Journal of a 23-day Icelandic road trip

Saturday August 8

We woke up at 6.30 am. As you can see, we had the same weather for the seventh day in a row. The ground was waterlogged, the sky was very low, and there was a lot of wind. Clearly my wish had not come true.

So, to Lakagigar or not to Lakagigar? That was the question.

We decided to head toward the F206 anyway, setting out for the track at 10 am. Where there’s a will there’s a way!

TRACK F206, ICELANDIC HIGHLANDS

But very soon we came to this: a real river, which was deep, fast flowing, extremely wide, and in two parts as well! We had a Hummer, it’s true, but almost no experience of this kind of crossing, and it seemed impossible to us, let me tell you.

Where on earth is the bridge?

We tested the first part until we got to solid ground in the middle, but then came the problem: large eddies, suggesting depth. The wind and the pouring rain only added to our fear, for we were alone, with no one to show us the way, and we started to wonder that if we were alone then it was perhaps because the crossing was impossible? Fancy finding yourselves stuck in a riverbed in the middle of nowhere? No, neither did we.

The thing was: terrified as we were at the idea of making the crossing, we felt we couldn’t just give up like that. So Emilie decided to make a trial crossing on foot, despite the outside temperature of 6 °C (42 °F). I could hardly believe it, but she was already changing into her shorts. She looked at me, took a deep breath and got out of the Hummer in her bare feet. She waded into the water, nearly falling over several times, for the riverbed of pebbles rolling under the current was very unstable.

Emilie had only gone a few meters from the bank, and the water was already 60 cm (25 inches) deep! She turned back and climbed into the car, hollering to get some warmth back, her legs reddened by the cold. As courageous as she was, her attempt made us doubt even more.

Suddenly a miracle happened. While we were still hesitating on our piece of ground, a simple blue Bedford van (which you can see on the right of the photograph below) came barreling past us flat out and drove straight into the water without even slowing down. The water slowed its progress and made the crossing somewhat laborious, but it reached the other bank and continued on its way, without its occupants giving us so much as a backward glance!

A 4x4 followed very closely behind it, so we took advantage of this good fortune to follow in their wake.

Done! The track led onward into some hallucinatory scenery.

It was raining so much that the track was waterlogged, and there were some gigantic puddles of water that I took great pleasure in driving through at full speed (like a child, I quite admit).

It was great fun when the water crashed down onto the roof of the car, but actually quite dangerous, since the muddy water obscured my view for a few seconds, which could be have been rather unpleasant if I was approaching a bend.

My co-pilot and I decided to give a codename to these puddles of mud from then on: “Camel Trophy”.

We arrived at the “Laki Loop” around 1 pm. The place was deserted. We parked next to the sign indicating the various hikes, and ate our sandwiches. The weather was awful, with wind and a hailstorm, so we didn’t dare leave the car.

But a man looking just like a Viking came and knocked on our window. I opened it in disbelief, and found a Ranger standing there, whose car we hadn’t seen. With hardly a word, he gave me leaflet with a little map on it (see above), and strict instructions not to drive off-road, since that would cause irreparable damage to the vegetation.

I thanked the man, and he left in silence, driving off in his car, which was shaken by the storm. “He’s got a crazy job,” I said to myself, here, at the end of the world, one worthy of the hotel caretaker in The Shining.

LAKAGIGAR, ICELANDIC HIGHLANDS

But what is Laki?

Quite simply, it’s the biggest volcanic eruption of all time.

On June 8, 1783, a gigantic 25 km (15 mile) fissure comprising 130 craters exploded, then spewed a continuous flow of lava for more than a year. It had a volume of 15 km³ (3½ cubic miles) and reached heights of 800 to 1,400 meters (875 to 1,530 yards). Eight million tons of fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide created a fog that stretched right across Europe.

The poisonous cloud arrived over Berlin on June 18, then over Paris on June 20, and had some dramatic consequences. It caused the death of a quarter of the Icelandic population, then of 23,000 people in the United Kigdom over the following days. Major climatic changes were noted, particularly a series of extremely tough winters, which caused another 8,000 deaths in the United Kingdom, where it was said that it was so cold that ‘the crows froze in flight.’

