Iceland’s famous Ring Road runs around the perimeter of the country. It’s ‘only’ 1,328km but it’s a single lane speed-limited road and although there are many fabulous things along it, there are also many that require deviations inland on much less salubrious roads. So after visiting Vestmannaeyjar we headed west only as far as Hofn. Even just doing that was a lot of driving and a sensory overload.
There are some stunning black sand beaches along the south coast. One of the most photogenic is Reynisfjara Beach. In 1991, National Geographic ranked it one of the ten most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world. In 2018, it was voted 18th in the world on website The World’s 50 Best Beaches.
According to a local folk tale, seals would come ashore here, shed their skins and party as humans in the huge cave near the waterline. A passing fisherman took one of the skins home and locked it in a chest. A few days later he found a naked, shivering woman in the cave and took her home too. He cared for her and eventually they married and had children. One day when he was away, she opened the chest. She could not resist putting the skin on and returning to the sea. The fisherman came home to find wife and skin both gone, but from then on a seal would often swim around his boat or follow the children as they walked on the shore.
The cave looks like it’s made of pipe organ tubes. It’s called columnar basalt, which forms when magma cools slowly and cracks into columns, usually hexagonal.
Combined with the black sand, it was otherworldly enough to be used as a location setting for scenes from the Star Wars movie Rogue One.
Which may explain some of its popularity.
Offshore are three dramatic basalt sea stacks jutting 66 metres above the waterline. The Reynisdranger stacks have a folk tale too. Apparently two trolls were trying to drag a three-masted ship onto the land but it was heavier than they bargained for and dawn broke, turning them to stone.
Very close to here, at the base of the scenic headland of Hjorleifshofdi, a 3km drive from the Ring Road down a gravel track to another black sand beach is a cave nicknamed Gigjagja – ‘the Yoda Cave’. John thought it was rather lame, but you must admit, from the inside it really does look like a silhouette of Yoda.
Speaking of pop culture references, Justin Bieber has a lot to answer for. Being of a certain age, we can safely say we’ve probably never seen any of his video clips and didn’t know he’d made Iceland a ‘must see’ destination for his legion of fans after he filmed the clip for I’ll Show You here.
The clip has been watched more than 440 million times on YouTube and features Bieber running and jumping on the fragile mossy spurs of Fjadrargljufur canyon and sitting with his feet dangling over the edge. Although some of it is probably tricky camera work, the video led to a stampede of Bieber fans heading to the canyon to emulate him. Thousands of fans. Ropes and signs prohibiting access to the canyon edges were ignored and the degradation was so extensive the canyon was closed to all visitors for two years.
Guide to Iceland even has a page on its website called ‘5 reasons not to behave like Justin Bieber in Iceland’.
Happily, the canyon re-opened this year. It is a beautiful place. We’ve seen nothing like it, even elsewhere in Iceland. It still gets lots of visitors but hopefully the fan craze has passed and visitors will now respect the access rules so that recovery can continue.
The video also features Bieber rolling down mossy lava. Almost certainly a stunt, since it would be extremely uncomfortable, but also quite insensitive. You’d have to be living in a bubble not to have seen the copious requests by tourism and park authorities not to walk on the moss because it’s so easily damaged. Oh, that’s right, pop stars do live in a bubble.
The Eldraun Lava Field was created after an eruption in 1783/4. Over an eight month period it poured out an estimated 14 cubic kilometres of basalt lava. Between the lava and the poisonous gasses which accompanied the eruption, almost half of Iceland’s cattle and horses, and three-quarters of its sheep died. Nothing grew on fields that year and no fish could be found in the usual fishing waters. Almost one quarter of Iceland’s population perished in the resulting famine.
Today, moss covers the old lava. Beautiful in a strange way. But not good for rolling on!
There are so many majestic waterfalls along the coast, unless you have unlimited time you have to be selective. Many you can see from the Ring Road or involve just a short drive to a viewing point.
The most impressive in the south east area is Svartifoss. It’s only 20 metres high and fairly narrow but it cascades over a semicircle of those hexagonal basalt columns onto a basin of more smashed up columns at the base. Svartifoss translates as ‘black falls’, referencing the basalt. Very photogenic and very popular as it’s only a 3km return hike.
