Dis­cover haunt­ing lava fields, wild coast­line, pow­er­ful wa­ter­falls and ma­jes­tic ice caps on an el­e­men­tal jour­ney around Ice­land’s Ring Road.

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Get lost in the oth­er­worldly beauty of Ice­land and its coast­line on the fa­mous Ring Road

It’s mid-morning on Ice­land’s east coast, but it might as well be mid­night. Fog cloaks the road, blend­ing land, sea and sky into a spec­tral grey. Now and then, black peaks ma­te­ri­alise from the gloom, and slashes in the cloud re­veal sud­den glimpses of coast­line: rocky cliffs, grassy dunes, wild beaches of black sand. Gulls bank and wheel in the wind. Wild weather is par for the course on Ice­land’s Ring Road – or Route 1, as it’s des­ig­nated on high­way maps. Cir­cling around the is­land’s coast­line for 830 miles (1,336km), the Ring Road is an en­gi­neer­ing mar­vel as well as a na­tional em­blem, and this year cel­e­brates four decades of ser­vice. Nat­u­rally enough, all dis­tances along Route 1 are mea­sured from Ice­land’s cap­i­tal, Reyk­javík. Even here, among the art gal­leries and pubs, hints of Ice­land’s wilder side are easy to find. Look­ing north across the bay of Fax­aflói, a craggy fin­ger of land ex­tends along the hori­zon, ter­mi­nat­ing in the snow-capped sum­mit of Snæfell­sjökull, used as the set­ting for Jules Verne’s clas­sic adventure tale, Jour­ney

to the Cen­tre of the Earth. The vol­cano re­mains a brood­ing pres­ence as the Ring Road heads north from Reyk­javík’s sub­urbs – a re­minder that the forces of na­ture are never far away. Verne wasn’t the first writer to find in­spi­ra­tion among the fjords and val­leys of Ice­land’s west. To Ice­landers, this area is syn­ony­mous with the Sagas, the tales that are a corner­stone of Ice­landic cul­ture. First writ­ten down by his­to­ri­ans in the 12th and 13th cen­turies, but rooted in an older tra­di­tion of oral sto­ry­telling, these tales of fam­ily feuds, doomed heroes, warrior kings and tragic ro­mances are part ge­neal­ogy, part his­tory, part drama. As the Ring Road swerves in­land across the hump­backed hills north­west of Bor­gar­nes, it passes many lo­ca­tions from the Sagas: a farm­stead that fea­tures in Egil’s Saga, a hot spring where the hero of Gret­tir’s Saga soothed his bat­tle-weary bones. While most of the sto­ries are rooted in fact, many have a fan­tas­ti­cal streak that stems from Ice­land’s pan­theon of myths and leg­ends: strange tales of trolls, gi­ants and dragons, as well as the is­land’s hul­dufólk (hid­den folk) of gnomes, dwarves, fairies and elves. It’s easy to see how Ice­land’s oth­er­worldly land­scape in­spired such tales. Sculpted and scarred by thou­sands of years of ge­o­log­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, it of­ten ap­pears not al­to­gether of this world. Nowhere is this more true than around Lake Mý­vatn and Krafla, Ice­land’s most vol­cani­cally ac­tive area. Here, as the Ring Road drops from the up­lands, it loops past Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods), a deaf­en­ing mass of foam­ing white wa­ter that seems to em­anate from a ragged crack in the Earth’s crust.

‘To Ice­landers, this area is syn­ony­mous with the Sagas: tales of doomed heroes, warrior kings and tragic ro­mances’

The cas­cade is the pre­lude to an even stranger land­scape. As the Ring Road nears Lake Mý­vatn’s shore­line, shat­tered boul­ders and vol­canic pil­lars lit­ter the sides of the high­way, the ge­o­log­i­cal rem­nants of an­cient erup­tions. Gey­sers gush and mud pools bub­ble. Fis­sures in the earth spew out col­umns of steam, a re­minder that this part of Ice­land sits on top of the Mid-At­lantic Ridge, the un­sta­ble meeting point of the Eurasian and North Amer­i­can tec­tonic plates. As the Ring Road cir­cles around the eastern coast, the land­scape be­comes wilder and emp­tier. Iso­lated vil­lages hun­ker at the bot­tom of glacial fjords. Aban­doned shep­herds’ cab­ins line the roads. Wa­ter­falls cas­cade down hills, carv­ing canyons through the rock, in­clud­ing the mael­strom of Det­ti­foss, Europe’s most pow­er­ful fall. The east coast has al­ways been iso­lated, cut off by dis­tance and ge­og­ra­phy. Prior to the ar­rival of the Ring Road, many vil­lages were only ac­ces­si­ble via moun­tain passes, which were of­ten snow­bound, forc­ing the de­liv­ery of sup­plies by air or sea. Reach­ing these vil­lages was a big chal­lenge for the Ring Road’s en­gi­neers, and re­quired tun­nels, em­bank­ments and bridges to over­come the to­pog­ra­phy. Ice­land’s most epic play­ground, the Vat­na­jökull ice cap, cov­ers 3,000 sq miles (7,770 sq km) of the coun­try’s south­east, mak­ing it the

largest vol­ume of ice any­where in Europe. Driv­ing west from Höfn, a small port in one of Ice­land’s south­east­ern fjords, the glacier looms along the sky­line, a frozen white sea slic­ing through a jaw­bone of dog’s-tooth peaks. As the Ring Road leaves Vat­na­jökull and cuts west, it en­ters the flat pas­ture­land of Þing­vallavatn, and passes two spectacular wa­ter­falls – Skó­gafoss, one of Ice­land’s high­est, with a sheer drop of 60m, and Sel­ja­lands­foss, where the spray re­fracts the sun­light like a prism, con­jur­ing rain­bows from thin air. Bit by bit, coun­try­side gives way to civil­i­sa­tion. Towns and vil­lages be­come more fre­quent, and green­houses ap­pear along the road­side. This is also equine coun­try, home to numer­ous farms that raise Ice­land’s pure-bred horses. Fur­ther west, and a short de­tour north from the Ring Road, lies Þingvel­lir Na­tional Park. A place of wild beauty, it was here that the Vik­ings es­tab­lished the AlÞing, an open-air assem­bly and Ice­land’s first par­lia­ment. Es­tab­lished in 930 AD, the AlÞing has a le­git­i­mate claim as the world’s old­est form of demo­cratic gov­ern­ment, and holds a deep historical and sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance for Ice­landers. Ap­pro­pri­ately enough, the be­gin­ning of Ice­land’s recorded his­tory also marks jour­ney’s end for the Ring Road. As it snakes across the magma fields of the Reyk­janes­fólk­van­gur na­ture re­serve, it drops down into Reyk­javík’s sub­urbs, bathed un­der street­lights that seem strange af­ter a week of clear skies and starlight. Far ahead across the bay of Fax­aflói, the Snæfell­snes ice cap flashes in the evening light, and the Ring Road be­gins its cir­cu­lar jour­ney north again – a never-end­ing thread un­spool­ing be­neath a sil­ver sky.

Left to right: pure-bred Ice­landic horses; a typ­i­cal red-roofed church; work­ing the an­nual sheep round-up; Sel­ja­lands­foss waterfall; statue of ex­plorer Leif Eriks­son out­side Hall­grím­skirkja in Reyk­javík. Pre­vi­ous page: Þingvel­lir Na­tional Park

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