When we first arrived in Iceland I scoffed at all the great big 4WD trucks rolling off the ferry with their monster tyres, flight cases, jerry cans and strap-on spades. I thought we’d be fine in our lovely Ford Mondeo with our bikes on the roof and Thule box on the back. And we have been. But the trucks and jeeps were an itch I had to scratch, so with the help of Go Iceland we took a 4WD for a few days to check out the Icelandic 4WD drive scene….
Out in the middle of nowhere…
Down by Lake Hvitarvatn, in the shadow of the tongues of the Langjökull glacier, there’s a lone sea kayaker out chasing a setting sun. She’s the only soul we’ve seen all day, possibly the only person for miles. It’s so peaceful here; just the ripple of paddle in water, the squawk of pink footed geese, the crunch of pumice underfoot.
Until Kirstie shatters the peace with a shout. “Is this the mountain hut we can camp at?” We’re deep in the Icelandic interior, exploring the Kjölur route, searching for one of the many small mountain huts that provide refuge out here.
The kayaker shakes her head, points further up the lake and turns back to the peace of the glacier. As Kirstie climbs back up into the Dodge, I restart the engine, spin us around and take us slowly and bumpily back up the track.
Not roads as we know them
When we first left the gravel road to follow a boulder strewn trail towards the shore it felt wrong. Not the wrong direction but wrong to be off-road. But it’s not off-road; it counts for a road here. A collection of small lava bombs strewn between giant boulders counts for a road here. As does a set of well worn tyre marks through soft black volcanic ash. As does a road that runs along a river bed or crosses a glacial river (bridge not included). These are the Icelandic F roads, highland roads, strictly for 4WD traffic only. And even then, only in summer.
Driving like Mondeo man
When we picked up the Dodge I think I insulted it, driving it like our Ford Mondeo, worrying that every little rock would scrape the undercarriage and every pothole break the suspension. But as pavement turned to gravel, gravel to ash and ash to rock, I’ve come to realise not even a small boulder will touch her belly and her suspension loves to bounce. As do the kids. They loved this vehicle, from the moment they climbed up into it. They adore the seven seats, the room to spread out, the drinks holders and fact they can simultaneously charge 3 iPods while sitting in the boot. They love the fact they don’t have to sit next to each other, be elbowed or share their seat with a bag that won’t fit in the boot. And I love it too because of all that. There’s so much less fighting. And if the kids are happy….
Alone but not alone
At the Hvitarnes Hut we are the only tent. But we are not alone. There are a few sheep grazing near the lake. And a small group of German hikers staying in the hut. The grass feels like the only thing to grow out here; so much of the landscape in the highlands feels desert like, devoid of life but in a strangely beautiful way. And the huts are pretty much the only habitation out here. Run by the Icelandic Touring Association (Ferdéfelag Íslands), they’re often looked after by a resident warden, the only inhabitants to speak of in the interior. And even they’re temporary; only in season, and only for a month at a time.
The Hvitarnes hut is a colourful addition to the landscape, the first hut ever built by the Icelandic Touring Association, a splash of red tin roof amongst the green of the grasses that grow around the lake, and welcome relief from blacks and greys so prevalent elsewhere.
The kids are jeep converts
“Can we have a Dodge?” asks Cameron as he tucks into meatballs and rice. “It’s so cool. We can put the seats down, make a table and all eat together. In the back of the car.” And he’s right, it is cool, but despite the kids all being converts I’m not convinced of the merits of in-car dining; it tastes better outdoors and there’s less worrying about how to clean pasta sauce off someone else’s leather seats.
But while I love our Ford Mondeo, I have to admit having a 4WD vehicle in Iceland gets you to parts other cars really cannot reach. Whether you take a jeep tour and let someone else do the driving, like we did when we visited the Askja crater, or rent a jeep yourself and take your life in your own hands, aside from hiking or cycling it’s really the only way to get a taste of the real heart of Iceland.
Don’t miss the point
And if you visit Iceland and don’t visit the interior you’re kind of missing the point. The Golden Circle tour, with its hatrick of geyser, waterfall and national park, is really just a symbolic taste of what Iceland has to offer. And if you think that’s good, take a jeep, head inland and your eyes will pop.
It’ll make your heart pound too; with relief when you reach the signs of life at highland outposts like the seventeen green tin roofs of the mountain huts at Kerlingerfjöll, a popular stop-off for hikers and drivers heading inland this way.
And your heart will pound at the rivers too, although all the rivers are bridged on the Kjölur. That is if you stay on the route. But if you go on the track down to search for the hut at Hvitarnes, that’s a slightly different story. For before you rejoin the main ‘road’, there is just one unmarked river to cross.
Just go slow and stay in low
The sign on the Dodge dashboard is not very encouraging as Cameron reminds me when I pause to contemplate the crossing. “Dad, this says no insurance covers river crossings nor damage to the chassis. In big letters.”
But there’s no turning back, no space to turn around. Besides I have some more useful advice, the parting words of the rental agent. “If you have to cross a river, make sure you put it in first gear. Go slowly. And if you get stuck give us a call.” At least I think that’s what he said.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We’re spending summer 2012 crossing Northern Europe by car and ferry to visit Iceland and The Faroes. We’re exploring the wilder parts of these adventure islands on mini biking expeditions, and researching and reporting on other attractions and activities on offer to adventure seeking families as we tour other parts of the islands by car. We’re grateful to DFDS Seaways and Smyril Line for their support in getting us and our vehicle to Europe and onto Iceland and The Faroes, enabling us to bring you this season of posts. And to Berghaus and Thule who have helped equip us for the journey. And to Go Iceland who equipped us with one of their 4WD fleet to enable us to venture out and bring you this story.
You can follow our progress LIVE on The Family Adventure Project Punkt and get some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of our journey.