Road tripping Iceland: the frost and the curious

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Iceland is safe, intriguing, and has one of the most spectacular ring roads in the world. These three friends drove it in nine days. Words and photographs by Natalie Roos.

On the basalt rocks at Reynisfjara beach (near Vik), a place that has sucked many an unwitting photographer into the icy wash; Disused farm houses covered at nearby Dyrholaey. Image by Natalie Roos

A flurry of blinding white is flying towards the windscreen and reflecting the headlights back into our eyes. It’s pitch dark and we can’t decide if it’s more terrifying driving with the brights on or off. Misha Coetzee is at the wheel. Camilla Corder and I are in the back, giggling nervously between reassuring murmurs of ‘You’re doing really great’ and ‘Just go dead slow’. We only landed in Iceland a short while ago. After a 15-hour journey from Joburg we should be exhausted. Instead, we’re invigorated and full of adrenalin.

This is a road trip like no other: three girls, an open road and a freezing island wilderness with fire in its veins. We’ve given ourselves nine days to drive anti-clockwise around it, on the Ring Road (Route 1, as it’s also known). We’re on day one, en route from Keflavík International Airport in Reykjavik to Vik, the southernmost town. According to Google Maps it should take us under three hours. But it’s been slow going, what with not knowing if we might plummet into the North Atlantic around the next bend…

The country is a camper’s dream. At some sites visitors wake up beside large glassy lakes in front of glaciers thousands of years old. At others there are hot tubs and Wi-Fi. Ancient land, modern world. Our initial plan was to hire a camper van and seek out these spots – it’s the most affordable way to explore Iceland. But it’s March, the end of winter, and the campsites are still closed. Instead, we’ve got a Subaru Forester 4X4, the promise of warm hotel beds and hot showers. We may be adventurous women, but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate comfort.

In fact, despite its frigid surface, Iceland as a whole is a place that makes travellers feel comfortable. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (less than two murders per year reported since 2011), a network of extremely well-maintained roads, a free safety app that sends your location to a response centre in the event of an emergency – even if your phone shows no signal – and one of the world’s most gender-equal societies. It’s the perfect destination for women with a sense of adventure.

The inside of the Vatnajokull ice cave feels like another planet; as white as snow. Images by Natalie Roos

We drive between 200 and 400 kilometres each day, stopping often to capture the island’s indescribable beauty. We contemplate abandoned summer homes covered in snow, see geysers shoot boiling water into the air, walk on beaches made of black volcanic sand (evidence of the ongoing seismic activity) and watch a glittering light display in the night sky. Every day is a constant reminder of Mother Nature and her power. It’s the most alive place I’ve ever seen.

In the east, we clamber into a Ford F250 with snow tyres the size of our cars back home, strap on our crampons and venture into an ice cave inside Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. I’m not normally one to rely on feminine wiles, but Misha flutters her eyelashes and negotiates us a discounted rate with a tour guide, which I don’t see a reason to complain about.

A little later we stop again to find icy gems on Diamond Beach and then again to get soaked at Skógafoss waterfall. In just our first two days, we’ve already crammed in a year’s worth of natural beauty. We swap out the driver’s seat every morning. The late-winter conditions remain tricky and though we still drive white-knuckled through snow and sleet, the excellent condition of the roads gives us confidence. Our snow tyres make us feel even safer – we pass several cars who’ve been caught out, and are grateful we chose to spend the extra money on them, especially because we’ve finally admitted that none of us actually knows how to change a tyre.

We meander north along the eastern fjords, where the winding roads are clear of snow and the views are incomparable. Eventually, even Camilla stops counting our photo stops. Up north, we find the Mývatn Nature Baths, where we spend an afternoon submerged in the geothermally heated water, sipping on duty-free whisky from water bottles while snow freezes our ponytails solid. We spend that night in a log cabin at Vogafjós Guesthouse and wake up to find our car hidden beneath a mound of fresh powdery snow and squeal with delight.

Dramatic light at Dyrholaey(it measn ‘the hill-island with the door-hole’), known for its large puffin population in summer; Misha and Camilla scouting. Images by Natalie Roos

The western fjords are slightly less impressive than the east, but we are not disappointed when we find that our accommodation at Heydalur Guesthouse has three natural hot springs as well as a greenhouse complete with a hot tub and heated pool. There’s no one but Icelandic horses around, so we swim in our birthday suits surrounded by snow on the ground.

In the evenings, we eat wherever we can, since we’ve found that some small towns have only one restaurant (if they have one at all). We’re normally starving, having skipped lunch in favour of spending R70 on machine coffee to keep Misha alive. Little do we know that by the end of the trip, R500 for a pizza will seem relatively normal, especially when we consider that we’re eating fresh pineapple, in Iceland, in the Arctic winter.

On our last day on the Ring Road, we make friends with two travellers from the Czech Republic in yet another geothermal pool. Ivan and Barb share their plan to hunt down the Northern Lights after dark. We decide, excitedly, to join them since the lights have eluded us thus far. The evening’s forecast says we have a seven out of nine chance. That’s about as good as it gets.

