The Road to Vik
After the beautiful desolation of Snæfellsnes, and the highlight reel that is the Golden Circle, it’d perhaps be understandable if our south coast drive on the fourth day didn’t quite reach the lofty heights of our first two day trips. As we would soon learn, though, Iceland has a propensity to surprise, and the south coast would make some very good points of its own. Our itinerary for the day was to drive south and east along Route 1, the Ring Road, until the village of Vik, taking in the sights and sounds along the way before turning around and heading back to Reykjavík. We started our day bright and early, making our way through the waking city and the endless roundabouts on its suburban margins, tracking the light on the distant horizon. As we were driving out of the highlands that surround the capital, we caught the sun rising over a village in the valley below us, and it was spectacular. We stopped for a moment to take in the world opening in front of us – the dark grid of streets and village homes, the warm glow hinting at new things just beyond the plateau, the chocolate-swirl hills sitting like melted sundaes on the coastal plains.
After the sunrise, there honestly wasn’t much to see for most of the first half of the drive, distance-wise. Additionally, as the day wore on, the sun that set our hearts aflame in the morning became the sun that absolutely blinded us on the road, and we had to pull over onto the narrow shoulder a few times for safety, even with sunglasses. In any case, after about an hour-and-a-half, we arrived at our first destination – Seljalandsfoss, a narrow waterfall that plunges off a rocky shelf into a dark pool below. It honestly doesn’t look like much from a distance, but, further up and further in, there’s a stark beauty to the white waters against the black rock that becomes visible and apparent. In the summer months, it’s possible to even walk into the cavern behind the waterfalls, but, alas, it was closed in February.
The False Spring
As we drove further down the coast, the weather got downright balmy – a stark contrast to our first few days in Iceland. A warm breeze wafted over the fields of dried grass and into our open windows, and the grip of winter seemed to loosen a little in our Icelandic fairy tale. It was refreshing for the eyes as well – thus far, our Iceland palette had been mostly blacks and whites, but the south coast saw fit to introduce its warm browns and yellows.
Back in the spring of 2010, a series of geological events took place behind a simple farm estate in southern Iceland, culminating in a spectacular period of volcanic eruptions that severely disrupted European air traffic for weeks. That volcano was the now famous Eyjafjallajökull, and the family that owns the farm opened a small museum dedicated to the 2010 eruptions. In person, it’s not a very impressive sight, certainly not as dramatic as the eruption photos, but the impossible-to-pronounce volcano came to represent the inscrutable nature of Iceland, and we spent the rest of our holiday repeating Eyjafjallajökull to ourselves and each other like a mantra. Eh-ya-fee-at-luh-yo-kut-luh, eh-ya-fee-at-luh-yo-kut-luh…
Just a few miles down the road from Eyjafjallajökull is the incredible Skógafoss, a massive waterfall flowing down from the Icelandic highlands. Visitors are greeted by a thick curtain of water thundering over a cliff, a spray of mist filling the atmosphere with fresh moisture and settling into rivulets of ice and frost on the ground. We were standing on the right bank of the river at the bottom of the falls, watching the frothing water rush into the pull of gravity, when we noticed people walking up the side of the hill adjacent to Skógafoss onto the plateau above. After another moment or two, we made our way across the frozen stage, to the wooden stairs set into the grass and earth.
The Old Coastline
It’s not a very difficult climb, although if you have a fear of heights, like I do, there are some sections that don’t inspire much confidence. Once at the top, we hopped a fence onto the grassy plateau, where the cliffs used to mark an older coastline. We walked around for a bit, careful to place our feet on solid ground, enjoying the rarefied air and the spectacular view to the south and to the east, along the greyish-blue margins of the sea. There were other people wandering around on the plateau, some heading further up into the interior, but we eventually had to turn around and make our way back down. The lunch hour was fast approaching, and there was no food between Skógafoss and the village of Vik.
When we were planning our Iceland itinerary, we had briefly considered staying a night at Vik so we could continue heading east to some of the other natural attractions on our list. We eventually decided to shelve that particular idea, though, which meant that the village would be our turn-around point instead. After leaving Skógafoss, we decided to skip past a few sites on the way to Vik, leaving them for the return journey in the afternoon. Lunch was at Halldorskaffi, a solid if not particularly memorable restaurant in the village, and then, before heading back west, we stopped by a small beach on the outskirts of town with a view of the Reynisdrangar. The series of basalt sea stacks just off the coast is said to be the remains of trolls dragging a ship back to land, tragically frozen and solidified in place when they were caught out in the sunlight. Like a certain other beach on the other side of the Reynisdrangar, the sand here was black in colour, though without the death and tragedy associated with its more famous neighbour.
Beware the Black Sands of Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara is in all the guidebooks and travel websites, one of the must-sees in any trip to Iceland. The wide narrow beach is lauded as one of the natural wonders of the world, a smooth sheet of jet black bordered by a rugged landscape and a deceptively calm sea. About a week before we flew out to Iceland, a story came out of a Chinese tourist who died on Reynisfjara, swept out to sea by a rogue wave while balancing on the basalt columns that border the beach. He wasn’t the first person to lose their life at Reynisfjara – there are multiple reports of tourists going missing while walking on its deadly black sands – and rangers are posted by the beach to keep a constant eye on sea and weather conditions. I’m naturally a very cautious person – Ashley is the more adventurous of the two of us – so I’ll admit that I had the tiniest of reservations when it came to Reynisfjara, with its freak waves and appetite for unsuspecting tourists. It’s a beautiful place, though – the black sand, the massive basalt cavern and columns, the arc of the beach curving into the fading hills of Dyrhólaey in the distance. Everything was calm – the sea, the hills, and even the air – and we left the beach without incident.
On the other side of Reynisfjara is Dyrhólaey, a peninsula that was formerly an island. Its volcanic origins are evident in the amount of basalt structures throughout its rocky outcroppings. Like many of Iceland’s natural attractions, there is very little in the way of safety measures, and tourists are expected to behave responsibly at all times, at the risk of possible injury and death. Dyrhólaey doesn’t get quite the publicity that Reynisfjara does, but it more than holds its own, with its arches and cliffs stretching over the violent sea below. The promontories are ripe for hiking and exploring the natural gullies and gorges that mark the coastline, and there are some stunning rock formations that are almost Lovecraftian in form and outline.
Return to the Land of Winter
We left Dyrhólaey in the late afternoon and began the long drive back to Reykjavík. The south coast was a bit of a revelation for us – the weather, the waterfalls, and the lava formations were a refreshing change of pace from the harsh winter and snow-covered landscapes of our first few days. As we drove up into the highlands, the countryside inevitably transitioned into the more familiar black and white template of rock and frost, and we bid farewell to our short-lived false spring. We wouldn’t miss it too much, however, as we’d be driving back down to the south coast the very next day.