The best part of our trip to Iceland was the beautiful, rugged landscape. The daily rainbows were spectacular, but the scenery delivered in all weather, rain or shine. It’s got volcanoes, glaciers, cliffs, geysers, hot springs, fjords, and waterfalls. Most of our vacation was just spent driving around looking at it all.
In my last post, I said the area where the Blue Lagoon is located looked like Mordor by way of Disney. Really, the whole island felt like something out of The Lord of the Rings, once you get away from the city. If you’re a Tolkien fan but you aren’t up for a trip to New Zealand, you can consider Iceland an acceptable substitute. It doesn’t have the actual locations used in Peter Jackson’s films, but you’ll have no problems finding spots that evoke the same feel. (That’s probably why they’ve shot some Game of Thrones stuff there.)
To give you an idea of what it’s like, imagine someone has dumped a load of black rocks, jagged and freshly blasted out of a quarry, on the side of the road. Now, picture that everywhere, as far as you can see. After dumping all those rocks, someone has come by and sprayed a layer of lichen on them — but they just stood in one spot, so they didn’t get good coverage. That’s the view outside your window as you drive. And while there are more pastoral regions that aren’t just fields of volcanic rock, the whole place pretty much does look like it just got put there yesterday.
When planing your route and navigating your way around Iceland, you really have to pay close attention to the designation of the road. Lots of the roads — nearly all of them in the interior of the island — are actually only passable if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. These roads will have a number preceded by an “F” — such as “F151.” When you are looking at your map and you see something like that, don’t plan to go on it unless you have the right kind of vehicle.
We did not have an off-road vehicle to use on these roads and ended up on them by accident a couple of times. I can tell you from experience that they are not like gravel roads you may be familiar with in the states. As a teenager in rural Tennessee with a freshly laminated driver’s license, I did my share of reenacting Dukes of Hazard episodes, skidding sideways through turns and leaving clouds of dust as I drove way too fast down tiny country roads that had never felt the hot, sticky touch of asphalt. Try driving that way in Iceland on an F-road and your vehicle will shake apart like a second-hand space shuttle. Those fields of black rocks I described earlier? The F-roads I saw cut through them, and you could only sometimes tell where the “F-road” ended and “off-road” began. Mostly, it was just a jumble of fist-sized pieces of basalt with tire-shreddingly rough edges as far as you could see.
The Icelanders are paving their roads as fast as they can, though. When the Wife visited for a couple of days in 2006, she found that aside from the ring road that goes all the way around the rim of the island, there were no paved roads at all, and many bridges were only wide enough for one car.
There was one place the Wife visited on that 2006 trip that she particularly wanted us to experience. She kept referring to it as “the bird cliffs.” It was a good half day’s drive from Reykjavik, down on the southern coast. As she drove and I worked out how to navigate us there, I figured out she was talking about was a place called Reynisdrangar.
The cliffs at Reynisdrangar are easily reachable by paved roads, so no worry about that. If you have a guide book on Iceland, it will likely mention this place. The sign for it while you’re driving on the main road, however, is very easy to miss. The good news is that you can approach the cliffs from two different directions (though the view, and the whole ambiance, will be different as well) and if you miss the first turn-off, you’ll end up in the town of Vik, which has more prominent signage.
The Wife wanted us to have the same experience of the “bird cliffs” that she had years ago, when she had turned off the main road on a lark and had no clue what sight awaited her. The inevitable march of progress thwarted that somewhat. A brand new restaurant (with pay toilets) now sits at the head of the trail that leads from the parking lot to the cliffs. Also, there’s now a trail and a parking lot. Fortunately, once you take that trail around the corner there’s nothing to detract from the view.
And the view of Reynisdrangar is tremendous.
Waves pound upon a flat beach of black sand. A short distance from the surf, cliffs rise straight up, with the occasional cave worn out at ground level. Large black obelisks are thrust up out of the sea. One of them is a sharp blade of basalt that curves to a point, like God’s own combat knife standing just offshore.
Apparently, during some parts of the year, you can also see multitudes of birds inhabiting the cliffs and circling overhead. They weren’t there during out visit, but I think my capacity for absorbing natural beauty was already in the red so I doubt I could have appreciated them. They must really add something to the experience, though, if after the Wife’s first visit to Reynisdrangar she came away calling it “the bird cliffs” and not “the jagged black rocks poking up from the sea.”