Iceland

ICELAND

WINTER ADVENTURE 2015

We have arrived in Iceland, having been aboard navy ships as a Royal Marine in my younger years I have to admit that I had forgotten how rough the ocean can be. Having to cope with 2 lows during our 3-day Atlantic crossing from Denmark on a very basic ferry did not help either. (Nothing like cruising in the tropics on a 120000 Tonne cruise liner). Why Iceland many people ask? No Idea, but it was part of us around the world adventure. So, let me say WHY NOT!! Sure enough, most off roaders arrive in Iceland in summer to visit the highlands eager to get away from the crowds and bush camp in the middle of no-where, go off road and cross rivers. For us the only place on earth to do this is Australia where the outback will give you plenty of places where you could be alone for weeks on end and test your off-road machine to the limit and play on your HF radio talking to other travellers 3000KM away! (YES, WE ARE BIASED).

Iceland, only twice the size of the Netherlands or half the size of Great Britain, how remote can you get? Having said this, overlanders put Iceland on your bucket list it is an amazing country! Why do we travel to Iceland in winter? Iceland is warmer than its chilly name suggests. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the Icelandic winters are relatively mild, with average temperatures in March – April about -0 °C with highs occasionally reaching 10 °C. Unfortunately for us upon our arrival it was minus 10 degrees C and snowing, but we are told it will clear tomorrow with above zero temperatures by the end of the week but very cold clear nights down to minus 15. The good news is that with the islands northerly location, it makes it one of the best places on earth to see the northern lights, also called Aurora Borealis. The Icelandic nature is unspoilt, exotic and mystical with its spouting geysers, active volcanoes, tumbling waterfalls, towering mountains and sparkling iceberg-filled lagoons. Iceland’s fjords and glaciers we are told are some of the most beautiful and enchanting landscapes we will ever see. But we are also interested in the powerful forces beneath the earth’s crust. Geologically speaking, Iceland is the world’s youngest country and is still growing, as can be seen in various areas of the island. Most recent, the spectacular eruptions at Fimmvorouhals and Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 captured the world spotlight and renewed the country’s nickname as the “Land of Fire and Ice”. For us we are going to enjoy Iceland, where the earth itself seems to be alive, blowing off steam in vents, geysers, foul smelling pools of boiling mud and the most diverse volcanic landscapes, its beautiful people and coastline. All we need now is sunshine less snow and higher temperatures.
Iceland a place we had not been to before. Friends, started to say “Iceland? You’re taking the Truck? Or start advising us that Iceland would be very expensive, it rarely stops raining, it is dark, and most roads are closed? To be honest we began to wonder just what we’d let ourselves in for. Our Ship with the truck on board arrived in Seyoisfjorour a small village with beautifully preserved wooden buildings. Seyoisfjorour is also the closest Icelandic port to the Faeroe Islands and Europe; the town’s heyday was at the turn of the 20th century when it was the centre of the Norwegian fishing and herring processing industry. It was cold and snowing upon our arrival, custom clearance was fast and within an hour we were on our way. East Iceland is known for deep fjords, small picturesque fishing villages and the Vatnakojull Glacier which covers 8% of Iceland.

NORTH EAST ICELAND
Our first stop was Lagarfljót a famous river which is home to the mythical Lagarfljót serpent which enjoys the same levels of attention that the Loch Ness monster gets in Scotland. We were told by locals that a local farmer released on Utube footage of a creature and this went viral around the world with more than 5 million hits? Crossing the bridge on the southern end we stopped to visit Iceland’s second-highest waterfall, the Hengifosse. The layers between numerous Tertiary lava strata yield a reddish colour particularly salient in the cliffs around Hengifoss. The road towards Snaefell and the controversial Karahnjukar dam has also brought much improved roads in the area. The road was closed but it stated you could drive at own risk and cost in the event of breakdown. Vatnajökull covers an area of over 8000 km2, is the largest glacier in Europe, and covers about 8% of Iceland’s landmass. This glacier reaches 2000 metres at its highest point and covers many active volcanoes including Grímsvötn, Iceland’s busiest volcano with several eruptions recorded in recent years (1996, 1998, 2004 and 2011). With lots of snow and limited visibility we decided to head to the North-Eastern Part of Iceland. This part has no big-ticket attractions but is has spectacular scenery, picturesque small fishing villages and snow-covered mountains. We decided to drive as far North as Iceland’s northern most Township Raufarhofn just a few kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. From here we followed the no longer maintained road 870 and found a perfect camp spot on a deserted black lava beach facing the Greenland Sea.

