„How fast does a zebra have to run before it looks gray?“
One of the last places in Europe offering abundant nature is Iceland. Sometime in places quite hard to reach, certainly not overrun by people, still breathtakingly beautiful. Our original plan was to book a flight and get a rental in Reykjavík, one which would be able to cope with terrain a normal car would have a look at and outright refuse to drive there. So after making the reservations for the flights, we found that the prices for a 4×4 were quite large, although later on we witnessed the cause for this – rentals are typically treated real bad by people and without at least some experience going off-road, they give them quite a beating.
As our gut feelings told us that this vacation might not be our only trip in this direction, we decided to buy our own car instead. The list of requirements were quite extensive and the Volkswagen Amarok we selected in the end has proven to be a real great choice. Lots of space, very comfortable ride and reasonably fast, traveling to Iceland from Switzerland is a trip crossing Germany and Denmark with a total of 1400km (870 miles) one direction.
Still we were aware that we might end up for days out of reach of a power plug, which is a challenge when you travel with a number of cameras. So apart from updating our wilderness gear, the Amarok got 2 additional batteries and a new set of wheels replacing the more street worthy tires. Plus a cover for the truck bed, making it a fairly nice luggage compartment. Although one not completely dust proof. The zebra stripes have been an extra resulting from a Photoshop session involving maybe a bottle of red wine – resulting in securing its name: The Amazebra.
The first stop on our way to Iceland was the Faroe Islands. We spent a few days there and traveling around reveals a beautiful and quiet place, although it also shows that life is not quite that simple and comfortable. Visiting some place gives a better insight to the hearts and minds of people and it is a sad observation that surprisingly unscrupulous extremist groups of so called environmentalists have given the traditional way of life on the Faroe Islands a very bad (and undeserved) image. Usually I recommend a visit to a butchery, as a reminder that the many meats in our supermarkets have quite a bloody origin as well.
Maybe people can understand that by traveling there, the income generated by tourists will help the inhabitants to make a choice about the Grindadráp. It is a controversial topic for many reasons and worthy of rational discussion.
The Eurasian Oystercatcher has won a special place in our hearts, though. There were a few right in front of our hotel room and they emit a highly particular tweet which we included into our own vocabulary.
The sheep on the Faroe Islands differ a lot from the ones on Iceland. Mainly because they were pretty ignorant of the fact that they are very hard to spot in the middle of the street during one of the several foggy times we had. Luckily we could avoid them, but one of the future extensions for the Amazebra is a bigger horn.
Not speaking Faroese, I might miss the correct translation of this sign. But somehow, it reminds me of a certain mobile device management application.
Finally we arrived in Iceland.After shopping for all the things we thought necessary for the stay, we headed to the highlands. On the way, we encountered the first waterfalls. Iceland is full of them and they range in between small and large, some are attractions where you encounter many busses filled with tourists, some will offer their splendid beauty for your eyes only. This one is a rather small one, but as this was the first stop at one we had, we were still pretty excited.
Upon entering the highlands, the landscape changed drastically. What was a green land with many farms before turned into a desert like landscape, sparsely covered with some grass or moss. And sometimes not even that. Roads turned to dirt tracks and we felt that the adventure was starting for real now.
Orientation in Iceland is rather straightforward, still there are a couple of challenges. Many of the roads are so small, the satnav system of the car will not display them any more in small or medium scale. But in large scale, the only thing displayed on screen is one singular line which does not really give you any information at all. So suddenly, we had to rely on maps again. Luckily we bought a few at the tourist information in Egilsstaðir. Also, we encountered the first F-roads, mountain roads in the highland of Iceland having a surface of loose gravel. Driving off roads or marked tracks is forbidden and rightly so, the land will show tracks from cars for decades like scars.
