Iceland by Land Rover, (mostly) 1996
This article is about a trip myself and my wife made to Iceland late August this year. We travelled by ferry from Aberdeen (Scotland) to the Faroe Islands, and on to Seydisfjordur. I'll try to tell you about what we needed to take, what we saw, things to look out for and so on. Note that we went before the eruption under the Vatnajokull, so some of this may well have changed now.
The Pre-Trip Panic
We decided to go early this year, and picked the last two weeks in August. I looked into ways of getting over there with our Land Rover. The best for us was by car ferry to the Faroes, and on to Iceland (bookable through P&O ferries in Aberdeen). Other options were sending the Land Rover by freight and flying -very expensive, or flying and hiring a 4WD vehicle when we got there -very expensive. So, we booked early, and started thinking about what to take.
I got maps from Stamfords in London, and found the Lonely Planet guidebook indispensable. We spent a few weeks beforehand slowly getting the Land Rover ready, worrying about reliability and doing 'practice drives' in the Derbyshire Peak District- a National Park local to Manchester where we live. This mostly involved driving up and down steep rocky tracks to gain experience, but overall I think you do enough of that when you get there. Even our dog got fed up and jumped out of a window.
The Spares Dilemma
The dilemma was that if you took what the book said, you would need a whole spare Land Rover in the back, plus another one following as backup driven by patient and trustworthy friends. We compromised, but did quite a lot of preparatory mechanical work and took a lot of 'get you out of trouble' things - shovels, half shafts, spares, ropes, winch, tools, food, plenty of water, the list goes on. I made two brackets to hold diesel jerry cans on the front as we intended to travel in the interior, and there are no facilities. I even bought a radio cassette - luxury!
One interesting thing I found was that the AA in the UK (a motoring recovery organisation) have a 'Europe' breakdown insurance cover, which included Iceland. Great I thought - If the thing really breaks down, all we need is a lot of food, good maps and the AA will foot the bill to get the thing back to England if necessary.
The down side of our choice of route was the time spent travelling, this is almost a week when you add it up so this seriously cut into our time in Iceland. Never mind, so off we set for the Faroes on the ferry 'Smyril'. It takes around 24 hours to get there from Aberdeen, and there is a 2 day wait for the next ferry to continue the journey. Before you go onboard, get a huge big bag, and fill it full of food for the trip to avoid paying dearly. Also, the Smyril uses Danish/Faroese currency. I had changed most of our holiday money in the first 24 hours! There were some bunks like shelves in the aft 'sundeck', and these were quite comfortable if not very private, so we slept there. We played cards during the day, followed by cards. After that we played cards for a while. When we set off, the Faroese onboard all started singing to accordions, and were obviously very happy to be going home. It was a nice thing to see.
We arrived at Torshavn and spent the next 2 days exploring the two main islands, Streymoy and Eysturoy. It was tempting to go further afield, but we were worried about the weather, which is Atlantic in character, -wet and changeable. The Faroese have an expression 'kanskar' - this means 'maybe' -and you have to be philosophical about delays caused by the weather. You may end up visiting an outer island and staying longer than you bargained. We rode on Icelandic ponies, hired in Torshavn, and generally looked around using the local campsite as a base.
It was an interesting place, very green, very steep, colourful villages and not many tourists. A bit like the Scottish highlands if you filled all the valleys with water just leaving the fells.
Arrival in Iceland
We continued from Torshavn on the MV Norrona, a much bigger vessel, and booked a cabin for a bit of comfort, just sleeping mostly. The scenery was very dramatic as we left, with the ferry threading its way through the island group. We settled down to the trip, but had forgotten that indispensable ferry travel aid - Monopoly! We arrived in Seydisfjordur on Thursday, having left Aberdeen Sunday afternoon. There is a tax payable on entry for diesel vehicles, so be patient, and have your documents and some money ready -they didn't take visa. This was about 45 GBP for the Land Rover for just over a week. At last, we were off! With the sun shining, we set off along the fjord, with Egilsstadir our next stop.
The road quickly changed from tarmac to dirt, and then stopped abruptly in a farmyard. After looking at the map, we then turned round and set off the right way. I had borrowed a global positioning system, but this did not have a 'beware intrepid explorer, you cannot read a map' feature. The interior beckoned. With no roads, how could we possibly get lost?**
**note, please do be very careful if you do go - I was quite intimidated by the vastness and indifference of this landscape at times. You felt as if you had no right to be there, that it wasn't a place for people.
