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Düsseldorf - Keflavík
Thursday, July 1, 2004
The Suzuki Jimny tilts sideways - 20°, 30°, even more? We're not sure, but it seems that we are on the brink of rolling over before the small all-terrain vehicle falls back to horizontal a few seconds later. A few meters through deep sand, then some over a rough log bridge, then up a 40° incline that pushes us back into our seats. Through the windshield, we can only see the cloudy, rainy sky; then the Jimny suddenly tips down and lurches forward as we cross the narrow ridge and look down a 40° slope on the other side. Halfway down, we stop, mostly held in place by our seat belts.
"So, this is what you can do in Iceland", our driver calmly says. He releases the brake, and the Jimny steadily crawls down the rest of the slope in reduction gear 4x4 drive, then rolls back to the beginning of the off-road parcours. We shake hands with our test driver - "Thanks for the demo!" - and climb out of the Jimny, back into the real world of Leipzig's fairgrounds, where we're visiting the AMI automobile fair to check out the car we rented for our upcoming Iceland trip. "OK, we're not going to try that..." - "...but it's good to know we could!" sums up our first impression of the small, but agile vehicle pretty well. Now our only concern is the Jimny's wading depth: How deep of a river can we safely cross? There are numerous fords on our planned itinerary, some benign and some more critical ones, and we hope we'll make it through all of them (or have the common sense not to try it in the first place) - after all, vehicle damage caused by fording is not covered by any Icelandic insurance, just like broken glass and damage caused by sandstorms (which we also hope not to experience).
It's mid-April, and while Iceland's winter snow cover is slowly thawing, we're preparing for our July trip. Starting from Keflavík, we'll first drive around the Reykjanes peninsula that forms the south-western tip of Iceland. After seeing the capital Reykjavík, we're planning to venture into the highlands for the first time to visit the hot springs at Landmannalaugar. From there, we have the option to circle the island either clockwise or counter-clockwise - a decision that will depend on the weather forecast at the time. Assuming we're going clockwise, the next sights will be the Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall before we're crossing the western highlands on the famous Kjölur route, staying overnight at the Hveravellir oasis. Next, our itinerary will lead us around the Skagi and Tröllaskagi peninsulae in the north before we pass Akureyri and finally reach the Mývatn area. Here, we'll explore the rich volcanic and geothermal formations such as Dimmuborgir and Krafla before going on an excursion around the Tjörnes peninsula that takes us past Europe's mightiest waterfall Dettifoss and gives us an opportunity for whale-watching in the Skjálfandi bay. Next, we're striving for adventure: River levels permitting, we'll try to reach the Askja caldera and Mt. Herðubreið in the Ódáðahraun lava desert, and possibly even visit the Kverkfjöll massif and Mt. Snæfell. Returning to civilization, we'll trace the coastline of the eastern fjords and then drive along the numerous toes of Vatnajökull, the world's third-largest glacier (after the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland). After visiting Skaftafell national park, we'll cross the barren Skeiðararsandur plains that are devasted regularly by violent floods from subglacial volcano eruptions, and try to reach Lakagígar and Eldgjá, two areas shaped by immense rift eruptions in the past. Our next stop will be Cape Dyrhólaey, Iceland's southernmost point, before we return to the starting point of our round-trip voyage. Time permitting, we may still make an excursion to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which will take us past sights such as Iceland's historic parliament site Þingvellir, the Kaldidalur highland route, the Snæfellsjökull volcano and Iceland's highest waterfall Glymur.
Planning the route and putting together our camping equipment is keeping us excited while we regularly check the road conditions published by Vegagerðin, Iceland's Public Roads Administration. While Hringvegur, the main road no. 1 around the island, is open all year, most of the highlands are still closed to traffic at this time, either because they're still snowed in or too muddy or because the soil and vegetation are too vulnerable just after thawing. By the end of June, virtually all highland roads are passable.
