Epilogue: The golden circle

 
That morning of our fifth and last day’s journey was radiant: the sun shone on the white blanket covering the land, emphasizing, by contrast, all the colours around: the deep blue of a nearby lake, the dark grey line of the sea to the southeast and the hazy azur of the glacier peaks to the west. Probably such a good location and nice environment was what inspired the farmers at Hvoll hostel to open that business they were so unfit for. Good locations are, quite often, the only resource of opportunists.
Thanks God the snow on the road was friendly packed down, and we merrily drove away from Hvoll, stopping two or three times for taking pictures or having a quick lunch. But by the time we arrived to Vik–the last town in the lonely south–the weather was already overcast with scatterd, moderate snow showers.

Frozen cascades

The legend goes that there were in Vik three trolls named Skessudrangur, Laddrangur and Langhamar, who found a masted ship on the sea and tried to pull it during the night into the shore, but before they managed to the beach, dawn came and they were stricken by sunrays, thus turned into rocks where they still can be seen today: the group of rock stacks called Reynisdrangur, which is the worthiest highlight around Vik. From the desolate beach the view is astounding: in the foreground, a stripe of pure white snow; secondly, the strikingly black volcanic sand; farther, the whitish foam formed by the raging waves; and lastly, in the background, the black Reynisdrangur contrasting against the grey sky.

Reynisdrangur near Vik

It wasn’t so straightforward to find a open wifi spot in Vik to check the weather forecast. At the store–one of those places I like so much, quite common in scarcely populated regions, often the centre of local life, gas station, stopover, cup of coffee, homemade soup, friendly staff, laid back atmosphere–but there was no internet, and they sent us to the post office; but this was expensive, so we went to the youth hostel, where I knew they would be pleased to help us. And indeed they were: the friendly receptionist welcomed us to sit at the lounge and use their wifi.
The forecast for the rest of the day was: overcast with occasional and light snow/rain showers, temperatures a bit warmer. Nothing to be afraid of, except if we got wet snow on the pavement. Actually, a road in the Golden Circle was tagged “impassable”, but we didn’t worry too much because the Circle is very touristic and roads get constantly cleaned by snowploughs.
A few leagues to the west of Vik there is Skógafoss waterfall. With its 25 m width and 60 m height (like a 20-storied building) it is one of the largest in Iceland, and the spray it constantly produces creates a permanent rainbow when in sunny weather. Millions of years ago, its edge was a cliff of the coastline and the water fell right onto the ocean, but since then the sea bottom has raised and now constitutes the island’s southern lowlands.

Skógarfoss with its permanent rainbow

There is another legend (Icelandic folklore is full of them), that the first viking settler in the area buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall. Years later, locals found the chest with the treasure, but they were only able to grasp the ring on the side of the chest before it disappeared again. The ring was then used for the church door. Which is a boring legend, I’m sorry.
The last hours of our Icelandic tour were devoted to the well known Golden Circle (or Golden Triangle), which consists of a few tourist attractions some one hundred kilometres east of Reykjavik. First we visited Gulfoss, a cascadel in the course of the river Hvítá which has two stages: first it falls down in three steps arranged along the river axis, and then abruptly plunges into a crevice 32 m deep, 20 m wide and 2.5 km long. When approaching the fall, the crevice is hidden from the view, and it looks like if the mighty river were simply swallowed by the ground.

Mighty Gulfoss

Right by the view point there is a large hall featuring a souvernir shop and a restaurant, where the best lamb soup in the country can be ordered. Quite a classic, absolutely recommended. Besides, as you can have seconds for the same (unexpensive) price, it makes for a filling and delicious meal.

Cotton snow flowers

Next we went to the geysers. The word geyser comes from Geysir, which is actually the proper name of one of these natural, geothermal sprouts of water in Iceland. There are several of them around the area, each with a different name of its own; but Geysir was the first ever appearing in print and therefore the earliest known to Europeans, who took the word for the phenomenon. In turn, Geysir means “to gush”. Most of the others in the Golden Circle sprout only once every several years (or decades!) The only one coming every few minutes is Strokkur, therefore the most photographed. Unfortunately, it was painful to wait frozen handed, camera ready, for Strokkur to sprout, and difficult to take a nice shot; so, we didn’t take much pains for a decent photograph. But believe me, it’s quite a spectacle.

