Fire and ice…

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(>Pictures at the bottom!)

…hurray, we are in Iceland

In terms of geological history, Iceland is a fairly young island, and human traces have only been found there for just over 1500 years. Today, around 350,000 inhabitants live on this island, which is about 2½ times the size of Switzerland, with most of them living in the south-western corner. Therefore, Iceland is also one of the most sparsely populated areas on earth and there are huge stretches of land where there really is not a soul to be found. The various volcanic activities, but also the drifting apart of the European and American continental plates, make us humans amazed again and again at what is going on here directly under the earth and has already caused a few surprises.

Iceland is at the top of many travellers’ wish lists, and many want to experience a piece of the earth’s prehistory up close. It still bubbles and gurgles in many places and warm springs are everywhere. As a result, over a million people travel to Iceland every year and heavily populate the tourist hotspots during the summer months. The ring road that runs around the island is busy and all kinds of vehicles move from one attraction to the next. The car parks are often in a rush hour and many travellers are in a hurry; Iceland in one week – you have to hurry a little more than that.

As far as the road network is concerned, we can only say that there are still off-road areas here. Only the most important main roads are tarred, the rest of the connections are gravel roads and extend to hardcore tracks on which you often only move forward at walking pace. There are almost no driving bans; at most, there is a notice that the connection would be impassable. You can then drive on at your own risk and see if you can get through or have to bump all the way back again. As far as off-roading is concerned, I would like to add this remark: real off-roading, i.e. driving across country, is strictly forbidden in Iceland. But the tracks offer enough driving fun and the car gets quite a bit of wear and tear.

Back to our story and the way to the island! Yes, we had enough time and the crossing was a little relaxation for us; like a mini cruise on the Atlantic. On the second morning we finally spotted Iceland and together with all the travellers we stood outside on the deck as our ship slowly glided into Seyđisfjörđur Bay.

The tension of the entry was somehow written on everyone’s face. We were also curious about the customs procedure. Although important clarifications about the Corona pandemic had already been made on the ship, and as vaccinated tourists we received a green pass, which was somewhat reassuring. The seagulls were still screeching around the ship as we emerged from the hull into daylight and were directed into different columns under strict supervision. But the green slip was presumably the quick entry key and no one wanted to know anything about unauthorised food or the like. After a short questioning about our stay here in Iceland, we were wished a pleasant stay and already we were standing outside, or in Iceland inside 😉

In summery weather we climbed over the first pass to Egilsstađir. The first waterfalls tempted us for a short stopover and a feeling of happiness spread through us; yes, we are on the island that is said to be brimming with elemental forces.

Before we could start our big trip, we had to replenish our supplies and get all the fresh produce. The car park in front of the grocery shop in Egilsstađir was quickly overrun by countless campers and expedition vehicles. Everyone needed to replenish their supplies and the two grocery shops were overflowing with travellers. The atmosphere was like at a special or clearance sale, where shopping trolleys were greedily felt.

Quickly our things were loaded into the car. Still a little indecisive, we drove to Bakkagerđi, where puffins live in a large breeding colony outside the village. As soon as we arrived, these funny birds fluttered around our ears. Unfortunately, they were too fast for my photographic skills and no landing approach I could immortalise as I wished. We stayed there for a long time and watched not only the puffins but also the other seabirds that have their breeding grounds at the same place.

Due to the upcoming open air festival, the camping site in Bakkagerđi was already overcrowded and we wanted to avoid the festival atmosphere. So we looked for a quiet spot in the next valley a little off the road at the quiet lower course of the Selfljót (river).

After a short detour to Húsey, a farm with a small hostel located far out in the river delta of the “Jokulsá á dal”, we drove back to Egilsstađir. For our further adventures, we had to get two fuel canisters as well as additional food. The upcoming routes in the highlands are long, and in the difficult terrain our jeep will also need a lot more of the precious juice.

We left Egilsstađir in a south-westerly direction. Our first major destination was the northern area of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier outside the polar regions, and the Askja crater. Egilsstađir was already behind us, rural area, where mainly sheep farming is done, followed the busy life from the last place. It became more and more lonely and there was almost only sparse leisure traffic on the road. Soon the road climbed steeply into the highlands, where high alpine conditions already prevail at around 800 metres above sea level and we could really see the vastness of this land for the first time. We left the tarred road that winds its way through this inhospitable landscape to the countless reservoirs and gave our vehicle a good shake all the way to the Vatnajökull glacier.

Although it was high season, we didn’t encounter a handful of vehicles, and the feeling of being on a desert island grew stronger and stronger. Until we reached the Askja crater, we bumped along countless side roads for two more days and saw neither people nor vehicles; now just don’t break down or get stuck!

Shortly before the tourist highlights around the Askja crater, we reached a busy dirt road, where a lot is meant by about a dozen vehicles, and we were already high up at the car park as well, from where we continued on foot to the large volcanic lakes. Due to the fresh wind, I (Tom) left my swimming trunks behind, which I immediately regretted when we reached Lake Viti (crater lake); the bath in the warm water would really have been a reward.

