Second gear. Brake. Indicate. STOP
How two novice drivers found their way across Iceland
For an Italian and an Englishman, one not having driven in a decade, the other never having got a licence, driving across Iceland sounded like a doomed plan. Friends warned us. Driving lessons were taken, maps studied and videos watched to gauge the traffic and roads of Iceland.
The trip started with clutch lurches and the revs spinning into the red, the handbrake left on. We’d wait whole minutes at junctions, making sure there was no-one coming over the horizon. We planned for roundabouts a kilometer in advance, counting the exits and planning our route through them. We practiced in car parks and poured over the maps, looking for the simplest route out of the city and onto the ring-road.
Our guide at rent.is had given us directions and assured us it would be a simple drive out of Reykjavik and to our first destination, Geysir. Inking the map, he showed us the beautiful but tough route, and then, the still beautiful but far simpler route. Simple and less beautiful the perennial winner.
And for the first 20 minutes we were fine. 20 minutes of paved, flat bliss. It was then as the lanes narrowed, the barriers fell away and the hills got steeper that we realized that we’d taken the wrong road. Paving descended into gravel and we tried to push up hill after hill.
Struggling, struggling then dying. We started to roll backwards on the steepest one. We locked the brakes and tried to start again. The engine gasped for fuel, coughed and stalled. Every time we would roll back a little further, the back wheel now hanging over the edge of the road, spinning in nothing but air. In just twenty minutes we’d managed to get stuck. Unable to try to start again for feel of rolling right off the side and unable to turn enough to guide the car back down the hill.
We stopped. Sunk. Until a local, driving the opposite way, saw that we were not doing so well. Grateful and embarrassed, we watched as he kicked the van into gear and gently guided it back down the hill before turning us round with casual ease. The atmosphere in the van was tense. We were heading back to where we started, now just an hour into our 3-day trip.
Back in Reykjavik, shaken and defeated we drank hot cups of sweet coffee and planned our next move. Perhaps it was too big a task and we’d better take a hotel. Sign up to the bus tours and see things that way.
No. We got back in the camper van rental and pressed on. Trying again to leave Reykjavik, slower and steadier than ever. For road errors that would get you killed in Rome, the locals just honked at us at moved on, as though they could tell we were learning as we went.
We crawled forward and honked at the sheep, to us a warning to stay back, to them a cause for absolutely no concern. The monsters would eye us moodily and just continue to chew. The ring road was then quiet and calm. We make great progress and started to enjoy the drive. Vast, green and rock plateaus walled us in and we saw fresh, white water pouring from edges before the driving was done for the day. We’d arrived.
Behind a wall of mossy, green rock we picked our way through a stream and to a lone waterfall, hammering at the rocks beneath.
Soaked from the spray, taking burning swigs of Hennessy before making hot tea and
waiting for night in low-sky country. Instead of night, the sky seems to sink down on you, light and grey and wet as we sat on the back of the camper, the white noise of the waterfall in the background.
The Black Sand Beach
Puffins, smaller than we’d thought, darted from cliff-side, flapping frantically to keep themselves airborne before dashing back to nests, resting on high columns of basalt.
We set off again, watching the country change from the window. A new moon of black sand gave way to an alien landscape of plant and rock, cracked and rising. We left the car and ran across the sand, soft and springy then stopped to notice the silence of the country. So still and so quiet it shocked us to listen.
By then, our driving confidence was up. The roads were straight and empty, we’d even reached fifth gear. But then, as if we were driving into a solid wall of it, we entered a fog, thicker than kjötsúpa (editor’s note: Icelandic meat soup). Visibility seemed no further than your hand in front of your face. The rain would rip from the tyres of the cars overtaking and in seconds they would be gone again. Sunk into the fog like a stone in the snow. We turned the radio off as if it would help us see better and tried to keep our speed steady. Maria gripped the wheel to the point her knuckles turned white, rolling quiet and slow over single-lane bridges, looking for headlights burning through the fog ahead, a river fat with summer rain, roaring below.
Then almost as suddenly as it came, it lifted. The road gleamed, fresh and wet as light hit it for the first time in hours. The country looked new and clean. We cheered and hit the accelerator, pressing on to Jökulsárlón.
The name can be deceptive, as even in Iceland you have to hunt to find ice. The glacier, lagoon, diamond beach provided it in spades though. We just stood in the cold silence of the glacier and still lagoon. Electric blue ice, curved and smoothed by the water, floats calmly past. A seal pokes through the surface before rolling back under, sleek and fat. Light rain gently soaks us and now, for the first time, it feels truly cold and wild. We choose a spot to camp that night and fall asleep in the light.
Geysir and Gullfoss
Blasting steam of sulfur and eggs as we waited for Geysir. The big one never came but the smaller cousin sent jets up regularly as we waited for the headline act. Having to give up, we drove across a road that rattled us like broken biscuits before curving towards the two-step torrent of Gullfoss.
Pressing back though Vik, we saw the statue of the leaning man, his counterpart leaning back in my hometown of Hull to commemorate the cod wars and fishing disputes that used to rage in the sea between us.
Final day: The Blue Lagoon
Warm, milky and blue water. Our hair fried by the silica and our features covered by face masks, we felt the fresh contrast of the cold outside air on our faces and the warm water around us before leaving to return to Reykjavik and leaving the camper van behind behind.
The road trip was the ultimate way to see Iceland, even for us. Freedom, we changed plans at the last minute, saw things from the roadside and stopped for hours, slept at the foot of waterfalls and went further into the corners of the country than we ever planned.
Our last day, leaving the van was bittersweet. We’d survived without even a scratch to the paintwork. Back on foot, spending our last few hours in the city we walked through the streets and drank cold glasses of beer in pubs decked in flags, waiting for the match against England. Italy play as we take off; England finish as we land. We make plans to return, to the west and the wild interior as we fly. The pilot comes over the radio to announce Iceland have scored, it’s 2-1 and a roar erupts, turning into a song as we touch down in Barcelona, home. Spain have lost, but the pilot says nothing.
Read more: Trip to the land of the Midnight Sun
Happy Camping! #CamperStories
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