Let’s start with a moment of honesty (it’s easy because at this second I’m dehydrated and sleep-deprived). When I come to the end of my days, I’d like to look back on having lived a life with as few regrets as possible. With the world as big as it is (or small considering the universe) and our lifespan so short (relatively speaking), there isn’t much time for excuses…so when two awesome people agree to travel to remote regions with you…well, I jump on that.
In this case, those two people were Lacey and Nicole. The remote region: Iceland. Less a region…more an island.
Over a year of waiting and multiple planning sessions came to a head this past Monday. A 6 AM flight had me and Lacey in Atlanta before 9, followed by a quick flight to DCA, an Uber to BMI, and a long layover. Nicole came in on a different flight to Baltimore and skipped the hectic world of Hartsfield.
The layover wasn’t too terrible. I had work to complete and BMI’s WiFi isn’t half bad.
7 PM saw us departing the states on WOW Airlines. (Just a note of warning regarding WOW. They are a bare minimum airline. Tickets are cheap, but they charge for luggage by weight and quantity. Everything is an up-charge.) The direct flight to the Keflavík International Airport wasn’t more than 5 hours or so and we did our best to sleep and beat the time change and jet lag. It was a worthy ambition, but small rows and all of us being taller humans didn’t help.
We landed early in the morning at Keflavík. After a cup of coffee, we found our way to Go Iceland to pick up the rental car. The attendant on duty was a Greek by the name of Alexandar…or Alexander the Great as he told Lacey later on in our conversation. I wasn’t sure if he loved us or pitied us…
But we left with his cell number, a general road map of Iceland, and a tiny two-door Suzuki Jimny 4×4. We passed a Land Rover Defender sitting in the lot as we left…there might have been a slight moment of jealousy for our group.
Also, let me pause for a moment of admiration for Nicole. The Jimny was a manual, something that Lacey and I were not prepared to handle. (At this point, I really need to learn…no excuses right?) Nicole was the only one in our group with the experience to drive…and she drove. Everywhere. Like a freakin’ champ.
This is Nicole.
This is our sweet little Jimny. Toughest and tiniest 4×4 you’ll ever meet.
Even with 12 days, we had a lot on our list. There was no hesitation in getting out of the airport to the first part of our trek, the Golden Circle. This is a popular route in South Iceland. Þingvellir (national park), Gullfoss (waterfall), and Haukadalur (geysirs) are along the way and still rather close to Reykjavik.
First up, Þingvellir. This is the site of the beginning of the Icelandic government. In 930 AD, the Icelandic Parliament was established here. From what I understood of the signs at the park, this area sits along both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. In a sense, the cracks and faults here are the results of the land literally being pulled apart.
And there are lots of other tourists.
Can you blame them?
My traveling comrades, Lacey and Nicole. Layers are a must.
And there is this. The Shire is real y’all.
The descent through the Almannagjá fault is an easy walk…unless you off-road it like Nicole.
Following Þingvellir, we continued up Road 36 into the grey and wet day until we reached the valley of Haukadalur. This is the location of the famed geysers Strokkur and Geysir. Strokkur erupts rather frequently…perhaps every 5 or 8 minutes. Geysir sadly isn’t as active.
We watched Strokkur a couple of times and then hiked up above the more active area. It was amazingly muddy and slippery. We got away with no serious falls.
Nicole also begin her campaign to provide group photo service to every collection of tourists we came across.
And here I noticed a pattern across some of the more scenic locations of Iceland. There are sundials. Not sure why…if you’re from Iceland and know, hit me up.
After Haukadalur, we drove to Gullfoss. (This is the first of many waterfalls to come…and yeah, I thought about incorporating “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” into these posts…still considering that. We saw so many.) The wind was whipping along the river Hvítá and making the trek down to the waterfall a little bit tricky with strong gusts.
In our past planning sessions, we had decided to skip the west coast and West Fjords. Yes, they’re amazing, but they would require more time and equipment than we had available. We jumped at the chance to drive through the country and make Akureyri the following day. So after another coffee stop (we were fading quickly) and a grocery haul, we headed north into the interior.
