The morning dawned bright and clear, sun beaming down on the snowy mountains and hills. We got an earlier start today as we had lots of driving to do and many exciting vistas ahead of us.
The first leg of our journey actually had us backtracking a short ways to Keldur, a farm featured in the 13th c. masterwork of epic poetry, Njál’s Saga. The farm sits in a great empty expanse on the volcanic plain below Hekla. A natural spring bubbles up from the ground just outside the farm grounds, which are dotted with turf-roof buildings from various eras, including ruins dating all the way back to the 10th century. It was strange to imagine making a life out here in this rocky, frozen wasteland for century after century, but clearly someone was still doing it, as evidenced by the cattle lowing at us as we explored the farm grounds.
We returned briefly to Hvolsvöllur for a visit to the Saga Museum. A hall of tapestries, illustrations, and audio files takes you through the entire history and tale of Njál’s Saga. The museum also featured a photo booth where you could dress up as a viking warrior, and a mead hall! I wanted a tanker of mead but it was only 10:30 in the morning and the tavern-keeper apparently was still asleep.
We ventured along the ring road, Iceland’s most famous (only?) highway that encircles the entire country. We were flanked on our right by the Atlantic ocean, distant coast, and islands rising out of the mist. On our left, rocky cliffs rose above us capped with snow and ice, like an endless wall that stretched all along the southern coast of Iceland.
We stopped first at the famous waterfall Seljalandsfoss, which was mobbed with busloads of tourists. Due to the angle of the sun and the cliff, we were in the shade and it was icy cold. The wind caught the spray from the waterfall and blew it down over us. The gravel path and the rope marking it were covered with ice, such that it became nearly impossible to approach very close because you kept sliding back down the walkway! Some brave (stupid?) people had ventured off the path and up a staircase marked “closed” to a path behind the waterfall. I’m sure that it was covered in thick ice and they all probably fell to their doom. We fled the tourist horde.
As we drove on, I became increasingly possessed by a need to stop and take pictures, so we pulled over at a small roadside stop. It turned out to be a viewing point for the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (pronunciation), once again safely covered in snow and ice after the massive eruption in 2010, when ash from the volcano shut down flights over most of Europe. It looks quite picturesque now, with a small farm nestled at the bottom of a mountain.
Onwards to Skokarfoss, a much more stunning waterfall in the small village of Skogar. Also flooded with busloads of tourists, this waterfall was somehow more charming, maybe because the visitors were spread out more, or because of the way the sunlight struck the water as it tumbled over the falls, spreading out a double-rainbow over the valley. Denise and I braved a climb up fifteen flights of rickety stairs for a view from the top of the falls. We were not disappointed, though the climb and the descent were as exciting as the falls itself! It was easy to imagine how the locals developed folk tales of these mystical falls, how one could believe in trolls and elves and lost treasures.
We pushed onwards to the next major tourist destination, the stunning black volcanic sands and towering hexagonal basalt cliffs of Reynisfjara beach, flanked in the distance by the natural rock arch Dyrhólaey. The beach was breathtaking, not even the busloads of visitors could ruin the view. We studied the patterns in the stones and the way the surf disappeared into the black sand before venturing onto the town of Vik for lunch. After we enjoyed the local fare (seafood soup and Icelandic beers), we ventured down to Reynisdranga beach, which had almost no tourists and equally stunning views. The rocks jutting out of the sea just beyond the shore are said to be trolls turned to stone by the sun as they were attempting to drag a boat to shore.
After lunch, we left the string of tour buses behind and ventured further east across a blasted volcanic wasteland. For the next hour and a half, there were no towns, no farms, nothing but the road and the miles of snow-covered lava rock stretching to the mountains to the north and out to sea to the south. Finally, we passed through the lava field (created by the 1783 and 1784 eruptions at Laki volcano) and reached the quaint village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (pop 120). We drove to the edge of town to a small farm where some Icelandic ponies had gathered near the fance, presumably to greet visitors. I fed them an apple, but one of the ponies like the taste of my fingers too much and tried to remove one with his teeth!
We said goodbye to our pony friends (even the foul-tempered one who bit me), and left Kirkjubæjarklaustur, venturing out across another lava field in search of our hotel. Our GPS simply said “Drive 15 miles, then turn off the road.” This instruction sounded increasingly ominous as our drive further into the wasteland made it apparent that no one and nothing could survive out here for long. And yet, there, in the middle of the lava field, was a squat, concrete bunker like some Antarctic research station. Fosshotel Nupar. This felt like the most remote place on the planet.
Inside, the hotel was actually quite nice. Hypermodern and minimalist in design, each room features a large glass wall granting breathtaking views of the mountains and glaciers across the wastes. We drank wine and watched the sun set.