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Published: July 29th 2017
Till about a decade ago, Iceland was not a hot tourist destination that it is becoming now. I guess, it was not even that well known country. Iceland has been in international spotlight only a few times as far as I can remember. In the 80s, Reykjavik, Iceland's capital city, hosted two superpower's leaders, Reagan and Gorbachev, for their many meetings that began an end to the cold war. Then about a decade ago, there was a financial crisis involving Iceland's banks. In 2010, a volcano erupted that spew ash in the direction of Europe grounding many flights in Europe for a few days. Then of course Iceland provided some fireworks in Euro 2016 beating England to reach quarter-finals!
But the social media coverage in the last few years has put Iceland in the map as a prime tourist destination for nature lovers. Or maybe it is the 'Game of Thrones' that put Iceland in the tourist spotlight. Or maybe it was the unspellable and unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano's eruption in 2010 that brought attention to Iceland. Whatever it was, now Tourism has become Iceland's biggest industry. It has seen exponential growth in the last few years. A country with a
population of mere 330,000 could now see more than that number arriving from US alone in 2017!
While researching Iceland, I ran into a bunch of blogs of people who have visited Iceland in a Camper-van and described it as a must-visit place for nature lovers. The idea of a renting a campervan and parking it anywhere during the day or summer nights seemed enticing. People had been doing it and blogging about it. But a bit more googling revealed that Iceland passed a law recently making it illegal to park the campervans or set up tent outside of designated campsites. This law was likely a result of some irresponsible behavior on parts of some tourists who were not cleaning up after themselves!
I had planned a trip for June when there is daylight all 24 hours. So idea of staying in hotels at night did not sound alluring. There is also the option of staying in farms. There are websites that sell tour packages that give you farm stays as well as car rental. Sounds like a good way to travel in Iceland. Anyway I ended up with Camper van choice.
booked a Campervan with GO Campers. Communication with another rental company stopped abruptly after I told about my lack of experience driving stick shift! They did not have any automatic transmission vans.
Many car rental companies have sprouted up recently to take advantage of growing tourism, making it a bit difficult to find good companies. Stories of customers being fleeced when returning the vehicles are not uncommon!
Iceland is a country abounding in natural beauty. From towering peaks to verdant valleys, from imposing glaciers to azure glacial lakes, from volcanoes to geothermal features, Iceland seems to have all the eye candy for nature lovers. It certainly has to be one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world!
I landed in Keflavik airport, which is where the international flights land, around 6:30 am. The surge in tourism in Iceland was evident at those early hours in the airport itself. Long queues to get a stamp on the passport.
I exited the airport and took a Flybus to area's main attraction, the Blue Lagoon. As expected, Blue Lagoon was crowded. Upon entering, you get a wrist band; you can use
it to access a locker or buy drinks and food. On exit you return the wrist band and pay.You have to take a shower in the buff before you head to the pool. At least they have some private showers with doors. The pool water was comfortably warm. I stayed in for about an hour. Many people were just walking in the pool checking things out. Some were trying to take that perfect picture or selfie that they must have seen on the web. Sometimes there can be a disconnect between expectations you have when you see the images of an attraction on the internet and the actual experience itself.
Blue lagoon is touristy but worth visiting on a first trip. I guess this place would be much better to take a dip in during non-summer season.
The Flybus from Blue Lagoon dropped me near my car rental company. The address turned out to be of another company Kuku Campers. One gentleman from Kuku Campers was kind enough to drop me at Go Campers' new location.
The Camper Van I got was a Ranault Kangoo van converted to sleep up to two people in the
back. I was travelling alone so there was sleeping arrangement for only one. Two mattresses over a wooden plank kind of arrangement.
I checked into a gas station and got a prepaid SIM card from Síminn. $30 for 1GB of data and 100 min of call time. There was a Subway nearby so I got myself a sandwich. Having researched Iceland, I knew food was going to be an issue. Being a vegetarian in an island nation abounding in seafood and lamb would imply that I'll not be having restaurant meals! Anyway regular people, I mean, non-vegetarians also, have reason not to visit restaurants everyday for their meals in Iceland. Why? Because Iceland is expensive. Everything is expensive here. Petrol / gas is just under $2 per liter. That amounts to more than $7 per gallon. That's more than 3 times US prices! Car rental prices are more than double that of US!
