After literally years of wanting to go there, we finally visited Iceland last week. With a new camera and a great hire car, I had a hoot.

Haydn’s Gone to Iceland

Written by Haydn Williams

After literally years of wanting to go there, we finally visited Iceland last week. With a new camera and a great hire car, I had a hoot.

Our flight to Keflavik was uneventful, as was the car hire collection until we got to the car park and stood dwarfed by the Land Cruiser we had obtained for the week. After clambering inside and being careful not to accidentally drive over other cars on the way out of the car park, we made our way to Reykjavik.

The following morning we left town bright and early, heading east along the south coast on the imaginatively titled Route 1. This is the ring-road which circles the whole country, a single-carriageway with two lanes for most of its length (although some small bits still aren’t paved), and with some bridges which are single-lane (the priority system being “whoever gets there first wins”). Conditions were less than ideal, with a cloud base of only fifty metres and visibility below one mile, but we weren’t going to let that stop us. The first halt was at Seljelandsfoss, a huge waterfall which you can walk behind, although it’s still pretty wet. More exciting was it’s neighbour, Gljúfrafoss, which you can reach the top of via a scrambly section protected in the refreshingly Icelandic manner of “do what you like; it’s at your own risk”.

With the eventual target for the day being still far eastwards, we continued on to Reynisfjara beach which is renowned for freak waves. The recommendation is that you don’t go within 20 metres of the sea at any point. Sounds deadly, but it was very pretty and had both puffins and funky volcanic rock.

Reynisfjara Beach. © Haydn Williams 2015
Reynisfjara Beach. © Haydn Williams 2015

By now we were realising that Iceland is full of lots of cool things, which are separated by vast distances of boring stuff. These include sandurs, which are huge areas of glacial outwash (of which there isn’t much in September), and hraun, the humungous lava fields now mostly colonised by moss.

View across a mossy lava-field to Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull. © Haydn Williams 2015
View across a mossy lava-field to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. © Haydn Williams 2015

We eventually reached the glacier you can see in the photo above, but the tongue was a bit grotty so I’m not showing you any photos of that. The hotel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur was easy enough to find and we gleaned some useful info from the tourist information centre, the staff of whom continued to demonstrate that Icelanders are probably the cheeriest and friendliest bunch of people I have ever met.

The following day dawned just as cloudy, and we’d heard heavy rain overnight. The plan was to head 50 km up an F-road to a volcanic fissure called Laki. F-roads are the Icelandic mountain roads which are generally only open in summer, and usually only considered suitable for 4x4s; if you take a hire car up them then it must be a dedicated 4×4 (people are encouraged to photograph 2wd hire cars on F-roads and report them to hire companies for a reward!). It was clear that the Land Cruiser could hack it, but could I?

As a warm up we first went for a run up a gorge called Fjaðrárgljúfur, which was breathtakingly spectacular. Unfortunately so was the sideways rain, so none of my photos from the waterproof camera worked.

Time to christen Becs' new running shoes! © Haydn Williams 2015
Time to christen Becs’ new running shoes! © Haydn Williams 2015

We carried on upstream for a while, with the cloud making it look eerily familiar to someone who spends a lot of time running in North Wales. I did a quick(ish) repeat of the hill while Becs warmed up in the car, and I proved conclusively that being on holiday doesn’t magically make me a much faster runner (I don’t know why I was expecting it to).

Running in an Icelandic cloud is very much like running in a Welsh cloud. © Haydn Williams 2015
Running in an Icelandic cloud is very much like running in a Welsh cloud. © Haydn Williams 2015

Having exposed ourselves to the elements and escaped unscathed, we were filled with bravado and decided to continue up route F-208 towards Laki, despite knowing there were several river crossings we might not be able to make after the night’s rain (or worse, get across on the way and then be unable to ford on the return journey). I have driven a 4×4 loads before, by which I mean once on a training course a few weeks ago. I can report that I was therefore quite nervous, which wasn’t helped by the fact that Icelandic insurance never covers damage to the underside or chassis of a car, nor damage caused during river crossings. However, I soon got into the swing of things and can confirm that it was brilliant fun.

The first river crossing was shallow and trivial, but after almost 25km we passed a German chap who had turned around at the first “proper” crossing because he didn’t fancy it. We pressed on, and I parked up at the riverside to assess the situation. The advice of my trainer, Edd, came flooding back: “Send your missus in to test the depth“, which I duly did. With already-wet feet from the run, Becs gamely waded across and we confirmed that the depth looked OK. At this point a Jeep pulled up alongside, and I remembered another piece of advice: “Let someone else try it first.“, which I duly tried to do. However, the Canadians in the Jeep had other ideas, and gallantly sat back to let me go first. As anticipated there were no major issues, but we were a bit confused that the Jeep – having seen our successful crossing – then decided to turn tail and head back towards civilisation.

