W1610 – ‘ice driving

My last post, W1610 – Springs and Falls, described my tour in Akureyri in the north of Iceland; and the scenic sailing around the north-west of the island to the capital, Reykjavik.

Early on Sunday morning we duly sailed into Reykjavik, berthing a little way out from the town centre. We were staying in port overnight, giving us two days to explore Iceland from it’s capital. I had elected to do a very long tour on the first day, and a short one on the second afternoon, leaving me some free time to explore the town on the second morning.

The long tour meant an early breakfast at 7am, as we had to check in at 7:40 for the tour, so I missed seeing us sail into port. This was not that important as I have visited Reykjavik once before on an earlier cruise, and knew the approach was not especially scenic.

Instead of the usual coaches, today’s tour was in four wheel drive super trucks with huge wheels. The vehicle I was allocated carried nine passengers as well as the local driver. There were five vehicles in total, and the lead vehicle also carried a local guide, who gave a commentary to all of the vehicles by a radio link as we drove along.

The tour was to explore the interior of the island, and these super trucks allowed us to take rough roads and even go very much off road with ease.

Our first stop was at the Thingvellir National Park, some 50km inland. This is one of the top tourist attractions in Iceland, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It features in the “must do” tour in Iceland – The Golden Circle – which I did on my last visit, so it was good that our very early start meant we were there before the hordes arrived by the coach-load. The park is at the point where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are separating by a couple of centimetres a year, and features dramatic and stunning scenery. It is also of historic interest too, as it is where the world’s oldest parliament used to convene every year.

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Leaving the park as the coaches began to arrive, we soon left the tarmac main road and headed off down a dusty gravel track along the ‘Cold Valley’:

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The track steadily climbed up into the mountains, the vehicles making easy work of the conditions and giving a remarkably smooth ride considering. Occasionally we shot past the occasional car brave or foolish enough to be venturing the same way, as we were able to make much more rapid progress. We had to keep all the windows tightly closed due to all the dust the vehicles raised, despite the warmth of a lovely clear sunny day, so it was good when after some time we stopped to stretch our legs and take in some clear mountain air. The views here were dramatic:

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After a few minutes we returned to our vehicles to resume our climb high into the mountains. Before long we reached our spectacular goal, the edge of the Langjökull glacier. The glacier is a continuous, solid shield of ice, in places up to 900 meters thick. With an area of approximately 1000 square kilometres it is the island’s second largest glacier.

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Here we paused briefly whilst the drivers let some air out of the huge tyres, and then we carried on, driving up the glacier itself! To start with the glacier surface was quite pitted with cracks and track marks, but as we climbed higher we veered off to a smoother ‘virgin’ surface.

Nearing the top of the glacier the trucks came to a halt, and we all carefully stepped out onto the snow and ice to take in the majestic and stupendous views around us:

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This was a very unique and special experience, and I was all too glad I had chosen this tour, and so grateful that the fair weather gods were still with us and the weather was so perfect – the guide said he had not known such a good clear day up there for weeks!

All too soon we very reluctantly climbed back into the trucks for the drive back down off the glacier. Once off the ice the trucks paused while the drivers used compressors under the back seats of each truck to re-inflate the tyres.

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After about half an hour’s drive, mostly on gravel tracks and finally on tarmac, we reached a restaurant in Húsafell where we enjoyed a buffet lunch.

It was only a few minutes drive from there to two adjacent waterfalls – Hraunfoss and Barnafoss. On our way to the restaurant we had seen a rather brown and dirty looking river (from all the volcanic dust) and the guide had informed us it was called the White River. He explained that the river disappears into the lava field where it gets filtered, and emerges at the falls clean, and agitated by the waterfalls it certainly looked white!

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The final part if the tour took us along more gravel roads through lovely mountains and past rivers and lakes, until we reached the coast at Hvalfjörður (Whale) Fjord – so named both for the whales that frequent the fjord, and for the whaling stations that once lined it’s shores. Instead of taking the modern tunnel under the fjord, we took the old and scenic route around it’s shoreline, and then continued to follow the coast back to Reykjavik and our waiting ship.

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At 9 hours and 20 minutes this was a very long and demanding tour – but a brilliant tour giving some spectacular and long lasting memories of a unique experience – nice driving on the ice!

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