After two nights in the sweet little town of Vik, we thanked our host most graciously for her help, and within minutes of driving away from the coastal town, we left the rain and mist behind us and burst back into bright sunshine. Oh the joys of the open road! Today we were off to see glacier lagoons, another national park and a river that tore down through a gorge in a valley called Fjathrarglijufur. As we drove, the landscape changed drastically and we suddenly found ourselves amid the largest lava field in the world! Every which was you looked was a blanket of blackened, cooled lava, which was being taken over by bulbous green moss tufts, creating a strange spectacle.
Something caught our eye and we stopped at the side of the road as a strange field of piled up rocks came into sight. Hundreds of piles of rocks, like cairns, were piled around in a large field every which way you looked. Following a massive eruption near the end of the 800’s, a farmer lost everything and as tribute, and in hopes of warding off another catastrophic eruption for the next farmer, the locals would leave small cairns of rocks, and over time people kept adding to this. Now even tourists, as they drive by, stop and add a pile of rocks, which has thus created this massive and bizarre field of rock piles.
We carried on until we came to the turn off for the ‘church floor’. While not actually a church floor, it is the remnants of more basaltic column formations that are level with the ground and thus form an amazing hexagonal pattern on the ground, looking as though it could have been the floor of an ancient church, but is in fact just a natural phenomenon! As we drove ever onwards, the landscape changed yet again as we neared back towards the coast, and the huge cliffs and green pastures came back to us. A towering waterfall fell over the cliffs behind a small farm and two beautiful Icelandic ponies grazed.
This was it, this was my chance at last to meet these beautiful creatures! I begged the girls to pull over and excitedly ran over to the fence where the horses were grazing. I will be honest- if I had been in charge of the driving, I wouldn’t have seen have the sights in Iceland because I would have spent all of my timing pulling over every time I saw a horse to go and pet it! Clearly these ones were used to people and nuzzled right up to me as I pet their noses. This was without a doubt a highlight of my whole Icelandic trip! I love horses and have always been drawn to them, but have hardly ever had any interactions with them. My first time on a horse (okay, it was a mule) was just a couple of months prior, in the Salkantay mountain pass in Peru. I could have spent the entire day with these beautiful creatures, but the girls were eager to keep moving, so I savoured every moment with them and felt my heart aching and bursting at the same time as we drove off.
We were heading towards Skaftafell National Park, and between it and the sea, the landscape changed remarkably yet again and we found ourselves in the black desert – mile upon mile of pure, black desolation: the result of glacier outwash plains. The massive nearby glacier drags down silt, gravel and sand, and in rivers and streams deposits it into plains, or what is known as Sandar – the black desert. It’s a peculiar and depressing place, with no signs of life, and no signs of it ending. The car got quiet as we cruised through the bleak devastation, our thoughts turning inwards. This was the beauty and strangeness of Iceland. One minute you could be experiencing a highlight of your life, petting an Icelandic pony while she nuzzles into you, with a waterfall in the background crashing down through the mountainous cliffs, green pastures all around you – and the next you’re in a dead and barren desert!
We made it to Skaftafell National park, and with hoards of other explorers, we parked the car and hit one of the trails. Being tight on time, and wanting to make it to our hostel before dark, we chose a trail of under 4km which would lead us to a well known waterfall called Svartifoss, which is surrounded by those strange basalt columns that we saw on the beach. The hexagonal rocks would break off from water erosion and land at the base of the waterfall as huge, perfectly rectangular rocks, looking as though they were man made. We sat down among other hikers and simply enjoyed the beautiful waterfall. There is something about waterfalls that, while being polar opposites, are akin to fires – they are utterly hypnotic. You can sit and watch a waterfall or a fire for hours and fall into a sort of hypnotic trance. It was nice, after the hike, to just relax, enjoy our surroundings and get hypnotized by the waterfall. We hiked another couple of trails, as we made great time on the first one, and summited to a high point with great views of the surrounding black desert and a river that spilled down and cut across the expanse to spill into the ocean.