How Strokkur looks in between sprouts

But what I found extremely interesting was to peep down inside the depths of their bottomless cauldrons, which are like pots of crystal clear waters, smoking and smelling sulfur. When I leant onto the brim of a well, I couldn’t help the dizzy feeling of being at the edge of an abyss through which it might be possible to see the lava–or is the lava watching us through these watery eyes? And my fantasy rockets to Jules Verne when I try to think to which depths this water goes? Does it kiss the magma lips down there? How would it be to dive in one of these holes? It’s amazing how can so much life exist and tread the extremely fragile crust of earth, forgetful of the colossal ball of fire we’re sitting on. Iceland itself isn’t but a crevice in this crust, where the earth shows its igneous, incandescent entrails; which is a bewildering thought.
We also visited the Thingvellir, the old parliament, which was the ruling council of the first settlers before they submitted themselves to the Crown of Norway; and also the scenic Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in the country, though by that time daylight had become so dim that every object covered by snow was reliefless.

Thingvallavatn

 

A landscape close to Thingvellir

This was our tour along the Ring road, around Iceland. But before finishing this last chapter let me tell the short story of one errand we had to do: Benito had been entrusted in Madrid with delivering a bottle of Spanish wine to a lady in a village not far from Reykjavik, in Selfoss district; but he had been given no address: just the lady’s name and her village, which in Iceland should be enough, he was told. Unfortunately, some letter in the village’s name must have been misspelled by the remitent, because we weren’t able to find it on maps or the internet: we scanned the whole Selfoss area for names similar to the one we wanted, but the closest we got was Skálholt, and even locals had never heard of the place we asked. So, being our only candidate, to Skálholt we went with the bottle. It is a tiny little village and all lights in the houses were off, like if everyone had gone to mass; but for one home, and this doorbell we rang. A lady opened the door (the only Icelandic person I’ve known to speak no English), but she was obviously not the addressee of the gift. So, having no time for further inquiries, we had to give up and drink the wine ourselves. Which is a boring story, sorry.
On our way back to Reykjavik we still bumped into some snow heaps on the road, almost invisible in the dusk; as a matter of fact, we were very close to getting stuck again. But by this time the reader will be as familiar with such things as we were, and this new story would be of as little interest for you to read as it would be for me to write, so I’ll spare it. Suffice to say that, once in Reykjavik, sound safe after this eventful trip, we indulged ourselves to the one and only, the unique, the inimitable lobster soup in Saegreifinn.

Benito and me having a lobster soup at Saegreifinn, Reykjavik

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Episode 4 (3rd part): Hvoll, an inhospitable youth hostel

 
If you’ve ever seen the ocean waters hurrying upstream for ransacking–as if living creatures, as if soldiers for the plunder of a defeated city, as if looters after the wreckage of a vessel–the spoils of a glacier’s end, there aren’t many more scenes left in Nature capable to stun you too much.
When we managed to pull ourselves after the outlandish sights we had witnessed, we carried on our driving, quite excited by the experience but knowing that nothing else would be close as amazing as what we had just seen. And certainly for that day, our enjoyment had finished, because soon after we left Jökulsarlón it started snowing and getting dark.

Despite the snowfall wasn’t too heavy, we had to drive quite moderately, and there were some moments when we wouldn’t see further than ten metres ahead. Of course our sightseeing had ended for that day’s journey; we were simply heading for the next hostel, Hvoll, whose location wasn’t so obvious. We had phonecalled previously and asked for directions, but the guy who replied was somewhat slack, like if he didn’t care about guests; his explanations weren’t neither detailed nor clear: fourty four kilometres after Skaftafell (a national park) we should take road 204 to our left. But, with the snowfall, the highway notices weren’t easy to read–nay: not easy to see, and we were forced to an even slower speed and a closer watch.