 

NORTHERN ICELAND

In heavy snow, our first stop this week was Asbyrgy a huge horseshoe shaped depression, created by glacial burst. Next was supposed to be Dettifoss Waterfall but we were advised that the road was closed due to volcanic activity and possible floods in the glacier river. The area had been declared a natural hazard zone. All this is part of overlanding, so we changed plans and visited Husavik first, going around the long way as we are still able to visit Dettifoss from the South. Husavik, it calls itself the whale watching area of Iceland with 98% chance of sighting whales. The picturesque harbour of Husavik is also homeport of Iceland’s only traditional sailing ships, the 2-mast schooner Hakkur and Hildur. From Husavik we took the short cut to Reykjahlio located on the Northeast part of Lake Myvatn. This is Iceland’s 4th largest lake and 90% of it was still frozen. Measuring 37sq km frequent lava flows have left the lake very irregular in shape. Craters and volcanoes have sculpted the landscape of this region; hence this has become a major tourist area in Iceland. The Lake Myvatn area is by many considered the most beautiful and at the same time the most catastrophic place in Iceland. The area lies on an active volcanic belt where eruptions are frequent.

The whole area is known for its intense geothermal activity, which is harnessed for heating a large part of the region. Myvatn Nature baths were open but at $37.00 AUD, (Euro 24.00), an outside temperature of just 2 degrees C and with 100KM per hour winds we gave it a miss first time around, hoping for better weather in the next few days. Instead we drove to the Viti explosion crater just below Mount Crafta. On the way we stopped at Hverfell lava fields a lunar like landscape full of mud baths, steaming vents and a foul sulphur stench. We were also told that the earth crust here is extremely thin and in places the ground is ferociously hot.

With all the volcanic activity, very high temperatures bubbling mud pots and steaming vents we were well advised not stray of the marked tracks. Arriving at the rim of the dirt brown Viti Crater we expected to see dark blue water, instead it was completely frozen over. Next was the city of Akureyri. With no internet (out of data) we missed the daily weather forecast, resulting in not knowing that we would get our self in a blizzard situation that afternoon. We realized we were in for bad weather as we arrived at Godafoss falls. With the wind howling and horizontal blowing snow we decided to stay put overnight. The next day we heard the wind gusts were 120KM per hour (and we had no protection from the wind) and quite a few rescues were needed in the area. Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city became our laundry and shopping stop. Being the second largest city in Iceland it has plenty of café’s restaurants and even a shopping centre. With perfect weather and no more snow, we followed the coastline North passing through Dalvik (home of Iceland’s tallest man and Arctic Helicopter skiing)

