Go West: Road Tripping the Snæfellnes Peninsula in December
This article was published in WOW magazine, Issue 3 2018, PDF
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula reads like a historical record of Iceland’s geological backstory, with nearly every chapter of its past represented in unique terrestrial features. And just like a fine wine, it’s matured into an absolute stunner.
It’s 10:27 am, but it doesn’t look like it. It doesn’t feel like it either. It’s been over two hours since I landed at Keflavik International Airport and I was expecting to see Iceland in illumination by now; to see its smoking geysers, its haunting lava plains, the contours of its snow-capped mountains outlined against a pale December sky. Instead, I’m greeted with darkness—a black canvas pierced by passing headlights and glowing street lights on the Ring Road back to Reykjavik.
PLANS FOR EXPLORATION
I’m driving to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland. Only a three-hour drive from Reykjavik on paper, the 100-kilometer-long peninsula could be ticked off in a day. But I’m allocating two days to drive around a compact smorgasbord of pensive fjords, ancient lava flows and black-sand beaches. And snow-dusted volcanoes, such as Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano crowned with a glacier sitting at the western end of the peninsula, made famous in Jules Verne’s 19th-century sci-fi novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Just like Professor Otto Lidenbrock in the book, I’m keen on some exploration out here. But my expedition needn’t go subterranean in search of adventure, because there’s enough to see and do above ground to exhaust my spirit. I just hope the lights come on.
It’s now 11:33 am and I’m standing on the edge of a road surrounded by the Berserkjahraun, a 4000-year-old lava field in the northern part of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The sun has finally risen, throwing light across a landscape more lunar than terrestrial. It’s desolate, raw and rugged out here, and completely captivating too: a stark beauty of jagged volcanic rock under a blanket of spongy moss in front of pyramid-shaped mountains. In the distance, I hear what sounds like screeching tires on the bitumen. But the low roar isn’t being made by an oncoming car—it’s the howl of the easterly winds blowing across the serrated surfaces of basalt on the way to Greenland and even as far as North America.
GOING TO CHURCH
Further along on the northern coast, near the town of Grundarfjör›ur, I pull into my first official stop: the 463-meter-tall Kirkjufell (Church Mountain) and its three-pronged waterfall that channels the glacial water of Snæfellsjökull Glacier. The clouds have greyed like charcoal and look grumpy as I park my car, and I swear I can see hundreds of furrowed brows up there, threatening to unleash a downpour—thankfully they don’t. But the wind is scathing and brutally insistent. And yet the photographic-gravitational pull here is too strong to resist, and I spend more than an hour trying to take the perfect shot of Kirkjufell—Iceland’s most photographed mountain, and recently, a cameo star in Game of Thrones. I make a note to come back later that night in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights dance across the sky on top of the freestanding, symmetrical mountain. Although it’s possible to climb Kirkjufell any time of year, you’ll need a guide to ascend safely, especially when it’s wet.
THE STAGE IS SET
I’ll be spending the night at The Freezer in Rif. Formerly a fish factory, now it’s a social hostel and cultural center. As luck would have it an acting troupe is in the final weeks of rehearsal for an upcoming stage production of Journey to the Center of the Earth, incorporating the music of The Flaming Lips. After dinner, myself and Jordine, the choreographer of the play and fellow Australian, drive back to Kirkjufell to take more photos of the mountain. The chilly wind blushes my cheeks as I step out of the car in the inky darkness and flick my head torch on. Each step up the path to the top is a crunchy protest until we reach the perfect position atop the falls to frame the mountain. Although naked to the human eye, my camera captures the neon green of the Aurora Borealis. But my dodgy tripod renders them blurry on my camera, and I’m left with memories instead of mementos—and a new friend.
INTO THE WEST END
I set off the next day at 11 am—it’s still dark—and drive the remaining 5km to the northern entrance of Snæfellsjökull National Park. Formed in 2001 to protect the area’s unique geology and its fauna and flora, including approximately 130 species of plants (like wood millet and herb-Paris) and dozens of birds (such as purple sandpiper, ringed plover and the brent goose), the 170 km2 national park also conserves the area’s historical sites, such as the remains of an Icelandic settlement dating back over a millennia. Tendrils of hiking trails weave throughout the park too, some taking less than an hour to complete, others less than a day. In summer it’s possible to go on organized walking tours under the guidance of a park warden. Off the coast, killer whales and porpoises are routinely spotted, as well as larger whales further off in deeper waters. And unmissable throughout the park sits the 1446-meter-tall Snæfellsjökull—the king of Icelandic mountains. In esoteric circles, the immortalized volcano is said to be one of the seven main energy centers on the planet.
AN ANGRY SEA
After lunch, I stop by Djúpalónssandur Cove at the base of Snæfellsjökull. It’s a short, rocky walk through a lava field down to the black sand and pebble beach, past two small freshwater lagoons said to have magical healing properties. It’s cold and windy, and boisterous waves crash and roar onto the sea stacks in front of me. Strewn along the shore in discarded ruin are the rusted remains of a British trawler that shipwrecked nearby at Dritvík on March 13, 1948; 14 men lost their lives to the hungry, angry sea, and five were saved by an Icelandic rescue team. From 1650 to 1950, Dritvík was one of the busiest fishing stations in Iceland.
THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
It’s just after 2 pm and time to visit my last stop on the peninsula before driving back to Reykjavik. Lóndrangar are a pair of 75 and 61-meter-tall basalt pinnacles that are the remains of a crater that once stood here. There are warning signs around the cliff edge—where puffins, northern fulmars, and black-legged kittiwakes build their nests—explaining in no uncertain terms that Iceland is in a continual process of change; even seemingly solid rock ledges can crumble in an instant. Seagulls glide under drifting puffs of cloud above, while Atlantic swells smash against the craggy rock and cliffs below, churning the frigid sea like cream and spraying it in the air like a geyser. This is the end of a land mass—the outstretched arm of a volcanic beast. And the end of my time on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.