We arrived in Iceland on February 1st, in the afternoon. After picking up our camper van, our home on wheels for the week and putting some of our suitcases in storage by the airport, we set off toward Reykjavík. We stopped to pick up some basic groceries, and drove into town as it quickly became evening. February is the middle of winter, and the days in Iceland are short, so by the time we got to the restaurant we had read about it was already dark out.
That first meal, we shared a hotdog topped with duck confit, and an order of fish and chips, while I sipped a refreshing Icelandic cider, and my husband chose a beer on the recommendation of a very knowledgable bartender, which he said was exceptional. We found that it is really easy to get by speaking English in Iceland. Even as we ventured out of the city, we had no problem communicating.
Camping in Reykjavik
We proceeded to Reykjavík campsite, which in the winter shares facilities with the hostel next to it, and quickly met what we thought initially was a group of friends traveling together. It turned out that only two of the four actually came together. The others had also just met. So we all went to a bar together, on the way catching our first, and sadly only glimpse of the Northern lights, a green glow in the sky, in places bright, and others so faint that one could almost be imagining it. February is generally considered a good month to see the Aurora borealis, because the nights are long, and the tilt of the earth puts the north in a good position for it, but this can all still be countered by cloud cover, which is also common. I feel really lucky to have caught that first look.
The next day we were very excited to visit Circus Iceland, and join in their daily training. My husband and I are circus artists specializing in static duo trapeze, which means that there are two of us together on one bar, which we endeavor not to swing. Circus in Iceland is young, while the tradition of circus arts in Europe dates back past the Napoleonic era, and even in America can easily be traced back to the advent of the railroad, in Iceland there seems to be one company, which is a youthful ten years old. However, this young program, founded by a New Zealand/Australia/South Africa transplant to Iceland when he arrived in the country ten years ago, draws talent and expertise from Iceland and around the world. They train in a beautiful gymnastics facility five days a week, and we were introduced to several upcoming duo trapeze artists interested in taking a workshop from us.
After teaching, and getting some stretching and conditioning in ourselves, we started driving. Our first destination was Geysir, to see the geothermal area, so we set off inland. We were immediately taken with the vastness and also variety of Icelandic landscapes. We drove through landscapes of all white, snow covered mountains bordering at the edges of our line of sight, and vast snow covered expanse. Later the expanse turned the stark black of volcanic rock and sand, with sharply contrasting white snow, and the blue gleam of glacial ice in the distance. It was our first taste of the land of ice and fire.
Because of the nature of our job in the circus, we have been fortunate to have traveled a lot. We have had the chance to visit geothermal areas also in New Zealand, and in the United Sates, so we immediately recognized the distinctive sulphur smell as we stepped out of the car. We got to admire the steam vents, and see a beautiful water spout, half it seemed turning right to steam in the cold winter air. We even felt the heat coming off of some of the crystal clear pools, and saw a group of scientists taking sediment samples.
We tried to do most of our driving in daylight during this trip, not wanting to miss anything along the way, but as we left Geysir the sun was setting, and we decided to press on toward Vík, our second destination. We drove for about an hour when on the left, illuminated in the dark, we saw a waterfall probably about 50 meters high. This is what we loved about having the camper van. “Obviously,” we said to each other, “we have to go over there.” So we did. Picking our way slowly and carefully along the icy path we approached the waterfall. It was lit by a huge spotlight pointing up from the ground so that the falling water seemed to glow against the black cliff face. The path took us to the edge of the pool and we stood alone in the icy spray. We decided then to camp near the waterfall, and see it in the morning daylight before continuing on.
The next morning in the light we found no less than three bus loads of tourists admiring the waterfall. The path had thawed a bit since the night before, and we saw people walking the path behind the falls, although we decided not to ourselves on account of the spray and the ice. I am glad we did most of the driving in the daytime, the journey being the point of the trip, but I am also glad we got that magical moment with the waterfall in the dark.
From there we continued on to Vík to see the black sand beach and basalt columns. This was for sure one of the highlights of our trip. A cold wind ripped at our hair as we made our way down the beach, the sands pitch black, blacker than any we had seen before. Slowly we walked down the beach, admiring the contrast of the white breakwater against the soft black sand and the sharp edges of basalt columns rising up from the rolling beach. I would like to include a warning here, which is that we walked down the beach a ways, passing a couple stunning caves, and then noticed that the tide seemed to be coming in, and went back in a bit of a hurry so as not to get wet, or worse, stranded. So please, be aware of tides.
What we read about there no really being barriers in Iceland was true, but there are signs and warnings, and the expectation is that you respect nature, both to protect it, and because it could kill you. It is delicate and powerful.
We then drove into the town on Vík to find a warm lunch before driving on. We found a casual lunch counter where we sampled a traditional Icelandic lamb soup, which we found warm and hearty. Then we continued east along the south coast toward the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
When we were first planning this trip I had put together a rough itinerary with not too much driving, along only the south coast, centering around an ice cave tour I had booked for February 4th. Unfortunately as we were making our way along, we got an email (thanks rent.is for providing on the go WiFi service in the camper vans) saying that because of the rain and warm weather the ice caves were all flooded and tours were canceled and would be refunded.
Of course we were disappointed that we wouldn’t get to see them, but we appreciated that going into a flooded ice cave would not be safe, and that of course, it was weather dependent. This is again a situation where February is supposed to be a good month for such things, being the middle of winter, but you still have to respect the variability of weather, and stay flexible, so it was at this point that we decided that instead of doing just the south coast, we would drive the whole Ring road around Iceland, taking advantage of the extra time we now found we had.
All the driving go we did in Iceland took us through many different landscapes the likes of which we had never seen. One notable example was the moss covered volcanic boulder field stretching as far as the eye could see, soft green mounds forming a whimsical landscape that could almost have come from Dr. Seuss. We saw geothermal areas with their multicolored earth and steam rising from mounds, and two big volcanic craters their black surfaces veined with white snow. My main takeaway from this trip was surely the vastness and variety of the vistas.