We woke up feeling very refreshed in the campsite at Isafjordur. We made ourselves breakfast and packed up the van, reversing as quietly as we could out of the campsite where many people were still sleeping. Icelanders on holidays don’t seem too concerned with getting moving early, but I guess when you have 22 hours of daylight a day in summer, you can move at your own pace.
We drove out of Isafjordur and took the road back towards the Ring Road, which led us around some pretty isolated and amazing fjords and scenery. Iceland definitely has a rhythm of sweeping curves – from the long, green and brown hillsides that drop into the ocean, to the finger-like fjords that jut out as headlands, then pull back to the mainland, pulling the ribbon of road with them. We saw more sheep than cars on the road, and saw any number of waterfalls and amazing views.
We rejoined the Ring Road and started making our way east, through landscape dotted with smaller towns and single dwellings.
We settled for the night in Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland, which nestles in the north. Akureyri is a hub for adventure – whale-watching tours and four wheel drive expeditions leave from there pretty regularly. We stopped and had a walk around the main street to get a feel for the place, and saw some interesting street art and architecture there. We ended up settling in a campsite that borders a forest to the south, and cooked some dinner before settling in for the evening.
Friday morning we packed up and drove out to Godefoss, a famous waterfall in Iceland. When Iceland made the formal decision to convert to Christianity in about 1000 AD, the Lawkeeper brought the idols of the old gods out to this waterfall and cast them in, symbolically discarding them in favour of the Christian God. Hence its name – The Waterfall Of The Gods. Godefoss is a roaring crescent, very different to the other waterfalls of Iceland’s hills – instead of a long, slender drop, it’s a thundering, continuous cascade, throwing up a glistening wall of mist. It’s definitely remarkable – even in a swarm of tourists and buses, it really holds your attention.
We then went north to Husavik, which is the main whale-watching site, to have a look around and see if the whale-watching and puffin-watching tours were available. Husavik sits on a geological fault line and the regular shifts cause huge emissions of plankton into the bay, which draws quite a few different species of whale to the area every summer, including humpbacks, orcas and even blue whales. We checked out the tours, but the cost and available times would have meant we weren’t leaving Husavik until late afternoon. We decided instead to strike east, to a town famous for its puffin colonies, and push across the north-east of the island.
On the way through, we stumbled across a geothermal field, Namafjall Hverir. First, we saw a lake of incredible blue, next to a geothermal energy plant. Then, around the corner, we found a flat field of alkali and geothermal vents (and many tourist buses) so we stopped to investigate. The smell of sulfur was overpowering – Icelanders use geothermal heat and energy for a lot of things, and regularly joke about ‘rotten-egg’ showers as a result. The landscape feels uninhabitable, more like something out of a science fiction movie than the rest of Iceland’s lush greens, rich blues and crisp whites. We walked around the plain, looking at the bubbling acid sinkholes and the sand discolouration, and checking out the cairns that are built over the vents, like stone chimneys.
We struck out east again, making it through a couple of the larger towns before we hit the road to Borgarfjordur Eystri, our destination. We were about halfway there when some weather started coming up from the west, hitting us first with strong wind then rain. Then, as we took a gravel/dirt road up the mountainside to cross over into Borgarfjordur Eystri, the mist and cloud descended, covering the road completely. This, as you can imagine, is not a fun feeling – visibility was down to about ten feet, and Icelandic roads aren’t known for their spaciousness or safety. We emerged from the cloud layer at the base of the hill, and drove across to Borgarfjordur Eystri and into the campsite, which was also shrouded in rainfall and black cloud. A quick check of the forecast made it clear that we’d need to stay until the storm lifted on Sunday morning to see any puffins, which would blow our timing right out. So we decided to drive out again and head south, thinking that if we stayed until the morning, the roads might be a lot worse after a full night’s worth of rain.
We headed out and back up the mountain, losing visibility just as we had before. The rain was pelting harder now, and we were being very cautious not to lose traction or control, with a huge drop on one side and solid rock face on the other. We crested the hill, then, about halfway down, the engine suddenly started making a thumping noise that we originally thought was a flat tyre. We pulled over and checked the tyres, but realised the engine had a big problem and was rapidly deteriorating. So we called our rental company (who were amazingly helpful) and then, while they found a local mechanic to come out and take a look, bundled ourselves up in the back and watched Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby on the Surface, which we’d downloaded for nostalgia’s sake a while ago!!
A word here about this experience. Imagine you’re sitting in the back of a small van, in a thoroughly unrelenting storm, perched on a corner of a dirt road, on a mountainside, in a foreign country. Occasionally, cars stop and see if you’re okay (Germans and Americans excel, in this regard, making sure we had food and water as well). You can see sheep huddled behind natural rock walls, looking like sodden cotton balls and staring back at your hazard-light-blinking bulk with a sullen stoicism. The wind is hammering the side of the van, and because you’re sat up high in the back on the mattress, you feel a bit top-heavy and unstable. You have no idea when help is coming, except that it is coming at some point this evening. In this set of circumstances, the ludicrous antics of Johnny Depp are a perfect antidote to any concern or discomfort you might be feeling, particularly if you’re tucked up with your fiancée in a sleeping bag and eating crisps.
Our mechanic and his daughter eventually arrived, and quickly found that one of our spark plugs had unscrewed itself and leapt from the engine, thereby screwing us. Sarah sat in their huge and amply-modified four-wheel drive while the mechanic, who spoke very little English, jumped in the driver’s seat of our tiny car and, without much in the way of warning, took the handbrake off and rolled the car down the soggy, undulating mountain road, with the windows cracked to demist the windscreen and one hand on the handbrake. This was an interesting experience for me, tucked up in the passenger seat as I was, not quite knowing what the plan entailed. We came to a coasting halt about 3 kilometres down the hill, on the flat (but still gravelly) road.
Our van was then linked up to the giant four-wheel drive, and while our mechanic simultaneously steered, made phone calls to the motorhome company to do a progress report and get instructions and tut-tutted every time his daughter did something he didn’t like driving-wise, we made our way through the ongoing storm to Reydarfjordur, about a ninety minute drive away. Sarah and I had different experiences of this journey; hers involved a big, spacious four-wheel drive, with heated seats, chatting away in reasonably good English with the mechanic’s daughter. Mine was more a companionable silence (as my Icelandic and the mechanic’s English were similarly sparse) looking out at the rain, in a car with no heating and the windows down to stop the windscreen fogging up.
They dropped us off at a campsite, positioning the van so we could sleep in it, and told us our motorhome company would be bringing us a new car overnight, and would be here in the morning. We hastily prepped the van without getting too wet in the rain, had a drink and a chuckle about our adventure, and went to sleep, waiting to see what Saturday would bring.