Ring Of Fire: Iceland
Iceland’s wild interior turns barrenness into an art form. Scant of population and bereft of the usual clutter you find in European nations – railways, motorways, rubbish tips – it offers instead steaming fumaroles, painterly volcanoes, teeming waterfalls and growling glaciers. It also offers one of the world’s greatest road trips – a 1,333-kilometer journey round the edge of the country, via the legendary Route 1.
Lancashire born Chris Moss is an expert on Argentina and has visited every South American country at least once. Having spent over a decade in the Argentine capital, he returned to the UK and now writes ostarnline for The Guardian, The Telegraph, Wanderlust and Condé Nast Traveller magazines.
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Warehouses and factories, houses and supermarkets, and a traffic jam of, oh, five or six cars along the bay north of Keflavik airport tried to dupe me into thinking I was visiting an ordinary country. But intuition warned me that Reykjavik might be my one real chance to enjoy some serious urban treats.
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After parking up at my hotel, I wandered off around the old town, visiting the woollens shops, the statue of Leif Eriksson – the man who discovered Vinland – probably Newfoundland – at the beginning of the eleventh century, the cathedral and a brace of cosy coffee bars. I bought an absurdly expensive sweater – the seagull motif got me – and then followed the music.
There was a sort of festival in the port area, in the shadow of the stunning Harpa concert hall. Posses of Icelandic families were cruising the beer bars, food stalls, craft and book stores, but I gravitated towards a live stage where a thrash band was summoning the Norse gods and trolls to come down and do their worst. It was wild, edgy, hilarious music – and the perfect overture for a long drive into Iceland’s pristine interior.
North To The Snaefellsjokull Glacier
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The next morning I set off north on Route 1, Iceland’s iconic orbital. Where other ring roads go around cities, this one goes around a great empty nowhere-in-particular and gets to about 66 degrees north, within a snowball throw of the Arctic Circle.
It was autumn, so I had daylight from 8am till almost 6.30pm. The roads north were free of traffic, the skies free of pollution and the landscapes free of clutter. From the fishing village of Grundarfjordur, I drove off Route 1 to explore the Snaefellsnes peninsula, a quiet wonderland of lava fields, craters and mysterioys fjords, with the Snaefellsjokull glacier looming over the whole. This mythic setting was one of the inspirations for Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.
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The long drive to Akureyi – on one of Iceland’s “busiest roads”, which meant I overtook once in three hours and encountered no tailbacks at all – took me across grassy plains, past stands of birch and pine, over tundra-like heaths, and into lava fields flecked with patches of deep-green moss.
I stopped at a roadside restaurant to eat a lunch of pickled herrings and cured meats. Behind the building I encountered a small herd of the famous Icelandic ponies – stocky, solid-looking and fluffy, perfectly formed for the uneven terrain and frosty winters.
Akureyi To Lake Myvatn
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With its ice-free harbour and generally mild climate, Akureyi has long been an importance centre for fishing. Home to just 18,000 people it is – amazingly – Iceland’s second city, and has more hip cafés, restaurants and nightlife than places five times its size. It was also handy for the spectacular Godafoss (“waterfall of the gods“), famous as the place where the island’s conversion to Christianity began back in the year 1000.
On the Akureyi-Lake Myvatn section of the road, I passed the glistening Eyjafjordur – the longest fjord in iceland, surrounded by a high wall formed by shifting glaciers and beautiful pastures heavily grazed in summer by cattle and sheep. The roadside was strewn with plastic-wrapped bundles of hay, set aside for the harsh, dark winters and small hamlets here and there.
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At Lake Myvatn I lost myself for an hour photographing the subtle imprints of ancient craters in the earth and the birdlife – I spotted only the most common, the tufted ducks and greater scaup, feeding and bathing in the frigid dark blue water. I took a dip in the milky waters of the nearby Nature Baths, less famous than the Blue Lagoon but in an equally arresting setting.
The drive onward took me past fumaroles and mudpools at Namaskard – you’re never very far from geothermal spectacles in Iceland – and took two northward detours to see the horseshoe-shaped Asbyrgi Canyon and Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall.
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The Wild East
The Lake Myvatn-Egilsstadir leg took me across a highland desert, past isolated farms with buildings made from turf buildings – even here I found charming cafés for my leg-stretching pitstops – and then past a couple of slender fjords, stunningly beautiful against a blue sky softened by lenticular clouds.
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After a night’s rest in Egilsstadir – and a hearty feast of venison stew – Route 1 became a genuine coast (and fjord) road, with gorgeous scenery, beaches and more birdlife. I joined a group on a jeep-and-snowmobile-and hiking tour of Vatnajokull – Europe’s largest glacier. The hiking bit was actually very easy, but the environment was harsh and the mountains black and forbidding under leaden skies.
Glaciers, teeming waterfalls, blue-hued icebergs on black sand beach, basalt sculptures, towering clifftops: I got all these on the drive along Iceland’s southern edge. When the light dimmed at dusk, my whole world turned monochrome. I reminded myself that I was riding along the top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, slowly opening a cleft in the earth’s crust at a rate of two to three centimetres a year. There is something powerfully elemental about Iceland and you sense it wherever you roam.
Detour To Gullfoss And Geysir
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From Hveragerdi I took an important detour – via Iceland’s so-called Golden Circle route – to see the Thingvellir National Park, where Iceland’s first parliament met – the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir, source of bubbling hot springs and of the name we all use for hot water spurting out of the earth’s crust. The Great Geysir – which used to blow to a height of 70 metres – has been pretty much dormant since 1916, but its neighbour, Strokkur, was blasting boldly in the twilight.
I spent a night in a lodge close to the geysers and was lucky enough to catch an Aurora Borealis. A crescent moon meant conditions weren’t perfect, but I was still able to observe a rippling blue and green light on the horizon. Sometimes when I thought I was seeing the Northern Lights I was actually staring into space and going a bit dizzy with the effort.
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After straining my eyes for an hour in sub-zero temperatures I walked back towards bed, only to be startled by the sound of rushing water. I panicked ever so slightly before realising there were fumaroles all over the area, and one of the nearby geysers was whooshing every few minutes.
The final furlongs, from Hveragerdi to Reykjavik, took me along a craggy coast and on to the bald volcanic Reykjanes Peninsula. There were further hot springs and fumaroles in Krisuvik and I celebrated my loop with an hour in the Blue Lagoon – and a welcome half of Viking beer – before returning to Reykjavik for a final night’s stay in the cool, convivial capital.
Fire and ice… they have become clichés of travel promotion, but in Iceland they are there – really, wonderfully, ubiquitously, in the raw. I’m glad the authorities still call the road plain old Route 1, as there’s something very cool and understated about Icelanders. I suppose it comes from being born and raised and commuting to work in some of the weirdest and most wondrous landscapes on the planet. I’m not sure if I want to live on the lonelier bends of Route 1, but I reckon an annual loop would serve as a kind of mindfulness therapy – after all, this is where the world comes from, and also where it is going.