Hayley Skirka discovered Iceland’s wilderness on a journey that was equal parts adrenaline-fuelled adventure and hypnotic stillness
Thousands of tiny lights shimmered above my head, bounced off the walls and swirled on the roof. The air in front of me filled with mist – the -1°C weather reacting with the warmth of my breath. It hovered in the stillness for a moment, before disappearing towards the crystal-coated ceiling of the ice cave. I called out “hello” and the word echoed. It was such a mystical setting that I half expected the Ice Queen from Narnia to appear. The only other person there with me, however, was snowmobile guide, Hjorleifur. Icelandic born and bred, he has hosted tours across icy cliffs, snow-covered plains and glacier lagoons for years and discovered over 20 ice caverns while at it.
“This one is particularly beautiful so I called it Magdelena, after my granddaughter,” he said, “but there’s many still to be found.”
It’s this sense of discovery in a land so ancient that amazed me about Iceland during my whirlwind visit across the country. I journeyed there in search of big adventures and taking part in a driving expedition with Arctic Trucks allowed me to experience a number of remarkable moments.
Originally part of Toyota Iceland’s re-engineering division, Arctic Trucks was formed in 1990 as locals sought ways to get around a country that sees long snow-covered winters and has more gravel roads than paved ones. Since then, it’s been the go-to place for car modifications and driving adventures across the Nordic island in specially converted trucks.
On the first day of my expedition with the company, I had woken early, excited and a little nervous to get behind the wheel of the vehicle that awaited me – a gargantuan cherry-red modified Toyota Hilux AT38 truck. Fortunately, Andre, an equally mammoth man, was standing beside it. Well over 6ft tall and a former finalist in Iceland’s Strongest Man competition, he introduced himself as my driver for the next few days.
We left the capital of Reykjavík and its pastel-coloured houses gave way to sweeping prairie lands. We climbed through the hills, and coasted towards Haukadalur, home of The Great Geysir. Comprising over a dozen hot water blowholes, many of which have been active for over 1,000 years, this sight is a patchwork of boiling mud pits and exploding geysers. The main attraction is Strokkur, which sporadically shoots water some 30 metres up in the air. Joining the snap-happy tourists, iPhones at the ready, we awaited an eruption. Within seconds a spray of water soared into the air, showering anyone standing within a 10-metre radius.
Back in the truck, we headed east to the Gullfoss falls. Cascading down the side of a cliff, this two-tier waterfall is Iceland’s most famous – no mean feat in a country where waterfalls are ten a penny. The name translates to Golden Falls, a reference to the shimmering mist that often rises as a halo over the falls. Watching rainbows appear as the spray interacted with the sunlight was mesmerising.
Next, we trundled through Thingvellir National Park, making small work of the ever-disappearing roads.
“Every year tourists drive this route in a normal car, and every year we have to go and rescue them,” explained Andre. Sure enough, after just a few kilometres as the road turned to rocks, we saw a man in a match-box sized Nissan reversing timidly along the treacherous path.
As we drove on, the terrain changed constantly, from ploughed farmland and wild fields dotted with grazing Icelandic horses to land covered with clusters of stumpy trees.
“What should you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” Andre asked.
“Call for help?” I offered dubiously.
“No” he laughed, “Just stand up.”
Consistently ranking in lists of the world’s friendliest countries, this type of banter and sense of humour is yet another of the country’s charms.
The biggest moment of the day came when Andre stopped the car, let the air down in the truck’s tyres and offered me the wheel. Clambering into the driver’s seat, I adjusted the chair as far forward as I could thanks to my titchy height. The road felt such a long way beneath me as the 38-inch wheels crunched easily over winding grit roads. Despite the truck’s heftiness, the ride was instantly impressive in terms of sheer power.
My first ‘challenge’ was to cross a river. With no time to really think about it, I did exactly as Andre advised – kept slow and steady and then careered into it. I could sense the force of the water cutting across the vehicle, but the truck was so strong that it felt like driving in a strong breeze on the highway. Upon reaching the other side, we crushed through the ice gathered on the river’s edge, clambered up its bank and sped up a snow-covered hill.
My efforts earned me a high-five from my Viking-like guide and boosted my confidence enough that I decided to stay off-road. We travelled on for miles and, as I relaxed into the driving, I began to enjoy the sheer isolation. With no other cars, tyre tracks or even birds around, it was a snow-dusted wilderness. Of course, the stillness couldn’t last forever.
Next up, was mounting a powdery peak. Its seemingly untouched snow was so soft that it was hard to keep going in one direction. Thankfully, Andre tracked down some partly-covered tyre tracks for me to follow. As we ascended the side of the mountain, the gradient became sharper and my heart began to pulse. “Floor it” was Andre’s command, so I did exactly that. The truck zoomed forward and we hurtled closer to the crest. I worried the plan may have been to soar right over it, but my concerns were pre-empted as my ‘back-seat’ driver suggested I turn left. I pivoted the wheel but the tyres plunged straight into a thick patch of snow, sending us sharply back to the right. Sensing my panic, Andre threw himself across to my seat, grabbed the wheel and steered us safely back in the right direction. Crisis averted, we continued on, tackling a few more summits while marvelling and the wondrous wilderness be settling in for the night at Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort.
Nestled in a cluster of rugged mountains by the banks of the river Asgarda, the property offers basic cabins that command awesome views. As the snow began to fall, we retreated to the Aðalskáli, to enjoy a traditional feast of fish and a few glasses of locally-brewed hops, toasting our epic day of adventure.
The next morning Andre claimed his spot in the driver’s seat, giving me the chance to really take in the surrounds. Iceland’s landscape consistently amazed me as to how hugely changeable it was. One minute the sky was bright blue, peppered with a handful of fluffy clouds, and the next it was a whiteout with no visibility and tyre tracks that were covered almost as soon as they were made.
We eventually reached Blaskogabyggd, where I met Hjorleifur – my aforementioned cave companion. It was after a thrilling snowmobile ride atop Europe’s second largest glacier that we stopped our machines, climbed through a barely-visible hole in the snow and dropped into that mystical cavern.
Hveravellir nature reserve in the west was our final destination. Set between two glaciers, with smoking fumaroles and hot springs, it too offers spectacular sights. Despite the chilling temperatures outside, swimming in the warm waters there is a quintessential experience, so I de-robed, trotted through the snow in nothing but a purple bikini and pink hat, and joined Andre in the piping-hot pool.
Sitting beneath a clear blue sky that showed no signs of shifting, surrounded by swirling steam and twittering birds, I relished the moment. To the left of me was Porisjokull glacier, which covers a 1,350-metre-high table mountain, and to the right I caught a glimpse of Langjökull – the second largest ice cap in the country. Between the two lies the valley Pordisdlur, said to once have been the refuge of Grettir, an outlaw hero in local folklore. Gazing at this mythical site, I thought back on my remarkable adventure and about all the stories Iceland must hold. The beautiful silence reached a crescendo. “It’s like we’re alone in the world,” said Andre. I couldn’t help but agree.
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