Land of Fire and Ice: A Winter Road Trip Round Iceland

February 06, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Ice Cave, BreiðamerkurjökullIce Cave, BreiðamerkurjökullA visit to an ice cave below a glacier is on every adventure traveller's bucket list!

 

The First Taste of Iceland

The sky above Mount Esja begins to turn candy floss pink as the setting sun slides behind a thin bank of grey cloud stealthily creeping in from the west. The raucous cries of numerous seabirds fills the air and a frigid wind blows in off the restless North Atlantic sending waves crashing and foaming onto black shelves of basaltic rocks below. Ice encrusted stems of withered yellow grasses nearby, a memory of warmer times, put up a feeble protest, while a gaggle of grey geese saunter right up close to where I’m standing, seemingly impervious to my presence as they busy themselves pecking and foraging through the icy grass. Very soon the beam of a nearby lighthouse’s beacon sweeps across the majesty of this volcanic landscape, a few hazy stars appear in the night sky and thoughts inevitably drift towards finding a warm and cosy refuge from the intense cold.

The sun doesn’t rise here in January until 10.45 am and the daylight hours are short, with the sun setting by around 4.30 pm. We have explored downtown Reykjavík today, enjoying the colourful painted shop-fronts in narrow streets with pleasant vistas down to the Sæbraut and the moody grey-green ocean, fascinated by the misty exhalations rising into the cold air from subterranean geothermal sources that power this city. A capital of just 120,000 souls, Reykjavík has a provincial city feel to it, small and intimate, and above all friendly, boasting a cornucopia of vibrant coffee shops, chic restaurants and happening bars. It also feels like a city on the move again after the calamitous financial crash of 2008. Cranes soar over the cityscape as old meets new and nowhere is this more evident than at the Old Harbour, where a world class concert hall, the Harpa, an imposing Rubik’s cube-like glass structure, has been built.

Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church, ReykjavíkHallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church, ReykjavíkThis iconic building on the Reykjavík skyline is meant to emulate the basalt columns that feature so heavily in Iceland's landscape

On foot it’s possible to visit most of the main attractions such as the rocket-shaped Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church which soars into the sky like something from a futuristic sci-fi movie, its columnar construction meant, no doubt, to imitate the pillars of basalt rock that characterise the geology of the island. In front of the church is an imposing statue of Leifur Eriksson, reputed to be the first Viking to have discovered America, but our favourite attraction is the sculpture on the Sæbraut by Jón Gunnar Árnason dubbed ‘The Sun Voyager’. Described as ‘a dreamboat, an ode to the sun’, I am captivated by its angular shape, the strange melding of the ribs of the boat with the skeletal forms of its human crew. It’s certainly living up to its name, as the metal is burnished and set aflame by the mid-afternoon sun lending it an ethereal quality, etched as it is against the chilled background of cold sea and snow covered mountain peaks, sending my camera into rhapsody.

‘The Sun Voyager’, Sæbraut, Reykjavík‘The Sun Voyager’, Sæbraut, ReykjavíkThis sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason is described as ‘a dreamboat, 'an ode to the sun’

It’s evening now and in the heart of Reykjavík, the quaint Laekjarbrekka wooden restaurant with its rust red roof encrusted with snow, looks like something out of a fairy story, the inviting light from its windows casting a golden glow over the blanket of crystalline whiteness surrounding it. Dining out in Iceland is a truly exciting experience as you really have to be here to eat Icelandic fare. We order the þorramatur, tasters of some traditional dishes, including harðfiskur (wind dried fish) with butter, dried seaweed, minke whale tataki, smoked wild goose with crowberries and the famous hákarl - fermented shark - which is beautifully presented on a rustic wooden platter. The minke whale is a true delight, rich, tender and flavoursome, not at all fishy tasting, more like high quality steak, and the smoky taste of the goose is not overbearing and is well complimented by the tangy crowberries. I am less enamoured with the dried fish and butter, which although not unpleasant tasting, takes some time to rehydrate in my mouth. But the seaweed, dried to a crisp, is worse still. I spend minutes passing it round my mouth before it is pliable enough to swallow without tearing my gullet to shreds. The chewy, rubbery texture and strong iodine taste do little for me.

