Iceland summer 2014: Wonders of the North

On Monday I went to see if the Edda breakfast is worth having. It is. Not only do they have orange juice and little bread rolls, they also have miniature croissants. I’m not a huge fan of croissants but if there are mini ones on offer, then I’ll go for it. And mini chocolate muffins and biscuits. I did not get caught out by cardboardy cereal again.

I went to see the wonders of the north. They don’t really have a tourism tag for them yet because there is next to no tourism infrastructure up in the north. There’s very little in the way of accommodation outside Akureyri despite the Wonders being an hour and half away from Akureyri. There’s no flybus from Akureyri airport into town! I want to go and watch the planes for a bit today because the runway is right in the middle of the fjord.

First stop was Godafoss, where Thorgeir the Godi threw his pagan statues into the water in 1000AD when Iceland was Christianised. It’s a nice little waterfall, overrun with tourists, many of whom get far too close to the edge.
Then I stopped at some odd lava formations on the edge of Lake Mývatn and got angry with some Spanish tourists who were determined to walk on the wrong side of the rope marking the path despite there being no difference – I might have at least understood if the path was rockier or muddier but it wasn’t.

Next was Dimmuborgir, a maze of quiet pleasant greenery among twisted lava formations. I visited the Yule Lads’ cave, which surprised me by being furnished, and strayed onto the hour long Church path by mistake. The Church itself is a bubble of lava which has popped, leaving something a bit more round than a simple lava arch.

I tried to get fuel and food at Reykjahlid but it was chaos. The queue went all the way around the supermarket, there were more 4x4s in the car park than I’ve ever seen before and the tanker was refilling the pumps.

I finally got fuel at Húsavík, nearly an hour away and over a long and unexpected gravel section of road. Húsavík’s main function is for whale-watching tours but it also sits on the side of a pretty fjord. I stopped on the hill just outside Húsavík for food and photos before heading on to Ásbyrgi which is a deep horseshoe-shaped canyon full of woodland and wandering paths. I hadn’t appreciated how deep it is – tipping my head back to look right up at the cliffs wasn’t such a great idea. I’d been driving for a long time so I settled down on the decking at the pond to just sit on the floor and relax.

My main stop for the day was Dettifoss and the biggest Wonder of the day is why haven’t they built a real road to join their biggest tourist attractions?! There are two roads joining Ásbyrgi and Dettifoss and according to my map, only the east one is paved. So I picked the east one. It is not paved! It is 56km of the worst gravel, rutted, washboard-like track through countryside that looks less inviting than most of the Interior! I was half-convinced I’d strayed onto an F road by mistake – a 4×4 only Interior route from which hire cars are banned. But no, this is what northern Iceland considers a suitable tourist route. It isn’t! This is why tourism concentrates on the south and not the north! It’s 2014 and I see that you don’t want to scar the landscape with unnecessary paved roads but I really think that one is worth the effort of paving and maintaining. I thought the car was going to shake apart, I didn’t know whether driving faster or slower would lessen the vibration and the tent pegs – which I left on the back parcel shelf in my panic on Saturday – spent the entire 56km trying to deafen me. Worst of all, it turns out the southern part of the west road (from Dettifoss down to the Ring Road) is in fact paved and “there’s talk of surfacing the entire road by 2014”. Read the guidebook, don’t just look at the map, which has been faultless up until now.

Dettifoss, when you have the time to properly appreciate it (and you’re putting off the horrors of going back on that road), is mind-blowingly powerful. Last year I saw it from the west side but stayed up high because we didn’t have long. This year I saw it from the east side, up close. Not too close – many people do go far closer than I feel is wise. It’s very powerful. The spray it throws up is almost strong enough for the water to bounce off. You can’t see the bottom. It’s carved out a deep sheer-sided canyon and the spray appears to have carved things too. Dettifoss is part of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which is a massive glacial river, flowing from 200km south at Vatnajökull – the whole river canyon right the way up to Ásbyrgi is part of the massive Vatnajökull National Park. The Jökulsá á Fjöllum is one of the most relentlessly grim places I’ve ever seen. The water is grey and opaque and churns and it cuts out a long grey rubble-strewn canyon. Even at Dettifoss, where the spray makes the banks bright green, all you see is grey. I met this particular river further south last year, near Askja and it was grey and grim and there was just a mess of basalt boulders everywhere. It’s magnificent, I love it, it’s just so grim that I’d love to see a proper post-apocalypse movie filmed along it.

A further 31km along that accursed track – overtaken by buses, 4x4s and even another i10 – and I was finally back.on real road, west of Mývatn. I passed the crater from Oblivion, which marks the start of the Askja F road – there are information boards 50 yards down there which I’m sure normal cars are allowed to visit but it’s not a good angle for photos. It’s real name is Hrossaborg, I think. It sits at the top of the Ódádahraun lava field – commonly translated into English as the Desert of Misdeeds. I did wonder if my gravel road ran through it but it turns out that’s the Borgarás Hólssandur. Incidentally, my car came with a map showing where I’m not legally allowed to drive and has some gravel roads marked in black as roads with high number of accidents involving foreign drivers. Yes, my gravel road was one of them! But my map showed it as paved – I was deliberately avoiding what I thought was the gravel road! Never mind. You get a better view of Dettifoss from the east anyway.

I got back to Mývatn just before 7. I’d skipped a few local.wonders – the blue-black boiling bubbling mud pools on the back of Krafla, a few hidden hot pools around Reykjahlid that are either too hot to swim in or too cold and thus riddled with bacteria. Instead I went somewhere I wanted to go last year and didn’t have time for – Mývatn Nature Baths. The Jardbödin are the northern version of the Blue Lagoon and if you’re going to compare and contrast, I think the Jardbödin actually win. The Blue Lagoon has a connecting door to the inside so you don’t have to go outside and get cold to get to the water and it does have the magic bracelet system so you can buy food & drinks while in the water and ok, the changing rooms are better but the Jardbödin win on setting, by miles. The Blue Lagoon is carved into a bowl of black lava, growing a hard white silicon shell. It has a view – from the right spot in the water – over the power station next door and of some small mountains. It’s a beautiful splash of bright milky blue in a black and white setting. Now, the Jardbödin are on the side of an active volcano, overlooking Mývatn and the plains on one side and black, red or orange volcanoes on the other three. The water is waste from a power station too, I think, and it also comes from a borehole but it’s heated by Krafla, which is pretty active and has erupted in my lifetime! Jardbödin are about half the size of the Blue Lagoon and just as touristed, in its northern way. It means it’s quieter. The pool ranges from painfully hot to quite pleasant, there’s a trough-like hot pot and there are underwater slabs to sit on. But unlike the Blue Lagoon, these slabs are covered in.some kind of slippery stuff and if you’re in the mod for being childish, you can slide on them. The sides where the steps come in make even better slides, if you can get to the top in the first place. Finally, the water is actually different to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon’s water is very salty and really dries out your hair. I think the Jardbödin’s water is more sulphurous and it makes everything feel really soft. However, having unplaited my hair this morning, I think it’s a lot drier and bushier and nasty-feeling than I expected.

I spent about two hours in there and could have stayed longer. I watched the air temperature fluctuate between 14.2 and 13.6C, which meant the hot water felt nice instead of too hot. I drifted around, slid, enjoyed the view and reluctantly got out at 9.15, knowing I had a ninety minute drive still, over the mountains. I stopped briefly as I came into Akureyri’s fjord because the sun was setting at the mouth of the fjord – at eleven at night! – and making a huge blood-orange fireball that desperately needed photos. I was home ten or fifteen minutes later. It was a very long day.

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