Despite the fact that I grew up in the Midwest and have driven through some white-knuckle weather in my time, it’s been two years since I last grappled with winter driving conditions and I might have lost my edge, so when I went to Iceland in early February I decided to go on tours rather than rent a car. This was absolutely the right choice, given how much I stared out the window and snapped blurry photos during the drive, and also the fact that I saw two cars in a ditch within a mile of each other.
My first tour was to the south shore of the island (Icelanders always refer to it as “the island,” not “Iceland” or “the country” or anything–fair enough, it is half the size of the isle of Great Britain, which is itself the size of the state of Michigan; it’s not big, is what I mean). I went on a Reykjavik Excursions bus with about 50 other tourists, our driver, and our guide, whose name in Icelandic means “Raven Battle,” but we could just call her Raven. Iceland: where your tour guide is definitely descended from Vikings.
Sunrise in Iceland in February is around 10am, which means that we had some great views from the bus as we headed south and east. Our first stop was a quick one, at the entrance to the farm that sits at the bottom of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and stranded travelers for days because of all the ash it threw into the atmosphere. It was dozing peacefully when I saw it.
Next came the part of the tour that reminded me I was on a guided tour for 50 people. We disembarked in the parking lot of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and Raven told us to be back in a strict thirty minutes because we had a schedule to keep to. If I hadn’t had my friend’s Yaktrax strapped to my boots, I wouldn’t have made it more than a few hundred yards in that whole time. But with those, I was able to walk on the ice rather than slip-slide along it tentatively. Still, with only a few breaks for photos, I didn’t make it to the viewing point. I got just around the corner so I could see that particular shade of glacial blue, and then I had to rush back. Even so, I was the last one on the bus. Worth it.
As we drove to our next destination, Reynisfjara, Raven warned us at length and in some detail about the extreme dangers of the riptides at this beach. I started to wonder if she was giving us safety tips or just describing our impending doom. But I didn’t touch the water’s edge even once, and I made it through okay. The black sand of the beach here is a dramatic contrast to the whitecapped blue of the ocean, and some stepping stone-type rocks near a cave on the southeastern edge are a big attraction.
After lunch in the town of Vík, we went to the Skógar Museum and listened to an excellent introduction to how Icelanders lived for centuries. In sum: it was really difficult. The only mammal native to the island is the Arctic fox, so the original settlers brought over cows, horses, sheep, etc. Then there was a “little Ice Age” that started in the 14th century, during which time many people and animals died, and the settlers were no longer able to grow most of the crops they’d grown before. All because temperatures had dropped by a couple degrees Celsius. People built turf houses, which are literally blocks of earth cut out of the ground and piled up like bricks to make a small house. Then they’d search the beaches for driftwood to use as roofing material. Seeing as how the original settlers chopped down anything resembling a tree in a very short period of time, there was no wood or other fuel on the island, so they just didn’t have heat. They used the geothermal hot spots when they could for cooking and such, but they didn’t really master that til the 20th century.
The original settlers came from Norway and Ireland; basically Vikings stopped by Ireland and stole a bunch of women for wives on their way to Iceland, a horrible but effective method of diversifying your gene pool. Some think the fact that Iceland has sagas while other Nordic countries aren’t well-known for them is because of the strong storytelling tradition of the Celts.
Unsurprisingly, the Skógafoss waterfall is next to the Skóga Museum. (The suffix “foss” means “falls” so I guess “the Skógafoss waterfall” is redundant in the way of “the ATM machine” but anyway.) Despite the freezing temperatures, the river rushed down the cliff impressively. I was surprised by the grey color of the water as it fell, especially as the snow on the banks of the river was a clean white and the sky was a bright blue. That’s probably due to the sediment that was in the river, I suppose. Whatever color it was, it was a sight to behold, and I liked the fairly unusual angle we got to approach the falls from–I walked along the riverside right up to the base of the falls, with no barriers or anything in the way, and no forest to walk like you usually have to when getting to a waterfall.
Our last stop was another waterfall–Seljalandsfoss. Just as at Skógafoss, you walk along the river right up to the base of the falls. I love waterfalls in any setting, but I really enjoyed the unusual approach of an empty landscape, the magnificence of the snow-covered plains, the craggy cliff, the waterfall rushing down. There’s even another, smaller waterfall a little way down the cliff, so I got a bonus waterfall. I was very happy.
We drove back along the coast, mountains climbing up out of farmland on the right, the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean to my left. Even in dark winter, I don’t usually see sunrise and sunset in the same day, so kudos to the latitudinal position of this lovely island for allowing that.