Iceland has one main route, Route 1, also called the Ring Road. It circles the country and many attractions are near this road. I had booked hotel rooms for first couple of nights to ease transition into sleeping in a van. First night was at
Frumskogar guesthouse. Before settling in there, I took a detour on routes 435 and 360 to get a taste of Iceland's scenery. I had not slept a wink in the flight so took a nap for a few hours in the evening before heading out at 11 pm in the night! Well this is Iceland in June, so I could go out anytime I liked. There is no darkness at night during summer! I visited Rekjanes penisula in the night. In hindsight I should have booked a hotel in Reykjavik as the peninsula is nearer from the city.
Gunnuhver Hot Springs area was my first stop. Had to drive a bit on a gravel road to reach there. Sun was setting in the horizon just around mid-night. Saw just one couple during my time there. Sulfurous steam rising and spraying droplets of water all around. It just looked surreal. I roamed around the peninsula all night stopping by at some rocky coast and another geothermal area called Seltún. After sunrise at around 3 am and loitering around a bit more, I decided to call it a night and drove back to hotel and took another nap. In the morning,
the van won't start! Battery seemed to be the issue. Or rather the issue was that I had parked the van in Auto transmission mode overnight. This van has a dial with Neutral, Reverse, Auto and Manual modes. Strangely, it did not complain when I parked it overnight at Auto mode! The owner of the hotel was helpful. He headed out and got a jumper cable. But by that time I had managed to start the van!
There is a hot spring river near the town of Hveragerdi where I was staying. Seems to be popular among tourists. But it was a long walk and I did not not to venture there.
Most popular tours in Iceland focus on an area around Reykjavik called the Golden Circle. Attractions include Þingvellir National park, Gulfoss waterfall, Kerið Crater Lake and Geothermal area around Strokkur Geyser.
Next day, I explored the Golden Circle attractions. Visited Kerið crater which has a lake inside. Next stop, Strokkur geyser. This is like the Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Erupts regularly. Though unlike Old Faithful, sometime it just fizzles out and won't reach it's full height! Then there is Great Geyser
nearby which rarely erupts nowadays. There is some interesting history about its eruptions including efforts like digging channels to make it erupt!
Third main attraction in Golden Circle that day was Gulfoss waterfall. My phone's GPS made me take a bumpy gravel road from Geyser area. Not interested in driving a bumpy gravel road, I headed to my next hotel, Borealis Hotel, 20 min away from the town of Selfoss. After checking into this hotel, I took a nap in the evening. At night I thought of heading out to Gulfoss but diesel in my van was just above quarter mark. I tried my credit card, which has a pin, at the nearest unmanned gas station. Couldn't get past the first screen at the pump. So I had to call it a night!
Next day, after a breakfast at the hotel, I headed out to fill my tank in the town of Selfoss at the N1 gas station. Also bought prepaid gas cards so that I could fill my tank at unmanned gas stations. Then I mapped my phone's GPS to Gulfoss waterfall. Phone was also acting up. Or maybe it was my fingers smoothened after taking a
long dip at silica laden waters of Blue Lagoon, that searching/typing on the phone was becoming a challenge!
More than an hour later, I was at this impressive waterfall. It being around noon, hordes of tourists flocked the attraction. An hour later sun came out and a rainbow made an appearance. You can come here during summer nights and you'll not have to deal with tourists but then you won't see a rainbow!
Iceland has a myriad of waterfalls. The Icelanding word is foss. You'll see these fosses everywhere during spring and summer. On my 2nd day, I visited two other famous fosses, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. At Seljalandsfoss, you can take a walk behind the waterfall! Which is kinda cool. And wet too!
Later in the day, I reached the town of Vik and started looking for a campsite. I had read not so good reviews about Vik campground so I was looking for alternatives. But found none. Ultimately, I had to settle at Vik's campground. The place was crowded. The restrooms too few. I just parked somewhere and settled down. It gets cold even in summer nights. In some places I visited it was barely above
freezing. My Camper van had a heating system that could run without the engine running. Though it made these periodic knocking sounds.
Next day, I visited the Reynisfjara Beach near Vik. It has a black sand beach and there are some cool geological formations around here. This beach has the reputation for producing sneaker waves specially during winter, so watch out!
Near this area, there is another attraction called Dyrhólaey. It has two parking areas. The upper one is a bit tricky to navigate. Once you walk or drive to the top, you get to see a lighthouse and a view of a long black sand beach.
