Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Snowdrift

Up bright and early on the morning of our fifth full day in Iceland, we were anxious to get moving. Our plan for the day was to travel as far as possible to the south, along the Sprengisandur route through the central highlands. Our ultimate goal was to reach the area of south-east Iceland where the great glaciers of the vast Vatnojokull icefield reach almost to the beaches. We knew from our research that the Sprengisandur track would be rougher than the Kjolur route – we would have to ford rivers. These being glacier-fed rivers, crossing should be easiest and safest early in the day, before the surface of the icecap reaches melting point.

The weather, at least, was reassuring – fairly clear sky, not raining or snowing, at least for the time being. We backtracked west along Route 1, then turned close to Godafoss to begin the trip south. The route led us along a green river valley full of farms – although it isn’t tarred, the surface is really good here, maintained by or for the farmers. Eventually, we passed through a gate, and left the last of the farms behind. Climbing higher into the hills, we reached the snowline – the couple of inches that had fallen the previous day – and were reassured to see tire tracks ahead of us. We met one jeep traveling in the other direction, before reaching a really fine waterfall – of which Miss C took a rather nice photo.

Moving on, we turned a corner – and saw those reassuring tracks vanish. The jeep we’ld met had simply turned back. I jumped out to have a look ahead – the snow cover was think, and looking ahead with our binoculars, I could see no sign that it was any worse further (and higher) into the hills. Deciding that the snow had all fallen the previous day, we reasoned that the depth shouldn’t increase – so, feeling very venturesome, we drove on, with 4 wheel drive engaged.

We soon began to get used to breaking a fresh track. The jeep rode smoothly on the snow, and the sun was out – much nicer than some of the Kjolur route. I wasn’t able to relax for long. Higher in the hills, we seemed to be reaching more exposed points – soon, we were hitting snowdrifts. The first were small, fingers of snow six or so inches deep reaching across the track. Miss C ignored them, and plowed straight through. This seemed to work very well, and I began to think I was worrying about nothing. Gradually, the snowdrifts began to become more frequent and slightly deeper – still no problem.

Coming to a particularly exposed piece of track, where the land was flat all around while the track itself was below the level of the surrounding land, we braked, a little too late, at the start of a drift that had completely filled the sunken for 30 or 40 metres. The Jimny refused to proceed, and I got out again to examine the situation.

The drift came nearly up to my knees: tramping ahead, it was obvious that the drift was limited to a small section. Perhaps we could leave the road, and drive around it? The land on either side of the track was hard stone and gravel, and seemed to be free of drifts (I believe we had reached the northern part of the sandur or sand-gravel desert for which the route is famous).

As I returned to the Jimny, a very large jeep pulling what looked like a horse trailer arrived behind us. The big Viking farmer at the wheel pulled up beside us, and we had a very slow conversation, which began with his reason for being up there (rounding up sheep with some horsemen he’ld be meeting up ahead) and moved on to the state of the track. I showed him our planned route, gestured at the obstacle ahead, and asked his opinion. Slowly, almost Ent-like, the answer emerged – “I think… you should… go back”.

After a certain amount of wheel spinning, the Jimny was extricated from the edge of the big drift and turned around. We waved goodbye to the farmer, whose monstrous jeep moved of into the deep snow, swerving and struggling – and felt a lot better about our choice. If his beast, with its mile-high suspension was having trouble, then what chance did we have?

So back we went – now trying to make up for lost time, we raced north in our old tracks, blasting downhill through the “finger” drifts. We had a new plan: back to Route 1, east across the top of Iceland, then south, through the east fjords.

Back again we went, past Myvatn, through the lava fields to the east, and on into a vast desert region. Next petrol, 160km – in fact, next anything 160km! This is a rolling grey landscape with some sizeable hills. It is very lunar, and very empty – hardly any traffic. Some beautiful snow-capped peaks could be seen, a long way to the south. Especially considering that we were traveling on the main road, the desolation was remarkable. The area seemed to be very dry – little sign of rivers – so the area most likely lies in the “rain shadow” of Vatnojokull.

Eventually, we reached Egilsstadir, a port town on the east coast, full of tourist vehicles – this is where the ferry comes from Denmark. Some people were obviously planning quite an active holiday, with all sorts of equipment dangling from their vehicles – makes sense really, because it is a very long trip, so you would need to have a very good reason indeed not to fly, like a customized vehicle and a quarter-ton or so of luggage. Actually, “holiday” seems like a very inadequate word for the sort of trips these people must do – “expedition” might be better. Must see if I have any relevant photos I can post.
After possibly our best value meal so far (excellent burgers) we forged on, southward. Now in the East fjords, we discovered a landscape of incredible beauty – steep mountainsides descending into the sea – sheer-walled valleys with breathtaking waterfalls every few hundred metres – and almost no traffic at all. We left Route 1 to take a shortcut between two valleys over a high ridge into the Oxi valley, which was a good idea. The last of the sun was lighting the peaks with that golden glow you only gate in late evening, as the shadows climbed from the valley floor. One sharp and spiky ridge was particularly spectacular, as was one high ridge boasting a rock platform something like a ship’s bow which simply begged for someone to pose dramatically at its tip, perhaps two thousand feet above the coast below. “Epic grandeur” is the phrase that comes to mind. I can’t help wondering if Tolkien ever came here, and what he would have made of it if he did. Add some trees, and these valleys could be Rivendell: some other parts we’ve seen are dead ringers for Mordor. So much beauty, and, if not for that snowdrift, we wouldn’t have seen any of it.

Rounding the south-east corner of Iceland, the road gets more “exciting”. Malbrik Endar again, although the surface is still quite good. A huge lorry overtook us, hurtling along in a cloud of dust – how it stayed on the road still escapes me. The landscape began to change as dusk fell, from “grand” to “dramatic” to “dramatic, with strong overtones of sinister”.

Here, the mountain ridges throw huge and very steep ramparts of ash/gravel/scree down to the ocean. With the sun now sunk behind the mountains, we saw them only as silhouettes – one headland looked just like a huge hunched bat. The road here is pressed close to the sea, as the ocean has left no flat land to speak of, stopped only by the scree-ramparts, so that the highway has to be cut into these rather than into solid rock or run on a causeway. Of course, the problem with this is that it is extremely unstable – inevitably, there are constant slippages from the road into the sea, and from the cliffs and slopes above onto the road. Driving this section was one of only a handful of times that I really feared for our safety: keeping well in from the edge (the sea was a long, long way down), looking well ahead in case of gaps, and trying at the same time to keep a healthy distance from the mountain on my right, for fear of getting a boulder through the roof. We got through without incident – but a man we met later, who had drive the same road two days previously in wet weather reported driving behind a grader which was sweeping freshly-fallen debris into the sea while more rained down behind it as he followed.

As you can imagine, I was very pleased to reach the long tunnel which took us through the final headland and downhill, towards the lights of Hofn, where we were to find a snug room in a guest house overlooking the harbour, rented to us by the very friendly Aldur.

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