Camping in Iceland

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By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  7/15/2006

REYKJAVIK -- At the edge of the island's largest glacier, in a desert covered with lava rocks, I learned what it means to be an amateur camper.

Around the time of dawn, had the sun actually set during our week-long trek through Iceland, it suddenly became clear that my $119 department store tent hadn't been designed for arctic gusts.

I might have detected signs of a problem earlier, had my girlfriend and I not gone to such lengths to block out the midnight rays and howling winds. Equipped with essential gear like earplugs and eyeshades, we hadn’t bothered to use some of our other equipment, such as the metal stakes to secure our tent. Not a wise idea, we found, in a country with next to no trees.

We visited Iceland this summer after hearing how its glacial rivers offer some of the world's best whitewater rafting, and its capital, aside from $10 draft beers and basic entrees costing north of $50, boasts of hot springs and glamorous parties. With the promise of some interesting things to see, we chose a scenic route, one that would take us nearly a thousand miles over six days.

It took just four-and-a-half hours to fly to Keflavik, a decades-old NATO base on the southwestern edge of the island, where for more than $500 we rented a little Toyota Yaris for the week. As we left the airport, we quickly perked up from the overnight flight. Greeting us was a large, arcing rainbow, the first of about a dozen we would see along the way.

Our first stop, in an effort to shed jetlag, was the nearby Blue Lagoon, an otherworldly spa about 15 minutes from the airport. We arrived before it opened, but it was worth the wait. We spent several hours sloshing about the briny, 100-degree water, slathering a cleansing goop into our drowsy pores.

Pampered, crinkled, and smelling of sulfur, we left the tourists behind for a lonely road, a narrow two lanes that looped through blackened lava fields. It was a peaceful drive, like on a car commercial. Then we reached a sign with a yellow and black exclamation point that read “Malbik Endar.”

It was the only hint of civilization in the visible distance, and it signaled the end of the paved road.

Our manual-shift Yaris squealed as we climbed a steep grade on what felt more like a mountain trail than a dirt road, its massive bumps and yawning crevices keeping us wide awake. We took this shortcut for hours, at one point flagging down a passing car – the only we had seen on this seemingly quick way to the national highway – to make sure we weren’t headed to nowhere.

We puttered along the curving road, through parched valleys, over craggy, Utah-like peaks, until the bleak horizon gave way to grass and the sea glistening in the distance. A few more bends in the road, and we came upon a few grazing Icelandic horses, a shaggy, affectionate breed that nuzzle to ward off the cold.

When finally we found the national highway – a country-like road that rings the island with one lane in each direction – we picked up speed and headed 200 miles east to Skaftafell, a lava field at the base of Vatnajokull(cq), the Kentucky-sized island’s largest glacier.

We stopped at sparsely populated towns with prefab housing and expensive gas stations, which were often the only places to eat. All the lamb burgers and mayo-topped fries, however, didn’t lessen the awe of the ever-changing landscape – a flower-covered prairie that quickly morphs from moonscape to tundra to a California-like coastline, each with its share of roaming sheep.

At about midnight, the deserted highway gave birth to another rainbow, this one arcing toward a mountain range and disappearing into an unmoving halo of clouds. Nearly as bright as noon, we saw what looked like muddy, giant ice cubes spilling from the green foothills.

It was our first glimpse of the mist-covered Vatnajokull, and we decided to put up our tent in a small campground about a mile from the glacier. As it began to drizzle, we discovered we couldn’t inflate our air mattress. We brought the wrong charger. We also found our tent looked a lot more like a sail than others nearby, which were low-slung, aerodynamic, and importantly, secured with large ropes and stakes.

It didn’t take long to learn why. We tried to deprive our senses with earplugs and eyeshades, but we couldn’t help from feeling the wind push the side of the Target special over our heads. Then one of the poles – the main one – cracked. Half the tent collapsed.

It was time to wake up.

So we fought the wind, stuffed the tent in the car, and soon after marched off to inspect the glacier, which a few decades before would have been where we camped. Stakes in the ground marked its steady retreat, which has hastened in recent decades. A series of waterfalls feeding into a small river provided ample evidence of the melt.

Later, we took a cruise in a bay studded with large icebergs, which had snapped off the glacier and slowly flowed out to sea. Some of the multi-ton, sharp-edged bergs scattered along the southern coast’s black-sanded beaches, where sheepishly we climbed atop them. One false move, I learned all too well, meant the stab of a razor-sharp edge.