The fermented shark is undoubtedly the thing all tourists want to try. It has something of a reputation, no doubt to do with its unusual curing process. The flesh of the Greenlandic shark is poisonous when freshly killed, due to a high concentration of urea and trimethylamine oxide. But beheading and gutting the shark and then burying the carcass under a mound of sand and heavy rocks, ensures the uric acid breaks down and toxins are pressed from the flesh. After 6-12 weeks, depending on the season, the carcass is dug up and then cut into strips and hung to dry for a further several months, after which it is edible. The two dull white cubes stare at me through the glass of their sealed Kevlar jar. I pop the lid and the smell of ammonia instantly hits my nose like a sledgehammer and makes my eyes smart. I quickly thrust one of the cubes into my mouth and begin to chew. A hot, fishy taste mixed with ripe stilton erupts on my tongue. It’s somewhat chewy, but I’d be lying if I said it was unpleasant. The smell of ammonia is undoubtedly much worse than the taste of the flesh itself and I wash it down with one of Iceland’s amazing beers.

Þorramatur, tasters of some traditional dishesÞorramatur, tasters of some traditional dishesThis consisted of harðfiskur (wind dried fish) with butter, dried seaweed, minke whale tataki, smoked wild goose with crowberries and the famous hákarl - fermented shark

I don’t know what it is about places at the far ends of the world, we experienced the same in Patagonia, but the craft beers here are truly exceptional. I am particularly taken by the island’s toasted porters and stouts: rich, warming, many with a high alcohol content, the perfect antidote to the bitter Icelandic winter! Highly recommended are Sartur Imperial Stout, Garún Icelandic Stout and Myrkvi Nr. 13 ( a porter), all brewed by the Borg Brugghús, and Lava, a Russian Imperial Stout brewed by the Ölvisholt Brugghús.

There follows a dreamy, frothy cream of langoustine soup and pan fried fillet of wilderness lamb, a fragrant, tender meat from an animal that spent its short life eating only mountain grass, wild herbs and berries. This comes with a grilled langoustine and potato terrine with thyme sauce served on a bed of crunchy vegetables, a welcome change from the mushy, bland offerings at many restaurants. Engorged, we still find room for the delicious dessert consisting of an oatmeal based ‘cheesecake’ made with local skyr, a cultured dairy product, similar to strained yogurt, served with a blueberry sorbet which is pleasantly sharp and cuts through the sweetness of the pudding beautifully. Laekjarbrekka prides itself on only using locally produced or foraged food, cashing in no doubt on the ‘New Nordic Cuisine’ scene which has seen Noma in Copenhagen win a string of international accolades and awards. Also highly recommended is the nearby Apotek restaurant which features a six course tasting menu with local delicacies such as smoked puffin.

 

The Golden Circle

It’s pitch black as we begin the early morning journey to the Þingvellir National Park, a World Heritage Site. Flurries of snow sweep across the lunar landscape created by past volcanic eruptions which spewed vast lava flows across the area around Reykjavík. Being in Iceland feels like being on the very top of the world. The cold, salt laden sea air is harsh and unforgiving, the ground twisted and contorted by volcanic activity where little but moss seems to thrive and the low-slung wooden houses, painted white, red, blue, yellow and green, rise defiantly from the land. It’s no surprise to me that this island has bequeathed to humanity some of the most compelling sagas ever written by man or that people believe the island’s snow-capped mountains and volcanic chasms to be protected by trolls and elves; the landscape is primordial, mystical, of epic proportions and absolutely demands this passionate and otherworldly connection to it.

We arrive at the Þingvellir National Park as the feeble light of day begins to illuminate Lake Þingvallavatn, an enormous ragged-edged pewter dish fed by serpentine rivers of chilled mercury and fringed by shield volcanoes. Iceland sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which separates the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates; here at Þingvellir the earth is literally tearing itself apart as evidenced by numerous fissures and cracks that scar the landscape. Þingvellir translates as ‘Parliament Plains’, and nowhere symbolises the history and spirit of the Icelandic nation quite as this place does. Reputed to be the oldest parliament in the world, the Alþing general assembly was established by Viking settlers around 930 and continued to convene here until 1798. Considered geographically well located in terms of the main tracks and population centres, with slopes and flat plains set up against a rocky cliff, there was also plentiful pasture, firewood and water. There’s no denying the sense of history that oozes out of the imposing cliff faces and rises from amid the barely visible footprints of ancient booths.

Þingvellir National ParkÞingvellir National ParkThe fissure leading down to the Alþing

From the site of the Alþing we watch the newly risen sun, a match-head blazing white hot and amber, light the spire of a church above the bank of the Öxará River in pin-sharp detail before being suddenly extinguished, snuffed out by a bank of grey cloud. Large flakes of snow begin to fall and before long the hard outlines of the surrounding rocky cliff faces are softened. In this icy, monochrome world, the distant forms of tourists moving slowly upslope through the main fissure towards the car park look like the matchstick figures from a Lowry painting.

