Fjords and Fire
Heading east from Höfn, Iceland’s Route 1 hugged the coastline briefly before turning inland and heading through a tunnel below the mountains, taking you from the south coast to the east coast. Emerging out the other side was like entering another world. Although the exit was only 1 mountain’s width away from the entrance, I’d entered from Höfn under overcast skies, and exited to blue skies and sunshine. I couldn’t believe it. The views of the snow-capped mountains under the blueness of the sky were spectacular and kilometre after kilometre, the road snaked around the coastline, the sea shimmering under the sunlight. Some fjords cut into the landscape, and the road cut inland following these fjords to their head before snaking back to the coastline again, including a section where Route 1 is unsealed. I’d previously driven on an unsealed section of road that was in the process of repair, and being a well-used road, despite the lack of tarmac it was still relatively good quality under tyre aside from the dust being kicked up.
Where Route 1 turns inland, I decided to stick to the coastal road both for the scenery as well as the fact that it was sealed road. Route 1 itself is unsealed in parts on this inland section, and being a rental vehicle, I was keen to put the car through as little hardship as possible. At Stöðvarfjörður I stopped on a whim to visit Petra’s Stone Collection. In the settlement of her birth, lies the collection of geological stones and gems collected by Ljósbjörg Petra María over 80 years. Her house and garden are crammed full of them, and I decided to pay the entrance fee for a nosy around. There was a bus load of tourists leaving when I arrived so I had been intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. It’s an impressive collection, although it borders on manic hoarding, and it broke up my long day of driving just at the right time.
At the head of the next fjord, I took the road cutting inland north to Egilsstaðir. It felt strange reaching a town again, and I drove straight through it to park up on the far banks of the expansive Lagarfljót river. From here, even in June, there was plenty of snow on the nearby peaks. There wasn’t a lot to keep me here, as I still had to reach my evening’s destination, so after a short break, I took the stunning Route 93 east to Seyðisfjörður. This section of road was spectacular. Almost immediately out of Egilsstaðir, the 93 climbs and zig-zags steeply up the mountain side. Near the top, a pull-in offers a good view point back down over the town and river below before the road reaches the summit of the mountain pass which was flanked by large stale snow drifts. Even the large lake next to the road was for the most part frozen. It was like driving through an icy wonderland in the height of summer, and I found it took great concentration on the road, as this was not a place where you wanted to go off the tarmac.
On the other side of the pass, the greenery returned, and as the road began its dramatic descent towards the head of the fjord, Seyðisfjörður peeked into view and the beauty of the fjord itself became more apparent. After a few corners, I noticed several cars pulled in at the side, so stopped to have a look. There was a view straight down the gully towards the fjord as well as the top of a multi-staged waterfall, Gufufoss. I did a bit of rock-hopping to find some solitude and a differing view of the top of the falls, before driving down to the bottom of the falls further along the road.
Nestled at the head of the fjord of the same name, Seyðisfjörður is the arrival port for the ferry from Denmark on continental Europe which arrives once a week. On sailing days, the place is reportedly bustling, but outwith those days, although I was far from the only tourist there, it was perfectly quiet and serene for my liking. I wasted no time in checking in and getting out to explore. It isn’t hard to find waterfalls in Iceland, and opposite the marina, a path leads up through lupins to yet another waterfall. The closer to the falls the path got, the poorer quality it was underfoot but it was worth it to see it up close as well as to get a bit of a view back down over the fjord and the town.
My favourite thing about the place was the buildings. There was very much a Scandinavian vibe here with the colourfully painted wooden-boarded buildings. I loved exploring it on foot, looking at the reflections on the water. I was lucky enough to find a place to eat in a recommended eatery, and tucked in to some local food and local beer. It was an eclectic little place and I really liked it. I had managed to secure the last available bed in all the budget accommodations here, and I was glad that I had as I was extremely glad I’d been able to include it on my trip.
I’d planned a lot for the next day so set off early. I wound my way back across the scenic pass and back down the other side to Egilsstaðir where I rejoined Route 1 to head first north then west. I stopped at the Rjukani waterfall right by the side of the road which I had to myself at the early hour of the day. There is so much variety amongst the Icelandic waterfalls and all beautiful in their own way. But my first destination of the day was another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls. Full of paranoia with my rental car, I researched my route each night prior to ensure I was sticking to sealed roads unless unavoidable. Satisfied that I could get there on a sealed road, I crossed the barren tundra, following route 1, eagerly looking out for wild reindeer and unfortunately seeing none.
When I reached the sign for the waterfall, I duly turned off and shortly after, the tarmac ended and I was a little confused. I toyed with the idea of turning back and skipping the waterfall but I was really keen to see it so opted to push on. Unlike the unsealed section of route 1 from the previous day which had been well compacted and smooth, this route was stony, rutted and exceedingly uneven. I’m used to handling a car on an unsealed road as a lot of my tramps in New Zealand involve going down these, so I drove it a lot faster than many of the other cars I came across on the day. Even so, it was about 30km of track to negotiate and I was far from enjoying it by the time I finally turned in at the waterfall.
