Iceland and Þjóðvegur 1 (trans: Route 1)
My Icelandic saga started on Sunday 7th May; as I’ve flown from Luton several times before, and usually at stupid o’clock in the morning, it now my habit to drive to the Frog and Rhubarb pub and park in their car park (with permission). Then I have a chance to have a good meal and a couple of pints, then sleep in my Bongo van, to be awoken really early to drive to the car park a matter of a couple of miles away on the day of my flight. Cut a long story short, I drove to the pub with the anticipation of a good meal, I deliberately hadn’t had much during the day, only to be told that the kitchen was closed, due to staffing problems! Anyway onwards!
Luton airport as chaotic as always -
Finally, on the plane and waiting for take off for my week in Iceland, a country I’ve dreamt about visiting for many years.
Collected my little camper van, a Nissan NV200 for those at all interested, from Procar based very near the airport. The drive from Keflavik into Reykjavik is about 41 kms (kilometres), plenty of time to get used to a new vehicle and driving on the right hand side of the road. The first that really struck me was the absence of trees, yes there were some, but the vast majority of the surroundings were of broken stone covered in what appeared to be a green mat, with beautiful mountains in the distance. It took me some time to realise that the broken stones, was in fact massive lava fields, the green matting was lichen; it was only later on my trip I realised that this lichen had taken thousands of years to develop and grow on the lava.
I decided that my first port of call, was to pick up some supplies, but I didn’t recognise any of the shops that I passed driving into the capital city -
Once I'd stocked up, I decided that I'd head towards Snaefell – my reason, that the Jules Verne book 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth', started with a trip to, and consequently into, Snaefell. Leaving Borgarnes, I left Route 1, and drove on the relatively minor road no: 54, towards to the town of Arnastapi. Within about 8 kms I came across a waterfall, it was so stunning that I had to stop and take some photographs; I hadn't at this point realised that the sight of waterfalls by the side of any road in Iceland was a common site. But that's in the future. After taking a few photographs, I proceeded to drive into a landscape that seemed to be unfinished, raw and rugged. The only time I've experienced the sort of landscape with absolutely any similarity was driving in the very north of Norway – beautiful mountains, whose peaks still clung onto their winter snows, well I know that sounds poetic, but that was when the cloud parted enough to see the summits. It was incredibly tempting to just stop at every opportunity to enjoy the surrounds – but I pressed onto my planned destination. Got there, absolutely no chance of seeing Snaefell, the cloud cover was just too low and I certainly wasn't planning on any major hiking expedition in the clouds, so I could just say I'd walked on this mountain. But something that Arnastapi did have, that I hadn't anticipated were the most stunning cliffs, made up of basalt columns in swirling shapes as impossible forces had forced them into.
I had initially thought that I'd stay there for the rest of the day, but the camping site was shut and I just didn't want to just sit there in the car park waiting for bedtime. So I thought to cut down on the following day's drive, I'd return back Route 54, and I actually ended up camping in the car park of the pretty little waterfall I'd visited earlier.
I woke up quite early, not too surprising as that I'd gone to bed rather early. What had actually woken me up was a strange intermittent humming noise from outside; which on investigation turned out to be coming from some birds flying overhead. My knowledge of Ornithology isn't great, but they did look to me like Snipe – not that I'd ever seen one before. One of the treats of having a camper van from the particular company I'd chosen, was a 'free' wifi dongle, so I could use the internet more or less whenever I wanted (when I had a signal, of course, which turned out nearly all the time – try that in the UK). I found out that my guess was in fact correct, and they were Snipe, and even better the sound is called Winnowing!
