All this way for a crashed plane on a deserted beach. And the puffins.
Sep 2nd • 2015
(Say that title five times fast.)
Our Airbnb in Seyðisfjörður was lovely. Older with lots of windows and wood floors, the house was described to us as one of three on a small road, the closest to the waterfall at the end of the lane.
The town of Seyðisfjörður was equally attractive. Nestled at the end of a fjord of the same name, people have been living here since the earliest times of settlement in Iceland. Today it’s a cozy port town with historic wood buildings and a thriving arts scene.
We had a simple breakfast of smoked salmon on Rúgbrauð with cream cheese and a side of scrambled eggs. Rúgbrauð is a new favorite of mine. I had seen it at the first grocery store we had stopped at just before Geysir. Originally, I assumed it was something akin to Russian black bread. Later we learned it’s a steamed rye bread that Icelanders make and cook via geothermal heat. It’s nicknamed Thunder Bread due to its gassy effect on the digestive system. It became a favorite of ours after hikes. A nice slice of Thunder Bread covered with butter was the perfect end to every venture we undertook.
After checking out of our Airbnb, we stopped by Hotel Aldan for coffee. We were hesitantly preparing ourselves for the long day ahead. We had waited a little while between securing accommodations for the trip and with August being a busy travel month for Iceland, the availability of guesthouses was limited. With nothing open to us in Höfn, we were forced to book a guesthouse further down Road 1 in Vík. This left us with a six-hour drive between Seyðisfjörður and our next stop.
Around 2 PM, we finally left town. Daylight lessened the severity of the steep pass over Fjarðarheiði mountain at the end of the fjord. We even stopped at Gufufoss, a waterfall that sits above the town.
At the beginning of our drive, we found ourselves on another rough gravel road, 939. It allowed us to skip some of Road 1 as it wound out and in between the east fjords. But there were moments when the road seemed to disappear in front of our eyes between the fog and the very steep descent down the mountains.
As we made our way back onto Road 1, I took on a new role aside from that as navigator. DJ. Apparently Ace of Base is a favorite for Nic and Lacey.
With the overcast sky and low-lying clouds, I can see why the folklore of Iceland includes giant trolls. What giant creature isn’t waiting for unsuspecting travelers high up in those hills?
This part of the Ring Road took us near and around the Vatnajökull glacier. It’s a massive buildup of ice and snow, covering over 10% of the country’s land. Even though we felt the pressure to reach the next guesthouse before the check-in time passed, I was overly excited to stop and get a closer look. Nicole felt the same and so we took a minute to venture towards the Fláajökull glacier…one of the many glacier tongues flowing south from Vatnajökull.
That minute turned into an hour and a half. But the delay was worth it. Nicole and I made it to the glacier and up under its melting mass. At one point, while we both stood under a newly forming ice cave, something fell…or cracked. Not sure which. Either way, we made it back to the open air in record time.
That was probably the most awesome part of traveling with another photographer. When a scene or site arose that required a little more effort to reach, the mutual reaction was one of “Hell yes, we’re doing that.” So Nicole and I climbed rocks and waterfalls, hiked up slick mud paths, and now managed our way up to a glacier.
Our drive continued, passing more glacial tongues.
We were racing the clock, but then…the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon appeared in the distance. And there was no way we were missing that.
This was the coldest place we had been yet. I think the glaciers were cooling the air, creating chilling and biting winds.
The lagoon opens out into the ocean…actually running under the Ring Road itself. Many of the melting chunks of glaciers float down toward the waves and then get pushed to the shore upon the black sands beaches. For someone accustomed to white sands, the black beaches were strange enough. Add on top of that chunks of ice and the effect was awe-inspiring.
The sun fully disappeared by the time we reached the Hvammból Guesthouse just past Vík. And that’s saying something because the sun doesn’t set until around 10:30 or 11 PM. It was dark and the distance listed on the road signs conflicted with the kilometers on our GPS map. All three of us were tired and hungry and very ready to stop. It was around this time that Nicole realized how similar we are. Don’t worry. It ended well and we’re still friends. But it was an eye-opening moment. I forget in the excitement of experiencing new places, that even in good times, travel can be stressful. It’s nice to have traveling companions that realize that also.
Upon our very late arrival, we experienced another amazing part of Icelandic culture. Our host had left us notes and a key. The doors were open and waiting.