Dawn at Þingvellir National ParkDawn at Þingvellir National ParkÞingvellir means ‘Parliament Plains’ in Icelandic, and nowhere symbolises the history and spirit of the Icelandic nation quite as this place does

We head off towards the Haukadalur geothermal area where the Strokkur Geyser attracts swarms of day trippers who line the perimeter fence two deep in places. I am very surprised by how busy Southern Iceland is in early January, testament no doubt to the success of budget airlines such as Wow and Easy Jet which are flying with increasing regularity and cheapness from various parts of Europe and/or the USA. Strokkur (Icelandic for ‘churn’) is rather like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, reliably erupting on average every 6-10 minutes to a height of about 20 metres. The nearby much larger Great Geysir erupts infrequently. The English word geyser derives from geysir, which comes form the Icelandic verb geysa, ‘to gush’. 

Through the gently moving clouds of misty vapour, the water in the circular vent rises and falls as if teasing spectators to guess when it will erupt. Finally, a large aquamarine bubble swells to fill the cavity and then erupts with a loud roar. It shoots steam high into the sky, showering droplets of water all round with a strident hiss as the water is sucked back greedily into the geyser vent and the process of waiting expectantly begins over again. Across this strange otherworldly landscape perpetually shrouded in misty exhalations, are numerous other bubbling hot springs and steaming aquamarine pools fringed by white crystalline encrustations with colourful algal blooms.

Strokkur Geyser, Haukadalur geothermal areaStrokkur Geyser, Haukadalur geothermal areaStrokkur (Icelandic for ‘churn’) erupts every 6-10 minutes. The nearby much larger Great Geysir erupts infrequently. The English word geyser derives from geysir, which comes form the Icelandic verb geysa, ‘to gush’

Icelandic horsesIcelandic horsesHorses were brought to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the ninth and tenth centuries It is with some reluctance that we pull ourselves away and plough on through the snow buried countryside where groups of Icelandic horses with heavy winter coats and shaggy manes stand patiently in huddles, shielding each other from the viciously cold wind that howls across the landscape. A hardy breed of assorted colours, the ancestors of these diminutive horses with doe eyes and a gentle nature were brought to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the ninth and tenth centuries.

I can now see the wide Hvítá River flowing through the bleak winter landscape, but it appears to literally vanish into the earth. As I climb higher against a chafing wind the sombre beauty of Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall, confronts me. A deep dark cleft in the basalt floats into view fed by a succession of tumultuous cascades throwing up vast columns of mist as they foam and snarl down over gleaming black tiers of rock with a roar like a jet engine. At the edges of the falls, the water has been turned to ice, frozen mid-fall into a stupendous array of wax-like icicles thick as a man’s waist and huge crystalline blooms resembling the frigid heads of giant cauliflowers. The magnificence of the sight causes me to take a sharp intake of breath.

We descend via a treacherous icy pathway along a sloping platform of rock to gain a closer look down into the chasm where the ice is tinged ever so slightly turquoise. Chunks of ice float by just metres from me to be consumed in the watery chaos below. The sheer volume of the water raging down over the cliff edge mists my face and sends a deep rumbling through the ground up into my body. I find myself suddenly wanting to yell at the top of my voice in ecstasy at the sheer power and majesty of nature.

GullfossGullfossIceland's most famous waterfall in its winter finery

We hit the road again just as dark clouds begin to fill the sky, swallowing any hope of a sunset. The route takes us south towards the coast where isolated farmhouses huddled beneath huge icy cliffs of volcanic rock with frozen waterfalls seem lost in the enormity of the flat and snow blanketed countryside. As dusk falls, it begins to sleet and we are glad to finally arrive at an über-modern hotel in Vík, the southernmost village in Iceland, where we feast upon Rúgbrauð (rye bread) with bright yellow dairy butter, cream of angelica soup and pan fried Arctic char with roasted fennel and potatoes. A nightcap each of Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps distilled and flavoured with angelica and caraway, rounds off a memorable meal.

 

The Primordial South Coast

There’s nothing quite like a waterfall to stir one’s senses and emotions, and Seljalandsfoss waterfall at dawn is something to behold. Candy floss-pink clouds begin to enliven a deep violet sky fading to soft apricot in the east as we approach the silken body of water cascading over a high cliff. It’s far too icy and snow bound to clamber around the back of the falls to gaze through the cascade, so we content ourselves watching the water trace ephemeral, veil like patterns as it thunders into its mysterious deep-turquoise plunge pool ringed with ice and snow. As dawn breaks over the landscape, it tinges the cloud boiling above the falls shades of cream and rose pink. So magical is the sight, I want to stop time dead in its tracks in order to feast my senses on this spectacle for more than a few fleeting moments.

