The sperm whales showed up one and a half hours into our journey across the Arctic sea. The sky had turned leaden and the sea had merged with it, and the only line differentiating the two was the school of six whales spouting water from their blowholes. The sprays spread into the air and disappeared like dandelions in a storm, reappearing every few minutes. Next to me, a six-foot-tall American doubled over with sea-sickness was retching into the Arctic. His wife, although sympathetic to his plight, looked a bit annoyed at having to let go of this ecstatic photographic moment of whale sighting. I observed the whales, swaying between dizziness and exhilaration, grateful to have finally seen them, regretful that the puffins had not shown, and impatient to stand firm on land once again.
My husband, S, and I are in the whaling town of Húsavík in the north coast of Iceland and we’ve been driving and camping for over a week now. Having started with sunny weather, our undependable luck caught up with us by Day 4 and we’ve had the rains chasing us for days. They come and go, leaving the campsites damp and muddy, making our task of pitching tents every evening before dinner a Herculean effort that we’ve been managing so far with steady swigs of whiskey. But after the whales have been seen, and the nightmare of a boat ride endured without messy accidents, I insist that we need the comfort of a warm B&B. After we’ve had the most luxurious sleep in days, we’re refreshed and ready for some more camp living. But the sky outside still bears down on the sea with its dark clouds and I ask the man at the reception doing our bills if the weather is always this challenging? He looks up at me with eyes full of remorse and says, “I have to say you have real bad luck because until the day before the sun was out and shining and the sea was the bluest of blues. I wish you better luck when you come next.” I thank him with the saddest smile I can muster and leave the building hoping against hope for the sun to show.
We’ve left behind the lights and tin-walled dwellings of Reykjavik to go deeper into the south on Route 1 or the Ring Road which goes in a complete circle surrounding most of Iceland, giving the fjords in the west a miss. As far as the eye can see, there are no people, just table-topped mountains covered in a spill of moss and lichen and black volcanic soil. Years ago, when the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull erupted, halting air traffic in most of Europe, I had looked at stock images and marvelled at its scale. Now looking at other lava fields spreading out around us I feel like I’m inside a movie. Each scene reveals an even more improbable landscape—a desolate, untouched wilderness of low shrubbery, blue rivers and gushing waterfalls which appear with the regularity of punctuation in a very long, artful sentence. There are sheep grazing, their coats so bulky and furry they look like white and black hay bales on a limitless farm. And then there are the horses—stout, docile, their manes flowing in the chilly wind like a mythical beast’s. The animals and fields seem suspended in time as if they’ve always been there and always will be irrespective of days passing and seasons changing.
As we enter the campsite at the town of Hvolsvöllur, 106 kilometres southeast of Reykjavik, and set up our tents and ready our portable stove for dinner, we see a woman with a shock of silver, frizzy hair approaching us. “Are you going to need a shower?” she asks. We nod in obviousness. She then holds out her palm for 800 krónas as fee for using the hot shower at the campsite. We pay her quick and watch her go knocking on every other parked vehicle or pitched tent. She tells us cheerily that she comes every evening to clean the camp kitchen and bathrooms, housed in two red-painted portable structures, and collects the charges for maintenance. As we wait for our sausages and eggs to cook and sip on coffee from camping mugs, we watch the quiet campsite slowly fill up with cars and the hum of chatter, and then tents pop up like colourful igloos dotting the ground with oranges, army greens, and dark blues. The late-summer wind makes us shiver and finally, when the long day is taken over by a darkening sky, we wait for the stars to come slowly aglow.
Driving on Route 1 has felt more like comfort than chore. We’ve escaped a tourist-saturated south for the moonscape of Skaftafell, a scenic area in Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland’s southeast. The summer night is feeble and the volcanic beaches inky black; an unknown deserted universe laid out flat and open just for us. We’ve driven past vast green treeless expanses; strolled along cold, black-sand beaches strewn with ice blocks broken off from Vatnajökull—Iceland’s largest ice cap—shining like diamonds under a timid sun. We’ve been soaked from the spray of the mighty Dettifoss waterfall as it frothed and foamed its way into the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river. We’ve set up our moveable home at Skaftafell, on fields of green bordered by hills that looked as if the skies had parted and poured giant buckets of emerald felt down them for years.
