. Five nights of Iceland Airwaves will wear you down, mentally and physically. Don’t get me wrong; as an avid music fan and critic who tends to avoid the festival circuit, Airwaves stands out as manageable, engaging, unpredictable, and a whole lot of fun. But five consecutive nights of live music, hopping from venue to venue, writing show reviews at 2am, and drinking ‘til dawn takes its toll. This year, however, I was prepared, and had already planned the perfect post-Airwaves come-down.
Instead of hopping on a plane and dealing with the seven-hour time difference between LA and Reykjavik on top of a raging hangover and a worsening cold, I climbed in a Ford Explorer and drove around Iceland’s Ring Road. Over the course of four nights and five days, I witnessed some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. And it was made all the better by the fact that I was travelling in Iceland’s off-season for tourism, and ran into very few fellow travellers. Finding yourself at the top of the awe-inspiring Dettifoss waterfall or in the middle of the desertlike Skeiðarársandur are moving and exciting experiences, greatly enhanced when they’re solitary endeavours with no one around for many kilometres in any direction.
Of course, it’s not that easy to get the ringing out of your ears after five days of aural pummelling, but I found that soundtracks, both real and imaginary, constantly played in the background over the course of my journey. The few CDs I carried along with me, the sporadic reception of Icelandic radio, nature’s random murmuring, and deafening silence only disturbed by intensely powerful gusts of wind comprised the soundtrack to this trip. Again and again, the perfect song (or perfect moment with absolutely no sound at all) would pop up at just the right moment, either adding solemnity to or invigorating an already majestic moment. Such is the power of music.
The trip began after a final night of debauchery with other visiting writers at a family farmhouse near Laugarvatn, about an hour and a half outside Reykjavik. I awoke to a morning of sporadic sunshine, very welcome after the previous day’s incessantly pounding sheets of rain. After a morning spent cleaning up our drunken mess and trying to get the smell of pan-fried pork out of my hair, I hit the road for my first destinations, Geysir and Gullfoss. Icelandic talk radio was this morning’s soundtrack. By the end of my trip, you would have thought that I could speak Icelandic, or at least understand it, based on the many hours I spent listening to chatter on the FM dial. But alas, that was not to be.
Regardless, the blend of sunshine and sudden rainsqualls that morning resulted in some of the most vibrant and beautiful rainbows I’ve ever seen as I drew close to the geothermal Mecca that is Geysir. I managed to catch several eruptions as I walked around the bubbling mud and steaming vents, one of the main attractions of the famed Golden Circle. After getting my fill of Geysir, a quick drive brought me to Gullfoss, a splendid waterfall that coated me with droplets of mist as I gazed with wonder at the crashing tumult and chewed my smoked lamb sandwich.
I then backtracked a bit and headed south to Route 1, the Ring Road, making a detour along the way at Skálholt, a cathedral that was seat of a bishopric dating back to 1056 AD. The grounds were deserted, and I soon became aware of a strange soundtrack, the source of which took me several minutes to identify. The wind, which buffeted me throughout the majority of my trip, was whipping a line against a flagpole in the parking lot. Ping… ping… ping… A perfect, eerie soundtrack for my solitary visit to this lonely cathedral.
Suspicious Minds in Vík
After a few other stops at some of the Golden Circle’s natural wonders, I was itching to get on the road to see the country beyond the vicinity of the capital. After reaching the Ring Road, I drove though various suburban areas, including Hella and Hvolsvöllur, before entering a relatively uninhabited stretch of road that passed through lovely green farmland dotted with the occasional cluster of houses.
My first stop on this leg of my trip was at Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. What it lacked in width and power, it made up for in height and background scenery. A sign alerted me to the fact that it was possible to walk behind the fall, but after yesterday’s non-stop rain, I wasn’t in the mood to get wet and passed up this opportunity. I have to admit that I regret it now, as the view from the other side of the falls must be incredible.
Tom Waits’ ‘16 Shells From a 30.6’ greeted my ears as I got back in the car. His gruff voice and junkyard arrangement seemed a perfect fit as I passed towering cliffs with small waterfalls blown so hard by the wind that their water defied the laws of gravity and launched skyward. A short stop at Skógafoss, a waterfall whose size helps to hammer home just how puny we humans are, and I was on my way to Vík, a small village on the south coast.
Vík supposedly averages the highest rainfall in Iceland, but I was greeted by sunshine and relatively balmy weather of about eight degrees Celsius. A quick drive down a dirt road brought three rocky spires into view, known as Reynisdrangar (aka the “Troll Rocks”), just offshore from a beautiful black-sand beach. There didn’t seem to be much more going on in this sleepy town, so I returned to the road with a brand new soundtrack playing – a cheesy ‘70s cover version of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.” I was suddenly oddly and embarrassingly moved by the overwrought tune, but I suspect this was a combination of the extra-strong coffee I picked up at Vík’s single gas station and the astounding Mýrdalssandur, the glacial desert I was now entering.
