The elemental beauty of Iceland is best explored on a road trip following the country’s Ring Road, a 1,335-kilometre highway that wraps around the island, taking in haunting lava fields, wild coastline, powerful waterfalls and majestic ice caps
WORDS OLIVER BERRY
PHOTOGRAPHS GARY LATHAM
It’s mid morning on Iceland’s East Coast, but it might as well be midnight. Fog cloaks the road, blending land, sea and sky into a spectral grey. Now and then, black peaks materialise from the gloom, and slashes in the clouds reveal sudden glimpses of coastline: rocky cliffs, grassy dunes, wild beaches of black sand. Gulls bank and wheel in the wind. It’s like driving into a white-out. Or at least it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s still midsummer, and the first snows are still months away.
Wild weather is par for the course on Iceland’s Ring Road – or Route 1, as it’s designated on highway maps. Circling round the island’s coastline for 1,335km, the Ring Road is an engineering marvel and a national emblem, and this year celebrates four decades of service.
Skimming the edge of the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 65 ̊ N – the same as central Siberia – Iceland’s Ring Road is about as close to wilderness driving as Europe gets, traversing volcanic deserts, mountain passes, plunging valleys and barren plains. Gas stations are few and far between. Often, the only signs of habitation are remote farms and weather stations. It’s not unusual to go for hours without passing another car – perhaps not surprising on an island of little over 3,20,000 people scattered across an area five times the size of Wales.
Naturally enough, all distances along Route 1 are measured from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. Even here, among the art galleries and pubs, hints of Iceland’s wilder side are easy to find. Looking north across the bay of Faxaflói, a craggy finger of land extends along the horizon, terminating in the snow-capped summit of Snæfellsjökull, used as the setting for Jules Verne’s classic adventure tale, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
The volcano remains a brooding presence as the Ring Road heads north from Reykjavík’s suburbs – a reminder that the forces of nature are never far away.
Verne wasn’t the first writer to find inspiration among the fjords and valleys of Iceland’s west. To Icelanders, this area is synonymous with the sagas, the tales that are a cornerstone of Icelandic culture. First written down by historians in the 12th and 13th centuries, but rooted in an older tradition of oral storytelling, these tales of family feuds, doomed heroes, warrior kings and tragic romances are part genealogy, part history, part drama. Many Icelanders can read the sagas in Old Norse, and some can recite passages by heart, just as their ancestors did centuries ago.
“The sagas are still part of Icelandic culture,” says Sigriður Guðmundsdóttir, who runs the Settlement Centre, a museum in the coastal village of Borgarnes, 72km north of Reykjavík. “They’re Iceland’s first novels. They record our history, but also remind us who we are. They’re about self-reliance, fortitude, honour and stoicism. These are very Icelandic qualities.”