It is fractionally over 50 kilometres from Keflavík International Airport to Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík. It took less than 5 of these kilometres to make me realise that, despite being a teacher of language and literature, I was going to struggle here. To co-opt the words of Jaws’ Chief Brody: you’re gonna need a bigger vocabulary. Stunning. Doesn’t cover it. Magnificent. Goes without saying, but it only tells part of the story. In the end I decided that I would have to follow the wonderful Icelandic band Sigur Rós’s lead here and invent a new language. You see, any extant word in the English language has already been used to describe something else. Iceland is so singular, so unique, that it needs specific words; words that have never been used before. Thus it was that I decided on ‘engorgeoningly magiferous’. However, to save you the pain of my smart-assery, I will try to describe the rest of the trip using regular English. It won’t be easy, but here goes…
I am not sure for how long I had actually wanted to visit Iceland – a long time, though. Also, I am not sure why I had not visited earlier. But when the opportunity came up for a six day Easter jaunt there, I could not say no. The chance arose due to a cheap flight showing up – Dubai to Reykjavík for around £200. Too good to turn down. The reason it was so cheap? A 22 hour layover in Helsinki. But, with the layover starting at 10.30am, this would not be a problem. I booked a room in a Finnish hostel and figured on seeing more of Helsinki than I had managed in a three and a half hour stop there a few years previously. And it was…OK. There is not a whole lot to see there at the best of times and a sub-zero Good Friday is not the best of times. Helsinki was very cold and mostly closed. The cold, I thought, would acclimatise me for Iceland – a pressure chamber, so to speak, between the desert and the tundra. And that worked fine, on paper. As I would discover the following day, however, nothing prepares you for Iceland, even in ‘spring’. It is not just the cold (it didn’t drop much below minus 4 centigrade all the time I was there) – it is the wind. The terrible, nerve-flaying, excoriating wind.
By the time I arrived at the guest house in Reykjavík, I was already frozen. Despite the administrations of the hire car heater and the many, many layers of cold-weather clothing. The guest house itself did not look promising – a peeling concrete council house on the edge of the city. I rang the doorbell and the owner told me over the intercom that the keys were in the room and proceeded to buzz me in. And that was all the human contact I had. Perfect. And the location? It looked like a not very nice estate, but it was a hundred yards from the main city art gallery in one direction and the city centre itself in the other. Really, given the price (€45 for a single room with a shared bathroom – which is very, very reasonable for Iceland), it could not have been a better choice. I wandered into the tiny heart of the mostly-closed city (I was fine if I needed Icelandic wool jumpers or puffin key rings, but it took a while to find food) and stocked up on picnic supplies. Not that I expected to be eating outside at any point in the coming week.
It was clear from the heavily overcast sky (not to mention the online forecasts) that there would be no northern lights in the Reykjavík area that night, and I wasn’t comfortable enough with the hire car to drive out into the country (I am very good at excuses), so I decided to have a drink and programme the satellite navigation system (I am soooo glad I decided to add this to the car hire!) for the following day. Top tip – if you are heading for Iceland and enjoy a drink in your hotel room, there is a duty free shop by the baggage carousels at the airport. Stock up – booze is at least 3 times as expensive in the off licences once you are through customs!
I slept with the curtains open, hoping that any the aurora might wake me, but it was sunrise that eventually did so. Consequently, I was on the road by 7.45am, heading for Vik on the South Coast by way of numerous other sights. Not only was it 7.45 am, it was also a Sunday. And not only was it a Sunday, it was Easter Sunday. So I was the only person on the road. The astonishingly spectacular road. The first thing that struck me was a sense of frustration, a feeling that would become uncomfortably familiar over the coming days. The landscapes of Iceland are unremittingly amazing. Again, I’m afraid these words don’t really do it justice. They are other-worldly. Iceland was the 72nd country I had visited and I had seen nothing even remotely like this. Every 200 yards I would round another corner and be faced with a view that would almost have me weeping in awe and in gratitude that I was there to witness it. However, Icelandic roads are almost invariably narrow with no hard shoulder and nowhere to stop. Putative photograph after putative photograph passed me by, each one more glowing in my imagination than the last. Wherever there was a possibility of stopping – turn-offs to farms, lay-bys, picnic areas, I did so and took shot after shot. But there were still hundreds of (in my mind) award-winning photographs that got away. The next thing that struck me was how out of place the common-place seemed against such incredible scenery. Anything normal, a JCB, or a petrol station, say, seemed surreal against such a primeval backdrop. It had me both amazed and at times giggling. I giggled a lot that first day. More than anything else, I don’t think I knew quite how to react. Yes, Iceland really is that beautiful.
