A week in the land of Fire & Ice- Iceland!

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One early January morning while in Havelock, I happened to mention to a friend’s wife that at some point this year, I wanted to go to Iceland. “Oh, us too!” she said, and well, that was that.

6 months later we found ourselves with that very same couple in Amsterdam waiting to catch the low cost Wow Air to Reykjavik. Carry lots of your own entertainment since the airline has none – unless of course you think squealing babies are cute. One delayed flight, plenty of grumbling and 3 hours later, Reykjavik!

 

A shuttle from the terminal took us to where the rental agencies were located and after picking up our car from Geysir we set off.

Now Iceland has one main road that spans the circumference of the island and for most part of this trip we were to stay on highway 1. You might therefore think that this is fairly straightforward but well, apparently not. My navigator friend besides me got us promptly lost within minutes of getting out of the airport. One heated discussion later, we were back on track headed to our stop for the night – Vik.

The plan was to stop at a few sights that are on the route to Vik and these were mostly waterfalls called foss in Icelandic. Find anything suffixed with foss and you know it is a waterfall. We stopped off at 3 on the way – Selfoss, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. Skogafoss is easily one of the most awe-inspiring falls in Iceland, the sheer wall of water falling from that height makes it almost intimidating and the black rocks leading up to the falls add stark contrast to the image in front of you. We also did climb to the top, which in hindsight we did only out of sheer excitement. If I had done this towards the end of the trip I would’ve said “Just another waterfall. Let’s carry on”

 

Some of the accommodation we had booked ourselves into were absolutely glorious! In Vik, our cottage was on the black sand beach, something we weren’t too fascinated with when we got there since it was late and we were tired but in the morning we decided to explore and were we glad that we did. Turns out, we were right next door to some interesting rock formations – caves and salt stacks and after spending some time climbing up those salt stacks we decided to head to our next stop Hof. At this point, one of us feeling particularly emboldened stuck their toe into the near frigid water and came back yelping about how said toe would be lost to frostbite.

Drama aside, we set off towards Hof. A third of Iceland is covered by glaciers and Vatnajökull is by far the largest. The idea was to trek up the glacier and we had signed up with one of the local operators to take us there. You can do this by yourself but it is highly recommended that you do this with one of the operators since they not only give you the equipment required for you to be safe, but are also able to guide you as to where you can and cannot go. I cannot stress the importance of the right equipment especially since people were slipping and falling on the ice all around us. Our crampons kept us upright and the helmets kept us safe. The entire climb up and back is about a 2 hour affair and really does take the wind out of you but the vistas are unbelievably glorious. Some scenes from Interstellar were shot at this very location. Our guide gave us some really gory stories of how some climbers disappeared into crevasses and were never seen again until many years later when the glacier decided to “give them back”. Well, in my opinion, I think global warming might have had a thing or two to do with it.

We then set off towards Jökulsárlón, a large glacial late in the Vatnajökull region. We got on one of the amphibious boats which basically took us around the lake while the guide telling us that it takes over a 100 years for a large chunk of ice to melt completely. Global warming however, is making its presence felt here too with the glacier retreating at an alarming pace.

That night, Iceland was playing England in the UEFA cup. We were actually there watching the match with the locals and Iceland won. The atmosphere was electric with chants echoing around us as we walked back to our rooms.

The following morning found us headed towards our next stop at Husavik. As usual, on the way there we had plenty of stops with the first being Fjadrargljufur Canyon. Be prepared to go a bit off the beaten path since the road to the canyon is mostly unpaved but once you are there, the bouncing around in the car is all worthwhile. The landscape is stunning and the views glorious. On the one side you have a ravine with a river and on the other a spectacular view of the sea. Since we had plenty more to cover on this day, we set off sooner than we would have liked.

One of the most powerful waterfalls in all of Iceland is Dettifoss and the sheer volume of water falling off the cliff is scary but breathtaking. Comparisons made with Niagara would not be far from the truth. Multiple viewpoints on either side of the waterfall, depending on which route you take to get there will ensure you are relatively drenched in near frigid water unless you are Japanese. Each one of them, yes – every single one of them, came wearing something that looked like a rather large inverted plastic bag with a hole for their heads to fit through and therefore kept them dry.

 

Off we went, wet and almost ready to catch pneumonia considering the chilly winds blowing across us and jumped into the car, turned the heater to a full blast and ready to head towards Hverarond only to find that the road we were to take was only for 4 wheel drives. Now that meant taking the scenic route which would add about 40 minutes to what would have been a 30-minute drive.

Hverarond is part of the hot spring area and what strikes you almost instantly is the smell of Sulphur in the air. Does take some getting used to but to see the ground bubble the way it does, gives you an otherworldly feeling. We didn’t stay here very long and set off towards Myvatn which is one of the thermal pools in Iceland. Blue Lagoon just outside the airport is the more popular one but this was recommended because of the fact that it was less crowded and cheaper too. A long, hot refreshing dip later, we were off.

