Iceland’s Southern Coast
Iceland’s Ring Road, Route 1, took me east from Skógafoss where it snaked round a mountain and led me down to the coast. The little settlement of Vik rests near the black sand beach where the Atlantic waves pound the shore. Finding my way to the car park by the beach, I took myself onto the sand and looked out at the uninviting surf and the expanse of water in front of me. Standing on the shore by Iceland’s most southern village, looking directly south there is no landmass until you hit Antarctica. Amongst the gloominess of the grey sky, and finally away from the crowds of the morning, it was easy to feel isolated and I embraced the solitude.
It’s a popular place to stay and being so small, accommodation here books out fast. I had tried to book my stay 6 months in advance of the trip, and already prime areas in Iceland were booked out and I had to change my plans a couple of times. With no affordable accommodation available here, I was forced to head east to find somewhere to sleep that night. But despite this, I had a few hours to enjoy the place. Walking along the sandy beach, the calls of sea birds filled the sky as they circled around the cliffs that dominate the western end of the beach. I watched them for a while before turning and pounding the sand in the other direction.
The expanse of black sand spreads east for quite some distance, but I walked it as far as the river mouth where a man made water break juts out into the sea. A path lead through a beautiful patch of lupins to a memorial for those lost at sea. I absolutely adore lupins and they were in full bloom throughout my trip to Iceland. Some Icelandic ponies trotted by with their riders as I meandered amongst the flowers, and I looked up at the church which sat below the cloudy peaks that frame the village.
The church itself is elevated enough to give a good view over the village and out to sea where a collection of sea stacks sit close to the cliffs to the west. Even here the lupins were everywhere and I followed a path up the hill a little to admire them some more. Across at the cliffs, I had read about a walk up the cliff face and tried to make it out. On seeing where it started from, I drove across to the small area at the end of some houses and left my car behind to start the hike.
By now, I was a little low on fitness, so I puffed my way up the zig-zagging path that picked its way up the slope towards the top of the cliff. Vik grew further and further away as I climbed until I reached the top and looked over the village directly and out to sea. With the occasional sheep and bird for company, I followed the well-trodden path along the cliff top, hoping to see puffins but spotting none. First approaching and then passing the sea stacks, it eventually came out at a building with an unknown purpose and here the path petered out. I kept walking west though and not far from here found myself at the top of more cliffs overlooking the expanse of another black sandy beach, Reynisfjara, which was backed by a large lake.
Below me there were plenty of cars and tourists, but I was level with the soaring fulmars who thermalled around me, coming and going from their nests. Shortly after I arrived, I spotted a paraglider who was also making good use of the thermals to float with ease over the scene below. I was completely on my own and it felt great to have this view to myself after all the clamour of bus loads of tourists to the west. The sky was still so grey but it didn’t detract from the peacefulness. Retracing my steps along the cliff, I still saw no puffins, and finally made it back to the path that returned me to my car. I bade Vik farewell and continued on my journey east. The landscape turned barren as the ring road crossed a glacier flood zone and headed inland, and before long the heavens opened and a deluge came down. I discovered that my rental car was a little lacking in good windscreen wiper blades, and I had to slow right down as I struggled to see far in front of me. It remained this way for the rest of my drive.
I spent the night in the small settlement of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (or Klaustur for short), a completely unpronouncable place that was little more than a petrol station, a small shop and a couple of accommodations. The owner of the place I was staying pointed out a couple of walks in the area, but with the rain, I decided to get up early to do one of them rather than head off that night. So duly setting my alarm, I was rather disappointed to wake up to fog. Nonetheless, I decided to take the path up the cliff face behind the village that leads to a crater lake above the settlement. I couldn’t make out the far side of the lake through the low cloud and it was so quiet. I followed the path for a short distance but didn’t want to go too far when there was no view, but as I turned to head back, my attention was caught by a ptarmigan. These birds can also be found in my native country of Scotland, but I have never seen one. I was stoked. It flew to the cliff edge as I made my way to the top of the path down, and the cloud by now had lifted a little that I could see the village below me.
