Our driver and guide for the day Stefán Gunnarsson surrendered to the glacier at an altitude of 800 metres, just a few hundred metres from the top. He had already deflated the car’s tyres twice to increase their surface area and minimize the risk of getting stuck. The Land Rover couldn’t find grip in the powdery 50 centimetre deep snow. Never mind not making it to the top, it was incredible to be standing on a glacier, surrounded by an incredible silence and an untouched panorama of snowy mountains on a beautiful, sunny day.
Leaving the grey behind
Seven hours earlier in Reykjavík on an overcast morning, the five of us had climbed into the jeep for a tour called Essential Iceland. Despite the fact that visibility was no more than 50 metres as we left Reykjavík, Stefán was optimistic that the clouds and fog would disappear by the time we reached our first stop at Þingvellir National Park, where the Alþingi general assembly convened in 930 A.D.
Sure enough, we were greeted by a bright, glowing sun hanging just above the horizon. Fortunately, at 9 a.m. there were only a few tourist busses there. The viewpoint, which also marks the beginning of the path between continental plates, would turn into a mad circus later in the day. Unfortunately the path itself was closed because a crack in the pathway revealed a 10 metre deep fault below. To escape the other tourists, we drove down to the edge of the lake, where the water is crystal clear and you can see every single coin that has sunk to the bottom.
After a short lunch stop, we drove on towards Kaldidalur, a highland route leading to Langjökull glacier. While the route is used during the summer, it’s often impassable during the winter when the road is covered by a thick layer of snow, which blends into the white desert landscape. Nevertheless, Stefán was itching to give it a try, as the weather was very promising. The Land Rover was equipped with an accurate GPS system, which would ensure that we’d stay on the road even if it was nowhere to be seen.
Floating on snow
As we drove on, I feared that we would get stuck in snow—you know, when the tyres don’t grip anymore and turn on the spot. Every time this happened, Stefán put the Land Rover in reverse, backed up a few metres, and then went straight on again, gradually moving through the half metre deep snow. Despite those manoeuvres, he made driving through a vast sea of white look as easy as cruising down Laugavegur in downtown Reykjavík, and while we enjoyed the view, he was definitely enjoying himself.
It was a tedious process, and finally we scrapped the Kaldidalur route and took an alternative road through the valley. While we descended, Stefán told us stories about tourists trying to drive to impossible places with unsuitable cars. “Iceland doesn’t have any snakes or poisonous dangerous animals, instead we have tourists in rental cars,” he said.
The last of the essentials
On our way to Hallmundarhraun, a vast lava field, we passed Deildartunguhver, the largest thermal spring in Iceland. This was followed by a stop at Barnafoss, where bright blue water gushes out from under the remains of a stone arch. The diversity of the landscape was incredible, although much of it was covered in snow. In the summer, the change of colours, from black mountains to green plains, to the white glacier is an even more intense experience, Stefán told us.
After seeing Barnafoss, we climbed Langjökull glacier, the second to last stop—and easily the most dramatic part—of the trip. At eight hundred metres above sea level, the Land Rover would climb no higher and Stefán took us down to our final destination, Víðgelmir, a 1500 kilometre long lava tube. Where the roof of the lava tube had collapsed, we climbed down, traversing icy stones to take a peek into the underworld before journeying back to Reykjavík.