Part 3: Iceland, South and West
Another brilliantly sunny day as we opened the curtains. I really couldn’t believe the weather we’d been having, especially when we heard how terrible it had been in the UK.
We started off by retracing our steps from yesterday as we travelled back along the ‘1’ following John as he headed in the wrong direction. It was confusing as the road goes in two directions. Kevin managed to catch him up and get him to follow us (following Mrs SatNav) as we took a somewhat tortuous route back. We thought we must have gone wrong at one point but on checking the map that does appear to be the only way to get to the road we wanted. Back on track and this piece of road was quite familiar from the previous day. We remembered waypoints as we saw them. There is the geo-thermal plant, there the prison that looks like a posh house, there’s the waterfall we went behind and finally onto new road.
We didn’t think the landscape could get much more dramatic than we’d already seen but we were wrong. John started to slowly disappear in our mirrors and we assumed he was looking at the scenery so slowed down ourselves. As we went past Eyjafjallajökull suddenly there was another waterfall which called us over – Skógafoss. This one didn’t seem as dramatic as others we have seen but it is still 25m across with a 60m drop and it was capturing the sunlight beautifully with a double rainbow. We climbed up 40m or so to where there was a small ledge which gave a good view point. It was a bit dodgy there as it was a rather narrow ledge but we survived and got some good photos for our efforts.
We’d been at the waterfall quite a while so texted John to tell him we’d meet him at the hotel as we were sure he must have passed us by now. He responded by telling us he hadn’t been slowing to look at scenery, he was crawling along trying to find a service station as he was nearly out of fuel!
We then travelled alongside another glacier, Mýrdalsjökull, for miles and miles. We passed and re-passed John and Sonia as we each stopped to admire something that caught our eyes. To our left was the glacier and its accompanying volcano, to the right either the sea or the flat plain to the sea. The contrast between the two sides was startling – they could have been in two different countries. The glacier receded into the background leaving rugged mountains to our left and a more rural feel to the area, with quite a few small-holdings.
In the distance we could see more white and eventually we came to Vatnajökull, the biggest glacier outside the Arctic regions, which just seemed to go on forever. The statistics on this glacier are mind-boggling. It covers an area of roughly 8100 km2 with an average thickness between 400 and 500m, rising to around 1000m at its thickest. Seven volcanoes are buried beneath it, most of which are active.
Various parts of this vast glacier seem to have different names and the spur we stopped by to read about the eruption in 1996 was called Skaftafellsjökull.
On 30th September seismometers detected the beginning of the eruption and the following day the level of the ice over the area had risen by 15m. An ash cloud that rose over 10km was next to occur, lasting nearly a fortnight. Things quietened down with the melting ice overflowing into a nearby lake. Suddenly, on November 5th, the meltwater burst from 2km above the tongue of the glacier and all hell was let loose. A mixture of sediment, meltwater and ice formed waves 3-4m high travelling at 10kph with a total flow peak of 50,000m3. A 376m long bridge and most of a second bridge were completely destroyed and 12km of road was wrecked. Thinking positively, no one was killed, the flood didn’t reach the nearby villages and Iceland was now 7 km2 larger!
Small side roads led off from the main road, gravelly of course. We took one of these as we could see the glacier was close by and hoped to get a closer look. It was definitely worth the risk to life, limb and bike (well that was my perception anyway!) as when we got to the car park we were treated to the fantastic view of a lake with blocks of ice floating in it. We walked down to the lakeside, me slipping more than walking, to get a closer look.
Further down the road a larger lake, they call it the Glacier Lagoon, with a river coming off it had larger ice blocks. Some of these had got stuck in the river and were causing their own little ‘log jam’.
It really is difficult to describe the scenery as it’s like nothing we’ve seen before so, in the old tradition of ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, here are a few thousand words.
Our stop tonight was in the small water-side village of Hofn (roughly pronounced Hup’n) – where we had the best meal of our trip in the oddly named (to us) Pakkaus restaurant.
Our last full day and we only had about 160 miles to go. Once again we woke to brilliant sunshine, although it was a bit chilly here; probably something to do with the tons of ice just round the corner! We’d decided to stay together today as there was a bit more gravel to do and many hands make lighter work if it proved necessary to pick a bike up.
We rode alongside the sea or fjords for most of the day. Mountains on one side, water on the other. Typical Icelandic riding and beautiful.
