Sunday December 9, 2016
It’s 6 a.m. in the morning and we just met up with Matthilda in Reykjavik to pick up our camper van.
We get the grand tour of the van, learning how to turn on the heater, where the stove and dishes are located, how to fold down the back seat to make a bed, using the Wifi and becoming overall familiar with our new home for the week. Matthilda had plenty of maps on board for us to use. She pulls one out and begins pointing out places she would recommend, considering our limited five days to see as much as possible.
With anxious excitement, we took off into the city to find a grocery store, Chris driving the van. To our dismay, many shops were still closed at 7:30 a.m., let alone many being closed due to Sunday. We completely overlooked this detail. We considered parking and resting until a store opened up, which we absolutely should have done, but we were too eager to get on the road and begin the adventure. Instead we stopped at a gas station to buy supplies. Prices are dramatically higher at gas stations and buying a few items was spendy off the bat.
We headed East toward the Golden Circle, one of the most tourist things to do in Iceland because it is very easy to see the many beautiful landmarks in a single day trip. Plus it is not far from the city. Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park. This is the place where the North American and Eurasion tectonic plates are slowly dividing apart, creating deep fissures in the earth and in the lake, which you can apparently snorkel or scuba dive through, even in the winter. Brrr!
Our next stop around the Golden Circle was the geothermal area called Haukadalur where the famous geyser Strokkur erupts every 15 minutes or so. According to the boys, this geyser was not nearly as impressive as Old Faithful in Yellowstone, of which I still haven’t seen.
On the road between the geyser and the Gulfoss waterfall, Chris failed to see a lurking speed bump and hit it at cruising speeds. There was no doubt the van caught air and resulted in a forceful impact on the way down. After exclamations of “not seeing the speed bump!”and “there were no warning signs!”, we hopped out to check the van. Everything looked okay so we played the “not from around here” card and kept going.
We arrived at Gullfoss waterfall amidst many tour buses and people. The massive Hvítá river cascades 100 feet and abruptly disappears into a ravine in the earth. Our view was limited due to thick mist and light rainy weather, but it was an impressive waterfall nonetheless.
We came back to the van and decided we desperately needed to eat some real food, having eaten snacks for the last 24 hours. We turned on the van only to be greeted by a flashing oil light. We immediately turned off the engine and got out to inspect. Sure enough, oil had been steadily leaking from a gashed oil pan. Oh shit, Chris broke our rental van. We immediately sent out an SOS to Matthilda over Facebook messenger since this was our only way to communicate over the Wifi. At this point, what little sunlight we saw for the day began to fade. Matthilda was three hours out but was coming to our rescue. We made one of our freeze-dried meals in the van, made the bed in the back and decided to rest until help arrived. Her and her husband arrived, she was driving their personal car and he was driving his work tool truck in hopes that we could repair the oil pan right away. Unfortunately this would not be the case. I couldn’t believe that in less than 12 hours our epic Iceland adventure had been derailed. The mood was anything but cheerful.
We discussed our options with Matthilda. She had intended on bringing us another camper van that she had but realized on the way out that it had some electrical issues, which she took straight to the shop. If it was fixed the next day, she would meet up with us. Until then, Matthilda didn’t want us missing out on our vacation and let us borrow her personal vehicle for the night. She even called ahead to a hotel down the coast to reserve a place for us to sleep. This gesture of hospitality meant the world to us. We wanted to remain hopeful that our trip was not entirely ruined.
As we drove through the dark along the Ring Road towards our place of stay, we noticed a waterfall all lit up just off the road we were on. This was Seljalandfoss, another famous Icelandic waterfall that falls nearly 200 feet and has a hiking trail behind the falls for those who dare getting wet. Us, of course, took the dare and got fairly soaked in the process.
After driving for a couple of hours, which seemed like an eternity after the crazy last 48 hours we just endured, we finally arrived at Hörgsland Cottages where we would spend the night. Exhausted and run-down, we dragged everything into our little cottage, took turns taking quick showers and went to bed, all the while my hopes holding up that tomorrow would be a much better day.
