There are no good pictures of Iceland – Part 1
“There are no good pictures of Iceland” is the standard response that Netzer, my husband of 30 years has been telling everyone who asks to see ours. “That’s because,” he continues, with a smile, “ You cannot capture the beauty. You just have to be there and see it for yourselves.”
Why Iceland? Why a camper van?
Well, having done it now, why not? This year marked not only a special wedding anniversary, but also my 60th birthday, so we wanted to travel somewhere special. Iceland beckoned, offering many interesting things and stunning places that we didn’t want to miss. And why a camper van and not some cute little Airbnb that other people our age stay at? We figured that there was so much to see on the island, and distances can be great. Plus,we are the sort of people who want to savor what we are seeing and will drop anchor and stay if we are enjoying a place. We didn’t want to have to glance at the time, and sadly realize we had to get a move on if we wanted to reach a certain hotel in time.
We had little experience with extended camping. As newlyweds, we had honeymooned in Kenya for a few weeks, staying either at cheap hotels (the sort of places that a young couple on a budget could afford), or camping in rented tents. Crashing in dives or roughing it in the bush in tents is not the same as living in a camper van, we figured. Our only experience with an RV/camper-type vehicle was renting one in Alaska several years ago, our 2 young children in tow.
I will say that I was concerned that the camper van beds would be unforgiving to senior bodies, that we’d be cramped, and how in the world would I handle getting up in the middle of the cold nights to use the toilet? In the end, the practicality of seeing what we want on our own terms won out, and there vanished any thoughts of hotels.
It’s mid-September when we rusty-at-camping empty nesters arrived. It’s a time when the weather is still considered pretty good, but it’s officially off- season, so it’s not crowded. MOST importantly, it’s the beginning of Aurora Borealis sighting time!
From Keflavik airport, we rode the shuttle to the nearby rental office, through the rain which was to be our constant companion for most of the week. We were prepared to bundle up against the ever-present wind and oft-times horizontal rain (more below.) Forget using an umbrella in these conditions: utterly useless, we had been warned. After being briefed and acquainted with our VW California Beach, our home for the next 7 days, we excitedly headed down to Bónus, one of the cheaper supermarket chains to stock up on supplies for the week.
Not only does the van come equipped with a small refrigerator but a small cooking stove and utensils to cook with. One of the most fun things to do in a new country is to visit the local supermarket, and this was no exception. Part of the fun here was trying to dope out what was what, and what kind of mystery food we would purchase to sustain us for a few days. Wind-blown and damp, we entered Bónus and walked up and down aisles, noting that we were woefully under dressed , having not yet had the chance to fish out our warm jackets from our luggage. We stood and shivered in its vast refrigerated section (a whole room!!!!), staring at the goods, baffled and amused by this guessing game of what to buy and prepare for the next few days. Most items seemed to be labeled only in Icelandic, with a few teasing pictures thrown in as hints.
We bought what looked like milk and turned out to be strawberry yogurt. Guess we missed the picture! Selected an assortment of sliced meat packets: salami, pepperoni, lamb along with cheeses, eggs, pasta, remoulade sauce, apples, some salad greens, some sort of soup packets, and what we had guessed was butter, but, no. We still have no idea what it was, but it did the trick for frying salami and eggs. We did enjoy the challenge, and found several flavors of Skýr (which we were familiar with) with the help of pictures! All flavors were good, but we were partial to coconut, and peach. (Funny- didn’t expect tropical coconut to be so big in decidedly-not tropical Iceland.) Fresh bread is real tasty. And don’t forget the TUC crackers!!! Cheap and delicious. Bacon-flavor, for example, has real slabs of bacon in it. Learned the word for cheese : “ost”.
What is this?
Netzer and I are always interested in sampling some local cuisine, so we bought some dried fish jerky (which look similar to pork rinds) which, we noticed, seemed to be THE snack as it was sold everywhere, and which, we’ll say, is an acquired taste. I would also suggest that the packet be opened and consumed outside of your vehicle as it provides quite the aroma.
Our first night was our surprise supper. Our joke of the evening was imagining writing to friends and family back home, showing them pics of our food packets (with only Icelandic) and asking, “Do you know what we dined on tonight? Well, neither do we!”
Before leaving for our trip, we had tried to learn some Icelandic words. But, aside from “thank you” and “hello” (to a man, single) we had to give up. We were quite dazed and daunted by the combinations of letter, both familiar and new to us, and what seemed to us to be no connection whatsoever to how these scramble of letters grouped together would likely sound. This would prove both interesting and at times- to be honest- tiresome when trying to communicate, even with each other, even to figure out our next destination when reading maps or guidebooks. We could not even begin to pronounce the words, so we resorted to a lot of pointing and “It starts with a (letter.)” Now, as I mentioned, signage, not only in grocery stores, was mostly just Icelandic which made for interesting times, as there were many road signs. Trouble is, with our lack of pronunciation skills, and for the most part, lengthy names, we struggled with being illiterate. We are kind of last minute, serendipitous people so for now we were pouring over websites and our Michelin map (a must buy!) looking for a list of recommended must-sees that I swear I had made and couldn’t find.
