Adventures in the Land of the Clouds, Volcanos and Hot-pots

You wake up in Borgarnes, western Iceland.  The wind is pounding the camper and the tent that was pitched the night before right by your camper is now gone, its inhabitants curled up in their car.  Gashes of wind manage to shake the camper so much that you both agree to stay in your PJs and drive about 25 kilometers to a much more civilized camping area you accidentally found the night before.  The wind in Iceland is an element to be taken into serious consideration.

Only 6 days have gone by and you are already attached to the Cozy Camper highlander you rented in Reykjavik.  It has been christened Claus Camper and is commonly referred to as Claus.  Claus is a Hyundai Starex 4WD van that has been converted into a very cozy and comfortable camper while keeping its ability to roam the highlands and various F-roads without fearing for one’s life or invalidating the rental insurance.  In fact, after a few nights in Claus, you both agree that Claus is really the only viable way to explore this beautiful country.  Claus took some getting used to as the only rental cars you’ve ever driven were in the U.S. of A where cars are automatic and Claus is one of those manual transmission vehicles, but given the 1780 km you drove, getting used to manual was no biggie.

After landing at Keflavik airport with Iceland’s “cheap” (nothing is cheap in Iceland) and friendly airline – WOW Air you take the Fly Bus to Reykjavik where the owner of Cozy Camper awaits with Claus and hands over the keys and instructions.  The final payment is done on site using one of many mobile credit card readers you will meet in Iceland and you take off.  Looking at the map, the nearest and largest body of water that is not the ocean seems to be Þingvallavatan and since it’s already early afternoon and you practically have no plan, you purchase some provisions to stock up Claus’ refrigerator and head out of town.  You arrive to Þingvellir a short hour later and camp at the first camp ground of many.  Every evening follows the same ritual – you arrive at a camp site, pay the ranger about 1,200 Icelandic Krone per head and park Claus.

Leading up to this amazing adventure you discussed the idea and suggestion of a friend to rent a 4WD car and sleep in a tent.  The lady injected some sense into the misguided and mostly romantic notion that you are someone who could build a tent and enjoy sleeping in it, which is how you came to rent Claus and leave such things as tents and cooking utensils behind (Claus came with everything one needs to cook).  As you set up camp in Þingvellir, an act that involved parking the Claus somewhere basically, you realize just how much this was the correct decision.  By the time you wake up the next day, counting a few tents less in your surrounding and seeing other road warriors sleeping in their car seats, you really appreciate that decision making process that took place all these weeks ago.

The first day on the road therefore starts in Þingvellir, a fascinating location both geographically and historically.  You literally park Claus in a valley that lies between the two continental plates – the North Atlantic and the Euro-Asia.  Þingvellir is also the location where the Alþing general assembly (i.e. a parliament) was established around 930.  Pretty much every historical event of any political significance to Iceland took place in this general assembly.  The location is as mesmerizing as it is powerful.  Being able to actually see the North American continental plate ends and the Euro-Asian begins is a nice way to understand a little more about our little planet.  At the same time, seeing the place where the vikings used to gather and democratically make decisions is a powerful reminder of the foundations of Northern Europe.  Democracy and community are ingrained into the European continental fabric.  Taking all these in and snapping loads of pictures, you jointly decide to head to the highlands while stopping on the way by two popular locations: Geysir and Gullfoss, the first is probably the world’s most famous geyser – all other geysers on the planet are named after that one, and the second is a picturesque waterfall, one of many to be seen in Iceland.

And just like this you leave civilization behind and start the drive up the highlands.  This is where the road gets…interesting.  Iceland, with a population of 320,000 inhabitants, harsh weather and a great deal of active volcanos, approaches roads in a slightly different manner than the rest of Europe.  There is one road the circulates the whole country.  It is called The 1 and is almost continuously asphalted.  Then there are local roads which are often packed gravel and then there are the F-roads.  The roads to the highlands are the latter.  Here one could expect anything – rivers crossing the road, streams flowing inside the road, huge boulders, puddles that could cross the whole path and many areas where you have no chance to spot the driver coming across from you.  These were our preferred roads.

After some 90km up the F-road you get to the camp ground you intended to reach and are excited to see that the location has a small restaurant that serves fish soup, probably the best one you tasted during the whole trip, as well as set dinner.  Menus are for civilization.  You park the Claus and set your priorities straight – get into a  bathing suit and hit the hot-pot.  Hot-pots are a bad translation which you assume comes from Icelandic and are referred to by the locals everywhere.  The term is similar to the word Handy in German which actually means mobile phone, but somehow takes on an English word that has no direct relationship to what it actually describes.  Since hot-pots are, for all intended purpose, a dish served in Chinese restaurants, you have a hard time referring to heated bodies of water as such.  The natural pool at Hveravellir has three large plastic pipes leaning into it.  One pipe brings in water at almost boiling temperature while the other two spill colder water.  All water sources are natural and as we quickly learn, all water, hot and cold, is brought directly from the earth on this magical island.