Monday December 10, 2016
I woke to the horrible sound of my alarm clock going off. Of course it was still pitch dark outside, despite being around 7am. It was tough to get going, but Chris made us a good breakfast of eggs, bacon and Icelandic yogurt (known as Skyr). We discussed our options between what we would do if we had to keep the car for the remainder of the trip or if we would get lucky and get a second van. We held hopes for the latter.
We decided to make our way back West, towards the city, in case we heard from Matthilda, as well as to see the sights we missed in the night.
The first place we visited was Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon (yeah I dare you to pronounce that).
Fjaðrárgljúfur is a magnificent canyon about 100 meters deep and about two kilometers long. Formed from a glacier in the Ice Age, this canyon features sheer cliffs made of stunning and dramatic black rocks, covered in beautiful green moss. The Fjaðrá river falls into this canyon and snakes its way down the canyon. Visitors can hike along the bottom of the canyon following the river, or choose to hike atop the cliffs to experience a photographers dream come true.
Can’t forget a group photo while we were here.
On our way once more, this was our vehicle for the time being.
We had received word from Matthilda that the second van was finishing up in the shop and she would be able to meet us in Selfoss that evening, halfway between our location and the city of Reykjavik. This was fantastic news! This meant that we wouldn’t have to pay additional hotel costs and could continue our trip the way we had intended.
We kept heading East on the Ring Road as the sun began attempting to rise above the very distant sea clouds. This made for some breath taking scenery.
With the limited amount of daylight this time of year in Iceland, we were attempting to plan our points of interest around it. Since this was the first, actual sunlight we had seen yet, we made our next stop the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and Hálsanefshellir cave.
According to a folktale, these distinctive basalt rocks around Hálsanefshellir cave are the remains of two trolls who tried to tow a ship to land, but where caught by daylight and turned to stone. Coincidentally, the sun peaked through while we were leaving the beach. This would end up being the one and only time we saw the sun while in Iceland.
The next place we visited was Sólheimajökull glacier, which is one of the many branches off the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. Sólheimajökull is a great place to get up close and personal to a glacier. Many glacier hiking companies leave from this point, and there was a constant stream of tourists and adventure groups coming and going.
We had brought our own measly crampons to help with walking on the ice. Other tourists had the same idea that we had and had begun ascending the carved out stair case in the ice. We were soon reprimanded by a local guide that commanded us to get down off the ice. Our group of three was quick to follow orders, but the other tourists were less willing to obey. I definitely understand why the guide was so upset: we definitely did not have the proper ice climbing gear, and glaciers are exceptionally dangerous and should not be explored without a guide who understands their ever-changing nature. I had no problems hiking down to snap more photos on the safety of solid ground.
The next quick stop was another famous Icelandic waterfall named Skógafoss. It is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country and is well known for it’s uniquely square shape, as well as having been featured in movies like Thor and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Our day light was beginning to diminish and our new camper van awaited. We met Matthilda at a gas station in the city of Selfoss. This new camper was a definite upgrade.
Even Matthilda mentioned that she typically charges extra for this van because of the added features, but showed mercy on us and let us use it despite extra fees. This one had all the features of the first van, minus the awesome onboard heater system. The back bed was not nearly as wide as the first van, but this new van had a James Baroud roof top tent. Now, I hate to brag but these tents are an overlanders dream, and we had it! It also had slightly larger tires with 4 wheel drive capability. But not as big of tires as these guys…
Random side note, these trucks were everywhere! I swooned every time I spotted one. 44″ tires made for some serious off road, or on ice, capabilities. I just imagined my truck back home on a set of these. #invincible
With the keys to our new adventure van, a renewed round of excitement to the mood, and after making a quick stop in the grocery store to restock food supplies, we headed back East along the Ring Road, just the way we had come. We stopped and made dinner at Seljalandfoss falls again, enjoying the scene one more time. After dinner we suddenly had this bright idea to try and find a hot spring to soak in.