Glacial Landscapes for Glacial Landscapes
At this point, I began to wish I actually had brought some CDs with me for the trip. But in this day of the iPod, who still carries physical copies of music along with them on their travels? Luckily, I had been given a copy of Reykjavik!’s excellent ‘Glacial Landscapes, Religion, Oppression, and Alcohol’ by a very drunken guitar playing member of the band during the festival. I popped this in and was immediately inspired and energised, but managed to slow down as I passed a rest stop with mysterious piles of rocks dotting the landscape.
Intrigued, I pulled over to investigate and found that this spot marks the remains of an ancient homestead. It seems that Icelanders consider it good luck to add a rock to one of these cairns, so I happily obliged, secretly hoping that this action would portend good things to come. In the distance, the cloud cover lifted up ever so slightly, affording me a glimpse of Myrdalsjökull, a glacier that would pale in comparison to what I would experience in the morning at Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier.
I tipped my hat to the elves and trolls I’m sure were scurrying all around me and got back in the car, determined to make it to Hótel Skaftafell before dark, on the edge of Skaftafell National Park. The hotel turned out to be a pretty average roadside accommodation, nothing special but not particularly grungy either. It’s pretty much the only option for lodging in the area, so one can’t complain too much.
A busload of British teenagers was spending the night as well, so the management obliged my request to change rooms so I could get a decent night’s rest. After sampling the excellent breakfast spread, I headed out before sunrise to backtrack a few kilometres to the edge of the glacier just within the boundaries of the national park.
Towards the East Coast ‘80s
At first light I arrived at Skaftafell’s deserted visitor centre to the most appropriate soundtrack of all – complete silence. Alone, except for the occasional chirping bird, I walked the path through the dissipating mist to the glacier’s edge. Signs warned against climbing on Vatnajökull, and the visible crevasses convinced me that it was advice worth heeding. Later on during my trip, someone would tell me about a couple of German tourists who disappeared on the glacier last summer and haven’t been heard from since. Blissfully unaware of this at the time, I immersed myself in the serenity of my surroundings. On the way back to the Ring Road, an incredibly cheesy reggae song played on the radio, something about the “heartbeat of the earth.” Somehow, this hackneyed cliché felt kind of poignant, considering the natural beauty surrounding me.
As I travelled northeast on the Ring Road, skirting the coast, the massive glacier peeping out from behind the mountains every few minutes, a litany of ‘80s hits burst forth from my Explorer’s speakers – ‘Tainted Love,’ ‘Purple Rain,’ etc. I passed through the small town of Höfn and entered a tunnel through the mountains. Static immediately deadened the sound from the car speakers, but when I came out into the sunshine of the fjord country on the other side, Sinead O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” was playing – yet another perfect soundtrack moment. I stopped for lunch in Djúpivogur at the Hótel Framtíð. This was one of the best meals I had during my time in Iceland. I ordered the daily special, consisting of vegetable soup, baked cod, fried potato balls, and a cabbage salad. My meal was enhanced by the restaurant’s soundtrack, with what sounded like an Icelandic Neil Diamond singing a song called “Blue Jean Queen.”
A Friendly Reminder from JC
From Djúpivogur, I stayed on the Ring Road instead of taking Route 939, which would have connected me directly to Egilsstaðir and shortened my trip significantly. This is a good choice if you have time to spare, as the road winds you around beautiful fjords, sometimes going several kilometres inland and back out to the coast. Talking Heads’ ‘Road to Nowhere’ began to play as I flipped through the dial, on the only station that had any reception in this part of the country. Unsure if I had missed a crucial turn that would add hours to my journey, David Byrne’s words seemed to mock me, until I realised I was on the right path.
After a brief stop in Reyðarfjörður, where my guidebook told me I might be able to find the grave of Völva (I didn’t), I headed out on the final stretch to my destination for the night, Seyðisfjörður.
Heading up over the hills from Egilsstaðir, Audio Adrenaline’s moronic Christian rock played on the radio, a song called “Never Gonna Be as Big as Jesus.” Jesus, what a terrible song. But this musical torment was well worth it when I pulled into the parking lot of Seyðisfjörður’s quaint and classy Hotel Aldan. Owner Klas Poulsen met me in the building that houses the dining room and reception area to direct me towards a separate building where the rooms are located. Mine was on the top floor, large, antique-furnished, and very comfortable accommodation.
Seems that in the winter, everything in the town closes down at about 6pm, but I made it over to the ATVR (the state alcohol store) during the one hour it is open on weekdays to pick up a couple of Vikings. Seyðisfjörður is a bustling ferry stop during the summer, but the only sign of life this night was the town’s name in lights up on the mountainside. I bought my supper at the local grocery store and headed back to my room to settle down for the night.
My trip was only halfway over, and there was still a lot of ground to cover and soundtracks to hear, but I already felt like I had gotten to know this wonderful country just a little better.
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