Doram on Ice

Whoa it has been a long time.

Welcome back, me.

I brought something special to make up for the long silence. Photos from the most beautiful place I ever visited. Iceland.

For a long time Iceland has been a dream travel country of mine. Doro was so lucky to have been there already, some years ago. This winter we decided that this summer will be spent in Iceland. Doro travelled the last time by bus in an organised trip around the island, and while it certainly had its advantages of having everything taken care of, it lacked some of the spontaneity of individual travels. That’s why we decided to rent a car instead. As I can’t drive (yet), it was Doro’s job to pilot us along 2000 km of asphalt roads at best and holey gravel roads at worst. I took on the job of being  a co-pilot in charge of snacks, music, navigation and motivation.

One Monday night we stepped on a plane, crossed all fingers for a working Air Berlin flight, and arrived with only some hour delay in Reykjavik. We left in the dark in Berlin and arrived at 1 am local time in Iceland. It felt like lunch time Berlin, where a cloudy grey sky had the same brightness as the middle of the night in Iceland. We should not see the sun go down during our whole week in Iceland.

Iceland feels like a weird cross between continental Europe, Scotland, and the USA. Motels, Hotels, gas stations have that weird fake feeling to them as if everything was made from carton and not solid bricks. The breakfast buffets feature Lucky Charms, British Biscuits and pickled herring. The countryside changes from grassy hills like in the Scottish highlands to deserts like in Breaking Bad’s New Mexico (minus the heat) to mountains and glaciers reminiscing of the Alps. Following the main road 1 clockwise we experienced every day a different country.

Driving in Iceland is straightforward when it is easy and stressful and tiring when it is hard. 90 kph is the absolute top speed on the best roads, while gravel roads have an official limit of 70 which is in practice never reached if you care a little bit about your rental. I don’t care for speeding, despite growing up in a country where Fahrspaß is a word, but the speed limits affect how long every route takes. 400 km in a day sound easy in Germany where you zoom at 150 kph on average from Berlin to Frankfurt. In Iceland, 400 km is a day of focussed driving, even more so as the country is so fucking beautiful that you just have to stop from time to time to just try to take everything in. Then again we were greeted by rainbows, sunsets (as far as that happens in Iceland), and just the most magnificent views one can imagine.

I brought not only our 5Dmk2 with the trusty 35/2, I also schlepped a mid format Yashica, Doro had her M6, I had my phone for photos and video, and the cherry on the cake was my hardly flown Phantom 2 with a gimbal-held Hero 3+. I list all the gear to say that we came prepared. We knew that we would see amazing sceneries. I am a firm believer that the right gear in the right hands can capture most experiences. I realised that this is not always the case. Although my SSD is now filled with great shots from all over the country there is an even bigger number of shots I know I couldn’t get. When you drive through an open desert with an afternoon sun that covers everything around you in golden light that makes the lupines pop their purple colour up to the horizon with volcanic craters in the background and blackened rocks in the foreground, it gets really hard to capture this scenery and come even close to the way it just feels in that moment.

I was rarely so blown away by a country. I climbed mountains in the Vosges and in Scotland, rode in boats around cliffs covered in puffins and hiked through the hills of the gulf of Amalfi. Iceland is all that and more. Ich kam aus dem Staunen nicht mehr raus.

Today, Iceland is largely earning money from tourism. Constant reminders of this are the busses on every street, the gift shops at every gas station and the sheer underrepresentation of Icelandic people in daily experiences. I could not say what the typical Icelandic person is like because we simply didn’t interact with that many. Maids are often Polish, all other hikers are US American, Russian, Chinese, German, Israeli. Now it largely depends on your take on the whole issue if you find that tragic or if you are indifferent to this. I am usually quite annoyed by tourists and everything they bring, however I just refused this time to really stress about it. We avoided the tourist highlights of Geysir and Guldafoss, which are both within an hour of drive from Reykjavik. The South is especially crowded as all major destinations are just a day trip away from the capital and are heavily marketed by travel agencies. The North however surprises in some spots with real solitude. Sure, it is still rare, but at some moments we could not see a human being in any direction till the horizon. Then again you drive for 30 minutes over a lone gravel road only to find a modern WC with card terminal afoot a giant crater and a parking lot filled to the last spot with cars. Iceland is very popular.

