Features

Great escape Iceland: Natural wonder

28 May 2016 by Jenny Southan

Jenny Southan explores Iceland’s breathtaking southern region on a road trip to remember.

I am standing behind a waterfall in a hollow beneath a cliff, cold spray dampening my face, seeping into my jacket and jeans. Somewhere up above me is the infamous (and unpronounceable) Eyjafjallajokull volcano. I’m not really dressed for an outdoor expedition like this because the airline lost my luggage, but I buy a woollen hat saying “Iceland” at a nearby log cabin selling hand-knitted jumpers, and hope for the best.

The dramatic 60-metre-tall waterfall of Seljalandsfoss is about an hour and 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik, on the south coast. It’s an easy drive on Route 1, which is also known as the Ring Road because it runs in a 1,332km loop around the entire island. Even just outside the city, the landscape is alien, other-planetary. Gnarled black lava fields stretch out on either side, and nothing seems to grow except for swathes of velvety green moss that attempt to cushion the sharp ridges of the volcanic rocks.

Further on, the countryside softens to flat fields, where an unusual breed of short-legged horse roams, nibbling hummocks of dry grass that look like Donald Trump wigs. The weather seems to change minute by minute – low cloud blocking out the horizon is broken by fistfuls of corporeal light to reveal blue sky. Then comes rain, a rainbow and ominous freezing fog. Steep valleys give way to endless plateaus interspersed with rural townships, petrol stations and bleak malls.

If you’re eagle-eyed, you’ll spot traditional turf houses – real-life hobbit holes with doors set into hillsides. Built by humans, I can’t help thinking they would be better suited for habitation by elves – which more than half of Iceland’s 330,000 residents believe exist. It’s not uncommon for construction work to be halted for fear of disturbing them – two years ago, a planned highway was put on hold to allow an “elf chapel”, in the form of a giant rock, to be moved to a new location by crane.

After setting up base camp in one of Reykjavik’s chic boutique hotels (I’d recommend 101 Hotel, a member of Design Hotels, or the elegant Hotel Borg), you can hit the road in a number of directions. Heading 100km east on the Golden Circle Tour will bring you to the boiling fountain geyser of Strokkur, which explodes out of the ground every eight minutes, as well as the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall. You can also hike through Thingvellir National Park (come at night in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights) or dive through the Silfra fissure, an underwater gap between the submerged continental plates of North America and Eurasia.

We set off for Vik, the most southerly town in Iceland. No traveller will forget the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010, which created an ash cloud so great that flights were cancelled for weeks, so it seems fitting to pay a visit. Now covered by a 100 sqkm ice cap, Seljalandsfoss waterfall sits right beneath it. A little further on is Skogafoss, where the Skoga River cascades over the edge of a 60-metre cliff in slow motion, its mist dissipating seawards in the form of a gentle, shallow stream.

From here, it’s a 6km drive to Solheimajokull glacier, where we gather for a 3.5-hour trek with Icelandic Mountain Guides (£84; mountainguides.is). Hiking boots can be provided for those not wearing them, and group leaders Ben and August equip everyone with ice picks and crampons.

“The glacier retreats 50 metres a year,” August says as we traverse a winding shale path towards the ice. To the left is a lake with dirty icebergs. “A few years ago this lagoon wasn’t here – 70 years ago, that mountain would have been unseen,” he says. “This is nature.” However, the speed at which the erosion is occurring has been directly connected to global warming.

Crampons are great – you feel like a superhero scaling the otherwise impossibly slippery ridges of the “glacial tongue”. Still, there are plenty of perils to be aware of. I’d heard about crevasses, and there are lots of them to look out for, but even more sinister are the moulins. These well-like shafts are formed by meltwater that bores through the ice sheet, creating vertical blue holes sometimes hundreds of metres deep. We stop to gather around one and hear an underground river rushing far below. “We would never advise anyone to explore the glacier alone,” August says.

Looking across this strange icescape, I think I could be on the moon. We climb into ice caves and tunnels, cold, smooth and turquoise, their state one of transience as they drip away to nothing in the sunlight. What’s odd, though, are the streaks of black that run through the frozen water. August says this is ash from the 1918 volcanic eruption of Katla: “It travels inside the glacier until it has melted and the ash is left on the surface. In 20 years, all will be gone and the glacier will be white.” That is, unless it blows again.

Katla is an active volcano that usually erupts every 50 to 80 years, so it’s running late. “Experts are getting good at predicting eruptions – one indicator is low-surface earthquakes in the area, another is if the water smells,” August says. He explains that ash clouds are only formed by eruptions from beneath an ice cap. “When Katla goes, it will be worse than Eyjafjallajokull.”

To a soundtrack of Sigur Ros, I drive 50 minutes to Reynishverfisvegur, next door to Vik. It’s here that we finally arrive at the sea, where frightening “sneaker” waves have been known to take people from the black beaches. It’s a scene of extraordinary natural beauty; at the base of the cliffs are a cluster of hexagonal basalt columns that double as seats or steps to climb. Also here is Halsanefshellir cave, the Black Beach café, and the perfect viewing point for Dyrholaey, a stone arch that dips into the ocean further along the coast. There is a puffin colony here in summer.

We get back to Reykjavik for a late 10pm dinner, just as the April sun is going down. Fish Market restaurant specialises in Icelandic fish (and minke whale, sadly) served with an Asian twist, and unusual craft beers – I can’t resist ordering the limited edition Surtur Imperial, an unfiltered, smoked sheep-dung stout. Black as Guinness, it tastes like a farmyard.

In the morning, the only way to relieve the pain of aching limbs (and a very peculiar hangover) is a few hours in the Blue Lagoon (bluelagoon.com), an 8,700 sqm natural geothermal spa set among lava fields a short drive from the airport. Two new coves were added recently, while a 60-room luxury hotel will open next year. We find the pale, milky blue water is warm – hot, even, in places – and apply white silica mud facemasks before swimming slowly to the bar for a cold glass of wine. Every stress evaporated – even my lost luggage doesn’t matter anymore.

Driving in Iceland

Unless you want to take coaches, hiring a car is the best way to get around. You might want to hire a 4x4 but don’t go offroad – it’s illegal. In general, conditions in the south are smooth, flat and traffic-free; some sections are gravelly. Mountain roads are often windy and most are closed from November until June. Look up GPS coordinates in advance for locating waterfalls and glaciers.

Daily rentals with Avis from Keflavik airport start from £150 in June.

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