It is day one of our seven-day self-driving tour of Iceland. I am today’s driver and Monique is my co-pilot. I am white-knuckling my way about the city of Reykjavik as she fights with our integrated GPS system. “Karen doesn’t want to cooperate,” she says. as I await instructions on where to go. I can’t help but blurt out a snort of laughter at her statement. “Can someone plug in the direction to Akranes lighthouse into their phones please? I ask. No one answers, I fish around in the storage compartment between the seats for my phone and get Monique to type Akranes Lighthouse into Google. After a few long moments she says, “OK, keep straight.” With the new guidance system in play, we are on our way.
Our first stop is just 48 km north of the city. Departing the urban area, I breathe a sigh of relief. I still have plenty of single-lane roundabouts to conquer, which I find stressful, and I am still trying not to stare at the ever-present holographic speed and mileage displays glaring in the windshield at eye level, fancy technology I don’t have in my old truck. But the biggest distraction is the view of the steep-sided hills along the highway. I just want look at the scenery. Coming to Iceland is a long-time dream of mine, and I don’t want to miss any of it. And then all I see it. I squint. “What is that?” I guarantee no one will ever forget driving into a cavernous cement opening into the ground. It is the entrance to the Hvalfjordur Tunnel
This tunnel is quite a physical experience. Once my eyes adapt to the muted artificial light, the noise of the tires reverberating in my ears makes me want to shake my head, and the headlights from the oncoming cars are frighteningly close. I resist the urge to move over because hitting the outer wall would be worse. With a death-grip on the wheel, I hold my lane. At a speed of 70 km/hour and a downward trajectory, we bottom out at 165 meters below sea level, underneath Hvalfjordor Fjord. The entire length of the tunnel is 5770 m, 5.7 kilometers, or 18,930 feet. The journey seems to never end. It is the longest five minutes ever, and while I am happy to check it off my list, I am not ashamed to say I was extremely relieved to exit that tunnel. Someone else can drive it if we have to return this way.
Following Monique’s instructions I zig-zag left, then right, slowing down for several speed bumps, to find our way through a labyrinth of town streets, past an industrial zone, out to a parking lot where I back into a space. It is windy and Monique reminds everyone to hold onto their door when they get out. We all need to use the ladies’ room and it is our first stop. Having been warned of pay toilets, I am happy to report the facilities were free and clean. With my hat secured and mittens pulled on, I join the others drudging into the wind towards the visitor center. On the way, Tracy points out long wooden frames with sticks across them, and questions their use. ” I would guess they are fish-drying racks,” I say, having seen the fish flakes in Battle Harbour, NFLD, Canada. These are similar in design, just higher off the ground.
It is cozy and warm inside the visitor center and the custodian greets us with a smile and a hello. Tells us the there are two lighthouses. The smaller of the two was used from 1918 to 1947 and due to a shortage of steel during the first great war, part of the structure was made from iron plating salvaged from the wreckage of the Godafoss, which ran aground in 1917. The second lighthouse was built in 1944 and has been open to the public since 2017. It houses paintings by Icelandic artists. She is enthusiastic and suggests we go take a look. We all want to climb it. I can’t remember the exact amount of Icelandic Krona, but it converted to a small price in Canadian dollars so we paid the fee and headed out towards the point.
On the bottom level were plaques describing the lighthouses on the site and their heritage value to the local community. There are also beautiful paintings by Icelandic artists for sale on the walls. There are four levels up this lighthouse with steep pitched stairs up to each mezzanine. As I ascend the ladder, Monique, looks at the lighthouse story.
There is limited space at the top for all of us, Tracy is up first then Mary, I am next followed, by Monique. I trying to get photos in all directions, and at least one photo of everyone to capture the memories. When a man arrives up on top, it gets cramped for space We back down through the small door onto the ladder and continue down to the bottom once again.
The next spot is out to the point where the original lighthouse is situated. It is only accessible by walking over the large rocks. I hesitate, saying “No, I don’t think my ankle is going to like walking. out there” Tracy looks back at me like she can’t believe I wouldn’t go and bounds down onto the rocks. Monique slips down without a word. Mary says she is going “to watch from here.” I give in and lower myself down the from the bank onto the dark stones. It requires a bit of sure-footedness but once I get going it is not so bad. The rocks are large and edgy but I rock-hop them with caution and stop when a large gap in the rocks prevents us from safely proceeding.
We leave the rocks and I scan the area one more time just to imprint it in my mind’s eye. We pile back into the car. With her eyebrow raised, Monique tries adding our next stop into the GPS system without any luck, we are back to using the phone for directions. Our pamphlet assures us it will be awe-inspiring. Please join me and the crew at the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls next. Happy travels from Maritimemac
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