Next was Olafsfjordur but not before you have negotiated a 6km one lane tunnel. Once you come out the tunnel you are greeted by majestic mountains. It also has the highest sea cliffs in Iceland (630meters high). 2 more tunnels and we arrived in Siglufjordour. Our reason for visiting was the herring museum. In the early 1900s it became the undisputed capital of the herring fishing in the North Atlantic. Up to 500 boats were active in the region mainly Dutch and English. Our last stop for the day was Hofsos, a small village on the eastern shore of the Skagafordour. 2 main reasons for our visit. The Iceland immigration Centre (museum) It was fascinating to see and listen why 18000 people (out of a total population at the time of just 88000 left Iceland for the new world (America) between 1870 and 1914. The other reason to visit Hofsos was the in 2010 opened beachfront outdoor geothermal swimming pool, the main pool is a constant 32 degrees and the hot pool is between 39 and 41 degrees. With the outside temperature of  1-degree and with  sunny skies it felt like summer. A perfect place to meet the locals and it was here we learned that we should enjoy the next 1.5 days, as more blizzards were on the way courtesy of a Greenland depression. The forecast was up to 60cm of snow and 100km per winds. We left early the next day as we first wanted to visit Grettislaug Hot Spring around 40Km of the main road. The spring is oval shaped and just .80 m deep. Water enters from the bottom at around 500ml per second. The spring is at a constant 42 to 43 degrees Celsius. With the weather changing we left for Hvammarstangi but never made it. Blizzards, snow and Ice made us stop early. Next morning was worse as we were completed snowed in. The remaining 40Km to Hvammarstangi were slow and without any visibility allowing a maximum speed of just 25 km per hour. Arriving around midday all we could do was park and sit out the blizzard which by the next morning dumped 60cm of fresh snow. Waking up that morning to brilliant sunshine revealed a beautiful fjord. (Miofjörour) Hvammarstangi economy relies mainly on fishing. (shrimp) The town also has the largest textile factory in Iceland. In all a great traveling around, Northern Iceland.

 

NORTH WEST ICELAND

This week we encountered a second blizzard. Although well prepared it made me wonder how those early polar explorers survived. 60 cm of snow in 6.5 hours, 120km per hour winds and our truck completely frozen up. Lucky our Webasto heating system kept it nice and warm inside the truck. Imagine having to shelter in a small tent? Anyway, our Webasto heating system worked perfect and so did our engine heating. The low system from Greenland passed over in around 8 hours and next morning it was a winter wonderland with sun and a blue sky. Time for a quick soak in the open air 43-degree Celsius hotpot (outside temp was minus 14 degrees Celsius).

The western Fjords. When you look at the map of Iceland this part looks a little like the antlers of a reindeer. With all the snow, endless coves and fjords it is not an area for fast travelling. Breathtaking scenery, small villages in an arctic landscape. Our first stop Holmavik and Drangsnes. Holmavik for some shopping and Drangsnes for a soak in the beach front hotpot. By now it started to rain, and the temp had risen to a balmy 4 degrees. This made the next part of the journey to Krossnes and a natural Hot Pot very interesting over soft muddy tracks only suited to cars/trucks up to 8 Tonne.

On the return journey we stopped and soaked in an ancient hot spring just outside Bjarnarfjordur. The track (just wide enough for our truck) winds past a series of gorgeous crumbling escarpments and dramatic fjords. With all the rain and soft muddy tracks, we were experiencing Clary was pleased to see the village of Holmavik again. From here we ventured further west towards Isafjordour. The West Fjords are almost uninhabited. Just 7400 people live in this large area.

Therefore, the West Fjords region is sometimes called the most unknown place in Iceland. We camped along the way enjoying high waterfalls, and clean drinking water from pure mountain streams, high mountains, deep fjords and majestic cliffs. At night we could hear the Arctic Fox but only saw a few during the day. Again, we were lucky to see the Northern Lights. The largest town in the west fjords is Isafjordur, looking after 33% of the area’s population. Too busy for us so we decided to stay overnight just north of town near the Bolungarvik Lighthouse. Another must visit is Suoureyri a small fishing village where time stood still. When we arrived in Sudavic unfortunately the arctic fox centre was closed.

 

WEST  ICELAND

With more bad weather (snow and wind) on the way we decided to travel south towards West Iceland. This region is much more touristy as it is much closer to Reykjavik the nation’s capital city. This is an area of volcanoes lava fields and lava caves. Driving south snow became rain. Not sure if it was the rain or that the earth is warm but almost all snow had disappeared when we arrived in the area. The whole area is full of protected areas and even forest has been planted.