Watching the time, we headed back to the car, and made our way ever east. We had one more stop before we would reach our destination for the night in Höfn; Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon! This beautiful lake was created when the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull retreated from the sea edge, which is just over a kilometre away from the lake now. We parked the car, and began the short hike in the direction we saw everyone heading. When we crested the ridge that was obscuring our view of the lagoon, we stopped and gasped. Holy shit.
This place was magnificent! The tongue of the glacier was gargantuan, making the glacier we saw the day before seem miniscule. We stood a moment to take in the sheer size of the glacier before us before heading down to the lagoon shore. Huge, blue clefts of ice bobbed in the lagoon. The sun beat down reflecting brightly off the water and we found ourselves a seat on the pebbly shore to watch as the small icebergs slowly moved about with the currents in the lake. Every day we would say that the particular sight we were seeing was the most incredible, the most beautiful etc. But this one truly topped all of our lists. The immense expanse of ice, the utter magnitude of it was unbelievable. It was one of those sights that took the words from your mouth and left you speechless and frustrated at your vocabulary’s inability to describe it.
The lagoon expanded further down to where it then poured out through a river into the ocean. Here the chunks of ice would slowly make their way with the current out into the open ocean where they would eventually melt down and dissolve into the sea. We were lucky enough to catch seals lazying about in the cold waters, swimming around and around, while flocks of sea birds perched atop the larger ice floes. Lacking the words to express our feelings we kept muttering to each other ‘this is so awesome’ and for once, were using the word true to it’s meaning; what we were seeing was truly awe inspiring. I was beginning to understand why they called it Iceland, getting these glimpses of the massive glaciers that dominated the country- and this one wasn’t even that big in comparison to Vatnajökull, the largest.
The sun was beginning to fade and we dragged ourselves away from the glacier to begin making our way to Höfn, where our hostel was. On the way, a car with two guys drove by and we were all smiles and waves. Thinking nothing much of it, we kept on driving. Later the car passed us speeding by and we giggled. A few minutes later, we caught up with them and noticed one of the guys was in the back of the vehicle holding a sign to the back window! We got as close as we dared to try and make the sign out which said “Do you want to get a drink tonight?”. We burst out laughing when we deciphered the sign. We consulted each other and said why not, and singled back with the thumbs up and received a huge smile in return. We met them in Höfn and told them we had to first find our hostel to check in, as we were already late, but would send them a message on Whatsapp and meet them for a drink. Well, we ran into yet another booking error – turns out our hostel wasn’t in fact in Höfn, but was 50km BACK! Shit. We rushed to the hostel to check in and sent the guys a message, but it just wasn’t worth driving all that way for a drink. But it made for a fun little end to our adventurous day!
In the morning we hit the road and realized that we left our itinerary at the hostel and so we were left to just wing it. Which suited us just fine! We decided that we would make it an ambitious driving day and cover loads of ground and try to make it to Myvatn, which was a place we had heard great things about from some locals. We continued to hug the south coast of Iceland and began to then climb the east coast, checking out the fjords and then pushing inland to cut time as Myvatn wasn’t on the coast like most of our other stops.
We stopped at a tiny little harbour town and grabbed our first coffee of the trip, a huge luxury for us since everything was so expensive here. But we had been doing well by buying food and making our own dinners and snacks, so we treated ourselves. We all moaned with pleasure at the strong, hot, black goodness that is a cup of joe and got excited to feel the caffeine boost as we were all a little tired. The town was adorable, picturesque, but honestly, we didn’t see a town in Iceland that wasn’t! We pushed on, stopping wherever we fancied for the views, looking at waterfalls, fjords, villages and sheep.
As we drove ever onward north and inward from the coast, the landscape made its most dramatic transformation yet. We left behind the pretty mountains and their vibrant green moss covering. We left behind the oceanic cliffs and rolling green pastures. We left behind the valleys and abundant waterfalls. We drove straight into Mordor. Seriously. While the black desert was empty and barren, this place gave desolation a new meaning. Huge black mounds- old volcanos- reached for the sky. The ground darkened as if scorched by fire- oh wait- it was scorched by fire; we were driving over an expanse of land that had been mauled by volcanic eruptions and the devastation it left behind was ghastly. “Where are we….” we whispered to each other in disbelief. Silence over took the vehicle yet again as we all stared, foreheads against the windows. This was strange land we were entering and you could feel it as well as see it, an ominous cloud settling over the entire place.