My favourite photo of the trip: Becs testing the river depth so we can drive across. © Haydn Williams 2015
My favourite photo of the trip: Becs testing the river depth so we can drive across. © Haydn Williams 2015

The track continued a little further to what – given the absolute lack of visibility – we had decided would be our revised target for the day: Fagrifoss waterfall. After seeing three pretty impressive ones the day before I was a bit concerned that I might be suffering from waterfall fatigue, but it proved to be by far the best yet. Another amazing gorge, and all the better for there being nobody else for miles around (apart from retreating Canadians somewhere over the horizon).

Fagrifoss waterfall, definitely the best one we visited. © Haydn Williams 2015
Fagrifoss waterfall, definitely the best one we visited. © Haydn Williams 2015

We didn’t linger, partly because Becs’ clothes were still damp from the river crossing, and soon we found ourselves back at the shore. Lining up for the return trip, I pointed out that we didn’t have any photos of the first traverse, and thus Becs went wading once more in the interests of providing you with photographic interest, dear reader.

My first proper river crossing. © Haydn Williams 2015
River crossing! © Haydn Williams 2015

After more bumpy miles, the Land Cruiser deposited us back on tarmac, having demonstrated that any boundaries reached during the holiday would be solely due to driver rather than vehicle capability. Day three was a transfer to another hotel, this one in the interior highlands of the country. This meant lots of driving, which we punctuated by taking another F-road to Nauthúsagil Gorge.

At least the rain meant there were lots of rainbows. © Haydn Williams 2015
At least the rain meant there were lots of rainbows. © Haydn Williams 2015

This narrow cleft in the rock has some chained sections so you can scramble up it, providing a nice diversion from several hundred miles of tarmac.

Along the chains in Nauthúsagil Gorge. © Haydn Williams 2015
Along the chains in Nauthúsagil Gorge. © Haydn Williams 2015
Becs wandering back down Nauthúsagil Gorge. © Haydn Williams 2015
Becs wandering back down Nauthúsagil Gorge. © Haydn Williams 2015

The same journey also entailed a diversion to two of the three stops on the classic “Golden Circle” tourist route, namely Geysir and Gullfoss. The former was apparently once so striking that it gave its name to all other geysers in the world, but it is now getting lazy and doesn’t do much any more. We moved swiftly on to Gullfoss, which was much more impressive; a huge double cascade which was nearly dammed for hydroelectric power in the early 20th century, but is now surrounded by soggy tourists (and justifiably so).

Gullfoss. It's huge. © Haydn Williams 2015
Gullfoss. It’s huge. © Haydn Williams 2015
The view from Gullfoss towards Langjökull. © Haydn Williams 2015
The view from Gullfoss towards Langjökull. © Haydn Williams 2015

The faithful car dragged us farther and higher, until we reached Hotel Highland which is right in the middle of nowhere. It’s seriously remote, yet still somehow had 4G reception, 9Mb wifi and a very respectable restaurant!

The next day didn’t involve as much driving, but did involve another F-road. This time the destination was Landmannalaugur, which is an area of geothermal activity with hot springs and vents, lava fields and mountains. Alas, the weather continued to work against us and rain battered the car as we rumbled up the track to the campsite and wardens’ hut which make up the base of the site.

What a lovely day for a trip! The blobs on the photo are rain, unsurprisingly. © Haydn Williams 2015
What a lovely day for a trip! The blobs on the photo are rain, unsurprisingly. © Haydn Williams 2015

Being firmly of the opinion that a bit of rain never hurt anyone, we geared up in full waterproofs and set out across the lava field towards the top of Brennisteinsalda, an active volcano (no, seriously!). We passed plenty of hot vents and amazing colours, albeit looking a bit subdued by the rain.

Thermal vent at Landmannalaugar. © Haydn Williams 2015
Thermal vent at Landmannalaugar. © Haydn Williams 2015
Incredible colours, muted somewhat by the rain and clouds. © Haydn Williams 2015
Incredible colours, muted somewhat by the rain and clouds. © Haydn Williams 2015

After retreating from the summit in blow-you-over strength winds, we returned to the car and removed our sodden outer layers. The inner layers were sodden too, but a man’s got to have standards of decency in his own car so they stayed on.

An intriguing side road on the return journey led to us driving up onto the rim of a volcano, which was way bigger and more impressive than I imagined as we rumbled up it. I was pretty pleased to have got up there (it was quite steep, being a volcano), but alas my photographic wits deserted me in the teeth of the rainy gale outside the car and so the photos don’t really do it justice.

