Lured by its majestic wildlife and extraordinary wilderness, Shaney Hudson sets out on a self-driving tour of Iceland
The whale glides underneath me, a dark hulking shape with a glowing white underbelly. With its fins stretched like airplane wings, it slowly rises up from the murk, dwarfing our tiny inflatable boat.
Here on Skjalfandi Bay, the moment seems frozen. The engine is cut, the clouds engulf the mountains, and Husavik town, once a harbor for whalers and now a hotspot for whale-watchers, lies silent on the distant shore.
Coming up for air, the creature breaks the surface just beyond our bow. Its sheer size creates ripples that unsettle the boat. Although my camera shutter clicks away, I watch the humpback whale with my own eyes, in awe of its size and majesty. There’s something completely mesmerizing about this experience, as if we’re glimpsing an ethereal being revealing itself for the first time.
And then, the whale did what a whale does: it exhaled, and snotted us. Our group is coated in sticky whale glug, a fine rain of fishy mucous. Half the boat chortles in laughter; the others shriek and gag from the stench. The whale is indifferent, flicking its white, barnacled tail up and disappearing back down towards its underwater buffet.
They call Iceland the land of fire and ice, but it was the wildlife and wilderness that captivated our group as we drove across the north east of the country. At first, we were a little apprehensive about driving here. We’d heard tales of how the roads can be engulfed in fog, how they were slippery with ice and rain, or could simply be made up of unpaved gravel for miles and miles.
However, within a few hours we’d adapted to the roads and embraced the isolated freedom of driving here, filling our water bottles up from tumbling cascades by the side of the road, feeding apple cores to shaggy Icelandic horses and stopping wherever, and whenever we wanted, to embrace the beauty of the landscape.
Such scenes offered a full sensory experience. In Borgarfjordur Eystri, we duck as bright red-beaked puffins awkwardly try to land, their beaks packed full of slimy fish to feed to chicks safely burrowed away in the hillocks around us. Near Lake Myvatn, greeted with the sulphurous stench of bubbling grey mud pools, we dip our feet in warm geothermal pools and scramble through caves formed inside thousands-of-years-old lava tubes. And finally, just outside Reykjavik, I have my fingers nipped by an orphaned Arctic fox pup keen to steal a morsel of my lamb stew.
Most visitors to Iceland stay on its Ring Road — either limiting their exploration to a self-drive loop around the island, or else basing themselves in Reykjavik. By driving, we felt we had the best of both worlds; exploring the remote fjords of the east and waterfalls of the north before finishing our journey with a few days in Reykjavik.
The Icelandic capital is home to the majority of the country’s population, and has become an incredibly popular stopover for passengers with connecting flights to Europe from the US. Forgoing the traditional trip to the geothermal waters of the ever-popular Blue Lagoon, which hovers at a comfortable 100F, we opt instead to dive into the waters at the Silfra Fissure, which plunge to an icy 35F.
The fissure is located in Thingvellir National Park, which has UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its geographical and historical significance. The area was the site of the first European Parliament, while the fissure is the exact location where tectonic plates between Eurasia and America separate a few centimeters each year, forming the continental divide.
The fissure itself is filled with freshwater, fed by meltwater from the nearby glacier, and to be able to withstand the cold we wear thick drysuits with hoodies, booties and flippers.
Lowering ourselves into the water, scanning the lava fields below us is like looking through a window to another world, where the refracted summertime light illuminates sapphire-blue water and tendrils of emerald reeds dotted with trapped air bubbles. A strong current pushes us gently along through the cathedrals and chasms of this underwater world, and as per our guide’s recommendations, we lap up the incredibly tasty water as we float along.
But our best experience in Iceland turned out to be our last one. Beforehand, we’d flatly declared we wouldn’t do it. It was too expensive a day trip, we reasoned; Iceland had cleaned us out financially, even though it’d been worth every cent. But where else in the world could you be lowered into a volcano? Only in Iceland. Finally, we decided we just had to do it.
Just an hour’s drive from Reykjavik (and a good 45-minute hike across the barren lava fields) is Thrihnukagigur, a dormant volcano that last erupted over 4,000 years ago. Here, using a window cleaner’s platform rigged over the mouth of the volcanic cone, day-trippers can be lowered a few hundred feet into the magma chamber of the volcano deep underneath the earth’s surface.
Dressed in warm clothes and wearing hard hats with torches, we hike up to the lip of the volcano. The platform rocks as our small group is loaded in, and with a jolt, we begin our four-minute descent. We first navigate a narrow funnel that quickly extinguishes the daylight. Floodlights illuminate the brilliant splatters and splashes of burnt color on the walls in the volcano’s neck, before we enter into the central magma chamber.
The chamber is lit by giant floodlights, stacked with fallen boulders and filled with dark shadows. A damp mist caused by condensation gently drips on us. It’s beautiful, quiet and magical. My group breaks off to explore the chamber, but I simply perch on a rock to take it all in.
There’s nowhere else in the world quite like this, and right now, nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.