The idea of having any part of Iceland to yourself has, in recent years, become increasingly unlikely. At every spot, from the misty Skógafoss to the colourful hills of Landmannalaugar, you’ll be greeted by brightly clad groups of other travellers, or at least the signs of tourists having been there.
As a result, the awe-inspiring feeling of connecting to wild Icelandic nature—rather than being one of many spectators in an Instagram-driven crowd—has become elusive. At least, so I thought, until the welcome surprise of unexpectedly finding it once again on an ATV tour in southern Iceland.
Rumble of the wind
The words “ATV” and “calm” might seem oxymoronic, but spend more than ten minutes on the machine and the at first jarring rumble of the engine fades into a soft purr. As you acclimatise to driving, the vehicle slowly becomes an extension of yourself, allowing you to whizz through nature with the cool morning breeze on your face. After a while, it feels like a form of meditation similar to long-distance running.
It is in this breathless haze that I find myself traversing the southern coast of Iceland astride a bouncing, bumbling quad bike. Three of us—myself, my guide and a photographer—race along a dirt path, winding around patches of moss and large rocks. We pause only to balance ourselves during the occasional river crossing, during which we rest our legs atop the ATV to avoid getting soaked.
An undisturbed coast
After twenty minutes of off-roading, we arrive at the shores of Sólheimasandur. However, this yawning, panoramic stretch of black beach seems fresh somehow, and unlike any other time I’ve ever seen it. The reason dawns on me: it’s completely abandoned. Not only are there no signs of other people any direction, but no roads, or reminders of civilisation. On each side of us is only black sand as far as the eye can see, undisturbed but for the tracks of the ATV, and soundtracked by the methodical crush of the ocean waves on the shore.. Behind us, the shining peaks of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier glare down protectively, and at our feet, the Atlantic stretches out without end. It feels like there’s nothing blocking us from staring all the way to the other side of the globe.
In that moment, the late Icelandic winter sunrise begins, and the horizon morphs into a spectrum of bright amber and peach. The glacier is suddenly illuminated, as is the ocean, and what had just moments ago felt so imposing and detached now seems softer and friendlier. We stand in silence, admiring a view that feels ours, and ours alone.
It is almost a shame to break the moment and continue to our next destination—the famous ghostly DC3 plane wreck that sits on the beach, close to the shoreline. Of course, there is a crowd of visitors surrounding it. After our earlier moment of peace, the site has lost some of its lustre. Standing among graffiti-covered wreckage and camera flashes, I just want to be back at the beach, to feel once again that I am a participant in nature, rather than a bystander.
My wish is granted soon enough. On the ride home, the sun shines on our backs through rocky fields and mossy crags, and I experience that same elusive sense of joy once again. This was why I’d first come to Iceland. That escapist beauty hasn’t been lost to the crowds. It was right in front of me the whole time—I just needed to put the key in the ignition.