Velkomin til Íslands

It’s a cold Wednesday afternoon in early January and I am impatiently waiting for a handful of authentic fettuccine to cook. (I found an open jar of tomato sauce at the back of the refrigerator and decided that I was hungry.) While I am sitting here, my cold fingertips typing on this dusty keyboard and a woolly blanket wrapped around me like a spacious cocoon, I think of our northern adventures last year. It must have been the howling wind outside or the simplicity of my afternoon tea that brought those precious memories back. And now that I am flicking through the old photographs, I want to take a few moments and write about this place that has forever taken my heart and soul.

Travelling from Gatwick to Reykjavik International Airport was a fairly hassle-free venture. I would rest my eyes for most of the three hours and almost miss the breath-taking view from high above the clouds down onto planet earth while the pilots gently commenced their battle against the unpredictably moody weather. Ice cold wind magically found its paths through my countless layers of merino wool jumpers, fleeces and winter coats while we walked to the car that would be our loyal companion for the next few days.

A glimpse at the map revealed two different tracks to our little cabin in the woods. One led us through the countryside and the other followed the coastline which somehow just seemed to be the right choice, although it added a further thirty minutes to our journey. After all, we had come here to explore the unknown and so we packed our bags and headed off, full of excitement and joy.

We would soon come to the conclusion that maps weren’t much of a necessity here – there aren’t many streets to choose from and one would have to try really hard to get lost even with an almost non-existent sense of orientation. However, in the unfortunate event of failing to take a turn, one might find there is no alternative passage (if any) for the next couple of hours. And two hours is a very long time in a place where roads are endlessly straight and one can drive for miles and miles without crossing paths with another living being.

Mossy volcanic rocks and stones covered the ground like an enormous blanket leading the way to the mountains in the background, and in between nothing, but more rocks and moss. I had never been to a place before that was so, well, empty. No cars, no people, no stores or traffic lights. No houses or concrete blocks. Nothing but silence and the whispering sound of the wind. It was almost as if we had entered a somewhat mystical world far from home, only that we had skipped the part in which we paved our way through an old wardrobe and had purchased boarding tickets instead.

Shortly after the endless wall of mountains and behind a winding uphill road, Kleifarvatn showed up on the horizon. This frozen yet majestic lake with its hiking trails and fishing lodges seemed to have entered a state of deep sleep as a couple of smoky chimneys revealed the presence of human life in the distance.

Following the pebbled road we soon discovered Krýsuvík and innocently overlooked the warning signs at the entrance of the snowy carpark. In all honesty, this little geothermal paradise is not to be missed. Smoke rose from the ground and silver-greyish mud happily bubbled away as we walked across a wooden pathway. Volcanic vents and boiling hot springs framed the dramatic scenery while our senses slowly adapted to the scents of those earthy solfatara fields.

Further down the coastline we were overwhelmed by the stunning cliffs of Krýsuvíkurbjarg, an area rich of birdlife, and the views of the stormy sea. We followed the 427 onto the 34 and eventually got back to human civilisation as we reached the town of Selfoss. We found a supermarket filled with affordable local kitchen staples and drove past a fuel station, one of a few in the area and hence vital for survival (dramatic yet truthful exaggeration) as we would learn the next day. Ten minutes and a quick grocery shop later we finally arrived at our destination, a little wooden cottage in the midst of nowhere, surrounded by a handful of pine trees and volcanic fields of grass and moss as far as the eye could see. Needless to say, it was a precious moment, when we turned the key, opened the door and hung up our wet coats and boots in front of the radiator.

Day 2

It was an early Saturday morning, utter darkness outside, as we, I, filled my bag with triple-chocolate cookies, crunchy pecan bites and my water bottle (eyes half closed), ready for the day ahead. Morning mist covered the landscape as the car paved its way on the snowy road, heading east. It was a long four hour drive to the glacier of Jökulsárlón, although sparkly lakes, lonely horse farms and abandoned churches painted a landscape, so beautiful, so precious, we lost track of time. One road circles the entire island, passing by the enormous Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls (visible in the distance), the Solheimasandur plane wreck, the renown Reynisfjara beach, Svartifoss waterfall and Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland with ever more glaciers, cave tours and hot air balloon rides.

It was about midday by the time we finally arrived at the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Boat Tours and Café (the café being a collection of shipping containers rearranged into an information office and breezy lavatories). People from all over the world travelled for miles and days to see the remains of the ancient glacier. Various guides offer hikes and cave tours during the cold months, and although pricey, they are worth every single penny. We met our local tour guide in front of a truck, the tires almost bigger than myself, but perfectly appropriate for the bumpy ride across the ice. He introduced himself to the group and took us up the glacier, telling tales and stories about the mountain and the yearly challenges of exploring and finding the most prosperous caves. For 2,000 years the glacier had triumphed over the volcanic grounds and was due to vanish beneath our feet within the next twenty to thirty years while we watch through our fingertips as our planet and its natural wonders are cloaked in the inevitable fate of climate change and rising temperatures.

