While driving the ring road around Iceland in July, we discovered that the country is a drama queen. However, Iceland is not the only drama queen.
Our car, Heidi the Hyundai, turned out to be the complaining sort. As my husband, Kyle, and I drove on June 30 from the relatively warm, lush, green coast of Iceland to the stark interior highlands, temperatures dropped precipitously. Every time the temperature dropped into the 30s Heidi the Hyundai dinged in alarm. She griped persistently as we crossed from the northeast fjords to Lake Mývatn, an active volcanic area in the northern interior.
Before leaving for Iceland, I inquired about mosquitoes. Our AirBnB hostess let us know that Lake Mývatn in the summer is a win-win situation. The lakes in Iceland do not breed mosquitoes, they generate midges. Either we would have nice weather and maddening clouds of midges, or cold windy weather and no midges. We were blessed with no midges.
As we toured the Krafla Geothermal area with its delightful boiling mud pots and hissing malodorous steam vents, we were grateful that we had brought a duffle bag filled with down coats, boots and winter gear — even if it did cost us $120 to ship it on the plane. Hiking through lava that quit flowing in 1984, we delighted in boiling lakes, colorful mineral mosaics, flower-like lava boulders, giant stone mushrooms, and tucking our cold hands into hot steaming vents. It was all so stinking fun!
A continuously running hot shower, blowing in the frigid wind, was set up for campers use alongside the road. Iceland provides an abundance of bathing opportunities, mostly in the form of geothermal pools, but toilets appear to be considered a more optional amenity. Since no trailheads in the area, regardless of how busy they were, were equipped with porta-potties, we were relieved (literally) to find a very nice, clean visitors center at the fascinating geothermal electrical plant. Posted in the “water closet” was a sign requesting that visitors not wash their boots in the toilets.
Equally entertaining was the pictorial sign at the town of Geysir: “How to use a western toilet. Please do not stand on the toilet.”
Better yet was the sign at a seaport petrol station: “In case of a bodily waste emergency — please use the public restrooms (downtown).” On rare occasion, a porta-potty was provided at one of the many road pullouts. On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the porta-potty was chained to a concrete pad to prevent it from blowing away.
Personal needs taken care of; we took a nap in the car before hiking the stark Stóra-Víti crater rim with an aqua lake far below. The nap was an excellent choice. It gave time for the weather to deteriorate into a violent snowstorm.
I literally feared being blown into the crater while we perfected the Icelandic shuffle — feet facing forward and the rest of the body facing away from the “ice-wind.” Having successfully circumnavigated the rim and determined that the lake looked the same from all sides, we hunched into our down coats, backs to the ice-wind and delightedly watched downdraft patterns skitter across the otherwise calm lake far below.
On Day 9, Kyle finally got to wear the sunglasses he’d packed. Understandably we delayed resuming our road trip that morning and instead hiked twisting trails through weirdly contorted lava columns formed when lava oozed up into water. Pods of tour buses disgorged minnow-like schools of tourists onto the paved paths.
One group of minnows diverted down a dirt path. When they bumped up against an ingenious triangular sheep gate, they realized they had strayed off course. Immediately they turned back, bolting in terror at the thought of their undoubtedly disgruntled tour guide. Either that or they were fleeing the trolls reputed to live among the lava columns.
At length, we set off for far reaches of northwest Iceland, just below the Arctic Circle. On a deserted stretch of road (there are lots of them), a driver impatiently passed us. Immediately after, his kayak blew off his roof rack.
Only in Iceland must one beware of trolls and flying kayaks.
Tunnels in Iceland, especially in the north, are an experience all their own. Often three and four miles long, the most unforgettable tunnel was a single lane with pullouts. It was like playing chicken with the oncoming headlights. As I repeatedly quivered in the pullouts, I was beginning to despair of ever making it through the tunnel. Then from behind, a garbage truck thundered past forcing the oncoming drivers that had intimidated me — to quiver in the pullouts.
The Atlantic Ocean Gulf Stream warms the coast of Iceland, so even in the north, Iceland is ringed by pastoral farms. There is little snow accumulation in northwest Iceland. It all blows away. Innumerable round bales of partially cured hay are shrink-wrapped in often colorful plastic. In Iceland, sheep rule. Nearly all of Iceland is open range.
It is not unusual to see a ewe placidly standing in the road with twin lambs nursing, tails waggling furiously. Second in abundance are strikingly handsome Icelandic horses. Coming in at a distant third are cows. We could smell the presence of cows in their dairy barns but rarely saw them. By law, the hard-working cows are given one month of vacation out in the fields a year. In contrast, sheep and horses winter out in the fields. Farmers assured us the animals are just fine — as long as they have plenty of hay. One breed of sheep, boasting six-inch-long nearly straight hair, turns into puffballs in the wind. The horses’ winter coat is easily four inches long.
That evening we stayed at Herman’s farm. The weather was perfect for riding the horses he uses to round up sheep out of the highlands in September. To reach his sheep, he rides his horses straight up the mountain and straight back down.
We knew we were in for a phenomenal ride when his wife loosely held the reins of four stout little horses while he tossed on the saddles, usually without a saddle pad. Although we have ridden horses all our lives, we have never had a ride like this one.
We were instructed to hold the horses’ heads tight, causing the ponies to collect their feet under them. As we trotted out in the countryside, I could see the shadow of my head moving smoothly along with nary a bounce.
In the morning, clouds began to gather as we visited Europe’s only fish leather tannery. The fascinating process produces fish leather that is three times as strong as cow leather. A purse made with fish leather easily runs $300.
As we drove down the west coast of Iceland and along the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the countryside was mostly obscured by low clouds and rain, so we decided to take a dip in one of Iceland’s famous hot spring pools. We located a little out-of-the-way place and settled into delightfully warm mineral and algae rich water along with a few families.
At length, a small tour group of aging Spaniards joined us. Because no chlorine is used, the spotlessly clean little establishment insists on full showers without a swimsuit before entering the pools.
One lady misunderstood the requirements and stepped out in front of God and everybody wearing only her birthday suit — until the realization sunk in that she was the only one present thus attired. The poor woman was only on Day 3 of a 14-day tour.
Iceland is not the only drama queen.