South Iceland

It was an act of self-preservation.  It was a crazy idea.  It was the thing that characters in books and movies do.  It was the epitome of adventure.  It was a bucket list item.  A long weekend in another country.

In Iceland.

I had never even imagined flying away for a weekend before.  But a couple of significant things had happened all at the same time and I decided I needed to do it.

We had travelled to Iceland in 2016 and fell in love with the country.  We spent three days in Reykjavik and then drove to the Westfjords and spent the next seven days touring around there.  When we came back to Canada, we knew in our hearts that we would certainly return to Iceland to see the rest of the country.

When I found the flight to Iceland on Wow Air for $475 each roundtrip everything fell into place.  It was a short flight.  It was a cheap flight (provided we bring no luggage). It left Friday night, arrived early Saturday morning and the flight home was Monday evening.  May weather shouldn’t throw anything drastic at us (little did I know what May in Iceland can be like).  After consulting our map and some blogs, we would rent a Happy Camper van and just drive the south coast for three days.  It was the perfect plan.

We arrived in Iceland just after 5 am and got ourselves settled into some uncomfortable airport seats to await our Happy Camper shuttle at 8:15 am.  I was able to get another hour of snoozing in which was badly needed after getting only a few hours of sleep on the plane.

The Happy Camper company is a cheerful family company that have converted minivans into camper vans.  They offer different sizes of vehicles, have a cooler for food and a heater in the van, which we certainly needed.  We opted for unlimited wifi as well and it was a godsend as we needed to check distances, locations and times for driving.  We did find the model we had (the Happy 1) a little small but we only had it for two days.  If we were going for longer, I would recommend the larger one.  If you are the type of person who can do the van life, then it is a very cost-effective way of seeing the country.  It is cheaper than hotel accommodation and the campgrounds in Iceland generally have fully equipped facilities with kitchen, showers, wifi, etc.  We tent-camped last time with a rental car and having the camper van was so much easier, especially because we had terrible weather for the first two days and I have no idea how the tenters in the campground survived the hail, the winds and the cold.

There are many campervan rental companies offering similar options with a few differences (automatic transmission or 4×4 capabilities, for example) so look around.  You can also add on things like camping chairs, sleeping bags, even a guitar, when you book.  Because the Happy Campers are such recognizable vehicles, we could spot each other quite easily from a distance and waved at each other when passing.  It certainly made us feel a part of the extended Happy Camper family.

We were on the road by 9 am.  And the weather just got worse.

For two full days, Iceland threw some pretty crazy weather at us.  For us, it felt pretty extreme.  For Icelanders, I got the feeling that it wasn’t unusual.  The rain was coming down in buckets, soaking us at the first few sights we visited.  The winds were constant at around 65 km/h with gusts up to 85 km/h.  We could hardly stand up straight.  The skies were dark and the waves along the coast were ominous.  Over the next 48 hours, we would travel through driving rain, snow, and sandstorm conditions.  We would see glimpses of blue sky only to have hail the size of peas blast us from out of nowhere.  We would watch waterfalls being blown back into the sky.  In the long, flat stretches to the east of Vík, we could see black sand being blown across the road ahead before we drove through it.  The winds blew cars around the roads and shook the vehicle while parked.  The black clouds that seemed to hover just above us were their own character.  I imagined them being drawn a as a cartoon cloud villain with long, dark tendrils as fingers reaching down to the Earth to wreak havoc on the mere mortals who dare to live upon the black sands of Iceland.

When weather is this bad, seeing outdoor sights becomes a little more daunting.  It’s a good thing our only plan was to make no plans because our plans kept changing to take the weather into consideration.  Going to a hot spring no longer seemed appealing when you could at any time be pelted by hail.  Hiking up a cliff didn’t seem as much fun when the path was drenched and slippery and the winds could potentially blow your feet out from under you.

Iceland is a country in which the people have a very healthy respect for nature.  Please heed any warnings you get about the weather and exercise caution when doing anything outdoors.  Having Search and Rescue come pull your sorry ass out of a situation that you should not have been in in the first place is NOT the kind of adventure you want to have in Iceland.  If you are a nervous driver in the best of conditions, perhaps it would be better to book guided tours instead of renting a car and trying to negotiate the very unique challenges this country offers.

While the weather did play a major role in our adventure, we were quite lucky in that when we arrived at many of the sights we wanted to see, we were blessed with a few moments of sun.

The Bridge Between Two Continents
Bob is standing on the North American side. We are parked in Europe.