hvoll
Last strech of fourth stage: from Jokulsarlon to Hvoll hostel

It must be said, for the praise of the Icelandic meteorological service, that the snow came just as forecasted: firs a light snowfall at dusk, then clear for a while, then a second snowfall, moderate. Se we were lucky to see the sign to road 204 more or less where it was expected. Unfortunately it wasn’t a paved road, but just a track, very snowy and quite rough, as if for a tractor or a four wheeler; certainly not suitable for a small Polo. Our landlord should have warned us about it. Besides, nothing could be seen there in the dark; no trace of an inhabited place except for two separate faint lights in the distance, like farms in the middle of nowhere. Where did that path lead? Were we on the right way?
We called the hostel again for confirmation. Yes, it’s about three kilometres far; you’ll see some lights was the laconic answer. So, we proceeded for around one more kilometre until we came to a fork. Now what? Shit! That damn guy could have been more explicit. We had to call him a third time just to hear: fork to the right. He wasn’t a talker, you can bet. The track had many potholes and was covered by snow, so we prayed we wouldn’t get stuck. A couple of times considered turning back and trying to reach the next hostel, in Vik, before reception closed. I knew that youth hostel from a previous trip and I knew exactly where it was, and their friendly staff. But we were tired and didn’t feel like driving one or two more hours that evening. So we went on.
Finally we saw a notice: Hvoll, and just a bit further was the place. We rang the bell, the door opened and we were ‘welcomed’ by the unfriendliest smile I’ve ever got in Iceland; and right away we were requested by the landlady, with the same unkind smile, to remove our boots. At once we didn’t like her. Then, when checking in and asking the money, she just gave us a piece of paper with the total amount, which was much higher than we expected. We asked for a detailed invoice, and then she played the fool a couple of times pretending she didn’t speak English, while her husband–who did speak it fairly well, as we knew from our phone calls–played also the fool pretending he watched a football match from his easy chair. But we insisted and she reluctantly gave in, writing the invoice. Hence we could learn that what so much increased the total price was the linen rent: 900 crowns per person, one third of a bed’s price, and not a towel included. We regarded it as very expensive, but days later we learnt that it was normal in Iceland.
Once the transaction finished, she showed us the actual hostel: it was another–rather ugly–building, some one hundred metres away, which looked like a hangar or a barn. Inside, though, it was very new and neat. Too new and neat–I thought to myself–and not cozy: right after the entrance door there was a large dining-hall like the one you’d find in a school, furnished with three long rows of adjoining tables, each having four chairs upside down on top. In the opposite wall there was a long worktop with all kinds of electric kitchenware and abundance of plastic baskets to label and store the guests’ food, and through a door by the worktop there were two kitchens, full of cutlery, dishes, saucepans and other utensils. Through another door in the left hand wall of the dining hall there were the rooms, each of them having four beds and just a ridiculously small electric heater, switched off, so our room was freezing until it got heated up a few hours later; and the four toilets, three of which were locked down and couldn’t be used.
All of it was as tidy as it was unwelcoming, not only because of the locked toilets and the cold inner architecture (evidently designed by someone who knows nothing about youth hostels), but mostly because the whole place was full of notices requesting the guests all kinds of duties, stating lots of bannings and with long lists of rules to obey, the most ridiculous of which was the prohibition of staying in the premises from 10 am to 4 pm. Guests were asked to keep out of the hostel during six full hours! Supposedly because of cleaning. Unbelievable.
Anyhow, the most annoying of all the issues about Hvoll hostel was the total absence of internet. No possibility of getting online. In all my years of travelling, since the popularization of the internet I had never known of a youth hostel without it. Not even in poorly civilized countries. Therefore we considered this fact utterly unacceptable, and particularly bothersome since it deprived us from the possibility of checking the weather for the next day, an essential task on an Icelandic winter tour.
Besides us, there were only another group of guests: an excursion of Asians that had rented a 4×4, which didn’t look too sociable. So, being away from any physical or virtual amusement, the only thing we could do for the evening was to eat up the rest of our supplies and go to bed, with the idea of waking up early the next morning and getting ready for the last stage of our trip: the golden circle. We went to sleep persuaded that this disappointing hostel was not up to the standards of Hostelling International, and wondering how the organization could have associated it.

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Episode 4 (2nd part): Jökulsarlón, a visit to the dawn of time

jokulsarlon
From Egilsstadir to Jokulsarlon

When the traveller driving south from Egilsstadir along the famous Icelandic Hring Vegur (the Ring Way) reaches the solitary mountain pass dividing the northern and southeastern basins, there appears before his eyes a magnificent view; but also a dismal one: for the first mile from the pass towards the impressive glacial valley, the road has a very steep slope that, being dismaying enough on its own, can get also quite slippery. If, besides, you’re driving an unreliable and unpredictable car, the hair-rising fear of plunging into the abyss is hard to escape.
After the incident with the fan, for long and slow minutes we proceeded downhill with extreme caution, engine-braking, holding our breath and knocking on wood, lest our shoddy Polo decided it was the right time for a break failure, or the steering wheel broke down when in a hairpin turn. But nothing of this happened, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this now. The incline became gradually softer, and eventually we were again able to enjoy the astounding environment.

Along a glacial valley on East Iceland

Farther on we reached the flat wide valley-bed and drove along it until we finally arrived to the ocean at Breiddalsvik, from where–and almost until the end of our trip–the road would run skirting the coast, therefore entirely at sea level.

Needle peaks close to Eiddalsvik

 

Frozen cascades

However, together with the warmer temperatures and no longer fearing snow dunes, there came the second worst enemy of the arctic driver: the wet snow, an annoying layer of half melted ice, a semisolid that, like when driving on sand, severely and unevenly hampers the wheels’ advance on the road, making also for a lesser fuel autonomy and a difficult and dangerous steering. Actually, and depending on the wet snow consistence and the road incline, the tyres can lose grip and the car get stuck.
And indeed, we had a lot of that stuff from the moment we reached the ocean and along the whole coastline skirting the deep fiord, until we arrived to our first planned stop for that day: the lovely, peaceful, tiny little fishing village of Djúpivogur. Fortunately, though the wet snow slowed down our advance, we didn’t have any mishap and we could enjoy contemplating delightful landscapes we found on our way along the very scenic Berufjordur…

Horses keeping their body warmth

 

Berufjordur, and the massive glacier peaks in the distance

…and also one very pictoresque thing we hadn’t seen before: a traditional fish drying-place, consisting of several wooden structures where the beheaded fish is hung from the beans by the tail.