Reportedly the most powerful waterfall in the whole of Europe, Dettifoss was a sight to behold. The canyon itself was impressive, and as I walked along the edge of the canyon towards the falls, I noticed a lot of people on the far side of the river at another lookout, and there were a lot more vehicles and people there. It confirmed my suspicion that I had taken the wrong road, but as the mist of the falls was blowing up and over to that lookout, I told myself I was in the better spot. Regardless, the waterfalls were staggering, and the noise was incredible. A perfect rainbow arced through the spray across the river. There were plenty of vantage points, and even though it was a harder route to take, there were still plenty of people on this eastern flank of the river. I took my time walking back along the canyon edge taking it all in.
After quite some time, I went back to my car for the monotonous drive back to the tarmac. About a third of the way however, disaster struck. Perhaps I’d been a little confident and cocky with my driving, and I certainly didn’t see what caused the damage, but all of a sudden there was a loud bang and as I slowed the car to a stop and got out, I could here a hissing sound and watched as my tyre began to deflate before my eyes. Despite being 33, I’d never changed a tyre in my life. I certainly knew how to, but had never needed to, and out here in the middle of nowhere on an uncomfortable and dirty ground, I found myself rummaging in the boot of my rental for everything I needed. But it felt like out of nowhere I was suddenly surrounded by a multitude of other cars, all tourists, and all eager to help me. Despite my feminist protestations that I would manage, several men from two separate vehicles practically fought each other to help me. In the end I didn’t need to lift a finger, and before long I was thanking the family profusely and back on my way.
Only now I was on a space saving tyre, my pet-hate of tyres, and with no further back up, I was forced to crawl at an agonisingly slow speed back to Route 1. On reaching the tarmac, I spotted another car pulled over with a space-saver on, and we nodded a knowing smile at each other on passing. Even on the tarmac, the tyre limited my speed, and it felt like so much wasted time before I limped the car into Reykjahlíð on the shore of Lake Mývatn. There was a car garage on the edge of town but it was closed. Thankfully the visitor’s centre was able to phone someone to meet me at the garage in an hour, so after filling my stomach, I retraced my steps and pulled in. The man that met me was the only unfriendly Icelandic person I met on my whole trip. Being a Saturday, he made it very clear with what little English he appeared to speak, that I had inconvenienced him. He took one look at me and my tyre, and said ‘Road to waterfall?’, and then gave me a knowing look when I agreed. Clearly I wasn’t the only fool. After fixing the tyre and knocking out a dent, he in no way wanted to help me change the tyre back, demanding his money and hastily leaving.
In all, I had wasted nearly 3 hrs as well as some money, on what was one of my most packed days planned. I was quietly annoyed with my stupidity but was eager to get on with my sightseeing. Here I was in one of the main geothermal areas of the country and in several directions I could see steam venting from the ground. Backtracking east just over the hill I took the side road past a geothermal plant to Víti, a crater lake. A path leads around the perimeter of the crater above a blue lake below, and spanning out across a nearby valley is a massive lava flow. There is little vegetation here but the landscape is scarred with the colour of algae colonies that grow on the high sulphuric soils around volcanic vents.
The valley nearby was like exploring another planet. The hardened remains of a lava flow from a previous eruption of Krafla volcano scars the valley near the Víti crater, and wandering across it round an eroded path, there was steam billowing up through cracks and fissures as far as the eye could see. Under the grey skies, it felt rather dramatic and a little foreboding. I was in awe however, ever in love with geothermal zones since moving to New Zealand, and amongst the darkness of the hardened lava was the occasional burst of red or white provided by mineral deposits. I’ve previously walked on a lava field in the Galapagos Islands, but it was historical and very mature and weather smoothed. Here, the lava was relatively new and still crisp and rough.
Back towards Route 1 and almost directly across from the Krafla turnoff was the steaming area of Hverir at the base of Mt Námafjall. The clay soil here was pock-marked with bubbling pools of mud, mineral deposits and steaming vents. This area reminded me of some of the geothermal parks near Rotorua in New Zealand’s north island. The smell wasn’t too overpowering here though but there was a constant hissing noise as the steam was pushed out of the ground at high speed. A path leads up over Mt Námafjall to join up with some other geothermal sights in the area as well as the settlement of Reykjahlíð, and had I not wasted so much time earlier in the day, I probably would have walked up just for an overview of Hverir, but I decided instead to keep myself down near the action and wandered around the various pools at ground level. I was particularly enamoured with the chimneys which had been pushed up from the ground and were venting at an impressive rate.
I am one of those people that has never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. I own the first book but have never actually gotten around to reading it. Back on the western side of Mt Námafjall, I took a back road to Grjótagjá, a little pool hidden within a cave formed by a lava fissure. According to my guidebook, it was the filming location for a rather saucy scene in GoT, but I just like exploring caves. There were a couple of entrances into it, and it was a matter of scrambling over some rather large rocks to get down to the thermally heated water within. Signs outside requested not swimming in the water, but historically people used to swim or bathe there as the water is a lovely warm but not hot temperature. When I returned home, I looked up the scene that was supposedly filmed there and it looks nothing like the little cave that I visited. Just above the cave off to the side is a massive fissure that cuts a large scar across the landscape. Some people walking nearby looked tiny in comparison.
Thanks to the time wasted with my tyre misdemeanour, I sadly acknowledged that I wasn’t going to have time for a hike up a nearby volcano that I had wanted to do. Life always gets in the way of best laid plans. But even though evening was in full swing, there was still lots to see in the land of the midnight sun.