Unfortunately for us the weather was miserable: fog, low cloud and rain as we drove through mossy lava fields, past extinct volcanoes and eventually mountains and glaciers when we arrived in Husafell. By this time the weather had cleared a little and it was amazing to see Birchwood forest between lava fields, with many holiday homes dotted around, owned by mainly Reykjavik locals. We decided to back track a little and visit the 900-meter-long Hraunfossar waterfall before setting up camp at the Deildartunguhver natural hot spring. This is Iceland’s largest (by Volume) hot spring. And according to the locals the biggest in Europe! It spews 180 litres of water per second at a temp of nearly 100 degrees Celsius. This water is used to heat houses in the surrounding area as far as 60Km away. We had enough of the rain and decided to travel to Reykjavik where Jon was waiting for us eager to show us his 4WD and take us to the Reykjavik 4WD meeting that Monday night.

It was great, we saw lots of winter driving on the glaciers and it nearly made me extend my stay in Iceland to do another weekend trip with the club members. Next day it was off to Arctic Trucks where we met Gisli Jonsson a seasoned Antarctica traveller (By car he crossed Antarctica 10 times not just solo but many times as support vehicle). He not only supported Steve Brady on his seven continents tour but also Manon Ossevoort has set one of the most bizarre, and rather extreme World records: she was and still is the first woman to travel all the way to the South Pole on a tractor. Also Jeremy Clark from Top Gear. Gisli also told me that he met his wife Felicity in Antarctica when he oversaw her support group when she became the first woman to solo cross Antarctica on skis. Like us he and his now wife also travelled Siberia in winter. In all a real great day for us meeting a fellow adventurer. And it became better as we planned to meet up for some Iceland Off Roading. The weather has become colder, but forecast is for more sun. Before moving into the highlands, we decided to visit the tourist attractions east of Reykjavik. First stop Geyser, and Stokkur Geyser has not been active for many years however Stokkur is very active and shoots up a column of water every 4 to 8 minutes up to 30 meters up in the air. The magnificent Gullfoss 32-meter-high waterfall tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 32Meters deep. It also became a perfect overnight stop with a view of the falls and with all tour busses gone by 6PM we had the place for ourselves. And with a very cold dark night it became a perfect night for the Northern Lights dancing around the sky, just an unforgettable experience.

The next morning, we were off to Hekla one of the most famous volcanoes in the world. Hekla is believed to have erupted at least twenty times since settlement of Iceland and 5 times in the 20th century. Last eruption February 2000.

 

SOUTH WEST ICELAND

The rainy weather continued as we drove towards the South-Eastern part of Iceland. But the difference was we did meet cars on the road. Due to now driving on the Ring Road (Highway 1) we entered the area where almost all visitors to Iceland arrive and indeed visit. The Reykjanes peninsula is home to Keflavik International Airport, the main gateway to Iceland and another world wide known attraction the Blue lagoon swimming pool. This Geothermal pool alone attracts up to 600000 visitors per year. The whole peninsula has a rugged lava landscape and is wind-swept. That nigh we experienced this. Our first stop was Lake Kleifarvatn the largest lake on the peninsula and one of the deepest in Iceland. Since the 2000 earthquakes the lake has become smaller and loses water due to fissures at the bottom of the lake. The south side of the lake has many mud pots and hot springs. We drove through crater landscape around the Edsvold area before arriving at Gunnuhver, Iceland’s largest mud pool a large geothermal area littered with steaming fumaroles and boiling mud pools. We left the visit to the Blue Lagoon swimming pool to the hundreds of visitors and tourists, knowing full well we can get the same (Natural) hotpot for free without any tourists (the Blue Lagoon charges 50.00 AUD p.p.). We followed the coast line found a spot on a deserted beach and set up camp.

It was still raining and that night we also got buffeted with another round of gale force winds. From here we straddled the Landmannalaugar region. But with many mountain roads, muddy and soft we decided to wait for Jon and Christine from the Reykjavik 4WD Club who were joining us to show us around this amazingly nice part of the world. The weather forecast is lots of sun but cold.

 

EAST ICELAND and THE HIGHLANDS

EYJAFLALLAJOKULL VOLCANO

We did meet up with Jon from the Reykjavik 4WD club for a drive to the highlands and a drive up the Volcano Eyjafjallajökull. The weather was perfect with blue skies. I knew from my days in the Toyota Landcruiser club that days/weekends travelling with like-minded experienced drivers always are enjoyable and fun.