Be sure to bring all the money you have when you travel to Iceland. We were warned and were still shocked by the ridiculous prices of everything. We went once for dinner. 30 EUR for some cod with potato mash and 20 EUR for a simple broth with cabbage and potatoes. Absolutely normal in Iceland, completely absurd in Berlin prices. We resorted to bread and cheese for the rest of the time. Rugbraud, or thunderbread, is cooked in the hot steam that emerges from many geothermal fields all over the country and it tastes quite fantastic. Dark, malty, moist and full-bodied from the rye flour it could even convince me, the rye hating fan of French baguette. The other reliable travel snack is Hardfiskur, literally hard fish that was air dried and is eaten with salted butter. The smell is quite pungent, very fishy, the taste however is much milder and fishy in an enjoyable way. The other specialties, especially the local spirit remained elusive due to their price and because we could not find them anywhere. Gas stops sell mostly hot dogs and also supermarkets mostly focus hamburgers, sausages, hot dogs and other fast food. It took us until the very last day before we could try some delicious fresh cod prepared locally at a dear friend’s place.

We followed the main road #1 clockwise around the whole island. 2000 km, including many day trips and stops, lead us through all four corners of Iceland. The Northwest and the East are mostly Drive-Through-Country with only occasional stops at craters, lakes or other sights. The best spots are the North/North-East and the South. Myvatn, the lake district North of the major glaciers, offers a range of amazing views. A giant crater oversees the lake on one side, a mountain on the other side frames the lake. South of Myvatn pseudocraters formed by steam explosions in the mud offer views over bird breeding grounds while the North of the lake leads to geothermally active fields that reek of hydrogen sulfide and are covered in clouds of steam emerging from the yellow-stained ground. Each station deserves far more time than is available on a day trip around the lake. The only place I’d skip are the volcanic columns of Dimmuborgir. A concrete path leads into the lava fields worn out by an endless flow of tourists. This sight is accessible to prams and wheelchairs and hence is a stop for every tour in the North. While I think this is great for disabled people it just feels wrong to follow a concrete path into a nature sight that features over 2000 year old lava columns that are only very slowly taken over by the local flora. Great choices are however the crater Hverfjall, the pseudocraters and Hverarönd, the smelly fields.

My favourite experience happened already on day 1: While driving North we came across a sign featuring a puffin and some icelandic words. Doro turned the car around to follow the road while I was confused and a bit concerned as my travel guide presented nothing at the end of the road. Best case seemed to be a closed port for expensive boat tours to a nearby puffin rock. Doro kept on track and for some 40 minutes we followed a dirt track with a car in front of us and one behind. We arrived at a tiny outpost with camping grounds and a thermal bath. This bath was pretty much two tiny pools surrounded by stones. Two water hoses lead into the pools. This must be the hot water. We checked out the area and then decided to jump into the hot water. The air has 15 °C and shivering we run barefoot over pebbles from the changing rooms to the pool. The water is hot. The ground is hot. It almost hurts our feet. The water hose brings relief: it is cold and is there to make sure none of the bathers get boiled. Little bubbles rise from the ground. The water has 40-something °C and has to be constantly cooled down to stay that way. I have never seen anything like it.

Same as on the first day we used the last day to take advantage of Iceland’s geothermal areas. In the middle of nowhere is a hot river that after a half-hour hike offers warm water of varying temperatures. As the water cools down from the spring downstream you just pick a spot that has your favourite temperature. And then you just chill there in the sun, 19 °C air, 39 °C water.

One word on waterfalls: Many. Every corner features a waterfall, sometimes huge, with wide streams falling several dozen meters deep, sometimes narrow, sometimes cascading over several steps down-hill. It is something else to do a casual stop after 2 hours of driving and it just happens to find yet another waterfall.

In the end we stay way too long. Being nice and warm from the water, breathing fresh air, we chat with some Americans about our travels until we realise that we have still 200 km to drive and it is already 9 pm. At least it won’t be dark any time soon.

In the end the 7 days felt like 4 and 14 days. It was way too short to see the country in the detail I would have wanted and at the same time we did so many different things that I had experiences for way more than 7 days. And then we were exhausted from the driving, the hiking, the impressions. We ended the journey by visiting Lisa, a dear friend who studies now in Iceland. Her friend, a guide for boat tours in Reyjkavik, just brought back several kilo of freshest cod caught the day before. They were delicious.

Returning the car held a bad surprise as a small damage of the windshield resulted in an extended discussion with a very unpleasant employee from europcar. With a debt of 400 EUR to europcar we left Iceland and took a cramped flight back home only to arrive again in daylight, at 7 am after a night without sleep. We slept until late afternoon, dreaming of all the things we experienced in Iceland.

PS: europcar later reimbursed us half of the money, because their employee was not only unpleasant but also wrong.