Driving in Iceland is an experience in itself. Although Marlon and I kept pretty much to the Ring road (which encircles the entire island), the drive was no less stunning as the destinations themselves. Iceland’s weather and scenery changed so frequently, it seemed we would find ourselves in a different country (even a different planet) in a matter of miles and minutes.
Take, for example, our first fifteen minutes out of Reykjavik: a bleak, driving rain…
… which, in another fifteen minutes (before I had time to get thoroughly dismayed), gave way to green pastures dappled with sun, dotted with yellow flowers, and populated by some of Iceland’s most famed inhabitants.
Icelandic horses are fascinating creatures: brought to Iceland by the first settlers in the 9th-10th centuries, they’ve seen little inter-breeding and are the only breed of horse on the island. No other horse is allowed to enter the country and once a horse leaves, it can never come back (sniff). They look small, graceful and gentle but are reputed to be long-lived and sturdy (to withstand these ever-changing conditions, they must be!).
We saw many, many Icelandic horses on the road. I especially loved it when they would stop to look at us when we got out of the car to take their photos, and when they would walk right alongside the car while being led back to their farms after a day of riding or grazing.
The other equally abundant form of wildlife on the road in Iceland?
Sheep! We saw so many of these woolly critters, roaming so ridiculously far and wide, tucked into such impossible mountain crevices, that I wondered a) if there are actually more sheep than people in Iceland, and b) how the shepherds manage round them all up for the winter.
It’s not all horses and sheep. Although an estimated 62 percent of Iceland is uninhabited, there are signs of human life out there—the most common of them being the red, rusted roofs that pop out against the lush green of summer.
Speaking of signs, another common sight on an Icelandic drive: road signs with tongue-twisting place names. It became a sort of game for me to attempt to pronounce them in the time that Marlon sped past them. This is one of the tamer road signs.
One of my favorite sights was the endless fields of purple flowers called lupin. Initially planted to prevent soil erosion, this foreign plant spread too quickly in many areas, preventing local plants from growing and essentially becoming a very pretty pest.
We’d often have entirely different landscapes on each side of the car: for example, a glacier sticking its tongue out at Marlon on the driver’s side…
… and the sea calling to me on the passenger’s side. On the drive back to Reykjavik, we got to switch and enjoy the other side, which was nice.
Iceland abounds with legends of trolls, giants and fairy people (not to mention a belief in elves that persists to this day). Gazing up at mountains like these, I found it easy to see why.
It’s not hard to imagine faces in the cliffs, personalities emerging from the rock: grumpy old men wearing funny hats…
… or stern kings crowned with wreaths of mist. If I had lived in the days when myths were being born, I would have relished weaving a few stories myself.
As a lover of fantasy novels, driving through Iceland was like seeing the places of my favorite novels come to life, speeding by right outside my passenger window. In a matter of minutes and miles, I was transported from The Shire…
… to Mordor
… to any number of places that could have inspired Middle Earth or Westeros or _____________ (insert your fantasy universe of choice).
And it was all not just in one country, but on one highway! Crazy, yes… but crazy beautiful.