Fish drying-place and workers

 

Hanging the fish to make it dry

 

Fish is hung in the open air

Located at the tip of a small cape, sheltered from the rough southwestern seas and the cold northwestern winds, the fishing village of Djúpivogur is a privileged one, with its romantic little harbour well protected, an facing the rocky peaks right across the fiord.

The fishing harbour of Djúpivogur

Behind the harbour and Djúpivogur’s scattered few houses, the bleak pyramid-mount of Búlandstindur keeps an eternal watchful eye on the village.

Búlandstindur, the natural pyramid of Iceland

As it was about time for lunch, we decided there couldn’t be a better place for a meal than this fishing community. There were only two eating places in Djúpivogur: the hotel and the shop; so, deeming the first one would probably be too expensive for our budget, we chose the second. It was a fine local, two-in-one, combining a small convenience store and a modest but cozy restaurant, featuring four or five tables and huge windows facing the harbour which provided for a splendid and relaxing view. Of course we ordered fish and of course it was delicious, so that we leisurely enjoyed a very nice meal, tasting the fresh food and the view at ease: the snowy mountains lit by the sun, contrasting with the marine blue sea and rising above the few small boats which dozed on the harbour’s calm waters.
When checking the weather forecast update for the evening, we got a confirmation of the news in the morning: starting from dusk there would be snowfalls. So, though we still could count on a few hours of fine weather, we didn’t know if that was enough for properly visiting the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlon, allegedly one of Iceland’s highlights. Should we then hurry up and try to get there today, or rather take our time, driving at ease, and visit it the next morning after spending the night in Höfn, 80 km away from Djúpivogur? There was no easy answer, but being so hard to make reliable plans in Iceland–with the changeable weather and unpredictable road conditions–and driving an even less reliable car, we just opted for driving without any expectation nor hurry and take decisions on the go. Fortunately there were three alternative youth hostels where to stay overnight, plus no shortage of–more expensive–guesthouses to take into account just in case.
And indeed, what an amazing climate change we experienced!: no sooner had we left the sleepy Djúpivogur than, after the first turn of the road, we found ourselves like if in another planet–nay, like if back to our planet: suddenly the weather got mild and sunny, and the landscape snowless.

Dreams of spring in the southeast

 

Already spring by the sea while still winter in the mountains beyond

It’s noteworthy to say that many of the mountains along this part of the road are flanked by bare, gargantuan masses of loose boulder, broken and crumbled by erosion and the force of ice, then spilt from the rocky heights. These stones are naturally piled with the maximum possible incline (around 40º, as engineers well know) in a very unsteady equilibrium and, when looked at up from the mountain’s foot, they cause a strong dizziness, making us feel like if we’d fall upwards. As a matter of fact, slides are very common in that region, and it’s frequent to find some of the boulders invading the pavement. Looked at a distance, this mountains resemble the hoofs of a colossal ungulate.

Gigantic hoof-like mountain sides

So, well, as by the time we went past Höfn it was too early, we kept driving, with the hope of making it to Jökulsarlon on a fine light. By the way, this is the part of the island where better and closer the glaciers can be observed from the highway; oh the glaciers!, those accumulated and compacted snow masses, spilling down the high peaks along the valleys in breathtaking tongues of ice, with their hypnotizing blue hue.

One of the several “arms” of Vatnajökull glacier

Thanks to the setting sun and the cloudless sky, we weren’t short of delightful scenery…

Glacier mountains at su 
nset

 

Yet another awesome landscape[/captio, broken and crumbled by erosion and the force of ice, then spilt from the rocky heights. These stones are naturally piled with the maximum possible incline (around 40º, as engineers well know) in a very unsteady equilibrium and, when looked at up from the mountain’s foot, they cause a strong dizziness, making us feel like if we’d n] 
…until we finally reached the magnificent Jökullsarlón, the glacier lagoon, where one ohypnotizing blue huef the largest arms of/strong the inmense VHowever, together with the warmer temperatures and no longer fearing snow dunes, there came /patnajökull glacier dies, right by the sea.
Satellite view of the glacier tongue dying in Jökulsarlon

 
There we parked the car, walked to the shore, then got stunned: we had gotten there at the right time for witnessing one of the most spectacular phenomena one can behold: the tide strongly flowing in through a narrow channel into the lagoon and lifting the massive ice blocks sleeping there.

[caption id="attachment_753" align="aligncenter" width="540"] The tide flows in, fills the lagoon and melts the ice

This is a short video giving some approximate idea of how striking this phenomenon is:

We could only hold our breaths at the sight of this astonishing scene; the agony and death of ice that had been formed perhaps 10,000 years ago.

Eerie Jökulsarlón, a visit to the dawn of time

At the flood of tide the comparatively warm sea water gets into the lagoon, soaking and melting the big rocks of ice. If the tide is strong, the inlet of water through the channel is very swift and powerful, resembling a river flowing inland. Benito and me could see this dark-blue sea river splashing against the icebergs and diving underneath them in vortices, pushing them backwards, moistening them and changing their thick translucency into a light transparency; and so the big blocks get cracked and split into smaller pieces.

Glacier icebergs taking their last slumber before…

Here’s another video of this curious flow:

Then, at the ebb of tide, the water retreats from the lagoon back to the ocean carrying out those ice blocks that melted down to a size small enough to pass through the shallow channel; and lastly, the low tide gently places many of those blocks, “carved” to beautiful capricious sculptures, onto the black sands of the beach. Thus, all year long for over endless centuries, twice a day–with every flow of the tide–the sea takes a bite of the glacier and swallows it up, claiming what is his; after a cycle of ten thousand years, the sea returns the frozen water to where it belongs: the eternal ocean.

…before they die in the sea, their carcass lying on the beach

The remnants of what–for ages–was a proud glacier lie now on the beach, exhaling their last breath; natural beauty until the last minute, they embellish with their gem-like carved surfaces the volcanic black sands, in scenes so bizarre they seem unreal.

Gem-like carcass of what once was part of a glacier

 

The sea slowly licks away the last hours of the ice

I couldn’t help bitting and swallowing a piece of such ice. It was like eating up the prehistory: putting into my body some molecules that had been deposited during the past then thousand years.

Benito holding a piece of ice 10,000 years old.

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Episode 4 (1st part): Road #1

 
When I woke up in the morning of our fourth day’s journey, the world seemed rather more hospitable a place than in the eve: there was a bright sun to cheer us up and news were good: Benito was already awakened and had taken the car to the workshop — right around the corner in the same block as the guesthouse. The mechanic had the spare part in stock and the Polo would be ready in half an hour.
Meanwhile, we had a jolly breakfast in the luminous lounge of the house, checking the weather forecast, planning our route for the day and basking in the sunrays that came in through the big window panes fiercely litting the premises. The worst part of the road was already past, we guessed. The highlands of the north were left behind and, but for around the first fifty kilometres that morning, the rest of our little odyssey was to run almost entirely at sea level and to windward of the not-so-cold southwesternly weather; and both factors strongly minimized the possibility of coming across what we had, by then, already identified as our worst enemy: the snow dunes on the road. The meteorological service predicted partly cloudy skies until before dusk, and then two snowfalls: a light first one and a heavier second one. But we weren’t much worried about them: in the south of the country — where we would be driving to — there was more life, villages and choice of accomodation; we had already spotted three alternative youth hostels in the map (the only affordable lodgings for us) where we could spend the night, depending on the weather and our progress on the road.
So, once our things were packed, we picked the car from the mechanic and set off, leaving the bill to the rental company. After all — we chatted — it hadn’t been that bad, meaning it could have been much worse if that crappy vehicle had broken down in the highlands, the middle of a blizzard or simply on a holiday’s eve, when no mechanic would be available the next day. Reasoning this way, and though psychological or emotional damage is impossible to evaluate, we decided to not pay a damn crown for the car rent. Whether or not this was fair might be discussed, but no doubt if we sued the rental company we’d win the case and that would be much more expensive for them.
Thus comforting ourselves we turned our backs to Egilsstadir and, boldly confident in the logic of things, retook our itinerary: Road #1, to which we should trustily stick, as we deemed it to be the main route–if only one–that had to be serviced, cleaned and maintained in Iceland.
In any case, it was undoubtedly an awesome road. As we started driving up the hills and into the mountains, we were fully captivated by the scenic views and bare wilderness, the black & white puissance of this God-forgotten region and the many hues of those icy moonscapes. There was a disquieting something in the solitude of that gravel road that, in the distance, seemed to merge into the surrounding terrain, swallowed up by it.