Today I was heading towards Mývatn, in the north eastern corner of Iceland; I was anticipating a drive of about 400 kms, which I feel is about my comfortable limit on unfamiliar roads, in an unfamiliar vehicle. After about 40 kms. I realised I was passing a classic shaped volcano – fortunately, quiet while I was there; I decided to stop and investigate further, just out of interest it was just passed a village improbably called 'Bifröst'! The area around the volcano I was visiting was a protected natural monument, called Grábrókargígar (before anyone asks a silly question – no I haven't any idea either!). Where I parked there were some wooden steps leading upto what I thought was a viewing platform; no, it was a rest platform, with further steps leading upwards – no way I was going to climb all that lot! But funnily enough a Redwing was there as though leading me on – if you don't know what a Redwing looks like, it's a bit like a thrush with red markings on it's side. I rather thought that this bird might have been sent by the Norse gods to encourage me to greater lengths – so onwards and upwards, I was absolutely delighted that I did, the views were stunning, and I can now say in all honesty I'd climbed a volcano – albeit, one that was asleep, although officially classified as an active one as the last eruption was apparently 3,600 years ago. What was so staggering was the very little vegetation on the obvious lava flows, what there was, was a lichen which had taken all that time to colonise the bare and sterile lava.
Onwards on Route 1; the temptation to stop every few minutes was at times almost overwhelming – at every corner there were new things to look at. It was stunning, awesome, magnificent – and any other appropriate superlative! You must understand, that for years I've studied the Earth Sciences, every feature related to Vulcanology was here, obviously not an actual eruption, but the results of extreme volcanic activity was all around! I did stop often, and did take many photographs – I'll only put on a limited number, but you'll get the idea.
I arrived in Akureyri just after lunch time, but took opportunity to visit another Netto which was in a large and incredibly clean modern shopping centre, of which I took advantage of their public facilities. I was really pleasantly surprised how clean everything was, and in fairness, surprised how few people there were around, literally no more than 10 apart the shop assistants in the various stores. I took the road out of Akureyri, (Iceland's 'second' city, which has the equivalent population of the town of Devizes in the UK) over a long bridge then the road curled around and climbed so that the whole city could be seen from the parking area that I chosen to eat my lunch – not a bad view at all!
The drive onwards towards Mývatn was uneventful, with the exception of me getting excited at all the geology and geomorphology I could see around me – I know it's not everyone's 'thing', but this land seemed so very new and 'sharp' there were precious few smooth edges – nonsensical I know but that is what it looked like to me.
I knew from reading in the Lonely Planet guide, that there was no 'rough' camping in the Mývatn area, so I had little choice but to use the campsite, which I managed to find without any problem. I was a little surprised for a campsite which had it's own facilities to find that these were all closed, and us 'campers' had to use the one's in the nearby hostel – that was all at a cost of 1400 ISK (£10), which to be honest I did think was a little excessive. But the showers in the hostel were hot and there was heating – oh my goodness I was so pleased to have heating. Obviously, the heating in my van worked fine, but due to the high wind and desperately cold temperatures outside, within 5 minutes of stopping made the temperature become uncomfortable – thank goodness for the advice I'd been given – plenty of thermals etc! I wandered around the town; yes it was pretty enough, but not in a stunning way, but what apparently many people visited it for, was the lake which has some unique flora and fauna – apparently a rare type of algae and loads of ducks! Seriously, I didn't think it was that impressive. I should mention the showers absolutely stunk of sulphur, the whole area uses geothermal heating, and all the water was heated by that method, ergo the smell of sulphur!
I was woken upto a strange sort of pattering on the sides of the van – on investigation, while still wrapped up in my duvet, I was in the middle of intense snow storm! Seriously, a blasted snow storm, I'd heard that in the centre of Iceland it's possible to get snow into June, but I was in the centre, I was on the edge bit! Needless to say, boiling the pan of water for my morning coffee didn't happen quick enough – baring in mind I had to stand outside to do this! Anyway, undaunted by this, I planned my route towards the town of Höfn – easy really, just follow Route 1 eastwards. But, importantly, I was taking a diversion to visit waterfall at Dettifoss, a minor diversion of 40 kms in total.
