Iceland’s Ring Road

This feature for Lonely Planet Traveller covered a 10-day trip around Iceland’s spectacular Route 1, or the Ring Road as it’s known to Icelanders. In 2014 the road celebrates its 40th anniversary, so it seemed an ideal time for an Arctic road trip.

It’s an amazing road, travelling from the suburbs of Reykjavik all the way to the isolated east coast and back again. Along the way we visited volcanoes, glaciers, fjords and hot springs – and even tried some rotten shark.

An edited version of the article appeared in the August 2014 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller.

Road Trip at the End of the World: A Journey around Iceland’s Ring Road

It’s mid-morning on Iceland’s east coast, but it might as well be midnight. For the last three hours, a wall of fog has squatted over the road like a cotton-wool cloak, blending land, sea and sky into a spectral grey. Now and then, black peaks materialize from the gloom, their slopes disappearing into the mist. Slashes in the cloud reveal sudden glimpses of coastline: rocky cliffs, grassy dunes, wild beaches crusted in boulders and black sand. Gulls bank and wheel in the wind. It’s like driving into a whiteout. Or at least it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s still midsummer, and the first snows are still months away.

Wild weather is par for the course on Iceland’s Ring Road – or Route 1, as it’s designated on highway maps. Circling round the island’s coastline for 832 miles, the Ring Road is an engineering marvel and a national emblem, and in 2014 celebrates four decades of service. Since its completion in 1974, it’s also earned a reputation as one of Europe’s great driving adventures.

Skimming the edge of the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 65˚N – roughly the same as Siberia – Iceland’s Ring Road is about as close to wilderness driving as Europe gets, traversing volcanic deserts, mountain passes, plunging valleys and barren plains. Gas stations are few and far between, separated by hundreds of miles. Often, the only signs of habitation are remote farms and weather stations. It’s not unusual to go for hours without passing another car – unsurprising given Iceland’s population density, with just 300,000 people scattered across an island five times the size of Wales.

“There’s an old Icelandic proverb,” explains cyclist Bjorn Gunnarsson, who recently completed a lifelong ambition to circumnavigate the island by bike. “Enginn er verri þótt hann vökni – no-one is worse the wear for getting wet. That tells you all you need to know about an Icelandic road-trip,” he says, grinning wryly through his salt-and-pepper beard.

***

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ring Road is the fact that it exists at all. Prior to World War II, paved roads were still a rarity in Iceland, with most of the country relying on rough backcountry tracks that became impassable in winter, or were completely swept away during floods and storms.

The modern Ring Road owes its origins, ironically, to an invasion. In 1940, British forces occupied the island during Operation Fork, ignoring Iceland’s neutrality to take advantage of its strategic position in the northern Atlantic; it was an ideal staging post for Allied convoys braving the U-Boat infested waters between America and Britain. Finding tarmac in short supply, troops built paved roads to facilitate the movement of materiel and supplies, unwittingly laying the foundations for Iceland’s flagship national highway.

In the post-war era, the Icelandic government embarked on an ambitious programme to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, financed by the boom in deep-sea fishing that made Iceland rich during the 1960s and 70s. The completion of the 832-mile road around the island was seen as a symbolic project, evidence of Iceland’s emergence as a modern nation – but it was a formidable undertaking, requiring both ingenious planning and ground-breaking engineering to overcome the island’s impossibly challenging terrain.

During its thirty-year construction, the road’s builders endured the worst the weather could throw at them: rock-falls, floods, blizzards, eruptions, avalanches. Along the way, they built Iceland’s longest bridge and deepest tunnel. In all, the road took three decades to complete, opening in 1974 to commemorate 1100 years of settlement – an average of just 27 miles a year.

Driving the Ring Road today, it’s easy to forget the labour and ingenuity that went into its construction – not to mention the effort required to keep it open. Even today, several stretches remain unpaved; Iceland’s winter storms are so frequent and ferocious, it’s simply uneconomical to keep replacing the lost tarmac.

***

Naturally enough, all distances along Route 1 are measured from Iceland’s capital. A century ago, Reykjavik was still a remote fishing station, surviving on cod and herring fished from the icy waters of the North Atlantic. It’s now Iceland’s main city, and many of the old fish-stores and dockside warehouses have been converted to twenty-first century uses: coffee shops, design consultancies, art galleries, loft apartments. Though more than two-thirds of Iceland’s people live in Reykjavik, it still feels more like a provincial town than a capital, with a neighbourly grid of streets lined by brightly-coloured houses, all overlooked by the rocket-shaped spire of the Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s futuristic cathedral.