 

The following day found us heading towards the 2nd largest city in all of Iceland – Akureyri, population about 18,000 (Yes. Cyber Hub in Gurgaon has more scurrying to get out of it at 6:30pm). This is one of the places outside of Husavik in Iceland to go whale watching at the fjords around Iceland and we had a trip reserved which we promptly got late for thanks to one in our group forgetting his gloves AFTER we set off. Anyway, one rather long silence later, we barely made it by the skin of our teeth and off we went looking for whales. We did get to see about 5 humpback whales as well as a whole bunch of pygmy whales but what was rather exciting was when on our way back, they handed most of us fishing rods and asked us to fish! After having caught 30 odd fish, we were headed back to shore where they filleted the fish, barbecued it and served it to us. Does it get any fresher?

Since Akureyri is a relatively large city, it is a great idea to walk around and explore. We stumbled across a glorious church, a botanical garden as well as some really interesting looking buildings, some of them really colorful.

We now had one of our longest drives ahead of us from Akureyri to Reykjavik. We left really early in the morning and while on the way there decided to stop for lunch in Reykjavik and then head towards the site of a DC-3 plane wreckage which was actually on the route to Vik. We missed it on our way there initially because of the flight delay that I mentioned. Now what seemed like an exciting plan may not have been because of the following reasons. First, it added 2 hours to an already long drive and this was only one way. Second, the plane wreck is actually 4 kilometers away from where you park your car.

 

Having said all this, the drive and the walk were completely worth it because the contrast of the plane on the black sand with the blue sky in the background is so stark that it feels like you are on another planet. We eventually did head back and contemplated doing the famed Golden Circle the next day.

Rather early in the day we set off to see what the Golden Circle had to offer. In all honesty, we were rather disappointed only because of all that we had seen during our trip. This is a route that is highly recommended maybe as soon as you get to Iceland since it gives you a flavor of things to come. Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park and its famed Gulfoss waterfall which does pale in comparison to everything else we had seen. This area also has Silfra where you could go diving in fresh glacial melt (read, frigid) to touch, at the same time, the two continental shelfs of Europe and the United States. Needless to say, we didn’t do this. Next on the route was Geysir, an area with a plethora of geysers of varying intensities. The one that goes off the most often is Strokkur and at its peak can throw incredibly hot water up to heights of 40 meters. Trying to take a picture when this is happening is incredibly painful since it goes off without warning. Believe me, I tried.

Finally on the route was the Kerið volcanic crater which is a volcanic crater lake with its caldera still intact. You can walk on the rim of the crater or even go down to the lake, both of which we did. Anyway, rather disappointed with the Golden Circle, we set off back towards Reykjavik.

We then walked around in Reykjavik and Hallgrímskirkja was highly recommended. It is easily the largest church in all of Iceland and is magnificent to behold. While it looks massive from the outside, it doesn’t feel very large from the inside but what stands out is the huge pipe organ with 5275 pipes! Overkill? There is an option to go right up to the top of the church but we skipped that since the queue to get up there was rather long.

This unfortunately brought us to the end of our trip and the next morning found us looking rather gloomy but headed towards the airport for our flights out of this brilliant country.

Iceland was much more than what we thought it would be. This is one country where the sheer power of Mother Nature is visible almost every step of the way. From driving by panoramic vistas one moment, to being in the middle of stark lava fields, Iceland is as diverse a spot on earth as you can get. No picture can do this country justice. Think of any geological feature you have learned about in school and I promise you, you will see it in Iceland. People here are friendly, helpful and incredibly patient. Nature has made them that way. In a country with 24 hours of sunlight in summer and 20 hours of darkness in winter, patience is much more than just a virtue, it is a way of life. We spent 8 days here and every single day we saw things we had never seen before. Not something I can say for other holidays I have been to. If there ever was a country that looks like it doesn’t belong on this planet, only because it was far too good for us, Iceland is that country. Dr. Mann will definitely echo my sentiment.

Travel tips:

  • Hiring a car is really expensive. Quite a few roads around Iceland are suited only for 4×4 so make your decision accordingly
  • Book hotels way in advance. 4 months prior is still too late. Almost all tourists show up in the summer and there aren’t too many hotels, especially in the smaller towns.
  • Wi-Fi is everywhere. You don’t really need to get a sim-card for your phone unless you really need to make calls and stay connected constantly between stops on your route
  • Food in restaurants is really expensive. A meal for 2 would cost you about INR 4000. Buy ready-to-eat stuff from supermarkets
  • During the time we went, we had daylight for 24 hours. Allowed us to travel late and see things which we otherwise would have not been able to see. However, you have a choice between this season or a season to see the Northern Lights
  • Definitely do the Golden Circle first. It is a big let-down if you see it after you are done with the rest of Iceland
  • The airport is exceptionally small and therefore crowded. Get there just in time for your flight and you will still be early!

Author: Sanjeev Nichani

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