We were not allowed to drive our truck up onto the volcano, so we joined Jon and Kristin in a fully fitted out F350 for a drive up the volcano. (Yes, the volcano that stopped all air traffic in Europe in 2010). It was amazing how we drove up a steep volcano and crossed a glacier in deep snow in an off-road vehicle. I have to say it had a lot of modifications. The F350 was equipped with Unimog Locking diffs, a 6.9 turbo diesel engine, 54-inch tyres, in- and re- inflatable tyres controlled from the inside cabin, rock crawlers, had a lifted suspension, (automatic adjustable) aftermarket shock absorbers and air suspension. RESULT: AN AMAZING PERFORMANCE. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano is a capped volcanic cone with a crater 3-4-kilometre-wide and produced many eruptions, the last one in 2010. Eyjafjallajökull highest point is 1700 meters and smoke is still rising from the crater. The Glacier covers an area of 100sq km. On our way back, we had lunch on the glacier, it was sunny but cold. Kristin served us a perfect lunch. After lunch we drove back to our truck and ventured towards Porsmork.

Jon pointed out that the area we were driving in was flooded during the last eruption in 2010 when the ice melted, and this caused a glacial burst which flooded the entire lowland around Porsmork till Glufurarfoss. We had an amazing time. That night we had dinner together and said our goodbyes to Jon and Kristin who treated us to a few amazing days. (many many thanks again for your time, and your hospitality). That night we camped in front of the Seljalandfoss waterfall. We woke up to another nice day and it was now time to start travelling north again as we had a boat to catch.

HIGHLANDS to SEYDISFJORDUR

Unfortunately, the warnings started to come in re some real bad weather and blizzard coming in again, (Not just Jon warned us but also Saevar and the local weather forecast on our computer) however with so much sun we decided we stay another day on the beach in Glacier Bay. We found a small faint track and this led us to a perfect spot right onto the beach. This spectacular area is part of Iceland’s and Europe’s largest glacier Vatnajokull.

It has a surface area of 8100 sq. km measuring 400 to 600 meters in thickness, with some places up to 950 meters thick. The glacier conceals mountains but also active volcanoes such as Baroarbung and Grimsvotn one of the most active volcanoes. The glacier at this area is a unique place with icebergs constantly breaking of and drifting through a short river into the sea. When we had lunch outside our truck on the beach (minus 5 degrees) seals kept us entertained. During the night we woke up due to a lot of wind. By morning it had already reached gale force!!! Time to move, but we left it too late.

It started to snow, then the wind became so strong we could barely drive at 40Km per hour. As we drove further north the signs along the road showed 42 meters per second wind; just before Hamarsfjordur, as snow was piling up and driving became very difficult (dangerous), we were desperate for a parking spot but were unable to find anything else but cliff top viewpoints and those were so exposed that parking here was no option.

At this stage windblown snow was up to 50cm deep in some parts and visibility was nearly zero. We did arrive in Djupivogur and found some shelter behind a seawall in the harbour. However, as the evening progressed into night the wind became even stronger and we had no choice but to move the truck at 2AM in the morning in blizzard conditions. We were concerned the truck would tip over!! The only place we could find offering some shelter was a house and parked the truck right behind it!! With the wind still howling at least the truck movement was a lot less. Next morning, we were told all roads were closed and we were not supposed to have driven the road. Locals told us the wind was up to 52 meters per second what converts to 185Km per hour. Next, we were informed the roads north were closed, due to blizzard like conditions and blown snow. We could not wait as we needed to catch the boat. So, despite all warnings we took off. The snow was deep, the visibility poor but the truck performed well. However, with only 2 more passes to go we were stopped and told till here and no further. ROAD CLOSED. It had over 1 meter of snow on it. We were just 51 kilometres from the ship. However, we were promised the road would re-open in the morning as the weather would clear in the next few hours. And it did. Little did we realize that our ship also had to go through this storm and by avoiding the worst of it, it arrived hours late.