A self-driving expedition in Iceland comes with unprecedented thrills.
After a long flight to Amsterdam from New Delhi, we boarded an Icelandair flight to Reykjavik, Iceland. The aircraft had a beautifully illuminated interior recreating the fabulous display of the Aurora Borealis (commonly known as Northern Lights – a phenomenon in which collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere create bright, colourful light near the magnetic pole in the northern hemisphere). Iceland, with a population of only 325,000, has come into limelight in recent years when it’s banking system collapsed during the global financial crisis of 2008, and then with the volcanic eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull (try pronouncing it!) in 2010 which resulted in large parts of the European airspace being closed down. It is home to some of the largest glaciers in Europe and some of the world’s most active volcanoes. Long summer days with near 24-hours of sunshine are offset by short winter days with only few hours of daylight. Indeed, a country of extreme contrasts.
We were a group of 22 on a self-driving expedition in Iceland organized by ‘Adventures Overland’ – an adventure travel company run by Tushar Agarwal and Sanjay Madan who drove a Toyota Fortuner for 90,000 km through 50 countries in 6 continents of the world in one record-breaking road trip. Having arrived at Reykjavik on Saturday evening, we had a sumptuous dinner at ‘Grillmarket’ restaurant, then a pub crawl and 3.5 hours of sleep. I was the only one from Mumbai, but delighted to be in the company of adventure enthusiasts from all over India. Our Icelandic expedition with seven red Arctic Trucks commenced on Sunday morning along with the late sunrise at 10 am (vehicle being the indestructible Toyota Hilux, similar to one that Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear drove to the Magnetic North Pole). The Arctic Trucks were specially modified with 44’ wheels, snow tires, 4WD, differential locks and off-road suspension, purposefully engineered to gobble up extreme terrain and adverse conditions that are usual in Iceland.
Winding, snowy country roads through awe-inspiring mountains, the Hvalfjordur (fjord) and the world’s largest (albeit most controversial) ‘Whale Processing Factory’ soon brought us to Hraunfossar – a series of small waterfalls with pristine turquoise waters formed by rivulets from an old lava field. The contrasting colours against cloudy skies made for beautiful, unadulterated photographs that one can earn lifelong royalty on.
After a two-course, gourmet meal at Husafell hotel (serving delicious vegan food too!), we deflated our massive tires to 8 psi and the convoy started rolling towards Langjokull – the second largest glacier in Iceland. With low ratio 4WD, we were crawling up the extremely slippery and snowy glacier roads, navigating cautiously to ensure we don’t slide off the road. As we moved towards the top of the glacier, the conditions became more and more challenging. It was already 15:30, and sunset would happen in the next half hour. We were hoping to cross a mountain pass to get onto the other side quickly (and see the ice tunnels). But alas! The first car in the convoy got stuck. Then the third, and the fifth.
Suddenly, my Garmin fēnix® 3 gave a ‘Storm Alert’! I was amazed that this nifty smartwatch has technology that can really predict storms. And in a few minutes, there was a blizzard. The wind started blowing so fast that we could barely open our doors. It was getting dark and heavy snowfall dropped visibility to less than 10 meters. Even our massive tires were sinking in the snow – already over 2 feet thick. While we were safe, we started pondering over the possibility of roads getting blocked and the obnoxious idea of spending the night in our cars. It was reassuring that our mobile phones had full network coverage and 3G data even in a fierce blizzard on top of a glacier, thanks to the robust telecommunications infrastructure in Iceland. However, we had forgotten something. Our convoy leader from Iceland – Ingo (short for Ingolfur Bruun) – was 52 years old. He had encountered many such storms before. And when he got into action, the scene was straight out of a Hollywood movie!
Ingo was the hero – individually rescuing cars one by one, towing them, or skilfully driving them out of the snow. His grit, energy and calmness were inspiring (although he later admitted that the storm was amongst the more challenging ones he has encountered). Slowly and steadily after 2 hours in the blizzard, we made it down the glacier and retired for the day at the very chic Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel – rated amongst the best boutique hotels in the world – set amidst majestic mountainous lava fields.
Crossing the geothermal power station near our hotel and a beautiful mountain road alongside Pingvallavatn – the largest natural lake in Iceland – we visited Pingvellir National Park the next day. This is the place where the Icelandic Parliament was established in 930 AD, and lies in a rift valley where continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates can be clearly seen. We then stopped by the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall for lunch, and heard the story of a farmer who drilled into his farm to find irrigation water but instead, found a geothermal hot spring! He now makes a handsome living by supplying hot water to the neighbourhood, while farming has just become a hobby. Such fortunate souls do exist in this world!
Post-lunch, we departed for the other side of Langjokull. The weather turned stormy yet again, with negative temperatures and low visibility. Still, we wore our snow gear and went on a 1 hour long excursion of the glacier on some very powerful Yamaha Snowmobiles! It was thrilling to ride these machines. Even though some riders toppled over (I don’t know how?) and others were riding like disciplined school kids, a small bunch (including myself) touched speeds of close to 70 kmph – copiously satisfying the adrenaline junkie within us.
