ICELAND BY CAMPER. WHERE THE WORLD WAS BORN.

ICELAND BY CAMPER. WHERE THE WORLD WAS BORN.

A journey at the end of the earth, inside nature’s greatest show.

Exploring Iceland by camper is an incredible journey experience.
The island retains an untouched sense of the mystery of creation: volcanic cones, huge solidified magma flows, bubbling lakes, and pure hot water springs flowing everywhere, make Iceland the largest nature laboratory under the sky. Here like nowhere else in the world, you can sense the breathing of the Earth, alive, throbbing and showing its lymph of molten stone.

 

The Icelander landscape is forged by lava, ice and water: you can sense it, or actually see it behind every corner along Route 1, better known as the Ring Road, a narrow ribbon of asphalt fencing the island with a ring that is more than 1000 km long. We drove it on our camper: an extraordinary experience that marks the soul of the traveller, a new dimension in exploration.

 

Between June and July when the weather is variable, you can shift from sunshine to a dense, cold drizzle in a matter of hours. And the landscape tirelessly changes into different visions: tundras, prairies, mountains, deserts of broken stones, soft and scented meadows of moss. The views are breathtaking and almost entirely empty, except for a handful of isolated farms and small villages. And it can only be this way, considering there are only 283,000 Icelanders in a land of nearly 103,000 square kilometres, roughly one third of the size of Italy.

   

The Jökulsárlón lagoon

     

Driving counterclockwise along the Ring Road, the first stop of our journey is the spectacular Jökulsárlón lagoon. This is a true piece of the Arctic, just like the most classic imagery of the extreme north, with icebergs breaking off the glacier - the Breidhamerkurjökull- and slowly sliding towards the sea, nudged by an icy wind, with ice blocks taking surreal shapes and all the shades of whites and blues.  The views are already spectacular from the road and the path edging the lagoon. For the bravest, who can take the cold, there are excursions on special amphibious vehicles that navigate among the floating ice blocks. With a bit of luck you can also see the seals, that apparently have a colony around here.
And who knows, you could even see elves, trolls and little spirits, populating myths and legends of an ancient and mysterious culture.


When looking at these views, it is immediately clear that Iceland is a country like no other: it is a metaphor for life. Here, you suddenly feel that mankind is like a grain of sand in the hands of destiny, in a real, almost tangible way.
And the evidence is only a few kilometres away: between Öræfi and Núpsstadhur, the Ring Road crosses a desert plane made of silt, sand and gravel eroded by glaciers and transported downriver by floods.
In the autumn of 1996 a veritable inferno unleashed here: a volcanic crater suddenly became active under the surface of the Vatnajökull, a giant ice cap as large as the Umbria region, melting one of its sections, the Skeidharárjökull, and forming a hidden lake that two weeks later inundated the road, blasting a bridge over 300 m long and bending its steel pylons as if they were toothpicks, luckily without any victim. Icelanders appear to cohabit with this radical precariousness without any problem, while people of any other place would live in a constant state of worry.

     

From Vik to Heimaey

             

Iceland is also a bird paradise. Once winter is over, the cliffs transform into crowded condos for hundreds of thousands of birds. To find out, you only need to reach Vík í Mýrdal, the largest village on the south coast, and then continue for a few kilometres to Dyrhólaey, named the Gate Island because of the imposing stone arch suspended above the waters.
In order to fully appreciate this natural monument in all of its beauty, you need to reach the Reynisfjara beach, with its black volcanic sand, basalt cliffs and pillars that look like giant organ pipes.

The best solution for bird watching is to board one of the amphibious vehicles arranged for excursions that approach the colonies. Hundreds of fulmars, auks, razorbills and black-legged kittiwakes nestle on the rocky face...

Dyrhólaey is a real sanctuary for birdwatchers, but it pales in comparison toVestmannaeyjar, a handful of little islands off Hvolsvöllur.

The ferry connecting Dhorlákshöfn to Heimaey, the only inhabited island of the archipelago, moves across polished rock cliffs teeming with marine birds. Around here the stars of the show are the Atlantic Puffins: each year, nearly eight million birds reach the island to mate.
These birds have been a source of food for centuries, now they are protected even though they are still served as traditional dish in the local restaurants.  Luckily, fewer and fewer punters are happy to have these funny cliff clowns as delicacies.

Heimaey too, of course, has a history of eruptions. In 1973, a crack opened in the Kirkjubæir area, spewing lava. There were no victims, but the entire population had to be evacuated and a part of the settlement was buried. The best part of the flows headed towards the sea, shifting the coastline by over 2 square kilometres as they solidified.

