It’s flu season, which means that you or someone you know is likely to come down with some form or another of the plague. And I’m talking about the normal kind of flu—let’s not even broach the topic of coronavirus.
I, too, caught some sort of bug and had to spend a few days cooped up. I had the works—aches, congestion, dizziness, general fatigue, you get it. But after a few days inside, I was getting restless. It was time for a road trip to set me to rights. So I set out with our photographer, Art, to explore the oft-ignored area south of Reykjavík: Reykjanes.
That’s a lot of fish
Just 30 minutes outside of Reykjavík was our first stop. In an open field off Highway 42 were racks of fish hung out to dry. The stench bypassed any sort of congestion that I had been experiencing as crows perched on the wooden beams, screaming into the cold air. I couldn’t help but wonder if they even bothered to eat these fish. There didn’t seem to be anything to stop them from picking the bones clean, although maybe the edible parts of the fish had already been sold.
There was no time to figure it out, though, as daylight was limited and the peninsula large, so we set back out on the highway. As we rolled away, mossy rocks, rolling hills, and barren trees flew past us, set to a backdrop of majestic mountains, covered in snow and bathed in misty sunshine. Bright blue skies hung above us, as storm clouds whirled in the far distance—perfect travel weather. In front of us, cars whipped up clouds of snow behind them, while ribbons of icy powder snaked across the path behind us.
Cold therapy and sinus-clearing
At Kleifarvatn, we took a quick breather on a ridge to take in the view. Below us, a group of people exercised in nothing but their bathing suits. It was -2° C.
We ventured down to learn more, finding out that it was a private workshop. The leader of the group explained that they were using cold therapy, breathwork, and mindfulness to overcome pain and sickness. “Two weeks ago, they couldn’t put their pinky in the cold water. Now they are relaxing in it. It’s very good for your health,” he said.
Cold might be the answer for some people, but I was personally fed up with it. We made our way to our next destination, the hot springs at Krýsuvík.
These hot springs are unlike any other place on earth. Layers of earth tones, shades of brown and grey, contrasted with the brilliant white snow and deep azure sky. Slate coloured clouds hung in the distance, promising snow. The smell of sulfur invaded my nostrils like the fish from earlier, and I grimaced. “In time, you will come to love it,” Art said, smiling as he noticed my discomfort. “It clears your sinuses.” I thought my sinuses had already cleared until I walked through a thick cloud of steam. “Wow, you’re right,” I replied, tears running down my cheek.
Save a horse, feed a cold
In Grindavík—Iceland’s happiest town—we popped by Hjá Höllu for lunch. Entering the town, the ocean came into view. It was the same colour as the sky, this deep greenish bluish-grey, except for where the horizon touched the water, where it was a deep blue. Mt. Þorbjörn, the newly infamous volcano, loomed over us all the while.
The café was busy when we walked in. We both ordered brunch, a plate full of pancakes, bacon, eggs benedict, and skýr. “Are you worried about the volcano erupting?” Art asked Halla, after whom the café was named. “No,” she said, a joking tone overtaking her voice. “All that ash would be good for everyone’s complexion, and the tourism would boom.”
Our stomachs full, we took our time back on the road, stopping only to greet some horses. They were unusually friendly, sniffing my coat, searching for snacks. I didn’t have any, but they let me pet them anyway. “You guys are healthy, right?” I asked. “What’s your secret?”
Unfortunately, they refused to tell me. I was probably already pushing my limits by not bringing apples or carrots and expecting free pets.
Legends and lore
We had but two more destinations. The first was Gunnuhver, a massive mud field with geothermal gas emissions. The area was named after Gunna, who was an old woman who lived nearby in the 18th century. People suspected she was a witch, and largely gave her a wide berth. In those days, if you knew something about health or had a cauldron, people assumed you were a witch, and Gunna had a cauldron.
One day her landlord, Vilhjálmur Jónsson, paid her a visit to collect rent money. When she didn’t have the money, he took her cauldron. Furious, she cursed her landlord’s name. When Gunna later died, Vilhjálmur attended her funeral. He was found dead the next day.
Her ghost was said to have haunted the area until a sorcerer broke the spell and banished Gunna to this mudfield around 300 years ago. Nowadays, her ghost can be heard from the massive pit where thick clouds of steam pour out. On the day we visited, it was one of the only places around that didn’t have any snow.
Our final stop brought us to the edge of Reykjanes. There, black cliffs rose steeply into the sky as waves crashed into them. A large copper bird statue stood by the edge of the cliffs, supposedly marking the spot where the last great auk was hunted to extinction. The sky had turned completely grey, and the snow fell slowly all around us.
As the cold, fresh air infiltrated my lungs, I realised that I was feeling much better than when the day started. Maybe it was the horses, maybe it was the pancakes, maybe the sulfur, or maybe it was the spirit of Gunna. Whatever it was, I found it in Reykjanes.
Travel distance from Reykjavík: 150 km
Roads travelled: Routes 41,42,427,425,44 and 41 again to close the circle.
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