Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Iceland on the rocks

How do you mix the perfect Icelandic cocktail? You take ten Veteran Vikings, add six creaking Land Rover Defenders and a guide called Steinar Sveinsson. Then you shake them, you never stir them. Ever. You shake them over 1 200km of Icelandic backroads, over highways, lava rock and ice. It’s called Iceland on the Rocks. Best served with a twist of a cold front and a dash of South African humour. CHRISTIEN NESER recently experienced this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

The problem with life is that by the time one has the time and the money to go on a 4×4 trip in a foreign country, one should consider a gentle cruise instead. But age is just a number to this group of Viking offspring. Oh yes, we all believe we have that special link to our Viking ancestors. The group of baby boomers, aptly called the Veteran Vikings, set off from sunny South Africa for an eight-day, seven-night tour of Iceland. Our tour operators from Ultimate Adventures, Simon and Desiree Steadman, promised it would be the adventure of a lifetime. And was it? Let’s start at the very beginning…

A day at leisure in Reykjavik

A day to acclimatise is recommended, especially in winter. The cold came as a shock to us, who departed typical summer weather in Johannesburg (with temperatures around 30°C). What to do in Reykjavik? Well, there’s quite a lot actually and we suggest you allow at least a full day or two to experience and explore.

The Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrims Church) is a must. Find out beforehand when the organ – with its 5 275 pipes, standing 15m high and weighing about 25 tons – will be playing as it is an absolute treat. Also, book opera tickets in advance to experience a world class performance at the Islenska Operan. Reykjavik boasts over 60 museums and displays, ranging from 3D interactive museums to historical and art museums and you will find anything and everything here – from the sublime (the Perlan) to the ridiculous (The Phallogical Museum, more commonly known as the Penis Museum). I kid you not. The latter is worth a visit, though. Not only for a laugh, but for the meticulous effort to collect, preserve and display preserved specimens from mammals the world over. The sperm whale’s pride stands over 2m tall!

If you go in winter (December to March), do not underestimate the cold. If you want to walk the streets, protect your head and face first. A walk along the seaboard is highly recommended. We also recommend that you come hungry. The food in Iceland is sublime, whether you have a sandwich in the street or a Michelin star dinner at a fancy establishment. We never had a shabby meal. Lastly, choose your group well. A 4×4 trip stands or falls with the group dynamics. Pick the right guide too – Steinar Sveinsson was simply excellent. Previous 4×4 experience is good to have, but not essential. And if you’re going to make the trip, be sure to consider doing it in a Land Rover Defender from ISAK.

Three of the couples in our group had extensive experience of 4×4 trips, having toured off-road all over southern Africa in automatic Toyota Land Cruisers. Two of the couples considered ‘roughing it’ a stay in a three-star hotel. None of the guys had ever driven a Land Rover with left-hand steering and a manual gearbox on the right. None had even driven a vehicle with more than 400 000km on the clock and they were all used to driving on the left side of the road.

So, picture the scene. The Veteran Vikings clocked in at ISAK, the company leasing the Landy Defenders. They complained a bit: the cars leaked water and wind, the aircon was shaky, the steering a bit loose, and they scoffed at the very basic instrument panel. The first 50km on the highway was traumatic (to say the least) for the co-pilots. They all shouted at the drivers to get away from the edge. The unwilling cars were like donkeys in a horse race and didn’t seem to like tar. At all!

All of that changed once we hit the gravel roads. Then the guys started a love affair with their Land Rovers… and I swear they were tearful by the time they had to hand them back.

Reykjavik to Glymur

The first day had its teething problems with the Defenders and their drivers finding each other, but once through the 6km Hvalfjörður Tunnel, the tour suddenly started to feel real. We stopped at a lovely restaurant in Húsafell to stretch our legs and to fill up on tomato soup and chicken, before tackling our first encounter with ice. Our charming guide charming in the Icelandic way, that is – so no frivolous niceties or sympathy, but the patience of Job) took us beyond the barrier marked ‘No Access’ and then it was off to the Langjökull glacier. As we hit the first thick ice, the temperature dropped. We found markers with dates on the side of the road; stone piles indicating how the glacier had shrunk since the 1960s, the 1980s, 2000s… scary. When we finally reached the top of the glacier, the temperature was -20°C and we staggered through a blinding ice wind to the mouth of a tunnel. The guide, young and informative, supplied us with snow chains for our boots, then escorted us through a circular tunnel under the glacier. It was a surreal experience, but finding a chapel 40m under a glacier takes the cake! Weddings have indeed taken place there, with a recent one ending before the ‘I do’s’ were said, as both the bride and priest became hypothermic!

Back from the tunnel, we tackled the glacier downhill, vistas icy but unforgettable. We drove back the way we came, then towards a magnificent fjord on the west coast. Our final destination was Hotel Glymur, where some of our intrepid group members, fortified with good red wine, found the courage to go out in gale-force winds to enjoy the hot tub. Others found their beds earlier, just to be woken by the hotel cook, alerting us to the appearance of the northern lights. In pyjamas and coats, we watched in wonder. It is as though a heavenly hand was spray-painting neon green graffiti on the walls of the sky. Bucket list ticked!