As we came around a corner a touch of colour came into view and we could see smoke billowing out of the ground and the wind whipping it about wildly. We were definitely on active volcanic ground! As we got closer, the obnoxious stench of sulphur penetrated through the car and elicited a collective groan of “ewwwwww!” from us. We scrambled to cover our noses and mouths, but nothing could keep that fetor out, it felt like it had crawled inside our olfactory system and exploded in there. We parked and got out anyway, since we were already saturated with the stink, and wandered over to the geothermal area and were immediately nearly blown over by the wind! It was absolutely howling! We put our heads down and march head first into the gusting gale, gagging with each breath. After only a few minutes we all ran back to the car dry heaving. I mean, I’ve smelt sulphur before, but that… that was just… *shudder*.
As we drove up a hillside and rounded the corner to descend, Myvatn came into view and we all started talking excitedly at once. An ice blue lagoon (how could that colour be natural?!) came into sight, and a huge lake was set off in the distance. The town itself is tiny, and our hostel was just on the outskirts, sitting atop a lava field all by itself. I instantly loved this place. Our hostel felt almost like it was some sort of exploration or scientific station, the way it was just small portables all by itself on some vast lava field. We got checked in, made a delicious dinner of salmon and then watched the sunset over the black lava field from the all window common room. We met a few other travellers who were all keen on getting some northern light sightings in so we took turns running outside as the evening progressed to see if the sky was clearing of clouds so the lights could come out to play.
Finally someone said they were out and so we all ran out to get a glimpse. While not as big of a deal for me – because I am lucky enough to see the Northern lights all the time at home – I was still excited to see what they would be like in Iceland! I suppressed my laughter when we got out there – to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure if we were looking at pale northern lights, or merely the glow of the city lights and moon reflecting of the clouds… I went back inside to warm up and work on my blog and an hour or so later, Emilee came back, panting and telling me to hurry up and come check out the lights, that they were really starting to come out and shine this time! I grabbed all the warm things I could layer on and we headed out, about a 10 minute walk away from the hostel in pitch black. They were definitely out a bit more, but the cloud cover was obscuring them from really shining. The longer we waited however, the more they came out to play.
I told everyone how when I was living in Iqaluit, Nunavut as a small child, the local Inuit children would tell me that if you whistled, the northern lights would come down and chop off your head! WHAT?!?! And the only way to prevent it was to clap! So they would all terrorize me by whistling and I would run around clapping like a lunatic! The real myth is of course, that if you whistle they will dance for you. And so I began to whistle away and sure enough they started to dance! We were all awestruck watching them shift and sway high above us in the heavens. We sat there, at 2am, snuggled up together, our backs pressed to the cold earth, in the pitch black, the only light that of the Northern Lights, and shrieked with delight as we saw four shooting stars over the hour we lay there. It was one of those surreal evenings that you wish you could some how capture and keep the memory as bright as those green northern lights for the rest of your life.
After that late night, we allowed ourselves to sleep in as we planned to spend another night here so we could really explore. We tried to book Icelandic horse back riding, as that was the one thing I wanted to do more than anything, however due to extremely strong winds, no one was offering riding that day. I was heartbroken! To take my mind off the heart ache we planned a full day of adventures. Instead, we hiked around a small lake to check out some strange formations in the lake; drove over to the other side of Lake Myvatn and explored the strange pseudo craters; climbed up one crater (named “hell” or ‘viti’ in Icelandic) to peer at the icy blue lake inside of it and hiked around its perimeter; explored some of the huge lava fields and active geothermal areas; and ended our day by summiting a large, wide, long-dead crater and walking the rim, about a 3km trip.