SeljalandsfossSeljalandsfossThe waterfall drops 60 metres and is part of the Seljalands River that originates in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull

Not far along the coast on the way back towards Vík, we visit another waterfall: Skógafoss. Seabirds whirl on the morning breeze rending the air with their raucous cries which mingle with the thunder of the falls as we approach. Located at the head of a semicircular gorge encrusted with huge icicles which drip like molten wax from the surrounding cliffs, Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country with a width of 25 metres and a drop of 60 metres. So great is the volume of spray, we are quickly silvered head to foot in fine droplets of mist. Every so often a watery rainbow shimmers feebly in the struggling sunlight. The cliffs here were once those of an ancient coastline, but the sea has since receded some 5 kilometres forming a wide flat expanse of boggy, marshy ground. These old cliffs run parallel to the new shoreline for hundreds of kilometres, demarcating the border between the coastal lowlands and the Highlands of Iceland.

SkógafossSkógafossThis famous waterfall is situated on the Skógá River and tumbles over the cliffs of the former coastline

On a bleak, exposed stretch of black sand at Sólheimasandur lies the eerie wreck of a United States Navy DC plane. Forced to crash land after running out of fuel in November 1973, it’s little more than a shell after forty one punishing years of Arctic gales and icy rain. In the frigid steel-blue landscape of pre-dawn, we finally locate the fuselage which suddenly looms from behind a mound of sand that effectively hides it from view. We stand in silent reverence as the throbbing orb of the sun explodes on the distant horizon in a riot of colour, warming the pitted and gutted shell of the plane which is missing its wings and tail.

Douglas Super DC-3 airplane, Vik, IcelandDouglas Super DC-3 airplane, Vik, Iceland

The coastline near Vík could be taken straight from the pages of the sagas. Boiling seas churned to milk race through sea arches, boom into huge zawns and gnaw away at the stumps of sea stacks, said to be trolls turned to stone that were caught by the rising sun as they attempted to put to sea in their boats. Here the restless North Atlantic Ocean traces endless foamy patterns on the famous black beaches, where visitors’ footsteps cast in wet volcanic sand last but for a fleeting moment before being swept away, an analogy indeed for ‘the sands of time’. With no landmass between Vík and Antarctica, there is nothing to impede Atlantic rollers from attacking with full force. The seas are oft tempestuous, stormy, white horses careering landwards in a chaotic race. Quite simply, Vík is primordial, elemental and fiendishly beautiful.

Dyrhólaey Sea ArchDyrhólaey Sea ArchFrom Sólheimasandur Beach Dyrhólaey sea arch shimmers in the dawn light

Black beach near VíkBlack beach near VíkThe Atlantic Ocean surf constantly pounds the basalt cliffs of this elemental coastline

The black beach, VíkThe black beach, VíkThese sea stacks are said to be trolls turned to stone, caught by the rising sun as they attempted to put to sea in their boats

 

The journey along the coast towards Höfn is marred by lashing rain and sleet and the road is covered in black ice, making driving conditions testing. Dusk is falling as we spot the nose of Vatnajökull (jökull being Icelandic for ‘glacier’), gnarled and shattered into an intricate jigsaw puzzle of thousands of pieces in brilliant turquoise, white and grey. The largest glacier outside of the Arctic, it stands proud of the expanse of black sands that form a boundary between it and the nearby ocean. We stay at Hali, a small settlement on a lake impounded behind a long sand bar. In the distance I can hear the Atlantic breakers constantly pounding the shore. The air is salt laden, fresh and penetrating.

VatnajökullVatnajökullThe nose of the glacier can be seen from the Route 1

We check a website for projected Northern Lights activity. Prior to my arrival in Iceland, I had erroneously thought that the Aurora Borealis was always visible if the sky was clear. This is not the case at all, and, along with fluctuations in the strength of the aurora tied into solar activity, the movement of the auroral oval (a ring that is centred over the Earth’s geomagnetic pole), means that even if the sky is clear this does not guarantee you will see the lights from your location in the Arctic at all hours during the night. Websites provide accurate information about the strength of the aurora and the position of the auroral oval in order to forecast the best times for viewing them where you are. We learn that the peak time at Hali is around 6.00 am, if the sky is clear, although weaker displays which are usually barely visible with the naked eye, are predicted to occur during the night. Although it has now stopped raining, cloud still obscures vast swathes of the night sky, but Martin, ever the optimist, sets his alarm to go off every hour throughout the night in order to pop outside to gaze heavenward.

