This is the tale of an adventure in Iceland in the Summer of 2018, featuring the 1995 Defender as transportation, accommodation, kitchen and dining room. Over the past 5 years since we returned to Canada with the Land Rover we have enjoyed the occasional outing with the Ottawa Valley Land Rover Club,*OVLR) with whom we have been able to do some great off-roading, but without any of the expedition travel that we enjoyed in West Africa after restoring and outfitting the vehicle for that purpose. Inspired by a suggestion made by a fellow-OVLR member (thanks Eric) in the winter of 2018 I began to plan to ship the Defender to Reykjavik for an extended stay. Like the West Africa trip it actually went ahead as planned without any hitches. I was joined for different parts of the trip by my wife Laura and friends Maurice and Stephen and the posts in this section provide an account and images of some of our experiences.
Out of Saouerkrokur Maurice and I headed back south toward another highland hot spring at Laugafell, this time about 100 km up the F26. There is something lovely about the rolling green valleys that lead up from the coast.
As one ascends into the highlands the greenery transitions to rock, and the road becomes less passable……
As we gradually climbed the contrast between the green valleys and the stark, treeless landscape of the highland plateau became apparent, and we were warned once again about the quality of the route.
Laugafell itself was, like Hreravellir, just a couple of simple structures. And like Hreravellir, there was a lovely little hot pool maintained at about 102 F . To prevent visitors from getting boiled most of these ‘natural’ pools are maintained at a comfortable temperature by the discrete use of automatic temperature sensors and pipes to run in cool water as needed.
Typical of the highlands, it was very cold and windy. The tenting area was set in a spot that was particularly vulnerable to the elements, without benefit of any trees or cliffs that might offer a windbreak. Maurice opted to forego the tent and instead rent space in the simple hostel building. This proved to be a brilliant choice as he was the only resident that night and we had the simple kitchen all to ourselves to prepare and eat dinner. Like at Hreravellir, for my own sleeping arrangements I positioned the Defender in the lea of a building to protect the rooftop tent from the stiff wind and passed a most pleasant night.
At Laugafell we had a memorable hot tub incident. The pool was only about 2 feet deep, made using natural rocks and boulders with uneven surfaces, much of which was covered with slippery moss requiring some care in maneouvering. When Maurice and I first arrived at the pool there were some other soakers from Belgium and France who were drinking beer. I took their inspiration and went out to the Defender and poured Maurice and I some rum in the stainless steel winelasses. I had just re-entered the pool bearing the glasses and was crouched down in the water when my feet slipped on some moss and I rolled gently backwards. In a split second I was under the water with only the glasses and the toque I had been wearing above the water. Maurice reached out and grabbed the glasses, leaving me to save myself from drowning. No rum was lost.
During the night a young man came into the hostel where Maurice was sleeping and threw down his sleeping bag on the floor. He was apparently walking across the highlands. When Maurice woke up he was gone and we never saw him again. We had a lovely hot breakfast of eggs and toast and were back on the road toward Lake Myvatn by mid-morning.
Akureyri, the ‘Capital of the North’ and Iceland’s second largest city, is quite a pleasant spot to visit. The Hof Culture House (pictured above) is a theatre, gift shop and art gallery and the site of various events.
Set along the water at the head of a fjord, the town features some lovely residential streets and has a number of interesting museums, including separate museums devoted to Aviation, Industry, Toys, Motorcycles and Culture. I particularly enjoyed the latter, which provided a great overview of Icelandic residential architecture from its ‘functionalism’ roots.
Like in Reykjavik the campground was located right in town next door to the municipal pool. The campground was rather crowded so we slipped over to the pool to check out it out. This was a great facility, with one large swimming pool and a number of smaller sitting pools of varying temperatures, even a steam bath. There were lounge chairs and although it was early evening the sun was still high enough to make it possible to enjoy some solar warmth. It was a family facililty with lots of things for kids, including a range of water slide options.
It was at the reception here I learned that a number of people were coming to the region to attend the ‘Fish Festival’ (“it might be a bit crowded tonight” and it was). The festival was taking place the next day in Dalvik, about 30 km up the fjord north of Akureyri. Not one to pass up a local festival that is how I spent my first solo day in Iceland after Maurice left. As the late morning traffic along the two lane paved road along the fjord leading to Dalvik became bumper to bumper and slowed to a crawl 4 km short of the “village” I realized this was a big event and that parking was going to be a real issue. When I got within walking distance I just put the Defender in 4WD and pulled off the road into the ditch. No one seemed to mind, there were cars everywhere. As I walked the kilometre or so into town I could see that many people had decorated their properties for the occasion with a fish theme, and many had rented space to RVs, tightly squeezed into peoples yards.