Later, we spent the night at Grimsborgir Hotel, located in a volcanic crater. The hotel owner greeted guests himself and ensured everything was taken care of – customer delight at its best. The next morning, driving through the stunning country roads with plains, mountains and rivers by the side, we crossed Hekla – one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, and Katla – another active volcano which is expected to erupt soon. We then stopped at Geysir – a periodically spouting geothermal hot spring that hurls boiling water up to 70 m in the air every 10 minutes (due to the pressure build up). It is a fascinating spectacle.
After a quick lunch at the isolated Hrauneyjar Guesthouse, we deflated our tires to climb a snowy mountain road towards Landmannalaugar, where we were to spend the night in a mountain hut. This 30+ km road is normally closed in winter due to snow accumulation, but our modified vehicles along with the local convoy leader gave us special access. Little did we know what we were getting into!
The snow on the road kept increasing every kilometre but we were driving confidently thinking we could tackle any terrain after our experience of the past two days. Until we reached a steep 2 km gradient, next to which was a valley with a frozen lake! It was already dark at 17:00, and Ingo in the Control Car asked the convoy to stop. He wanted to assess the road conditions and make a track for us to drive through. So he drove further, going back and forth through the snow. He tried for almost half hour, with little success. Suddenly and almost unexpectedly, as he was trying to back up, his car slid off the road onto the mountain slope! All four passengers in the car (including Ingo) jumped out fearing the car would topple (thank heavens it didn’t).
The next hour was the toughest part of our expedition. Ingo managed to tow the Control Car out, with people hanging onto the side to ensure it doesn’t topple. But then, all of us had to actually use shovels to create a track through 3-4 feet of snow for the next 1 km! It took us more than an hour to do so. On a mountain road with negative temperatures and thin air, this is not exactly an easy task. Once done, Ingo himself drove each and every car up through this patch, treading as slow as he could. ‘Slow is safe’. He had not expected such a perilous situation on our expedition. After this, we soon reached a mountain hut run by the Iceland Touring Association. It is on a flat mountain top by the side of a frozen lake and geothermal hot springs. The hut has a dorm rooms with sleeping bags, a kitchen for self-cooking and public washrooms.
Post dinner, a few brave souls (including me) ventured into the hot springs outside. The challenge was getting from the mountain hut to the hot spring in snow, while you are in swim-wear. We ran. Imagine floating in naturally warm water at 38oC, with -5oC outside, at midnight. The only things you can see are snow-clad mountains all around, shining bright under the moonlight. Even ‘heavenly’ under-describes the experience. Surreal.
Just when we thought we had seen it all, Ingo took us to a volcano the next day which now has a frozen lake on the crater. Here is where we experienced something we cannot get anywhere else in the world – ‘silence’. There was no wind. No flora and fauna. No living creature. Nothing around that moved. Even if we moved our hand, it made ‘noise’. We stood completely still for 2 minutes, staring into the volcano and experienced what silence actually means. It was like a dream. Unparalleled. And we could actually hear our hearts beating! Beat that.
The next day, we experienced an amazingly fun off-road drive through gravel, slush and rivers from Hotel Ranga to Gígjokull, Eyjafjallajokull volcano’s largest outlet glacier which has a tongue (and a cave underneath). This volcano’s eruption in 2010 went through 40 m of glacial ice, and filled a 70 m deep lake below the mountain with ash! Such is the power of nature.
We then visited Seljalandsfoss waterfall and the Sólheimasandur black sand beach – which has the twisted wreckage of a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane that was forced to crash land after experiencing severe icing. Fortunately, all crew survived but they left behind the fuselage and made it a tourist attraction. Smart. Both these locations were used in the Shah Rukh Khan starrer ‘Dilwale’ (Note: we are not crazy fans and visited Iceland before ‘Dilwale’ released).
This brought us to the last day of our expedition. It was dark and snowy when we started driving in the morning towards Reykjanes peninsula. With beautiful volcanic landscape on one side, mountains in the horizon, the sea on the other side, a full moon and a snow-clad road, this drive was an icing on the cake. It was so gorgeous that we hoped the road never ends. The road brought us to ‘Blue Lagoon’ – a geothermal spa in a lava field – which is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland and deservedly so. The warm, mineral rich water of the lagoon is known to cure many skin diseases. The setting was truly romantic (even for singles like me!), and the water rejuvenated every cell of our skin. After a delicious lunch, we returned back to Reykjavik, admiring the mysterious and majestic Hallgrímskirkja Church and finishing up with dinner at the ‘East India Company’ (yes, an Indian fine-dining restaurant in Iceland. Indian food is everywhere!). The feeling that the expedition had ended was yet to sink it.
Iceland is a sublime concoction of breath-taking vistas, magnificent mountains, beautiful glaciers, fiery volcanoes, spectacular waterfalls, fascinatingly spouting hot springs, ethereal lava fields, unparalleled adventure, hair-raising thrills, chic architecture, gourmet food and friendly people with inspiring professional ethics. It gave us a remarkably marvellous experience that we would cherish lifelong. It is nature in its purest form. Unadulterated. A photographer’s dream come true.
Limca Book of Records will feature our group as the first Indian expedition to drive over glaciers in Iceland. Admittedly, we did miss the Northern Lights due to erratic weather, but that gives me just another reason to visit Iceland once again!
The author, Rishit Dalal, is an entrepreneur, adventurer, petrolhead and marathon runner. He currently runs Centralmart.in – a revolutionary marketplace for interior and home products. All views shared are personal.