A couple of weekends ago I took an overnight trip to the south coast of Iceland. To get there you drive out of Reykjavík through the eastern outskirts of the city, past Árbær and Grafavogur, and make a right turn onto Route 1. Route 1 is the ring road that encircles all of Iceland - around an 18-hour drive with no stops and cooperative weather.
Route 1 takes you out past Heiðmörk, a vast nature reserve and water reservoir area on the eastern side of the city. Then it dashes past the skiing mountain Bláfjöll and up into a long mountain pass.
At the foot of every highway mountain pass in Iceland is a blue sign that tells you the weather - wind speed and temperature - at the top of the pass. If things are bad up there, it's best to wait. Fortunately, there is a cute green-roofed coffeehouse at the base of this pass, with a commanding view back over Reykjavík and Esja. They serve incredible soup there, as can be found in just about every roadside gas station in the country.
The pass was looking fine at the time so I continued through it. It's quite staggering scenery in the pass, when it's not too foggy, with a gentle green carpet of mossy lava leading to mountains that rise steeply into the fog on both sides of the highway.
Coming out of the pass you can see the cozy town of Hveragerði nestled in a geothermal valley below. Steam pours out of cracks in the mountainsides above the town. Hveragerði is where Iceland grows a lot of fresh produce and flowers in steam-heated greenhouses. At night many of the greenhouses are lit up glowingly from inside.
Selfoss is the next town on, and with 3,000 people it's kind of the valley metropolis. It even has its own Toyota franchise. And the most-cantilevered gas station in the Olís fleet. It's a pleasant place, with a "Main Street, I.C.E." feel and a store that sells dairy products at a discount.
After Selfoss, you pass through the Kansas of Iceland, a half-hour stretch of road through flat farmland. (Fortunately, this Kansas is a lot quicker to cross than the original.) On a clear day, rising from the plains of Icekansas, you can see Hekla
, the massive snow-topped volcano forever memorialized in the Boston area by the Hekla pastry sold at Carberry's. (In the Boston version, the snow cap is made of delicious white frosting.) Unlike the relatively inert pastry version, the real Hekla could blow her top any year now, as she does about every 10 years.
The flatland has two small towns, Hella and Hvölsvöllur, and Route 1 goes straight through them both. The second town, Hvölsvöllur, has some production buildings used by the SS hot dog company, whose unfortunate mascots are a pair of boy-and-girl hot dog people, each holding a hot dog. The hot dog people are painted to cover one side of a warehouse
in Hvölsvöllur. Something had bothered me about these mascots and then Lyle put his finger on it when he said, "They're eating their own kind!"
At the far end of the Icelandic plains there is a ridge of mountains, and standing out from these quite spectacularly is Seljalandsfoss
, a waterfall that tumbles straight off of a precipice and falls maybe 10 storeys before pummeling a pool that looks much too small for the crushing volume of water from above. There is a slippery path leading around behind the falls, and if you're careful, and you don't mind the occasional face-blasting glacial mist, you can go back there into a kind of waterfall-cave and look out at the plains beyond through a veil
of gushing water.
Just past Seljalandsfoss, tumbling down a mountainside, is a place I call Rockslide City
. There are boulders here as big as houses, and one the size of an office building that you can see from a couple of miles away. Stopping the car to look up a steep hillside at solemn boulders poised directly above is one sure way to feel alive and glad about it. And also glad to be driving out from under the rocks afterward. Directly off the coast near Rockslide City are the Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands) which look collectively like a distant rocky sine wave sticking up out of the sea, miles offshore and faint in a sunny mist.
Brooding over the farms in this area is Mýrdalsjökull, a vast white glacier that acts as a lid on the lesser mountains it engulfs. Covered completely by this glacier is the volcano Katla, which erupts about every hundred years, melting the glacial ice above it and sending vast floods (jökulhlaupur) gushing down into the valley below and the sea beyond. (This volcano-under-glacier phenomenon happened last November, in the Grimsvotn volcano which sits under the largest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajökull.) Katla is also due for an eruption in the next few years. Looking up at the glacier Mýrdalsjökull, it is hard to believe sometimes that it is really ice. My New England eyes have a hard time imagining so much ice, so high in the sky, sitting over the mountains. I keep thinking it's a cloud
and every time I figure it out again, it seems more unlikely, more beautiful, and more ominous.