So you spring into the water, push the colder pipe away and let the pool heat up and enjoy a beautiful evening in an outdoor! heated! natural pool!  After about an hour you are joined by a few more travelers and discover that you are surrounded by other Europeans.  You take your leave from the first hot-pot, change, stroll through a steamy and very active volcano area, grab some food and loosely plan the coming day.  You know that you still have about 100km to get out of the highlands and into the Northern part of Iceland, but after that the plan is cloudy.  You decide to postpone the decision and just agree to see how you feel when you get to the end of the F-road.

The next day starts with a 100km drive through the highlands on F-road 35.  The northern part of the road is much better than the southern part so you make good time and stop for a few photo opportunities.  Right before the road reaches the ring road, you spot a massive power station and a plaque that explains that Landsvirkjun is responsible for 75% of the power produced in Iceland!  After a short drive you reach the northern part of the ring road and start heading east.  You pass Iceland’s second largest city – Akureyri, a city of some 18,000 inhabitants and continue eastwards.  Since a day without a waterfall seems like a wasted day, you stop at Goðafoss (waterfall of the gods) and take the “other” route to the waterfall.  As in pretty much every waterfall in Iceland the power of the water is palpable by just standing across the fall and the almost green color of the water is breathtaking.  Further east you drive until you reach the shores of lake Myvatn and the tiny settlement Reykjahlíð.  Even though the town is smaller than petit there are several camping sites to choose from and you settle on the one with the lake front view and the lush green grass (Bjarg Campsite).  Once the location for the night is identified, you move on to the next essential aspect of your stay – finding the nearest hot-pot.  As it turns out, and this was entirely unknown to you, the Myvatn Natural Baths are the northern version of the world-famous Icelandic Blue Lagoon.  As you drive to the baths you can close your eyes and let your nose do the navigating.  The area smells of sulfur and clouds of steams raise everywhere in the area.  The bath is huge and as opposed to the previous night, is not so private. You endure the crowd and look for the source of the hot water.  In the east corner of the bath you find the source and enjoy a good area in this beautiful location, watching the sun set over the lake.

Now what could make a hot-pot experience even better?  A great dinner post the hot-pot.  Again, as if by accident, you let the Internet recommend a location for dinner and end up in a farm house called Vogafjos Cowshed Cafe.  The restaurant shares the same building in which the cows are housed.  You can watch the cows eat while they can watch you.  The food is practically the best example of farm to table you have ever experienced and the fish and local cheese is delicious.  After such an exciting day you have no problems falling asleep back in the campground and sleep in pretty late on Sunday.

When you wake up on Sunday you realize that you need to spend a day in the area, not a bad realization to be had on a sunny Sunday morning.  The reason being that you managed to forget one of the most important elements of a great adventure at home – a charger for the digital camera!  Since the only possibility of finding a charger is in Akureyri, and since it is Sunday, a day on which the shops are closed, you just have to hang out in the area.  And so, the day turns into an awesome combination of things that you could only really do in Iceland: a walk up a volcano, a quick photoshot in the cave in which Jon Snow, one of the heroes in HBO’s Game of Thrones, looses his virginity to Ygritte (the place is called Grjótagjá, good luck spelling that in google maps), a walk to the most powerful waterfall in Europe (Dettifoss) and a magical nature stroll in Asbyrgi canyon.  The beauty and power of nature, all in a single day, were almost overwhelming.  The day also included a nice F-road trek from Dettifoss to Asbyrgi following the rule of “if the road ends, you just continue driving”.  Evening rolls in and so is the Claus.  You park in the Husavik camp ground which is organized and friendly, but is somewhat disappointing as it is right at the end of the town.  The town is clearly focused on tourism and its tiny harbor is housing at least 3 different whale watching companies which is impressive for a town of 2,237 inhabitants.

You get out of town on Monday morning and head back to Akureyri, find a charger for the camera, and align the stars back to their natural order.  Over fish and chips lunch, you decide to drive across the north to the western Fjords and camp in the town of Holmavik.  The distance between Akureyri and Holmavik is some 350km and after you leave the ring road behind and turn into road 61 and 68, some of which were just gravel roads, you start enjoying the beautiful scenery of the western fjords.  The land is immense and is constantly spilling into the fjords.  A few farm houses dot the coast line and the occasional church impresses a sense that this isolated community is indeed a community.  Here and there you spot tiny harbors one of which is your final destination of the day – the lovely town of Holmavik.