Further afield, North America had the coldest winter in recorded history in 1784, and there was a measurable climatic impact in Asia and Africa, including an unusual drop in the level of the Nile!

The catastrophic harvests, and resulting famines across Europe suggest that the Laki volcanic eruption may have contributed to the French Revolution of 1789! How unbelievable is that?

More details are available from Wikipedia here.

There are a number of hikes through this chaotic landscape. Unfortunately, the weather obliged us to undertake a relatively short one, meaning we couldn’t get high enough to admire the chain of volcanoes.

I got a really intense feeling as we walked through the greatest cataclysm in modern history. Some craters were filled with water, as you can see here.

Other craters have formed crevasses and caves that you can explore.

This photograph shows the scar in the Earth’s crust.

We then took the car to do the famous “Laki Loop”, a circular track of black sand that runs through the indescribable landscape of the lava field.

We now understood the Ranger’s warnings. Many people treat this place as a playground, and you can see hills forever gashed by 4x4 tires, for the ground is covered by a very fragile layer of fluorescent green lichen that dies and disappears into the mud as soon as you even walk on it.

But it was already 4.30 pm, and high time we took the F206 to return to civilization!

We came across the 4x4 from this morning! It was stuck behind this bus that had stopped just after the ford. Yes, buses really do come this far! We sat still for 10 minutes, then decided to cross and see what was happening.

The bus hadn’t punctured, but a stone had got wedged between its double wheels as it crossed the ford, which risked bursting the tires.

So I went to have a chat with the Italian couple in the 4x4. She was a true Italian lady, and even here she was all dolled up, with makeup, a shiny jacket and Diesel jeans :)

But they were real adventurers, having come all the way from Italy in their own vehicle, completing the trip to Iceland in just four days!

Their car was incredibly well equipped. It even had an articulated arm for a laptop! “We downloaded all the maps before we came; it’s really practical,” she told me with a smile.

They’d already been waiting for 45 minutes, and their patience had run out, so we decided to follow them and drive around the bus, as delicate a maneuver as that was.

 

Around 5.30 pm, we turned off to this little car park to go and see the Fjadrargljufur gorges formed by the River Fjadra. Unfortunately, it was already too late and the weather was too bad for us to explore it properly, so we had to content ourselves with this vertiginous view over the canyon...

 

...and the sumptuous Fagrifoss waterfall, which is one of my favorites.

Further on, the river quietly follows its course.

But it was time for fun and frolics again, as we arrived at this morning’s ford! Now we had to cross it in the opposite direction. We were some 500 meters (550 yards) further down this time, and we saw a bus stuck in the middle of the river, a little way upstream, right where we’d crossed that morning!

We summoned up our courage, and Emilie suggested that she cross the river on foot so as to be able to capture the scene for posterity. These images are therefore thanks to her.

But I broke out in a cold sweat when she stumbled right in the middle of the river, for her wellbeing of course, but also for the Canon 5D Mark II she was holding and which she managed to keep out of the water! Without it, the photographic adventure would have ended here.

So here’s what a ford crossing looks like from the outside:

A very chilly Emilie got back in the H2, and we continued down Track F206 toward Route 1.

But this day wasn’t over, for despite the exhaustion of six hours of track, we had planned on driving to one of the most beautiful places in the world, Jökulsárlón glacier lake, at the foot of the Vatnajökull glacier, around 130 kilometers away. The aim was to be there for sunrise, at around six in the morning.

The weather was…well…I lack the adjectives to describe it.

We passed several phantasmagoric glacial tongues in the fog.

It was 9 pm when we reached this suspension bridge. We had arrived.

We parked here, and decided to sleep in this no man’s land, lost in the mist, facing the Jökulsárlón glacier. The alarm was set for 6 am.

Before turning in for the night, I wandered down to the edge of the lake, fascinated by the spectacle of these enormous blocks of ice sliding silently across the water like phantom ships.

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