The road,as it leaves Mývatn climbs steadily up over a mountain pass, with spectacular views back towards the lake and town. Driving down the other side of this pass, you are suddenly presented on the left hand side of the road, steam suddenly coming out the ground! Fortunately there was a lay-
Dettifoss, is one of the largest waterfalls, by quantity of water falling, in Europe; I was determined to witness this force of nature. It is well signposted, the road is narrow but tarred so it's very easy to get to the car park, which had large signs everywhere saying camping wasn't allowed; I saw that I was certainly not the first person to arrive, there were 6 or 7 motor caravans/camper vans already there! There is a clearly marked path to the waterfall, through a lava field, for obvious reasons there are numerous signs requesting people to keep to the marked path, to preserve the vegetation. Understandably, if from my previous walk up the volcano, on reading the information board there, it'd taken over 3,000 years for any lichen there to grow, a careless boot could destroy thousands of years of growth! Walking towards the waterfall, I was annoyed that I'd forgotten my Fitbit watch (so I knew my step count for the day was going to be low!), but as the temperature was struggling to get above 0oC I wasn't tempted to walk all the way back to the van. Be warned the distance from the car park to the waterfall is about 700 mtrs, and is most certainly not suitable for anyone with any mobility problems. I was surprised as I approached it, that there was a sign to Selfoss, a further 1.2 kms away, I hadn't realised that there was a second cataract. Dettifoss was everything that I imagined it'd be, although not particularly deep (42 mtrs), it is vast, noisy and on the viewing platform – wet from the spray. I also walked upto Selfoss waterfall, certainly not as assessable, but it was impressive in it's own right; you have to be prepared to do a bit of scrambling to reach a good photograph taking spot. On my wanderings to, from and between these two waterfalls, I saw one other person, a somewhat morose Frenchman!
The town of Egilsstađir, programmed into my sat nav and off I went across some of the most remote and deserted road that I've ever have driven on – well that's at least how it felt at the time. In the 100+ kms I drove to the town, I passed only about 5 vehicles and saw only a handful of remote houses. Mountains, plains, rivers a plenty but precious little indication of any human intervention – barring the road! I arrived at the town, but decided to move on towards my target destination for the town of Höfn; I justified this decision that I wasn't in Iceland to look at towns – I was there for the road!
It was the stretch of road between Egilsstađir and Höfn that I experienced the only part of Route 1 that is gravel; which is a bit of an understatement, the gravel is crushed lava, or pumice, which is compressed to form a remarkably good road surface. Keeping speeds down and taking care it was absolutely no problem what so ever, the weather certainly didn't help (intermittent rain and snow) the road went around, hugging the coast of enormous fjords, so the sea on my left hand side, and vast towering mountains on my right hand side. Small hamlets were dotted here and there, but the population of this area isn't high, it really made me wonder how they survived the winter, surely they must be cut off?
Höfn, is a small town situated in the south eastern corner of Iceland; to say I was happy to arrive there, would be an understatement, I'd driven around 400 kms in some reasonably challenging conditions. It was only when I got out of the van at the campsite did I realise quite how strong the wind was! Fortunately, the campsite was open, and I was able to book my spot, which the lovely receptionist suggested a place reasonably sheltered. I walked into the town proper, finding a friendly Netto where I was able to restock my dwindling supplies. Within the building there was one of Icelands alcohol stores, Vínbúðin, the sale of alcohol is strictly controlled and these stores are the only places to purchase alcohol to take home. I did have a quick look around, and if the beer had been in a cooler I might have been tempted, but the £3.50 a can rather took the gloss off that idea!
What I hadn't really appreciated was walking into town, I'd had the wind at my back, with my carrier bag almost hanging 45o from me, I had a task to walk back towards the campsite. I was tempted into a friendly looking tavern, having already looked at the possibility of a beer it was sort of on my mind; I ordered a beer which in fairness was very good, but it was somewhat spoiled by the fact it cost over £7, which at the time I thought really excessive – how little did I know!
Today was the last major stretch of driving on the road; I'd decided to drive along to a town called Selfoss, on the south coast, near enough to Reykjavik to mean that the rest of my stay would not entail massive amounts of driving. Looking on my trusty phone, at a web site I'd been recommended to look at each day, to let me know the condition of the roads of Iceland, I was somewhat dismayed to find that a large stretch of road that I intended to take was in fact closed. But taking this information on board, I still decided to press on in the hope that conditions would improve.