By the time you arrive, you are exhausted and the peace in the Claus is at stake – you just drove over 400 kilometers and the only thing to do is to hit the hot-pot that just happens to be build into the community pool, that’s just happened to be 20 meters away from the camp ground where you and Claus are parked.  You enjoy a dip in the three heated pools and observe some of the locals socialize.  The hot-pots, practically available to every community, are really where it seems that Iceland’s citizens come together.  Folks sit in the hot-pot, chat, change tubs (there seem to always be three different heat levels) together and leave around the same time.  You leave the pool shortly before closing time and are too exhausted to eat anything more than a few crackers with cheese.

Tuesday starts with coffee outside.  Someone, even though by the time you arrive to the camp ground the previous night you were practically delirious, you managed to park right by one of the picnic tables in the grounds so breakfast and coffee is served outside.  You then march into the center of the 15-houses community and explore the museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.  You learn that in Iceland, almost no women were burned at the stake for being witches, but that men were the subject of prosecution.  You also learn that there is a thing called Necropants, that’s actually on display at the museum and is pretty disturbing.  After this little culture shock and a stroll through the harbor, you head to the next stop – a hot-pot that’s said to be on the side of the road and is free. And indeed, the guidebook did not lie. The three blue tubs are kissing the Atlantic and are also positioned about 2 meters from the only “road” (which services about 2 cars per hour). You hop in and spend a good hour before changing back and heading inland. The ride takes you on an F-road up the huge mountain that’s looming over the fjord. As you climb up you notice that the temperature drops significantly and the scene becomes bigger than life, covered in patches of snow as well as plenty of  waterfalls. Cars are nowhere to be seen which suits you just fine as you can just stop everywhere and take pictures. The wind is harsh and the weather is kissing the freezing zone.  You are therefore pretty happy when you get to the paved road that leads to the legendary Laugar in Western Iceland. You camp here for the night, failing to find anywhere to pay for the stay, but finding the outdoors hotpot and a very windy camping area.

Laugar is deeply rooted in the nordic sagas and has a lovely outdoors hot-pot that’s just too inviting.  So the lady spends her morning dipping while you trek up the mountain to get some exercise and photograph the waterfalls.  By the time you leave you realize that Claus is the last vehicle in the camp ground.  The next stop is further west along F-road 54, which runs parallel to the Hvammsfjord, destination: the lovely fisherman town of Stykkisholmur where Walter Mitty takes off in a helicopter!  The town is indeed as lovely as the film makes it seem and lunch there turns out to be another great Icelandic meal.  You then walk up to the orange lighthouse and enjoy the view of the fjord and the ocean before getting back to Claus and heading south.  You cross the peninsula on the 56 which turn into the 54 and then go looking for a hot-pot in nature.  The instructions you find on the Internet are somewhat vague and include basically a turn off, a distance, and the fact that one has to go through two gates.  You find the first gate realizing that this is likely to be the gate to a property of a farmer living in this remote and obviously volcanic part of the world.  You take your chances, drive through the property and cross the second gate.  The road ends at what seems to be the slopes of a volcano and you go looking for the hot-pot on foot.  After a few wrong turns you find the pool, submerged into the ground, clearly marked by a primitive step ladder leading into it.  Your excitement is somewhat subdued when you see that the water is green with some algae and that another car is approaching.  The second car, packed with a group of Belgians, is determined to experience this wonder of nature, but you decide that getting sick on the last days in Iceland might be ill-advised so you turned the Claus around and drive back out to the road.

Your compensation comes in the form of Borgarnes public pool which includes, of course, three heated hot-pots and some water slides!  A day that ends with hot-pots is always a better day, however, the camp ground does not seem appealing and after a quick consultation with the lonely planet guidebook you are on the way to a location some 15 km out of town.  You arrive in darkness and are told that the camp ground does not exist anymore, but that another camp ground exist some 10 kilometers up the road.  You continue the drive and find a very nice looking camp ground, with heated bathrooms no less and one small hiccup – there are no other folks in the area, no campers and no obvious owner.  You take the joint decision to drive back to Borgarnes and sleep there.  Sleeping alone, without any other travelers in sight seems too risky in a land that hosts trolls and Necropants.

And on the last day?  More waterfalls and a long drive through an F-road crossing a huge mountain range at close to zero degrees weather brings you back to where you started.  You descend into Þingvellir from the North leaving the gravel road behind and returning to civilization.  You drive into Reykjavik in the early hours of the afternoon and meet the owner of the Cozy Camper who collects Claus and is happy to hear that you enjoyed the adventure so much.  The adventure is one for the books and you both admit that this one, with its nature, hot-pots and freedom, will be hard to beat.  But you’re going to have to try.

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