28 08 2012
If you are touring by car, it’s like there are two Icelands. Both are beautiful but they are not equally accessible. One is smooth, paved and easy to reach, inhabited by ordinary vehicles who gently explore the edges of the island. The other is rough, rutted and the province of jeeps, 4WDs and the strange adventure machines we first met at the ferry. It is these that rule the mighty highland roads that run across Iceland’s mysterious interior where mere 2WDs rightly fear to tread and in some places are forbidden.
Nothing to fear but elves and ditches
“There is nothing to fear in the interior” reads the advice to drivers contemplating a visit to the highlands. Yet in Icelandic history and culture the interior was a place to be feared; the domain of trolls, elves and outlaws. And even today, travellers are warned to travel with their eyes wide open, to be ready for trouble, for the interior is not a place to be messed with. The roads are rough, the landscape unfamiliar and navigation challenging. There are few facilities, no garages and communications can be unreliable. There can be deep and changeable rivers to ford, the weather can change fast and if you get stuck you might have to wait a while for another vehicle to pass or to get help. And that’s what makes them such a great place for an adventure.
“If you want to cross a river, make sure to put it in first gear and drive slowly,” explains the guy from Go Iceland as he hands over the keys to a great big 4WD Dodge Durango. “Stick to the roads on the rental map and if you get stuck, give us a call.”
“Wow, it’s so high up here” say the kids as they climb up into the Dodge and spread themselves amongst the seven seats. After several weeks crammed into our trusty Ford Mondeo this is a luxury liner.
“The river would have to be really deep to get in here,” says Hannah. “Can we cross one?” For us adults it is less a treat, and more an inevitability; one of the routes we have chosen, the Fjallabak route, is pretty much one continuous river and neither of us are looking forward to being baptised.
From Atlantic Rift to Glacial Tongue
It’s a hell of a ride; bumpy, and crazy and leading into wild, wild places. We choose two classic routes, and the first, the Kjölur route, begins with the familiar – some sights we saw on a previous Golden Circle Tour. Thingvellir National Park is the home of the oldest parliamentary institution in the world. It also provides the chance to climb into an active rift between two continental plates. And who wouldn’t want to do that? Then it’s a quick visit to Geysir to see the geyser Strokkur do its stuff and to peer into geothermal pools before we start the real journey.
Thin single track roads, leading to even thinner single track roads, until eventually we can see the glacial tongues of the Langjökull glacier helter skeltering down the mountainside to Lake Hvitarvatn. In the cold evening light the glacier looks gritty and unwelcoming, and they feel even bleaker when Hannah trips and knocks out her front tooth. But she’s soothed by the promise of the tooth fairy (or elf?) appearing in the tent overnight, and we are reassured by the sight of Hvitarnes, the oldest Icelandic Touring Association hut in Iceland, appearing when we have almost lost all hope. We camp beside it, with several sheep for company, using the Dodge as an evening refuge from the wind.
And on into a strange rhyolite studded world
In the morning we steel ourselves for rivers, and accidentally end up crossing one when we take a wrong turning and end up at a remote farm. But it’s not until much later in the day when we find ourselves doing them for real. They are the final hurdles to cross to get to our campsite after a long day’s driving through a landscape that looks as though it could fuel the devil’s barbecue; mounds of blackened slag heap, occasionally streaked through with green.
Landmannalaugar campsite is a little like Glastonbury. And a lot like the end of the world. In the cold decaying night, people peg down tents with rocks, and huddle together on picnic benches, trying to find some warmth behind exposed wooden buildings housing a hostel that can only cater for a few. Iceland’s endless daylight is over, and a blend of dusk and mist has shrouded the landscape. Now and again you can pick out the bare legs of someone rushing to the natural hotpools that contain the eggy smell of sulphur and bright green weed that bears an uncanny resemblance to troll’s hair.
In the morning, the scene is unchanged, except for the arrival of the early tourist buses. We follow our noses and walk towards a puff of smoke in the next valley. It takes us over a lava field, where puffs of pock marked pumice make a great place to play hide and seek. We pick a path over the rock, to an area where the earth bubbles and spits, sending steam from various openings, and intensifying the whiff of bad egg. We breathe it in. This is essence of Iceland.
On the way back, we are rewarded for our efforts by lines of shiny black standing stones. The sun briefly comes out and the boulders reflect its shine. The children rush to find smaller pieces of rhyolite; to a six year old it must seem like a field of shimmering black jewels. I run my fingers over the smooth surface of a rock; and imagine the lava slowly cooling to produce this magical stuff.
Rivers, not rhyolite lie ahead
But there’s no time to hang around as the Dodge is needed in Reykjavik by morning. The Fjallabak route is famous for its rivers and there are many on our route. We mentally prepare ourselves to plough through in our 4WD. The rivers don’t disappoint. But then neither does the vehicle. The Mondeo is a dull pebble next to the rhyolite jewel we have handled on this rocky road over the last few days. Such a shame the Dodge has to go back, because there are plenty more roads like this in Iceland’s wild interior. And many more rivers to cross.
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