Day One in Iceland: Finding the Centre of the Earth

A five-day expedition through Iceland in a dainty manual car to escape the summer heat. Just me and my mom.

After months of planning with a table-wide Michelin map and figuring out drive times and F-roads, it all comes down to this. From Keflavik through Snæfellsnes and pushing north past Siglufjörður to Akureyri and back, we faced our challenges: adhering to arrival times, tracking our impulsive photo stops, pronouncing long names, swatting flies from our faces, trying not to run over sheep, keeping warm and paying less than $100 for dinner.

The photos we took show the essence of what months of planning were all about.

Day 1, July 6:

Functioning on seven hours of sleep in two nights, I resort to my reserve energy supply and allow my overtired state of mind to elevate my aesthetic experience in a strange, new environment.

We come prepared to brace the country’s subarctic natural elements with our windbreakers, hats and thermal underwear. The sleep masks tucked away in our purses would bring us darkness for the next four days amidst the absence of nightfall. Our economical sensibilities kick in after months of saving. The shock of high prices would certainly take our breaths away as much as the landscape. And our cameras are ready and fully-charged. We depart Keflavik airport at roughly 11 am in a dinky little rental that can hardly reverse. Today’s destination is the gorgeously tiny peninsula of Snæfellsnes.

route 1

Driving past Reykjavik, we could already see the fjords ahead, contoured in the sky. Narrow streams of glacial water trickles down between the crags to the inlets below.

My mom’s university years in geology come back in full swing. She explains how scattered rock fragments accumulate over the years as a result of weathering or erosion. These rocks are known as scree, thus forming a smooth, concave land formation called talus deposits.

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Scree: When sediment brings sentiment

After fiddling with the Bluetooth settings, I turn on my Icelandic curated playlist on Spotify. We turn left on route 54 to circumnavigate Snæfellsnes, a narrow peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The car zips by flocks of sheep grazing, often dangerously close to the roadside. As shown in every Icelandic travel guide, clusters of wild horses with rolling hills in the background serve as perfect pictures from outside our window.

After another hour of driving, we inch closer to the mighty glacier of Snæfellsjökull, initially spotted from our plane during landing.

For literature buffs, the glacier elicits memories of Jules Verne’s gateway to the centre of the earth. Rumours of supernatural beings also attract pilgrims and travelers to this enigmatic mountain.

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Enter the centre of the earth

Directly south of the glacier, we pull over and hike towards a towering cliff, jagged rocks and pebbles all perched precariously over a black sand beach. The wind is fairly gentle, and the air fills with the classic sounds of the coast: gentle waves and cackling birds. I guess the market for cliffside real estate is much more competitive than renting in Toronto.

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Black sands of Djúpalónssandur

We hoped to check in by 6 pm and felt tight for time. Five hours into our trip, the car reaches the very tip of Snæfellsnes, in front of the snow-capped glacier. Along the way, a red-roofed church perched on a hill catches our eye. My mom presses the brakes and turns right, driving up the road leading to it.

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A shot of Ingjaldshóll, lonesome on a hill behind purple flowers

Serving the nearby villages of Hellissandur and Rif, Ingjaldshóll has hosted some big names in history. Heard of Christopher Columbus? According to a plaque outside the door, Columbus shacked up here once in the winter of 1477-78. Ingjaldshóll also happens to be the world’s oldest concrete church.

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A tribute to lovers lost at sea

Behind the church lies two symmetrical memorial stones dedicated to the Icelandic poet and scientist Eggert Ólafsson and his wife. The pair had close personal ties to Ingjaldshóll. Sadly, they drowned in a storm in 1798 upon returning from the Westfjords.

Our own saga continues as we chug along. The next stop was Ólafsvik, a fishing town situated on Snæfellesnes’ northern shoreline. My guide book states that Ólafsvik is Iceland’s oldest established trading town and the most productive fishing hub on Snæfellsnes. A waterfall embraces the town’s southern border from behind with a stream trickling down towards the ocean. As we hike, a family watches us from their front porch which lies on the apartment ground floor.

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This is quite literally in someone’s backyard

Our stomachs start growling as dinnertime approaches. In the meantime, we stare at the winding road ahead, climbing uphill (with all the pep this car could handle) and barreling downhill.

All of a sudden, the most dramatic sight so far materializes from around the bend: a lone mountain, separate and taller than the others, curving towards the sky in both directions and plateauing on top. As we descend towards it, my mom pulls over to a viewing spot on the other side. Confused, I check Google Maps again for Kirkjufell, the famous cone-shaped mountain of Snæfellsnes, which is supposed to be here. But as I turned to look from its eastern shadow, I realize that this is it.

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A witch’s hat protruding from the earth

Kirkjufell is also known as “Church Mountain,” because people say it resembles a church steeple. I also figured that lots of Game of Thrones tourists would Photoshop Jon Snow’s face in the foreground just for fun.

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Imagine a giant’s hand scooping up the land and cradling it with its hands

We bid goodbye to witchy Kirkjufell, and arrive at our guesthouse in good time. An isolated wooden chalet dotting the mossy countryside, it boasts an expansive front deck, a majestic view, and very fresh trout.

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Trout basked with mango salsa with potatoes and leaf lettuce salad. Not pictured was some fresh feta in a glass dish.

We inhale nearly everything on our plate, even the salad – a feat I hardly accomplish – and potatoes while polishing off two bottles each of Einstök beer. The trout was scrumptious and worth every thousand kronor or two (or five for that matter). However, what really catches me off guard is the feta, which is basked in herbs and less salty than the kind back home.

We venture for a post-dinner stroll until our arms tire out from swatting black flies. The time is 10 pm, and the sun shines just as it would in Toronto at 6 pm. It’s fairly close to midnight, and I am still wearing sunglasses.

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Goodnight?

Our jet-lagged selves would have to wait another time to see the midnight sun. We turn in around 11, bidding goodbye to nightfall for four more days.

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