Thanks to the eye-popping landscape we’ve had so many stops on the way that we have lost track of time and are running quite late. The rain hasn’t shown any sign of remission and S, in order to get ahead of the clock, has taken a turn onto a gravel road that would get us to the northern volcanic lake of Mývatn just in time for sun down. We bounce over hills, and slow down like a cautious cat at bends looking out for blind turns. A dense, impenetrable fog swirls outside and at one point I’m certain we’re about to crash to our deaths. Then as suddenly as it had descended, the fog lifts and clears our vision to a wall of waterfalls on the horizon. We drive down the slim, gravel track leading back to Route 1.
We continue our drive down the almost buttery smooth Ring Road flanked by mountains and clear, sparkling lakes. We occasionally spot an iron letterbox and reckon the lone house that stood a mile away from the highway overlooking the sea. Here is isolation and its gift of abundance—each individual on his or her own acre in the midst of nowhere and with a window on the infinite blue horizon. Here it is possible to respect nature and to take refuge in it.
Slowly we approach Mývatn, our stop for the night. Steam rises from grey muddy pits bubbling with boiling mud sediments, and the air reeks of sulphur. The landscape has yet again, unmistakeably and without warning, changed. A vast ochre desert lies open before us against the setting sun and steam columns reach up to kiss the sky. We drive further down into the town and pitch our tent by the calm, teal Mývatn lake. While stuffing our faces with steaming pasta, we watch ducks swim past us and count the sad-eyed sheep that flock on the hill right across.
When we arrive in the northern town of Akureyri, the rain has finally left us and the sun is high in the sky. We visit cafés and bookshops and drink beer at hipster bars. We see trees like poplar and rowan, which we hadn’t seen anywhere else in the country, and walk past gardens bursting with scarlet and golden flowers. We take the most spirit-restoring dip in the town’s public hot pool—a complex with four pools set to different cool and hot temperatures just to afford you the best sleep that will surely follow. Elderly men and women sit in extended circles murmuring like politicians—a daily ritual for most Icelanders.
We get back on the road again and drive past farms alternated with steep, mountainous descents until we take a right and drive into the northwestern village of Hvammstangi standing right next to the sea. The Arctic has turned rough again, and the wind has picked up after an afternoon’s rest. We struggle to pitch our tent against the strong currents but finally manage to make it steady for our last night out in the open. After dinner, we venture out to spot the Milky Way. As we train our eyes on the northern sky, dark over the sea, we notice it dapple with green spreading like an approaching wave. The wave flickers, fades, recedes, darkens and reappears until it dances ever so slightly. A streak of faint light spills slowly illuminating the sky with a tender, iridescent glow. The aurora comes alive for us—we watch, our eyes fixated.
All flights between Delhi and Mumbai and Reykjavik require at least one layover at a European gateway city such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Paris.
Indian travellers need a tourist visa to visit Iceland. Applications for the Schengen visa can be made online through VFS (dk.vfsglobal.co.in) and relevant documents (list on website) must be handed in at the visa application centre in person. The 3-month tourist visa costs Rs4,680 (plus Rs780 service fee), and takes about 15 working days to process.
The best time to camp in Iceland is Jun-Sept. Temperatures in June through August hover at 15-20°C, whereas night temperatures in September can dip to 5°C. September is usually the start of the Aurora season too, though there are no guarantees; weather is pretty unpredictable across seasons here.
Campsites are easily found in almost all towns and national parks, and most are equipped with toilets, showers, a tiny kitchen (though not everywhere), and washing facilities. Summers are busy and it’s advisable to book ahead. Charges per person per night vary between €11-20/Rs850-Rs1540. At national parks, pay for designated areas at the visitors’ centre (sites are usually equipped with toilets, showers, and eating areas).
Camping essentials include tent, stove (can be rented, or bought from supermarkets), cooking utensils and cutlery, shower shoes, car charger, solar powered battery charger and a head lamp. Food is pretty expensive in Iceland, so draw up a menu that’s easy to cook, or stock up on sandwiches.
If you’re camping in the open, hire an SUV (www.bluecarrental.is is a good option; from ISK51,606/Rs28,475 for a small, automatic car for 10 days, including insurance, minus petrol).
Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.