 

Awed by Ice

His patience is finally rewarded, and he shakes me awake at around 5.30 am. The intense cold takes my breath away as I leave the guesthouse to clamber into our jeep for a short journey down the highway from Hali where, away from all street lights, an inky black sky stuffed full of stars arches overhead. Through a shard of sky trapped between two spiky mountains, I suddenly spy weird trails of faint green luminescence billowing upwards like silken scarves. These mysterious lights tracing endless wavy patterns across the heavens instantly transport the viewer to the time of the sagas, when Odin, Thor and Freyja strode amid these skies like celestial storm troopers. Although frozen to the bone, we stand transfixed, unable to pull ourselves away from this thrilling spectacle. However, we have to leave Hali before first light to reach the rendezvous point for our pre-booked photographic tour of an ice cave beneath Breiðamerkurjökull, a glacier in the Vatnajökull National Park.

By the time we begin our journey with five other photographers in a Ford Econoline 6WD, a monster truck with huge snow tyres, the surrounding snow-swept landscape is beginning to blush sugar-pink in the predawn light. Leaving the highway, the Ford makes light work of a rough, snow covered track inland past a frigid glacial lake to an all but hidden narrow cleft in a bank of snow. The sun is just beginning to rise above a low bank of hills opposite and we hurry inside to see the first rays of the day cast brilliant pin points of golden light on the crystalline interior of the ice cave. The spectacle is fleeting however, due to rising cloud. I take time to soak in my surroundings, a crystal grotto straight out of a Russian fairy story. Huge scalloped-shaped walls of ice arch high over my head, sculpted by the passage of a now frozen river. Most of the smooth scallops end in a tiny pimple, a drop of water literally frozen in time. The colours - white, through deep turquoise, petrol blue, charcoal grey and inky black - are breathtaking.

Ice cave, BreiðamerkurjökullIce cave, BreiðamerkurjökullThese ice caves move or completely disappear with the shifting ice sheet each year

I stare intently into the translucent ice, seeing strange filaments the thickness of a human hair, specks of black volcanic grit and myriad clusters of air bubbles trapped eons ago. I learn to read its coded message: stripes of subtly different coloured layers represent varying periods of snowfall over many centuries. Whiter layers tell us that the ice formed when the weather was very cold, because air was trapped within the snow making it more reflective. Layers that are darker or bluer in colour were created by snowfall in warmer or wet conditions when little air was trapped. I spy smooth pebbles and small boulders stuck fast in the ice like insects stuck in amber, and in places the ice is striated, testament to the relentless power of this glacier which is slowly grinding its way through the valley.

We progress deeper inside the cave past a gaping hole to the surface. The sunlight is catching the far edge of this opening turning it golden which seems to make the ice below an even deeper shade of turquoise. I crawl through small passages choked with snow, side branches of the glacial river which will begin to flow again come spring, and stare open-mouthed at the huge main chamber. Inside is a large stalactite, formed from water seeping out of a hole in the roof of the cave. Around two metres high and gleaming with turquoise translucency, it spills onto the gravel floor of the cave like molten wax.

Ice cave, BreiðamerkurjökullIce cave, BreiðamerkurjökullA visit to an ice cave beneath one of Iceland's glaciers is the highlight of any winter trip

On every photographer’s itinerary is Jökulsarlón lagoon. Here huge icebergs float majestically in front of the shattered nose of the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier (a part of the larger Vatnajökull Glacier) that sweeps up to a line of imposing mountains. The water from the lagoon flows into a river onto a nearby beach. Here a stunning vista unfolds before our eyes: a bejewelled shoreline of dazzling diamonds set against black volcanic sands. My jaw drops at the savage beauty of it all. Myriad shards of ice of all sizes have passed through the nearby lagoon and floated down the river to be washed ashore by the tide. The surf thunders onto the beach, rocking even the largest of these icebergs, and I delight in the long, withdrawing, grating roar as the waves retreat and then advance once more with a strident hiss along the sloping shingly shore. The way the golden sunlight is refracted through these scalloped gems, some white and translucent, others tinged turquoise, is enough to send a poet into raptures and make an artist grab his palette.

