An Icelandic Adventure

What a week I had in Iceland at the beginning of October! My solo camper van road trip around the ring round saw me experience 2121 km of driving, 83 km of walking, sunshine, rain, snow, northern lights, villages, farms, churches, glaciers, icebergs, mountains, volcanoes, beaches, bubbling mud pools, steam vents, and more waterfalls than I could count!

Day one – 3rd October 2017

After arriving from Stornoway at 12:00 and with my flight to Keflavik not departing at 18:00, I spent a long and boring afternoon at Edinburgh airport. Whilst loitering, the news came through that the Icelandic ring road had opened well ahead of schedule after last week’s closure, which was great news – plan A was back on!

I eventually arrived at Keflavik airport at 20:00 and was soon on my way to pick up my camper van from Lava Autos. After a quick tour of the van, I was on my way. I didn’t want to go too far with it being quite late and had decided on the campsite in Selfoss for my first overnight stop. On the way there I could see the northern lights from the window of the van; it was very difficult to concentrate on driving and not keep looking out of the window! When I arrived in Selfoss I found a dark place to take a few photographs, but the display soon faded, so I decided to get some sleep.

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Aurora borealis, Selfoss

Day Two – 4th October 2017

I woke to bright sunshine, so after a quick breakfast I hit the road and headed east along the south coast. My first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall located right on the ring road. Only I didn’t actually stop, I took one look at the car park and drove straight by, it was heaving, with hundreds of cars and a number of coaches, and there was nowhere left to park – a bit different to the last time I was here, and there was no one else around. At this point, I panicked a bit… was this what it was going to be like? Was I going to find even the slightest bit of the peace and quiet that I’d experience 12 years ago? I resigned myself to the fact that the main sites (especially ones within a short drive of Reykjavík) were just going to be full of people and I was going to have to work to find quieter spots and get well off the beaten track! I stopped a couple of time at random points along the road for photographs, finding a little bit of the wilderness I was looking for, and settling my worries a little.

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1. Varmahlíð farm, and 2. Þorvaldseyri farm, beneath Eyjafjallajökull (which erupted in 2010)

Next stop was Skógafoss, another very popular waterfall, but this time I was a bit more prepared for the crowds. I switched off, and walked up to the waterfall, past all the people, and suddenly I was in front of the waterfall with no one else in front of me, just me and the water and a rainbow for a glorious couple of minutes.

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Skógafoss

My next stop was Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier of the main Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. I particularly wanted to visit here, as I’d been here 12 years ago and was aware that the glacier is experiencing significant shrinkage and retreat, and I wanted to see how different it was. But I really wasn’t prepared for just how much of it had disappeared. Previously it had been a two-minute walk from the car park to get directly to the glacier, now it was a 15-20 minute walk away, and a large lagoon had formed at the glacier edge. Here, I found it was easy to get away from the crowds, by just following a different path to everyone else – a better view as well!

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Sólheimajökull – where I stood to take this photograph was completely under ice 12 years ago

Next on the itinerary was Reynisfjara beach, I had wanted to go up to Dyrhólaey Lighthouse, but there was a bit of a traffic jam on the small gravel road up – it looked liked someone was stuck, so I gave it a miss!

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Reynisfjara black sand beach

I then drove along the very bumpy and potholed road to Fjaðrárgljúfur – a 100 meters deep and two kilometres long canyon – where I had a short walk along the canyon edge. I didn’t go far, as the sun dipped below the horizon so I lost the light. Back on the road, I headed to Skaftafell campsite for a much needed sleep.

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Fjaðrárgljúfur

Day Three – 5th October 2017

I had a couple of tours booked today, the only organised things I’d arranged. First up was a glacier walk on Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull – one of the largest glaciers in Europe. After a 20 minute drive in a super jeep, down a bumpy track and crossing rivers, a short boat across the lagoon brought us to the glacier edge, where it was time to strap on crampons and go for a walk! What an amazing experience.