The first section of gravel, either side of Breiðdalsvík fjord, was very strange as there was tarmac to both sides of the small community but gravel in the middle. We don’t know how Icelandic roads are funded but wondered whether they were expected to pay towards the roads and decided they didn’t want to. It wasn’t bad at all – no corrugations – and we were able to maintain a reasonable speed.
After a few hours riding it was cake and coffee time and we stopped at a lovely Swiss chalet type building advertising itself as Restaurant and Margaret’s Café. Inside there was an English couple who had been in Iceland for 3 weeks, touring in their camper van. “I’ll have apple pie and ice cream” declared John. “You might change your mind when you see the menu” the man said and a look at the variety of cakes had the rest of us drooling (John kept with his apple pie). Chocolate cake (Kevin’s choice) was “the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had” and Sonia and I really enjoyed the huge slices of marzipan and cream cake we ordered. Definitely recommended.
While we were chatting to the others we found out they’d had an adventure when they went on a glacier trip in a jeep. The jeep slid down and overturned with the man in it. It sounded like he had a very lucky escape and just goes to show that even experienced guides can sometimes get it wrong and that nature, especially on the scale it presents itself in Iceland, deserves our respect.
Before heading for our hotel we planned to visit the Icelandic Wartime museum. This was only a tiny place but was very interesting. They had many items from the 2ndworld war including German helmets and guns and a full-sized cardboard cut-out of Hitler! There were also medals and other items from Thorsteinn (Tony) Jonsson DFM who flew Hurricanes, Spitfires and Mustangs on operations ranging from the November 1942 Torch landings in North Africa to dogfights over the Normandy beachhead. He was the only Icelandic WW2 RAF pilot, being allowed in as his mother was English.
Being here during the summer, in the glorious weather that we’ve been enjoying, it was difficult to imagine what it had been like for the English soldiers who were caught in a blizzard and got lost whilst performing an exercise to see how well they’d learned their survival techniques. Most of them were rescued by a farm lad as he went out to check on his animals. He tripped over a large boulder which turned out to be one of the soldiers nearly frozen solid crawling towards the farmhouse. Unfortunately 8 soldiers died including the young lieutenant who was in charge. They are buried here on Iceland.
Our next stop was the misnamed ‘Maritime’ museum. Yes it did have lots of fishing-related items including harpoons, nets and a nice ship’s wheel and compass. Neither John nor Kevin managed to see the ‘don’t touch’ notices and had a good old play with the wheel! Upstairs was a fascinating cornucopia of items as varied as the local dentist’s equipment to sweet-making, cobbler’s, blacksmith’s and weaving equipment all dating back to the early 20th Century. Sonia could have done with the dentist’s kit as she’d lost a filling a few days ago riding over some gravel road corrugations. It was a really interesting place and deserved more than the ‘Maritime’ part of it’s name.
Finally we rode the last few miles to our hotel and our last night in Iceland.
Our last morning and we were up early as the ferry was scheduled to leave at 10. We had a short but glorious ride back towards Seyðisfjörður which meant riding back up and over the mountain again and down to the harbour where we could see the MV Norröna was already in. We hoped that meant we’d have a smooth and timely passage.
We were bored stiff on the two-day ferry home but landed on time and eventually got on the road at around 13:15. It was pouring with rain and at our first petrol stop I decided I wanted the benefit of heated gear and waterproofs. John and Sonia weren’t carrying such luxuries and needed more frequent petrol stops so we split up at that point. If we didn’t meet before we’d catch up at the German Butt Rally in a couple of weeks.
Several hundred miles down the road, and in one of life’s strange coincidences, who should walk in because they were hungry as I was queuing for food at a German service area? Yep, John and Sonia. They were going to stop for the night in The Netherlands while we intended to carry on. We arrived at The Tunnel at around 01:00 and, even though our train broke down before we’d even got on it, we were tucked up in bed by 02:00.
So to summarise our trip to Iceland. Glorious weather, brilliant roads, fantastic scenery, some really outstanding food. Kevin and I both really like volcanoes and waterfalls so we were in heaven. Would we go back? Most definitely. We’ve been round the outside of the island so next time we think we’ll fly in, rent a 4×4 (with BIG wheels John!) and explore some of the interior. Thanks John and Sonia for helping make this a special holiday.
There are more photos in the Iceland 2012 Album