“Cover your head!”
Kim’s voice was swallowed by the wind as I had a momentary glimpse of what was coming. It appeared like a fast-moving cloud of dust. Much like the “dirt devils” I’d seen in Africa– a tornado-like funnel of dirt debris was whipping towards us.
The “dust” cloud was full of fine bits of gravel—and then progressively larger rocks, pelting us like shrapnel. I think Kim said to get on the ground, or, maybe that’s just where we ended up. The wind blasted with a fierce intensity off the Vatnajokull glacier—so powerfully that we were blown off our feet and actually dragged along the path.
My jacket rode up on my back as I skidded along and I could feel the raw rash inching higher the further we were dragged. My mouth was full of grainy dirt—and my muddy teeth suggested I greeted the eye of the storm smiling.
In a momentary lapse from being stuck in the wind tunnel (I thought we’d been witness to a volcanic blast with all the crap that pelted us), we ran like fools from the face of the glacier to the safety of our vehicle.
It all seemed so innocent. We figured that it was a good opportunity to see the glacier tongue up close and personal before moving on from Skaftafell National Park to the glacier lagoon. Interest was completely lost though after the angry cloud of high-speed stones came raining down on us.
Back in the Jimny, we found laughter after inspecting our war wounds. Kim had an instant goose egg climbing out of her shin, Fred Flinstone-style. My teeth were still coated with glacier guts.
“Jesus C*****.” We were panting. Kim shook gravel out of her head (and it takes a lot for anything to penetrate her wall of hair product!). I had stones in my pockets and a dent in my ribs from falling directly on my camera.
“I’m so glad we did the glacier walk.”
The trip was becoming akin to a gong show. “Remember the time we almost blew off the Svartifoss waterfall edge but were saved by the Russian? Remember the night we slept in our 4×4 while everyone else was evacuated by a tank? Oh, and remember the time we wanted to go take a picture of the glacier and were blown down the path on our backs?”
I thought about the scar on my tailbone from riding a camel to the pyramids in the soupy humidity of Cairo. Who else has camel riding and glacier wind gust injuries?
We pressed on to the glacier lagoon after sitting idle at the nearest gas station watching for cars. Kim was hoping for a convoy but the Ring Road was still impassable from Skaftafell to Vik. There was no traffic, just a group of anxious men trying to secure the blades of a helicopter in front of the Foss Hotel. Wind speeds were still clocking at 23 metres per second according to the road conditions sign.
Is this where I mention that we were now driving with our arms covering our heads? Kim was driving one-handed, wincing as we roared across the open stretches of black desert. We pulled over once for a wind time-out, tucking our 4×4 in front of a boulder, hoping to find a brave pace car to tag along with, but, everyone was travelling in the opposite direction. Icelandic radio stations were of little aid. The only Icelandic I had learned so far was bjor (beer), pylsur (hot dog) and tak (thank you). Not useful on the meteorological front.
We found a half dozen harried travelers at the Jokulsarlon lagoon. (Tamer, hurricane-windless views of the lagoon can be seen in the James Bond flick Die Another Day and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider).
Part of Vatnajokul National Park, the lake is evidence of glacier recession. Lonely Planet had warned “Even when you’re expecting this surreal scene, it’s still a mighty surprise—just count how many shocked drivers slam on the brakes and skid across the road and make sure you don’t do the same thing yourself.”
No kidding. The lagoon is just over 75 years old. Drifting, calved icebergs from Breidamerkurjokull cruise along the 17-square-km lagoon, sometimes spending five years in transit before bobbing along out to the ocean.
Some of the icebergs are impossibly blue with black stripes. Others are like refined translucent sculptures. If this was your backyard view, I’d hazard that you wouldn’t accomplish a thing, ever. Staring at the stunning lagoon is mandatory. Jaw-drops are encouraged.
Taking refuge inside the Jokulsarlon Cafe (next pit stop 100km), we found the best lattes on earth. Perched by the cafe window with the serene glacier backdrop, it killed any memory of a better latte for me.
There was active chatter among Germans, a rosy-cheeked Swiss couple and a gay couple running on a near-empty tank of gas. Everyone was obsessed over the weather reports and affixed to various iPads and iPhones. We all paused when the lone Austrian on a supped-up motocross bike strode into the cafe, stiff from exertion. We’d seen him in Dyrholaey and admired his ambition to throw caution (and a motorbike) to the wind.
Still desperate for a convoy Kim sought out our German buds who had arrived from Skaftafell. The boys had already slept in their vehicle for three nights, after being storm-stayed in the highlands by blizzard conditions. They were happy to have us follow them to Hofn (another two hour haul). There was safety in numbers as hours could pass on the Ring Road without passing a soul.
Hofn (‘harbour’ in Icelandic, population 1,640) was our safe harbour. We found cutesy cabins for $80 and made use of our sleeping bags again. (‘Sleeping bag accommodations’ are an economical option when visiting Iceland. Many guesthouses and farmhouses offer rooms with private or shared bath for a discount if you have a sleeping bag. This means no towels, linens or pillows are provided—but you can save upwards of $25 per person which can be blown on $25 reindeer burgers instead!)
Reindeer and refuge at Kaffi Hornid was welcome. The hip resto-cafe is housed inside an impressive log cabin, better suited for the alps versus ‘downtown’ Hofn. An adjoining room was vibrating with locals watching European football. Though the specialty in these parts is langoustine, I had to do the burger. Kim chose the paprika soup, desperate to take the chill out of her core.
Topped with a record amount of blue cheese, the reindeer burg took my coveted burger of the year prize. (That is, until I had the Jam and Camembert burger in Reykjavik at Prikid, but, that’s another story.)
Satiated with a thick soup and a fat burger, we nursed glasses of wine back in our cabin bunk bed recounting the day and mapping our upcoming travels across the east fjords. And yes, the winds were still howling across the tundra and giving our tiny one-bedroom cabin a good shake.
What next? A mountain pass blizzard? But of course!