To start our adventure, we drove south around the Reykjanes peninsula instead of east through Reykjavik as the first thing we wanted to see was the Bridge Between Two Continents.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t find it all that exciting.  We put on all our rain gear, crossed the bridge, took a photo and ran directly back to the vehicle.

We drove on and as the rain pounded the road, we started to feel our lack of sleep.  We pulled into Thorlakshofn (Þorlakshöfn) for a coffee to discuss the rain and make a more concrete plan.  Our first order of business was getting groceries for our three days.  So on we went to Selfoss to the Bónus for inexpensive groceries.

After stocking up on food, we pushed on toward Vík (another 129 km away), which we decided would be our final destination for our first day.  It doesn’t sound far or that it should take that long.  But there is much to see in Iceland that isn’t marked on a map so be prepared for it to take several hours.

Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi.  These two waterfalls are beside each other though you can only see Seljalandsfoss from the Ring Road.  It costs 700 ISK to park for 24 hours (no camping) and the machine only takes credit cards.

We decided to go to Gljúfrabúi first as it seemed there were fewer people headed that way.  It’s about 500 m past Seljalandsfoss along the marked pathway.  The path ends at a crevice in the mountainside.  There is a shallow stream running out of the crevice and after all the rain, it was a little deep in places.  I was wearing waterproof hiking boots but I felt like it might be deep enough to go over the tops of my boots so I decided to rock hop in, through the crevice.

Once through the crevice, it opens into a larger cavern that Gljúfrabúi falls into and basically, I was standing and walking in the runoff of the waterfall.  It’s absolutely magical!  Even though the path is clearly marked for visitors, it is a hidden gem.  It still feels like you are the the only one in the world that knows about it.  No matter how many photos you see of it, none of them will do it any justice.  The cavern is definitely wet so protect your camera and put your rain gear on!

As we walked back to Seljalandsfoss, the hail started again.  We made a run for the camper and waited it out.  Sure enough, five minutes later, it was a clear sky and we set out to the path again.

Anytime I look at photos of Iceland, it seems like there is never very many people there, like whenever you go to a sight, you will be the only one there.  But in fact, beginning in May, the crowds start.  These sights had a good number of people at them – not as many as I would imagine in July and August but enough.  Fortunately, as I looked through my own photos, I realized that the natural beauty is so compelling that somehow you don’t even notice the people around you.

As we cautiously made our way down the rocky path behind the waterfall, I think that all of us tourists felt like children.  We were all dripping wet and giddy with awe.  There was a communal feeling of adventure, even though it certainly wasn’t dangerous.  (The path can be slippy because of the mist but it’s not difficult.)  I don’t know that I can say I’ve been behind too many waterfalls in my life so the experience was exciting and simply beautiful.  According to Guide to Iceland.is, this waterfall’s river originates under Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010.

Only a few minutes after we had stripped off the wet outer gear and left the parking lot, the rain started again.  We continued east.

Be prepared to stop often in Iceland to photograph a beautiful scene from a lay-by on the side of the road.  (But don’t stop too suddenly!  And don’t stop in the middle of the road.  Be prepared to turn around at the next safe spot and go back for your beautiful photo op.)  This is exactly what happened shortly after leaving Seljalandsfoss.  We came to Eyjafjallajökull.

Eyjafjallajokulledit
Living in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull

Our next stop was another beautiful waterfall, Skógafoss.  Skógafoss is much wider than Seljalandsfoss and the land is quite flat so you can get as close to the waterfall as you dare. It is located in farmland with a small cluster of buildings nearby – a hostel, a restaurant, two museums and a hotel to name a few.  The campground is also right in front of the waterfall.  We didn’t realize this until on our way back to Reykjavik but it would have been amazing to camp there, waking up to the view of the waterfall just outside the window.  And as luck would have it, the rain and hail stopped just long enough for us to enjoy our stay.

There is a steep staircase that goes up to the top of the cliff and the view is spectacular.  There really isn’t much to say about waterfalls.  They are basically all the same.  Which is certainly NOT to say that they are all ordinary.  Each one is magnificent and awe-inspiring.  I couldn’t take enough photos because photos just can’t capture how beautiful it really is.  Of course, on a day like the day we had, one had to hold your phone with two hands lest it be blown away.  I didn’t even bother bringing my DSLR out of the van because I knew it would just be too wet with mist.  Once again, the gods smiled on us and brought the sun out for our visit!

Finally, after a full day of driving, sightseeing and battling terrible weather, we took off our rain gear for the last time, settled into our Happy Camper (which we had nicknamed Beethoven) and headed to our final destination for the evening:  Vík campground.

