‘On a wing and a prayer’. That was us heading to Iceland. We decided when to go based on meeting up with friends. We decided how long to stay by allocating a week to walk the La-ha-ha-ha trail (see here) and adding another nine or ten days to see other stuff and we booked a rental car so we could get around.
After that we just didn’t think about it anymore. Not until we got to the airport, when it occurred to me that perhaps I ought to have a quick look at what there was to see. I typed ‘Iceland’ into Google on the Charles De Gaule airport Wi-Fi 15 minutes before we boarded our flight and started reading. I looked up a short while later, caught Emma’s eye and said, ‘Iceland sounds pretty good. We should go there’. Emma smiled.
Fortunately, in Iceland you can’t go too wrong. There is one road that encircles the island and unless you have a monster truck or van like the locals then it’s really the only way to go.
We had a Skoda Rapid, a ‘compact’, and while it was my second favourite rental car of the journey, it was a long way from a monster truck.
So it was the ring road for us and nine days to do it. You really need at least fourteen, but that’s the yin and yang of travel on a wing and a prayer. It is only with hindsight that the desire for five more days kicked in, so in the moment there was no problem. We saw what we saw, and that’s what we saw.
And you should have seen what we saw! Iceland is a wonderful country. It’s unique. It is its own special beasty. An isolated outpost tucked way away up there in the North all on its own. As the ‘Niceland’ book I picked up at the Reykjavik Campground says,
‘Lying far out in the North Atlantic, just nudging the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the world’s most remote islands. Because it straddles the North Atlantic ridge, where the two tectonic plates which underlie Europe and North America are drifting apart, volcanic activity is frequent and earthquakes practically an everyday occurrence. These dramatic forces from the earth’s core combine with the country’s numerous glaciers and tumbling rivers to shape its unique and varied natural surroundings’.
Australia is gorgeous because it’s geologically stable and ancient. Iceland is gorgeous because it’s geologically alive and young. It is a virtually treeless landscape of fjords, volcanoes, glaciers, scorched hill sides, mountains, lava flows, braided rivers, black beaches, waterfalls, steaming vents in the earth, boiling mud pots and geysers.
There are few insects because it’s so cold and the weather is extremely fickle even in mid-summer. Wildlife consists mainly of birds of which there is a great abundance, and a seemingly healthy marine ecosystem, based on the five minutes it took to haul in six or seven huge Atlantic Cod at the end of our whale watching trip (see below). There are reindeer, but not in places that can be reached with a Skoda Rapid.
There are also horses. Iceland has its own special breed and they outnumber the human population by three to one. They’re everywhere and they’re nice to look at. Emma’s friend Nikki (a thoroughly horsey person) says they’re a unique breed and chastised her for not fitting pony rides into our itinerary. This was a good thing if you ask me. I proffered the view that they would not be nice to ride because they were cold and wet and therefore grumpy and that they would all be happier in Fiji. I did however go to great lengths to take a photo of the beasties… and Emma took a photo of my efforts.
We raced our way around the ring road, nine days not being long enough to spend more than one night in the same town. We only looked up what to see each day the morning we set out and we camped every night of our stay save one, which had the effect of making the most expensive country we have been to quite cheap.
We referred to the towns we visited as ‘the place starting with…’ (insert first letter of town name), because really, they are just unmanageable for humble Aussies. The Icelanders know it too. My favourite touristy fridge magnets and T-shirt read ‘What part of EYJAFJALLAJOKULL don’t you understand?’ or ‘EYJAFJALLAJOKULL is so easy to pronounce Ay-uh-fyat-luh-yoe-kuutl-uh’.
The ring road journey is an ever changing feast for the senses. One glacier accompanied us for more than 60 kilometres in the south, with glacial tongues sliding their way down on to broad, flat, black, plains streaked with braided rivers. Other times we drove through moss covered lava fields, which looked like someone had pushed up too hard from underneath the surface and accidentally broken the earth. Which is probably what happened. Except it wasn’t ‘someone’, it was ‘no-one’. Just the earth doing its thing.
Half way along the south coast is ‘the lagoon starting with J’. It was the closest thing I could imagine to visiting the north or south pole without visiting the north or south pole. A massive ‘outlet glacier’ to the big one, in retreat since the 1950s, it has created the ever expanding lagoon in which bergy bits float around before slowly making their way to a narrow neck and being swept out to sea. There they are pummelled by the surf and forced up on to the black sandy beach where they sit and slowly melt, like massive sparkling diamonds.
The day we made it to the east fjords it rained so hard we couldn’t see more than a hundred metres in any given direction and when we went looking for puffins we discovered the migration had begun. Couldn’t blame them. The weather was horrendous. In the north we stumbled across fields of boiling mud pots and hills scorched bear by the heat of volcanoes not far below. We walked among vast lava flows where the rock beneath our feet was just 31 years old. It was put there by an eruption which lasted nine years and only finished in 1985. How often do you walk on rocks younger that you?
There were hot springs as well and we spent happy hours paddling around in the beautifully warm waters, revelling in the freedom from thermal underwear. Hot springs are an Icelandic way of life. Back in Reykjavik the locals lolled around in the geothermally heated waters of wading pools for hours on end. Like seals sunning themselves on rocks, except for their iridescent white skin. I guess you have to get your sun while you can.
We also took a day in the north, ‘in the town starting with D’ to go whale watching. We cruised out onto Iceland’s largest fjord where we were blessed by a pod of 40 or more humpback whales. They surrounded the boat, spouts spurting and tail fins flipping skyward before disappearing into the depths to re-emerge on the other side of the boat minutes later.
As we drove my Charlie Brown Pez dispenser handed out Pez, and the car stereo steadily made its way through every song on my phone in alphabetical order, except for the Jaques Louisier Trio’s jazzy rendition of Vivaldi’s four seasons which I love and Emma thinks sounds like elevator music. On the upside I did catch her humming along to various Coldplay tracks, which means she may be coming around on that one.
We completed the ring with a stop at Geysir and the national park starting with a funny ‘p’ like character that actually makes a ‘th’ sound. Geysir is the sight of the original geyser (the one all future geysers are named after) and where a pool of boiling water launches itself 40 metres into the air roughly every five minutes (Strokkur geyser) and the funny ‘p’ place being the Þingvellir National Park where you can view the gap being created by those tectonic plates which are slowly ripping Iceland in two.
And all the while everywhere we went, there were fosses (waterfalls). Foss after foss. The big ones, Dettifoss, Gulfoss, Svartifoss, Selfoss and Godafoss were spectacular. The other ones would have been spectacular in almost any other country. Here they scarcely warranted a sideways glance. Mostly because you risked straining a neck muscle trying to keep up with them out the Skoda Rapid window as they flew by in rapid succession. Ok, I exaggerate, but only a little.
The last night of our stay however was just too miserable and cold to pitch a wet tent. We retreated to a hostel ‘in the town starting with L’. It was basic but felt like the height of luxury. I guess it’s all relative. Our mattresses didn’t go flat in the middle of the night to start with, a problem that had been afflicting Emma I the whole time.
The upside to knowing virtually nothing about where we were going all this time was that all of the above was a wonderful new discovery. Without expectation there is no disappointment and without agenda there is no imperative, except in our case to make sure we made it back to Reykjavik nine days after we left. Of course given our lack of planning there is always the chance that we drove straight past some magnificent sights through ignorance, but what concern is that given we don’t know what we missed and the rest of it was so good?
I’ve decided to take it as a sign of personal growth just how relaxed I was with free form travel. You should try it sometime. Pick a spot on the map, go there and see what you find. There’s a good chance it’ll be wonderful, especially if it’s in Iceland.