Iceland 2000

Part 1

From July, 13th to August, 4th, I was in Iceland. Compared to the last couple of vacations, which were 'hit and run' sort of trips, this one was a long vacation. Which also made it a bit harder to write this stuff. On short vacation there is usually some 'main theme' and I can write mostly about that and then hang on the other stuff as side remarks to that. This time it was a mix between a lot of different elements, some good, some worrisome, so the narrative will be a bit aimless.

If there's one 'main theme' emerging, it's probably "Don't worry, it's a vacation. It won't be that bad. Things will turn out right." (Followed closely by "A speed of 57 km/h on a gravel road is too high." and "Rivers are not symmetrical.") But more about that later.

The trip took me through the interior of iceland and along the northern and southern part of the ring road. (See map.) Basically the trip started along the green line (until the car crashed, which is why the line stops in the middle of not very much) and then continued along the red and blue line (starting out red at the beginning of the trip and changing to blue while the trip progresses).

Route through Iceland

The flight to Iceland was uneventful. The flight was crowded, but on time. The weather in Iceland was cool, but not cold, with some good views of the coast on the approach to Iceland an a cloudless sky over the area of Keflavik and Reykjavik. I get out of the plane, short lines at passport controls, on to baggage retrieval, my bag is the second that comes out, a great start to a vacation.

I go through customs and look for someone who will give me the keys to the rented car and my accomodation vouchers. (Up to that point I have only a generic 'Icland Vacation' voucher from my travel agent. Someone is supposed to meet me at the airport and exchange that voucher for the car and the actual vouchers and flight tickets for the vacation.)

Nobody there.

Great. Stranded at the airport in Iceland, with nowhere to go and no car to get there.

Don't panic.

I take an other look at the people standing there, holding up signs with names and travel company logos and find one I haven't seen before, which turns out to be the right one. He just arrived, since he didn't expect me to get through passport control, baggage retrieval and customs that fast. I relax. It's a vacation. Stay calm. Don't plan things by the minute. Start thinking in terms of hours. No problems here, just a five minute misunderstanding. (Yes, I know it's an fairly uninteresting episode, but it's strange how many "what if" scenarios ran through my head during the few minutes I was standing there. From "Where is the phone number of the travel agencies representative in Iceland?" over "Do I actually know which car rental agency I am supposed to get my car from?" to the more hysteric "Do I actually know that the travel agency I bought the trip from is leggit? I contacted them only via e-mail and got only a flight ticket to Iceland and a handwritten voucher. What if it's just a mail address and a bank account and I'm stranded here with a worthless piece of paper?" - somehow I was still in "problem solving mode" and not in "enjoy your vacation mode", which is probably a good sign how much I needed a vacation.)

So I get my car, sign the paper that says I'm basically responsible for all things that can plausibly happen to it, while the insurance company is responsible only for things that are fairly unlikely to happen. A paper that will scare me for the rest of my vacation, but fortunatly turns out to be mostly harmless. I drive to Reykjavik (which is about 30 miles from Kaflavik airport), it's about midnight, the full moon is hanging low over an odd volcanic landscape, the place looks alien, I'm starting to enjoy my vacation.

When I arrive in Reykjavik I find the street where my 'guesthouse' is fairly fast. My first night in Iceland will be at 'Guesthouse Lilja' in Ofanleiti Street. I drive down the street, look for the number, find the house. - It's not a guesthouse. It's a normal appartment building. No sign saying 'guesthouse' or 'Lilja'. I walk around the building, hoping that there might be a guesthouse behind it. I check the street (which is fairly short) for other guesthouses (assuming a wrong house number). I go back to the appartment building. I try the door, which is unlocked. I am hoping for a reception, or some kind of 'Guesthouse Lilja on the top two floors - ring here' sign. I only find letterboxes, a couple of door bells, a second door to the stairway (locked) and the usual stuff in an nordic appartment building entrance (bikes, prams). This is clearly not a guesthouse, but just a building where people live. I go through the names, starting to assume that someone might be renting his appartment as a 'guesthouse', but none of it says anything about a guesthouse. There is however someone whose first name is 'Lilja' (which is a fairly common first name there). Is it a really good idea to ring up someone at 1am and ask her whether she has a guesthouse? So I go back to my car, re-check my vouchers, make sure (again) that I am at the right place (Could the guesthouse be in Keflavik and not in Reykjavik?) and start to wonder whether I should just sleep in the car. A couple of people park beside me and start to go into another house. I ask them whether they speak English. They do and I ask them whether they know a 'Guesthouse Lilja' around here or whether they know if someone in that building over there rents out appartments to tourists. They have no idea, but they suggest that I should look for someone named Lilja in that building. I tell them that there is someone, but with no hint of having a guesthouse. They tell me that people sometimes rent rooms in their own appartment and that guesthouse might be a bad translation of the Icelandic word, which might mean guesthouse as well as guestroom.

So I go back to that house, press the doorbell for Lilja ands it turns out that she's an elderly lady who rents out rooms in her appartment. So at around 1:30 am I am finally in my room and starting to wonder about my vacation. So far I have been standing around twice, lost without any idea what to do next, feeling left in the lurch by my travel company. On the other hand, there has never been any real problem and this is supposed to be an "Self-guided four-wheel-drive adventure", so I can't expect to be taken by hand and guided every step of the way. If I wanted that, I could have opted for a guided bus tour, where they tell you where to get out of the bus, how many minutes you have to take your pictures, stuff like this. But then again, I usually travel alone and I never had any problems. I'm unsure whether the travel agency is sloppy (just putting the full name of the person who rents out the room instead of 'Guesthouse' would have helped, or a simple hint that 'Guesthouse' can also be just a room in a private appartment), or whether I've just booked over-organized trips so far and am becoming nervous with even the slightest hitches in my travels. I decide that there has not been any actual problem so far and that I am on vacation and should not worry. I go to sleep.