I know you’re probably getting tired of me talking about the weather but it played such a significant part in our adventure, I have to mention it.  The weather throughout the night continued to blast us.  The high winds rocked the camper van and the hail pummeled us every couple of hours.  Sometimes, it was so loud on the roof of the camper that we had to raise our voices to be heard over the din.  And it was cold that first night.  We were told that if we kept the heater in the camper on all night, it might drain the entire battery.  So we kept waking up from the cold, turning the heater on, falling back asleep, waking up with the hail and at the same time turning off the heater and then falling asleep again until we woke again an hour later from the cold, turned the heater on, etc. for the entire night.  It was a rough night to say the least.  I can’t even imagine what it was like to be in a tent.

We woke the next morning to sun.  The winds were just as strong (still around 65 km/h) but at least the sun was shining.  Our original plan was to backtrack a bit and go see the abandoned plane on the beach as well as check out the basalt columns of Reynisfjara.  But it just didn’t seem that enticing as the winds continued to blow and we imagined walking 4 km into the wind being pelted with black sand.  So we opted to spend most of our day in the van driving east to our farthest point on this whirlwind trip – Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.

It was another 3 hours of driving and we drove through some of the eeriest landscapes I’ve ever seen.  At one point, Bob compared it to a Mad Max movie.  Not to mention the winds were still very high and Bob was constantly having to fight the wind to keep the vehicle in our own lane.

Eventually, after a harrowing and frustrating experience on a one-lane bridge with a tourist who seemed not to know how to drive a standard, or not to know how to reverse, or was too afraid to, which took 15 minutes for us to get off the one-lane bridge, (eventually, someone else got out of their vehicle, which was parked on the side of the road as per Icelandic rules of the road pertaining to one-lane bridges and right-of-way, and reversed the vehicle for her far enough so we and all the cars behind us could actually get off the bridge), we parked at the absolutely otherworldly iceberg lagoon.

A note about getting to the lagoon.  Despite having driven through landscape so flat that you could watch a dog run away for three days, you don’t actually see the iceberg lagoon until you are literally over it.  And then it blows you away with how beautiful it is.  But don’t get distracted because you’ll be on a one-lane bridge OVER it.

It’s so spectacular I don’t even feel bad about how many photos I’m posting right now.

Of course, two minutes after we left the lagoon, it started to hail again. We made our way back to Vík for the night after another long day of driving and battling the winds.

We didn’t do too much in Vík as we were quite tired but there are a few hikes that would have been beautiful to have done had we had more time.  As it was, we just walked to the beach behind the gas station and admired the Reynisdrangar.  Legend says these basalt columns were trolls who were caught out too late and were turned to stone by the early morning sunlight.

Reynisdrangar
The Reynisdrangar, near Vik.

We awoke on our final day in Iceland (Monday) to sunshine and almost no wind.  On our way back from Jökulsárlón, I had checked vedur.is and figured out that “vindaspá” meant “wind”.  Clicking on the first map on the page took us to a graph of the wind in Iceland.  On Saturday and Sunday, the winds were purple (in the 18-20 range which was on the far right of the scale).  On Monday, the winds were a lovely shade of green (in the 4-6 range) and implied an absolutely beautiful day ahead of us.  Because of this, we made the decision to wake early and be on the road to maximize our time at the sights we had bypassed due to the weather.

We woke at 5 am and started the slow but sure waking-up process.  Putting the camper bed back into a futon-style sofa.  Breakfast, coffee, brush teeth.

Then it hailed.

Then it stopped.

Then it rained.

Then we were out of the campground and on the road by 6:30 am.  Our first stop was only a few kilometres outside of Vík.  Reynisfjara beach.  The danger sign made us chuckle due to the colloquial, slightly ungrammatical English and then made us pause.  The “deadly sneaker waves” sounded a little scary, actually.

Sign on Reynisfjara Beach
Beware of the deadly sneaker waves. They can actually kill you.

Arriving at such an early hour allowed us to have much of the beach to ourselves.  There was one other group of tourists who were having loads of fun with a variety of different camera equipment.  We just walked past them and marveled at the basalt columns, the troll caves and the powerful waves that rocked the beach. We stayed a healthy distance away from the water and did not witness any deadly sneaker waves but my feet did get caught in a rogue wave strong enough to makes its way up to me.