This was a common occurrence across the board. We would stay at guesthouses and pay any time before we left. In Mývatn, we could help ourselves to beer and wine and just pay later. There was no list kept. It was just assumed that we would make good with our hosts. In Seyðisfjörður our host had left the door open and keys waiting in the window. The culture is very trusting…and I hope the influx of tourists doesn’t mess that up.
The following day, Lacey stayed at the guesthouse to sleep and rest. Nicole and I ventured into Vík to explore. We began on the black basalt beach closest to town. Here you can see the Reynisdrangar sea stacks that rise out of the cold ocean water. They are the result of erosion on the larger Reynisfjall mountain. We also saw puffins!
After I attempted to climb up to the puffins, we made our way to the other side of Reynisfjall to the black volcanic rock beach and the beautiful cave called Hálsanefshellir. The cave is framed by natural column formations of basalt which is a black volcanic rock.
And here you can see Nicole continuing in her campaign to provide group photo services.
You can also see our amazing, neon-styled, fellow tourists.
And make a note of the two dudes at the bottom right of this photograph.
At this point, Nicole found the double exposure option on her Nikon. And then we went full “photo nerd” and played around with that capability for a bit.
After our walk around Reynisfjöru, we headed for the car…and found ourselves facing two German hitchhikers. (Remember the two dudes at the cave?) Their names were Max and Miles and they were looking for a lift from here to wherever we were willing to take them…and that wound up being Skógafoss. The two of them had just arrived in Iceland the day before and this was their first foray onto the Ring Road. I think their goal for the whole of their trip was camping and hitchhiking.
Throughout our drive, we found hitchhiking to be a very common method of getting along the Ring Road. And it works! The Icelandic people are pretty generous as long as fellow travelers. There was a strong vibe of community amongst a lot of the folks we ran into…even though we were going our separate ways.
This is Nicole’s picture below. For a hot minute, we switched roles.
And that is a German traveling hat. Nicole says it’s a thing.
This is the stylish Skógafoss.
After leaving Max, Miles, and Skogafoss, we made our way back toward Lacey with a final stop at Dyrhólaey. This promontory is home to more puffins and also provides amazing views of the surrounding landscape.
The view to the east shows Reynisfjöru and the Reynisdrangar sea stacks.
And more puffins!!! The best part about these birds is their awkward transition from stillness to flight. They act as if jet-packs are attached to their backs. And with that being said, I wish I had filmed them because I’m sure you don’t believe me.
The view to the west.
Dyrhólaey was literally across the road from the Hvammból Guesthouse. Nicole and I raced back to pick up Lacey and embark on our goal to find the Sólheimasandur plane crash. It’s between Dyrhólaey and Skógafoss. There is a small gravel road that turns off Road 1 and heads out toward the waves.
The US Navy plane crashed in 1973 on the black beach after the pilot switched to the wrong (and empty) fuel tank. I’m not sure why the plane was left, but it stands as a rather apocalyptic image against the wide-open landscape of Sólheimasandur and the mountains beyond.
Following the crash site, we attempted to locate Seljavallalaug, an old geothermal swimming pool that always pops up on Pinterest. (Seriously, planning a vacation through Pinterest is awesome.)
By the time we got accurate directions and reached the pool, the area was too dark for great photos, and the moon was obscured by the clouds. We also had a strange run-in with some German tourists. I think we interrupted an intimate moment at the pool. So…yay us…creating awkward moments across the globe.
Flashlights: Bring them. And be sure that batteries are charged and working well.
Hitchhikers: I’m not saying to pick up everyone you see, but if you want a fun interaction with fellow travelers, Iceland might be the only place I’d say to do this.
Conversations with Locals: From our interactions, I learned that the people of Iceland are very proud but also generous. They are also very sarcastic and witty. Be prepared, for if you prove to be friendly, they will make fun of you. Sarcasm might be their love language.
Reusable Bags: Bring at least one reusable shopping bag. You have to pay for plastic bags at the grocery.
Be Spontaneous: When there’s a whale tour in 15 minutes, just do it.
Petrol/Gas: Make a point of filling up your vehicle’s tank before leaving any “major” cities. There is no guarantee of stations outside of the towns and you could face over a 100km before an opportunity to refuel arrives.
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 at all times. 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.