Iceland is in many ways, an otherworldly place to visit, especially for those travelling from the overcrowded UK. It’s a bizarre landscape that holds many surprises and a real feeling of wilderness travel for those bold enough to venture away from the cities.
The national highway that rings the country is fairly good, mostly tarmac and gives year-round access to the routes through the centre of Iceland, which are all gravel trails. Should you then take one of these trails into the interior, you’ll be confronted by what is surely one of the strangest landscapes on Earth.
Volcanic ash forms a desert strewn with bizarrely shaped rocks that have been lashed by rain, snow and high winds over several millennia. This huge ash plain is punctuated by geysers and hot springs, and four enormous, permanent icecaps that feed hundreds of glaciers.
The landscape is entrancing, wild, beautiful and remote – but fragile. Icelanders take environmental protection very seriously indeed.
Off-roading, as such, is forbidden (but many ‘roads’ are actually greenlanes by UK standards).
Importantly, the 1971 Nature Conservancy Act passed several laws relevant to those of us exploring Iceland by 4x4. Wild camping is fine away from farms and settlements, everyone must take care to preserve the wilderness (including lighting campfires in a way that doesn’t affect the ground) and it’s illegal to leave rubbish in the open countryside.
It’s a welcoming country. English is spoken widely and access with your Land Rover is easy – take the ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg in Denmark and catch the Iceland ferry there.
The adventurous can make a loop by ferry and take in not just the Faroes but Norway as well. Talk to Scantours, UK agent for ferry operator Smyril Lines (scantoursuk.com, 0207 554 3530).
It is, of course, a cold country. Though outside the Arctic Circle (which skirts the northern island of Grímsey), the Polar winds bite hard. The best times to visit are between July and September, because the interior roads get blocked easily with drifting snow in the colder months.
The north of the country is drier and sunnier than the south – there’s almost no night-time in the summer. Conversely, in December and January, there’s very little daylight (though you do get the spectacular Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights). Average daytime temperatures range from -2ºC in January to 13ºC in July: nothing to get unduly worried about.
What of the practicalities of driving in Iceland? Firstly, the roads aren’t as bad as rumoured. Yes, some car parks are deep gravel; yes, there’s a lot of dirt track; yes, some roads are crossed by water that needs fording; yes,
if you’re intending to go into the interior, you need a 4x4. Two vehicles are better than one, as cars can and do get stranded in remote areas.
Diesel is cheaper in Iceland than in the UK, but petrol is more expensive. You don’t need a visa or a carnet, and the UK photocard driving licence is fine. Green Card insurance applies in Iceland, so you don’t need any extra cover if you have that.
As a foreigner, you can keep your Land Rover in Iceland for up to a month before Customs get jumpy. Drivers need to be at least 20, seatbelts are mandatory and driving is on the right. Give way to the right and always have your headlights on, even in broad daylight.
Remember that the predominantly gravel surface is tiring to drive on, and that distances will take longer to cover than in the UK. Details of local road conditions can be gained from the Felag Izlenzkra Bifreidaeigenda (FIB, the Icelandic AA).
Icelandic roads can be categorised into five types:
1 Principal Road (tarmac). The national Ring Road comes into this category: speed limit is 56mph.
2 Rugged Road. A dirt track, to you and me. Beware the many potholes! Speed limit is 50mph.
3 Mountain Track. These aren’t passable by road cars, because they often involving fording rivers whose depth changes radically in a short space of time. Fording depth can
be up to 1.5m (five feet), so be very careful, even in a Land Rover.
There can also be problems on these routes from mud and drifting silt carried by floodwaters.
4 4x4 Track. Great care needed: they can be too technical to be passable by all but the experienced driver and well-equipped vehicle. Many are difficult to follow as there are crisscrossing tracks from other drivers – look for yellow-painted route marking rocks and posts.
5 Bridle Track. Usually more tortuous even than No 4. Only the most capable, confident
off-roader need apply.
On loose-gravel roads, a laden Land Rover will wander and steer wide on corners – be careful and don’t go too fast. Slow down through the gears, especially at bends.
If you do overdo it and need to be hauled free, be prepared for the cost of recovery to make a substantial dent in your spending money.