But even here, amongst the craft shops and cosy pubs of Reykjavik’s old town, hints of Iceland’s wilder side aren’t hard to find. Looking north across the bay of Faxaflói, a craggy finger of land extends along the horizon, terminating in the snow-capped summit of Snæfellsjökull – used by Jules Verne as the setting for his classic adventure tale, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Now part of the Snæfellsnes National Park, the 1446m-high peak is actually a semi-dormant volcano, capped by a sheet of ice. It remains a brooding presence as the Ring Road heads north from Reykjavik’s suburbs and weaves out along the fjord-lined coast – a reminder that even here, in Iceland’s most civilised corner, the forces of nature are never far away.

Jules Verne wasn’t the first writer to find inspiration amongst the fjörds and valleys of Iceland’s west. To many Icelanders, this area is synonymous with the sagas, the sprawling pantheon of tales which have served as a cornerstone of Icelandic culture for eight centuries. First written down by medieval historians during the 12th and 13th centuries, but rooted in a much older tradition of oral storytelling, these ancient tales of family feuds, doomed heroes, warrior-kings and tragic romances are part genealogy, part history, part medieval drama. Many Icelanders can still read the sagas in the original Old Norse, and some can recite passages by heart, just as their ancestors would have done centuries ago.

“The sagas are still very much part of Icelandic culture,” says Sigriður Guðmundsdóttir, an ex-theatre director who now runs the Settlement Centre, a historical museum in the coastal village of Borgarnes, 45 miles north of Reykjavik. “They’re Iceland’s first novels,” she explains. “They record our history, but they also remind us who we are as people. They’re about self-reliance, fortitude, honour and stoicism. These are very Icelandic qualities.”

She leads the way around the museum’s winding corridors, lined by dioramas and maps detailing the journeys of Iceland’s early settlers: Viking adventurers such as Garðar Svavarsson and Floki Vilgerðarson, who crossed the Atlantic from Scandinavia during the mid-9th century, and Leif Ericsson, the globetrotting seafarer who discovered an unknown continent he called Vinland, now known as Newfoundland.

She pauses beside one of the museum’s windows, looking out over a vista of grey fjords and green fells. “I like to imagine what it must have been like to hear these stories in the olden days, in the depths of winter by a roaring fire, with the wind and snow howling outside. That’s the way they should be heard.”

As the Ring Road swerves inland across the humpbacked hills northwest of Borgarnes, it passes many locations from the sagas: a farmstead that features in Egil’s Saga, a hot spring where the hero of Grettir’s Saga soothed his battle-weary bones. It also passes through the tiny town of Reykholt, where Iceland’s most celebrated medieval historian, a tribal chieftain called Snorri Sturluson, wrote down several of the most important sagas for the first time.

While most of the sagas are rooted in fact, many have a powerfully fantastical streak that stems from a different form of Icelandic tale-telling. According to legend, Iceland’s landscape is inhabited by a huge menagerie of mythical creatures – including trolls, giants, ghosts and dragons, as well as the huldufólk, the hidden folk, of gnomes, dwarves, fairies, lovelings and elves. Though they’re reluctant to admit it, many Icelanders still believe in their existence, and there are countless stories about bad luck befalling people who unwittingly disturb the huldufólk’s homes. Major construction projects have even been disrupted by elven activity, including a notorious case in 2011, when a tunnelling project near Bolungarvik was beset by accidents and malfunctioning machinery, causing the project to be delayed until the workers apologised and the mountain folk were appeased.

“Icelanders are very practical in many ways,” says Stefan Boulter, an artist who lives and works in Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest town, 240 miles north of Reykjavik. “But we have a very dreamlike side too. Perhaps it’s not surprising we have such active imaginations. So would you, if you spent half of the winter in the dark!” he says with a smile.

Iceland’s legends were also an important inspiration for JRR Tolkien, a lifelong scholar of Old Norse and the Sagas, who learned many of the country’s folk stories from an Icelandic au pair named Adda who came to work for him in 1930.

“The Lord of the Rings may have been filmed in New Zealand, but really they should have been made in Iceland,” explains Fjóla Gudmundsdottir, who works as a guide at the Glaumbær turf houses near Skagafjörður, a coastal fjord between Borgarnes and Akureyri. Built from peat bricks topped by grass roofs, with little chimneys and brightly-painted doors set into the walls, many Tolkien enthusiasts believe Iceland’s turf houses may have given Tolkien the idea for Bilbo Baggins’ underground home, Bag End. They certainly bear an uncanny resemblance to a hobbit house, but they were actually a typically pragmatic solution to one of Iceland’s enduring problems – a chronic shortage of timber. Conveniently, the turf bricks also provided natural insulation against the island’s winters.