In the middle of nowhere, we suddenly encountered a huge dam – we found Kárahnjúkavirkjun. This hydro-electric power plant is one of the largest in Europe. In general, Iceland offers a lot of renewable energy, there is a nice quote from one of their engineers named Rikardur Rikardsson: „Now we only need coal for barbecues“. This specific plant delivers 4800 GWh every year, has many kilometers of underground tunnels and is quite an impressive sight.
Before we set up camp for the night, we had to cross our first river. In hindsight, it was not more than a small creek. The Amazebra was not impressed at all, but we were pretty excited, checking the depths, going upstream and downstream looking for how to continue our trip and generally enjoying ourselves. In the end, we liked that part of our first day so much, we decided to erect the tent here, naturally only after finding an elevated spot for the car so that a sudden flooding would not endanger it. During dinner we also encountered one of the nasty parts of Iceland’s wildlife – fleas. They remain underground whenever it is windy, but with just a calm breeze and especially in some northern areas, they are super annoying.
The highlands again changed their style the next day, we came to an area demonstrating how much volcanic activity there is on Iceland.
In the distance, we saw mount Herðubreið, part of the Vatnajökull national park. Legend considers it the throne of the Asen gods.
We were very thankful for the bridge crossing this river.
The riverside’s black sand turned into a fine mud in some areas. Standing on it with your bare feet you would slowly sink into it.
In Iceland I would not be surprised at all to meet an alien. But what looks like a prop from ‚War of the Worlds‘ was a geodetic GPS station. If you see one, don’t get too close, it will disturb the measurements.
Next we visited Askja. Nordic mythology again, it equals Asgard, home to the Æsir. Technically it is ‚just‘ a volcano. Today, the volcano turned into several lakes, the small one is Víti, the large is named Öskjuvatn. The water in the small one is so warm, you can take a very comfortable bath, but it is quite difficult to get down to it’s shore because the sides are basically nothing else than mud. Believe me, you do NOT want to take a swim in the large lake.
This is a stone. Yes, it floats. Life with it. It’s Iceland – things are a bit stranger there than somewhere else.
A Sandpiper (Calidris), a wading bird. In german, they are called „Strandläufer“, translating to „beach walker“. This one did exactly that, it walked along the lakeshore, right until where I had already set up a tripod with the camera, let me shoot some pictures, turned around and walked back. Maybe to tell it’s relatives that there are some strange tourists on the beach again. You never know.
The volcanic activity in Iceland takes many forms (and sometimes even stops air traffic all over Europe). Taking a bath in one of those would be quite deadly. But I did not feel any urge to do so anyway, the smell of sulfur is pretty strong.
Sheep! Typical representatives of the three different kind of sheep they have in Iceland: Sheep that totally ignore you, sheep that are interested and the common panic-sheep. Those two had a look at the Amazebra, but then turned out to be the kind of sheep that ignores you. Small hint for the evil photographers: If you sound your car’s horn, ignoring sheep will briefly turn into interested sheep and raise their heads so that you can take a better picture.
The famous Icelandic horses. Considered to be long-lived and hardy and very popular. Although once you export one, they are not allowed to return, Icelandic laws forbid the import of horses. Those two have been delighted to see us.
Traveling on the highlands is strictly regulated and really just allowed for proper 4×4 vehicles. No matter what advertisers will try to tell you, this is where it counts and an Audi Quattro is not an offroader. We saw one being pulled out of a river, once the doors opened you could witness how tightly the doors are sealed by looking at all the water flowing out of the car. Many Icelandic people will categorize tourists by the cars they drive. Most are considered „Toyota Yaris“, only a respectable 4×4 is treated as a proper car. First year in Iceland, the Amazebra was just barely qualifying as a proper car (the stripes luckily helped).
Now this is one of the proper waterfalls. And no tourists, the place is hard to reach.
The Amazebra is confronted with some bad weather. For us, that simply meant driving into a different direction, we had no plan where to go whatsoever. Which was clever, all over Iceland you will encounter beautiful sights so it does not really matter where you go (apart from some must-see places). The weather can be nasty, but an Icelandic proverb is telling you what to do whenever there is bad weather: „Just wait for 20 minutes“.