Once again I cursed myself for not having got food supplies as I found myself with nowhere open to get breakfast but even worse, nowhere to get supplies for the hike I had planned for the morning. I had no choice but to push on, and the ring road brought me past yet another beautiful waterfall, Foss á Síðu, and a little further to Dverghamrar, a collection of basalt columns. At this early hour, the road was quiet, and a couple of camper vans were parked up here, their curtains drawn and their occupants still. I had the place otherwise to myself as I wandered around.
But eventually the ring road reached the wasteland, an area of barren sand and stone which is a glacier run-off zone from the expansive Vatnajökull glacier, Iceland’s largest ice cap. It felt eerie crossing this, but finally I reached the turnoff to the Skaftafell/Vatnajökull National Park office and I was one of the first cars to arrive. I had read about a hike here which would take half the day, but with no supplies, I was a little annoyed to be yet again reminded of the lack of early opening at Icelandic eateries. I reached a quandary: set off on a half-day hike into the wilderness with just water and nuts for sustenance, or be sensible and hang around until the cafe opened and get better supplies. I cursed my lack of forward planning with regards to food supplies, but I knew that having adequate food was the way to go, so I bummed around the visitor’s centre for over an hour waiting for the cafe to open.
The hike turned out to be one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, and I returned to my car at the end of it, tired but satisfied. With just 10 days to circumnavigate the island, there was so much to fit into each day, so there was little time to hang around before moving onwards. The views were incredible as the road hugged the base of the glacier and the snow-capped mountains dominated on the inland side of the road. I saw a turn-off to a glacier lagoon at the last minute and missed it, wondering whether I should turn back and take it but all of a sudden I was at the world-famous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, and I found myself standing looking at one of Iceland’s iconic sights.
Although the main carpark is across the river on the east side of the bridge, I pulled in at a smaller car park on the west side of the river. Right in front of me, floating on the river that leads out to the sea from the lagoon were some large icebergs. Rather than head straight to the lagoon though, I followed the river to its mouth at the sea and walked onto the black sand to admire the iceberg graveyard, where lots of iceberg shards bobbed in the shallows or lay strewn across the beach. Here, I was very much amongst the crowds again, but I didn’t care when there was so much beauty to draw my attention.
Back at the river, some ducks snoozed on the banks, oblivious to the goings on around them, not caring about the giant ice bergs that bobbed on the water just behind them. Following the river to the lagoon was a surreal experience, and whilst I had expected it to be amazing, it still blew me away. Although the glacier edge looked distant, there was so many icebergs close to the shore that there was no need to go on one of the boat trips out on the lake. It is a recommended excursion here, but having done the same kind of trip in New Zealand, I had opted to save my money and not do it here, and I didn’t for a minute regret that decision. The icebergs were so close, I didn’t feel that I missed out at all.
Even as I stood there, the movement of the tide pushed against the river causing the icebergs to be in constant movement, some quicker than others. I crossed the bridge and joined the hordes of tourists on the other bank to just wander around and admire them. The sun glared on the water from this side but with the tidal movements of the icebergs there was a constantly changing view as I meandered along the eastern shore, and as the hours headed well into the evening, a large flock of arctic terns noisily fed on whatever shoal of fish lay hidden below the surface. Boats continued to plough across the water touring the icy behemoths whilst I remained in my reverie enjoying the sight. I returned to the western shore and sat on the bank of the lagoon and watched the moving icebergs until an evening wind left me cold.
It was a long drive with the Vatnajökull glacier for company as I made my way to Höfn, my rest stop for the night. Out on a little peninsula off the main ring road, it was a quiet little place. The tiny cafe I had dinner in was packed with locals and tourists but away from here, it felt sedate. This next morning, the cloud was back and the glaciers just peaked out below the cloud base, the summit shrouded out of view. I headed past the small fishing harbour to the tip of the peninsula where a statue overlooked a small wetland reserve. From here, following the coast north, a walking path followed the western flank of the peninsula, and I had it almost to myself, being joined by a friendly cat for a while.
There were oyster catchers and ducks all along the shallows, and I watched them lazily as I made my way to the golf course before turning round and heading back again. Once back at the wetlands, I followed the narrow path round this area too which was full of bird life. Only when I was leaving were other people starting to appear. The small visitor’s centre was by now open so I had a wander round there which had a rustic display area with information about the fauna of the area as well as exploration and glaciation. I’d managed by now to kill enough time for the supermarket to open, and I was able to grab some breakfast and snacks for the road, ready to head north.