14 -18 MAY 2017: VATNAJOKULL, GOLDEN CIRCLE AND SNAEFELLSNES
First visit to this amazing country, one which had been on my bucket list for a while but I’d always struggled to convince Chris to fly north instead of south (he likes a bit of heat).Originally, I’d planned the short trip at short notice myself but he finally came round to it; thankfully, as I prefer seeing places in his company.It was driving, driving – big long days with lots of sightseeing but we both enjoy touring.We’d normally do much more walking but that wasn’t what this trip was about.I wanted to see South East Iceland and also the West as well as Gullfoss.
Forecast was truly awful before we went – incessant rain mostly. I began to wish I hadn’t bothered booking the trip! But it seems Icelandic forecasters are as bad as ours and we had barely 10 minutes of rain over the 4 days.Unbelievable.
I’ve covered each day separately.
DAY 1: SUNDAY: KEFLAVIK TO JOKULSARLON LAGOON 6 hour drive
After a 2 hour flight from Edinburgh, we arrived in Keflavik 20 minutes early at 8.40am but didn’t get out of the plane until 9.15 am due to air-bridge problems! Ah the joys of air travel……
Very quick through passport control and made a bee-line for the Duty Free at the airport having been told this was the cheapest and easiest place to stock up on wine etc.( It was.)
Our final destination tonight was the tiny settlement of Hali, nearest habitation to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and around 372km away in SOUTH EAST ICELAND. About the same distance between Glasgow (our home) and Skye, a drive we do often so it seemed ok with an early start and long daylight hours.
CAR HIRE (£133) AND THE PROBLEM WITH SANDSTORMS (if of interest)
We’d booked through third party Auto Europe and ‘Payless ‘ were the local company.
Smiling confidently, we declined all the usual extras they try to sell you, having sorted out our own full car insurance cover back home until the girl said ‘now what about sandstorm cover?” Sandstorm cover? What on earth was she talking about – this was Iceland not the Sahara! First mistake – I’d somehow missed the fact that the area we were headed for is sandstorm central. It has huge areas of ‘sandur’ – to quote Wikipedia: a plain formed of glacial sediments deposited by meltwater outwash at the terminus of a glacier. We would be driving across the largest of its kind in the world! (500 sq miles of the blinking stuff.) When the wind whips up enough, the sediment – like dark sand – can cause major car damage and causes roads to be shut! Christ, that was all we needed.
‘Are there likely to be sandstorms today or tomorrow?’ I asked hoping for a ‘no.’ But she claimed to have no idea of the forecast though she did warn that May was the month for storms and Vatnajokull was THE place. I racked my brain to remember the forecast , which I’d poured over for days before we left. I knew it was terrible – rain, rain, rain. But no wind to speak of. Which was Mistake Number 2. I discovered – later – that I’d misread the way they report wind speed in Iceland and the tiny wind speed I’d read was actually closer to being a gale! However, at that point at the car hire desk, ignorance was bliss as I hadn’t realised this.
Feeling pretty confident she was just trying to eke more money from us, we spent a few minutes going through the Exclusions policy on the insurance, never found any for sandstorm damage, took a deep breath and turned down the extra £40 cover. Little did we know then………
SELJALANDSFOSS – FIRST BIG WATERFALL
Set off around 10.15am under heavy grey skies but it was dry so we’d take that for the next 4 days, no problem.
Iceland was greener than we expected, lots of interesting mountains all around beyond Reykjavik. The roads were very good, a heck of a lot straighter than ours and we were soon at Selfoss. The Kronon supermarket was ok and we stocked up on skimmed milk, crisps, bread , butter. We’d brought our own rice, tea/coffee, chocolate , salt, pepper, curry spices and some oranges.
By 12.30pm we’d reached our first sightseeing stop – Seljalandsfoss, which was truly a spectacle. I’ve never been huge about waterfalls overall, they’re lovely of course, but the scale and power of this was quite something. And it was now under blue skies! The area was really busy, people everywhere and it was difficult to get a real close up shot without getting absolutely soaked, the spray was so powerful. But what a wonderful spot.
Impressed, we carried on and soon passed signs for the huge Skogafoss waterfall, but that was for the return journey tomorrow.
By 1.30pm, including our stops, we reached the Solheimajokul Glacier where you can walk to the glacier tongue for a close up view. From the Café, it’s a short 800m on a good track and it was a really impressive sight. There were several groups all geared up for glacier walks striding towards the ice. However, the really huge glacier area was still to come at Vatnajokull. Our 2015 Lonely Planet Guide had promised a 4.2km rutted track to access the car park but it is now an excellent tarmac road.
It had been a fine drive so far, good landscapes mostly as we hurtled towards Reynisfjara, the famous black sand beach with huge emerald cliffs. I noticed the turn off for Dyrholaey, a Nature Reserve with a rock arch which I fancied seeing tomorrow. This was all a really nice looking area with the wild ocean now in sight.
