Thursday 5th: Skaftafell to Hveragerdi

I was freezing again on Wednesday night and woke up on Thursday to brilliant sunshine. This is one of the good things about a yellow tent – it will transform the greyest day into tropical weather, until you open the tent. But even then, it wasn’t bad weather. It was a little overcast but otherwise bright enough. I took what I could back to the car and then sat in my tent and ate breakfast under an excruciatingly bright sun. It had rained in the night but it hadn’t leaked through to the inner of my tent much so I put my mat outside in the sun for a few minutes, unhooked the tent’s insides and left that upside down and it was soon all dry enough to throw in the car. The front of the tent was bone dry but the back was soaked. I got partway through taking it down to dry in the car when I realised that I wanted to go and visit Skaftafellsjökull before I left so I unhooked the tent from its moorings, turned it round and pegged out some of the front so it could dry while I was out.

On my way down to the glacier I stopped at the visitor centre to borrow their wifi and plan what to do tomorrow. I thought it might be nice to stop at Vík overnight, maybe Skogar but I was already, after just two nights, getting tired of being cold in the tent. However, it’s high season in Iceland and tourists outnumber locals. There was nowhere to stay and between my phone being temperamental and their wifi being even more temperamental, I gave up. I went down to the glacier.

Skaftafell is surrounded by three glaciers – my guidebook doesn’t tell me what the other two are but one of them is Skaftafellsjökull. And in fact, these are merely little tongues descending from the sea of ice that covers an actual measurable percentage of Iceland’s surface area. Vatnajökull is the biggest glacier in Europe and as far as I know, the third biggest in the world. There is an unfathomable amount of ice above Skaftafell and little Skaftafellsjökull is just where a little bit of it tumbles down the mountain. It’s not the most attractive glacial tongue – it’s covered in ash and filth and it descends into a gravelly basin. But it’s a glacier and it built that basin itself. It used to cover the area where I was standing, it’s left terminal moraines a little bit further up. And it doesn’t look impressive until you watch the little stream of people walking down to get up a bit closer to it. The snout isn’t quite so small when there are people standing next to it.

It had been very hot and sunny but as I walked back to the campsite, heavy black clouds were gathering. I’d planned to stop at the visitor centre again and pick up leaflets and postcards but I began to feel very strongly that I needed to get the tent into the car before it rained. I made it with probably little more than five minutes to spare. Didn’t fold it, didn’t pack it, just shoved it into its bag. It’ll need to come back out at some point and be packed properly, along with the inner which is still sitting in the boot of the car but for now, it’s clean and dry and that’s all that matters.

I made my trip to the visitor centre and then ran back to the car in the rain. It rained all the way along the sandur to Klauster – the sort of heavy rain that makes you wish your windscreen wipers had an even faster setting, the sort that feels like it could smash through the car. The sandur is dismal in a terrifying way on a good day. Today it was just a rainstorm and there were fluddles.

It had more or less stopped by Klauster. I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop until halfway to Vík when I realised I was driving through the Eldhraun and Mýrdalsjökull was gleaming behind it. I was definitely stopping for a picture of lime-green mossy lava field and gleaming white glacier. And while I was stopped, a coach came to stop at the same picnic spot, only they’re not as manoeuvrable as my Polo. I sat in the car waiting for it to come down, holding my breath as it made the sharp turn onto the steep bit of gravel, just waiting for it to lose its balance and roll over. It made it.

At Vík I got fuel and then found the supermarket hidden down the back streets. The roadhouses are good for burgers and hot dogs and the sort of snack food you want while driving but the supermarket has bread and cheese and juice. Having stocked up yet again, I drove round the mountain to eat my picnic at Reynisfjara, where I hadn’t bothered stopping yesterday. It’s sprung a proper car park and a Black Beach Restaurant since the last time I was there. I ate in the car because I don’t enjoy getting sand, even black sand, in my food, and then I wandered down to the beach. It’s very nice, despite all the tourists. There are the stacks to your left and Dyrhólaey to your right and now I wasn’t on top of it, I could see the holes in the cliff. I could also see Eyjafjallajökull looming over everything. I went back to the car and attempted to borrow the free wifi from the Grayline coaches to find out the ferry timetable for the Westman Islands. I intended to go over tonight and come back tomorrow, having enjoyed their newish lava field but the wifi wasn’t cooperating, which I suppose is fair enough when I wasn’t actually a customer.

As I drove towards the port, I passed Þorvaldseyri, the farm which bore the brunt of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010. I paused to take photos of it from the end of the drive and then decided I would stop in the visitor centre across the road. I sat and watched a short film about the eruption – very much narrated by its soundtrack. It plays ominous music to make sure you understand that being buried in muddy ash is a bad thing and then happy tinkling music to tell you “but the farming family were good and happy and they washed everything and it was all good!” and then there’s more Oh No the Dam is Ashed Up and the Generator Doesn’t Work music and then tinkly But the Carrots Grew Really Well Because the Ash is Good for the Soil music. I know that all films do this but I’ve never heard it so blatant before. I read the displays out in the open area, read the timeline of events in Iceland and then went to my car to fetch my notebook to write down some of them. They put major eruptions of assorted volcanoes on there – I think they’ve missed a few Katla eruptions. They listed ~920, 938, 1612, 1821-23 and 1918 but I think Katla goes about once a century, so there are quite a few missing. Eyjafjalljökull erupts about every two hundred years, so we shouldn’t hear any more from her in our lifetimes, and I think they only listed major Hekla eruptions because that’s about every decade and they’ve only listed 1104, 1947, 1991 and 2000.

The port for the ferry to Heimaey isn’t too far from Vík. Skogarfoss is sixteen miles, then it’s only another fifteen minutes to Seljalandfoss, neither of which I stopped at, and then it’s about half a mile to the turning. However, when I got there I ran up against an obstacle I hadn’t been expecting. Yes, I could go across to the islands. But the car couldn’t come back tomorrow. There wasn’t space on the ferry for a car until Saturday. The Westman Islands are interesting but not that interesting. I couldn’t spend two days there. I considered leaving the car behind and going as a foot passenger but there was just too much stuff I needed to take. And what if the Puffin Capsule Hostel didn’t have any rooms after all? I’d need the tent as backup and I couldn’t carry that. So I abandoned the idea altogether.

I carried on along the Ringroad to the roadhouse at Hvolsvöllur where I knew there would be wifi. Where could I stay? Where was close enough but not too expensive? And then I found it – a single-occupancy apartment in Hveragerði. That would do very nicely. It was only about three quarters of an hour to Hveragerði and the difficult bit was finding the apartment. 53 Heiðsmörk looked like someone’s house but it turns out the garage – absolutely enormous garage – has been converted into two apartments. Really hipster upcycled apartments but cosy, with a small kitchen and a bath. I put my juice in the fridge – it had been keeping surprisingly cold in the back of the car but it would be better in the fridge, wrote two days of blogs and then got in the bath with my book until midnight.

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