We got our Toyota Yaris and headed out on the Ring Road to tour the island. The first stop was Pingvellir, the site of the first Parliament and the location of a major rift in the landscape. The wet weather didn’t dampen the spirits of the numerous tourists doing the day bus tours of the site. A nearby Church provided relief from the crowds and offered a look inside a typical country church that seemed to be a fixture of every hamlet in Iceland.
Next stop was Geysir, the home of the original waterspout that lends its name to the word used today in English. The original spout no longer erupts as the earth has shifted over time, but there are several others that erupt on a regular basis much to the delight of the same tourists mentioned earlier. The third stop on the day trip is Gulfoss, a spectacular waterfall 10 km away that has formed a twisting gorge in the surrounding landscape.
We camped at Geysir, near the hotel, and within earshot of the waterspout. The typical Icelandic campground is lawn with toilet and washing facilities and no trees. Usually everyone is camped cheek to jowl, but as we were in the shoulder season there were only 4 of us in the campground. Another fringe benefit is the use of the hot tub at the hotel, which uses natural hot water is more like a spa than a regular chlorinated hot tub seen in Canada.
The next day we drove through the back roads to the main Ring Road. This was our first encounter with that ubiquitous animal – the sheep – that was to be the most dangerous aspect of driving in Iceland. There were hundreds in pastures along the roads, but a few sheep managed to get out every few km, and decided to hang out on the roadway for extra warmth. As this was spring, there was an abundance of lambs as well which added to the excitement of the drive. Once we joined the ring road in the south, the landscape changed to what we thought was a large lava field. Turned out it was a Sandur, a giant field of glacial till which floods out every twenty years or so, after the volcano under the icecap melts enough ice, which gives way under pressure. This phenomenon is present through most of the south coast alongside the icecap, and is the main reason, that the ring road wasn’t completed until 1974. It is also the reason why most of the hamlets are built right below the mountains in what appears to be an avalanche path instead of on the flat, as the chances of avalanches are much lower than the chance of a large flood.
Our first stop on the Ring Road was Skogar, home to two of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland – Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss. Iceland has about 10,000 waterfalls, most of which seem to be small creeks that plummet from the interior plateau to the coastal plain. The lack of trees makes them much more visible than similar formations in BC. In addition, Skogar has a Folk Museum and a Technology and Transportation museum. The folk museum had numerous interesting artifacts including a ring that Peter swears is the inspiration behind the ring in Lord of The Rings.
An outdoor pavilion with turf houses that have been restored gives a glimpse into life in rural Iceland that existed up until modern home building techniques were employed. The low height and compact size lead one to believe that the Hobbits ruled the place.
Vik, 48 km further south, known for its wool products, was the camping spot for the second day on the road. This sleepy town provided Marg with a great opportunity to ride Icelandic ponies with a local riding club on the black sand beaches past the Reynisdrangar, a unique series of black basalt columns sculpted by the sea, which legend has it are actually three trolls caught outside at dawn. These horses with their unique gait are renown for their gentleness and ease of riding. Vik is also near the site of a large seabird nesting area, which unfortunately was closed to people until mid July during the nesting season. The sleepiness of the town included the lack of anyone at the campground to collect money from us, with the bonus of the availability of hot running water and flush toilets.
The following day we headed north east to Skaftafell National Park which is the main access point for the Vatnajokul glacier. We did a short loop hike above the Park office which took us into the alpine area with views of the nearby ridges to the east, and the Sandur to the south. There were also more turf houses in various states of repair near to the trail, which continued the concept of open air museum.
That evening we camped at another campground which we think was really a pasture that would be used by the sheep in the fall after the tourist went home. The campground “lawn” was next to an active pasture, and we slept with the background noise of sheep and horses.
Thus after venturing through the “set” of The Lord of The Rings, we were now in the “set” of Babe (although we were missing the pig!).