There were thousands of people from all over Iceland with a few international tourists mixed in. As they reached the large open space of what appeared to be a fish plant people joined any one of a 1/2 dozen lines to get free helpings of arctic char and cod hot off the barbie. The lines got shorter as the day wore on and the fish kept coming – I ate more arctic char in that single day, all for free, than I have in my whole life.
After our first visit to Akureyri Maurice and I first headed back into the highlands
After exploring the Kjolour Highland route for a couple of days Maurice and I completed our F35 highland crossing and descended into Sauðárkrókur, a regional service town in the Skagafjörður region of north Iceland. After the barren highland landscape it was nice to see green again.
One thing I have learned about Iceland is that you are always coming across something unexpected and Skagafjörður presented us with two pleasant suprises.
The first was a local tannery that specialized in drying fish skins. The Gestastofa Sutarans, which I think may just translate as ‘Visitor Centre” offers tours of the tannery so visitors like us can see how they dry not only fish skins but also lamb and fox skins. We had no idea it was possible to dry fish skins, it was really fascinating to learn that the primary customers are upscale fashion houses like Gucci, who use the skins to make designer shoes, handbags, etc. My watch had broken a couple of days earlier and I was able to snap up a watch with a strap made from salmon skin, together with another piece of unworked dried piece to take home to Laura to integrate into one of her fabric creations.
The second great surprise about Skagafjörður we discovered as we were exploring out along the peninsula north of Sauðárkrókur. Grettislaug, literally Grettis’ Hot Pot, is a natural hot spring located at the end of the gravel road about halfway up the fjord. It is associated with one of the Icelandic ‘sagas’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagas_of_Icelanders . Written in the 12th century about life in the “Settlement Era” (870-1200+ ) the authorship of the sagas is uncertain but they are now apparently considered to be one of the great examples of world literature. Certainly they are the source of much of the knowledge of the history and culture of the period. Grettis Saga is about an outlaw who apparently hid in the Skagafjörður area to evade others seeking revenge for his misdeeds and who spent time in the hot pool. Today there are two hot pots set in stone, with simple change and shower facilities. There is also a café and a wonderful campground with a toilet and kitchen facilities set in turf houses. Really cool.
From Sauðárkrókur we made our way east towards Akureyri, the so-called ‘Capital of the North’ and the second largest city in Iceland.
There are a couple of good reasons why I shipped my old Land Rover Defender to Iceland. The first is the economics. Because it is outfitted for expedition travel, complete with a rooftop tent, a fridge, cooking gear and lots of storage for food etc., so I am insulated from the cost of car rental, accommodation and restaurants, all of which are very expensive in Iceland. For this reason many Europeans bring their own vehicles to Iceland on the ferry that comes from Copenhagen via the Faroe Islands. Most of these vehicles are RVs of some sort, and many are heavy duty off-road trucks, including lots of Defenders.
With a good 4×4 one has access to the more out-of-the-way sites that abound in Iceland along the so called “F Roads”. ‘Fjallið’ is Icelandic for ‘mountain’, hence the ‘F’ in ‘F Road’, and these are not really roads at all, but narrow unpaved tracks up hills, across unbridged rivers and over lava fields. These F Roads are tierra prohibida to normal rental cars, and there are signs posted at the beginning of each one to remind drivers of the risks.
Following route consultations with Ice-Rovers in Reykjavik we chose the F35 to venture into the highlands to cross from the south coast to the north coast because it is shorter than the much more arduous F26 option further east. I have learned that Icelanders do not know or care much about the road numbers, they know them by where they go, Kjölour is a plateau in the highlands between the glaciers Langjökull and Hofsjökull. at an altitude of about 600–700 metres and the F35 is known as the “Kjolour route”.
The Iceland highlands along the Kjölur route are a combination of exotic and bleak. Much of it was a lava field, completely devoid of any vegetation save thick moss that covers the rocks. The road in was a rough track across a barren lava field Along the F35
On the way in we could see two of Iceland’s glaciers off in the distance: Hofsjokull to the east and Langsjokull to the west. Our destination for the night was Hveravellir, a natural hot spring at 650 metres. Typical of many highland refuges in Iceland, there was a chalet type structure with a cafe and shared hostel with common cooking/cleaning area,as well as a couple of private “rooms” in an ATCO style industrial trailer. All very basic really.
The Hveravellir Chalet
When we arrived the weather was terrible; it had rained most of the way in and there was a strong northerly wind blowing. It might have been about 5 deg C. The hostel was fully booked and the ‘rooms’ in the ATCO-type trailers cost CAD 250+. No problem, we did not need them because we are CAMPING. We just set up our tents in the lee of the largest building we could find and set about cooking ourselves dinner. Lamb fillet, herbed potatoes, broccoli, all washed down with some of the lovely Brunello di Montalcino Italian wine that Maurice had brought with him. After clean up we were joined for some rum and conversation by a German traveller that was there with his family in a rented camper van.