Further along the coast is the island of Dýrholaey
, a giant fortress of rock rising out of the sea, with an enormous natural bridge in the bottom where sea water can pour through. Near to Dýrholaey is the black sand beach at Reynisandur, a vast expanse of coarse graphite-colored sand and smooth black stones. Walking onto the beach at Reynisandur, the first thing I noticed was a giant pipe organ
, rising up out of the black sand. The pipes were basalt columns, several feet on a side, and they blend in with the mountain that rises above them. Further down the beach, the waves have carved a cave
out of the basalt columns, and walking into the cave is like sneaking into the works of the organ. Sawed-off basalt pipes form the roof
of the cave and it felt as though I was inside a giant stone machine.
Past Reynisandur, Route 1 climbs up into the mountains and then turns and winds down the side of a mountain and ends up as the main street of the town of Vík í Mýrdal
, home to 310 people. It's a picturesque village nestled in a valley surrounded by steep mountains, and fronting the seaside with it's very own black sand beach. It's the southernmost and the rainiest town in Iceland.
When I arrived there in Vík
it was just past nightfall and the town was so blanketed in fog I couldn't find the hostel where I was staying. I called for directions from the deserted police station-bank combo (guess it's a pretty good combo, actually - how come we never do this in the States?), but didn't want to swallow my pride and switch to English, so the combo of evening fog and my own linguistic fog landed me at an old folks' home instead of the hostel. There was an old woman knitting on her porch and when I asked her in broken Icelandic for directions she yelled inside, "Jón, komdu og talaðu við útlendinginn!" ("John come out and talk to the foreigner!") and a funny-toothed old man came out. Before I knew it he was in my car, giving me rights and lefts like an irate NYC taxi passenger. I kept asking him things in Icelandic, and he kept insisting that I speak English with him, but when I did he had no idea what I was saying. So I kept switching back to Icelandic.
He got me to the hostel, which was really just around the corner (there aren't too many streets in Vík, after all) and once I knew where it was I dropped him back off at his place. He gave me a big handshake and all kinds of well wishes and went puttering back inside.
The next morning I went on more exploring. Just past Vík are the black sand flats of Mýrdalssandur. A black road turns off from Route 1 and cuts across some mossy rocks before arriving at Hjörleifshöfði, a rocky head that juts up out of the black sand flats like an island. There are paths up to the top of Hjörleifshöfði and when I climbed up there, I found the grassed-in ruins
of an old farm. It was haunted there, no sound but the wind, and for me a real feeling of not being totally alone there, of being in a place where people had lived for centuries and just recently left.
At the base of Hjörleifshöfði on the seaward side is an immense cliff
, pockmarked with caves and depressions, and screaming with the cacophony of thousands of whirling, diving, and sitting gulls. I nicknamed it Birdland
, and hiked up to the level of the lowest birdcaves.
The dirt road continues past Hjörleifshöfði and Birdland
and then suddenly there is nothing. Just sand. And it goes off in all directions, flat, so it felt as though I was driving on the surface of a vast calm sea
. I continued to drive out across the sand - the "road" was marked 4x4 only but was not so much a road as an arbitrary path down to the ocean's edge. It goes for miles before reaching the water, though, and on this foggy morning, I got to a place
where all I could see was my jacket, the car, the grey of the fog, the green of crashing waves, and black sand fading off in both directions. It was a sci-fi kind of place, a place you wake up into in a movie. There was nothing about it that resembled anywhere else I had been. And when I yelled out, my voice was muffled and tiny and I was lost in that endless and ancient place.
You can see more pictures of the South Coast here