Not only the weather, also the landscape changes fast.
During our travel on Iceland we crossed many rivers. Some of them looked large and menacing but turned out to be quite harmless. Some looked easy enough and turned out to be ridden with large rocks shaking the car left and right heavily. In the end, I checked all the rivers by wading into them, looking for the larger stones and trying to find a good way to cross them. I knew as well that the Amazebra can handle water reaching my kneecaps. In the end I did not bother any more changing clothes, I just had a pair of sandals (with properly profiled soles) and short trousers. As the water usually was quite cold, I was very happy about the seat heating of the Amazebra.
In Switzerland, the Amazebra is considered a large car. In the US, it would be considered a small truck only. But in Iceland, it was dwarfed by the large vehicles running around. Those are huge and really do not need to stop checking for riverbeds or other obstacles. Their rescue vehicles are sometimes even larger and very impressive. This one broke down so naturally, we offered to tow them (yes, this is just a joke). But talking to those people turned out to be very interesting, all of them a volunteers. So please treat them with respect or donate some money. They do hard work taking care of the tourists.
There are sunsets in Iceland in summer. But they take a real long time and more or less morph into sunrises directly after.
One of the must-see spots in Iceland is Geysir. And the other geysirs, although the only really relevant is Strokkur which erupts fairly regularly every 5-10 minutes. If you go there, do not place yourself into the empty area of the crowd of people around it. This is the direction the wind blows and you will get very, very wet. The pictures here are not very representative, as the website is set to display horizontal format only.
We also walked onto one of the glaciers. Turned out to be a lot of Ice. Not really interesting if you cannot get to a break in, a cave or similar. But if you get to one of those areas, be careful, the ice is not stable.
The gravel roads are dirty. Meaning your car will get dirty as well. Inside of the cabin, we were protected nicely from all the dust and dirt which was important because all the camera stuff was in there, too. But even though we installed a cover to the truck bed, this area was not dust proof. Everything there got real dirty. Half of the grocery had to be dumped, our clothes were all full of dust as well. We had some expedition worthy bags with us, but that did not help at all. Lesson learned, you need something like a Zarges Box (they are available in IP65 „dustproof“ standard). We bought them right after this trip.
In the western part of Iceland, the landscape was completely different than on the highlands.
First of August. Swiss National Day. I still have the German passport, but feel at home in Switzerland and think myself being fairly well integrated. So one thing I insisted to pack was the Swiss flag (fun fact, the one in front of the United Nations in New York was wrong until recently – the Swiss flag is a square). Plus a bottle of french champagne (the good stuff and easy to be spotted on the picture). The infrastructure we had for camping was pretty basic (shopping after the trip made some outdoor stores very happy), especially because we only had one stove. Meaning you need to cook everything in sequence. And no sieve for the noodles as well, so sometimes you had to do them twice (as I said, very happy stores).
Around Landmannalaugar, in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.
Instead of going directly to the national route 1, we decided to take a right and travel the F210. This road does take you very close to the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and is just breathtakingly beautiful. But it is also one of the most brutal roads we had, it took us 9 hours and we felt quite relieved when we finished that passage.
Still well worth it!
Did I mention it was really beautiful? But please don’t go there with a Toyota Yaris. If you do not know whether your car is a Toyota Yaris or not, don’t go there. Just at the end of the road we had an Audi traveling the opposite way. I still feel bad I did not stop them and asked them to turn around.
Can you see the troll?
Going back to the west we used the 1. Paved roads are actually quite desirable after some time feeling like riding on earthquake setting. In the south, it brings you close to the seaside with several spots having large populations of seabirds.
Best ones by far, the puffins.
Jökulsárlón, the famous glacier lagoon.
The last picture I selected for this travelogue. And simply one of the best pictures I ever did. Right out of the camera, no post-processing other than resizing and watermarking. A remarkable sight.