One of my target visits today, was the lagoon at Jökulsárlón, this extraordinary lake had icebergs in it – fortunately I was able to get there before the road closure! These icebergs 'calfed' off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which used to be right against Route 1, but is now in full retreat; it has featured in several big block buster movies, 'Lara Croft Tomb Raider' and 'Die Another Day', to name a couple. To say it seems strange to sit there in your vehicle and watch icebergs about 30 mtrs away – but this was Iceland, expect the unexpected! There is a gap out to the sea, and these icebergs eventually find their way out to open sea, but apparently this game of chance for them and can take up several years before they depart the lagoon. It's an area of enormous numbers of birds, and their cries can be heard even inside the van, and it was great to watch several seals busy finding their breakfast only a few metres away from where I sat.
Needless to say, due to the road closure meant I spent quite a bit longer there than I'd intended. But after a few hours the barrier was finally taken away, and myself plus several other vehicles all headed towards the town of Vik, the southern most point (barring islets) in Iceland; this wasn't my intended final destination, it was just a good point for my sat nav to aim for. In all honesty I really didn't need a sat nav while on the road, after all Route 1 is a ring road, what can go wrong? The road I was not driving on was the most vast plain of sand, not the golden sand we are familiar with, but hard grit black sand (the additional insurance for the van against sandstorm damage made sense). If you've read Tolkien's 'Hobbit', you'd have imagined the area called 'the desolation of Smaug', this was it, in real life. It's a vast area left by retreating glaciers all from the vast icecap of Vatnajökull. Small single lane bridges went over the numerous streams and rivers – the road itself looked as though it was gravel/sand, the winds were tremendously high and had drifted the sand onto the road – this was the reason for the closure, the wind speeds.
At one point, I rather thought that I might have to drive all the way back to Reykjavik the way I'd already come. This stretch of road which I was driving on, was open for about 6 hours before they closed it again, this time apparently for two days! My fear of having a large drive to do in a couple of days was not realised, I was lucky.
After Vik the landscape changed, the road moving a little inland into more mountainous terrain. I was absolutely stunned to see three people pushing heavily laden cycles up the quite steep road, obviously struggling in the high winds; then to totally that the biscuit, a hiker, with full rucsac walking along the side of the road, his body at 30o to the vertical, fighting the wind! After only a few kilometres to the west of Vik, that I saw a sign pointing the my right, directing me to Skógafoss (I knew that -
When I finally arrived in the town of Selfoss, I quickly saw the signs for the campsite, but as is the case in so many towns in Iceland, the sign is there, but it rather informs you that there is a campsite, but not where it is, it's up to you to find it! I was really feeling the strain for driving, not only a long way, but fighting against the very strong cross winds, I just couldn't be bothered to play hide n' seek around this town to find the campsite. So I headed on the road to Geysir – home of the World famous – Geysir – a word from Icelandic that now is in usage throughout the World (another being 'Saga'). This was about another 60 kms but I thought the campsite there might be open, on arrival there, it rather showed what a touristy place it was, and in fairness for good reason! A hotel, large gift shop and restaurant all vied for your attention – and wallet! But no campsite, I did briefly think about simply staying in the car park, but that was to awful to contemplate, as there were numerous tourist coaches there disgorging people all the time. It was the first 'busy' place I'd been to in Iceland – Geysir is on the famous 'Golden Circle'. The wind was still crazy strong, and the wait for Stokkur to do it's thing was almost painful, but my 20 minute wait was certainly worthwhile, a full head of steam and water shot into the sky, fortunately my camera was on the ready! The gusher, Geysir, that gave it's name to the area, has been rather quiet of the past 80 years for some reason, which nobody is too sure about, but it's very near neighbour, Stokkur is keeping the tourists happy. It is impressive, and it is worth going to, but don't expect the area to yourself; while there I heard a multitude of languages, including English spoken in a variety of accents.
With my thoughts that the car park wouldn't be a suitable place to stay for the night, and as there was no other camping area available, I rather suspect the hotel has taken over the campsite, somewhat more profitable I guess – I decided to press on, towards Gullfoss, the second major sight to see on 'The Golden Circle', only a few kilometres 'up' the road, this was one of Iceland's premier tourist attractions – this vast waterfall is arguably one of the most impressive in Europe, it doesn't compete with the massive Niagara or Victoria falls, but it is still one of the wonders of the natural World in my opinion. The only problem I had was the walk down to platform to view the falls, the wind was so extraordinarily strong that I had to hold on the handrail just to walk the few hundred metres! I most certainly wasn't the only person struggling, it was one of the strongest winds that I can remember ever walking in. I really didn't hang about, a few photographs then struggled back to the van, there was absolutely no point on even thinking of staying there for the night – so onwards.