The next stop was the one that was on my bucket list.  It was the one sight that I had really regretted not seeing the last time we were in Iceland.  We had bypassed it both Saturday and Sunday because of the weather and I was getting nervous about the possibility of letting it go a second time if it didn’t work out on Monday.

The Sólheimasandur Plane Crash.

When you search for the plane crash online, you find many websites that give you explicit directions on how to find it, including GPS coordinates.  The mystery of trying to find an abandoned plane on a black sand beach on the coast of Iceland sounds compelling, which is part of the reason why it was on my bucket list.

Well, there is no mystery any longer.  There is a designated parking lot and a sign explaining in Icelandic and English how far it is to the plane, safety precautions (ex. wear appropriate clothing, stay on the marked trail, be mindful of the weather and reduced daylight in winter, etc.) and a fully marked footpath, complete with reflective markers that lead the way until the plane is in view.

It’s a 4 km walk out towards the ocean, along the black sand beach.  Walking 4 km towards the ocean in bad weather is not only folly but highly unenjoyable, in my opinion.  So we left it until the very end in hopes of better weather and again, the gods were smiling.  There was very little wind and the sun even came out to play for a few minutes.  It didn’t start raining until we were 10 minutes from the car on the way back, and then it was just a light sprinkle.

Be warned.  The walk out and back is incredibly boring.  It’s flat black sand as far as the eye can see.  It’s so flat, at first I thought, “I should be able to see the plane from here.”  But after half an hour walking, I still couldn’t see the plane and when I turned around, I couldn’t see the vehicles in the parking lot anymore either.  And the landscape didn’t look any different.  It was very surreal.  You know what it’s like to walk on a treadmill?  Your legs are walking and according to the monitor you’re actually moving but the scenery never changes?  That’s kind of what it was like.

Like this.  For 45 minutes.

Dyrholaey in the Distance
You can see the arch of Dyrholaey 18 km in the distance. So why can’t we see the plane?? (Because it’s actually lower than the horizon.)
The Path to the Plane
This was on the way back to the parking lot. The cars are directly in front of us, just too far away to see.  In the centre of the path is a person about 10 minutes ahead of us.

Now that I’ve dispelled any mystery of actually finding the plane, I will say this.  If you enjoy long walks and strange sights like a wrecked fuselage in the middle of nowhere, then it will still retain its beauty and adventure.  We had gotten up early so we could enjoy these sights with fewer people and a more relaxed pace and it was definitely worth it in my mind.

You can’t see the plane until you are only a few minutes away from it because it is actually lower than the horizon.  Because of this, even though you are on a marked trail, we still wondered if we would ever find it.  When the plane finally came into view, it was just as bizarre as I had imagined.  There were only two other people there and the sun was hazy over Dyrhólaey in the distance, casting an eerie glow over the broken body of the aircraft.

After 20 minutes of taking photos, wandering around, contemplating what we were looking at, and exploring the inside of the fuselage, we headed back on the long and boring walk back to the parking lot.

From here, it was a road trip back to Keflavik to return the Happy Camper and to catch our flight.  We made a few stops to break up the driving – to get coffee and to get gas – but it was pretty much homeward bound from there.

We decided to take a detour off the Ring Road to check out the Kerið Crater, again foolishly thinking we might be the only ones there.  But no, the parking lot was full, the admission was 400 ISK and there were selfie-sticks and tourist antics galore.  The colours were quite vibrant and stunning compared to the blacks and greys we had see along the south coast for the past three days.  But the wind along the top ridge was quite cold and we were running out of time so we took a quick photo and hit the road again.

IMG_2721edit
See? It looks like we have the whole crater to ourselves. But actually, the parking lot was entirely full and you can see tiny people walking along the water below. You can walk along the ridge as well and there was practically a wall of people around the entire crater.

The scenery on the way to Reykjavik on the Ring Road was beautiful but the roads a little more nerve-wracking due to traffic, curves and some significant hills, all of course with no shoulders or guardrails.

Back to the Airport
The Ring Road outside Reykjavik.

In the end, everything worked out perfectly.  We saw everything we wanted to see along the south coast of Iceland.  If we hadn’t chosen to bypass a few sights on Saturday and Sunday morning because of the weather, we wouldn’t have gotten as far as Jökulsárlón on Sunday.  And if we had done that drive on Monday, it would have been a killer drive back to the airport after.  As it was, we arrived at the airport perfectly on time to check in and settle in for some lunch and a bottle of wine, having seen everything we wanted to see with absolutely no regrets.

It was a crazy, whirlwind weekend adventure in Iceland.

And it was perfect.

2 thoughts on “South Iceland

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