It was a cold, wet night, but the next morning dawned sunny and kind of warm, time to hit the natural hot spring. Hrevellir is quite an active geothermal area, with lots of vents and boiling mud across a wide area. The source for the soaking pool is a hot river that runs about 70-80 degrees C and which is mixed with cool water on the way in to maintain a temperature of about 38 deg. and prevent anyone from getting boiled.
Maurice extracting himself from Hreravellir Hot Spring. Don’t know who the woman is.
Evidence of historical human habitation includes an old turf house. The early settlers brought this shelter strategy with them from Norway in the 9th century and continued to use it for centuries because of the lack of wood.
Hreravellir Turf House
Two days of driving and we did not see a tree until we descended toward Sauðárkrókur, a town in the Skagafjörður region of north Iceland, our next destination.
The original vision for the Iceland tour route that I had plotted out in June entailed starting in the large West Fjords peninsula in the northwest and then making a clockwise circuit around country’s ‘Ring Road’ with occasional forays into the highlands. Had I been alone at the beginning I might have held to that, but with Maurice having arrived for a two week stay at the beginning I decided to aim for the highlands first to start on an adventurous note.
I was not sure how adventurous to be so contacted Ice-Rovers, a local company that organizes highland trips, for route advice. After spending some time with looking at a map with (name????) we decided to cross the island from south to north using the F35 out of Gulfoss. We agreed to head east from Reykjavik on the way to Kolour highland route, which took us en route through the so-called ‘Golden Circle’. This is not really a circle at all, but a relatively small area of southwest Iceland that contains more than a few sites of natural and historical interest.
We started out at þingvellir, (pron. Thingvellir – the þ, or ‘thorn’, is one of the old Norse letters in the 32 character Icelandic alphabet), a place of great socio-historical significance for Iceland and of global geographic interest. Socio-historically it is where for centuries the chieftains of the Icelandic Free State, created by the first Norwegian settlers in 930, held the annual ‘Althing’, or Commonwealth, to make laws and resolve legal disputes. Today it is considered hallowed ground by Icelanders for its role in defining their political culture. Geographically, þingvellir is a point where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. It is this meeting of the plates which make Iceland one of the most active volcanic regions in the world. At Þingvellir the two plates are about 5 kilometres apart and separating by a couple of centimetres and the valley between is dropping at about the same rate.
There was a lovely lake at þingvellir that was lined with fisherman. Maurice, who had the foresight to bring his gear, tried his luck, but did not have any.
We set up camp at what we came to learn is a typical format for many, tho’ certainly not all, campgrounds in Iceland: a large field with no specific site assignments. This is actually normal European camping, but it differs dramatically from what we know in North America, and not in a positive way. It works fine if, as was the case at Þingvellir, it is not crowded, but we later learned that those campgrounds can sometimes get very crowded. þingvellir was fine tho’; we even got a rainbow with no rain.
The morning after the night we were at this campground we were treated to a group of motorized paragliders coming down from the hill above Geysir that flew right over the campground and carried on out of sight.
The next day we were off to Geysir, a proper noun after which all other geysers are known. This was the first of several geothermal fields I encountered in Iceland, this one consisting of several vents and dominated by a so-named Great Geysir, which actually erupts every 4-5 minutes, much more frequently than the smaller-yet-more-well-know Old Faithful at Yellowstone. Iceland is a volcanic creation and has some 30 separate volcano ‘systems’. These systems are tapped for geothermal energy to provide about 40% of the electrical power and heating for virtually the whole country. They even melt the snow in the streets in Reykjavik using geothermal water.
The same day as we went to the geothermal field we also got to one of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls. Gullfoss (‘Golden Falls’) is a beautiful two-stage cascade tumbling down from the highlands.
At Gullfoss we were already at the beginning of the F35, the first mountain road of our trip, and one of two great routes crossing Iceland through the middle from south to north between glaciers. That was the real beginning of the adventure, and I will save that for the next post.
One week in Iceland and things are coming together very nicely. I arrived very early in the morning July 19 and spent the day making sure all the documents required to clear customs were signed and had gotten to the right place, before checking into my simple but comfortable hotel right in downtown Reykjavik.
After a weekend spent exploring and planning and resting I picked up Maurice at the airport at 5:00 Monday morning in a little one-day rent-a-car. We came straight back to the Hotel so he could take a nap and by the time he woke up at 9:00 I had received an email saying that the Defender had been cleared by Customs and was ready for pick-up from the Port. By 11:00 with the help of a couple of guys from EIMSKIP, the local freight company, we had gotten the truck and tent out of the container and installed the tent on the roof. We now have transportation and accommodation!