Anyway, back to Bónus…
A helpful hint: Bring your own grocery bag AND ask to take a few large cardboard cartons when in Bónus. We kept our food that did not need refrigeration in the cartons, and a couple of them we flattened out to use as a make-shift, replaceable rug on the floor of the van. We figured that all the rain and mud would make for a messy wet floor, and although it would be ideal to have established a mud-free zone somewhere in the vehicle (by the bed) in reality it didn’t work out that way. When the cartons were groaning with mud, we just took out a fresh one! Our feet were happy …dry and warmer than the cold plastic floor of the van.
With groceries and floor in place, time to hit the wet and windy road. Now, we had figured that we would drive the Ring Road counter-clockwise. As I mentioned earlier, we enjoy lingering in spots, being spontaneous. We realized, though, that in doing this, we wouldn’t be able to see all in one week, especially the northern and western sections, but, will have to save that for next time.
Gassing up at N1 (as had been advertised on our Icelandair flight) there are plastic gloves available to protect one’s hands. I had read that gas stations sell an Icelandic favorite- lamb hot dogs, but, no one seemed to know what I was talking about. We loved the idea and convenience of filling up your empty water bottles there.
Our goal for the first day was to reach the campsite in Vik, which was a 3 hour drive, and a name we could pronounce! VIK-tory!!!! Stopped off in the fishing village of Grindavik (Another pronouncable name!) for a needed toilet break and a hot meal. Tasty fish and chips, but we could’ve skipped the burger. On the way, sponged up our first impressions: beautiful horses, so many sheep, vastly outnumbering the occasional houses we passed, which all seemed to have lace curtains hanging in the windows. Ever-changing landscapes, but loads of fields of moss-draped dark volcanic rock, extending as far as one could see. Iceland has many vast horizons. From time to time, the edge of the grayish, brooding ocean would peek into view. We admired the ever-changing sky, with varying shades of gray clouds which kept spitting rain into the fierce wind. Passing farms, we noticed large neat bundles of what turned out to be harvested hay. Wrapped tightly (PIC) in mostly white but also pastel pink or mint green, these stood out on the picturesque farms with emerald green fields and we dubbed them “marshmallow farms”. To be fair, they could also be pillows.
Marshmallow farms? 🙂
First recommended stop was Seljalandsfoss, By now, we had found our jackets and were ready for weather. Walked up to and behind the magical waterfall. As we walked in the misty rain, the sun peeped out and to our delight there were our first Icelandic rainbows, UNDER the falls. Rainbows and waterfalls, like sheep are EVERYWHERE in Iceland.
Our best rainbow was the next day at Skógafoss: (Day 2) We have never stood under a rainbow, and especially not at the end of one. I can tell you, no visiting leprechaun, no pot of gold and for Americans, no Skittles were there. But, who cared? It was magnificent!
Continued on our picturesque trip to Vik. On our left, just past Seljalandsfoss, we spied another large waterfall, with spray blown UP by the wind! Sheep (I call them pre- sweaters or pre-dinner) chomped on ever present green dinner, while the short-legged sturdy horses face down the wind. With all those sheep, Netzer quipped, “I hope there are a lot of sheep where we are camping. I can count them and go right to sleep!”
Vik: A glance around the campsite’s casual crowded communal kitchen makes us realize that we are the eldest here by far. Had a flashback to our honeymoon days, when we would have blended in with this crowd. Campers can be a friendly sort, though, so no matter what the age, lots of sharing of stories, recommendations of what to do and where to stay and, of course, use of communal dish sponges and utensils (ugh!) can be had. Each campsite we visited had a place to leave behind what you don’t need (cans of food, toiletries) and take what you do.
First night was challenging for a few minutes.
Again, we are not seasoned campers. Yet Netzer is a whiz with anything technical. We had both intently listened and watched the demo on how to use this camper van when we picked it up. But on our own, we had to work out a few bugs. (The guy had made it look so easy!) Turning the passenger seat around was simple. Not the driver’s side, however, due to that darned steering wheel! Trying to get the bed to lie flat, the bed that was converted by the back seat going down, was challenging. After several stressful fights with it, it worked. But since it had been such a hassle, we decided to leave it open each day, which was where we would stow our bags. At night, we’d move the bags onto the back-facing front seats. This left us with precious-little room and so we had to do with cramped quarters. It also meant that we could not pull out the table to use inside of the van.
One night we did pull it and the folding chairs outdoors to picnic, but found that if we wanted to do so, there were several pullout scenic spots along the route with tables already provided. Or we’d use the campsite dining room. The tent was raised at night which allowed us ample head room to stand upright, but at the same time it allowed the strong winds to rock our van even more than it already was. Plus, the heat from our heater when the tent was raised was reduced to being not much help. I slept with my cap on, and had a cold nose, and we were quite glad to have two sleeping bags apiece to bundle up with. The only real problems were trying to convince myself that I didn’t need to get up in the middle of the night to relieve myself (that never worked) so I’d steel myself to brave the cold and… off I’d go outside. BRRRR! I also use a CPAP machine when sleeping and would use the 12v, which was perhaps not enough when inverting to 110v as it never had enough power, and I wasn’t able to sleep well until we realized that we should turn off the refrigerator at night. It was certainly cold enough to have the food stay fresh. WiFi was great! Everyday we’d call loved ones and gush about what we were doing and seeing, and post on Facebook. Can’t believe we are so lucky to be seeing all this!
Campsite (later in trip) at Húnaþing vestra.
Read more: Nick & Rob’s adventure around Iceland
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