She steps through one of the cottage doorways, ducking her head to avoid the heavy wooden lintel. Inside, rooms line either side of a low-ceilinged corridor, and the air is rich with the smell of damp earth and wood-smoke. “Iceland was a tough place to survive, and people had to work together. Several families would have lived in each house, sharing skills and resources. There wouldn’t have been much privacy, but you would never have been lonely, either!”

She brews a pot of coffee on the house’s stove, dressed in her traditional costume of bonnet, jerkin and skirt, embroidered with rune-like patterns. Outside, rays of light race across the fields, and dark clouds mass above a chain of mountains, their peaks freshly dusted with snow. It’s a scene that could have tumbled straight from Tolkien’s own sketchbook.

“There’s a saying in Iceland: you can’t walk anywhere without stepping on a story,” she says. “We grow up on the old fairy tales, so to us they seem very familiar. Telling stories is part of who we are. I am sure that will never change.”

***

It’s easy to see how Iceland’s otherworldly landscape inspired such tales. Sculpted and scarred by thousands of years of geological activity, it’s a place that often appears not altogether of this world.

Nowhere is this more obvious than around Lake Myvátn and Krafla, Iceland’s most volcanically active area. Here, as the Ring Road drops from the uplands, it loops past the deafening cascade of Godafoss, the Gods’ Waterfall, a mass of foaming white-water that seems to emanate from a ragged crack in the earth’s crust. It’s an otherworldly place, considered sacred by Iceland’s ancient tribes: it’s said that when they converted to Christianity, the local chieftain cast his pagan idols into the waterfall to symbolise the death of the old gods and the birth of the new.

It’s the prelude of an even stranger landscape to come. As the Ring Road nears Lake Myvatn’s shoreline, shattered boulders and volcanic pillars known as klasar begin to litter the sides of the highway, the geological remnants of ancient eruptions. Geysers gush and mud pools bubble. Fissures in the earth spew out columns of superheated steam – a reminder that this part of Iceland sits directly on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the unstable meeting point between the European and North American tectonic plates. Barren and treeless, it feels eerily close to driving across the surface of another planet. Even the colours of the earth seem extra-terrestrial, scorched with mineral tints: sulphur yellows, copper oranges, chlorine greens.

Krafla’s scalded landscape makes it inhospitable to all but the hardiest forms of life, but it has its uses. Thanks to the thinness of the earth’s crust here, the underlying rock reaches temperatures between 200˚C and 300˚C, fuelling one of Iceland’s fastest-growing industries: geothermal energy. Hundreds of geodesic domes litter the hilltops around Krafla, capping geothermal wells which provide a cheap, carbon-free energy resource. Astonishingly, Krafla’s power station generates around 30% of Iceland’s energy, with another 40% coming from other renewable energy sources such as hydropower and solar. Per capita, Iceland uses more energy than the United States, but generates two-thirds less carbon dioxide. There are even plans for Iceland to start exporting its energy to help the rest of the world combat climate change.

At Vogafjós, a little café near the shores of Lake Myvatn, chef Eva Ingólfsdottir has found an even more ingenious use for Iceland’s geothermal heat. Dressed in chef’s whites and sturdy boots, she treks across one of Myvatn’s lava-fields, through columns of white vapour swirling from the ground, like a kettle releasing steam. Wherever she walks, the stench of rotten eggs is overpowering. “Living in Myvatn, you realise how much energy there is right under our feet,” she says. “There can’t be many places in the world where you can bake bread without an oven – as long as you can stand the smell, of course!”

She stops at a pile of black rocks, removing them one by one to reveal a hole hollowed from the earth. Inside are several plastic containers, each containing a freshly-baked geysir loaf – a traditional Icelandic bread made with rye and wholemeal flour. She peels off a lid and tips out one of the chocolate-brown loaves, cutting it into thick slices on a wooden board. The bread has a dense, sticky texture, somewhere between a steamed pudding and an unleavened loaf. It tastes yeasty and bitter, like an Icelandic version of sourdough.

“It must always be eaten with lots of butter,” Eva says, as she carries the loaves back to her car, a journey she makes twice a day. “Icelandic butter, of course. The creaminess goes perfectly with the bitterness of the bread.”