Sea shore jewelsSea shore jewelsOne of many icebergs that have floated down river from the Jökulsarlón lagoon

After one final communion with the serenity of the lagoon, we head east on the N1 towards Egilsstaðir. The route weaves its way below towering snow-clad mountains silhouetted against a candy pink sky which is reflected in the icy surface of frozen brooks and rivers. Solitary shells of abandoned farmsteads seem to cry out in their eternal loneliness, an indicator of the marginality of wresting a living from the land in this harsh corner of the world. Before long the road begins to weave its way in and out of numerous fjords under a velvety black sky literally showered with stars. We arrive at our guesthouse in snowy Egilsstaðir on a street so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

Quiet abandonQuiet abandonDeserted farmhouse visible from Route 1

Candy pink sunsetCandy pink sunsetThe winter sunsets in Iceland provide amazing opportunities for photography

 

A Communion with Solitude

The ground is frozen solid with snow piled high on either side of the street as we head out of town en route to the Hengifoss Gorge. The sunrise through the skeletal branches of some trees fringing the frozen far reaches of Lake Lagarfljót is serene and stunningly beautiful. It’s bitterly cold as we begin the climb up to view the falls at Hengifoss and before long we have to stop to don crampons in order to move safely over the ironbound ground coated with ice inches thick in places. Every heather sprig and blade of withered grass poking through the crispy snow or trapped in ice seems to hold a fragile crystal. And every water seep or small stream has been frozen solid to the walls of the gorge where it hangs in huge icicles and sheets of ice. Basalt columns line either side of Litlanesfoss, a barely flowing waterfall pincered between the huge pipe-like structures that resemble a giant organ. Way below us Lake Lagarfljót lies completely still, a sheet of brooding gunmetal occasionally flooded with a ghastly luminescence from a lurid winter sun. There isn’t another soul around, no one but us passing through this pristine, savagely beautiful place.

Frozen in timeFrozen in timeLitlanesfoss, a waterfall lower downstream from Hengifoss

Lake LagarfljótLake LagarfljótThe savage beauty of the winter landscape below Hengifoss

The climb to the head of the falls looks deceptively easy, but the route which meanders round the edge of the gorge is almost 3 km and involves an ascent of about 400 metres, the upper part of which is very steep. Two cairns taller than a man on either side of the gorge seem to guard its head, after which the sombre beauty of the falls finally reveals itself. Hengifoss is the second highest waterfall in Iceland (128m) and is said to make a noise like a jet engine when in spate, but today it makes barely a whimper, almost paralysed by winter’s icy grip. A mere trickle can be seen falling between vast swathes of turquoise-tinged ice that contrasts with the bands of rust red lateritic soil trapped between the layers of basalt like the filling in a giant sandwich. We do not tarry long due to the intense cold and the lengthening shadows heralding the imminent demise of the daylight.

Its twilight as we are driving along the eastern shore of Lake Lagarfljót, past the largest forest in Iceland. To say that this country is arboreally challenged is an understatement, so these beech plantations are highly regarded by Icelanders. We make for Akureyri, the capital of the northern area of the country, a picturesque town of quaint wooden buildings and gaily painted shops. The drive there takes us across endless bleak, icy uplands in the northern part of the Vatnajökull National Park, where a cruel wind howls across the naked landscape and barely a vehicle passes us. We are fortunate that the bridge over the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River is still open, as there was talk of closing it due to the accumulation of ice floes that have choked the river almost to the height of the bridge.

As we pass the geothermal area of Mývatn, betrayed by the characteristic whiff of hydrogen sulphide, flurries of snow begin to fall. By the time we approach Akureyri it is so thick we can barely see five metres in front of us and accumulations feet deep lie in the road. I am thankful indeed to reach our hotel safely. From the warmth and comfort of the restaurant window, I delight in seeing the snow falling heavily, depositing thick layers on the roofs of nearby wooden buildings in a scene straight from a Christmas card. 

 

High Drama at Sundown

We couldn’t have known that our fascination with the winterscape would take an unexpected downturn as we leave Akureyri the following morning bound for the Tröllaskagi (troll) Peninsula. The cloud seems to be clearing as we head north past the step hulks of mountains blushing rose pink in the dawn light, below which tiny farmhouses cower in the vast snowy expanse. On past a pretty Lutheran church with a blood red roof and spire, through the fishing port of Dalvik nestled below a massive snowy mountain on the Eyjafjörður, its sleepy harbour home to a number of eider ducks, to Siglufjörður, once the largest herring fishery in Iceland. Weather-beaten houses in green, yellow, red and blue line the road and huge fish processing sheds which look hastily erected of wood and corrugated iron, bear witness to the former importance of the ‘silver of the sea’. Near Siglufjörður are some of Iceland’s finest ski slopes, a magnet for weekenders from Reykjavík and beyond. As we climb out of Siglufjörður, the grey-green waters of the Arctic Ocean are revealed in all their moody majesty. We stop to view a rust red lighthouse perched defiantly on the cliffs above the seething ocean, huge waves breaking onto the jagged rocks below. The wind is so strong and so cold, it’s enough to cut you in two.