Driving further east on Ring road, I saw large moss covered lava fields. They seem to be everywhere in the south coast.
Next stop was the beautiful Fjadrargljufur Canyon in an area called Kirkjubaejarklaustur. Oh these Icelandic names!!
Now I was approaching the Skaftafell national park. Well it is no longer a national park by itself as it has become part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park. Vatnajökull National Park is probably the area which somebody saw centuries ago and decided to call the island Iceland!
Vatnajökull is all glaciers and ice, covering just under 15% of Iceland's area.
I camped at Svinafell Campground. Fewer people were camped here compared to Skaftafell campground and it is not far from Skaftafell visitor center. Next day I had a glacier hike planned. I had booked it before the trip. Outfit was Icelandic Mountain Guides. Armed with crampons, hard hat and an ice axe, our group of about 10 people with one guide proceeded to the glacier tongue in a van. Alighting from the van, we followed our guide. A few minutes later she stopped and gave us instructions on how to wear crampons. I struggled a bit but managed to get them on with her help. More instructions followed about how to go uphill and downhill on a glacier. Walking on crampons seemed not that difficult though you have to learn to keep your feet apart as I was about to learn an hour into the hike! Sun came out which made the landscape looked prettier. We walked on ice, looked at crevices and tasted glacial water right from a blue puddle. On the glacier, other than the ubiquitous white and a few blues, there
were also these black specks from the volcanic ash buried under the ice.
On one small downhill walk, my crampons hit each other as my feet were too close and I dropped on my butt! My backpack cushioning the fall a bit. Instinctively, I tried putting a break to the descent using my left hand. Glacier ice is hard and can be sharp. Got a few cuts and bruises! After this experience, I had to believe that old murder story where a person is stabbed by a knife made of ice. However, the criminal got away because the evidence had melted away!
After the 4 hour glacier walk, I took another hike to a glacier tongue which was a straight walk from the Skaftafell visitor center. However, the infamous Icelandic wind made its presence felt as I got closer to the glacier tongue. During the glacier walk, I could have gotten away with a T-shirt, but now, a few hours later, I needed a jacket. Not wearing one, I did not spend much time there. Iceland's weather can change on a dime and you need to be prepared for it!
I was a bit tired by this
point after all the walking. But weather was still OK, though increasingly cloudy. So I trudged on. Next up was a hike to Svartifoss waterfall followed by a hike to Sjónarnípa viewpoint. The trail starts at Skaftafell visitor center and it is about 7 km round trip with some uphill walk. The Sjónarnípa viewpoint gives a sweeping view of the glacier river and mountains. What a majestic sight. I would have loved to see this with the sun out. One hike I was really interested in was Kristinartindar mountain hike. However, being a bit tired and also due to the weather turning, I just returned back from the Sjónarnípa viewpoint. Didn't have the energy or favorable weather to attempt it the next day!
I camped another night at Svinafell Campground. Next day I visited two beautiful glacier lagoons, Fjallsarlon and Jökulsárlón. The vistas included lagoon with icebergs, layer of clouds hanging low over the glacier and the magnificent glacier itself. There was also this occasional thud of glacier calving in the distance. At Jökulsárlón lagoon, the icebergs from the calving move slowly towards the other side of the road going under a bridge! Pieces of ice from these icebergs
wash up on a black sand beach, called the Diamond beach, on the other side of the road where they get pounded by waves from the Atlantic. Some of this ice then rests and melts on the black sand beach making for a surreal scene.
I had finished 'sight-seeing' the south coast attractions along the Ring road that I had planned on visiting. I could have stayed here for the entire trip as the area has plenty to explore. Or I could just visit the same places under different light conditions. But the constant cloudy conditions and occasional drizzle were not giving me any options. Before the trip I was even planning on sleeping during the day and sight-seeing at night. For that owl routine, I needed sun to be out and the long sunset and sunrises to paint their magic on the landscape. But the weather gave me an excuse to just sleep tight in the night.
Weather continued to be cloudy and rainy. After checking the Icelandic weather website en.vedur.is, it was apparent that the next several hours were going to be wet. I arrived at the town of Hofn, parked at
the wet camp ground there, had dinner at 'Z Bistro' restaurant and later fell asleep to the sound of rain beating on my van.
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