After checking the maps, we followed a dirt road leading up to the mouth of a canyon where we parked, grabbed our towels and bathing suits, and began hiking to this alleged hot spring. We had passed a white car on our way in and not long after parking, two gals walked up to us, also looking for this hot spring. We decided to hike up together. They were two friends from the U.S., Rachel from Michigan and Candace from Delaware, fulfilling the Iceland dream as well. This was their last day of their trip. They had gone snorkeling through the tectonic plates back in the Golden Circle and said this was their favorite thing they did. They said the wet suits the company provides keeps you warm enough to not mind the freezing water. Plus, according to them, the dive is fascinating enough to keep your mind off the cold.
We found the hot spring after a short hike in the dark where a group of people were already occupying the deep end of the pool. This was Seljavallalaug.
Seljavallalaug is actually a 25 meter long, man-made pool constructed right into the mountainside back in 1923, making it one of the oldest geothermal pools in Iceland. It was also the first pool used to teach swimming lessons. The hot water that trickles into the far end of the pool is completely natural, piped in a few yards away. Although this pool is located not far off the Ring Road, most tourists miss this hidden gem entirely, which is why we had decided to track it down.
Upon getting in, we discovered all too quickly that the measly trickle of water did not heat up the entire pool. In fact, the water was definitely well below bath temperatures, but at this point, getting out would be a much colder option, especially with the slight breeze whisping through the canyon. We immediately figured out that the prior group was actually huddled around the hot water pipe at the far end of the pool. They left not too long after our arrival and we were quick to snatch their place next to the hot water source. Still, this was not nearly enough water to heat us back up. The meager amount of hot water was no match for the size of the pool and would only heat a few inches around itself. After much complaining over our dumb mistake and mustering up the courage to get out and frantically change into dry clothes, we got out one by one, me being the first to brave the cold.
After hiking back to our van, we offered to give our new friends a ride to their car down the road. Chris went to turn the key, the lights came on, but the ignition did not turn over. Not even a click.
Miles: “Uh, Chris… you need to turn the van on.”
Chris turned the key again. Still, no ignition start.
Miles: “No, seriously Chris, turn the van on.”
He turned the key again. Nothing.
Miles: “No, chris, you didn’t hear me. You need to turn the van on. Like, right now!”
OH MY HELL, YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING!! This couldn’t be happening!
Okay, okay, lets look at this for a second. We knew the battery was working just fine because all the lights and electronics were on. It had to be a starter issue (Perhaps this was the problem the van had initially that was supposedly fixed?). Lucky for this specific situation, almost all of the vehicles in Iceland are manual transmission, including our van, so we could attempt to pop the clutch to turn over the ignition. Not lucky for us, we did not exactly park the van in a friendly way for a rolling start. In fact, there was a slight incline before any chance of downward movement.
With Chris in the driver seat, Miles, Candace, Rachel and myself got out behind the van and began pushing. Struggle after struggle, we were initially unsuccessful with conquering this small hill. But with fierce determination to NOT call Matthilda yet again, we pushed with all our might and got it over the hill. Once in motion, the clutch was released and the van fired right up.
Dammit, could we be done with van troubles already?!
Reaching the girls parked car, we exchanged Facebook info with them to stay in touch in the days ahead. What a crazy experience this little side trip had turned out to be. We said our goodbyes and we were on our way once more.
After driving very late into the night yet again, we arrived exhausted at Skaftafell camping grounds in Vatnajökull National Park. Little did we realize we were camping in the shadow of Icelands’, and Europes’, largest ice cap. We set up the tent and all three of us climbed in to get some rest. It was far from a good nights sleep, but we knew morning would arrive soon and there were many more things to see and adventures to be had in this beautiful, wild place.