(This covers my first three hours in Iceland. Don't worry too much, the pace will increase.)

The next day started with a beautiful morning and after breakfast I got into my car and drove to þingvallavatn. þvallavatn is the lake where the Alþing is located. Historically it's incredibly important, since this is generally seen as the birthplace of the oldest democracy still around, but fortunatly it doesn't show. They could have made it an important site, with lots of serious buildings, a historic museum, but they decided to leave the place as it was. The only thing that marks the place where the meetings used to take place is an icelandic flag on a small green hill.

That this place has been chosen as an assembly point doesn't surpise much. It's just all nice all over. Somehow it reminded me of an old Dire Straits song: "A long time ago came a man on a track, walking fourty mile with his pack on his back and he put down his load where he thought it was the best, made his home in the wilderness..." If I had been a settler 300 years ago and I had been walking around, this would have been the place where I would have stopped and settled down. [Ok, admittely I would have been driven away immediatly with an unfriendly "Hey, what do you think you're doing, this has been our parliament place during the last 700 years!"...]

Next to a deep, clear lake, some clear mountain streams flowing into it, large green grassy fields, a 50 feet high cliff wall on one side, a waterfall splashing down, a nice natural slope leading up between two cliff walls to the top. Difficult to describe, but the place just seems to say 'settle here'. It's just naturally nice. (Especially on a sunny, windless day.) It's a "Waltons" kind of place.

I drove to it from the cliff side. One bus just left the parking place when I came in, the other bus was just filling with tourists, ready to go. So after five minutes, there were only four or five people left up there. The area is interesting, since it is (like much of Iceland) right on the atlantic rift between the European and the North Atlantic plate. Which means that Iceland is slowly torn apart as the continental drift moves America away from Europe. The visible result of this are deep cracks in the rocks. Near the upper parking place, there is one of these, where you can see the ground split like a piece of dry cake, just on a much bigger scale. A wider crack has a sloped bottom and you can walk down to the fields. When I was down there, it became crowded at the top. Another bus had just arrived and the tourists got out. They had about 30 minutes to walk down the slope, pass the parliament site, move on pass the waterfall, pass the bridge over the river and then reach the second parking place, where the bus collected them again and they went on with their tour. Since I had my own rental car, I didn't need to follow the groups and went towards the lake instead. Where I was completely alone. I spent a very relaxed hour, just walking along, looking down into the water and started to enjoy my vacation.

Then I walked again towards the waterfall and the flag and then back to my car, having learned the most important (and unfortunatly, the most arrogant rule) about travel in Iceland: Go there with a rental car. Most travel in Iceland is bus tour based, and you can have even the most touristy places almost to yourself if you just wait for the gaps between the busses. And you can have nearly all of the most beautiful places for yourself, if you just walk 16 minutes from the parking place. (Really. Most 'standard tour' busses leave about 30 minutes free time at any one place, so the usual tourist can't go farther than 15 minutes from the parking place to be able to return to the bus in time. If you walk just a little bit farther, you are basically alone. Which is, admittedly, quite unfair and I felt selfishly smug. [I spend a certain amount of time feeling a little guilty about being able to enjoy places at my own pace, while the groups were herded in and out of their busses, but then I decided to just enjoy it. {Especially because I knew that I had the car only for two weeks and that I would be in guided tours after that and then someone would feel smugly superior over me.})

Cliffs at Þingvellir, with flag at Alþing site in background Neðrifoss waterfall at Þingvellir Clear waters of Þingvallavatn lake Clear waters of Þingvallavatn lake
Rocks torn apart by intercontinental drift Flag at Alþing parliament site (Lögberg) Just a nice river next to the Kaldidalur inland track (looks like Scotland, doesn't it?)

I went into my car and then northwards along the westernmost inland road (Kaldidalur) to see Hraunfossar waterfall and the Hallmundarhaun caves. A fairly short and harmless inland road for starters. A bit of gravel, but mostly a sand route with stones in it. Not particularily crowded, fun to drive at 35 mph, no rivers to cross, a sunny day, some of my favourite music on cassettes to listen to... just a relaxing drive.

Until the back of my car tried to overtake me and the car started to spin. I tried to counter-steer and get the car pointing into the right direction again. Didn't quite manage that and hit the side of the road, which was sloped just sufficiently upwards to act as a ramp, and I was airborne. (Ok, not really high, not really dramatically - we're not talking about stunts here.) The car came down, I steered it to the side of the road, turned it off and got out. A look at the front side of the car revealed little more than a bruised bumper, but a look under the car made it clear that I wouldn't get much farther with the car. Looked like I 'jumped' a bit over a stone and then came down on top of it.

So I was standing there in some rather forsaken (although sunny) place with a broken car and no idea what to do. Fortunatly it took less than five minutes for the next car to come by and even more fortunatly the driver had a mobile phone with him and we were still in the area where it worked. (In most of the interior of Iceland, mobile phones don't work.) So he called the rental agency and they came around two hours later and towed me back to the next parking place, and then drove me back to the rental agency and gave me another car (nicer, more comfortable - I felt a bit like getting a car upgrade the hard way). Since it was getting to late for sightseeing and I had pre-booked accomodation at Reykholt in the mid-west of Iceland, I decided to avoid trying to drive along the interior route again and drove along the costal road to Reykholt, checked in, had a dull, but expensive dinner and went to sleep, rather frustrated.

The end of the track for car #1 The damaged car to the right, replacement car to the left. Didn't look too bad from the front, but serious damage underneath
On to part 2