Meanwhile, our tickets arrived from the north country travel specialists at Kodiak Reisen - indicating that unfortunately, we won't fly directly from Düsseldorf to Keflavík, but will take a detour via Munich to pick up more travellers who are on the same charter flight. In the afternoon of July 1, we meet for some final re-packing at Nils' home to make sure our checked luggage - big backpack and suitcase - weighs exactly the allowed 20 kg each. Our hand luggage - two more backpacks - mostly contains all kinds of technical equipment: Digital camera, two memory cards, portable hard-disk drive for downloading photos, Mini-DV camera, five tapes, assorted batteries and chargers, a PDA and GPS adapter. For navigation, we also rely on the 2003 edition of the Island travel guide by Jens Willhardt and Christine Sadler from Michael Müller Verlag, the 2003/2004 edition of the Kortabók Íslands 1:300.000 road atlas from Mál og menning and the Áning 2004 accomodation guide from Heimur. Late in the afternoon, Nils' sister gives us a ride to Düsseldorf Airport - we're finally on our way!
Waiting in the check-in line, we survey the other travellers and soon conclude from their wardrobe and luggage that they must be bus tourists - not too many outdoor people on this plane at least, it seems. Security is the usual hassle, with Nils even having to take off his sturdy hiking boots, as predicted. Our flight takes off around 19:15 - we got exit row seats and chat with the flight attendant in the jumpseat opposite from us for a bit, learning that she'll be on our return flight in two weeks, too.
In Munich, everyone must get off the plane - unnecessarily, it seems, because as we're walking through the glass corridors from the plane to the gate for the connecting flight, we realize we'll soon embark the same aircraft again. Oh well - we pass the time by watching the Greece vs. Czech Republic semi-final of the UEFA Euro 2004 soccer tournament on the monitors in the departure hall. Shortly before 22:00, we can finally board again, and then take off on flight LT1906, headed for Iceland.
Having started almost in darkness, we catch up with dusk again during the four-hour flight. Unfortunately, the southern coast is covered in clouds, so we don't see much until we are on final approach to Keflavík: The clouds break up over the Faxaflói bay and Reykjanes peninsula, giving us a first glimpse of Ísland, as the locals call it: Low hills in a prairie-like flat landscape, shining in the golden light of the setting sun. After landing around midnight local time, we seem to taxi forever along endless runways before reaching the civil part of Keflavík Airport, a modern building in Scandinavian design - lots of wood, glass and steel everywhere. Long queues form at once in front of the currency exchange desk - fortunately, we don't have to line up, but just use the VISA PLUS-enabled ATM in the arrivals hall to conveniently withdraw Icelandic króna from our German Postbank SparCard accounts.
The arrivals hall is crowded with tourists. Germans, as usual, can be recognized easily from putting their luggage in everybody's way, jumping queues oh-so-stealthily and hiding their disorientation behind aggression - especially at the car rental counter. Once it's our turn, getting the keys from the Bílaleiga Akureyrar agent is a matter of minutes, then we're happy to get out of the chaos. We find our dark green Jimny in the parking lot, dump our luggage in the back and climb in - it's a tight fit, but at least an affordable one (rental rates are astronomic here - unsurprisingly, considering that Iceland's dirt roads must reduce any car's half-life dramatically).
Since our internal clocks are somewhere around 3:00 Central European Time by now, we just drive over to the Alex campground close to the airport, featuring a simple lawn encircled by a wind protection fence and heated indoor facilities. We put up the tent, dig the sleeping bags out of our luggage and go to sleep. Even though it's about 1:00 in the morning, it's not dark, but just a bit dim outside - while Iceland is still south of the arctic circle and thus not experiencing the actual midnight sun, it's sufficiently far north to enjoy bright nights from June to August - or as the Icelandic Tourist Board advertises: "we'll leave the light on for you the whole summer".
© 2004-2005 Matthias Book (Text), Nils Grunwald (Photos), Vegagerðin (Road condition maps)
Winter image and itinerary map based on NASA/GSFC public domain satellite imagery; flight path created using John Walker's Earth and Moon Viewer.