Iceland: Born in fire, lashed by wind, carved by ice

Polish version

Geologically speaking, it’s one of the youngest strips of land on the Earth. From our point of view, it’s also a multitude of fascinating roads to go and an incredible adventure without crowds of people to meet. We decide to start early July, taking into account that it’s when we can expect the best weather, statistically. Beyond any doubt the country is safe concerning animals, insects and other surprises of that kind. Our plan is simple: to cross the island from the North to the South by Road F26 to Askja. Vast Icelandic Interior is one of the largest European wilderness areas, although it’s not a real desert as it can receive lots of rain. The central highlands were once refuge for the outlaws and the ones who somehow managed to stay alive there went down in legends, called superhuman. Still nowadays one cannot expect any bridges, hotels, snack bars and other products of “modern civilisation” here. The only exception is a well-developed mobile phone cellular network, but we take a satellite phone just in case.

At the airport our luggage is meticulously searched by the customs officers. The food we took with us is weighted and it doesn’t exceed the limits. The truck we chose is a 2-years old Nissan Patrol 3.0 DID, automatic, converted by Arctic Trucks: fitted with 35″ tires, a snorkel and suspension lift (the documents we sign state clearly and straightforward that it is definitely banned to cross water in the vehicle). Collecting the car at the airport is charged by the car rental company with additional EUR 50.00. A quick Google search reveals that the rent-a car office is located some 500m off the airport. Well, any tourist asking for paying more should be relieved of his money, and we can keep our EUR 50.00 starting our trip. So off we go, starting with some sightseeing in the capital city and some shopping on the first day. We decided to take Road no. 1 towards the south-east. Our first stop is the most famous waterfall on the island: Gullfoss, the golden waterfall. The path starting at the parking place leads us along a double cascade of Hvita river dropping down with a deafening rumble into a narrow, 35 meter deep gorge. Following the trail climbing up to the north of the waterfall one can approach water tumbling down just at arm’s length. We also cover some 6 km to visit Geysir, the very one that gave its name to all the hot springs of this kind in the world.

In order to watch puffin colonies we took the Ring Road towards Vik, than Road F208 to Landmannalaugar. Unluckily, the puffins’ strategy this year was to avoid meeting the nosy tourists in this place. On top of that we learn that the national Road “1” is closed, as a bridge was destroyed by a landslide of mud and water. Hard luck, we have to turn back to the west (covering additional 150 km) to reach Road F26.

Yellow Submarine.

Sprengisandur means to the Icelanders just the same as Santa Fe trail to the Americans and the name recalls the pictures of sheep driven by outlaw horsemen through the barren deserted wilderness. The old trail, not used anymore, runs a few kilometres to the west of the current road. The first “water jump” successfully eliminates all the vehicles with one axle drive and all kinds of 4×4 substitutes. The road becomes more and more picturesque and more interesting technically. After we mastered yet another of successive water obstacles we decide to make a short break to rest. Unexpectedly, a big wave splash before our eyes: a tsunami?, a submarine? The wave subdues, our emotions calm and we realise that the reason is just a 4.5 ton Chevrolet Suburban crossing the river with a classical Telemark landing on the other bank. It is the moment when we understand Adam Malysz’s aspirations and his new calling to a sport so related to ski jumping. Well, we need to learn so much… The truck, with a full set of passengers, is driven by a robust Icelander. The vehicle is truly all inclusive: a Chevrolet Suburban 1984, body lift 4”, engine 6,5 litre turbo diesel. 330 ho marine, manual gearbox from Chevrolet 6500 truck, 14 bolt wide rim, winter tyre 44/21, 16.5 trexus sts. 19”.

As we happen to go in the same direction we continue our trip together. The road, actually a track, marked with yellow poles, present more and more challenges: many rapid rivers and patches of old wet snow. The steep uphill passages on the snow patches demand deflating the tyres. Our new Icelandic acquaintance is perfectly equipped with the necessary tackle and what is the most important, he is full of indefatigable energy and beams with friendliness and sense of humour.

Thanks to our co-operation and Helgi’s help we manage to reach the ever-crowded camping site in Landmannalaugar for the night. It’s an extremely colourful area, rich in geothermal hot springs and fabulous hiking trails. The multicoloured mountains are built of rhyolite, a mix of minerals transformed by geothermal and volcanic activity with its main centre in Torfajökull caldera. Unfortunately that is where we have to part and take separate roads: Road no. 26 towards Askja is closed.

North-west, Road no. 356 Kjolur, towards Hornstandir.

The name of the road traversing the central desert highlands: Kjolur means “keel” and is related to the topography of the area. At the highest peak the track reaches 700m above sea level and it runs a 30-kilometre-wide valley between the ice caps of Langjökull and Horstandir. The West Fjords peninsula looks like a gigantic crab striving with all its might to tear itself away from Iceland and run away to the Northern Atlantic. This amazingly shaped region with its steep mountains and huge fjords is linked to the land by a narrow isthmus.

After we reach Ísafjörður (the furthermost-north town in Iceland) we learn that the next ferry available leaving for Horstandir will leave in 3 days. Unfortunately, we can’t wait that long. We decide to return to the Ring Road by the western part of the fjords.