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Breiðamerkurjökull glacier walk

Next up was a zodiac boat tour at Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. I got kitted out in a flotation suit and we zipped around the icebergs and spotted some seals basking in the sunshine. Unfortunately, the tour got cut short when it became apparent to the guides that there was too much ice around to enable us to get right up to the glacier. I did get a full refund though, so all good!

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Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Jökulsárlón is amazing, I don’t think any amount of photographs can prepare you for just how beautiful and ethereal it is. The blue of the upturned icebergs is something else (they turn white on exposure to sunlight).

I spent the rest of the afternoon at Breiðamerkursandur (the ‘Diamond Beach’), which is a black sand beach just across the road from the lagoon. The icebergs that get swept out to sea from the lagoon get washed back up on the beach, making for some great exploring and interesting photographs. I stayed out there a while and watched the sunset.

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Breiðamerkursandur (the ‘Diamond Beach’), Jökulsárlón

I stayed the night at the lagoon, with my camper van overlooking the icebergs. I managed to get a glimpse of a big aurora display, but unfortunately the cloud was rolling in and soon covered the sky, so I called it a night.

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Aurora borealis at Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Day Four – 6th October 2017

I woke early and opened the van doors to a lovely view of the lagoon. The sky was grey, but that made the icebergs look even bluer than they had yesterday. It was nice and quiet, so I spent a while wandering along the lagoon edge and getting some close up photographs of the icebergs.

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Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

I then decided to head back a few miles west, to see Fjallsárlón Lagoon – similar, but different, to Jökulsárlón. I’m really glad I went though, because when I arrived there was no one else there. I had the whole place to myself for a good half hour before anybody showed up. It was so peaceful. At one point, a big chunk of ice calved off the glacier edge, crashing into the lagoon and, a few minutes later, bringing waves splashing on the shore.

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Fjallsarlón Iceberg Lagoon

I continued my way east, crossing over the newly built bridge (amazing what they managed to construct in just a few days!), to Stokksnes, where I wanted to photograph Vestrahorn mountain and the black sand beach. Again, I was alone, but the rain that had started coming down could have had something to do with that! But a bit of rain doesn’t bother me, so I explored around the dunes and had a walk on the beach before retreating to my van to dry off.

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Vestrahorn mountain, Stokksnes

I headed further east and stayed overnight at a campsite in Djúpivogur. There was a great common building with a kitchen so I cooked a good meal and sat at a table to eat and have a couple of beers – a bit of a novelty this week! I also arrived early enough to have a walk around the harbour before dark, and a swim in the (unfortunately quite tatty and neglected – very un-Icelandic) local pool.

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Djúpivogur harbour

Day Five – 7th October 2017

From Djúpivogur I headed north, taking a shortcut over the gravel Öxi pass (939), quite a bumpy drive with lots of potholes, but good fun! Further north, there had been quite a bit of snowfall a couple of days earlier, and there was still a bit lingering around. Some of the roads were now closed for the winter. It felt colder, as well.

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My first stop of the day was at Dettifoss, a waterfall in the northeast. It’s 100 metres wide and has a drop of 44 metres, and is apparently the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It’s quite impressive, and noisy, watching all the water pour over the edge.

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Dettifoss

Next up was the Lake Mývatn area, with my first stop being the very smelly Hverir geothermal area, with sulphurous pools of boiling mud, and steam vents, formed when cold water seeps down to magma intrusions where it’s heated and comes back to the surface as steam and gas. The smell is a cross between rotten eggs and the chemistry lab at school!

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Hverir geothermal area

After that, I had a drive around the lake and a quick stop at Dimmuborgir lava field, before spending the evening at the Mývatn Nature Baths. It was great to relax in the hot pools and steam rooms as the sun went down, unfortunately no aurora though, as it was too cloudy! I spent the night at the lovely Lífsmótun campsite.