My car on the rim of a volcano crater. © Haydn Williams 2015
My car on the rim of a volcano crater. © Haydn Williams 2015
My car on the rim of a volcano crater. © Haydn Williams 2015
Yes, another shot of the car. I loved that car. © Haydn Williams 2015

Another transition day followed, taking us way out west to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, but not before visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site! But before that there was more driving…

There was lots of this. © Haydn Williams 2015
There was lots of this. © Haydn Williams 2015

Þingvellir National Park is a great rift between the North American and Eurasian continental plates, and you can clearly see where the two have pulled apart. Unfortunately this was the site of another downpour which meant photography was useless, although we did manage to snatch this one of me looking pretty pleased at marking another one off the list.

Ticking off another UNESCO World Heritage Site. © Haydn Williams 2015
Ticking off another UNESCO World Heritage Site. © Haydn Williams 2015

Interestingly, the site doesn’t qualify for UNESCO status on geological grounds, but on the basis that it was the site of the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþingi, established in 930AD.

From Þingvellir we ploughed onwards to Hellnar at the far western end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, passing more incredible geology that would be outstanding elsewhere but is just normal in Iceland.

Uphill waterfalls. Or waterlifts, I suppose. Whatever; it was windy. © Haydn Williams 2015
Uphill waterfalls. Or waterlifts, I suppose. Whatever; it was windy. © Haydn Williams 2015

Getting into the swing of the F-roads, we started the following morning by driving up one marked by the official roads authority as “impassable”. We were fairly sure we didn’t need to go as far as the impassable bit though, and luckily that did turn out to be the case.

What's the worst that could happen? © Haydn Williams 2015
What’s the worst that could happen? © Haydn Williams 2015

We reached the singing caves, so called because of their echoes which apparently sound like dwarves singing, without any mishaps, and then continued a circuit of the peninsula around the Snæfellsjökull glacier for the rest of the day. We didn’t ever actually see the glacier because of low cloud during the 48 hours we were in the area, but I’ve been assured it does actually exist.

Songhellir, the singing cave. © Haydn Williams 2015
Songhellir, the singing cave. © Haydn Williams 2015

There is no messing about with the geology in these parts – from the sea it just heads straight upwards without a hint of indecision.

The photo does no justice to the scale of this, and I'm standing on a beach to take the photo. Impressive. © Haydn Williams 2015
The photo does no justice to the scale of this, and I’m standing on a beach to take the photo. Impressive. © Haydn Williams 2015

Further along there is a beach of golden sand – remember this is Iceland, so most of them are black volcanic sand or stone, so the golden one is quite a refreshing change and doubly so in contrast with the surrounding black and grey basalt.

Me wearing my basalt camouflage gear at Skarðsvík. © Haydn Williams 2015
Me wearing my basalt camouflage gear at Skarðsvík. © Haydn Williams 2015

After that things got lighthouse-tastic as we wandered past Öndverðarnes to do some dolphin-spotting, and then past Svörtuloft to bird-spot. My new favourite car and I went for a jaunt that evening to Malariff and I’m quite pleased with the results given that I’ve not held a proper camera for four years.

Svörtuloft lighthouse - it's solar-powered! © Haydn Williams 2015
Svörtuloft lighthouse – it’s solar-powered! © Haydn Williams 2015
Malariff lighthouse on the Snæfellsnes Penninsula. © Haydn Williams 2015
Malariff lighthouse on the Snæfellsnes Penninsula. © Haydn Williams 2015
Malariff lighthouse on the Snæfellsnes Penninsula. © Haydn Williams 2015
Malariff lighthouse on the Snæfellsnes Penninsula. © Haydn Williams 2015

That evening we had our first hint of a clearing in the cloud overnight, and with a good aurora forecast around 10:30PM we nipped outside for a few minutes. We were rewarded with a spectacular but very brief display of the northern lights. Unfortunately they didn’t last long enough for me to properly set up the shot below, but at least there’s some fuzzy evidence that it wasn’t continual cloud cover all week.

A poor shot of the northern lights above Hellnar church. © Haydn Williams 2015
A poor shot of the northern lights above Hellnar church. © Haydn Williams 2015

By now a week had passed, and so all that remained was the return to Keflavik the following morning. That brought our driving total in the trusty Land Cruiser to 1050 miles, which was tiring but definitely worth it. We had a fantastic time and I really wouldn’t be surprised if we went back at some point to see some more of the country since we really only touched the south-west corner. If you’re considering going, I’d heartily recommend it!

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