It was, by its very nature, a driving holiday. When you have ten days to see as much of an island as you can, it’s going to mean a lot of wheel-time. However, frankly, you don’t hold out much hope for invigoration while piloting an Opel Corsa with an automatic gearbox.
However, sometimes the stars align and you find yourself in a position of automotive ecstasy when you least expect it.
It happened in Iceland, in a rented car. A grey one.
Other than a 13:00 appointment at the Blue Lagoon, we were free to roam Iceland on Friday. We had started our odyssey around glaciers of the south, moving westwards to Reykjavik on Wednesday. One area we hadn’t really explored was the point we actually arrived at when we flew into Keflavik a week earlier; Reykjanesskagi.
Route 40 is the most routine of high-density urban arteries you could imagine and certainly doesn’t herald the arrival of anything interesting coming up in the near distance. It is, though, easy to navigate, which was handy considering our having opted to eschew expensive data-roaming tariffs and gone without the support of Google Maps. All we had was a low-fidelity road map and our heads full of half-remembered directions.
Route 40 merges with route 41 which flows directly to the airport, but a third of the way down, and barely announced aside from a subtle yellow marker, is route 42. It strains you from the flow of traffic and directs you into a sprawling industrial area full of scrapyards and freight forwarders. The tarmac is new and smooth, though, and continues that way well after the march of the big boxes has subsided.
A semi-trailer had made a bid for freedom from industry, and I sat behind, matching his 55mph cruise, bang on the speed limit. After a while I ran out of interesting things to read off the back of it and looked for a safe place to pass. Then, a little later it dawned upon me that the road had been dead straight for the last few miles and we hadn’t seen a single car heading towards us. Peeking out from behind I confirmed that the straight continued for a good while yet and diligently wheezed the Corsa past, sending the rev-counter needle swinging breathlessly towards the red line.
This single overtaking manoeuvre took a fair portion of my morning, but soon after route 42 turned to the right, and then disappeared. Without any warning the glassy blacktop had been switched for savage gravel and rock which threatened to reduce the flailing Corsa to its component molecules. Frustratingly the architecture of the road itself had just gotten interesting, with undulations and crests of the Space Mountain variety, but the racket of loose shale against floorpan and the very real sensation of damage-waiver insurance’s total inadequacy in this situation limited me to a 20mph max.
Route 42 regained its tarmac a few kilometers further on with a jarring bang which indicated that that interesting section would be redressed with bitumen pretty soon, and the silent construction equipment backed this up. And that was made a tantalising prospect when we saw that what lay ahead of us was easily the equal of anything Italy or Southern France has to offer. Simply put, these roads are incredible.
You have to work for your fun, though. You’re on your own here. There isn’t the reassurance of a safety barrier, the markings are practically invisible and the crown and camber of the road are constantly contradicting themselves and doing their best to spit you into a ditch. So you exercise care, you hold the wheel firmly with both hands and you actually find yourself pleased that you’re in an automatic. Well, a paddle-shift DB11 would have been nice.
Staying on the road is even more of a challenge when you’re constantly distracted by the scenery, which has variously been described as Lunar and Post-Apocalyptic, and all those clichés ring true. Of course, a country which has been mostly puked up from the all-powerful mouths of a choir of volcanoes is going to be something out of the ordinary. One minute you’re surrounded by infinite flatness mostly covered by black dust apart from some extremely determined grass, then you’re staring at soaring snow-capped mountains reflecting in a lake’s perfect mirror, while teams of craggy ridges march out into the distance to remind you of what the Earth liked to do with itself before we came along to watch.
In fact, it’s still not settled down, and having avoided mesmerisation by the Kleifarvatn lake Iceland suddenly hits us with Krysurvik, where the air is evil with the pungent attack of sulphur and the ground boils and fizzes with superheated water from deep inside the earth. And this is all about a twenty second stroll from Route 42. There are no safety cordons, there’s no mollycoddling, just raw geology at its most extreme. There’s nobody charging you any cash for the experience, either. Or for parking, that bastion of the British tourist rip-off. And there’s no gift shop. Iceland hasn’t fallen into the habit of having to monetize everything. They’re justifiably proud of their country, and happy to share it with those who show an interest. I love it.
Next we enjoyed an interlude which took us far away from any thoughts of putting the pedal to the metal and attacking the roads, and saw us relaxing to an extent that neither of us thought possible. We floated, far above our own bodies while our blood pressure levels sunk dangerously low. This was our experience of the Blue Lagoon, where naturally superheated water from deep below the earth is harnessed to bring unnatural levels of comfort to a lava-walled pool full of chilled-out tourists. It exists in the shadow of Iceland’s largest geo-thermal power station whose steaming stacks lends an industrial twist to this slightly surreal scene. It puts me in mind of a Bond villain’s lair.
Getting back behind the wheel was like flicking a switch. Renewed, reinvigorated, I settled back into attacking the road with an even greater zeal than I had before. Every corner we took, every new road we found ourselves on, unlocked new views and new feelings. Of course, I make it sound as if I was driving with track-day determination; I wasn’t, but in my head I was. This was like a slow-motion playback of how things would have been if I was doing it properly. I was probing, feeling, caressing the roads, learning them for that distant date when I get to come back and drive them in anger.
We paused the fun a couple of times, stopping for a meal in Grindavik and then exploring a jagged, violent gravel lane to see the twisted, rusting corpses of ships murdered along this treacherous coastline, before girding our loins once more for the final charge back to Reykjavik. Owing to the money recently thrown at developing routes from the airport, the roads in this corner of the island are the fastest of all, and in no time at all we had closed the loop we had started in the morning.
It had been a perfect circle.
A note to manufacturers: Iceland would make a wonderful location for a vehicle launch. If these roads have flattered the capabilities of our meagre Opel Corsa, they’re likely to do wonderful things to your mid-engined supercar, and where the roads end your SUV is offered a challenge beyond anything a proving ground can serve up. Then, when it’s time for a break from driving, let your guest journalists take a pew and gawp as your car presents itself amidst this astonishing scenery. This landscape is an absolute godsend for the automobile photographer.
Convenient, too. All this fun was had no more than an hour from the national airport, and the pocket-sized city that is Reykjavik.
I’ll be going back.
Must arrange a rental upgrade.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2016- apart from the road-sign image which was stolen from Wikipedia because I forgot to take one at the time )