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1. Mývatn scenery, 2. Dimmuborgir lava field, and 3. Mývatn Nature Baths

Day Six – 8th October 2017

I had a longer day of driving ahead today, with only a couple of stops. I spent the early morning at Goðafoss (The Waterfall of The Gods), and spent a bit of time doing some long exposure photographs whilst it wasn’t too busy. Goðafoss is only 12 metres high and 30 metres wide, but it’s still spectacular and I prefer it to the much larger Dettifoss.

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Goðafoss

After an hour or so at Goðafoss, I drove to Akureyri, the first town of any real size since I arrived. It seemed strangely quiet, and I soon realised it was Sunday – I’d totally lost track of what day of the week it was! So there was very little open. I picked up some souvenirs in a bookshop, and had a wander around the harbour before finding a supermarket for supplies, and heading off again.

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Akureyri

I drove by some impressive mountains and had a quick stop at Glaumbær Turf Farm in Varmahlíð, which were very reminiscent of the peat stacks we have here in the Hebrides. I ended the day in Búðardalur, where I treated myself to a tasty pizza and a beer at Dalakot Guesthouse and stayed the night at the nearby campsite.

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1. Scenery near Bakki, and 2. Glaumbær

Day Seven – 9th October 2017

Today was spent exploring the Snæfellsnes peninsula, starting with the small town of Stykkisholmur on the north of the peninsula. Despite the light rain coming down, I decided to have a walk up the hill to Súgandi Island Lighthouse for a view over the town.

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Stykkisholmur

By the time I got back to the van, the rain had stopped, so I headed off to my next stop – Kirkjufell (Church Mountain), which is apparently the most photographed mountain in Iceland! I can see why though, with Kirkjufellsfoss flowing in front of it, it really is exceptionally scenic, and I spent quite a while having a wander around and taking photographs.

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Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss

I worked my way anti-clockwise around the peninsula, stopping off at regular points, and totally losing track of time, which was fine by me! I found golden sand beaches, glacier views, pretty churches, coastal lava formations, and a rainbow!

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1. & 2. Skarðsvík Beach, 3. Hellnar Church, 4. Snæfellsjökull, 5. Arnarstapi, 6. Búðakirkja, 7. & 8. Búða beach

I really liked the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and wish I’d had more than a day there, as I missed some places I wanted to see as I spent so much time admiring the places I did get to! It was quieter than some of the other places I visited, despite it’s relative proximity to Reykjavík, and very scenic. I’ll definitely go back next time… yes, it was at this point that I started thinking about next time!

As darkness fell, I drove a couple of hours to Þingvellir National Park and camped there. It was clear overnight (and cold, with a frost on the grass), but aurora activity was very low, so I only got a very small bit of green on the horizon. It was a beautiful night though, with the snowy mountains lit by the moonlight.

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Þingvellir National Park at night

Day Eight – 10th October 2017

My final day in Iceland was spent in two quite different locations. I spent the morning in Þingvellir National Park, which lies in a rift valley between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian tectonic plate, which are being pulled apart at a rate of around a couple of centimetres a year. The national parliament of Iceland (the Alþingi) was established there in 930.

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Þingvellir National Park

In the afternoon, I made my way to Reykjavík, for a stroll around town and some souvenir shopping. I took the lift up Hallgrímskirkja tower for a view of the city and its colourful rooftops, and said hello to the swans at Lake Tjörnin. I was impressed with the new Harpa Concert Hall, which has been built since I was last there.

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1. Solfar (Sun Voyager), 2., 3. and 4. Hallgrímskirkja and views, 5. and 6. Lake Tjörnin, 7. Reykjavík Cathedral, 8. Harpa Concert Hall

There was also some great street art, which I really liked. It was a lovely end to my holiday, but the time had come to return my camper van and head back to the airport for the flight home. After a 12 year hiatus, I still absolutely loved Iceland, despite all the extra tourists. It definitely won’t be 12 years before I go again… in fact, it probably won’t even be 12 months!

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Reykjavík street art

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