There are particular mechanical concerns to be aware of when driving in Iceland. The constant abrading volcanic dust and grit will play havoc – the stub axle inner bearing oil seals will be under constant attack.
With petrol Land Rovers, be aware that your fan will spray water over the engine when wading – this could cause you to stall.
Make sure your tyres are up to it – volcanic rock is no respecter of brand names. I always prefer Michelin XZLs for Iceland, because they have really tough sidewalls.
If your vehicle has side steps, you’ll catch them on underwater obstacles when fording rivers, and regular fording will drench underbonnet soundproofing that will become soaked and drip on ignition electrics (or may even collapse on to the engine). Grease throttle linkages and also the swivel linkage at the bottom of the transfer lever.
Don’t be lulled into any sort of complacency because you’re ‘only’ driving in Europe – the constant hammering from some of the roads
is similar to what you’ll experience from African corrugations. This will affect suspension, steering and exhaust (and everything else!).
So – what should you aim to see and do during your visit? Chances are you’ll disembark in the peaceful port of Seydisfjördur. With a population of 1500 it’s small, but has most essentials. The harbour campsite is great but, unsurprisingly, it’s usually full the night before a ferry departure, so get there early.
North-eastern Iceland lies before you, a stone’s throw from the ferry. You could spend ages in each of Iceland’s regions, but here we will just consider the highlights – the features that help make Iceland unique.
One of its major attractions is the Lake Myvatn area. Handily close to Seydisfjördur, it sits astride a volcanic fault line and bears the scars of recent lava activity, but its claim to fame is as the home of more than 100,000 migrant birds. There are more than 50 islands on the lake, making it canoe-camping heaven.
To the east is the Dimmuborgir region – made of weird, castle-like structures of black lava – and the extinct volcano of Hverfjall.
North-east is Krafla volcano with the dramatic Viti crater, accessible from the Ring Road.
Jökulsárgljúfur National Park has
a long gorge and the most powerful waterfall in Europe, the mighty Dettifoss. A gravel road runs north-south through the park, and the two campsites within its boundaries are both very good.
To see the most spectacular region, go south to the Vatnajökull ice cap. At 3200 square miles and 3000 feet thick, this is the world’s third largest permanent ice cap – only Antarctica and the Greenland ice cap are bigger. It’s home to Hvannadalshnjúkur, Iceland’s highest mountain (7000 feet).
It’s a hazardous region, and excursions are best taken with locals who know the area. Be careful – not for nothing do those locals who head on to the ice cap all drive 4x4s with 38-inch tyres at pressures of 2psi.
Conditions on the ice cap are like deserts in some ways. Low-level spindrift (fine ice carried in the wind) can limit visibility to 15 feet in broad daylight. You can hire suitably equipped trucks, skidoos or snowshoes and skis, though all need suitable skills to use them…
South of the Vatnajökull is Jökulsárlón lagoon, on the coast at the foot of the Breiðammerkurjökull glacier, which calves icebergs right into the lagoon – a really breathtaking sight as the multi-coloured bergs crash down into the tranquil lagoon. With the stark backdrop of the glaciers between the mountains, views from the campsite
here are among the most spectacular in Iceland. It’s quite common to see icebergs stranded on the beach. You won’t see that in many places.
Moving west, we come to the most remote region of Iceland, the north-western fjord region. The main attractions here are the fjords of Hvalfjörður and Borgarfjörður, and the Snæfellsnes peninsula, with its permanent ice cap. Travellers are rare here – due partly to the wild weather.
Snæfellsnes has fabulous mountains, and there are excellent skidoo routes – you can hire one nearby.
North of Snæfellsnes is an even wilder region, the tundra plateau of Glama and its ice cap, Drangajökull. This area pulls on the heartstrings of those who visit. Huge, steep-sided fjords provide spectacular vistas, but even getting there is hard work: the roads are badly surfaced and twist around the fjords, the settlements are small and resupply can be awkward.
Iceland’s friendly and hospitable people understand the European concept of ‘personal space’ in the
way that those who live in many overlanding destinations do not.
It’s expensive, but it’s worth it – on so many levels. You should go.
The full story can be found in the Spring 2009 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.