2.30pm and Reynisfjara was heaving! It was more impressive than I’d thought it might be; photos don’t really capture the scale of the emerald and black basalt cliffs, much of which are sculpted with hexagonal columns and which rear up from the sand. We had recently visited our own famous basalt columns site – Fingal’s Cave on Staffa – so were familiar with the geology. But you can’t beat a surging ocean and here it was in all its glory. A dangerous spot too, as many beach warning signs indicated. Rogue waves had swept people to their deaths in the recent past so we stayed well back from the surf.
I loved the wild drama of Reynisfjara , even with the crowds. Sometimes a landscape transcends the sheer numbers of people clamouring to enjoy it. Even in poor weather it would be impressive. Combined with Dyrholaey, I could enjoy a few days in this area and had my eye on some guesthouses on the 5km road to the beach and before the turn off.
We now had a less interesting drive across the huge Myrdalssandur area east of Vik, vast lava sand flats before arriving at Kirkjubaeklaustur (called ‘klaustur’ locally.)
KIRKJUBAEKLAUSTUR TO SKAFTAFELL
Filled up with fuel at a cold, blowy petrol station at tiny Klaustur after which our guide book promised ‘great landscapes.’ They had been pretty good so far!
We had already had frequent sightings of Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas, big marauding birds which terrorise others but are so impressive. We have them in Scotland, but the world’s largest breeding colony is in South Iceland. They were everywhere.
By 4.30pm we were crossing the enormous Skeidarasandur and Skaftafell’s glaciers came into view. The mountains really came into their own now and we just had to stop beyond Nupsstadur , below Lomagnupur mountain and the start of the Vatnajokull glacier.
This was the most impressive part of the road so far, where a shapely 767m terraced mountain reared up from the moorland beside us. Beyond, we could see the first of the huge glacier tongues which flow between the Skaftafell mountain range. It was fabulous. Empty road, empty landscape, not another soul around. Just the snow covered mountains , a wide riverbed and the opaque, ominous white of a truly enormous glacier. Snipe calling all around us. Beautiful.
With the exception of a long section of more ‘sandur’ landscape, from here to Jokulsarlon, every turn of the road revealed another glacial tongue snaking between shapely peaks. We stopped often, just drinking in the views. We’d been on the road quite a time now but it was so worth it.
Saw signs for Svartifoss, another famous waterfall but that would wait till tomorrow. We were keen to make the most of the dry, if overcast weather, to see the Jokulsarlon Lagoon.
Just before 6pm we pulled into a gravel car park and there it was, the lagoon, with the glacier in the distance and turquoise and white icebergs floating on its surface. What a great sight! Exciting! Skuas patrolled overhead, arctic terns, gathered in their hundreds, swooped and called. What looked like a small flock of Ivory Gulls , completely white, rested on an iceberg. A beautiful female Snow Bunting fed at the edge of the gravel. An occasional seal swam through the icy waters. We walked along the shore and just admired it all. The birdlife today had been a joy, something that to me, always makes a landscape seem very alive.
There’s a very low population on Iceland, only 350,000, despite it being bigger than Ireland and so much of what we saw was incredibly empty. There were only the tiniest, scattered settlements. So we were driving through landscapes quite unspoiled by the paraphernalia of urban or even rural living nowadays ; power lines, fencing, signage. The architecture I would describe as fairly utilitarian and plain though the bright red roofs were a lovely contrast in the landscape. Nothing, however, looked very old.
6.30pm and we were ready to find our accommodation for the night in Hali. Even that was a great 10 minute drive with some impressive craggy terraced mountains as a backdrop to Skyrhusid Guesthouse. It was a lovely building, clapboard style, very traditional. We liked it immediately. It was all wood panelling inside and the whole place felt very warm and cosy. The owner was a lovely, smiling woman who made us very welcome – ’Oh, you are from Shcottland – you have such beautiful mountains!’ Our room was small and basic but had a charm about it. There was a tiny kitchen and small dining area for guests to use downstairs. She had just baked an apple crumble cake and left it out for guests. Being a cake fiend, I certainly did that, though none of the other two couples staying seemed interested. Although we’d booked late, the whole place was mostly empty. If it was full, it must feel quite cramped given the shared bathroom/shower – one per 6 rooms – and tiny kitchen/eating area. And not cheap at £160 a night. Youth Hostels were priced at around £147 a night for a double room with private facilities and I’d say Skyrhusid was more like a youth hostel than guesthouse.
Had a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate being in Iceland and a really great first day. Got a shower right away to avoid any morning competition from the 4 other guests and cooked some spicy rice with some tinned ham (which we’d brought with us.) It was a first in terms of combination but tasty and cheap. Then oranges and more tea and the essential chocolate for me. (And more of that homemade cake). Chris as ever was , in his words , ‘onto something far better ‘– a bottle of Chilean Chardonnay.
The rain came on now, perfect timing, so relaxed in our room and looked forward to Day 2.Out for the count by 9.30pm as we’d been up at 3.45am UK time. (Iceland is one hour behind UK time during summer).
ICELAND IN 4 DAYS Day 2 – To Gullfoss
ICELAND IN 4 DAYS Day 3 – Golden Circle and Snaefellsnes
ICELAND IN 4 DAYS Day 4 – Snaefellsnes