My first stop was Hveragerði, a town famous for its geothermal vents used to heat greenhouses. It was closed. The whole town. There was little to see apart from a few steaming vents in a small park the other side of some chicken wire. Anywhere else, it may have been impressive. Here though? Not so much. I ate a sandwich in the car and pressed on.
The landscapes changed as I drove, though they certainly did not diminish. From the snowscapes and mountainous backdrop inland from Reykjavik, the land flattened out, giving views across a black volcanic plain leading down to the distant, pewter shine of the sea. The next stop was Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which was massively impressive in reality and, as with much of Iceland, almost impossible to capture photographically in any way that didn’t diminish it enormously. Given the amount of freezing spray generated, I was glad that my camera is weatherproof, though when it came to review the photos I had taken, most were indistinguishable blurs, the camera having focused on the water droplets on the UV filter in front of the lens. There was a flight of metal steps leading up the side of and eventually behind the waterfall. They were iced and slippery. I managed to get about halfway up fearing for both my ankles and my camera should I slip. And given that I once managed to badly break an ankle eating a kebab, I decided that halfway up was as far as I should go.
The drive to the next stop – Skógafoss (another waterfall) took me across the Eyjafjallajökul glacier and the volcano that erupted with such a terrible knock on effect to air travel in 2010. Skógafoss was even more impressive than the previous waterfall, and just as impossible to capture photographically. The final stop before that evening’s resting place, was the black sand beaches of Reynisdrangar and Vík – both mightily impressive – landscapes unchanged since paleolithic times.
The beaches and their associated headlands were stunning. Again, the words fail the experience. If you could stand there and see what I saw, you’d realise that the photographs and the writing and everything else just doesn’t work.
I arrived at the hostel into which I was booked in Vík in the late afternoon. Vík is a tiny village, yet one of the major south coast points of reference. The first thing everybody notices is the church, way up on a crag, high above the town. I only found out a few days later that the town regularly has evacuation procedures given that, in the not-massively-unlikely eventuality of a volcanic eruption, Vík would be underwater in minutes, and the church is where they run for. Might have been nice to know this before hand. Just saying…
Vík itself was closed. It was the Easter weekend (in fact, it was Easter day) and the only shop – a small supermarket, was shut for the duration. This left me with a nearby petrol station (and, confusingly, a factory shop selling very expensive outward-bound clothing) as my only source of sustenance. I ignored the forty-euro gloves and instead stocked up on sandwiches, crisps and chocolate, a diet that would become familiar as, as it turned out, I would have another three days where petrol stations were to provide the only food. Incidentally, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, the smoked lamb and three-bean-salad sandwiches available at all Icelandic petrol stations are INCREDIBLE.
Thereafter, it was time to settle down for the night. The woman at the Vík Hostel smiled at me and looked me up and down. “If it’s not to0 personal a question,” she said, “how tall are you?” We established that a hair under six feet equated to 182cm. She shook her head sadly. “Damn Booking.com,” she said. “We tell them that the single room is only good for 180cm or less but they don’t let us put it there.” As it turned out, she knocked 25% off my bill for the inconvenience, and the room turned out to be pretty much perfect. It was, indeed, tiny. Harry Potter under the stairs tiny. But I fitted. Just about. And the bed had a window right by it so I could leave the curtains open for my usual (by now) Aurora Borealis survey. The room opened straight onto a common room, and I had been told that the hostel was full that night. My fevered imaginings of having to face down a whole hoard of over-jolly and far-too-noisy guests, however, proved entirely unfounded. Unlike places such as Thailand, Iceland is civilised: the different groups of guests have no desire to acquaint themselves with one another. And we all slept peacefully. Uninterrupted by the northern lights, at least. Which may, or may not, have been present behind the total cloud cover responsible for the heavy overnight fall of snow.
The following morning, early on, I cleared the car of snow and, shivering mightily in my many layers (and only slightly missing Dubai) set off for the long drive to the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon and the ice cave glacier hike, the undisputed highlight of my trip!