At 21:00, I’m dressed in thermals, multiple jackets, scarves, a beanie and gloves. Our new friend Ivan is the designated driver, and he keeps a close eye on the forecast using the Veðurstofa Íslands website. He seems to know what he’s doing, and explains that we need to drive to a spot about 20 minutes away where the conditions look set to be ideal in, surprisingly, exactly 20 minutes time. Misha and I cling to each other in the back seat of Ivan’s rental as we hurtle down the highway at speeds I’m sure are not legal. (Camilla was feeling ill during the day and took a sleeping pill before our evening plans were set in motion. I tried to pull her out of bed but she was too sleepy to join us. A decision she will never live down!)

And then, like magic, as we hit the 20-minute mark, a faint green tinge appears in the dark sky. Ivan skids to a stop and as we pile out of the car, cameras at the ready, the sky suddenly seems to break into a silent song of light and colour. Shards of green shine down on me and it feels like they are dancing to music just out of my earshot. It feels almost like Iceland knows we’re leaving and is saying farewell with a dazzling light display.

Icelandic horses turn fluffy in the winter months, developing a thick coat to keep them warm; the smell at the Myvatn geyser is hard to stomach, but the scene is very dramatic.

We drive into Reykjavik the following morning, by now completely at ease on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. The blizzards have cleared, making way for bright sunshine. Misha, Camilla and I are all quiet. Call it feminine intuition, but by now we all know what the other one is thinking. I stop the car to take one last picture of the wide-open road and snow-capped mountains before heading back into civilization. Behind us lie 3000 kilometres of the wildest adventure we’ve ever had.

 

Five cool things about travelling with women only

1. Everyone agrees that it’s best to stop and ask for directions.
2. No one rushes your morning routine.
3. Never having to explain that you’re not angry, just ‘hangry’ (so hungry that you’re angry) because the girls just know.
4. There’s always at least one person on hand to blow-dry your hair.
5. Having someone who truly respects your need for a great picture, without feeling like they’ve been relegated to Instagram husband.

 

5 tips for travelling with friends

Homes lie in wait on the east and west fjords, where locals holiday in the warmer months; an image of the roadside in Iceland. Images by Natalie Roos.

1. Make sure you’re all clear on expectations up front. Camilla knew that Misha and I were going to be taking thousands of photos and expecting her to pose for them. Misha and I knew that Camilla was going to expect us to pull over to hug every Icelandic horse she saw.
2. Travel with snacks at all times to avoid blood-sugar lows and bouts of unexpected ‘hanger’.
3. Make sure at least one of you showers and dries their hair the night before so you can leave before lunchtime the next day.
4. To aid with cost- splitting, set up a group cash kitty at the beginning of the trip and use this to cover breakfasts, fuel and group activities along the way.
5. Take some fun stuff for hotel-room parties, like sheet masks and hair treatments for post-geothermal-pool grooming.

 

Plan your trip to Iceland

Getting there

We flew from Johannesburg to Amsterdam with KLM. From R8000 return. Then, it’s a four-hour flight to Reykjavik with Icelandair. From R4000 return.

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The Jokulsarlon Lagoon. Image by Natalie Roos

Getting around

We booked a Subaru Forester because it had all-wheel drive. We took out all the insurance policies on offer, additional travel insurance and, of course, those snow tyres. Be sure to rent a GPS too. Google Maps can’t always be trusted. We paid about R11000 for the lot for nine days.

 

What it cost us

Flights: R13000 per person
Accommodation: R9000 per person (sometimes three to a room)
Vehicle: R3500 per person
Fuel: R1500 per person
Food, drinks and activities: R3000 per person
TOTAL R30000 per person

 

Need to know

South Africans need a visa. About R1800. Book at the end of winter for powdery snow almost daily and spectacular sightings of the Northern Lights. Currency is the Icelandic króna (R1 = 7kr). Credit-card facilities are common, as are ATMs. A local SIM loaded with 10GBs data is about R400 at duty free. Stock up on liquor there too (it’s super expensive otherwise).

 

Stay Here

Iceland is incredibly popular year-round so book well in advance. Always opt for the ‘breakfast included’ option. It’s much cheaper than paying for breakfast when you’re there.

Snow whips across the road, driven by icy polar winds; we found heaps of geothermal pools along the way (so don’t forget your swimsuit).

Icelandair Hotel, Egilsstaðir is in a great location, clean, tidy and good value. From R1200 per person B&B.

Vogafjós Guesthouse is near the baths at Mývatn and has a cosy restaurant inside a working dairy. Try the traditional lamb stew (R200). Rooms from R1200 per person (including breakfast).

Hvammstangi Cottages in the northwest are adorable but the town pretty much shuts down for the winter, so you’ll have to take snacks with for breakfast. From R791 per person.

 

Do This

Step inside the Vatnajökull glacier. It costs R3500 per person if you book in advance, but if you just rock up there’s a chance you’ll get a discount. We found a tour operator at the glacier.

Stand beneath the Skögafoss waterfall just outside the town of Skógar. Entrance is free. Swim in the geothermal pool at Laugar í Sælingsdal. You’ll find the location on Instagram.

Swim in the Mývatn Nature Baths. They’re the same colour as Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon but half the price and less crowded. From R450 per person.

Walk the fairy-lit streets of Egilsstaðir. It felt like Christmas.

Visit the harbour in Akureyri. I would have loved to spend two nights in this town. It has some great little coffee shops and restaurants.

Buy an iconic Icelandic jersey at the Kidka Wool Factory Shop in Hvammstangi. They cost around R2500.

 

 

 

Read the story in the August 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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