Super jeeps are a common sight in Iceland. These monstruous souped-up all-terrain vehicles sit dotted around the parking spaces of downtown, sticking out above the normal road cars and jutting across the kerbs. They’re a heavy-duty breed of 4x4s that have been customised by raising the chassis and adapting the wheel arches to take larger tyres, enabling them to handle terrains such as deep tracts of snow, steep scree slopes, and fast-flowing rivers.
Modified specifically for the extreme conditions of the Icelandic wilderness, they’re generally quite slow as road cars, but they also tend to be pretty comfortable. The more up-to-date models have heated seats, comfortable upholstery, and speakers for the driver to talk to their passengers over the throaty growl of the engine.
It’s in one such vehicle that we, a mixed group of six raincoat-clad sightseers, set out towards Þórsmörk for a day of exploration. It quickly becomes apparent why the car is necessary. Gígjökull is a famous glacier tongue at the back of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier on the south coast, blocked in by unpredictable and fast-flowing meltwater rivers. We plough through them easily, and pull over for a closer look.
Gígjökull was severely damaged by the famous Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010. It’s still a particularly majestic icefall, with the jagged blue-white tongue tumbling down almost vertically from the glacier’s peak to ground level. Once upon a time, it terminated in an iceberg-strewn glacier lake—not unlike a quieter, off-the-beaten-track Jökulsárlón. Today, the lagoon is gone completely, but Gígjökull remains, sitting across a sea of gleaming stones. It’s stained with black ash, and somewhat diminished from its former glory, but much glory remains; it’s a place that feels all the wilder for the lighter foot traffic, and a sight to behold.
The back of beyond
Another boon of being in such a massive car is that traditional obstacles simply don’t count. Iceland’s southern wilderness of Þórsmörk has so much to see that you could spend weeks exploring it on foot, but most visitors simply don’t have that kind of time at their disposal—so it’s both convenient and oddly satisfying to blast over deep, meandering glacier rivers to reach Stakkholtsgjá.
This long, dramatic, winding mountain canyon has a meltwater river pouring from its mouth. We find a crossing place and tiptoe over some stepping stones, leaning on the cliff face for support. The canyon is strewn with boulders and debris, and we hike deeper into its maw, following the river towards its source—a high, narrow waterfall. The green and umber cliffs rear up around us dramatically, and wispy clouds form and disperse as they hit the vast mountainside of the Þósmörk ridge.
During the return journey, our guide and driver relates all kinds of fascinating facts, legends and local stories that help bring the landscape of south Iceland to life even more. Þórsmörk really is like another world—as I doze happily in the back seat, I sleepily wonder if I’ll wake up at home to find I dreamed the whole thing.