It’s very common to see farm houses built close to the base of a fall as the water is harnessed for hydropower. Imagine that – your very own waterfall providing free electricity!
Mostly, this part of Iceland is about the dramatic scenery, but there’s a few points of interest from a cultural perspective as well.
Turf roofed churches were once common throughout Iceland, but now only six remain. One is in the hamlet of Hof. Built in 1884, it still operates as a place of worship.
More than 200 man-made caves can be found scattered across about 90 farms in south Iceland. 41 of them have been declared protected sites. They were probably used by early settlers to store hay or for blacksmithing. But they look so other-worldly that some have been designated as elf houses. This one had a tunnel at the back leading into the rock and a second room filled with gnomes!
In the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur is a curious statue of two monks with a massive stone on their heads. The monumental piece weighs over 10 tonnes and is called Brydi Sogunnar, ‘the Burden of History’. Other than the fact that there was a Benedictine convent near here between 1186 and 1550, we couldn’t get to the bottom of why it’s there or what it references. There’s a plaque at the base but it’s in Icelandic only.
Where there aren’t waterfalls, there are glaciers. Driving the south east feels a bit like following an avenue of them.
The landscape is immense.
From the town of Hofn, there was a view across the bay to five glaciers snaking down. Magnificent.
Jokulhlaup (literally ‘glacial run’) is an Icelandic word which has been co-opted into glacialogical terminology in many languages. Like most other Icelandic words, it’s virtually unpronounceable by non-native speakers. It refers to a subglacial outburst flood. In other words, when geothermal heating or a subglacial volcanic eruption causes a sudden melt, which bursts through the glacial ice to the surface.
That doesn’t even begin to convey the power of what can occur. On 30 September 1996, an eruption began beneath Skeidararjokull glacier, opening up a 3.5km fissure across the ice. The eruption ended two weeks later, but on 5 November, ice melt burst through. The ensuing flood only ran for 36 hours, but at its peak was flowing at 50,000 cubic metres per second. Icebergs the size of houses surged downstream with the flood waters. Skeidara, once Iceland’s longest span bridge and built to withstand floods, was obliterated. All that remains is some twisted girders which have now been fashioned into a monument as a reminder.
But the best thing on this stretch of Iceland is undoubtedly the glacial lagoons. As some glaciers retreat, a lake forms in front of them.
Jokulsarlon lagoon has formed over the last 200 years as the Vatnajokull ice field’s southern glaciers retreat. It’s 300 metres deep, making it the deepest in Iceland. When the sun shines, it is stunning.
The meltwater is forced into a narrow channel and rushes down to the sea bringing icebergs and chunks of glacial ice with it.
We saw a seal who’d come upstream seeking lunch.
When it reaches the sea, some of the ice floats away and eventually melts. Some is smashed to pieces and washes up on the black sand beach, giving it the nickname Diamond Beach.
At nearby Fjallsarlon lagoon, the outlet glacier extends right down to the edge of the lagoon.
Icebergs break away from the ice cap and fall into the water.
Further west, Heinabergslon lagoon is a little different. At the other two lagoons, zodiacs zoom tourists around and at Jokulsarlon, several companies are running kayaking trips. Heinabergslon is down a rough 4WD track off the Ring Road and only one company has a licence to kayak, so you are guaranteed not to see anyone else. Also, because the bergs are a little smaller, you can get a lot closer to them. The bigger the berg, the further away you have to keep in case it tips. We kayaked here and it was a fantastic experience.
Wearing so many layers we felt like the Michelin man, plus a dry suit, double socks, rubber boots and a polartec beanie, we paddled across the lake and into the bergs.
At this time of year, a lot of the ice surface has regularly thawed slightly and then refrozen, resulting in a texture that looks like huge piles of diamonds floating on the water.
We stopped at one iceberg which our guide deemed safe to walk on, attached crampons to our boots and climbed to the top. Weight bearing on that clear ice where we first disembarked did not feel safe at all!
We were lucky with the weather. Rain had been predicted but the day was clear and although we paddled into the wind on the return, it was not too strenuous. A great half day.
In fact, overall we had very good weather considering it can rain anytime of year here. We were too early in the year for the Northern Lights, but the sunsets were amazing.
From Hofn we headed back toward Reykjavik but first a quick scoot inland around the Golden Circle. More on that in our next post.