It was a white wash. Visibility was barely a foot in front of the car. The fact that we had the soundtrack of Inception playing made it ever more ominous and eerie. Dre was completely focused; the windscreen wipers were brushing the snow and sleet rapidly building up. We were not on this planet; we were in Southern Iceland, in the land of fire and ice.
I’d been in Reykjavík for a few days already and spent the weekend with my friend Ber. We’d toured the town, husky dog sledge in deep powdery snow in the middle of the night and bathed into the blue lagoon. It had been magical few days, but what I had planned ahead, was going to be something else.
I’d been friends with Dre for more than a decade. One of the first times I’d met him he was lying on his driveway with his head in a bucket. It was his 18th birthday party. I’m not quite sure how we got from there to here really. In the time frame of our friendship (over 10 years now!) he’d created one of the largest digital companies in Australia and had recently quit his job to travel around the world (talk about inspirational!). We’d been through some of life’s highs and lows together, shared a lot of the same perspectives and philosophies – and I was excited (albeit somewhat scared of this friendship-tester) that I’d get to spend a week with him, travelling together was something we’d always talked about and never had the chance to do.
I’d been keen head to Iceland in the sinter after seeing Chris Burkard‘s amazing photos and extensively researching what conditions would be like that time of the year. Iceland isn’t so popular in the winter for obvious reasons – the cold, the snow, the unpredictable weather, shortened sunlight hours… but to me it sounded like one giant adventure. Having survived and embraced a Kazakh winter, I was ready for my first real white adventure. It didn’t take much convincing for Dre to hop onboard with my crazy idea.
The plan was to drive the Ring Road (aka. Highway 1) and stop at all the top attractions along the way. I booked us onto a ‘Self Drive Tour’ with Iceland Roadtrip. This included rental vehicle, accommodation and any activities we wanted to do along the way. It turned out that pre-booking with a tour agency was a bit of a life saver when we had to make last minute changes to our plans .
On the first night (after Dre arrived) we went out to see the Northern Lights – wow. The next morning, still shaking our heads in disbelief at the night that changed our lives we picked up our Toyota Landcruiser (because you don’t want to be stuck in a snowstorm in a Kia – just saying) and headed out of the city shortly after the 10 am sunrise.
Road trip time!
The scenery was surreal, it was out of the planet, it was squeal-worthy, and squeal we did. The white, the vast whiteness. For two Australians who were both experiencing their first true winter, it was unbelievable. About an hour or so out of the city my Google Maps indicated that our first point of interest was approaching: Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. We’d been playing Dre’s ‘Iceland’ playlist and coincidentally the theme song of Inception came on just as we saw it in the distance: water bursting from the ice-cold blue cliffs. “Is this it?”, I asked Dre – eyes wide open with bewilderment. “This is it”, Dre responded; mouth open, gaping at this gorgeous view right in front of us. We’d never seen anything like it, frozen waterfall anyone? Yes please!
As we pulled into the car park we sat motionless for a good minute, staring blankly ahead of us. Never had we seen anything so magnificent. Little did we know that each waterfall we saw on this trip would surpass the last in awe and beauty.
Our next stop was Skógafoss waterfall, and just when we thought we would be prepared, it blew us right out of the water.
We were at Skógafoss so long we missed our snow mobile/glacier hike, that and the weather was changing. We were warned of a snow storm approaching but thinking we had time we attempted to visit the ‘plane wreck‘ however within one kilometer of coming off the highway we were turned around by Icelandic Search & Rescue stating that the dirt road was impassable. By that point, it was a white wash… so we went outside to take some photos and commentary video of course.
Still in semi-denial that we’d be losing half a day of our road trip (just as it was getting started), we turned down the road heading to Reynisdrangar, the infamous black sand beach located just outside of Vik. It didn’t take long before the snow storm hit and I thought it would be a great idea (not) to jump out of the car and get footage of the snow sweeping across the road (because it was so mesmerizing). To my dismay I was nearly swept off the road and wasn’t able to shut the car door because the wind gust was so strong! Finally appreciating that mother nature isn’t to be messed with (and after I eventually got the car door closed) and we turned around and headed straight to Vik before we risked getting bogged.
By the time we pulled into our hotel so much snow had fallen that we were struggling to see the road and had to guess by the markers where we were going. The hotel staff informed us that the next day another even bigger snow storm would hit after lunch. Ambitiously we decided to leave early (9am just before sunrise) to try to see the glacier at Svínafellsjökull before the storm…
In the morning we’d been snowed in (about 2 feet to be exact) and we had to get a plow/bucket-digger to dig the car out! We checked the passage to Svínafellsjökull on road.is and was disappointed but not surprised that it was a category “Black”, only one criteria short of “Impassable”. The road was completely covered in snow with only the tops of the yellow markers showing us the way. We passed a KIA and five Chinese tourists who had slid horizontally off the road on a bridge (dangerously about to slide into the bridge barrier) and hopped out to assist them. It would be like this our whole trip, strangers looking out for strangers in these extreme environments.
We were barely crawling on the highway and given the conditions (snowed out roads, poor visibility and traction, strong wind gusts and heavy snow fall) we made the call to pulled into Hunkubakkar Guesthouse in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a small town located half way between Vik and Svínafellsjökull. We’d only driven 65 kilometers in 2.5 hours…
At the guest house we met others who were stranded due to the snow storm and around about 4pm the electricity cut out and we were informed that this was the worst storm to pass through this area in the last decade! Dre and I bunked down and wrapped ourselves in our respective duvet (in our rapidly cooling cabin) and watched “Touching the Void”, because we love to exacerbate snow storm lock-ins with documentaries about near death experiences on top of frozen mountains! Whoo!
In the evening we (and the other guests) were invited to have a candle lit cold dinner. We were joined by a British, German and Swiss couple. As the night went on, so did the banter and the drinks. About five shots of “Black Death” (Icelandic Vodka) later, and a couple of massive beers we were all stumbling home in the dark, half drunk through a snow storm. Dre and I both swear we saw the Northern Lights that night through the storm clouds during the “walk” back…
Or maybe that was just the Black Death kicking in?
The next day, the storm had passed and we all pulled together to dig our cars out. We bid farewell to our survival friends and went on our way to the glacier. On arrival we realised that we didn’t have the right crampons to do most of the hikes (the ice would be deathly slippery) so we decided to do the short hike to the glacier view-point instead and as we walked the sun finally came out! It was simply, beautiful…
We walked as far as we could to the glacier, simply basking in the glow of the sun. How lucky that in that particular hour the sun had decided to come out for us! We met an English guy on the way (initially we thought he was solo as there was only the three of us on the road) and shared our excitement to be in Iceland in winter and seeing everything frozen. Scott, our new friend, shared with us that he had once heard a rumor that ‘if you were quiet enough, you can hear the glacier move’, and was hoping that we’d be able to once we reached it. At the end of the road the three of us stood in silence… but we didn’t hear the glacier move. So we took some selfies and turned around to head back. Just in time as the clouds started to appear again, along with a big group of tourists. Dre and I grinned ear to ear knowing that we’d somehow caught the perfect timing for this walk that day.