Land of fire and ice

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Defender 110 overland Iceland : credit: © Patrick Cruywagen

Find out why Patrick thinks Iceland should be at the top of your bucket list for exploring in a 4x4

You can drive a Land Rover through just about every country on this incredible planet of ours, but if you have not been to Iceland, then you have without a doubt missed out on something rather special. Iceland has been on my must-do list for as long as I can remember. Who would not want to camp under the Northern Lights? Or drive up a glacier? Or experience volcanoes? Sadly, my previous attempts at a Land Rover adventure in Iceland have been black-balled by cost and time. Until now...

My trip began with a call from my friend Nekkies Smit, an independent Land Rover specialist from South Africa. He wanted to go to Iceland but wanted me to arrange it, and as my reward I could join him on said trip. Simple as that.  

The one thing that I have learnt when going somewhere new is to consult (or use) an experienced guide. Enter Andrew Fisher and Dawn Williamson from Venture 4x4; this British company are Iceland veterans and they had a spot for us on one of their summer trips. 

These likeable teachers spend three months of the year in Iceland. While most of their trips are around two weeks long, we would only be joining them for the first week. And while their other clients would be shipping their cars over from the UK, Jaguar Land Rover had kindly arranged a new diesel Ingenium Discovery for us in Reykjavik. But would it be able to keep up with the Defenders?

All were impressed by our Discovery with the tough Michelin snow tyres

Getting to Iceland was the easy bit as it is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world. We just hopped on an early bird flight from Luton to Reykjavik, then took an expensive cab to the dealership to pick up our standard new Discovery. Two things told us this was not a UK market Disco: the number plate (which we would lose during a river crossing) and the tyres. According to the Reykjavik dealership they put decent winter tyres on all of their Land Rovers. Ours had Michelin Latitude X-Ice North 255/55R20s on. The rubber felt pretty soft, and I wondered how they would perform on sharp rocks? 

Exploring the city would have to wait until the end of the trip as we had a date at the docks. Andrew, Dawn and several of their Defender-driving clients, who had shipped their Defenders over at great cost, were waiting for us. As clients (who like us have flown in) are reunited with their Defenders, Andrew installs UHF radios into each vehicle. Andrew is in a standard Defender 110 TDCi 2.2. I ask him about what sort of brief he gives clients before a trip. “I ask them to install a raised air intake as some of the water crossings can be a little on the deep side. Underbody protection and good all-Terrain tyres are also a good idea. Obviously a well-maintained vehicle is essential,” warned Andrew. 

Andrew and Dawn led the convoy in their Defender 110

No two tours that they host are exactly the same, though ours is described as the Iceland Plus, which should take us away from the main tourist routes and to remote places that involves some serious 4x4 action.

While Reykjavik might be the most northern capital city on the planet, it’s pretty compact and small, so within minutes of heading southeast on Route 1 (the main tourist route) we find ourselves in the Icelandic countryside.

The remote tracks meant that we often had the place to ourselves

Eyjafjallajökull, that volcano which caused chaos and disruptions over European airspace in 2010, lies dead ahead of us. It looks peaceful from our Discovery, which would probably be able to outrun the Defenders if we had to make a quick getaway. Our convoy climbs into out-of-this-world volcanic foothills and lava fields. Soon we are in Hverageroi, home to a highly-active geothermal field, which provides natural heat for hundreds of greenhouses in town. The town experienced a serious earthquake in 2008 and today and you can actually watch video highlights of it in the quake museum located in the shopping mall. 

Our next stop is Selfoss, the largest town in the south and our last chance to fuel up before we head into the true wilds of Iceland. As we leave the town, Hekla, Iceland’s most famous volcano, looms large in front of us. It’s name means the Hooded One and it stands rather tall at 1491 metres. While it has been belching out ash every ten or so years, locals say that it is due an eruption. We exchange tar for gravel and the incredible landscapes just seem to get better and better. Why go to the moon when you can just take an Easyjet flight to Iceland?

You need a very good map if driving through the remote parts of Iceland  

Katla, the volcano expected to be Iceland’s most troublesome volcano over the next few years, now comes into view. To our right are two glaciers, Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull. We stop to take in a waterfall. It’s been scenery overload so far, and we are still only on our first day. Gravel becomes sand; Andrew recommends that we all go into low range as we enter the first serious rocky bit. While some of the boulders are as big as the Discovery, it does not struggle on the rocks or the tight sections. This is what we signed up for. 

Not only is Nekkies a great driver, he is a handy model too...

After crossing a couple of streams we reach the Hungurfitjar Hut, which is just a shepherd’s hut really. This is our camping spot. Firewood is as rare as hen’s teeth in Iceland so most people retire to their tents after cooking tea. Nekkies and I light the BBQ and pour a drink or two.  Just after midnight Dawn wakes us up as the Northern Lights are dancing about it in the black sky. Despite the fact that it is summer the temperature is just below freezing. This is the first time that I have seen the Northern Lights. We have struck the jackpot; some people have been to Iceland several times and not seen them at all.

The stunning Northern Lights – we were lucky to witness them 

Day two starts with a short briefing as we are about to go on a track that Andrew has not driven for a couple of years. Everyone needs to be comfortable with what to do on a failed steep incline. It takes us a few hours to travel only a couple of kilometres but it is so worth it as we head north into the highlands. Behind us are the same two glaciers that we could see yesterday afternoon and the views back and technical driving make it a very special day. At times it feels as if we are literally driving on top of the world. How many of the millions of tourists that have been to Iceland have seen these great off-road tracks?

