HVITUR: Iceland Blog Post - Part 1.

The night before the flight to Iceland, I barely slept. I lay there in Hackney amongst the lights and the sirens absolutely wired. 

When the hour finally approached, my partner and I caught a couple of busses across London to St. Pancras only to be an hour early. We spent that dark hour sat in a Starbucks which had transformed into a seedy dive, home to all sorts of undesirable characters - drunken old men flopped in arm chairs, gangs of burnt-out women waiting for the first train back after a night out, and a couple of homeless guys who even attempted to steal the jug of milk only to be shooed away like a pair of pigeons entering the shop. All in absolute silence. The only thing more uncomfortable than the silence was the unbearable smell of rancid body odour in the air; and yet we sat there, because it was the only place open.

We jumped on the train to Luton and the flight over to Reykjavic was pretty smooth. Once the plane had pulled up, we had to sit onboard for 25 minutes because the doors had frozen shut and airport staff were attempting to thaw us out. We headed to the rental desk to pick up our 4x4 and whilst signing the paperwork, were shown a car that had been dropped back a few days before. It was destroyed. It looked as if it had been rolled down the side of a mountain or dropped in the sea. All glass was gone and every panel was pitted and deformed. The client had been caught in one of the regular wind storms on the south coast, exactly where we were headed. The Atlantic wind can easily build to be so strong that rocks and stones take flight and destroy property.

Our first stop, after getting used to driving an automatic, was a peninsular south of Grindavik, the most South-Westerly point of Iceland. Directly to the west, Greenland. Directly South, nothing but the Atlantic all the way down to Antarctica. The sea was raging against the jagged, black cliff edges. The only thing outsizing the mountainous black-green waves were the cliffs themselves, all capped with snow. The sharp air whipped around us and held a strong scent of Sulphur, not altogether pleasant. The landscape as we faced inland could only be compared to the moon; boulderfields as far as the eye could see, except snow covered and surrounding a tall red lighthouse.  

 © Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

© Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

After a night in Rekjavik, the adventure really started. On our first drive out, we came across a volcanic lagoon which, although being vibrantly colourful and beautiful, filled me with a sense of uneasiness. The water steamed in places and in others was perfectly still. The blue surface looked like glass, as if it had been immobile for millenia. We knew the water was warm and yet there was something stopping us from even dipping a finger tip in. It was so vibrant and so inviting it felt like a trap, as if it could have been toxic or acidic.  The algae was a brilliant green-gold and the silt was a cool grey. 

 © Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

© Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

The Icelandic winter is incredibly volatile. As minutes passed by the weather would change from wind storm, to hail storm, to sun, to snow, to wind, to hail... relentlessly. Sporadically we were fortunate to have the same weather for more than ten minutes, but driving throughout the day exhausting; just as you've adjusted your eyes to seeing through a hail storm, the hail has gone and you were fighting the wind, wrenching the steering wheel to try and keep the car on the road. It was at this point, on South coast, that the wind got too much and we started to panic. We couldn't stop and sit it out on the roadside because we were driving through boulder fields, which meant flying rocks. We pushed forward until we saw a farmhouse a little back off the road. We swerved up the track and drove into the farm yard to hide. I zipped up my arctic coat and knocked on the farmhouse door. I was met by a large black dog barking wildly and a broad, redfaced woman who didn't speak a word of English. After some wild gesturing, she said we could shelter in her yard, so we bunked down in our sleeping bags in the 4x4. Two hours of incessant shaking meant we didn't sleep a wink for fear of the car rolling or a window bursting through. The wind still didn't abate so we were forced drive through whatever sunlight was left in the day to our refuge for the night.

After a night in Puertsey, we headed out in bright, calm weather. We soon stopped off at Skogafoss, a soaring waterfall standing 200ft high. As much as possible we tried to avoid tourist hotspots in Iceland, but Skogafoss just isn't something you can drive past without wanting to take a closer look. As we drove up the the waterfall we were met with bus loads of tourists taking selfies and jumping photos in front of the roaring, cascading water. With the weather turning slightly fair as our films were loaded into our cameras, we decided to climb up the side of the waterfall, up a slippery and sharp grassy incline to walk along the river further inland, away from the iPhones. As we reached the 3/4 mark, I spotted an out ledge hanging high over the waterfall and decided to walk out onto it. I composed a few shots and before I could do anything about it, was knocked sideways by a burst of wind. Iceland's turbulent winds had caught me off guard. I slipped a couple of feet down the side of the ledge but managed to get a grip on the rock face through the crisp snow. Had I not been able to stop myself, the was 150 feet of nothing to stop me from hitting jagged rock or plunging into the shallow pool at the foot of the waterfall. I was starting to realise that relaxing too much in Iceland could put you in serious danger. 

 © Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

© Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

Trekking further inland lead us into a silent and desolate plain. Behind the waterfall, the river forged its way through vast expanses of golden grassed hills and the river varied through still, calm pools to wild rapids and white water. Whilst walking away from the river, wrapped from head to toe in arctic clothing, we came across a small spring. A gentle and solitary trickle emerging from a thigh height ledge. For a moment the winds died down, and the spring was the only source of noise; a tiny, delicate flow in an swathe of silent fields. We removed our gloves, cupped our hands beneath the spring and sipped at the water; as cool, clear and refreshing as you could ever taste. 

Turning back for the car, we walked until we reached Skogafoss. Between the waterfall and the coastline we saw a huge tract of land, absolutely flat, dark and lifeless, and totally exposed to all of nature's force.  We realised that this stretch was part of Iceland's famous volcanic beaches. 

 © Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

© Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

From the waterfall, we drove west and decided to explore the black volcanic beach by car. Although the beach is a huge attraction, there was no developed route onto the beach, no signposts or information, just a small insignificant gate in a crooked wire fence. We dropped down onto the beach and headed straight out to the sea. After a couple of minutes driving, we realised the sheer scale of the territory we were immersed in. Glancing East and West we saw nothing but acres of black sand as far as the eye could see. 
The lunar landscape was like nothing I'd ever experienced before; although the beach itself was smooth and easy to traverse, it was scattered with boulders meaning we had to really think about how we navigated our way to the shoreline. Across the whole beach there was barely any sign of natural life. 

Look closely, you can see the 4x4 on the horizon. © Patrick H. Sampson, 2015.

With the winds picking up, the car was rocking about as we headed out to sea. If we were in danger of being caught in a wind storm and having the 4x4 destroyed, it was here.
We followed the line of a small estuary in the hope that it would end up taking us out to the waters edge, swerving around yet more boulders. In the distance we could see the sea absolutely raging against the shoreline. I'd never seen the sea so violent, 15ft waves crashing directly down onto the black sand. 
While keeping an eye on the conditions, I kept a steady pace across the beach as a sickening combination of excitement and uneasiness sunk into me. Along the line of the estuary I saw a smooth dip in the land, about 5tf down and then slowly back up again. Heading towards it, my girlfriend said, "Don't drive down there?". "It'll be fine." I replied. After all, the beach had been completely firm all the way out from the roadside. I put my foot down. We sped down to the bottom of the dip and shuddered to a stop.
The engine revved with rage as I put my foot completely down. The car shook, and I opened the door to see the underside of the vehicle completely set on the sand.

The freezing gales whipped around the car, and there we were. Stuck.   

 

More images from my Icelandic expedition can be seen here.

Continued in HVITUR: Iceland Blog Post - Part 2