Bandaged and back on the road, we followed large, black mountains across rocky fjords and beside dozens of waterfalls, one more picturesque than the next. We stopped for an hour to wait for the owners of a gas station to return and took another shortcut, making the last one actually seem like a shortcut.

With thick clouds touching the ground, we inched along an impossibly curving road in driving rain. The puddled mud, however, made it easier to appreciate the bright green hills, translucent streams, and yet more waterfalls.

We ended up about as far away as possible, in a flat desert in the shadow of a massive volcano, where we found a campground with grass-roofed cabins. The wind felt strong enough to topple the Yaris, so we opted for a cabin, one with thick shades to block out the light.

The next day we took another dirt road to Dettifos, Europe’s largest waterfall, a gushing oasis in the middle of the desert. From there, we explored one of the country’s few places with trees and admired towering rock formations that resembled large buildings. Slogging onward, we passed ocean-front, centuries-old towns, snow-capped mountains, ground vents spewing steam, and Myvatn, a large in-land lake where it's impossible to escape swarms of black flies.

Haggard after midnight, we gave the tent another try. We washed up at a hotel, repaired the pole and ripped rain shield with duct tape, and drove to a hilltop with about a dozen cabins.

We received permission to camp there by the rafting company we had paid for the next day’s trip and parked beside one cabin that seemed to block the wind. We set up the tent behind it, this time using large rocks and metal stakes to keep it from blowing away.

What woke us a few hours later wasn’t the strong wind, it was two drunken women, irate to find our red tent behind their cabin. At 4 a.m., they yelled, beeped the horn of their SUV, revved its engine, shook the tent with their hands, and despite my pleading for mercy, they went into their cabin, opened the windows, and blasted – strangely for the middle of Iceland – Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind.”

It didn’t bother us that much; we came prepared. We had earplugs.

The next morning, having survived without blowing away (or being blown away by the friendly locals), we packed up, found the rafting center, and soon found ourselves sliding on dry suits, which provided neck to toe protection.

At the end of an hour-long bus ride through a hail storm, our Nepalese guide (he said he got the job by answering an Internet ad) told us to put on our helmets and helped us carry our large rubber raft into a smooth portion of the East Glacial River, which still felt freezing despite wool socks, the dry suit, and rubber boots.

Within minutes, the grassy banks gave way to canyons and the icy impact of the rapids soaked our faces and numbed our gloved fingers. The bumps turned to ledges, and as our guide urged us to row harder, we flew over sizable drops, some tipping other rafts in our group. We shot through the bluish-gray river, staring at the stark black cliffs, rocky masses that at points rose more than 100 feet on each side. We glided along for about six hours, the beauty of the moss-covered, treeless gorge inuring us to the onset of frostbite.

When it was all over, we stripped, sipped a few cups of hot chocolate, and did our best to thaw. We sped out of the small town of Varmahlid and picked up the highway again, now nearly two-thirds around the highway. We drove again through midnight, along the ocean, beside tall mountains and broad meadows, until crossing into another desert.

It began to rain, and with exhaustion setting in, we stopped at a timeworn hotel we found beside the road. They wanted more than $200 for the night; my girlfriend – who strongly opposed staying in the tent another night – managed to negotiate them to half that.

The next day, after detaching the tape we used to seal the blinds, we took more dirt-road longcuts to explore caves, a large national park, geysers, and yet more beautiful waterfalls.

After all the miles, all the sheep, all the rustic majesty, we rolled into Reykjavik. The capital had a campground by the sea, but my girlfriend wouldn’t consider it, even after our hotel told us they had cancelled our reservation. We spent the night in a newly appointed Radisson, for more than $250.

With less than 24 hours in the small city, we walked around and felt the gloom of returning from nature to a city marked by hues of gray – slabs of concrete, perpetually overcast skies, the North Atlantic bobbing against rusty ships moored in its harbor.

After all the waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanoes, this outpost of cement, with its bagel shops, traffic, and neon signs, felt too close to home. Suddenly surrounded by nearly 200,000 people (about two-thirds of the nation’s population), I felt boxed in.

As we rushed to the airport the next day, with broad expanses of lava rocks lining the road, we passed signs for more otherworldly landmarks, which spewed a misty steam in the distance.

It was hard to pass them by.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.