Driving Nirvana: Iceland

Iceland is a mysterious place with endless discoveries for literally anybody. To add to the mystique of this island perched precariously on the edge of the world (no, not really, it’s between North America and Europe actually), flying to Iceland is distinctly different from flying to any other country. The clouds over the island seem to cover it like a blanket, making the descent of the aircraft particularly precarious. Upon breaching the cloud cover, the landscape that appears is at once barren and ancient – a stark change from the manicured lawns and large industrial buildings that mark England’s landscape from which I came. The airport, however, must be one of the most modern ones I have ever seen. Elegantly Scandinavian, thoroughly modern and utterly clean. Their advertisements also reflect their way of thinking – simple and effective.

I’ve flown to Iceland for a road trip that will eventually bring me more than 3,000km over the island on all four corners of this magnificent piece of the earth. I’ve employed the services of a Skoda Octavia 4×4 2.0TDI equipped with DSG, a lucky upgrade from a Toyota Avensis owing to some scheduling clashes. Here, I’ve seen the most dramatic scenery in the world and also the most beautiful. I climbed single-lane gravel roads up to a glacier and crossed acres of thick fog. Here’s the story about this unforgettable journey.

Day 1: Reykjavik

We arrive relieved after a 4 hour delay on our flight, apparently a typical Iceland trait, which I reckon is possibly due to the unpredictable weather in this part of the world. Reykjavik appears at first more sleepy than it really is – after all, Iceland only has 320,000 people – but staying in it longer reveals that it has depths of character that can only be unraveled with more discovery. We collected the car, which was an exciting prospect. With so few people and so much land, Iceland promises to have one of the best driving experiences anywhere in the world. I can’t wait.

Day 3: Langjökull

We head north from Reykjavik, promising to return to the city again on our last few days of the journey. For now, we take Highway 1 towards the north. Highway 1 is the famous ring road that literally traces Iceland all the way from Reykjavik to all other parts of the island west, north, east and south. It has gained a reputation for being choked full of tourists with rental cars (ahem), but I guess the Icelandic perspective of being crowded is entirely different – what we had most of the time were miles and miles of empty road with only us and the amazing scenery around us to enjoy.

Our first voyage off of the planned track took us to a dirt road that went off the GPS pathway. We weren’t sure where we were heading to; it seemed to be a shortcut to our final destination and, having no experience of the landscape of a magnitude like Iceland’s, we took it. Iceland’s size on the map is deceptive, for it is really an extremely vast island of many extremes. There are fiery active volcanoes, a couple of glaciers and hot springs littered across the island. This time, we got lucky (or unlucky, depending on what you think of it) and took a gravel road that seemed to inch uphill with every mile. The turbo-diesel seemed to struggle a little harder with the lessened traction on the gravel road but otherwise it seemed like we haven’t climbed a lot. A look back at where we came from confirmed otherwise – we could still see the rickety wooden bridge we crossed at a distance – but right now we were perched quite steeply on a small hill. In front of us, what at first appeared to be a slip of ice slowly grew in size and stature. It can’t be. It cannot be.

The road was leading us straight into Langjökull – the second largest glacier in Iceland.

We stopped at our tracks and allowed a Pajero to speed past us as we considered our options. Is it worth taking the shortcut? Can we even do it with our Skoda estate on summer tyres? After some deliberation it was pretty obvious that we had to turn back, but not without some photos and soaking in the awesome sight of seeing our first ever glacier in person. For the first time (but not the last time in this trip), we tasted fear of the power of Mother Nature – the glacier really is that big and awesome. We would imagine we would take hours to cross that and we might not even make it back. Good decision to turn back then; but little did we know that we were to encounter another glacier again later in the trip.

Day 3: Hofsós and Akureyri

We reach Hofsós, which felt almost like the edge of Iceland. There were slithers of water and large expanses of ocean that encroached upon the land, yet majestic mountains rose close to the edges at the same time. We had near perfect weather here and stayed in an excellent guest house, perched right in the centre of the stage of nature. There wasn’t a better start to the evening than a starry night and the absolute sound of silence.

Here the roads were a dream. An absolute dream – the endless ocean to the left and lush greenery everywhere coupled with an empty stretch of B-road. Here is where your fantasy of stopping by the side of the road and sitting on a lawn becomes reality. The Skoda starts to show its capabilities here very well. Already demonstrating that it can climb some easy inclines without a sweat on gravel, the car is an absolute peach on tarmac. The engine pulls strong and smoothly except with a bit more clatter than we hoped; however, we can’t complain with the excellent fuel consumption that never fell below 13km/l. The car was also easily capable of breaching 170km/h, although the softness of the suspension could be clearly felt especially when the road gave way to crests and dips which unsettled the chassis slightly. Nevertheless, for a family estate, it reached an almost perfect compromise. There is much to say about the gearbox too – it works brilliantly with the low-end torque of the engine to deliver an endless surge of power that encourages sporty driving. The grip of the 4×4 drive train was beyond reproach: full throttle turns will not even elicit a chirp from the tyres and you would be working very hard to breach the limits of grip.

