then north up a rather rough gravel road to Breidarlon, which has similar landscape but is much more remote. I take some sunset pictures reflected in the crystal clear waters and then seeing that there are already a few campers parked here for the night decide to move on. I find a pullout further down the road where I decide to stop for the night. I brush my teeth with bottled water and settle in for the night. A few vehicles pass but otherwise it is a quiet night.
Day 6 – Fjadrarglifur and Vik
I feel like I am going too fast around the ring road. That I must be missing a lot. That I need to slow it down. I guess that is one downside of traveling alone – You are a lot more hesitant to take that gravel road or go off exploring incase you get lost or stuck on your own.
I have no coffee this morning and I crave it. I somehow miss the turn to Svartifoss and don’t realize until I have gone too far. My next stop is Kirkjubaejarklaustur where I do manage to find a coffee and some breakfast. From there I look at my map to try and figure out how to get to Fjadrargljfur Canyon. I am amazed and happy to see that I am the only one here this morning. I grab my pack and camera and head up. I spend a while taking pictures and just enjoying sitting on the edge, looking down. It smells like fresh rain and I welcome the crispness of the morning. There are no words to ruin the moment, just peace stretching out and flowing like the river.
From here I head to Vik. Some friends had been here a couple of years ago and so I have a good idea of what to expect and what to see here. I check into the campsite and am finally able to do some laundry. There is a gas station/cafe across the road where I stock up on food and water.
Vik is a peaceful seafront town with tall cliffs, dramatic black sand beaches and lively bird colonies. A quick drive around the other side of the cliffs brings you to the off shore black stacks, known as the Troll Rocks as well as some very cool basalt rock formations in the cliffs, worth a few pictures.
A little info on the campsites in Iceland. Most of them have pretty good basic facilities – showers, washrooms and a cooking area with burners and sinks. I didn’t book in advance and had no issues getting a spot. You can also wild camp in Iceland as long as you respect the environment and clean up after yourselves. I didn’t shower much in the 2 weeks I was in Iceland but somehow it didn’t matter. I also only did Laundry once as it was hard to find facilities. Most campsites cost about 15 USD and sometimes showers are extra.
Day 7 – Glaciers and the DC-3
Today I start out early as there is a lot I want to see today. I head to Solheimajokull glacier first. There is a cafe here where I have a coffee and breakfast before I walk down to the Glacier. It towers off to the North, riveted with crevasses. It reminds me a lot of the Columbia icefield in Canada. There are tours you can take to walk up on it but I just walk up as close as I can and take some pictures. You can’t help but have a tremendous respect for the sheer size of it.
One thing I wish I had done was plan a trek or trip into Landmannalaugar and Porsmork. Next trip I will. You need serious 4X4 to get in there and usually have to go with a tour group of some kind.
I have done some research on an old plane wreck somewhere near Solheimar that I want to see. Apparently it is a United States DC-3 and it crash landed in 1973. Everyone on board survived but the wreckage was left there and has now become a hot spot for tourists and photographers. It is hard to find if you don’t know what you are looking for and I found really good directions online from the expertvagabond.com
I find the road on the left and park my camper, not wanting to risk driving it down the road, which is more of a barely marked trail through a vast field of dirt and black sand. It is cold and windy so I bundle up and grab my backpack and start walking. It is supposedly about 4 km in to the beach where the plane lies. After about a km I wonder if I am crazy to be walking in and hoping that I have read the directions properly and that I won’t end up lost in this unpredictable landscape and weather. I keep going and eventually happily spy some campers parked in the distance. I don’t see the plane until I am up close, it is hidden behind a sand dune. There is a group of people milling around the plane, snapping pictures and climbing in and out of the fuselage. I join them and then wait for them all to leave so I can get some solitary pictures.
I play around for a while and then walk back. I meet a couple walking in on the way back who must have the same doubts I did and peppered me with questions. We exchange information and then head off in opposite directions.