Lutheran ChurchLutheran ChurchThe blood red roof and spire of this pretty church outside Akureyri contrasts with the whey-white snow

SiglufjörðurSiglufjörðurColourful buildings line the street of what was once Iceland's largest herring fishery

As we make our way along the bleak and exposed coastline of the Skagafjörður, the wind strengthens to gale force and we can feel the car being buffeted by the gusts. The sky turns an ominous battleship-grey as we pull into a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Here we experience our first Icelandic smorgasbord. This is true rural fare, echoing the past when the harsh climate and reliance on subsidence farming meant that nothing at all was wasted. We spot harðfiskur (wind dried fish); picked herring; sviðasulta (sheep head jam), hrútspungar (whey pickled rams’ testicles), slatur (blood pudding), hangikjöt (lamb smoked over its own dung), glerhákarl (‘glassy shark’ from the belly) and softer white skyrhákarl. But the sight of svið, singed, de-brained and boiled sheep’s head, is the real gut churner! I recoil with revulsion at the sight of the heads that have been split in two, their gnarled teeth exposed by the shrunken flesh around their mouths and I admit to having to be absolutely starving to even countenance eating such a thing!

Upon leaving the petrol station, the road begins to climb a hill over a pass. Visibility suddenly plummets to less than a few metres as spindrift lifted in the gale force wind sweeps down from the surrounding hillside. Almost immediately it’s difficult to see the snow markers at the edge of the road. At least we are not alone; there is a vehicle in front of us and several behind. Unnerved, we decide however to push on towards Borgarnes where we have accommodation booked for the night. To compound an already bad situation, it now begins to snow heavily and it quickly sticks, making it near impossible to see the tarmac road. We almost collide with a two wheel drive car that has stuttered to a halt in the middle of the road and pass by several others struggling their way uphill. Martin is concerned that stopping for such obstacles will mean we get stuck too. Night is falling, the conditions are truly atrocious and visibility is now down to just a couple of metres making it hard to see the rear lights of the jeep in front of us. Just as we are debating whether to call it a day and return to the gas station, conditions improve as we enter a more sheltered valley and with great relief we opt to continue our journey.

This, however, is just an interlude, for as soon as we meet the next exposed mountain pass the spindrift again causes whiteout conditions making it almost impossible to see the road. This time it is pitch black, there are no other vehicles before or behind us and we inch our way slowly forward in the icy-white maelstrom, desperate to avoid inadvertently leaving the road. Nothing seems to be passing us on the opposite side of the road and I have the window wound down trying to see the snow poles, but most of them are virtually invisible, their reflective bands totally iced over. The cold is intense, the spindrift feels like millions of tiny needles as it blasts my face and virtually blinds me, and I find it almost impossible to speak to Martin as the gale force wind snatches my words. To say I’m frightened is an understatement. Driving in the winter in Iceland can be very challenging, and many visitors are often too inexperienced to tackle the dangerous conditions.

Conditions then suddenly improve again and we think we are in the clear. It’s still howling a gale and snowing steadily, but visibility is much improved and I begin to believe we will make it to Borgarnes after all. Ahead in the distance we spot the petrol station at Staðarskáli and Martin, nerves frayed to breaking point, suggests we stop for a coffee. As we approach it, we see the blue flashing lights of a police car. The road ahead, which crosses the Holtavörðuheiði mountain pass, has been closed and we find ourselves among 338 people who are stranded here.

It’s total mayhem inside; all the tables and chairs are occupied and people are sitting cross legged next to young children sleeping on the floor. Locals say they have never witnessed conditions as bad as this on the arterial road through the country, and seem shocked that it has been closed. Most believe it will reopen before the petrol station closes. I do not share their optimism and shortly before 11.00 pm we are being escorted by Search and Rescue officers five minutes down the road to a hotel! The Stadarskali I Hrutafirdi is like a throwback to 1980s East Germany - tired looking rooms with vapid décor off a long, dingy corridor - but with a tariff to rival some hotels in Reykjavík. However, it’s the only place round here and it’s warm, clean, with a hot en suite shower, far better than the floor of a school or church hall, and we’re glad to be safely tucked up in bed.

