I chose the small European country of Iceland as the first stop on my year-long travel adventure because it’s located about midway between the U.S. and mainland Europe, which I was already planning to visit, and because friends who had visited Iceland raved about the beauty of the landscape and vast scope of the country’s natural wonders. Iceland hadn’t previously been at the top of my destination list, but the more I researched the country, the more interested I became. I knew I had to experience it for myself.
The day after I arrived at the cozy and comfortable Bus Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland; I met Astrid from Belgium and Brita from New Zealand, who were also staying at the hostel. Astrid was planning to rent a car for the week and invited Brita and I to ride along for a tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle, a highly-promoted, must-do experience for any visitor to the city. It sounded like a great chance for me to get away from the capital city and experience the natural landscape I’d heard about. Brita and I readily accepted the invitation, and the next morning found us piling into Astrid’s rusty Nissan rental car, bundled up in all our layers with cameras and packed lunches in tow. The air was cold…frigid, even. But we assumed it was typical weather for Iceland.
As we progressed through the countryside along the Golden Circle, the wind blew hard against the car and snow and fog covered the road in front of us, hindering visibility. Soon, signs directed us to the Geysir geothermal area. After parking, we braced ourselves against the racing wind during what seemed like a very long walk up a paved hill, passing hot springs with signs warning that the waters were too hot to touch. We paused at Stokkur geyser long enough to see a brief eruption, which was much minimized by the wind, before briefly viewing the mostly latent Geysir geyser and then hurrying as quickly as we could back to the shelter of the car.
Our next stop was Gullfoss, which may be Iceland’s most famous waterfall. It’s breadth is impressive and the scene is breathtaking from the nearby overlook. Unfortunately, the wind was so strong that assuming our strongest wide-legged stances yielded only a brief moment of stability for picture taking, our cameras shaking against the gusts, before we were pushed against the railing or each other. We laughed about the crazy weather conditions and stayed just long enough to snap few photos, then made our way up several flights of open stairs back to the car. I was wearing two pairs of gloves and could not feel my fingers. Irrationally, I wondered if I might be at risk for frostbite.
We decided to skip Thingvellier national park, a typical third stop on the Golden Circle tour, to avoid extensive walking in the cold, and instead headed east along Iceland’s Ring Road toward the town of Skoga. We passed farmhouses and open fields with the furry Icelandic horses grazing peacefully amid the rushing wind, rough mountainsides displaying occasional small waterfalls, lava fields and a distant volcano as we traveled alongside the country’s desolate southern coastline. We stopped at a roadside display outside of a picturesque farm that sits in front of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted for six weeks in 2010. The display featured pictures of the eruption, and of the farm that remained unharmed.
Further along the Ring Road, we came to Seljalandsfoss, a beautiful and impressive waterfall featuring a 200-foot drop. A short walk from the parking area near the main road, Seljalandsfoss’s viewing area offered stairs on either side which allowed for closer views. We chose to climb the staircase that was not covered in ice. By this time, the air was still very cold, but the wind was less harsh and we thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous views.
Just a few miles east of Seljalandsfoss, we came to Skogafoss, another incredible waterfall. Skogafoss is one of the largest waterfalls in the country, with a width of about 82 feet and a drop of 200 feet. The access path allows visitors to walk right up to the waterfall, and a long staircase on the east side allows for views above the falls. Likely due to the unfavorable weather, we had the area nearly to ourselves and were lucky enough to snap a few tourist-free photos!
After surviving the strong winds that stole one of my gloves, caused my loaded-down messenger bag to flap like a sail at my side, and nearly shoved all of us off the freestanding staircase, we piled back into our rusty rental car and turned back toward Reykjavik. Brita was anxious to take some photos of the hardy Icelandic horses, so when a herd of them came within view at a nearby farm, Astrid pulled off the main road onto a farm path alongside the fence. We all got out to take the requisite photo.
Within moments, we were back on our way. Astrid guided the car along the farm path, planning to meet up with the main road. I leaned down to grab something from my bag and felt the car stop suddenly as the driver’s side sunk into the ground. We all jumped out of the car and assessed the situation. We were stuck. Astrid had pulled into the swampy grass alongside the main path to avoid a large puddle, leading the car into bog of mud that enveloped the front drivers’ side wheel and made it impossible for us to proceed.
We scanned the deserted main road and saw a small white SUV in the distance. After much jumping and waving on our part, the SUV came near and stopped, along with a smaller car following behind it. Brita reached the car first and realized that the driver was a wedding photographer, and a newly-married bride and groom were riding in the back seat! Their small wedding party was following in the car behind, and the caravan was on their way to take some post-wedding photos before the reception. We apologized profusely and thanked them for stopping, and in response they only smiled and laughed. Astrid got into the front seat and rode to the nearby farmhouse to request help from the farmer.
Within minutes, a jolly elf-like man, his bald head covered with thick wool hat, arrived in an SUV with a big smile and heavy rope. “Konur! Ah!” (Ugh…women!!) he teased. He tied the rope from our rental car to the hitch on his SUV, and soon our vehicle was free from the mud. We thanked the farmer with hugs and he refused any further payment, saying only “no problem!” in English, and waving us away.
Feeling relieved at the quick resolution to our near-disaster and reflecting on the kindness of the Icelandic people, we safely merged onto the Ring Road back to our hostel. Once on our way, Astrid said that the farmer had told her we had chosen the absolute worst day to get stuck in the mud. “What do you mean?” she asked him, “Isn’t the weather always like this?”
“No!” he responded. “This is a windstorm!”
The weather was much better during the rest of the week, and we laughed about how we had indeed chosen the worst day to visit the Golden Circle – and to get stuck in the mud! But we’ll always enjoy the memory of the wedding party, the farmer and the windstorm, proving that even when things don’t go as planned, they usually go as they should.