Whenever the urge hits you to pull over on the Ring Road, or Highway One, which circles Iceland, you should take it. Even if you haven’t slept, even if you’re dehydrated, even if you have to get back to Reykjavík, which is nine hours away, and edit a large magazine. And so Paul, our only journalist, and I pull over for a quick hike on the north side of Vatnajökull.
The hike begins with a camera shot, a “Wait, this is so perfect, the waterfalls are back there, and the moss is so green near the banks.” Then we walk ten feet, and Paul’s getting the camera out again. You’re doomed to it here. My only solution has been to jog well ahead of anyone with a camera, video equipment or even a pad of paper and a pen: they always want to record the experience, but there’s no appropriate starting or stopping points. Every square metre of countryside in Iceland probably merits a photo or two.
Following a sheep trail, we come across three modest rock climbs, cover about a kilometre from the road, and find ourselves at a secluded waterfall from a glacial river.
We have to delete photos from the camera to try to fit in a waterfall shot.
In the one hundred shots, we really didn’t document that much. We didn’t cover the first case of Magic energy drink, given to us by the bottling company. We did photograph the world’s largest oil funnel, proudly displayed in Keflavík next to where we picked up our rental jeep at Cheap Jeeps.
From there we had the photos of our first stop, Hindisvík, about three hours north of Reykjavík off of the Ring Road. Reporting for another magazine, I stopped at the home to the tamest seals in the country at the nature preserve at the edge of the Vatnsnes Penninsula. There we came across dozens of seals that, of course, weren’t that tame, but they were curious enough to stay within view. Just as impressive were the farmhouses left in a decayed, almost gothic state, intentionally by the farm owners. For an amateur photographer, this was a goldmine.
A day exploring and following seals, including an ill-advised boat trip to stare at an iceberg, and we began the four-hour drive to Húsavík, famous for whale watching and for a phallological museum. We were interrupted by Akureyri. The second city of Iceland, Akureyri looks more like an authentic Scandinavian hamlet than the capital does. The Ring Road takes you up to a mountainside overlooking Akureyri and Eyjafjörður Bay for one of the more serene vistas that you’ll ever come across.
More impressive for us, looking over the bay we see a humpback cow and her calf in the bay. We watch them from a parking spot off the road for a half hour.
At Húsavík we came across the mob of Toyota Yarises that were also making the Ring Road trip and discussed the advantage of the enormous American-style Suzuki Z-19 SUV that we had rented. Yes, we would be paying about twice the gas price, and our vehicle wasn’t green, but for the day hikes we’d been taking, the SUV had been helpful—it is against the law to leave the road in Iceland, but many gravel roads that come off the highway require more clearance than a Yaris will provide.
With four days to do the Ring Road, and personal goals to get as far as possible from civilization, we did right in getting the SUV. Had we been interested in stopping by the sites at Mývatn, Húsavík, and the rest of Iceland, had we been touring the country in LESS time, a Yaris or subcompact would have been a better choice. But we had time and some finance. With a little money and time and a capable SUV, northern Iceland is an absolute playground. We chose against running out to Dettifoss in favour of searching out reindeer, but the tour guides we spoke with insisted that a decent SUV can get you to Europe’s most powerful waterfall during the easy travelling times, between June and August.
The four-hour ride from Mývatn to Egilstaðir provided the most stunning scenery of the journey. The volcanic desert in the north, where the road is, for the most part, gravel, has the bleak melancholy beauty that Henry David Thoreau claimed for Mt. Katahdin—this seems like a place where ancient civilizations must have gotten by stoically. Like the kind of place that encourages a belief in religion or Microsoft Windows or some kind of higher power.
We broke the drive up here, but had we planned better, we would have searched for a campground. As it was, we pulled over to watch reindeer and large dust devils alternately until we came upon the surprisingly thriving and contemporary town of Egilsstaðir.
We were happy to find Egilsstaðir well stocked with energy drinks. Having gone through our case of Magic, we bought both Egils Orka and Magic, looking for the greatest quantity of caffeine and other legal stimulants/ appetite suppressors—it had been our hope that we wouldn’t have to waste time eating during the trip.
An hour after Egilsstaðir we found the best day-hike in Iceland, at a small gravel turn-off just before Djúpivogur. There we found the waterfall that finished all the available space on the camera, and there we got the last bit of energy to make the next twelve hours of driving for the southern section of Iceland.
We made it to Hótel Skaftafell from Húsavík in one day easily, despite our many stops. At Hótel Skaftafell we poked around to ask about the Batman filming, (nothing to report: everybody was well-behaved but intense), then headed out to the largest national park in Europe to at least look over Paul’s favourite waterfalls and to be reminded our four-day tour of Iceland was ill-advised. Four days in Skaftafell National Park would be a good deal more productive, and would require less wasted gas and energy drinks.
Along the south of Iceland, we watched the most productive farmland in the country in full early summer growth, set against jagged volcanic mountain formations that are almost always snowcapped. With blind hills and turns, this is the section of the country that you’re most likely to hit a sheep at a high speed. Between Skaftafell and Vík, the bird-watching, even for an amateur, is outstanding. The local eagles and the great skua are impressive, as are the masses of swans that make their homes in the many glacial rivers along the road, the many ravens, and the mass of arctic tern, especially at Vík.
The last stretch of the journey, from Vík to Reykjavík, was so leisurely, with such gentle slopes, that we began referring to the area as Iceland’s California highway. With a vineyard or two, and if we had any feeling in our taste buds after three dozen energy drinks, we could have been the cast of Sideways. As it was, we did our best to make sour faces and act like we were recovering from a midlife crisis. The depression brought on by caffeine and guarana withdrawal helped.
Suzuki Z-19 provided by Cheap Jeeps,
www.geysir.is. Phone: 893-4455.
Magic Recovery Energy Drink
provided by Vífilfell Beverages.