Here is what we did not know. The second half of Route 35 (Kjalvegur) is an interior road and only open through the summer season. With winter comes crazy amounts of snow and considering that the interior is made of the volcanic desert with few residents, the roads aren’t kept up. That means that these roads are gravel and terrible and rough…and barren. Amazingly, darkly, Mordor-style barren.
We had reservations to stay at Kerlingarfjöll that night…so we charged onward.
For a good while, we dragged along at 20 km/h. The poor Jimny lurched and jolted itself, us, and everything we had so carefully packed. There was a serious discussion that maybe we should turn around.
About two hours in, we found the first real sign of people at Hrefnubuð, a Kaffi Caffee Shop. It sits close to 35 and features an amazing view of Langjökull, the glacier to the west. A little worse for wear, we stopped for the bathroom (WC or water closet) and more coffee.
Earlier in the day, we had observed a good number of cyclists making their way through the countryside. One group of British guys had wound up at the stops about the same time we did. Taking note of this, we agreed that if they should catch up again, we’d buy them a beer, because driving was crazy enough. Biking seemed insane.
Well, we haven’t seen them yet, but we did come across Matt, from England, and Natxo, from the Basque country. Matt was coming to the end of two weeks on the road, while Natxo was nearing 40 days. They had also just met and were exchanging stories. It wasn’t long before we joined in. The nicest part wasn’t just sharing a beer with some new friends, but also hearing about the road ahead that they had already traveled…we picked a few tips and good locations to visit.
We also learned that faster is better on the gravel roads.
Our quick stop grew to over an hour. When we finally left, we had it on good authority from Matt and Natxo that there was an end to the gravel roads and that not too far ahead was our destination. And we made good time…especially going 50-60 km/h as opposed to 20.
The inclines, fading light, and pot-marked gravel road left us exhausted…and remember, we had just flown in that morning. We three crowded into a room meant for two, but sleep deprivation worked in our favor. We crashed into the double bed, not knowing a thing until the sunlight hit us that morning.
And the camp at Kerlingarfjöll was beautiful.
Breakfast was provided, coffee included. There wasn’t as much fish as I expected but rather lots of cold meat and cheese.
Following breakfast, I walked up the trailhead leading to Hveradalir. We didn’t have time in our schedule to spend the full day exploring the surrounding area…but just the views of the camp and surrounding area were impressive.
With a last look toward the mountains, I headed back to camp and packed the car with Nicole and Lacey. Our goal for the day, finish the interior road and reach Akureyi in the fjord Eyjafjörður.
Let me just end this first post by saying that I’m excited to share the names of all these areas because I feel like I’m recounting a trip through Middle Earth. Yes, I’m a nerd. And yes, I know the movies were filmed in New Zealand. But the landscape of Iceland and the amazing names are the closest things I know, so far, to Tolkien’s world. So let me have this.
What to Wear (During the Summer): Rain jackets and windbreakers are a must. Dress in layers as the weather will shift from sunny and calm to chilly and drizzling, to windy and rainy with no warning.
Umbrellas: Not needed. Instead choose a high-quality rain jacket with hood and zipper pockets.
Driving: The roads can be treacherous between unpaved sections and steep inclines and declines. Choose a 4×4 for your rental vehicle. (If it’s in your budget, go big and get the Defender.) Also, keep your lights on. It’s the law. And don’t stop in the road to take pictures. Wait for a space to pull off the road before you get snap-happy. Don’t fear the gravel roads. Speed is your friend. Keep both hands on the wheel, but aim for 40-60km/h. Try it and you’ll believe me. Keep your eyes peeled for awesome sites and sheep crossing the road.
Food: It’s expensive to eat here. A good budget option is to pack your lunches. Stop at groceries and buy supplies before heading out in the morning. Bring snacks as well along with extra water. Hiking will leave you hungry and dehydrated…and in general, it’ll be miles (kilometers) before you reach a place to eat.