Words cannot describe the beauty of this place, the breath-taking views from the top of the glacier or the pureness of the air inside the caves. The astonishing blue colour palette (no filter used) and the magical formations will forever remain in my memory. We must have been about fourteen people in that little cave, but the only sound was the clicking of camera buttons and awe-inspired ohs and ahs. Iceland truly is a different planet, rather than a lonely country at the northern hemisphere of the globe. It is therefore no surprise that directors have chosen this very location for the making of Interstellar (if you desire a visual impression of this glacier, watch the film; if you don’t, watch it anyways). We explored two separate caves on our crampons, before heading back to the carpark. Here, the signs of global warming were ever more present. Ice sheets of all sizes and shapes detached from the glacier and glided across the freezing water out into the ocean. Hence the existence of the tragic but beautiful diamond beach – a beach covered in crystals and ice sculptures right across the other side of the road. I remember how crowded and lively it was. People gathered with their cameras and selfie-sticks, trying to capture the perfect shot. It was cold and windy and I felt my stomach grumble as it started to rain. So after a while we went back to our car, enjoyed the nutritional qualities of a cheese sandwich and admired a seal in the water, probably searching for fish.

Luckily, on our journey back the weather was on our side (Icelandic sunny skies can turn into heavy snow storms within an eye blink) and so we decided for a brief hiking trip at the Vatnajökull National Park. Our path led us to beautiful Svartifoss, a hidden waterfall with the most delicious fresh water and tetris-like stone columns.

The tour itself takes only about fourty minutes one way if my memory does not betray me, but by the time we got back to the safe heaven of our heated car seats it was late afternoon and so we drove off in the glow of a setting sun, rosy cheeks and big smiles on our faces.

Day 3

Reading upon the artful integration of an old airplane into the nature of the Icelandic coast evoke a wish of seeing this dramatic scenery with my own eyes. The United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 has stranded on the black sand in 1973, after severe icing forced the pilot to perform an emergency landing on the southcoast of the island. All crew members survived and today, Sólheimasandur is known as a dreamy photography location for travellers and professionals.

The airplane is not visible from the road, neither from the carpark. In return for a rather noble payment a shuttle bus transports tourists to the site and back. A welcome alternative for many who do not wish to or are physically unable to commence the fourty minute walk – one way. I remember reading the sign thinking that we would undoubtely make it in thirty. We did not. It felt like we were walking backwards. All one sees is volcanic rocks. Not a single tree in sight. The walk is very rewarding though, the contrast of white metal on black sand simply paints a stunning piece of art.

A twenty minute drive further down the east coast one will find the famous Reynisfjara black sand beach. A beautiful seaside café serves hot tea, coffee and meals as abstract warning signs highlight the underestimated power of the ocean. Be prepared to have some spare coins to hand in case your full bladder and your desperate self have been surrounded by a scarce, open landscape the whole morning.

The volcanic beach itself is located besides the sleepy fishing village of Vík í Mýrdal. Mesmerising basalt stacks on the left hand side of the shoreline granted home for nesting puffins, fulmars and guillemots. We strolled from one end to the other while brave souls climbed upon the rocks and youngsters searched for pebbles. The calming sound and salty smell of the Atlantic and the dancing waves ahead made me all nostalgic. I felt a warm feeling of pure happiness bubble inside me. This dreamscape appeared in the seventh series of Games of Thrones and made it on the top ten list of all non-tropical beaches on the planet to visit in 1991 – rightfully so.

The true beauty of this place however, was a shallow lake to the right of the carpark. Abandoned and forgotten by travellers it mirrored the greyish sky and mountains, which were sprinkled with snow like powdered sugar. We found a rock in the middle of the lake, sat down quietly and enjoyed the moment while tears rolled down my cold cheeks. I continually found more pieces of myself on this journey.

Shortly after heading back west we turned left onto the 218 to see the beach from the lighthouse of Dyrhólaey. The small peninsula with its picturesque views of the Atlantic, the black sand beach, a volcanic arch in the sea (familiar to Durdle Door at the southcoast of England) and a mountain range in the background left us speechless. Be sure to wrap up warm though, this place is pretty drafty and cold in the winter months.

A 360° view later we left the hilly carpark and headed towards our last two destinations of the day – Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss. A short eighteen miles apart from each other, those two waterfalls compete in power and glory. Skógafoss may not be as high but due to the amount of spray the cascade produces, at least one rainbow is present any time the sun emerges from behind the clouds. One can take the wooden staircase up the cliff to admire the beauty of the waterfall from above. Seljalandsfoss on the other hand has a path that leads you behind the waterfall, although a (full body length) raincoat is essential as one will get soaking wet from the drizzle. Parking was not free as far as I remember, but I believe the tickets were valid for 24 hours making it easy to return of the weather made the pathways slippery and too dangerous to enter at first.

