Wildcamping Icelands golden circle in early Spring
Fire and Ice. If you are like me and have become un-healthily addicted to the ‘Game of Thrones’ series, it will come as no surprise to you that Iceland is portrayed on-screen as a desolate, barren and inhospitable place unfit for all but the toughest of people. For those who have not been here themselves, the above description may already be conjured just hearing the name Iceland announced.
And when I arrived in Iceland, long out from the Tourist calendar, and only just out of winters dark clutches, I found myself thinking the same thing.
Far from the luxurious type, and using any excuse to get the tent out, I had decided that my trip through Iceland would be done by Free-camping. Iceland is one of the rare few places around the globe that allows free camping, the act of placing ones tent where-ever one chooses. Let me say at the out-set, Free-camping is great. But in Iceland, post-winter wild camping is not for the faint-hearted. Speaking of which..
I picked up the 4WD from the rental shop, signed my life away, and drove back to the airport to pick-up my Girlfriend. Elena began co-driver duties as we left the airport behind and set out into the country. The roads were so far ice-free, which was thanks to the vast amount of thermal energy the country possesses. Excess steam rising from the earth is piped under the roads in, and around Reykjavik during winter, to keep the roads open no matter the weather. A great use of local energy sources (85% of all Icelandic power comes from Renewables).
in Iceland, post-winter wild camping is not for the faint-hearted.
The real beauty of Iceland is supposedly in the Western Fjords. Unfortunately at this time of the year, the roads into the Fjords are still blocked with ice and are impassable, even in a 4-wheel drive. The most famous attractions of Iceland are conveniently located on a 300km loop-drive starting not far from Reykjavik, the so-called ‘Golden Circle’.
First on the route, is Þingvellir National Park. Pingvellir (Thingvellir) is the start of a rift in the Earths crust that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic ridge. This rift is actually formed from the continental drifting of the North American and Eurasian plates, still moving year by year. We met a Geologist who was there (and who was on the verge of orgasmic by what he was seeing) and he explained to us the uniqueness of such a place. Plate crests such as these are normally only found deep underwater, and can only be studied with a veritable tone of gear in support. Here in Iceland, these rifts are on the surface, and are so large in places that they feel like you are walking through canyons, albeit with each foot on a different continent.
We heard Oxararfoss waterfall in the distance that we began to search for. At the same time, an un-likely timing of ‘bus’ tourists started to pile out of their coach and along the same pathway as us. I grabbed Elena by the hand and we decided to make our own tracks to the waterfall rather than following like sheep. We climbed up on the nearest ‘Ridge’ and descended the other side. We found the river Öxará flowing from the waterfall which logically, if followed should take us straight there. Elena, no doubt having been in the same situation of following me in the past only to end up stuck somewhere, came without a word.
Sure enough, the valley began to steepen, the shoreline became narrower, and a fair amount of balance was required to stay on target. I could anticipate her doubts before she had voiced them, and I calmly told her that it would level out soon. The shore narrowed again, and soon we were shuffling along a ledge, backs to the wall and the toes of our feet dangling over the fast-flowing, ice-cold river. At one stage, a small leap of faith was required to keep going, which was made somewhat more difficult for me with a bag, and a DSLR camera hanging over my shoulder. We reached a dead-end, and after some angry looks (and a few muttered swear words I’m sure) we scaled the valley wall overhanging the river (somewhat stupid now in hind-sight) and descended the other side back onto the safety of the pathway. It wasn’t a great success, but for the amount of time it took, our ‘package deal’ tourists were now coming back from the waterfall and heading back to the bus. 50% success, we had the falls to ourselves.
The geo-thermally active area of Haukadalur was the next on the road. A prime example of taking a natural highlight, and then commercializing the bejesus out of it, Haukadalur is a magnet for the ‘package-dealers’. A small car park is mercifully provided by the Tourist/Coffee/Souvenir/Clothing store adjacent. The biting wind was blowing though, and the convenience was noted. The small area (you do not have to pay to be here thankfully, unlike some of New Zealand’s thermal area’s!) was gravel path’d and weaved between small boiling holes, miniature geysers, a dependable Strokkur, and an outright giant but unpredictable Geysir. No really, the Geyser’s name is Geysir.
you do not have to pay to be here thankfully, unlike some of New Zealand’s thermal area’s!
We stayed and watched Strokkur, which was actually a fun experience. There were a few other travellers around, and we all had the same idea.. Take a selfie with the Geyser blasting upwards in the background! Elena and me had an advantage other the others as we could depend on each other to catch a picture, but the result was no less amusing. Standing for 5-10 minutes waiting for Strokkur to explode, one of us would stare through the camera lens, trigger finger ready! You had only seconds to catch it in full glory, and the resulting pictures were an outright ‘unsure what’s going on’ kind of facial expression!
Next stop on the Golden Circle is a waterfall on another scale of grandeur all together, Gullfoss Waterfall. The average flow of the falls is over 8.4 million Liters per minute. One of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions, and in summer apparently teeming with people. But we are adventure tourists after-all, and if you can brave the temperatures, the biting cold wind, the bone-chilling damp, and the ice-covered path, then Iceland in March is the time for you!
We wore every layer we had, but the views of such a colossal flow of water was a magical sight to behold. The water flowed down to successive tiers of first stage falls, before changing direction and angling sharply towards the larger, main drop 32 meters to the valley floor. With the late afternoon sunlight angling over the land, the droplets of frozen water sprung from the shades of the valley floor where the water had carved out a land of its own.
The droplets of ice clung to the walls of the valley, broadening out onto the snow-covered shoulders and its surroundings. Seen at the right angle, sunlight bounced between the airborne ice particles and emitted a frozen rainbow captured in the air, if only for an instant. Snow began to fall as we began our walk back to the car.
if you can brave the temperatures, the biting cold wind, the bone-chilling damp, and the ice-covered path, then Iceland in March is the time for you!
Having come to the end of the road (literally!) of the Golden Circle tour, we turned around and drove back towards the coast. We kept our eyes open for a good spot to pitch the tent whilst we continued our journey Westward. By the time the sun was falling in the sky, we found the best hotel substitute in a patch of leave-less bushes, dead grass, and snow dusted ground. My version of a Hilton. The snow continued to fall as we effortlessly pitched the tent and threw our gear inside. It was only then I realized Elena might have slightly under-estimated the scenario. I had a -17 degree (0 Fahrenheit) sleeping bag, with a heavily insulated ground pad. Elena had a thin summer sleeping bag, and a yoga mat. Let me rephrase that.. I now had a thin summer sleeping bag, and a yoga mat.