 

Reykjanes in the Rain

By morning the road is open. We set off past the petrol station across a vast tract of windswept upland on a day that doesn’t seem to hold much promise weather wise. The snow is so deep in places it obscures the top of the snow poles and has all but swallowed most of the nearby farm fences. It’s not hard to imagine how appalling the conditions must have been the previous night with gale force winds, snow and spindrift howling across this exposed landscape. Indeed, we soon see the results of the extreme weather: umpteen cars abandoned at the side of the road almost totally encased in snow, and near the top of the pass, two stranded articulated trucks, one of which is lying on its side having lost control and skidded off the road going downhill. Snow ploughs are busy clearing the highway and numerous crashed vehicles are being towed away. We’re heartily glad we were not among the unfortunate people caught out on this stretch of road when darkness fell last night.

Stranded vehiclesStranded vehiclesAbandoned vehicles on the Holtavörðuheiði mountain pass. The challenges of winter driving in Iceland are not to be underestimated

It’s lunchtime when we enter a petrol station in Borgarnes and being gung-ho gourmands, we finally decide the time has come to sample some of the local ‘delicacies’ from an Icelandic smorgasbord at a nearby restaurant. Neither of us can quite bring ourselves to try svið, but we choose some of the cured meats. Despite liking smoked foods, I find hangikjöt (smoked lamb) a little too strong and salty for my taste. The hrútspungar (whey pickled rams’ testicles) is horribly sour and cheesy with a texture like soft pâté which sticks in my gullet. The sviðasulta (sheep head jam), pink rubbery scraps of meat and offal congealed in a bland brown jelly and the slatur (blood pudding) are simply too rich and fatty. The meats come with rúgbrauð (rye bread), pickled red cabbage, mashed swede and baby potatoes in a creamy sauce made of skyr which are quite palatable.

SviðSviðTraditional Icelandic fare: a sheep's head cut in half and boiled after the brain has been removed

Due to last night’s disruption to our travel schedule, and having to be at Keflavík International Airport by late afternoon for our flight back to Belfast, we scrap our plan to visit the Blue Lagoon spa, opting instead to tour the Reykjanes Peninsula. As we leave the tolled tunnel under Hvalfjörður, it begins to lash with sleety rain. Across the choppy bay we can see the futuristic spire of Hallgrímskirkja piercing the grey skyline in downtown Reykjavík. The Reykjanes Peninsula is unremittingly barren, stark and almost uninhabitable, comprised of rough, contorted piles of lava where only moss and lichen seem to flourish. Site of a former US base, on a miserable winter’s day like this it looks horribly bleak and uninviting.

We pass the Blue Lagoon, the world famous upmarket spa set amid a lunar landscape of fractured lava and snow capped volcanoes. Formed from the waste waters of a nearby geothermal plant, the silica-rich milky-blue water is so vibrant even on a dull day such as this, it’s hard to believe the scene before my eyes hasn’t been photoshopped! The road takes us on to Grindavík, a small, wind-battered fishing village rising up out of gloomy lava mounds and comprised of rows of depressing shabby wooden and concrete houses. Its grey, rain-lashed main street angrily reflects the daylight and I cannot imagine living in such a bleak, exposed place; it's a relief to drive away!

The Blue LagoonThe Blue LagoonInside Iceland's most famous spa on a return trip the following year

Geologically very active, nowhere else visibly shows the junction in the earth’s crust between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates quite as clearly as the Reykjanes Peninsula. We pass huge geothermal plants spewing clouds of white vapour into the freezing air and in howling wind and lashing rain, at Sandvík we can see where the earth’s crust is literally being torn apart. Here a small footbridge has been erected over a major fissure which is a stunning example of a diverging plate margin. Despite the foul weather, we can’t resist the urge to clamber down into it to walk between the Eurasian and North American plates.

An hour later we are sitting in a bar at Keflavík International Airport enjoying our last Icelandic stout, the appropriately named Lava. After little more than a day in this remarkable island, superlatives fail you as you bear witness to the utterly face-slapping scenery, the beauty of which can reduce you to tears. A vast volcanic laboratory of gushing geysers, grinding glaciers, magical mountains and wild waterfalls, you can't but sense your utter insignificance in the grander scheme of things set against such hyper-charged majesty. Just as one beer here is never enough, one trip is not enough either. Iceland is already calling us back...

Indeed, we did return the following year! See our short film of the beautiful Icelandic winter:


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