Iceland’s hot rocks fuel another of the country’s obsessions: alfresco bathing. Known to locals as hot-pots, there are hundreds of geothermally-heated pools dotted across the Icelandic landscape. The most famous is the Blue Lagoon, just outside Reykjavik, but Myvatn has its own version: the Myvatn Nature Baths, a complex of mica-blue pools fed by deep underground springs, where the water bubbles up at a constant temperature of between 36 and 40˚C. Rich in minerals and micro-organisms, the alkaline water is said to be good for skin conditions and respiratory illnesses, and its chemical composition means there’s no need for chlorine or disinfectant – although it also has an unfortunate habit of turning metal black, a fact which bathers who forget to remove their jewellery soon discover to their cost.

“Sitting in a hot pool on a freezing cold day is about as Icelandic as you can get,” says Jóna Frímansdóttir, who’s been bathing regularly at Myvatn for more than twenty years. “It warms the soul as much as the body. People think we’re mad, but we just know how to enjoy ourselves – whatever the weather brings.”

She slips beneath the water’s steamy surface. Along the horizon, white plumes billow from Myvatn’s geothermal wells, and the cone-shaped summits of Viti and Krafla vent smoke into the evening sky.

***

As the Ring Road circles round the island’s eastern coast, the landscape becomes ever wilder and emptier. Isolated villages hunker at the bottom of glacial fjords. Abandoned shepherds’ cabins line the roadsides. Waterfalls cascade down the hills, carving canyons through the rock – including the thunderous maelstrom of Dettifoss, Europe’s most voluminous waterfall, which memorably featured in the opening scenes of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

Iceland’s east coast has always been isolated, cut off by distance and geography. Historically, these remote regions eked a living from fishing and farming, relying on close-knit communities to survive the brutal winters. Prior to the arrival of the Ring Road in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many villages could only be reached via mountain passes which became snowbound in winter, forcing the delivery of emergency supplies by air or sea. Reaching these distant valleys represented one of the biggest challenges for the Ring Road’s engineers, and required a huge array of tunnels, embankments and bridges to overcome the terrain.

As a deep-sea fisherman, and a native of Iceland’s east coast, Siggi Ólafsson is used to isolation. Like his father and grandfather before him, he spends several months a year at sea, trawling the North Atlantic for langoustines, prawns, herring and cod. With his stocky frame, bushy beard and Viking T-shirt, he lives up to his sea-captain’s image.

“By nature, Icelanders have always been an outdoor people,” he says, strolling along the wharf in Höfn, a small port in one of Iceland’s southeastern fjords. “Even though most of us live in cities these days, we feel at home amongst the hills and the waterfalls. It’s in our blood,” he says,

He climbs into the trawler’s cabin, where bleeping fish-finders and radar screens are squeezed in beside the helm. Beyond the prow, mist drifts over Hofn’s clapboard houses, and the pinprick point of a lighthouse flashes at the end of a distant headland. “We’re as far as you can get from Reykjavik here. Some people don’t like the isolation, but we’re used to it. Personally, I don’t like towns much. For me, there’s no sound as Icelandic as silence.”

Siggi’s not alone in his view. Though two-thirds of the population are city-dwellers, Icelanders share a peculiar sense of closeness with their landscape. Exploring the outdoors remains one of the country’s most popular pastimes, and every weekend thousands of people exchange their urbanised lives for the opportunity to rock-climb, hike, ride and camp amongst the fjords and hills.

80 miles west of Höfn lies Iceland’s most epic playground: the vast Vatnajökull ice-sheet, which covers 3000 square miles and 9% of the island’s land-mass, making it the largest volume of ice in Europe. Driving west along the Ring Road from Höfn, the glacier looms constantly along the skyline, a frozen white sea slicing through a jawbone of dog’s-tooth peaks. Now a national park, it’s visited by more than 170,000 people every year.

“Vatnajökull is the place that puts the ice in Iceland,” says Ìvar Finnbogason, as he picks his way along an arête on the glacier’s southern side, kicking his crampons into the ice for grip. High above, snowdrifts swirl over the glacier’s upper levels, and the ice sparkles in the sun, like shards of shattered glass. “For me, it’s also our most precious landscape, and because of climate change, it’s changing faster than ever. So we must do everything we can to protect it.”

A professional ice-climber and mountaineer, Ìvar now leads a team of sixteen guides working on the glacier near Skaftafell. “Every day is different,” he says. “New crevasses form all the time, and the weather changes fast. But, actually, the ice is our friend.” He points to a patch of ice, deep turquoise in colour. “The bluer the colour, the denser the ice is. That means it’s harder, and better to walk on.”

