Iceland Road Trip: Reykjavík to Vík

Sunday 7 August 2016

It's a long time since I went to Iceland; nearly two years, in fact, and I've actually never shared any of the images I took during my sixteen day journey around the island. Digging around my hard drives I found the folders upon folders of waterfalls and lakes and landscapes which had gone unprocessed and neglected. Whilst they don't quite capture watching icebergs wash up on a black sand beach, or feeling the spray from a huge waterfall, or climbing around in a cave full of steam, they suddenly reminded me of all of the amazing things I saw there. 

Our first few days didn't go exactly as smoothly as we'd hoped. The local teenage boy transporting us from the airport remarked that the weather was unusually cold, that a storm was probably on its way. In Reykjavik that afternoon, we stocked up on bottled water, granola bars and trangia-suitable food, and checked our equipment. We barely took a look around the little city before we collapsed into bed ready for an early start, the first day of adventuring - which was a little more adventurous than planned.

Setting off the next day, we set our course for the stripy earth mountains of Landmannalaugar, heading eventually onto one of the 4x4-only highland F roads and into a landscape which looked like it had been transported straight from Mars. Many of these roads are closed for much of the year (road closures aren't to be taken lightly in Iceland), and we were on the brink of the winter season, so we proceeded carefully along the track. Miles passed; we rattled cautiously through lava fields and fjords. Snowbanks started to appear, but tyre tracks seemed to indicate that others before us had found the track passable. And then our car suddenly ground to a halt, and refused to budge any further. After taking a look, it became clear that we weren't going anywhere fast. Ice, thrown up from the snow we'd driven over, had coated the axles and built up, freezing solid. The storm that our transfer driver mentioned seemed to be brewing over the tops of the hills of the valley we'd found ourselves stuck in; the wifi box we'd bought flashed its signal bars at zero, as did our phones. It was tens of miles back to the larger road, and we'd passed no houses or cars.

Small (large) moment of panic over, we decided to get on with getting ourselves out. My tripod received new purpose as an ice pick. Out came the trangia to heat up water to melt the thickened ice: this is where we discovered that the language barrier in the camping shop where we'd bought fuel had been an issue after all, as flames shot continually up the sides of our pan. My tripod became a multi tool for dealing with fire as well as ice. I fashioned a funnel from a plastic folder to transfer hot water back into bottles to squirt underneath the car. Two hours of rolling around in the snow under the car later, I watched in anticipation as the wheels slowly moved free of the bank and hurtled in reverse to safe gravel.

Soundly beaten into submission by our first Iceland experience, we decided to call it a day and head back the way we came, back to the more well trodden roads of the tourist spots for a smoother introduction. By dusk we made it to Seljalandsfoss, the incoming rain driving off the other visitors for an early night. Looking out from the ledge behind the falls, we spoke to another photographer who planned to sleep there, happily dusted by the spray of the falls all night. We were also due to be setting up our tent, but the driving rain and winds which seemed to hope to force our car from the road saw us sheepishly seek out a bed in Vík instead.

The next day we started slow with a visit to another classic tourist spot, the thundering Skógafoss. We muddled about, climbing the grassy sides of the falls to find a specific shot we'd seen, failed, but still marvelled from the mid way outcrop at the power of the water, my boots and my now ice-battered tripod placed carefully on the narrow ridge. A further scramble had us gazing down the two hundred foot drop to the churning water below, crowds forgotten. As the weather grew steadily worse, we decided to head out to a spot marked on many photographers' maps: the wreckage of a US Navy plane which crashed on Sólheimasandur in 1973. We thought a plane wreck on a vast expanse of otherwise empty black sand might not be tricky to find, but even following the path marked out with little flags by the landowners, we'd almost given up finding it until it suddenly appeared in front of us, previously hidden by the dunes. It was truly surreal - the carcass of the craft left beached like a whale, slowly picked apart by the wind and the sand. A man there had made the plane his home for the previous evening, watching the aurora borealis through the gaps in the metal. We offered him a lift to Vík, but he told us he'd rather walk.

On our way back to the village, we made a final stop at Reynisfjara beach to see the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks. The wind whistled straight through my jacket and chilled my bones while I looked out at the sea churning from where I'd climbed the columns on the beach. Right at the end of the afternoon, the clouds cleared just enough in the west to give us a view of the sun lowering itself behind Dyrhólaey as we drove towards Vík and the campsite we should have been in the previous evening. Darkness rapidly descending, we hurried to pitch the tent and get settled in before nightfall. Unfortunately, our tent had other ideas. Scrambling around in the gloom, it just would not come together - toggles wouldn't match up, the inner lining wouldn't hang straight, and the bag's boast of a seven-minute pitch time seemed like a cruel joke. Years of putting up tents, and a two man tent had me foiled, sitting in the car watching 'how-to' videos for where I'd gone wrong. A wind-snapped pole later, and our camping plans were well and truly out the window, and we retreated for a second time back to the cheapest hotel in the village.

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