We’re approaching Seljalandsfoss when the sky suddenly turns dark. The drive from Reykjavík has been blustery, with violent gusts pushing at the car as we sweep through the rust-coloured countryside of southern Iceland. Fast-moving bands of cloud drag across the sky under the late-morning sun, throwing mottled shadows onto the rolling landscape below.
But this is different. Everything dims alarmingly quickly, and the light becomes grey and diffused. Farm buildings in the middle-distance appear gradually, as if from thick sea fog. A particularly harsh gust of wind is accompanied by the tinny, spraying sound of sand hitting metal, and we realise the source of this unseasonal murk. We’ve entered a dust storm.
It’s an unusual and dramatic experience. At times, the sun vanishes completely, and the fields take on a dim, spectral pallor. At others, the car emerges briefly from the storm, and we watch silhouetted clouds of dust billow upwards like something big is on fire. I get out of the car a couple of times to take photographs, forcing the door open and arriving back breathless and panting just moments later.
Eventually, we cross the Markarfljót river, and the weather breaks. We pull over and step outside, wiping sand from our eyes and shaking it loose from our hair. In the distance, miniature twisters of black sand dance over the flat plains of Eyjafjallasandur, swirling away into nothing. The sandstorm is over as fast as it began.
The wider weather system sweeping over the south of Iceland is set to peak around sunset. We press on, aiming to reach the Skálakot Manor Hotel before the worst of it. Along the south coast, waterfalls tumble from the high ledge of Eyjafjöll, but the wind is so powerful that the flow immediately turns into spray, flying away horizontally or blowing upwards into nothing.
We crawl along the empty road, passing precious few cars on the way. It’s with some relief that we finally pull up at Skálakot, dragging our cases up the driveway as the wind tries to steal away scarves, gloves and anything that isn’t firmly fastened. We wrestle open the front door, and step into a calm, bright lobby, greeted with smiles, promises of hot soup, and a welcome hand getting our bags upstairs.
The room turns out to be quite beautiful. The light switch sparks to life two spherical glass lamps that illuminate a huge bed piled with pillows in a spacious bedroom. It’s tastefully decorated with old-fashioned printed wallpaper and retro fittings, but equipped with everything from an espresso machine to a Netflix-ready TV and a deep bathtub, complete with comfortable robes. With the sky darkening outside, we wash away the dust, falling asleep to the roar of gales that sound like they’re trying to pull up the roots of the earth itself.
Plains of sand
The next morning we’re due to take a 9am ATV ride onto Sólheimasandur beach. The wind is still howling, so we text ahead to see if the tour is still running. “As the weather forecast stands now, the tour is on,” comes the reply from Valdi, our guide. “However, because of the storm coming in around 15:00, we’ve cancelled the rest of the day. Safety always comes first.”
After a short drive to the base camp, we greet Valdi and prepare for the ride. We’re fitted with overalls, waterproof boots, double layers of gloves, balaclavas and helmets. Valdi gives us a short lesson in the simple controls of the ATV, and then we’re off, revving down the road and crossing Route One onto the rough dunes of Sólheimasandur.
The ATVs handle well, bouncing easily down the grey dirt track. The gusts we’d worried about barely register on the small, hardy vehicles as we crawl towards the beach. Suddenly, the banks of reeds drop away and we’re carving across the open plain of flat black sand. To the left lies Dýrhólaey, but we turn right and race up the tide line. After traversing an enjoyable route that includes shallow rivers, steep banks and sand canyons, a white shape appears on the near horizon.
Forlorn and wingless
It’s the famous DC-3 plane wreck, lying forlorn and wingless in the midst of the seemingly endless plains. A US Army aircraft, this Douglas R4D-8 cargo plane—or “Super DC-3”— crashed in 1973, and its ghostly remains have lain here ever since. Today, it’s an eerie shell of a plane that’s slowly crumbling into the sand, covered in graffiti and riddled with bullet holes. Nobody really knows why the plane crashed, but most theories are weather related, and our recent experiences of Iceland’s tempestuous unpredictability make them easy to believe.
We turn back northwards and cross a wide tableau of black pebbles, rubble and sand, dipping down into a river and passing beneath a Route One bridge. I’m surprised to see a copse of fir trees ahead, crowning a small hillock. We round it and splash through a wide, shallow river, parking up on an island in its midst.
We take off our helmets, and look around the beautiful canyon in silence. The dust storm is far behind us, and we breathe deep lungfuls of fresh forest air and listen to the river burbling by. Route One is just a few kilometres away, and we’ll be heading back to Skálakot soon; but for this long moment, surrounded by tall cliffs and the rugged landscape, it feels like the whole of Icelandic wilderness is ours alone.
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