The Grapevine asked Harris Schaer, University of Iceland physics graduate student and alternative energy researcher, to tour the Ring Road and give us his take on the experience. Below, Harris explains the necessity of good traveling companions, the glories of pig-mountain-glacier (Svinafellsjokull) and the importance of truck-based 4WD vehicles.
Why should somebody drive the ring road?
One should drive the Ring Road simply because it’s there. There really aren’t that many long roads out there which form a huge ass circle. All the while the Ring Road provides you close proximity to numerous sights of remarkable beauty (…I almost want to marry it – I stand by this claim, use it in print if you wish to). In general Iceland offers many different ways to appreciate its countryside, each individual trip depending upon how much time (and money) you’re willing to invest. I took an exceptionally quick three day tour, but I would recommend a five day tour, possibly checking out the bonus packages of say West Fjords or the Westmann Islands.
What do you absolutely need if you want to drive the ring road?
First and foremost I’d recommend some well-chosen human beings, the more the better. Regardless of the depth of the relationship with your companions, it’s not a bad idea to clear away each one’s expectations for the trip. Aside from differences in opinion towards the general impact level (how much hiking/climbing…time spent place to place), you’ll find there are a surprising number of ways people can piss each other off. For instance I tend to find over-the-top car singing to be uplifting, apparently it’s not a universal quality.
Since the Ring Road is well-paved the majority of the way, one can get by with a sub-compact front-drive econo-box (ie. Toyota Yaris, Nissan Micra…etc) during the summer months. In our case, we rented a Suzuki Grand Vitara. Aside from the Suzuki Jimny (only suitable for 2-3 people on a long trip like this), the Grand Vitara is the cheapest truck-based 4WD you can rent. The Vitara and Jimny use smaller motors and are a great deal more gas efficient than other 4WDs; in addition, a truck-based 4WD, as apposed to a RAV4 or car-based 4WD, has the higher ground clearance and body-on-frame construction necessary for the many non-paved roads and tracks just off the Ring Road. Unfortunately, a truck 4WD does not give carte-blanche to taking your vehicle off-road when you damn well please; we managed to get stuck in embarrassingly mild conditions on our ways towards Dettifoss. If you plan on using the 4WD, bring a shovel.
Bring a tent if you wish to go camping, bring extra water containers if you plan and doing some long hikes. ALWAYS, always bring decent hiking boots and depending on how many days you’ll be traveling, bring that many weeks worth of socks. Bring a swimsuit regardless of time of year, but if you’re reading this, you should know that by now.
How much does it cost to drive the Ring Road?
Unless you can hook yourself up with a free car, consider yourself already 5000+ ISK in the hole, per day. (Again, best to get a group to break up these costs.) Rental costs ramp up sharply, renting a Landcruiser or Defender, although awesome, will cost you a kidney, though if planned correctly, will be well worth that kidney. 95 octane rating petrol as of spring 2005 costs close to 100 ISK per liter in most places, our Grand Vitara averaged about 8 L/100 km and cost us around 4000 ISK at each fill up. The total distance of a strictly Ring Road trip is approximately 1450 km. (About 15,000 ISK for gas, total.)
Otherwise, your costs will depend significantly on the comfort-level you’re willing to put up with. Camping and/or bringing a sleeping bag along will help you save money on your overnight stays. On our recent trip we weren’t prepared with our own bedding, but tried to save as much more with our accommodations as possible. We ended up staying in hostels and modest guesthouses, paying 2500 ISK per person. This figure is likely to increase significantly at the height of tourist season, but if it’s a road trip you’re on, don’t pay any more than you have to.
I tend to think that planning for set meals and mealtimes saves time and money in comparison to constant stopping and snacking. It’s up to you if you want to bring along cooking equipment and if it’s worth the investment cost. I personally enjoy cooking and eating things outdoors to perpetual snacking or stopping at restaurants. You can pick up one-time use charcoal grills at Bonus or most gas stations for around 500-1000 ISK. The grills can sometimes be hard to start, newspaper and gasoline helps. Bonus and most self-respecting supermarkets also sell packaged pre-marinated meat as well as foil-wrapped potatoes and other vegetables that make for a good outdoor BBQ. (Instant noodles, bread, cheese, instant coffee and G-Mjolk are also recommended. For hot water, visit any gas station.)
What are the five places you best remember?
Myvatn: On your way to/from Akueryi towards the east you’ll be driving around Myvatn (a large lake) for sometime. It’s an exceptionally beautiful area with many amazing features that will demand your interest. Unfortunately, we were able to dedicate less then one-tenth the time there as we should have. Fortunately, Myvatn attractions are well-covered in most guidebooks and information about the area can be easily obtained once you reach Iceland.
Dyrholey: Cheating a little bit, I didn’t actually visit Dyrholey this time around (due to weather and time constraints). I stopped there with some friends there on a trek along the south coast last summer. It is, however, on your way and well worth your time. Dyrholey offers you some serious lunch-losing sea-cliffs, which in turn provide you unique exposure to some amazing birdlife. (Including puffins in the summer months.) After you visit Dyrholey, twelve more kilometers on your way towards Vík awaits probably the best example of black sand beach the area has to offer, go down road 215.
Road 939 and the East Fjords: Road 939 is an example of why you should have a 4WD truck and the best way to take advantage of it. In general, the Fjords (East or West) Iceland has to offer are truly an exquisite sight. However, if you take a trip like this, the novelty will wear off at a point and you’ll soon be bored to tears of driving along the coast of fjord after fjord. From time to time, fortune smiles upon you and offers you a shortcut in the form of a mountain pass. Vehicle, weather and experience permitting, I recommend taking that gravel road up into the highlands. You’ll salute yourself afterwards, for you’ve just saved yourself some time and you’ve probably been treated to some amazing views on your descent. Just make sure you can handle it and you’re not bypassing anything special you might have seen had you been a pansy and taken the easy, long way around.
Svinafellsjokul: Svinafellsjokul is man meets glacier. Well, for sure there are many other places one can meet a glacier here, but I feel they are far more likely to result in death than this one. Think of Svinafellsjokul as the “Hi, hi how you doing, nice to meet you, let’s go do something”, an introduction to glaciers if you will. It’s really a spectacular sight, this edge of the Vatnajokul glacier seems to invade and almost pierce into the rock along its outskirts. For something composed of entirely ice and bits of rock, it has a pulsating, organic feel. It is located on the eastern leg of the south coast. It’s a good place to stop before Jokulsarlon on your way from Vík.
Jokulsarlon: The Icelandic environment changes significantly from region to region, yet is still prone to becoming very repetitious. Jokulsarlon is something that will shock you regardless how desolate everything else appears to be. It is effectively on the Ring Road, about 75 kilometers southwest of Hofn. I’m thinking, if I were completely unaware of Jokulsarlon’s existence and just happened to drive by it, it’s the sort of thing that would make me yell “WHAT THE /&$!?” pretty damn loudly, and then have to change my pants.
What did you do wrong in your travels?
More than anything else, I would have dedicated several more days to the entire trip. Three days is definitely feasible to drive around and see the island, assuming you like doing lots of driving and minimal seeing, and you don’t mind fatiguing drives at night. There are a number of places directly along your path that demand the better part of your day in and of themselves. For starters, Skaftafell National Park and Myvatn are both worth your physical exertion and dedication.
Other smaller things that I mention, cooking your own food, camping, they all add to overall experience and had it been warmer several weeks ago, I would have pressed for their inclusion.°
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