Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Iceland 2016: Keflavík to Skógar

Day one of exploring Iceland by Jimny is in the books. 

By the way, I've based the backbone of my route through this country off of an excellent itinerary posted by travel blogger Alex Cornell. The plan is to drive the Ring Road counter-clockwise, east to west, and deviate off it as much as possible. I picked up my rental car from GoIceland but my departure out of Keflavík was delayed by a few hours because they had to install a fresh set tires. But there is a plus side, the Suzuki Jimny 4x4 I have now has brand-new tires that are also spiked/studded for the upcoming winter season. Did you know the official start of winter in Iceland was only a few days ago?

After stopping and stocking up on a week’s worth of food at a Bonus, one of the chain grocery stores, I headed back out on to Route 41 which leads into Route 1, the Ring Road, when it gets near Reykjavik. Driving a manual transmission, in a European country, around a true round-about just feels cool. Iceland has roughly 350,000 or so people living within the entire country.

About 200,000 residing in the capital city and biggest city of Reykjavik. The infamous 827-mile or so, Ring Road is Iceland’s sole road that laps the entire parameter of the island. That’s where I’ll be spending 95% of the next 13 days. Tonight’s final destination goal was in Vik, a town close to three-hours from Reykjavik. I had a whole list of places to stop and hike around. Within minutes of leaving the metro Reykjavik area, the road headed towards snowy mountains.
I hadn’t been driving in this country for even an hour and I was already climbing in altitude and driving through heavy snowfall. Yeah! This country is just amazingly scenic. I’m confident already in saying Iceland is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to focus on driving on this two-lane road because your head is on a constant swivel looking at the horizons.

The shores of the North Atlantic, fields of roaming fuzzy fat sheep and horses running around free, rocky cliffs and tall towering peaks capped in snow. It was hard to resist the temptation to pull-over every few minutes, get out, and take a picture. But there are no shoulder lanes on the roads in Iceland so that’s why it’s strictly discouraged. The stops along the way to Vik made up for it. When I got to the city of Hvolsvollur, I stopped and topped off the Suzuki’s gas tank. You fill-up in liters over here, and I’m way too tired to try and figure out how many liters are in a gallon and what this SUV’s gas mileage is.
I took a detour off of the Ring Road and headed east on Route 261 towards the town of Fljotshild. My guided book’s description of the area got my attention, and I had to check it out. That’s the fun of having your own rental car and solo travel, you can just go wherever, whenever. The already non-existent traffic completely faded away when I got on Route 261, yet the views got even better.

You enter into the Markarfijot river delta where you can see for miles, err, kilometers. Never in my life have I seen so many tall waterfalls dropping from the tops of the mossy Fljotschilo hills. And this is only day 1. I spotted a tiny church perched way atop a hill on the left, so I threw the Suzuki Jimny in 4x4 and crawled up the muddy road. In the midst of engaging four-wheel-drive, I stalled out and slowly began creeping backwards down the hill. I quickly threw it into neutral, slammed the gearshfiter into first and got my momentum going again.

At the top was this gorgeous, quiet church called Hiloarendi, which according to my Lonely Planet guidebook, was the home to the hero from one of Iceland’s best-loved and longest sagas, Gunnar Hamundarson from Njal’s Saga. Continuing to fall in love with Iceland, I headed down the steep road, snapped a few photos of a waterfall on the right behind a farm, said hi to a few sheep just hanging out by the car, and got back on Route 261.

Two more waterfalls followed, both probably 100 feet tall each, easily. The first was Drifandi Falls, where you’ll hike past a bust of famous Icelandic poet Thorsteinn Erlingsson until you see this magnificent waterfall appear from the trees. When driving back towards Route 261, two horses strolled right up to my car and started sniffing and licking it. I was able to stand just inches away and one even started sniffing out my puffy down jacket. Purely amazing.

I still feel like I’m living in some fairy tale, fictional dream. I cannot fathom how just beautiful Iceland is. It’s like it shouldn’t even be possible. Mighty Gluggafoss was next. Gluggafoss was actually two waterfalls from the same stream. The first was bustling and probably 20 feet tall and finishes the flow into the river delta.

The second waterfall farther up was tall, narrow, loud, and oh so violent. It was like the water not only came down straight but curved around as it bounced off this half-pipe of rock. And then it started snowing again! I can’t remember the last time I was this happy traveling. This place is totally strengthening my connection with the outdoors.

It continues to remind me just how powerful and wild nature can be. I headed back south towards the Ring Road by way of Route 250 which allowed for a top speed of probably only 30 mph due to its bumpy rock surface. I saw over my shoulder what was edges of the Eyjafjallajokull Ice Cap to the east, a stunning sight to behold.

Back on the Ring Road, I stopped next at Seljalandsfoss and Gljufurarbui falls, both starting from wayyyyyy up high and crashing down into a deep pool of water. To end off a long first day, I hiked out to Skógafoss, a mesmerizing 62-meter waterfall that you can actually climb to the top of and see its dramatic flowage before it cascades down. Easily a favorite destination for the day.

The sun completely set around 6 pm (it’ll take some getting used to these long, lonely dark nights) and it started sleeting once again. The temperatures plummeted and I decided to crash in the back of the Jimny here at Skógar tonight. A 1,000 ISK camping fee, shower, and full bathrooms sounded good to me and the seven other car campers doign the same thing next to me.

It took plenty of adjustment and a dosage of trial and error, but I figured out a way to comfortably sleep inside the Jimny. I folded the rear seat down, slid forward and dropped the front passenger seat, then spread out my zero-degree down winter sleeping bag. I was cozy and sung, but more importantly warm. In the hatch of the Jimny, I cooked a quick dinner and wrote a bit. The wind continues to rock the Jimny back and forth, but I can hear Skógafoss’s roar off in the near distance. G’night from Iceland.

Enjoy a few extra pictures from today's adventures: