65º nordur. Tour around Iceland
This is, somehow, a story about circles. It takes place at 65º north, right below the arctic circle. It gives an account of a trip around the Icelandic ring road, route nr 1. And it ends in the very touristic Golden circle. Another associations could be found involving circuits and round belts, but the readers will find by themselves.
Episode 1: The blizzard
The weather forecast and road conditions were favourable: mostly fine, some light snowfall on the highlands, passable way with spots of ice. So, we set forth of a chill, partially cloudy morning on our small shabby Polo: a cheap clapped-out rental car with too many kilometres, too little maintenance, and a number of minor bugs: no hand brake, a rickety driver’s door, a jammed co-driver’s seat-back… Anyhow, we were to drive all the time along the main Icelandic road, nr 1, which is constantly cleaned and serviced, and we didn’t need much for that.
So, there we went. Our starting point, Reykjavik. Our destination for that first day, Akureyri. The road was alternately clean or covered with packed down snow, which always makes a good grip.
For quite a long while we happily enjoyed the beautiful white landscapes under the occasional sun rays. Oh!, Icelandic horses never miss a chance for welcoming the tourists and getting a chance sugar cube.
Though the temperature wasn’t very low (just a few minus degrees), the wind made for a freezing cold day. Stepping off the car for taking a picture meant a painful while to our bare hands. And, who can manipulate with winter gloves one of those little digital cameras?
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We hadn’t been driving long when we took a hitchhiker who was heading our same destination: Jacob, a young german guy who was backpacking the island all by himself. With him on the back seat we kept our journey, taking it easy, driving slowly, often stopping to take a picture or eat a sandwich in a service station. The only problem was that, having no handbrake and a jammed co-driver’s seat-back, for our passenger to step off I had to stop the engine, put first gear, get out the car myself and let him out through
the left door. But there was no hurry; we had the whole day ahead of us and lots of nice scenic views to photograph.
Iceland is a scarcely populated country, and half of the people live in the big Reykjavik area. So, once you start getting far from the capital, there’s very little traffic on the road, which can be a bit scary when you consider the case of an accident or a car breakdown…
As we approached the highlands, the daylight was slowly declining and the wind quickly increasing, blowing the sand-like snow from the neighbouring fields over the road, heaping it up in some places, mainly where the guardrails mean an obstacle to the flow. The snowplough machines, or even the lorries, lift such a thick cloud of dust behind them that, when you cross them, your windshield gets instantly blind for some seconds. In the first mountain pass we found, as the wind blowed stronger, the road was partially blocked in some places by these snow piles, and there were a couple of anguish moments when we feared we would get stuck, but the Polo proved to be tougher than it looked and, when we managed to pass the obstacles without more trouble, we laughed at our own apprehensions and fears, returning to our merryment for quite a while.
Before the second pass, some drivers that we crossed flashed their headlights at us and we realized that the dashboard wasn’t lit, despite the main switch being on. Putting both details together, they could only mean one thing: the lights of that damned rental car didn’t work! Therefore, we wouldn’t be able to drive in the dark, and as we still were almost two hours away from Akureyri, we decided to stop losing time, speed up and arrive as soon as we could.
However, we had scarcely driven two kilometres when the sky got overcast and suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a blizzard. The visibility was drastically reduced by the driving snow coming down the clouds and, mostly, the snow blown onto the car by the strong winds from the adjoining lands, from the endless plains, from the inexhaustible reservoir all over in the mountains, around and above us.
Still, there was not too much of it on the pavement and, for a while, we kept advancing, driving very slowly through the inscrutable white curtain, hardly seeing the yellow reflecting posts at the sides of the road.
As we finally reached the pass, all of a sudden we came to a zone where the wind had been blowing so much snow on the road that, in some places, it was two or three feet high. Most of the way was blocked, though, as the snow was irregularly piled, still it was possible to do some progress, picking the less covered areas or even some patches where, by a caprice of the wind, the pavement was totally clean. There was a red Golf going ahead of us, and I was blindly following its tail lights, trusting the skills of the driver and hoping he would be experienced enough to pick the best way. But soon my hopes turned out to be groundless: before even realizing it, he got stuck.
We stopped some metres behind and waited to see what happened. If he could get out of there, we could also -though our car was smaller- follow the Golf tracks and hopefully keep advancing. But he didn’t manage to move at all, and we thought of getting out of our car into the blizzard and try to help him. So, there the three of us went and study the situation. The left lane seemed to be somewhat cleaner, but the driver, blinded by the storm, had got himself right into a place where the snow was two or three handspans high. If we could only push him a couple of metres into the left lane, we would get him out of the obstacle. But this was easier said than done. With our feet and gloved hands we removed some snow from under the wheels and then tried to push his car, but it wouldn’t move. Unexperienced in those matters, we weren’t doing it properly, as we learnt shortly afterwards. We only managed to get ourselves wet, cold and agitated. Then, after our unsuccessful efforts, we decided to try get our own car backwards out of the snow; but this was to the same avail: we couldn’t push the Polo up the hill. So, we got into it again for taking a break, trying to think calmly and warm up ourselves.
It was then when we realized that the heating wasn’t working: the engine water was abnormally cold and the hot air we got was barely tepid. We couldn’t neither warm up ourselves, nor the windshield, which started getting frosty on both sides, external and internal. Soon we wouldn’t see a damn thing through it.
As we were trying to think what to do, there came two guys from a 4×4 that had arrived while we pushed, and gave us some instructions. They seemed to know well what to do, and we willingly obeyed. First we helped them to get the Golf out of the snow, pushing at short impulses, with a rythm: one, hop!, one, hop!, one, hop! Several times, and off the Golf broke free to the left lane! Then they helped us with the Polo in the same way, and one minute later we were also placed in the left lane, and eagerly attending their advice: “Move inch by inch. When you don’t see the road nor the next yellow post, don’t move! Wait until you see something and then go a bit forward, always chosing the best part of the road.”
We totally lost sight of the Golf. It might be already quite far ahead, or perhaps only ten metres from us. The storm had swallowed it. We were now following the four-by-four that helped us, whose co-driver was leading the way on foot. At some moments we almost couldn’t see anything through the windshield: Benito had to be constantly cleaning the inside frost with his wet gloves and frozen hands, while our hitchhiker had already lost his nerve and was curled up in the back seat, like an ostrich at the sight of the danger. Finally, I had no choice but to open the window, put my head out and drive like that, despite the snow and the cold getting into the car and making us freeze. Besides, it was getting dark and we had no lights.
We hadn’t got very far (perhaps fifty metres, perhaps five hundred, who knows?) when we got stuck again. The nerves, the maddening wind, the blinding snow and the gelid cold made for a nightmarish feeling and, just like in a nightmare, there are some parts of the episode that I can’t recall. I remember getting out into the blizzard again, frantically shoving snow and pushing someone else’s blue car for releasing it from the white, dreadful embrace. I remember the voices and the cries, muffled by the noise of the strong wind; and Jacob fighting against it for closing the door, and slipping on the icy asfalt. I remember wildly shifting gears back and forth for trying to rock the Polo, and some men pushing us free again from the snowy trap, and my trousers totally wet and frozen, and my fingertips so cold that I didn’t feel them. I try to warm up my hands in the air draught of the weak heating system…
When my memory comes back, we’re stopped, though not stuck yet; the red Golf is once more within our sight, also stopped, maybe stuck. There are another vehicles. Somewhere ahead, a jeep is towing a small car. Nobody is caring about us now. We’ve been told to move aside and let the several 4WD’s pass, thus opening a way through the accumulated snow that the other vehicles can profit; but we can’t follow them because we’re now on the other side of the road, and there’s a wall of snow between both lanes. Consternated, we see how the four-by-fours drive away and disappear in the distance, followed by the rest of the cars. Somehow the red Golf has also managed to leave, and suddenly we’ve been left alone, all by ourselves. There’s noone else to help us in case we need it, and dusk is getting closer and closer. We can’t take any more risk. Therefore, instead of trying to figure out our way piercing through the barely translucent windshield, Benito goes trotting ahead of the Polo and leading the way where the road is more passable. I’m driving only one or two metres behind him and I scarcely see the poor man’s trousers totally frozen, his snow-covered coat, his winter cap, his arms pointing in this or that direction. Every now and then he looks back to see if I’m following, to check that I’m not too close. Little by little we advance, and the conditions seem to get a bit better. Benito jumps in and we cross our fingers. There’s also one good news: the car lights -says he- are working. We’ve been descending for a while (though it would be hard to tell how long) and the wind has decreased somewhat, the road is a bit cleaner, the blizzard is weaker. We speed up and, with every new kilometre, it gets better and better, until we finally feel more or less safe. Seeing that we keep going down, we’re so relieved that we laugh hysterically.
The map was telling us that there was yet another hill to pass before getting to our destination, and certainly we started seeing again the frightful snow patches, that we had learnt to fear so much, on the sides of the road. But they were not so big, nor so high, and we finally arrived to Akureyri, wet and frozen from head to toes, but alive. A long warm shower, dry clothes and a hot cup of tea helped us recover from our distress.
Yet, for some hours we could hardly believe the hard times we’d had back there in the mountains and, on revising the episode, we then understood why those cars before getting to the pass had flashed their high beams at us: they weren’t complaining about our lights; they were trying to tell us not to venture further up!