Our Iceland trip ended up being filled with paradoxes: on one hand rustic and on the other cosmopolitan, one second wild as can be and the next the epitome of cozy. It felt like a home-coming and like visiting a different world. It was the hardest and best trip of my life.
At takeoff, we were so excited, but also anxious. "Excited and anxious" is about the perfect way to describe that first part of our time.
We landed so very early in the morning after a speedy red eye. As we caught our first glimpse of the lava fields out of the window (11% of Iceland is covered in old lava flow), it felt surreal that a trip we'd dreamed and planned for so long was finally happening.
Once we gathered our camper van from the rental company, we struck out for the grocery store at the end of the block. At this point my introvert-control-freak-type-a-don't-attract-attention tendencies started screaming inside my head. I'd planned, I'd researched, I'd mentally prepared. But all that couldn't protect us from the reality of the fact that we were in a country where we: 1) had never been 2) couldn't speak the language, and 3) didn't have friends or family to take care of us.
The tension may have bubbled out during that first grocery run and we may have had a few whispered squabbles about what in the world we were doing. We made it through, with the only lasting negative result being fewer groceries than we actually needed (a mistake we rectified before we struck out too far from civilization).
We stowed that food in our new home (the camper) and took off for downtown Reykjavik. Thanks to the maps.me app on my phone, my #1 co-pilot duty became official navigator. Without that app (with our planned locations pre-downloaded) I have no idea how we would have gotten anywhere. It was a life saver.
We ended up parked in the lot directly next to Hallgrimskirkja. This was when we found out that in 20 minutes the van had become my comfort zone and I had the strangest urge to stay in that camper for the next 11 days. (introvert problems) I had been dreaming of this moment for months and my anxiety had me convinced I wanted to stay in the car.
This anxiety would follow me for the first leg of our trip.
I feared Iceland wouldn't live up to our expectations. I worried we'd wasted our time and money. I stressed that the weather would be terrible or our next stop would be a flop and Dave would blame me. I hated having to make a thousand decisions every day (where we'd camp, eat, go next, etc.). I fretted that we'd stand out like sore thumbs and the Icelanders would hate us for being tourists. All the while I felt immense pressure to "soak it up," "savor the moment," and "make awesome memories."
This cocktail of negative emotion sounds silly now and I'm slightly ashamed to admit it, but it was a big part of those first few days. Fortunately, even while those feelings were running crazy around my head, I was aware of their irrationality. I was able to articulate enough of what was going on to Dave that we made decisions based on what normal Esther would do, not what "scaredy cat" Esther wanted. I'm so glad we powered through and didn't let it ruin our experience.
I can only describe that first day in Iceland like meeting an online friend or celebrity in real life. As we drove through lava fields, enjoyed our first Icelandic hot dog, and kept pinching ourselves, it felt surreal to encounter things we'd anticipated for so long. We'd seen so many pictures that the scenes seemed familiar, the real thing was like stepping into our dreams only 100 times better.
As mentioned before, we had done a good amount of research on where we wanted to go. However, we knew that once we landed the weather would determine alot of what we did and in what order. The first couple days' forecast was a bit iffy, so we planned to stick more in the southwest corner of the country before making a decision about whether we'd go around the island clockwise or counterclockwise.
We did the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle on our first day along with a couple hours in Reykjavik. On our second day, we saw no chance of good weather in either direction around the island. Instead we decided to risk it and take our little 4x4 camper van into the Highlands. There was an F road (backcountry dirt road) that we read about that would take us to Landmannalauger without needing to ford any water. We figured we'd give it a try, promising ourselves we'd turn around if it got too treacherous. On our way there we ran into the annual sheep round up: Réttir. The horses and sheep of Iceland are famous for their unique gaits and fibers respectively. We pulled off the road multiple times to admire and photograph them.
At one point we were stopped by a huge herd of sheep being driven right along the road by group of local farmers on their horses. We were stopped for close to half an hour as hundreds of sheep streamed by on either side of the car. I've never seen sheep look so tired or pant like dogs! Poor sheepies had a far hike to make from their summer pastures to the farms where they spend the winter.
The road into Landmannalauger was a black volcanic rock washboard. I don't think we drove faster than 10 mph the whole way in. We felt like we were driving on the surface of the moon. There were stretches were all we could see was black sand and hills. It took us an hour and a half to get in. But once we made it through that crazy bumpy road, the destination couldn't have been more it worth it!
Once there, we asked for a hiking recommendation from the ranger. He recommended the "black mountain" route as the most difficult and longest. Dave's ears perked up at that and decided right then and there that's what he wanted to do. This was one of those times I wanted to hide in the car (silly scaredy-cat Esther!) and knew I would regret it. So up the black mountain we headed.
As we climbed, the sun broke through. Everywhere else it was raining, but for that hike, Iceland pulled out some sunshine for us. The higher we climbed, the further behind we left the hoards of tourists and the more spectacular the views were. We ran into the friendliest Frenchman on our ascent. He took our picture and gave us some tips. Then we proceeded to continue to run into him the entire rest of the hike until we finally decided to just join up with him. It was so fun to hear his perspective on the country (it was his 17th visit to Iceland in 5 years!) and find out some more insider information from him. He let us know how special it was that the clouds had lifted in the area and that Landmannalauger was one of his favorite places in all of Iceland. We had chosen our adventure for the day well.
Our third day, Saturday, was forecast to be rainy all day. But our consolation was that Sunday was promised to have beautiful weather. We headed back out of Landmannalauger and decided we'd try and do the South coast on Sunday, since weather in the south is the least accommodating. We stumbled upon some amazing random sights upon the way, thanks to our Iceland guidebook, stocked up on groceries, and committed to driving around the island counter-clockwise.
At one point while we explored a point of interest off the main road, we picked up a hiker who was walking in the rain. He happened to be from the States and he became a travel buddy for the next couple days. We just kept running into him and sharing stories and tips. I didn't expect how fun it would be to meet other travelers on the road.
Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss (above) are impossible to miss. We tried to enjoy them between the waves of tourists flooding off the tour buses, but it was a bit disenchanting to feel like these amazing natural wonders were being treated like amusement park attractions.
One thing I'd been really looking forward to was the "secret swimming pool," Seljavallalaug. When we arrived, it was so full of people, we turned right around and left without even stepping foot in it. The saddest part was seeing the trash and other signs of irresponsible guests on the path to the pool. I may have a new found rage towards litter bugs after our time there.
As our third day began to wind down, the clouds began to clear. We had a feeling we might have a chance to watch the sunset and set out to find a good place to see it. We found the perfect place.
Dyrhólaey juts out into the Atlantic Ocean on the south coast. In fact at that spot, if you look south from there there is no land until Antartica. We almost got blown away as we stood up there (My beanie was literally blown off my head at one point). The power of the Atlantic wind and waves were undeniable even as we enjoyed their raw beauty. I wish our photos captured that sunset. It was the most beautiful of my life.
This is when the beginning of the trip seems to end in my mind. We'd gotten used to our camper life and felt more confident in how to navigate the country. After experiencing so many wonderful things and learning how to be comfortable in unpredictable situations, my anxiety started to fade. It would hang around for a day or two longer, but I'll get to that in the next post.
After that sunset, we found some peace that everything was going to work out and that Iceland wasn't going to disappoint. And that was only the beginning.