He looks back down towards the lagoon of Jokulsarlón, where icebergs drift off the face of the glacier and are pummelled by the Atlantic waves, breaking up on a beach of coal-black sand. Flocks of great skuas, Iceland’s largest sea-bird, circle over the icebergs, scanning the shallows for fish, occasionally dive-bombing tourists who unwittingly stray too close to their nests. “Glaciers are like time machines,” Ìvar says, leaning back on his ice-axe. “They’re made of snow that fell thousands of years ago. Every step is a step back into the past.”

The section of the Ring Road along Vatnajökull’s southern edge was the last to be completed. In 1974, Iceland’s longest bridge was built over the Skeiðara River. It was a landmark, physically and metaphorically – marking not just the completion of the Ring Road, but also the first link between Reykjavik and Iceland’s most isolated corner. Prior to the bridge’s completion, travelling east involved an arduous journey across the forbidding Skeiðarasandar, a plain of black gravel and sand that stretches for thirty miles between Núpsstaður and Öraefi.

True to form for Iceland, the bridge didn’t last long. In 1996, it was swept away in a devastating flood known as a jökulhlaup, caused by the eruption of the Grímsvötn volcano beneath the Vatnajökull ice-cap. A wave of ice and melt-water swept down from the glacier, four metres high and half-a mile wide, destroying everything in its path. Though the road link was re-established just 22 days later, it took several years for the Skeiðara and Gýgja crossings to be permanently replaced. A section of the old crossing now stands beside the Ring Road, twisted and mangled by the unimaginable force of the floodwaters.

Icelanders have almost become blasé about such disasters. People have had no choice but to learn to live alongside the forces of nature and, where possible, to use them to their advantage. The eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, which spewed out vast ash-clouds and played havoc with the world’s air traffic, actually presented locals with an unexpected opportunity. There’s now an official Eyjafjallajökull visitor centre, and 4x4s regularly shudder up the scree-strewn slopes to allow sightseers to snap pictures next to the infamous mountain. Astonishingly, Eyjafjallajökull isn’t even the area’s most active volcano – that honour belongs to Hekla, the Hooded One, which has witnessed more than 15 major eruptions over the last 1000 years.

***

As the Ring Road cuts west, it enters the flat pastureland of Þingvallavatn, and passes two more spectacular waterfalls – Skógafoss, one of the Iceland’s highest, with a sheer drop of 200 feet, and Seljalandsfoss, where a rocky path leads behind the cascade and the spray refracts the sunlight like a prism, conjuring rainbows from thin air.

Gradually, countryside gives way to civilisation. Towns and villages become more frequent, and poly-tunnels and greenhouses appear along the roadside, where farmers use the island’s geothermal heat to nourish crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, chillis, even bananas. This is also equine country, home to numerous farms which raise Iceland’s pure-bred horses, descended from animals brought over by Scandinavian settlers a millennium ago. Small and stocky, with a unique gait known as the tölt that smooths out rough terrain, these hardy horses were once Iceland’s main mode of transport; though the Ring Road ended their days as beasts of burden, horses are still often used by shepherds and cattle-herders in the island’s roadless interior.

A thousand years ago, Þingvallavatn was also the home of the AlÞing, Iceland’s first parliament. Here, in a ravine beside the shores of Þingvellir Lake, tribal chieftains would meet once a year to discuss events, dispense justice and enact new laws, which would be committed to memory by the Lögmaður, or Law-Speaker. First convened in 930, the AlÞing has a legitimate claim as the world’s oldest form of democratic government, and the site of the parliament holds a special significance for Icelanders – a symbol both of their modern political culture and their Viking past.

Appropriately enough, the beginning of Iceland’s recorded history also marks journey’s end for the Ring Road. As it snakes across the magma fields of the Reykjanesfólkvangur nature reserve, it drops down into Reykjavik’s suburbs, bathed under sodium-orange street-lights that seem strange after a week of clear skies and starlight. Far ahead across the bay of Faxaflói, the Snæfellsnes ice-cap flashes in the evening sunlight, and the Ring Road begins its circular journey north again – a neverending thread unspooling beneath a silver sky.

“Comely and fair is the country, crested with snow-covered glaciers,” wrote the Icelandic poet and polymath Jónas Hallgrímson in 1835. “Azure and empty the sky, ocean resplendently bright.”

It seems a fitting coda for the journey.