The road seems to face away into the ground

But wait a second… did I say solitude? Hmm… Certainly the road was strangely solitary for being the main Icelandic route. Since the beginning of our trip–and that was four days ago–we’d always been seeing some traffic, and even during a Sunday along the beautiful Nothing we’d come across a car once in a while; but now? For half an hour after leaving Egilsstadir we hadn’t seen a living soul. Maybe we’d skipped some sign and mistaken the road? But no: soon after this thought a notice by a detour (to what kind of winter hell could that trail go?) confirmed us that there had been no mistake; this was road #1. Yet not a vehicle could be seen as far as our sight reached.
We stopped and stepped off the car for a moment: examining the road we realized there weren’t even recent wheel tracks on the snow; probably nobody had come this way for the past couple of days. Fantastic as it seems, it was as if, by some trick of the matter or through a gap in the time-space substance, we had unnoticedly crossed to another dimension of the universe. Even the air didn’t stir: despite being close to the mountains, there wasn’t the slightest blow of the wind… Of course it’s a fantasy, but otherwise, how was it possible that in this region no one would drive along the popular Icelandic ring road? Where were the supply trucks? Somebody had to carry the cocacolas and the condoms to Egilsstadir’s supermarket, right? Or what about the postman? Somebody had to deliver the mail to the villages and farms on the way, true?
But then… which villages and farms? We checked the map, then stared at each other without saying a word: there was not a single black dot in around seventy kilometres, the only ones being on the shoreline, along a secondary road. Only then we understood: any possible traffic between Egilsstadir and the south would necessarily take that road–no matter how secondary–along which humans live; there, and not here, are the supermarkets, post offices and petrol stations. Nobody drove through here! So, was it safe, after all?
We pondered about it for a few minutes thus: we had lost much time the first day with the car problems and bad weather; we were behind our projected schedule and couldn’t afford–unless strictly necessary–to turn round, drive back and take the coast road, much longer as it traced the contour of all the fjords. Besides–what the hell?–after all this was Route Nr. 1 and it had to be cleaned by the snowploughs. Actually, despite its loneliness, thus far the snow was packed down and easily drivable. So we decided to carry on, still optimistic and light hearted. If worse came to the worst, we could always turn back. But we hadn’t gotten five hundred meters far when, zouf!, without even realizing it we passed over one of those dreadful snow heaps, blended into the terrain; it was not too large or too deep, but enough to check our speed to almost a halt, and certainly more than enough to put us instantly on the watch. Though we didn’t admit it to each other, both our minds instinctively went back to that blizzard the first day: the anguish, the wind, the cold and the fear…
We drove on, yet much more slowly. Because the car was going uphill we were quite likely to come across more and bigger mounds, so extreme care was to be taken and no mistakes, unless we wanted to get stuck in a road where not a man was probably coming in days. Fortunately the mountain pass was only a few kilometres ahead, and once beyond that point driving downhill would be easier, at least as to the snow.
As predicted, we soon came to another snow mound. Halting before it we jumped off the car to consider our chances. It covered the full road’s width (so there was no circling it), was about half a metre deep and eight metres long. This meant, if we couldn’t cross it we’d have to give up on our expectations for that day and totally redo our plans. But the morning was fine and our spirits high, so a few cubic metres of snow didn’t seem a big problem. We set to work, kicking it to the sides with our feet until we made a way through wich the car might pass; then I jumped in and backed around sixty metres, because momentum would be essential to overcome the dune. Then I put first gear and sped up towards it.

Kicking the snow away

Despite the car had gained a good speed, upon hitting the mound’s remaining snow we were checked as if driving on sand — and for a moment, where the layer was deeper, as the tyres lost grip of solid ground it seemed we’d came to a halt. But the car’s momentum was about just enough to surmount the dune, and finally I saw myself at the other end of it. Wow!!

Test passed!

Now we only hoped not to find another one like this, leave aside any larger, because, though the whole thing hadn’t take us longer than twelve minutes, if we were to get over several other snow heaps dusk would come before we got to the pass. And we were lucky!, our hopes were carried out and we saw no more of those. We kept going uphill on a firm road and, at its highest, we stopped for taking a few shots by a meteorological post that was placed there. Probably–we thought–the maintenance guy was the only person who, perhaps once a week, ever drove that road.

Benito by the anemometre

 

Rime appears when “underchilled” droplets, pushed by the wind, instantly freeze when touching a colder obstacle

And only one hundred metres further, after the first turn of the road, we stopped again holding our breath at the spectacular sight that was offered to our sight. I believe no astronaut who’d set foot on some new and strange planet would feel more bewildered and astonished than we did while beholding that unreal scene–the inmense glacier valley that stretched at our feet to the distant ocean–submerged in an bizarre, blueish atmosphere so dense it might be touched, as if it were a theatre set.

