The chemistry lab
While brushing my teeth the next morning, I realised that the water coming from the tap smelled foul. In India, where the infrastructure can be patchy, this usually means sewage leaking into your water supply.
The odour was a throwback to the “salt analysis” chemistry lab exercises of high school. We spent a considerable time fiddling with Kipp’s apparatus and inhaling not so insignificant quantities of Hydrogen Sulphide for science. We were told that the horrid smell of the gas was similar to that of rotten eggs. Since we had never had the misfortune of smelling rotten eggs before, we just believed what the textbooks told us. Either way, this isn’t a smell you can easily forget.
We knew that Iceland had a lot of geysers and maybe that had something to do with the smell. An internet search allayed our fears. Hot water from the geysers is indeed supplied into old houses in Reykjavik. And it’s just the hot water that carries the sulphurous smell. The cold water is fine1. We’d have to be careful about what we cooked and did our dishes with.
The drive to Hellnar
It was a rainy day in Iceland. Our plan was to head north-west from Reykjavik to Hellnar and Arnarstapi – a good 200 KM drive one way – and make our way back in the evening. Along the way, rains permitting, we would make a few stops and soak in the scenery.
Within a few minutes drive from Reykjavik, we found ourselves amidst views like these:
Another few minutes of driving and we reached the Hvalfjörður tunnel. It was probably the longest tunnel I’ve crossed in a car. You can feel the intense air pressure squeezing your eardrums as you go further into the tunnel. When we emerged at the other end after what felt like an eternity, the rain was beginning to pick up a little. Our breakfast hadn’t been very significant and the worsening weather was the perfect excuse for a short break.
The restaurant we chose to stop at, offered sweet and savoury baked goods of various kind, and basic sandwiches. The biggest draw for us was the unlimited refills of decent filter coffee. The windows of the restaurant offered a panoramic view of distant hills shrouded in clouds. A few printed stills from the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, had been pasted above the windows. After looking at them for a few seconds and tallying them with the view outside, it dawned on us that we had stumbled upon the very same restaurant where a scene from the movie had been shot2.
The rest of our journey to Hellnar was punctuated by several stops and detours in accordance with the picturesqueness of the scenery and the intensity of the rain.
Hellnar felt like a point at the edge of the world. In a sense, it was.
It was past lunch time, so we prepared cup-noodles by heating water on a small camping stove. It still drizzled, but having been energised by our meagre but hot meal, we decided to explore a bit on foot. A few meters off our parking spot, was a path paved in wood that would’ve dropped us off to a trail that went all the way to our next stop – the village of Arnarstapi.
But since the weather was still looking a little uncertain, we decided to get into the car and head north via a scenic route through the mountain roads around the Snæfellsjökull glacier.
I never learned to drive. The place where I grew up in Delhi, did not have a clear motor-able access to our house until the past few years. And even then the parking situation causes petty squabbles between the neighbours to this date. So Dad never got a car and brought us up to believe that cars were a wasteful luxury we didn’t really need. The wife is learning to drive. Given my shortsightedness and a tendency to daydream, I am not so inclined. Driving would go against a lifetime of conditioning. Plus, with public transport in Europe being what it is, driving brings little convenience, if any, to my daily routine. Perhaps we are all doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents.
That said, on this trip, with two driving enthusiasts for company, I picked up a good deal of automotive lore. For instance, the rough, unpaved, mountain roads in Iceland are labeled beginning with an ‘F’. Probably to indicate suitability for a four-wheel drive only.
Our journey uphill on road F570 began ominously. Our car lurched this way and that. In some parts the climb was so steep that I wasn’t sure if we’d make it or slide down backwards. Since our friend driving the car was unfazed, I just held on to my seatbelt and put all my effort into enjoying the view of mossy outcrops of lava. The loose, poorly tarred road itself seemed indistinguishable from a lava field. We stopped briefly, ostensibly to enjoy the view. In reality, given the horror writ large on my face, the stop was just to make sure that I’d last the whole ride.
Since we were driving close to a glacier, patches of snow were visible all around us.
One such patch, barely 10m x 2m lay ahead of us. We nonchalantly drove the vehicle right into it. Once the entire length of the vehicle was inside the snow, it stalled. No matter what we’d do, it wouldn’t budge. The right front tire and the left rear tire spun furiously but they just couldn’t muster enough traction to let us propel us forwards or backwards.
We weren’t all that far from civilisation, our phones were working and we had enough food and water to last us a couple of days. So while this was a peculiar situation, it was hardly a life threatening one. Very fortunately for us, a huge excavator was working on the road just a few meters ahead from our stalled car. Our friend ran down to it and was shortly riding towards us with the excavator’s operator. For a small fee of 5.000 ISK (some 34 €), we were towed out of our ill-advised digression.
We were told that the condition of the road ahead wasn’t much better and we were likely to encounter similar patches of snow. The irony of a vehicle called Yeti3 struggling to manoeuvre through a smattering of snow wasn’t lost on us. We cut our adventure short and went back to Hellnar on the very route we had covered so far. We stopped along the way near the Sönghellir cave to let our adrenaline rush wear down. The cave itself was closed for some geological study but a break was welcome.
Arnarstapi at last
At Arnarstapi, our next destination just a short drive off Hellnar, a gravel walking path took us to a soft, grassy plateau that ended abruptly a few feet above the ocean.
The rain had died down and a strange calm had enveloped the surroundings. I wondered if it was the hush of the imminent, long arctic winter. The high ground offered us an unobstructed view of a distant mountain range and the horizon.
Jagged rocks of vaguely volcanic origin jutted out from the ocean in front of us. Sea gulls had appropriated them as their roosting site.
The collective, contrapuntal cacophony of hundreds of sea gulls was very unnerving.
It was around 6:30 in the evening. The sun wouldn’t go down for another three hours and yet it was very low in the sky already. It cast an eerie glow on the horizon, as if demarcating ocean from the sky. The light had a surreal, hypnotic quality that stirred something atavistic within me. I had to be gently persuaded to leave that spot for our journey back to Reykjavik.
The road to Reykjavik
By the time we hit the highway, the clouds had mostly disappeared. We stopped on the way at what looked like a temporary swamp that a formed after the day’s rain. The hills across it reflected in its clear water.
The whole view was beautiful and yet a little underwhelming at the same time. Iceland is just not the same without its dramatic, cloudy skies. Our stop was cut short by a ferocious horde of bloodthirsty mosquitos. So numerous were they, that it was impossible take a picture without getting them into the frame4. We ran back into the car.
This time I sat next to the driver’s seat and made this time-lapse video of the drive.
It was almost 11 at night when we reached Reykjavik. We weren’t sure if we were going to find any restaurants open at that time so we drove straight to a Dominos outlet. The staff at this outlet was exceptionally helpful, but the food was exactly what you’d expect at a Dominos. After a day like this, I don’t think we cared.