Around the Ring Road and into the Interior
We drove to Egilsstadir, the first (and only) sizeable town around the area, and continued around the ring road towards Grimsstadir, stopping along the way occasionally. I was amazed by the landscapes, huge, empty, barren. The weather was quite good, but cold. I think late August is quite late to go. From Grimsstadir we turned to Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, a truly awesome sight. After actually managing a picnic outside, (we had brought table, chairs, general picnic type equipment, the Land Rover having enough room in the back for all this junk even though it's a short wheelbase). In the afternoon we turned back along the ring road to the Modrudalur hut, and then turned in towards Kverkfjoll. This is maybe 100km of hard driving, with mud, sand, rocks, and fjords to contend with. I was thoroughly enjoying this, it was the realisation of an ambition to me.
Do read the books about driving in the interior and crossing river fords -most of the water is glacial, and can be very cold, fast running and unpredictable. There are quite a few things you need to be aware of before doing this, and it's best if you have a good source of reference. The tourist board issue several leaflets about this - when roads open, what to do etc. We also found the 1:500,000 road atlas from Stamfords informative as it had hints about travelling in the interior, and good general information. In the end, I read quite a few different guides before the trip to build up a broad picture of what to expect. We saw one person that afternoon, a New Zealander alone on a bicycle. I felt underequipped with a Land Rover full of gear! At one point, we crossed a wooden bridged marked 'Welcome to Krepputunga' (a great lava field you cross on the way) It was very rough going, and you aren't supposed to camp there. In the distance on that clear day, the mountain Herdubreid loomed, never out of sight for long.
Kverkfjoll and the Caves
We arrived at the Kverkfjoll hut just before a beautiful red sunset, which meant that we'd gone a bit too far that day, as driving at night would not be recommended there. There were quite a few tents there and some 4wd coaches, organised trips.
What a place! it seemed like the end of the world, perched near the lip of the glacier. Even the strips of grass to camp on were brought in by 4wd vehicle. We stayed there for two nights, economising in our tent and spending the next day driving and then walking in cold, wet and foggy conditions up to the edge of the glacier and then round to an ice cave. We should have waited for a guide from one of the trips, as I was not confident for us to travel alone any distance on the glacier to see some of the wonders there, so we missed a lot. Kverkfjoll is where there is volcanic action underneath the glacier. The contrast gives rise to the 'fire and ice' idea, with bubbling pools, and ice caves carved by hot water. Be wary of these caves, as ice can fall at any time. We heard the eerie rumbling of some falling within, the noise and rising steam showing why tales of trolls living there and suchlike came about.
The Shortest Climb
We both do some winter climbing in Scotland, and so had brought our gear along just in case. I put on crampons, got my axes ready and tried a quick sortie around this area up one of the slopes just to 'test the ground'. It was very different to that at home - the ice was black with volcanic ash, and running with surface water.
Although it appeared quite stable, there were small rocks being washed down the slope all the time. It wasn't a great deductive leap to think of big rocks, and then to think of not doing any climbing, so that was that! Again I had the feeling that things may have been possible with a little more knowledge. One other thing, the magnetic deviation can be big, so look it up, and don't necessarily trust your compass.
On to Askja, then on a bit more
Askja is a huge lake created by a titanic explosion when a volcanic magma chamber collapsed in the 19th century. (We actually borrowed my brother's video camera for this trip, with most of the footage being of myself behaving like a documentary presenter. . . 'Here on our left we see evidence etc. etc.'). The history, both geological and human is fascinating. My footage, however enthusiastic wasn't so enthralling.
Another long drive over rough terrain. We stopped at the Dreki hut to ask the very friendly and pleasant warden about conditions, and carried on to the top. it isn't a long walk to the lake from the end of the track, and Viti is close by, an explosion crater still warm enough to swim in, with a milky colour and sulphuric smell. I took my swimming trunks, but didn't bother as we were greeted by horizontal snow. Another long drive brought us via Herdubreidarlindar back to the ring road and on to Myvatn, a beautiful lake in the North. we stopped near Krafla, at a geothermal area along the way, full of bubbling mud pools and strange and colourful deposits over the ground.
Each place we passed cried out to be explored, and I think we sacrificed a lot of appreciation by driving a long way to 'see the next thing'. I think maybe it would be better sticking to an area and doing more walking and exploring but I didn't know when we might be able to come back. On the whole, we were very lucky with the weather on these routes as we had more problems with dust and sand than rain and mud. Rivers were low as it had been quite dry recently, so they were crossed with no problems. The weather changed all the time, with sun, rain and sometimes snow following in quick succession, but we had no big storms, and from what I had read they can be quite common.