At the camp in Askja, the ranger wanted to know our plans and recommended that we take the track (Gæsavatnaleiđ route) along the glacier, as she considered our jeep to be absolutely suitable. Unfortunately, the following day the weather was not particularly ideal for this route choice; rain and fog turned the distant view into a close-up view. We groped our way through the vast volcanic landscape and still; it was a unique experience in this lonely mountain world, where it really banged and cracked a few hundred years ago.

We suspected that our jeep would need a lot of diesel in this terrain, but the thirst surprised even our imaginations. We first had to replenish our fuel supply for the rest of the trail. In addition to the reserve canisters, the tank was also soon empty! So, willy-nilly, we had to take a long diversions to the next petrol station, which required two additional days of driving; the loneliness in the highlands had its price. On the way back to the highlands, we had to “give in” to a river crossing on another stretch; it was too deep and the water flow was too strong for our jeep. You should not venture into the water here with only one vehicle. Somewhat disappointed, we had to take a long diversions to get back on our way!

But in the late afternoon, a few kilometres off the track, we discovered a warm spring, which was nowhere to be found in a brochure, nor in any waymarking. We immediately drove there and soon enjoyed the warm water with a view of the glacier in the middle of the pampas. A small reward for the long way to the petrol station and the failure at the ford (water crossing).

After relaxing in the warm pool, we bumped on through the volcanic landscape west of the Askja massif to Lake Mývtan, which is in northern Iceland. Until we arrived at this tourist hotspot, we roamed through vast and deserted areas on our way. The 4 off-road vehicles we encountered were like small signs that there is still human life on this earth after all.

We reached the tourist centre around Reykjahliđ at Lake Mývatn, where a lot is done for the visitor and everything possible is sold as “the sensation”, shortly before a weekend. There was a lot going on and besides adventurous jeep tours, the tourists were driven to the sights by bus. Despite this mass tourism, the whole region really has many great and impressive sights, be it bubbling water springs or bubbling holes in the earth, a hike along the crater rim with a wonderful view or the hissing geothermal power plants. Even the bizarre world around Lake Mývatn or the restaurant in the cowshed; everything was a special experience for us too and the uniqueness of the landscape survives all the masses of tourists.

Instead of the fast road, we chose our back roads again and tortured our “RuGe-li” once more over lava fields to the waterfalls at the “Jökulsá-á-Fjöllum” (Glacier River), which plunges into the depths over high rock steps at various points. After another two lonely days, we experienced these tourist sights with many other visitors and at certain places there was really a small crowd for the best photo spot.

For the return to the east coast, we chose the path through the Dimmifjallgarđur mountains, where the track followed an old power line. At the beginning, the road was still relatively pleasant to drive and a wonderful landscape accompanied our journey through valleys and hill ranges. Besides the river courses, we were surprised by the flora and all the things that can thrive in this harsh environment. Later, the path became increasingly rough and we scrambled at walking pace over countless boulders that would not end. Again and again we looked at each other wondering if we had missed a turn somewhere. Despite all the uncertainty, we reached the east coast and a pleasant warm shower.

On Langanes, a north-eastern peninsula jutting far out into the Atlantic, one should experience the feeling of being at the end of the world. So let’s go to the end of the world! Even there we found many interesting things and whole colonies of birds in their nests on the steep cliffs. Later, we looked at this headland from an elevation inland and were a bit surprised; this peninsula really stretches out into the sea like a tongue, with nothing left and nothing right; just, the end of the world.

We continued to follow the north coast and for once had to stay on the main road; there are no other roads or paths up here. To deviate a little from the path, we tried to reach the northernmost point of the Icelandic mainland. The access road out to an abandoned farm at the northern tip has probably not been used for a long time and we had to cover the last few kilometres on foot.

In Húsavik we reached the next hotspot for Iceland travellers, where all visitors are encouraged to go on a whale watching trip. We observed the bay very intensively and were soon convinced that at this time of year there were probably not too many whales in the bay and that the fast trip in the rubber dinghy would probably not be the best back therapy for Chantal.

So we skipped the boat trip, but enjoyed the small-town life in the harbour district and treated ourselves to a visit to the Whale Museum, where surprisingly much information about the whales, their historical threats and possible ways out for the preservation of the species is shown.

Via Gođafoss, a waterfall where an important Icelandic leader once made a wise decision on the religious issue and prevented the people from being torn apart, we took a lonely path out to another peninsula opposite Húsavik, where we had a wonderful view of the bay from a hill. So we too experienced – albeit only from a distance – plunging fountains and surfacing sea giants.

After many sunny days, we drove inland again and on to the second largest city in Iceland. By our standards, Akureyri is more of a small town, but for the people of Northern Iceland, the place must be of great importance in their lives; there is simply everything here.

For us, Akureyri also served as a supply point before we drove back up into the highlands. Before the first snow comes (mid – end of August), we would like to ski a few more slopes and enjoy the glacier air once more.

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