Thingvellir and the Golden Circle

High on adrenaline after our midnight treat of aurora borealis, we set off towards the touristic centre of Iceland, the Golden Circle. The Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site. In a freezing wind, coming straight from the north, we encountered both sides of the tectonic plates. As Steinar said: “If Iceland farts, the world shakes!” The landscapes are hauntingly beautiful, the lakes icy and majestic. We saw frozen waterfalls aplenty, but the only signs of life were the herds of Icelandic horses, who all seemed to be oblivious to the cold. We were told that these horses are highly treasured, the pride of Iceland. Their bloodline is jealously guarded, so no other horses may be imported. Dressage is a big sport, and these stocky animals have a special trot that is unique to the breed.

Lunch was at a farm, where cows live side by side with the farmers during winter. We ended a magnificent meal with ice cream, compliments of the gentle cows in the barn adjoining the restaurant. At the Gullfoss waterfall, we decided to take the road less travelled. Steinar drove with us inland, away from tour buses full of people, and the Land Rovers became the Super Defenders they were designed to be!

When we stopped for fuel at a service station, people piled out of their busses to take pictures of our little convoy. Only by the end of our tour, when we arrived in Vik, would we understand their fascination… but more on that later.

We ended the day at the Geysir Hot Springs. Imagine a magma fire 4km under the surface. Imagine snow falling down that pit, melting in a cloud of steam, and travelling all the way back before being spewed out above ground. Exploding steam fields. Scary, spooky stuff indeed. Hotel Geysir merits a stay, that is for sure! The Veteran Vikings were in awe of the interior, the food and the beds. Oh, and those mattresses! The fairy tale of the Princess and the Pea springs to mind. A highlight, for sure.

A day in the ice fields (Hekla Volcano and Hrauneyjar)

Just as well we had an incredible night in our comfy beds, because the following day would separate the mice from the men. A full day’s driving into the forbidden landscapes of the Hekla area awaited us. When we asked our guide where we were going, he replied with a standard: “You will see.”

We travelled through snowclad lava hills, which looked like schools of orcas swimming on the horizon. The road disappeared and became tracks, which became ice. Snow started blowing in and the cold cut to the bone. We felt like the only people on the planet, but we drove!

The guys who were debutantes a day before, charged up hills that resemble ski-slopes, slid down the slip face, and crossed icy rivers. And still Steinar pushed on, until we got to the end of the road. A deserted hut, a freezing plateau and a rickety deck next to a natural hot spring await. The bravest of the Vikings stripped and swam while the rest watched in awe. And then it was time to turn back. The brakes had frozen due to the river crossings, and we had a few bumper bashings, but nothing a Defender can’t handle. We got our frozen butts off to the welcoming sight of the Landhόtel, somewhere further south. Again, we ate with gusto. Let it be noted that the cuisine in Iceland is excellent, especially for lovers of salmon and drivers of Defenders.

Thórsmörk and Eyjafjallajökull

The following day Steinar took us into a valley that is a hotspot for weekend raves and camping in summer but desolate in winter. It is the valley of the god, Thor, and is called Thórsmörk.

The warning signs at the entry to the valley and at each river crossing are a severe reminder that people and vehicles have perished there before. Only extra-high 4×4 vehicles are allowed to enter. And at one’s own risk. Steinar put a whole new spin on ‘breaking the ice’ when he literally broke the ice, every time we crossed a frozen river.

Lunchtime found us at one of Steinar’s favourite camping sites, a place that clearly holds sweet memories of campfires, hot dogs, nightlong drinking bouts and daylong trekking. The Icelanders are a tough bunch. While we found the sub-zero temperatures too extreme to go for a proper hike, one of Steinar’s friends was climbing in the mountains of Thórsmörk. From a very high altitude, he took videos of our little caravan crossing the valley, mere specks against the landscape.

After the picnic lunch, we drove to the well-known volcanic site of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and left northern Europe covered in an ash cloud, grounding planes for days on end. We gave the Seljalandsfoss waterfall a miss when we saw the tour busses though.

We also gave the DC3 wreck on the beach near Reynisfjara a miss. Steiner told us that this plane wreck rose to fame when Justin Bieber shot a music video for his song “I’ll show you” there in 2015, skateboarding on its roof. Ever since, fans and tourists have been flocking there by the busload. The area got so trampled that the land had to be fenced off and a footpath now leads to the beach. The nearby Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, which was also featured in the video, is now permanently closed to the public. The ‘Beliebers’ (as the fans of this Canadian superstar are known) just did too much damage trying to emulate their hero by dancing on the edge of cliffs, prancing on ledges and rolling down mossy slopes. Fans ended up hurting themselves and the environment.