This should not surprise you, Iceland has a record number of volcanoes: there at least fifty active craters, since this island is literally split into two by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a tectonic rift separating the North American and the European plates. These fractures of the earth crust dig deep into the marine abyss and let the molten magma flow to the surface: a continuous flow that shapes new ocean floors and causes the continental drift.

       

From Thingvellir to Reykjavík

      

In the valley of Thingvellir, the emerging part of this fault has a crack which is 4 km wide, 26 km long and 40 m deep. Due to a strange twist of fate, this is also the nation’s main historical site. Here, every summer since 930, the thirty-six Icelandic clans of descendants from the Norway Vikings who began colonizing the island a hundred years before, would reunite for two weeks. For the following eight centuries, the chiefs planted their tents in Thingvellir, managed their feuds and discussed their laws.
This is why UNESCO included this site in the World Heritage list in 2004, on the 60th anniversary of Iceland’s independence.

Thingvellir is also the first of three stages of the popular Golden Ring, an itinerary within the itinerary which includes Geysir and the Gullfoss waterfalls:

A few kilometre’s detour off the Ring Road that propels the visitor into the country’s most famous tourist attraction. You are likely to find more people here than anywhere else in your journey. About 40 km from Thingvellir, you will find Geysir (the phenomenon was named after this place), with its tens of bubbling wells that are one of Iceland’s major attractions: underground water is heated by magma incandescent rocks, reaching temperatures above boiling point and up to 125 degrees Centigrades, and once it reaches the pressure needed to break the resistance of superficial water, it explodes in a huge jet that lasts a few seconds.
Strokkur is the most active jet in this area: you only need to wait a few minutes to hear a persistent burble and then see a pillar of steam and boiling water thrust to the sky, occasionally reaching the height of a six-storey building or more. To complete the full circle of the Golden Ring, you need to travel 6 kilometres from Geysir to visit Gullfoss, one of the countries’ - or even the world’s - most enchanting waterfalls, with its 11 and 21 metre steps.

 

Reykjavík is now very close, and a stop in the world’s northernmost capital is a must. The city has a peculiar look, with its low buildings alternating with colourful little houses. You can admire the cathedral, the Parliament, the house where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 to discuss disarmament, the Saga Museum, with its dioramas depicting the stages of the Vikings’ colonization, and after a walk in the town centre, you can return to the round trip.

 

The next destination is the south-western peninsula of Reykjanes, heading for the Blue Lagoon, a blue-green body of water (especially renowned for its skin disorder healing properties) scenically carved against the black volcanic rocks. The geo-thermal plant in the background is a reminder of the importance of this resource for Icelandic people, who have learned to use the heat stored under the earth crust to power their heating, industry and agriculture. A restoring bath in the thermal pools is what you need before the next stop, possibly the most demanding one: the western fiords, and especially the promontory that marks the westernmost tip of Iceland, and the whole of Europe.

To reach this remote location, you need to climb the Ring Road and then detour on several kilometres of unpaved roads; if you want to avoid some of this, you can take the camper on the ferry connecting Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur, then head towards Patreksfjördhur and detour following State Road 612 up to Bjargtangar.

You will reach the Látrabjarg cliffs, an amazing work of nature that peaks at 400 metres and is literally teeming with birds, including the largest colony of razorbills in the world and a myriad of puffins so tame that they can be approached at short distance. The experience is breathtaking.

  

The whale coast

   

Back on the Ring Road, you can travel eastbound to Akureyri, the second largest and most populous town in Iceland. During the good season, boats venture in these waters between the Greenland Sea and the Norwegian Sea for whale watching, another speciality of the Icelandic tour operators. There is an amazing range of whales - humpbacks, blue whales, rorquals, sperm whales, hyperoodons, long finned pilot whales, killer whales - and the excitement of a close encounter with the sea giants is well worth the effort (though there is no guarantee that you will see whales, it appears that the success rate of these trips is around 95%).

The last destination before completing the round that will lead you to the Seydhisfjördhur embarking point, is the Myvatn lake. Here more than anywhere, you get the impression that the bowels of the earth are in plain sight: puddles of grey, malodorant mud, sulphur springs and craters everywhere. The area around Krafla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanos, with its surreal landscape of lava casts and smoking fractures, is definitely worth a visit. Smoke, fire, water and ice: the Vikings believed that Iceland was the door to the Underworld.
On the contrary, it is a paradise, the last extreme land in Europe, as extreme as nature can get.

     

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