Breathtaking glacier valley

When we collected our breath again and were able to close our mouths (so strong was the impression this science-fiction scene made on us), we returned to the car and drove on. That mountain pass had made us happy not only for its beauty, but also because, being the very last we had to cross, it meant a practical end to the snow dunes, our main apprehension. From then on everything would be downhill or sea level.
Our merryment, however, didn’t last long. For the past while inside the car we had been smelling something like burnt, though at first we didn’t pay heed thinking that maybe the engine had got a bit overheated when revving it a while ago; but as it didn’t go away, it had to be something else. Not be the brakes, for sure, which we hadn’t almost used. Rather the clutch, but… that wasn’t the typical smell of burnt kevlar. It was something more familiar; something you could scent at home every once in a while, like… like burnt paper. The cardboard!, we both shouted at the same time. The piece of cardboard we had put on the grille three days before for minimizing the heating system problem. But how could it possibly have got so hot?Well, it was no moment for theoretical questions; something was burning under the hood and we had to see to it inmediately.
We stopped for taking a look: a feeble smoke was coming from the radiator, but it wasn’t the cardboard as we had thought; it was the fan. As we found out, with the joltings the cardboard had shifted between its blades preventing it from spinning, and the current had heated up too much the stator’s copper winding, burning its lacker. It was essential to remove the cardboard as soon as possible, but as it was crumpled and half broken we wasted five minutes, and by the time the fan was set free it wouldn’t move any more. Had we been too late? Or the engine had cooled down during those five minutes and didn’t need the fan any longer? It was hard to know, but probably now we had to deal with a new problem: no cooling. Things were certainly getting more and more interesting.

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Episode 3: The beautiful Nothing

 
On asking the employee in the Reykjavik tourist office what there is between Mývatn and Egilsstadir, i.e. the upper leftt quarter of the island, he had quickly replied: Nothing; and then added: but it’s a beautiful Nothing. And it was a splendent sunny morning when we set forth for this beautiful Nothing.
Though far from being perfect, the repair job we had done to the car was effective enough to keep the engine at a reasonable temperature despite the cold outside, and this sufficed to keep us reasonably warm inside–as far as there were no blizzards nor fights against the snow. In this way we drove for some hours throughout whitey landscapes, the ice crystals reflecting with violent radiance and one million shines all the light of the gleaming sun above.

Ljósavatn

Godafoss means waterfall of the gods. Well, perhaps the Icelandic gods have a preference for dreary and sinister whereabouts, but to us this dismal ice-age corner of the world could have rather been named waterfall of the demons.

Godafoss, the ice hell-mouth

Oh!, sorry: this is an old picture of the same place, I confess. But I don’t want to cheat on the reader. By the time we arrived to Godafoss this day, this is more how it looked:

Godafoss under the sun

Icelandic winter never stops surprising the beholder with bizarre exhibitions:

Spring thaw

 

Fanciful snow shapes worked by the wind

 

Ice nebulose

It wasn’t until mid afternoon that we arrived to the active volcanic region of lake Mývatn, with its craters, steaming grounds and geothermal waters. At this time of the year, the lake is frozen.

Lake Mývatn (snow covered) and a crater behind

But only at some kilometres’ distance we found quite a different type of lake, steaming and perfect for a bath in a natural hot-tub:

Geothermal emerald-blue lake and power plant

And in Iceland there is always natural beauty beyond every turn of the road:

The pond of serenity, as we baptised it

Also we saw some shows of the power underneath:

Steaming ground, hot to the touch, never covered by ice

Along the Ring Road, driving clockwise, lake Mývatn resort is the last enclave Icelanders have gained to the hostile volcanic island; and there is a dramatic contrast between the life-rich soil and warm enjoyable waters, to the west, and the barren, desolate stony highlands that lay beyond, to the east: one hundred miles of just lava, snow, rocks and icy waters: the beautiful Nothing. The inmense grandiosity of the white desert.

The beautiful nothing

And it was in this beautiful Nothing where we had our share of adventure that day. As the afternoon was going by, the sky got darker and cloudier. The infallible Icelandic Weather Service had forecasted some light snowfall for the region, and as most of the road runs along highlands, while driving we pored over the mountain passes in our map, accounting every single metre we gained in altitude, afraid of being caught in another of those terrible blizzards like our first day, or simply afraid of getting trapped in any of the many sudden snow heaps along the road. Taking into account that virtually no trafic goes that way, getting stuck in the middle of nothing (no matter how beautiful this Nothing is) could have tragic consequences. Well, at least we had learnt a vital lesson two days ago: to always drive with a full tank in chill weather, so as to, in the case of an accident forcing us to spend the night onto the wild, we could at least leave the engine running and thus have some heating.