We make a stop at Thingeyri. This small settlement was the first trading post in the West Fjords. It’s worthwhile to take a short walk up Sandfell – a nearby mountain, 400m high, located by Road no. 6 to the south of the village. It’s also accessible by truck, taking into account that some of the uphill parts are pretty steep. The scenic view on the peak (360o) shows the village, the fjord and the surrounding mountains. We are now going to reach the spectacular mountains of Thingeyri, called Westfjords Alps. Their origins are partly volcanic and the peaks of rock and stone rubble contrast sharply with the green valleys of the western fjords. We follow a dirt road towards the North-west along the picturesque edge of the peninsula to a scenic valley of Haukadalur. Along the way we can see successive road signs warning against danger and informing that only 4×4 cross-country vehicles are allowed there. Providing there are no avalanche blocks the road, one can drive round the whole peninsula, passing bird cliffs and the remote Svalvogar lighthouse.

It’s one of the most beautiful places in Iceland we can see.
Another step of our journey took us to Strandir. The rocky eastern coast of the West Fjords is one of the least visited parts of Iceland. We make a stop at a tiny village of Djúpavík. The once-booming herring factory town is now totally abandoned. Off a cliff above the village plunges a stunning waterfall. A 2-hour long uphill trekking let us enjoy the panorama of the fjord seen from the cliff.

Húsavík – what the f… are you doing here?!”

Heading east, we spend a while at a petrol station. After refuelling the truck, all of a sudden we hear a voice coming from a coach next to one of the petrol pumps: “what the f… are you doing here?”. What a surprise, it’s our friend Helgi! It turns out that this time he is also a driver; precisely: a solid and predictable driver of a tourist coach full of American old age pensioners. This time our tracks also lead the same way, towards Húsavík, but there is no need to aid each other.

Húsavík is an area rich in all kinds of cetaceans: whales, minke whales and with some luck one can even see a humpback whale, a killer whale, a fin whale or even the giant: a blue whale. We see the last one only. Unfortunately it is swimming quite far from us.


Our way runs eastwards to Road F88, bringing us to Dettifoss. Waters of this waterfall, reputed to be the loudest one in Europe, fall with enormous rumble. Its rather small height of 44 metres and quite obscure water in light coffee colour, originating in a glacier, doesn’t make it one of the prettiest ones. What makes it special is 500 m2 of water falling down over the river bar every second and creating visible mist where a rainbow sheds its colours over the canyon. Road F88 to Askja passes Herðubreið, one of the most popular wonders of Icelandic desert. The track accompanies the monotonous western bank of Jökulsá á Fjöllum river for the major part of its run. It winds through the barren lava field of some 6,000 m2, dangerous for the tyres.

We choose the campsite close to Herðubreið for the night. The volcano is sometimes called “a pot”, but in most cases it is referred to as “the Queen of the Icelandic desert”. Regardless of the name, the oddly symmetrical shape of the mountain will stay in our minds for a long time. Unfortunately we cannot prepare our breakfast in the morning, as countless swarms of tiny flies get into every possible place (most of them aim at our eyes and noses) as well as into every impossible one. We pack our stuff and off we go, to the south by the dunes and hardened lava, passing Dreki lodge, continuing uphill towards Askja. We go past a sign reminding that only the “big Jeeps” are allowed here. A small parking place offers us an opportunity for a quick breakfast and then a road sign explains that Askja is just 3 kilometres ahead of us. The trail is marked with yellow poles and it crosses fields of wet snow and mud.

We enjoy 100% silence, with no trace of wind. Askja greets us with perfect weather (as for the climate here) and we can’t have any doubts as to why so many people visit this nature’s wonder. This incredible place inspires to reflect on the powers of fire, earth, air and water. It’s difficult to imagine the powers capable of creating such a monumental caldera (50 km2). It is now partly filled with water. The deepest part of the crater is the sapphire blue Öskjuvatn lake, the deepest one in Iceland of 217m depth. Vit is a smaller explosion crater on the north east shore of the lake with turquoise blue water of 30oC.

The distance to the airport to be covered on the last day of our journey is some 1,000 km and it is quite a big challenge in Iceland. We still manage to visit Jökulsárlón lake: one of the most often photographed natural wonders of Iceland. The chunks of ice floating in the water have fallen off the retreating glacier whose tongue stretches straight into the lagoon. The view enchants everyone who appears at the turn of the Ring Road and starts approaching the suspension bridge. Stopping here to take photos is simply a must. One can spend here many hours just admiring the landscape, looking for the seals or watching birds. The lagoon and the small river running to the nearby ocean are filled with icebergs calving from the glacier and presenting classical arctic scenery.

We spent 11 days in Iceland. The temperatures varied from 3oC in the morning to some 18oC during the day. The weather was perfect (no rain for 99,9% of time). We made more or less 4,000 kilometres and returned the truck in impeccable condition (nothing torn off and lost in the rivers, most probably). The youngest participant of our journey was 13 years old and he coped with all the hardships without any problems. We returned happy with a collection of impressions, experiences and views of undisturbed wilderness.
Iceland is an island where losing an “itinerary item” for any reason means that other 100 ones queue to be chosen. This is what we call “all inclusive” holidays. Helgi invited us for ”an off-road Interior in winter”, assuring us that this is what he calls fun. We …. don’t ….. believe him, so we must go and verify that ourselves.

More photos at: PicasaWeb

Marcin Preś

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