I am glad to get back inside my camper and crank the heat before heading back onto the ring road. Next stop – Skogafoss!! It lives up to the hype. You can walk right up to it and also walk around to the right and up a short trail for a birds eye view.
This is also a prime tourist spot but a random lady in a red jacket provides good scale for my pictures.
After spending some time here and snapping A LOT of pictures I move on. Seljalandsfoss is not far up the road from Skogafoss and is just as beautiful. You can actually walk right in behind the waterfall which makes for the most spectacular photos at sunset.
I decide to camp here for the night and find a good spot to set up camp. The campsite has an enclosed cooking area with a few benches so I huddle in with a few randoms strangers in an attempt to warm up. I get chatting with an Australian man who has been biking and sailing the world for 10 years. I envy his freedom but am amazed at how he can get around Iceland on a pedal bike in this wind and rain. We hang out for the afternoon and explore another hidden gem – Glijufrabui. You would miss it if you didn’t know where to look. We walk through a little tunnel and shallow creek while simultaneously being drenched in spray in order to get to it. Definite waterfall overload. I must of snapped several hundred pictures.
We both really want to see the Northern lights and make a pact to wake each other if there is a show tonight.
Around midnight I hear people talking and look out. The sky is alive with dancing green lights. I wrap up and climb out of the van to set up my tripod for pictures. I debate whether to go and wake the Australian man but feel like me crawling into his tent in the middle of the night might be slightly inappropriate so I don’t. There is something about being awake and outside in the middle of the night. I don’t know how to describe the feeling but anyone who has laid on their backs in the grass and watched the stars or Northern lights knows what I’m talking about.
Day 8 – The golden circle
I leave the campsite fashionably early as usual and head west and then North, inland to Geysir and Gulfoss. Known as part of the golden circle these are spots that most people visit when they come to Iceland. Definitely more people here but I enjoy them despite the crowds. There are cafes full of delicious food and gift shops so I take advantage of them to purchase gifts for friends and sit out of the cold for a while. Gulfoss is another spectacular waterfall, well worth the drive.
I try to drive further inland from there but there are signs warning rental vehicles and non 4X4 vehicles not to go any further, so I turn back.
From here I head to Pingvellir national park. This place has everything to offer.
The Silfra fissure, known as one of the top dive sites in the world is here. The Silfra fissure is actually a crack between the North American and Eurasian continents, meaning that you can dive or snorkel right where the continental plates meet and drift apart. Silfra is the only place where you can dive or snorkel directly in the crack between two continental plates. The underwater visibility in the Silfra fissure is over 100 meters, which creates an underwater experience that will rarely, if ever, be surpassed. The water is cold (2°C – 4°C year round ) as it is glacial water from the nearby Langjökull and this water is filtered through porous underground lava for 30-100 years until it reaches the north end of Thingvellir lake, seeping out from underground wells.
When you go to Þingvellir you can clearly see the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates in the cracks and faults that traverse the region. You can walk through the biggest crack – Almannagja.
Not to be outdone, there is of course another waterfall in Pingvellir National Park -Öxarárfoss.
I spend the night at the campsite in Pingevellir and find some soup and crackers for supper.
Day 9 – Back to Reyjavik
I head to Reyjavik around mid day and explore the city a little more before setting up at the city campsite. It is packed and busy and to be honest a little sketchy feeling. I have seen everything I wanted to see in Iceland, besides the west fjords, which will have to wait for another trip. I still have a few days to kill before my flight so I drive around the south coast, check out the town of Selfoss and then stay in a hotel in Keflavik for a couple of nights so I can do laundry and sleep well before my flight home.
It is bitter sweet that my traveling days are almost over. I am tired and looking forward to seeing friends again and sleeping in a comfortable bed but I am also sad that I have to go back to reality and work. There is no doubt in my mind that I did the right thing, to take this time out and re-evaluate life, to create memories and experiences and to see parts of the world some people only dream about. So if you are wondering if you should do it, risk it all, I say YES. Just do it. You will never regret it.
Thank you for stopping by and I hope this is helpful to any of you planning a trip to Iceland,
till next time,