The hike up only took 8 minutes (exactly as Em predicted!), but as we reached the top we were battered by gale force winds that nearly took us right back down the bottom! I’ve never experienced wind like that in my life and it was a struggle to get each foot in front of the other and stay upright! You had to lean strongly with all your weight forward to get any momentum. We walked the rim, and were afforded awesome views of everything surrounding Myvatn. It was a difficult walk with the forceful winds and we were relieved when we made it all the way around and could head back down. We felt accomplished after that, like we had defeated the mountain that tried to throw us back down.
As a reward, we cooked ourselves a delicious dinner (notwithstanding some issues reading the instructions for rice in Icelandic, ending up with a bit of a crunchy stirfry!) and then headed over to the thermal baths, which is like a much less costly version of the blue lagoon – but with the same effects – a large pool with thermally heated water filled with volcanic minerals. We lazed about, heading to the hottest spots in the pools, including the miniature waterfall that you could stand under. We ended our time in the deliciously hot sauna which was a cedar hut with benches erected over an active volcanic crevice that poured steaming hot air into the hut. Slightly terrifying to think we were sitting on a crack in the earth that was gushing steamy hot air into it, but hey, we were living on the edge!
The next day was my last full day with the girls so we made it an ambitious one. We would end in Akureyri, only 90km away, but we would take a detour to get there and drive the Diamond circle, which was a circuit in Northern Iceland that would take us through a canyon, the adorable city of Húsavik, and by two of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. Húsavik is yet another picturesque port town on the Northern Iceland coast that acts as a gateway for whale watching. We stopped here for a quick snack and to explore the pretty town before heading onwards to Ásbyrgi, a massive horseshoe shaped canyon. We hiked a few kilometres of trails through beautiful birch like forests that reminded us of home, ending up at a perfectly small, still lake with crystal clear water.
We didn’t realize it, but we were saving the best for last. We almost bypassed Detifoss waterfall because we didn’t think we would have time, but a local had told me it was the best fall in Iceland, so we made our way there through the winding dirt roads. First we stopped at a smaller fall, Hafragilsfoss and admired the deep canyon and took in the views of the valley the mighty river had carved. The blasting winds seems to be everywhere in Northern Iceland, and we were battered yet again with the gales. I jumped from a rock and was actually blown slightly over from the winds, they were that fierce!
If we were impressed by the first waterfall there are no words to describe how we felt when we saw Detifoss. It was utterly magnificent. It’s the kind fo fall you hear before you see, the thundering mass pounding down with ferocity. Huge plumes of mist billowed up from the base high into the air, crashing into the cliff sides of the carved valley, so much mist that it created little miniature waterfalls when it met the cliff walls. Detifoss is known as the ‘beast’ in comparison to Godafoss (our next stop) known as the beauty. We stood humbled next to the mighty roar of the falls and marvelled as nearly 200 m3/s crashed down just in front of us. Even though I had recently been in Argentina and saw the world renowned Iguzau falls, this was still a remarkable and thrilling waterfall to be so close to.
We had one more stop on our Diamond circle tour: that of Godafoss falls, not nearly as dramatic or huge as Detifoss, but a beautiful set of falls nonetheless. I almost felt bad for the falls, because after coming from Detifoss it’s hard to take Godafoss seriously. Defifoss is so large, so demanding of your attention, that Godafoss has a hard time grabbing your attention at all. I had to remind myself that each fall is different and take in these falls for what they were – where Detifoss was furious and forceful, commanding and violent, Godafoss was graceful and elegant, the beauty to the beast.
We finished our diamond circle tour by ending in Akureyri where we would spend a night and I would depart in the morning for Reykjavik for one more night to catch an early flight back to London. It was a hard goodbye to Emilee, Caitlyn and the Black Sheep. We had spent the most amazing week together, exploring and discovering this extraordinary island called Iceland. The ever changing landscapes shaped by thousands of years of volcanic activity, the unsurpassable kindness of the local people, the dramatic scenery that takes your breath away a every corner, and the opportunity for endless adventure are but a few of the amazing things Iceland has to offer. This country will steal your heart instantly. It will fill you with wonder, and it will ignite in you an excitement that exploration will not quell, but only make burn brighter.
Until next time… (and there most definitely will be a next time!)
If you haven’t read part I, check it out here!