HÖFN, ICELAND — The rain, threatening heavily for hours, had been released in an icy torrent. Birding temporarily forgotten, we plunged down the hillside and dove thankfully into our rented van. Cozy and dry, we watched the deluge spattering a field of boulders the size of city buses. Behind us, the restless Atlantic rolled in, grey and eternal.
This was the wild east coast of Iceland, and we were here as part of an ambitious plan. Not only to follow the ring road that encircles the island, but also to visit some of the less accessible places in this wondrous land, and for that we needed to be both mobile and self-sufficient.
With this objective in mind, my friend Steve and I rented a compact camper van from one of several locations around Keflavik airport. Although it’s possible to go larger, these well-designed minivans are best if you want economy and ease of driving on some of the more challenging roads. Sleeping two people cozily, they are marvels of efficiency, packing cooler, water tank, stove, cook set, table and chairs in addition to a large sleeping area. We loaded up on supplies at one of Iceland’s ubiquitous Bonús grocery stores (eschewing the special on frozen horse’s heads), and headed out on the road.
When I was young, Iceland always seemed terra incognita, and indeed parts of the island were long inaccessible except by boat until the ring road was completed in 1974 (and only fully paved in 2019). It is now a compelling siren to those wanting to seek out adventure among Iceland’s many marvels.
Leaving from the tiny village of Skógar, our first goal was a trek into the interior on a section of the world renowned Laugavegur Trail, passing Eyjafjalljökull, the near-unpronounceable volcano infamous for disrupting European air travel during its eruption in 2010.
Above: A camping van took Mark Williamson and his friend to some very special locations around Iceland.
We had arranged the hike through Icelandic Mountain Guides (IMG), one of several such outfits operating in Iceland. Thoroughly professional and highly trained, men and women like Jon and Marta are among the most respected at their challenging profession worldwide.
Unfortunately for us, the weather closed in and we had only limited views of the volcano but our guides were able to lead us up the slopes of Magni and Módi, two small cones formed during the 2010 eruption. Still steaming from the cooling lava beneath, we stood on the mountainside warming our hands with some of the youngest rocks on the planet.
We celebrated the completion of our hike with a short detour from the ring road to visit the unique Fridheimer greenhouse restaurant. Located amongst luxuriant greenery, it is another demonstration of the creative use of abundant geothermal energy characteristic of this resourceful nation. Supplying something like 40 per cent of all the domestic tomatoes consumed in Iceland, we were seated at long wicker tables surrounded by platters of artisanal breads and in the warm, botanically-enhanced air.
Never has tomato soup felt so luxurious.
We headed east. Much of the coastal landscape of southern Iceland is composed of vast deposits of soil and gravel known as sandurs, formed as a consequence of volcanic activity melting glacial ice in massive quantities. From the near-deserted road our eyes followed this outwash plain as it sloped gradually down to the shore and the emptiness of the northern ocean. Beyond the edge of sight, ever further if we only dared, the next landfall due south would come 15,000km away in Antarctica.
Above: Mark and his friend explored some amazing gorges and helped a couple of fellow hikers across a raging river.
Finding that a few days on the road in a mini camper can leave a man in need of a bit of freshening up, we discovered the solution in the form of geothermally-heated public swimming pools in the town of Höfn, an isolated fishing port at the far southeastern corner of the island. Icelanders, civilized people that they are, understand that a vigorous life requires at least some leisure and comfort and many towns seem to have facilities like this.
Back on the road we made our way gradually north, camping in roadside laybys or in organized campgrounds. Most of these were either closed in early spring, or, if open did not offer many amenities. This doesn’t present a problem if you are self-sufficient, but we sometimes saw unfortunate evidence of irresponsible behaviour in the form of waste and toilet paper around campsites. I’m not saying these people should lose their right to travel. I’m just saying that it’s a conversation I’m willing to have. Unfortunately, with increased tourism pressure this is a problem Iceland is having to deal with.
Arriving at the extensive geothermal area surrounding volcanic lake Myvatn, we found ourselves in an adventure travellers playground. Many of Iceland’s bird species can be found in habitats in and around the lake and the nearby Hverir region is dotted with steaming fumaroles and dormant and dozing craters and pseudocraters. The general otherworldliness of the landscape has attracted film directors from far and wide and is featured in several movies and television programs. Fortunately, the midges the lake is named for had not yet awoken from their winter slumber!
Above: A dormant volcano dominates the landscape around the Ring of Fire.
Our final destination was to be the wild and majestic waterfall of Glymur. Thought to have been Iceland’s highest, it was nudged into second place by a newly measured cataract only in 2011, which will give you some idea of how remote areas of the interior can be. The approach to Glymur can be challenging. Located at the head of a fjord, the initial walk to the Botnsá river is relatively flat and pleasant, but that’s where the real fun begins.
At low water, the river can be crossed fairly easily holding ropes strung across it. At this time of year the flows had begun to build, and when the summer sun begins to work on the glacial reserves high above, it can become impassable.
A pair of adventurous Icelandic women showed us the local technique, pulling out extra sneakers for the purpose of fording the slippery channel.
For Steve and I the only choice was a teeth-gritting barefoot venture through the icy thigh-deep water. The reward was an increasingly thrilling hour-long climb to the head of the fjord, with dizzying views out and down into the chasm formed by Glymur as it plunges out of the highlands.
Kittiwakes and other seabirds wheeled in vast gulfs below us as we peered cautiously over the edge at the river 200m below. No fences, no handrails, no cautionary signs. This was Iceland. If you wanted to hurl yourself off into the abyss that was your affair.
Later, back in town, we camped for a final night at the Reykjavik Eco Campsite, a bustling and well-appointed haven for the budget-minded in the heart of the city. Next morning, heads full of new experiences, touchstones for future tales and memories, we closed the ring with a final drive to the airport.
Above: The trip introduced our writer to the Glymur, left, and some native animals and birds.