The timing could not have been better. I am still pinching myself because there are so many ways this could have gone sideways. I would not have been terribly surprised if the Defender was a week or two or more late; or the customs clearance took a days or weeks. None of that happened, everything has gone perfectly.
Next we left the rent-a-car parked at the port and continued in the Defender out to a town about 10 km north of Reykjavik to try to track down a Land Rover mechanic that had been recommended to me by a local tour operator I contacted the day I arrived that uses Land Rovers. I need the mechanic to install my “snorkel” (a raised air intake to allow one to drive through deep water) so we can cross rivers on some of the highland trails. Obviously, it would have been better to do that in Ottawa, but the snorkel I had ordered from England had not arrived when time came to put the Defender in a container, so I brought it with me, in one of my suitcases! I only had a street name to find the mechanic but we just drove along until we saw a bunch of Land Rovers parked outside. The owner, Mr. Gislason, said we just needed to come back the next day and he could do it in an hour. They did a great job, for a reasonable price. We are now ready to cross rivers!
On the way back into Reyk we had time to find out what kind of propane campers use in Iceland. We bought a 5 lb tank at a hardware store that fits perfectly into the same carrier on the Defender that first bore a propane tank around West Africa 6 years ago when Laura and I did our West Africa Wander. We went to an outdoor store near our hotel(Ellingsen https://www.ellingsen.is/ellingsen/utilega/gas-og-aukahlutir/gashylki to get a burner that fits the stove. I also brought our old Coleman camp stove with me, but it is not possible to connect that to the Iceland tank but the same outdoor store also sells the green Coleman 1lb propane tanks that fit the Coleman stove. The price makes my wallet bleed ($10 for 1 tank), but we got two of them anyway because when Maurice and I get cooking one burner is just not enough. We are now ready to cook, with 3 burners!
Before we could actually move into the Land Rover we still had to get some groceries. Grocery shopping is always fun in a foreign country, and Iceland was no exception. This was a big shop, because we are starting (almost) from scratch, we each brought a few things from home but we still need lots of basics to be able to ccok. Maurice and I have travelled together like this in my trailer for many weeks so we have a fairly developed idea of what we need to cook, and we know each others preferences There was some culture shock on this occasion, because while some products have english labels, lots do not. So….what kind of fish is this, exactly? Or, what is the Icelandic word for nutmeg? As is often the case in Iceland there was some sticker shock. Grocery prices do not seem as inflated as those in restaurants, but still exceed those in Canada. The financial system Maurice and I have adopted consists of an envelope into which we each put an equal amount of cash to cover all the common consumable expenses like food, fuel and camping fees. It works well, we just need to keep putting more money in that envelope.
Once we got the food we could start to camp. I wanted to do a test camp here in Reykjavik before we head off into the highlands because inevitably there will be things we have forgotten and it is better to discover those oversights while we are within easy range of stores and services. There is a large campground in Reykjavik that is quite European, with lots of tents but also lots ‘caravans’, as RVs are called here in Europe.
There is quite a large covered common area, with lots of shared kitchen facilities, a library and Wi-Fi. The best part is it is located next to the largest thermal pool in Reykjavik. Iceland is (apparently) full of naturally heated “swimming pools” that are (apparently) very popular with the locals. One guidebook said the pools in Iceland have a similar social function as pubs in Britain or cafés in France. You go there to hang out with friends. These are geo-thermally heated and I am looking forward to enjoying lots of these all over the country as I travel around for the next few weeks. We finally got into the Reykjavik pool on Wednesday night and it was quite something. We bopped around between 4 pools or tubs that ranged from 4 deg cool to a blistering 44 deg. C. A great experience, and one that made me feel like I have finally arrived in Iceland.
So now we are ready for the road. Next Post will start with our visit to Pingvellier and (the original) Geyser.
This is the tale of an adventure in Iceland in the Summer of 2018,
featuring the 1995 Defender as transportation, accommodation, kitchen
and dining room. Over the past 5 years since we returned to Canada with
the Land Rover we have enjoyed the occasional outing with the Ottawa
Valley Land Rover Club,*OVLR) with whom we have been able to do some
great off-roading, but without any e of the expedition travel that we
enjoyed in West Africa after restoring and outfitting the vehicle for
that purpose. Inspired by a suggestion made by a fellow-OVLR member
(thanks Eric) in the winter of 2018 I began to plan to ship the
Defender to Reykjavik for an extended stay. Like the West Africa trip
it actually went ahead as planned without any hitches. I was joined for
different parts of the trip by my wife Laura and friends Maurice and
Stephen and the posts in this section provide an account and images of
of some of our experiences.