It became yet another sublime night in Iceland, in the picturesque village of Vik. Now we realised why the Land Rovers attracted so much attention. Vik was the setting for a Netflix series, KATLA, a post-apocalyptic story about the Katla volcano, which lies to the north-west of the town. In this series, Land Rover Defenders are the vehicle of choice and of survival. Media, film and music have indeed been potent advertisement for Iceland. It is a double-edged sword, though, as the charm of Iceland for us as nature lovers, lies in its unspoilt simplicity. Defender People are not Bus People. We are not from the same tribe.

The South Coast and the glacier Mýrdalsjökull

With our adventure starting to draw to a close, we used a day to explore the black beaches around Vik, the gothic rock formations and cathedral-like caves. We drove up a pass to the peninsula where a lonely lighthouse sits, but with a view that truly takes your breath away. And then we descended to a stretch of deserted black beach. We gave the Landies free reign to fly. These frozen black beaches are made up of tiny grains of lava, not the stuff one wants to build a sandcastle with, but great to drive on.

We visited the Gluggafoss waterfall and climbed right to the top. The view is jaw-droppingly magnificent. Then it was lunch and preparation for the ‘big one’. That afternoon had been reserved for snowmobiling high up on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, with views of the deadly ones: Katla and Eyjafjallajökull. We were kitted out with bright red and white overalls, helmets and gloves, and waddled to the monster truck that took us up to the top of the glacier, where our snowmobiles and guide awaited us. Cold has many definitions. Glacial cold is what we experienced that day. Off the charts. Indescribable. Frostbite and amputation came to mind as we followed the guide around Mýrdalsjökul. Defrosting happened that night at yet another ultramodern hotel, the Umi. It was our last night near our now beloved Defenders and the next day we would head back to Reykjavik.

The southern peninsula, off-road to Reykjavik

Could anything top the adrenaline rush we had experienced so far? Maybe a quiet day of reflection was necessary to process all the impressions of Iceland. We drove past high cliffs, alive with birds, which our guide identified as Fulmars, one of the most common bird species in Iceland. They migrate in winter and had just returned, wildly flying around the cliffs, looking for nesting spots. Sadly, our guide added, that as soon as these birds have nested and have laid eggs, it is what they call ‘Fulmar season’. Then hunters take long sticks, climb up the cliffs and take the eggs. But to take the eggs, they need to kill the parents, hence the sticks.

Apparently, these birds have only one way of protecting their nests: they vomit on their attackers. Projectile, foul-smelling vomit, directed from up high at a prospective hunter, must be a nauseating experience. The story left me feeling sick. But back to the route. We passed picturesque coastal towns with colourful blue, red and yellow houses. We drove past one of Iceland’s three prisons, which looked as neat as a guest house and faced the sea. There are only 165 registered prisoners in the country, with one murder committed annually. It sounds like cloud cuckoo land to anybody from South Africa…

After a picturesque lunch in a coastal town, we turned off the beaten track. We approached our final destination via the lava fields of the peninsula south of the capital, passing frozen lakes and volcanic craters along the way. And then it was back to ISAK to hand back our Land Rovers. One of the Veterans took a wrong turn, but like any intrepid Viking, found a scenic way to reach the winning line. We had learned a precious lesson from the Icelandic horses: turn your arse to the wind and get on with it!

We made it! We loved it! We could hardly bear to look back at our trusty steeds as we were whisked away to the Marina Hotel for our final night in Iceland. Had it been an ultimate adventure? Indeed. Takk Iceland. Takk Steinar Sveinsson. Takk ISAK. And finally, takk (thank you) to Ultimate Adventures – you made it possible for ten Veteran Vikings to tick a very special bucket list item.

Choose your Ultimate Adventure

Run by the husband-and-wife team of Simon and Desiree Steadman, Ultimate Adventures offers a range of tours and self-drive adventures, designed to create amazing memories.

Prestige Tours: Aimed at adventurers who enjoy the finer things in life, guests can look forward to a bit more luxury and comfort whilst travelling in an intimate group. These tours are limited to four vehicles and the qualified bush chef will spoil guests with mouth-watering breakfasts and dinners every day. Accommodation is a mixture of camping and lodges or guesthouses, and includes international trips to the likes of Iceland and Morocco.

Adventure Tours: Tailor-made for off-road adventurers who are after a true bush experience, camping in Africa’s wildest destinations. Limited to a maximum of 10 guest vehicles and open to children of all ages, the team’s hospitality includes expert guides and a bush dinner cooked by a qualified bush chef every night.

Self-catered Adventure Tours: Offering the same attention to detail and carefully planned itineraries as the Adventure Tours, guests will be responsible for all their own meals on these tours. You will, however, be greeted by a cozy camp fire every night when you return to camp – ready to cook dinner and share your adventures.

CONTACT: +27 84 447 4666 | simon@ultimateadventures.tv | www.ultimateadventuers.tv

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