There were two passes we had to go past, though we didn’t know exactly how high, our map not providing detailed information. When approaching the first, the wind got stronger–as expected–and we saw again the awesome but dreary sight of dry snowdust blown across the road, and soon we came by the first snow heaps on the road shoulders, when not right in the middle of the pavement, which shrunk our hearts every time. What makes them so fearful is not so much their size or scope–as most of them sit on one side of the road and cars can drive past the mounds pulling to the other side–but their unpredictability: you can find them anywhere: round a bend, behind a foggy stretch or–the easiest–camouflaged with the rest of the white or even the snowfall itself: in conditions of very diffused light, shapes totally lose their reliefs and our sight can’t have any reference; it’s like becoming blind, our sight sense gets completely fooled and all our eyes can perceive is a uniform depthless curtain.

Ice, rock and water, the only masters of this land

And, as such was the case, for an anguished while we drove with extreme care, and our nerves only got some relief when we noticed the car was rolling downhill, which meant less chances of back luck. So we congratulated ourselves and felt in the mood for even joking. First challenge passed! Now if we could only get over the next mountain pass, the worst stretch of the evening–and our fears for that day–would be gone, because after that there was the coast, with better temperature and way less dangers. Or so we thought, at least. Also we had some reason for optimism, because–according to our map–the next pass, second and last one of the day, was lower than the first. And indeed we drove it without any further drawbacks; so when we finally saw the dark-blue ocean after a turn of the road we really gave vent to our relief, celebrating our success with almost hysterical expressions of joy.
But this wouldn’t last long, because soon afterwards an indicator in the dashboard started flasihng red, telling us that something important had got broken again in that crappy Polo: it was the alternator lamp, meaning it was not generating electricity. When this happens, the only electrical supply for the car lights and engine spark plugs to work comes from the the power accumulated in the battery, but as this is not getting recharged, there is only a limited time for everything to keep running before–once the accumulator gets drained–total comma of the car occurs; and then comes the freezing cold, and darkness befalls…
And how long is this limited time? We didn’t know. My guess was: no less than fifteen minutes and no more than one hour; but really, no clue. Our scheduled destination for that day was Reydarfjördur, where there is an affordable youth hostel; but that town was fifty kilometres away, which–considering the slow average speed we could make on such roads–meant a one hour drive, more or less. We might risk it, but it was too hazardous, as we didn’t have any guarantee the battery would last that much. So, we ought to give up on Reydarfjördur. Actually we’d be lucky if we just could get to the nearest town, Egilsstadir, around fifteen kilometres from our position. So we switched off the headlights–despite dusk was getting closer–lest they helped drain the battery too fast, and we gloomily (pun intended) drove on, yet hoping for the best.
Fifteen minutes later we were crossing the bridge in Fellabaer and headed the long straight leading to the street lights of Egilsstadir. We were reasonably safe for that evening.
But what then? Deliberating about our next steps on a running engine meant wasting precious electrical watts we might need afterwards; but on the other hand, stopping the engine might mean even more watts later on, as every time you trigger the starter it sucks the battery badly. Whatever we were to do was to be decided now, without delay. So, well, we pulled the car by a supermarket’s lot and stopped it there, took a look under the hood and needed only five seconds to spot the breakdown: the alternator belt was gone. Considering how long cold climates preserve belts’ rubber, the thought came to me that it probably had not been replaced for over at least one hundred thousand miles; actually, perhaps it had never been replaced during the whole car’s lifespan. How irresponsible! We were totally mad at the company, and our first impulse was to dump the car to the ditch and leave it there. Definitely, some very serious talk with the manager was required, if not a full denounce in the nearest police station.
On the other hand, looking at it from a positive perspective, we have to admit we had been very lucky. According to our travel book, Egilsstadir was the service town for east Iceland. So, if there was a place where we could find a mechanic and spare parts, it was Egilsstadir. Therefore we had had the breakdown in the best possible spot of the road that day (if there is any good spot for a breakdown). And indeed, when we walked to a nearby petrol station, the tender told us that there were two guesthouses and two car workshops at a three minutes’ walk from there. Yes, that was lucky, and we couldn’t have asked for more. One of the guesthouses was located in the same building as one of the workshops; so we took a room and telephoned the rental car guy, who upon our complaints agreed on paying for our accomodation that night (and of course the repair); which was the least he could do, honestly.
Thus arranged, and though a bit frustrated for the dire straits we had gone through, we devoted the rest of the evening to tranquilly enjoying ourselves the best we could. We first ate a tasty and nourishing mushroom soup for dinner, then took a very long walk along the road in the still night, and finally drunk a couple of well deserved beers in the clean quietness of our room, after popping in and out the local bar, which was desertic. Despite all and the nuisance of not being able to visit Eydarfjördur, we couldn’t stop congratulating ourselves for our really good luck. Another relatively happy end to an eventful day.

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