The third major sight of 'The Golden Circle', is Thingvellir (Icelandic – Þingvellir), a National Park, an area where the two plates, American and Eurasian are diverging at the alarming rate of several centimetres a year. It's also notable for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Icelandic rules state that you have to camp in a campsite, absolutely no rough camping -
Thingvellir – a stunning wonderful place, even by Icelandic standards this place was incredible. Made more so by being the place where the very first parliament was formed in 930AD; basically, it seems that the outlaws and general ne'er-
The very helpful receptionist in the Information Centre had suggested that I walked on the well signposted footpath over to the main areas of interest. I was incredibly pleased I took his advice, it was a really super walk of only about 3 kms, but worth every step. The geology is extraordinary, totally dominated by this rift valley between two continents.
It was also the place of execution; thieves, the lowest of criminals, were usually beheaded. Women convicted of incest and other fornication were drowned, and their male counterparts were beheaded. Others received the same for committing infanticide to conceal a child’s birth. Those brought in for witchcraft and magic were burned at the stake.
Add 30 beheadings, 15 hangings, and nine burnings to the 18 drownings, and you have the 72 known executions at Thingvellir during this period. Lenient interventions by the Danish king helped end the bloodshed, and the Great Edict’s penalties were officially and drastically softened in 1838.
Drekkingarhylur is just one of the less approachable landmarks that lies near the park’s geologic and cultural gems. One can imagine a popular tour of Galgaklettar (Scaffold Cliff), Hoggstokkseyri (Execution Block Spit), Brennugja (Stake Gorge) and Kagaholmi (Whipping Islet). Thingvellir officials don’t seem likely to offer one soon, though!
I spent the rest of the day taking it really easy, I'd managed to easily cover my 'steps' target of 10,000, and I just decided that I'd spend another night here, the wind was now just a mild breeze, the silence of this place was wonderful, there was just no noise barring the occasional bird song, and of course the winnowing of the resident snipe!
Time to face the metropolis that is Reykjavik, population just over 120,000 (UK equivalent city of Chester), in our over crowded little country, Reykjavik would be just a small city or large town. But in Iceland this was the population centre, and if you take in to account of the surroundings, the population rises to over 200,000 – this is two thirds of the entire population of Iceland – a busy place indeed!
I really didn't bother to try to find anywhere to camp, except the main campsite, some 3 kms outside of the city centre; my trusty sat nav took me straight there, without an problems, it was strange that, after having the last few days with very few companions on the road, I was suddenly in a relatively busy place. The campsite had quite a number of people staying, motorcaravans, camper vans and tents, plus it hosted also one of Reykjavik's backpacker hostels (a cheap place to stay -
I thoroughly enjoyed my walk into the city centre, the old town of Reykjavik is certainly colourful and it's surrounded by some stunning modern architecture, the cathedral as fabulous in real life as in the photographs, and the stature of Leif Ericsson imposing as I thought it would be. Needless to say numerous tourist tat shops everywhere, they really did their best to get you to buy toy stuffed puffins, and beautiful (Icelandic style) woollen jumpers.
I unintentionally arrived at the meeting place for the 'free' walking tour just before it set off, so I joined in and had a very instructional couple of hours hearing from an Icelander about his city and Iceland in general. Needless to say, he mentioned the 'Cod War' and also beating England at football – the Cod War I certainly remember, but anyone who knows me football isn't my thing! He also suggested that if we wanted to buy a jumper or other woollen garment to got the Icelandic Wool Shop – all authentic made in Iceland by Icelandic craftspeople. If we wanted a beer, to go to a particular pub, which brews their own and has won a number of international awards, also where to eat and where the interesting flea market was. Our guide also mentioned that while Christianity is the national religion, Paganism is rapidly growing and is now the second largest religion in Iceland, and that a Pagan Temple is being built – the first for over a thousand years – a good reason for my next visit.
