It’s the eve of Independence Day in Iceland, and I’m in a small hotel in the northern city of Akureyri. Like many others taking advantage of the midnight sun, I’m driving around Iceland’s Ring Road, camping when I need to and stopping in the bigger towns when I encounter them. About halfway through my trip, this stop in Akureyri is a welcome break from the endless yellow road markers of Iceland, and the revelry comes through the open windows from the party-makers outside. I know nothing of the Independence Day celebrations of Iceland other than what I have observed so far, which is fancily dressed people of all ages, drinking in the streets, with all the women wearing boat captain hats. Coupled with the driving so far, the festivities encourage a pleasant, faraway feeling: things are foreign enough that just watching them is interesting, but I’m too tired to think much beyond simply enjoying what I see. This is my first night in a bed since I left Boston.
Camping in Iceland has been simple. Each town, big or small, has a camp site that is always well-marked, well equipped, and located near town. Geographically, they are not as inspiring as they could be, but there are many campsites that lay further from town, deeper into the river valleys or a bit further into the highlands, sure to satiate the traveller with enough time to find them. But with the amount of driving and exploring one does each day, the need to also sleep somewhere magnificent becomes secondary to the need to simply sleep. So far, the campsite in Vik was lively, with a large number of French travelers, and backed by impressive bird cliffs, while the location in Höfn was far drabber. Each had clean bathrooms, hot water, and showers available for a small fee.
After 3 full days of driving, rounding the bend into Eyjafjordur and seeing Akureyri spread out on the hillside, nestled in at the back of the fjord a mere 60 miles below the Arctic Circle, felt as unreal a thing to stumble upon as any of the landscapes I’d driven through up until this point. My trip started on the frequently photographed south coast. A dense group of sites begin at Seljelandsfoss and continue right through the town of Vik, and while many of them have become standard blog fodder for travel writers, there’s still wonders to be found on this stretch of road. Keep an eye out for the caves in the cliffs next to Seljelandsfoss, big enough to fit a group of people. The walk up the coast near Dyrhólaey, the giant coastal stone arch, provides a sweeping vantage point above the black sand beaches to one side, with the rock formations and sandbars of Vik spreading out the other way.
After Vik, the day travelers turn back to Reykjavik and those that continue northward are all making their way around the island. The Ring Road never has much of a shoulder, so if you see a chance to turn off, take it. Some of the best parts of my trip happened at the end of these little side roads.
The landscape changes rapidly between Vik and Höfn, the next stopping point on my route. The craggy mountains are, if possible, more impressive here, and spring up out of nowhere as you pass through lava fields and glacial run offs. The Vatnajokull glacier, which Route 1 brings you around the South and East of, also pokes its tendrils out further here and a mass of ice sits at the back end of every valley. Finally, in the approach to Höfn you come across a dusty, gravel stretch that lasts for miles and houses Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon. Only a few hours removed from the lush waterfalls of the South, this feels like an altogether different planet.
Gravel begins to take over here, as the road winds its way in and out of the East Fjords as you head north from Höfn. While it doesn’t look far on the map, making your way through here takes time as you trace the intricate coastline. There is no great way to get yourself out of the East Fjords, as the paved road is a bit incomplete. I opted for the Oxi Pass, heading out the back of Berufjodur on Road 939 into the mountains. The dirt roads in Iceland are well marked and I passed plenty of other cars, vans, and 4x4s on the way, but I’d be lying if I said it was a relaxing drive.
The Oxi Pass takes you to the top of the fjord and down the backside, the highest point of the drive yet. After the barren coastline of the East Fjords, the descent into the town of Egilsstadir is surprising: evergreen trees line the roads and farms are plentiful. It was the densest area of plant life I’d seen, with small patches of weather gathering on this side of the mountains. But shortly thereafter the scene changes again as you pass through Egilsstadir, exit the fjords, and enter a barren landscape of black mountains made of volcanic sand. Memories of the black sand beach come to you, but this is a giant’s beach, and they’ve been building sandcastles.
The waterfall Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful, hides away in this region. Unlike the falls on the South coast that tumble down from the mountains before running out to sea, Dettifoss is always beneath you. Its source is a river that runs through a fissure-like crack in the landscape, and the waterfall drops even further into the crevasse. The spray from the water hangs in the air and obscures the overall scale of both the drop and the run off, so that the viewer merely stares at the falls themselves, wondering where all the water came from and assuming it just returns to the middle of the earth afterwards.
And so pulling into Akureyri, a city of 18,000, was quite a change. The settlement itself is as old as any in Iceland, but its growth and development mostly occurred during the last 100 years. After the prehistoric qualities of the landscape, it’s jarring to pull into a town like this, with its trendy hostels and glitzy antique cars. The whole of my experience in Iceland, so far, has been like that: reconciling the epic landscapes with a much newer cultural atmosphere. While Iceland has been settled since the 9th century, there is not much of its old world still obvious to the regular traveler. One relic that is obvious is the stone cairns that occasionally line the roads. Remnants of ancient trail markings, it was easy to imagine Icelanders of centuries past making there way into Akureyri, just as I was, on horseback fighting against the weather.
Someone tells me in passing that the Independence Day celebrations commemorate the 1944 split with Denmark. The boat captains hats have not been explained, but it is another jarring comparison for me to make as I try to further comprehend this country. To the foreigner, the contrast between the vacuous landscape at Dettifoss and the bustle of Akureyri is just as hard to reconcile as the prehistoric landscapes and the people who assembled those cairns on the roadside with the fact that Iceland is celebrating an independence a mere 72 years old.