Night saw us in Akureyri, where we camped at the excellent site and had a wander round the next morning. Bordering on the Arctic ocean, we found this to be a lovely place. The public baths near the site were wonderful - just what we needed after all the driving and dust.
Down to the South
After a rest, we cut down the Kjolur route to Geysir in the South. Another long drive, but not as hard going as previously. The day was brilliant, with views that seemed to stretch forever. We stayed that night at the Hotel Geysir, which surprisingly had a room spare and was quite inexpensive. Strokkur, the geysir which erupts around every 7 minutes or so is one of the main tourist attractions, as is Gulfoss nearby. I found the lack of 'organised tourism' very refreshing. If you were anywhere else, you would expect an admission charge, a kid's theme park and the other trappings that spring up elsewhere. Here there are just wonderful sights, unspoiled.
Learning to Fly
Drive, drive, drive. That's all we'd done really, bar the occasional walk about. We decided to go and have a look at the Vestmannaeyjar, the island group on which the town of Heimay so narrowly escaped burial not so long ago. Inspired, my wife enquired about local flights there from Selfoss and hey presto, we had our own charter plane booked! (with the kind help of the staff at the Hotel Geysir) This was less expensive than we thought it might be, a one way ticket costing not much more than a sandwich on the Smyril . . . and we were feeling mildly extravagant.
We were taken there in a tiny four seater by a very friendly inhabitant of Selfoss, who asked 'What time would you like to come back?' We could see Surtsey in the distance as we flew toward Heimay. My wife was even allowed to 'drive' for a while. I sat in the back and tried to stay calm. A rainy afternoon was spent wandering round this fascinating place, we stood in the crater of Eldfell, the eastern arm of Helgafell which was still hot in places from the eruption in 1973.
From here, you can follow the course of the lava as it buried a third of the village, and nearly closed off the harbour as it flowed into the sea. Cold sea water was hosed onto the advancing lava in order to slow it's advance. As you look over this now peaceful scene, the audacity of this attempt strikes you. It's like one of the spiders so frequently found in our Land Rover deciding to push it out of the way as we threaten it's livelihood.
We arrived back at Selfoss safely and stayed that night at the Leirubakki hut which rests at the foot of Mount Hekla. where we were met with the only exception to the friendliness and courtesy which seemed to be the norm. Maybe they'd had a bad day?
Now, Mount Hekla holds a special place in my heart, as the top is where I proposed to my wife Liz in 1995. We didn't see it this year, because the weather had closed in again. We actually got back to Egilsstadir that day, by driving for over 12 hours, stopping for a dip in the hot pool at Landmannalaugar, and to see the great spurs of the Vatnajokull glacier meeting the barren Sandur on the south coast. Don't miss the Jokulsarlon if you pass this way. Here is a lake filled with icebergs calved from the Breidamerkurjokull.
Having a rest
The drive had taken its toll, and we were more than glad to get out of the Land Rover and pitch our tent at the camp site in Egilsstadir, and spend the next day resting. This beautiful country had one more surprise to give to us before we returned home. Just before we went to bed the night before to leaving, the sky cleared and there, faintly wavering was the green shimmering curtain of the Aurora Borealis. It was an immensely peaceful, privileged, almost spiritual feeling to sit there and try to see the shifting patterns of light, bordering on the edge of vision.
A long uneventful trip back awaited us the next day. How much time do you need to pay a place like this justice? To drive round for a week seemed just a 'taste' for me. Back in England, my thoughts are on how we could go back, to work and live there. Who knows?
Just as an aside, here us a list of mechanical problems we had in case they're of use. We were lucky, and the preparation seemed to have paid off, with only very minor things needing fixing. Here's what happened along the way: The Land Rover wouldn't start at Kverkfjoll (and at Torshavn come to think of it) - just a wire on the heating coils shaken loose, I had a small electrical multimeter, to find any electrical problems like this, and an aerosol of Diesel Easystart gas for if we didn't.
The bonnet lock sheared off with the constant bouncing. The windscreen wipers stopped working - a nut had worked loose and fallen off - I had a spare.
The horn gave up after a deep ford on the Landmannaleid. Somebody's exhaust had dropped off on the Kjollur route, we gave them copper wire to help tie it back on. Second Worst problem - parking behind a fish lorry on the 'Smyril' on the way back - the smell is still there from the frozen fish ice melting.
Worst Problem - An 'Erasure' tape got stuck in the cassette player because it was full of dust. It is 9 hours from Aberdeen to Manchester. I read that you shouldn't take a new vehicle, or everything works loose and drops off.
Hope you enjoyed this ramble, Andrew Foster
© 1996 Andrew Foster