After the walk, I decided to go for a beer, I knew it would be expensive, but felt I'd 'saved' quite a bit of money on the amount I'd budgeted for fuel, I could afford a beer or two or three! Suitable bar found, staffed by young people who would be many people's concept of a typical Icelanders – blond and very nordic! The beer was really good (Gull Original), I had consciously decided not to look at the prices, until it was time to pay – 1500 ISK per 500 ml (for the metrically challenged £11 per pint – told you it was expensive) – 4500 ISK lighter, I decided I really needed to visit the award winning pub – 3000 ISK lighter, I really felt it was time to find something to eat. Fish and chips, absolutely lovely, 2200 ISK gone – very good, but at £15 a go, not something I'd order everyday! Then, serendipity plays a part, I walked passed the flea market – there was a co-
My final day, what was I going to do on the final hours I had available until I have to return my little Icelandic home back to it's owners.
The Reykjanes peninsula, on which Reykjavik is located, as well as Keflavik, has some remarkable sights that were well worth investigating. The World famous 'Blue Lagoon' is situated there, by the basic entrance cost is £35, I decided that I forgo that pleasure, and instead have a drive around to see what I could see. I used route 43 to drive to Grindavik, which I thought might be interesting, but it is a smaller Icelandic version of Grimsby, so drove over to Gunnuhver. More hot springs, but the surroundings felt so remote it was quite a reminder how very shallow the earth's crust is there.
I then took to opportunity to visit the Orkuveriđ Jörđ power plant, this station provides the electricity for Reykjavik and is totally powered by Geothermal processes. For an entrance fee, you are able to have a look at the power plant and look around their very professional display area, where the various processes are described in detail.
On leaving the power plant, I took the opportunity to visit the Bridge between Two Continents. I guess few people can resist to cross this bridge, it really is just a bridge in the middle of nowhere, crossing over a rift valley, where the two continents are dividing at geological express rate. At the time of year I was there, there were very few people there, although due to it's relative proximity to Reykjavik, I imagine that during the summer it could get quite busy.
I finally made my way to the very tip of the peninsula, to Garöskagi. There are two lighthouses there, excessive I know and I don't really have a clue why there are two, but it is Iceland! Camping was allowed, for a fee of course, so I decided to stay there for the rest of the day, just looking out to sea, watching the seagulls and thinking about one of the most memorable weeks of my life.
For me, Iceland was an absolute bucket place to visit; if you have any interest in any of the Earth Sciences, you'll see it all there, for me it was like seeing things I've studied for years, for 'real'! But it is so much more than that, if you like wild open spaces, a sense of adventure, then Iceland is most certainly for you! I'd implore anyone to go there, at least once, it's a true experience. After all people have been visiting that island for over a thousand years!
Vehicle Hire: Procar Iceland
Food: Bonus or Netto – the two cheapest supermarkets
Souvenirs: Try to get locally made things, not manufactured in PRC. They will be more expensive, but remember this is how these people can afford to live, if you buy from the tat shops, you're just supporting some faceless corporation.
Clothing to take: Warm, waterproof, sunglasses (it's bright)
Learning Icelandic: Good luck with learning it, but you'll find that nearly everyone speaks better English than you or I! Thank goodness English is spoken throughout Iceland!
Ja = Yes
Nay = No
Takk = Thanks
Bless = Goodbye
Má ég fá annan bjór, takk = Can I have another beer please
Icelandic People (the ones I met anyway): Lovely, independent, self-
Alcohol/Beer: The recommendation is to buy your booze in the duty free you pass through before baggage reclaim at Keflavik Airport – it's the cheapest in Iceland. Beer: marvellous, especially recommend 'Gull Original', cheap at a quarter of the price!!
Campsites: Expect to pay per night per person between 1000 – 2200 ISK (£7 -
Diesel: 187 ISK per litre
Exchange Rate at time of going (May '17): 137 ISK to £
Distance around Þjóðvegur 1: 1,385 kms.
Distance I drove while there: 1,980 kms.
Number of photographs taken: Haven't bothered count them, but I do hope that you enjoy the ones that I've posted with this blog.
Kveðja Ísland. Þar til ég sé þig aftur, Ég bið þess að guðirnir muni vernda þig!