Back at our little wooden cottage we cooked a simple spaghetthi with tomato sauce and fresh basil dish. I remember searching the cupboards for pepper but all I could find was cocoa powder. As it got dark outside and the voice of Bon Iver sound in the background we got our winter coats and slippers on and stepped outside the doorway, all artificial lights off, hopes up high to finally spot the polar lights – unsuccesful. Unstable weather conditions and cloudy skies made it impossible to catch a glimpse.

Day 4

On this particularly rainy Monday morning a long-desired tour to the famous Golden Circle awaited us. This well renowned road features three wonderful locations – Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall. It is located north of Selfoss, approximately two hours away from Reykjavik. On our way to the waterfall we stopped by a place marked as Þjórsárdalur on the map, however we would never arrive – we simply couldn’t find it. Instead, we ended up in a place called Skeida- og Gnúpverjahreppur and if I was ever to go back again, I would not find it either. The views from the hill were beautiful , although a dangerous endeavor as I was nearly sweeped off the edge by the powerful wind.

A short while and a couple of snow storms later we arrived at the Gullfoss waterfall, a natural treasure found at the furthest point of the Golden Circle. A notoriously sharp wind welcomed us to the site, which was covered in coaches and cars. Located in an ancient valley, the river tumbled down two drops while ice sheets crashed down the abyss. We could have spent hours marvelling over the spectacular falls, which can’t truly be captured on photos or videos, however, the combination of full on stormy winds and rainfall made the stay slightly miserable.

The store at the carpark sold lovely sheep wool jumpers, hiking equipment, journals and kitchen towels. I particularly liked the scandi coffee mugs and carefully inspected the quality of a pair of oven gloves while trying to slowly defrost my toes. The sky cleared up a little as we continued our journey and explored the legendary Geysir. The area has multiple bubbling hot springs dotted around the place, metal wire securing the vents and errupting fountains, one of which shoots a water stream of up to 130ft into the air. We must have stood there for an eternity, cameras readily positioned, fingers on the trigger, starring at a bubbly clay pot, but nothing happened for ten minutes straight. Such tension and excitement was too much for my poor little self – I pressed the button a few seconds too earlier and captured a little bit of steam as the photo reveals (top right hand corner). However, if you google Great Geysir Iceland you will find a plethora of stunning pictures by professional photographers.

We ended the day with a short visit to a volcano crater en route and circled the national park halfway, mesmerising the modern boat houses down the road, featuring architectural wood and metal contructions and massive glass windows for an unhindered view of the lake. That was until another snow storm completely covered the country under a white blanket and called it a day.

Day 5

Our last day on this fascinating planet and we had already ticked off all the natural wonders we had on our list. Perhaps a trip to the city to round up our lifetime adventure? A brief research on things to do in Reykjavik and a click onto the website of the phallological museum later (fancy way of describing the world’s largest display of penises), we opted for a lighthouse hunt on the west coast instead. Following the 1 via the capital we explored the Old Akranes Lighthouse and Ytri Tunga en route, a beach perfect for anyone keen on spotting sunbathing seals at shore. We enjoyed leftover pizza while watching the stormy clouds roll in from far afield and spotted a group of majestic Icelandic horses close enough for us to observe. Eventually, a couple of hours later, we found ourselves in the depths of the Snæfellsjökull National Park. If your paths ever cross this location, I can highly recommend a visit to Longrangar, a pair of natural towers overlooking the ocean and home to a flock of seabirds, a quick detour to the Malarrif Lighthouse, as well as the Saxhóll crater which has been equipped with a new set of stairs. Funnily enough, we experienced 68mph strong winds, which almost blew me into the volcano crater hadn’t it been for my dear Sean who grabbed me and pulled me away from the edge (in all seriousness though, hold onto something or someone when climbing up).

Lastly, we paid a visit to Skarðsvík beach followed by the Öndverðarnes and Svörtuloft lighthouses – proper off the road and only safely accessible with a 4×4, you can breathe in the full glory of this country and what seems to be its very last corner.

Day 6

Another misty morning in Iceland. We had packed our bags the night before and left behind our wooden cabin, heavy-hearted, off to our final adventure – a rejuvinating bath in one of the oldest geothermal pools of the country. The secret lagoon (not so secret anymore) was created in 1891. I must admit, my towel was frozen when I came out of the pool, but my brain completeley switched off, entering an unfamiliar yet therapeutic state between consciousness and unconsciousness while seeking to collect the precious moments I had encountered over the last week and storing them in my memory for years to recall.