Our Editor takes a waterfall selfie during another scenic lunch

Lunch is taken just south of Rauoufossafjoll at a waterfall. After heading east on the F225, we take the F208. We had hoped to fuel up where it intersects with the 32, but they don’t have any fuel. We push on to a local fishing camp at a secret venue. Despite the fact that it is in one or two guide books they ask that I don’t give away their details in the article. One of the chaps in our group has bought along a fishing rod and he catches a trout for dinner! Once again the Northern Lights come out just after midnight and they are even better than the night before.

Park guides confirm that their tyres are much bigger than ours

Our third day is best described as a circumnavigation of Vatnajokull, the mother of all the ice caps. This makes it a popular place for hikers, bikers and general tourists. The landscape is very different to yesterday, with less greenery and colour. It’s like we are driving in a black and white picture. Lines of crumbling craters head towards the horizon. The bright early morning light and black sands that we are driving on work in tandem to create a brown dust trail. Sand is replaced by sharp rocks but our soft rubber Michelin tyres don’t seem to mind. Friendly park officials pass us in a beefed-up Nissan Patrol. They get paid to drive along these special tracks. What a job!

The Discovery carefully makes its way to one of the many viewpoints

Lunch is taken at Mani, a yellow rocky outcrop. My collection of Icelandic rocks is growing with every stop. I am not alone. Eventually we hit the F26, a popular tourist track and the longest north-south trail in the country. We are now in the badlands of Iceland, where outlaws, ghosts and shepherds once ruled this barren landscape. Incredibly, cyclists also fight for their piece of the road and one of them takes a spectacular tumble as another vehicle gives him a mouth full of dust. We are not going to reach our planned campsite and so Andrew comes up with an alternative. We will camp at Nyidalur, which lies just south of the Tungnafellsjokull ice cap. The wind and cold convince some of those in the convoy to take a bed in a heated communal dorm instead. I put up the tent and light the BBQ.

The ever-changing landscape was no match for our capable convoy 

Our fourth day starts with bacon and eggs (thanks to those in the dorm with the kitchen). After a few minutes of driving we say goodbye to the F26 and take the F910 in the direction of the mudflats. Andrew is a little worried because if we get the timing wrong the melting (and rising) waters from the Vatna ice cap could make the crossing tricky. We cannot speed up as we are driving through a rock-strewn landscape and the going is slow. Nobody wants to slice a tyre as that would further delay us. We stop to take a look at a rather impressive crater that was created by a volcano they call Trolladynga. Just when I think that we have the whole place to ourselves a convoy of 14 Land Rovers approaches us from the opposite direction. They assure us that the mudflats are easily passable.

A sure sign that flooding does occur from time to time on the mudflats 

Soon we are in the mudflats and sure enough they are nothing more than a rather long shallow lake, we are lucky. It takes us about 15 minutes to speed across it. Everyone is extremely relieved. 

From here, it still takes us a few hours of driving across some rather rocky tracks to get to the Vogar  campsite, which is in the Myvatn region. The group will be camping here for two nights; one of the Defenders has a broken shock and the owners look happy as they won’t have to pack up tomorrow. We have successfully crossed the highlands (and badlands) of Iceland and have made it to the north! To celebrate we decide to forfeit the BBQ and instead eat the most expensive pizza in the world.

The Blue Lagoons of Myvatn are often confused with the nature baths across the road

Our final day with the group is a much more chilled affair as we take in some of the nearby tourist attractions. First up is the Grjótagjá cave where John Snow did the tube snake boogie with Ygritte in the Game of Thrones series. It was once a popular bathing spot but the geological activities in the 1970s put a stop to that. From here we went to the steaming and bubbling red and grey mudflats of Hverir. If you ever wanted convincing that Iceland is different to the rest of the world then come here.

More waterfalls than you can shake a selfie-stick at 

Iceland is waterfall territory and they don’t come more spectacular than the 45 metre high and 100 metre wide Dettifoss Falls. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that 400 cu metres of water per second powers its way over the falls during the summer. Then, not far away from these falls are the Hafragilfoss Falls, which might be smaller but they are just as impressive.

The Myvatn Nature Baths at sunset

As a fitting end to our guided trip around Iceland, we paid a visit to the Myvatn Nature Baths for a dip. The locals call it the Blue Lagoon of the north, and it’s easy to see why when looking at the blue mineral-rich water of this outside pool.

After this all too brief spell of indulgence, we had to dash back to the capital city and pick up our Bigfoot Defender, courtesy of Ice Rovers. We only have 48 hours left in Iceland and our plan is to drive it up the Langjokull Glacier. Will we succeed? All will be revealed in a future edition of LRM. 

We plan to come back in the nearby future. A week is not enough to take in the incredible landscapes and remote 4x4 tracks of Iceland. This certainly is the land of Fire and Ice.

Shipping options

Eimskip can ship your Land Rover from the UK to Iceland. The Defenders on our trip paid an average of £2400 for return shipment. For details and latest costs see eimskip.com. Note that you will have to drop and collect your vehicle at Immingham, UK. Another option is to take the passenger and vehicle ferry from Denmark. This costs around £3000, takes two nights and includes a cabin. For more details see smyrilline.com

Venture 4x4

Andrew and Dawn certainly know their stuff and we would highly recommend their services. They were quick to respond to our enquiries and made sure that all was in place for a drama-free and memorable first 4x4 visit to Iceland.
For more details see venture4x4.co.uk.

Other useful websites

lonelyplanet.comvisiticeland.comvisitreykjavik.isroad.is