For all the beautiful waterfalls and breathtaking landscapes Iceland has to offer, sometimes driving through flat wastes of sand and grass doesn’t make for the most exciting of road trips. As we sit in the car and wait to reach our hotel near Skaftafell, in the far southeastern corner of Iceland, my travel companion Wojciech and I are eager to find a way to pass the time that doesn’t include car-related games, blasting music or stopping at every waterfall on the way.
That being said, the south coast of Iceland is probably one of my favourite areas to drive through. It’s got a bleak, haunted look that gets better as the weather gets worse. Luckily enough, it soon begins to rain.
Wojciech has borrowed my notebook for a while, and the rain is tenderly lulling me to sleep. From the coastal road, the mountains almost seem unreal, their mantle of grass like a creature with its own free will, flowing over the earth and creating liquid ripples along its silver surface. When in a hurry, most travellers focus on the powerful waterfalls that dot Iceland’s southern coast, but I love the silence, and the delicacy of the details in the nature along the way.
This time, however, we’re driving further than most, all the way to the Vatnajökull National Park, where we’ll be hiking on a glacier. It’s up there on my mental list of things I’ve always wanted to do, but thought best to avoid, lest I inevitably fall on my face or into a crevasse. Today, however, I’m testing my boundaries.
Lost in rain
Before we even get to our hotel we stop by one of the spots I love the most: the sprawling black fields of Myrdalssandur. As I walk, dunes of black sand as soft as moss swallow my feet, indifferent to my efforts to stay afloat. Predictably, the car gets stuck, even if we’re on what looks like a track. There’s only black sand to our right and to our left.
I take in our surroundings. A steamy, white river flows impetuously right next to us, and a bridge stands unperturbed in the thick fog like a gate to a mysterious land. A mountain range lines the horizon with a necklace of snow hanging from its highest peak, which disappears into the clouds. It’s like being in a giant sandbox, and even if we meow in awe at the view, we soon find ourselves hating this inexplicably gooey sand. It takes us more than an hour to dig our way out, and when we finally arrive to the hotel I briefly marvel at the detailed dragon that has appeared in my notebook before I fall into sleep, and the arms of Morpheus.
It’s 10 am the next day when we reach the Skaftafell Nature Reserve. Tucked away between the Svínafellsjökull glacier and the rippling sea, Skaftafell is an verdant emerald gem amidst the overwhelming fields of black lava.
Our guide, Dan Saulite, is an enthusiastic Scotsman with a lush beard and firm manners. He shows us everything we need to know, from how to tie the crampons to our boots, to stepping flat-footed on the ground when negotiating the ice. When we’re finally ready, I look up to see the glacier appearing slowly through a thick, glimmering mist, its blue peaks paused in motion as if bound under an ancient spell. Rivulets of black ash and lava stain the ice, visible through the translucent surface like veins under skin.
Walls of water
Walking is hard at first. I have to focus on every step, whilst also wanting to look around and take it all in. The glacier rolls down from the surrounding mountains like an icy tongue. We walk more confidently as the time passes, sometimes carefully balanced along thin rims of ice, sometimes making our way through tight ravines held between frozen walls of water.
“The glacier changes regularly,” says Dan as we stop to bottle some fresh water from the slippery ground. “Every day we come here to check the paths are safe. We dig staircases into the ice, if need be, and we fill in dangerous crevasses like the one we are walking through now.” I take a sip of the meltwater, and I could swear I’ve never tasted anything so good.
We stop for a rest and I finally sit down with one foot dangling down into a crevasse and stare at Wojciech climbing the glacier wall. For the first time today I don’t feel like I don’t belong here. I might be just another visitor, but as I breathe in the cool air I can’t help but feel safe and at home on these bizarre waves of frozen water that stretch far into the sunny horizon.