Journal of a 23-day Icelandic road trip

Monday August 3

We awoke at 7 am after our first night in Iceland. The light was soft, the sky ever so slightly overcast. We went downstairs for a gargantuan breakfast, prepared by Monique, and laid out in a pretty little room cozily decorated with photographs of Icelandic scenery.

The doorbell rang at 9 am on the dot, and I opened the door to find a hefty fellow with the blondest of blond hair, and the bluest of blue eyes. He introduced himself as an employee of Geysir car rental. Our ride had arrived!

Although I glanced outside, I didn’t see the Hummer H2, but the guy told me it was parked just up the street. I invited him in so we could sort out the rental papers, which we did quite quickly, requiring little more than a signature at the bottom of a document.

The sun was shining when we went back out, and the man from Geysir took me to the car, which was parked a hundred meters away.

My apprehension was justified: the car was enormous, gleaming, and quite impressive. Fortunately, I drove more than 6,000 km (3,700 miles) in a Ford Explorer in the U.S. last year, an experience which had prepared me well for this fresh challenge.

"You'll see, it's a fantastic car to drive,” my friend from Geysir reassured me.

Then he disappeared, leaving me alone at the wheel of this behemoth. I started her up somewhat timidly, listening to the typical purring of her V8 engine. It wasn’t that loud just sitting there, turning over, but once I revved her up she roared! That was one big engine under the hood.

I drove carefully to the guesthouse and parked out front. Monique appeared, with Emilie in tow, and said: “Wow! That’s one super jeep you’ve got there!”

I took a souvenir snapshot of Monique and Emilie. We’d spent very little time in this guesthouse, yet were already quite attached to it, and promised to return. We saw Monique again, as you’ll find out later, and were fortunate to have a bit more time to chat with her, and hear all about her incredible life.

We folded down the rear seats to load our baggage, and were reassured to see that there was a completely flat floor underneath. This was really important, because it meant we’d be able to sleep on it, and wouldn’t have to waste time pitching and striking our tent every day (we brought one with us just in case).

We crossed the center of Reykjavik, under the curious gaze of passersby. This car had real pulling power, which wasn’t surprising, since there are few of these exceptional vehicles in Iceland. That said, it pales besides some of the monster 4x4s we came across on our travels.

We left town on Route 1, heading for Selfoss, where we stopped to fill the cool box.

THJORSA VALLEY.

We turned onto Route 30, then Route 32, driving alongside the Thjorsa river, Iceland’s longest. Below, you can see one of Iceland’s famous direction signs. Somewhat abstruse at first glance, you very soon get used to them, and they have the advantage of displaying numerous bits of useful information.

We had absolutely no idea of what awaited us as we drove along this road. Our goal was to see some waterfalls on either side of the river. There was a sign pointing to the Hagi viewpoint, and we discovered this magnificent spot overlooking the valley. We marked the occasion by sampling our very first sandwich of ham and sliced bread, our basic sustenance for the rest of the trip!

The proud snowy summit in the distance is none other than the famous Hekla volcano.

Then we got back on the road, since we still had many things to see before getting to Landmannalaugar that evening.

We started off with our first waterfall! Hjálparfoss doesn’t disappoint, boasting a sumptuous setting of basalt columns that split the river in two as it gushes over. What more could one ask for than this fine spectacle?

There were a few families of Icelanders picnicking, but above all bathing. Children splashed in the water – you can see three of them in the photograph, close to the falls. It goes without saying that the water must have been quite chilly.

I set up my tripod and took a few photographs, but the sky was already darkening with menacing clouds. Still, I’d commenced my collection of Icelandic photographs, and with a good one too!

We drove on to the historic Stöng farm, which was destroyed by an eruption of Hekla in the Middle Ages. Nature was bursting with extraordinary colors all along the way.

Green and yellow suddenly gave way to orangey reds.

Finally, we wended our way to two waterfalls I absolutely didn‘t want to miss: Háifoss and Granni. I’d not yet seen any pictures of them, which made the spectacle unfolding before us even more fantastic.

We inched our way to the cliff edge. The rain was now falling even harder, the wind was rising, and I was having great difficulty keeping my equipment dry, but I managed to take a few nice photographs, including this one. The canyon is very deep, making this the second tallest waterfall in Iceland, at 122 meters (400 feet)! Haifoss is the one nearest the camera, Granni the one in the baackground. Can you see those four tiny white dots on the left? They’re sheep!

Onwards on Route 32, then Route 26, before finally getting to the legendary F208 track toward the tormented landscapes of the no less legendary Landmannalaugar.

We filled up the gas tank at Hrauneyjar, and I bought one of the very tempting chocolate/vanilla ice creams that seemed to be so popular with the many customers. It was absolutely huge! We couldn’t finish it, even between the two of us. “Icelanders must be born with quite an appetite,” I thought to myself.

Here we are on the F208, a track of black sand cutting through a sublimely beautiful landscape, tinged here and there with fluorescent green. We met few other travelers along the way.

LANDMANNALAUGAR . SOUTHERN ICELAND.

We were now very close to our destination, with just 5 kilometers (3 miles) to go, so we stopped for a break, and to admire the magical view over Frostastaðavatn lake.

A lunar landscape stretched around us; the volcanic ground beneath our feet ripped open. It was around 8 °C (47 °F), the wind was blowing strong, and the light was simply incredible. This was it: the magic of Iceland had us in its spell.

+ Note for readers of the eROADBOOK: have a look at the ULTRAPANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPH No. 1 / 20 +

In the distance is Ljótipollur, the water-filled crater that I planned on exploring the next day. You can see the blood-red slopes that make it so sublime.

Now we were close to Landmannalaugar, and our first ford. It was small, but quite deep, so some drivers didn’t dare attempt the crossing. Unfortunately, there was nobody in front to show us how it’s done; and to cap it all, a few people were lining the edge of the ford, camera in hand, to photograph our attempt!

I gripped the steering wheel firmly, the nose of the car plunged into the water, then it rose up just as quickly, and we were across without mishap. Phew! Our first ford crossed OK!

We found a lot of other cars when we drove onto the campground, and so I wandered around a bit to have a look at them. I particularly liked the look of the Land Rover Defenders (which I preferred to the Hummer). Quite a few people followed the tradition of placing a flag on the roof to show their nationality. I walked up to some British people, took the photograph below, and had a brief chat with the couple who owned the yellow Defender.

They were very nice, and explained that every summer they head off to explore a different country in their Defender. Last year, it was Africa. I noticed a sticker on the rear door: “Your car goes fast? Mine goes everywhere!

It was already late, and very cold (around 8 °C / 47 °F), wet, and extremely windy.
Not the best conditions to get ready for our first night outdoors. This was when I realized that I would need a good hour every evening to download the day’s photographs onto my disk drive, recharge all of the batteries (which involved a forest of cables), transfer all our bags onto the front seats, attempt to heat up our dinner in the cooking pot (not an easy feat in that wind!), then roll out our sleeping bags on the back floor of the Hummer.

We wolfed down a Chinese soup, I set the alarm for 7 am (since we were planning a long hike for the following morning), and crossed my fingers for clement weather that would let me take a few good photographs.

We turned in around 11 pm, and soon fell into a deep sleep.

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