We crossed fjord country towards Dalvik before reaching our final stop of the day, Akureyri. Along the way the weather intercepted between fierce sunlight and thick fog. It was an incredible sight to see the weather change so quickly as we were driving next to the ocean with the fjords forcing a dramatic change of weather patterns. As a result of the steep slopes, many roads were also tunnels – one-way tunnels – that were and still are the most frightening thing in the world. When we finally reached Akureyri, we were exhausted and famished. Thankfully, Akureyri is a surprisingly developed city, the next biggest in Iceland after Reykjavik.

Day 7 – Mývatn

If there is one place in Iceland that would show you just how ‘alive’ the island is volcanically, there is no better place than Lake Mývatn (I know, I can’t pronounce it either). Upon entering within 10 miles of the lake the flies that are attracted to the sulphur gases excreted in the area start to attack the car. Remember to keep all your windows closed. The roads here snake you through the most otherworldly landscape you will ever see in your life – acres of black lava formations strewn across the vicinity; snow-capped black flat top mountains, bubbling sulphur pools and huge craters. It is as if we have just stepped on Mars.

Day 10 – Vatnajökull

After enjoying northern Iceland, we head down to the south to literally get on the largest glacier in Europe – Vatnajökull. Any visit here should not be without a visit to the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, where large chunks of glacial ice break off from Vatnajökull and drift slowly out into the ocean.

Vatnajökull is the epitome of the whole trip, at least for the driver. The seemingly flat plains of the area soon give way very quickly to winding gravel paths that slope very steeply upwards. I was truly feeling a sense of foreboding: I remember a notice in the rental agreement saying we will not be covered for anything that happens outside of paved roads. Nevertheless I pushed on.

The path gets narrower until it reduces to just one car width. I was hoping for no other cars to come from the other side but like all things, the cars eventually came and those moments where we squeezed through with just inches of room were truly terrifying. Halfway through the drive up, we stopped at a larger bend to take a breather. From here we can see a large waterfall that presumably is the melting water from Vatnajökull. We still cannot see the huge glacier.

The reason is this – the altitude of the glacier is actually very, very high. In fact, from afar it looks as if we could drive towards it easily. But it is at least an hour’s ascent before we finally see some white. And it literally took my breath away when I realised just how high we were – driving alongside a cliff that dropped to where the glacier started, I slowed down to a crawl both to witness this amazing sight as well as to concentrate on not going off the path. The immense size of the glacier simply cannot be described in words. The glacier continues to ascend to a distance so far we cannot even see; I cannot even tell what is high or low, tall or short any longer. All I wanted to do was to get to our destination.

We finally reached the satellite station, which can be considered as the ‘base camp’ of Vatnajökull, and heaved a sigh of relief. What a drive.

Departure – Reykjavik

When we finally returned the car in Reykjavik, the car added 3,000+km to its odometer. I am sure I have worn out the tyres more than they were supposed to, but otherwise the car presented no problems at all. It killed just about a few thousand flies and drank so many litres of diesel I’ve lost count.

In the 2 weeks or so of living with the Skoda, I have cultivated an immense respect for it. It truly is the car that can do nearly everything. The interior was actually very impressive and comfortable, nothing at all that will suggest that it is in any way cheaper than any other VAG product. The white and green backlighting at night is refreshing and unconventional, but there is nothing out of the ordinary about its practicality – it simply is brilliant. The boot is huge, swallowing up everything we have got. The rear seats are slightly small for a long journey, but they are not major complaints; the car has enough power and handling poise to actually be fun for a family carrier, especially when you work through those gears via the DSG gearbox and relish in the huge reserves of grip that four wheel drive has to offer.

More importantly, I fell in love with Iceland. Not just as a driving destination, but as a reminder of Mother Nature, a reflection of the magnificence of the natural beauty of the world. You would realise I have had to cut out many other portions of our drive, otherwise it would have made this article excessively long. But guess what, I have not even seen all of what Iceland has to offer. It really is that vast. If you are thinking of the next place to go for a road trip that is out of the ordinary and, I dare say, life-changing, consider Iceland.

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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6 Comments

  1. James that looks like an awesome trip! Great read.

  2. Thanks Kevin! I love writing driving travelogues!

  3. This looks incredible, I would love to make this trip myself.

  4. Sounds like you had a lovely time, although it seems a bit like an advert for cars, why are there so many pictures of the car. Would have loved to see more of the country.
    But it was interesting to read.

  5. Great story, great pictures….but where are the beautiful Icelandic horses?

  6. Kip: I highly recommend it.

    Olga: Hi Olga, thanks for your comment! The reason why I have so many pictures of the car is because we are first and foremost a car website! I have however about 80% more of my photos unposted in the gallery here which I have kept unpublished, perhaps I may write about Iceland and post those up.

    Harry: I took a few photos of them with my phone camera… The quality isn’t good enough for me to post up, I think!

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