It was in early November last year that some friends and I took a long-weekend trip up to Iceland. I’ve been there a couple of times before but none of my friends had. Something about the desolate beauty draws me back every few years.

Having been there meant I would be acting somewhat as a guide on the trip. That was fine by me. I knew a few places that just had to be seen and a few that were best avoided, especially given the time constraints.

That all changed as our plane approached Reykjavik airport. The cloud cover seemed to be strangely thick as we descended from the clear, star-speckled, night sky. Ordinarily, it takes only a few minutes to descend through the cloud layer, but our descent seemed to go on and on. So much so, that passengers were beginning to wonder why it was taking so long. Looking out the window, strange sparkles briefly flared into existence and then just as quickly vanished. The journey was beginning to feel like something from the Twilight Zone.

A view from Pingvellir, seat of the Icelandic parliament

And still the plane remained shrouded in cloud. We could feel the plane was descending so we knew we weren’t in a holding pattern. Gradually, it dawned on me what those brief sparkles were – ice crystals reflecting the plane’s landing lights. We were landing in a blizzard!

This was a new experience for me. And I wasn’t alone! We’d checked the forecast for the weekend before we left and there was no mention of snow. Temperatures would be on the cold side but nothing a warm jumper or fleecy wouldn’t fix.

As we finally descended below the could deck, the runway lay only a couple of hundred feet below us. Everything as far out as the limited horizon was white. This was a face of Iceland I’d never seen.

With the usual grinding and various machine noises that planes make in their final landing stages, we descended to the runway. The plane touched down smoothly enough, given the conditions. The pilot applied the brakes but the icy runway meant they weren’t of much use. The air brakes came on and the plane skidded and skated along the runway before mercifully coming to a stop without further incident.

Welcome to Iceland!

Keflavik airport in the snow

The view from the hotel

Keflavik airport is a 30-minute bus ride from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. A little under half of this small, isolated, country’s population lives in this city. Since Iceland is in a volcanic hot-zone, sub-surface geothermal energy, which is virtually free, is used to keep Icelandic homes warm and cozy. While this city is small by capital city standards, it’s infrastructure puts some other European cities to shame.

Reykjavik panorama featuring the famous cathedral at mid-left

A view across the bay of Reykjavik taken from the Cathedral’s Bell Tower

The severe weather playing across Iceland meant a shopping trip to pick up some winter woolies to bolster us against the cold. Prior to our trip, I’d arranged a Jeep Safari for the gang which would take us out into the Icelandic wilderness. The Icelandic landscape presents a bleak desolation of treeless lava fields peppered with moss and low lying greenery that that tenuously roots in the extremely sparse soil. On this occasion, that landscape was transformed into a winter wonderland, a sea of white where occasional grey and black rocks poke through the surface snow and the remaining summer grass seed-heads cluster and ripple like the surface of some ethereal green lake.

And into this wilderness our jeeps drove. Several times we all had to disembark and lend our shoulders to heave the vehicles out of snowdrifts and hidden hollows in the snow-covered track. Conditions were icy – well below zero. Teeth chattered and bodies shivered but the views more than made up for it.

As we drove through the almost uniformly white landscape, a blot in the whiteness appeared, growing as we approached it. The ocher, red and turquoise mineral deposits heralded a hot spring. An oasis of color in an ocean of white.

A hot spring pokes out of the relentless winter landscape

We climbed the trail leading up to the spring, through thigh-deep snowdrifts and an icy breeze. While we could warm our hands in the steam rising off the spring, the water was scalding hot.

Back to the jeeps we went and onwards into the wilderness. With the jeeps having got stuck one too many times, our drivers decided enough was enough and that it was too dangerous to continue with our journey. So we had to turn back and retrace our steps. By the time we got back to the hotel, ice encrusted everything from nose hairs to socks. Time for a hot shower!

Snow-blasted trees

Road leading up to Perlan restaurant

Reykjavik Cathedral

The next day we took a coach to Gulfoss waterfall, probably the most famous waterfall in Iceland. The waterfall lies in a valley below the level of the surrounding landscape. A long set of stairs lead down to its level. This is a thunderous waterfall. The noise is almost deafening. Fine spray floats through the air and saturates everything. With it being so cold, that spray was instantly turned into ice crystals. Grass and trees were covered in ice and icicles.

Gulfoss Waterfall. The temperature here was -13C. Camera batteries died soon after taking this photo

Ice-encrusted grass near the Gulfoss waterfall

A pathway leads along the edge of the river down to the waterfall. Slick ice covered everything making walking treacherous. The guide rope was frozen solid. The icicles hanging from it made it uncomfortable to grip. But we pressed on, taking time and care after some early falls. Down at the waterfall, there was nothing to break the wind that howled across the frozen landscape. We found out later that the wind chill factor reduced the temperature there to -13C. That probably explains why my lips cracked open a couple of days later from freezer burn.

Down at the waterfall, a lone figure stood gazing at the majestic scene before him. Huddled in the lea of some rocks, bundled in our double layers of jumpers, coats, hats and gloves, we marveled at this figure who stood braced against the battering wind. Marveled because this middle aged bald man was wearing nothing more than a shirt and sports jacket and flannel trousers. He seemed oblivious to the icy cold and any discomfort. We felt like wimps in comparison!

Later that day, we also visited Geysir, home of the world-famous geysir. Every few minutes, this hot spring erupts a hundred feet into the air. All around it, layers of multicolored mineral deposits glistened in the low afternoon sun.

Icicles hanging from a bush near a small geysir

Some dramatic cloud formations added to the winter desolation

Those were the main highlights of our 3-day Icelandic trip. All of the sights I’d seen on previous trips but on those trips, the weather had been clement, a mixture of mostly sunny days with some overcast ones and a little rain. This trip I saw Icleand anew, almost as an arctic wasteland, a pristine wilderness devoid of human influence.

Needless to say, my camera was in constant use although my camera batteries died on a couple of occasions because of the cold and some of the locations I visited were so cold, my hands were shaking so much that I couldn’t hold the camera steady.

Click any of the photos on this page for an enlarged view.

The Blue Lagoon is an area of natural hot springs and lakes and is a tourist attraction especially for those who wat to bathe in its mineral-rich waters. I took this photo from well behind the facility

The skies cleared one evening to reveal the aurora

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