Driving in Iceland

P1000517I went to Iceland in the summer and hired a car. I’ve never driven a right hand drive car before and I didn’t really anticipate the first time doing it completely on my own.

I picked the car up from the airport and drove it so slowly and haltingly and in such terror the few hundred yards to the airport hotel to load it with my luggage and then I set off. I had no intention of taking the “motorway” (not really a motorway but the closest Iceland has to such a thing) along Reykjanes so I I drove five or ten minutes along the motorway before turning off to follow the back roads across the peninsula and eventually up to Hveragerði.

Actually, it’s not so bad. After a couple of days I got brave enough to hit Iceland’s speed limit (on the correct sort of roads, the absolutely maximum you’re allowed to drive anywhere on the entire island is 90km/h which is about 55mph), by about day four I’d stopped clonking my left hand on the door when I tried to change gear and I’d learnt that roads are designed in such a way that makes it incredibly difficult to go the wrong way round a roundabout by accident. By the time I drove up to Akureyri, I was actively enjoying my little car. I was overtaking – Icelandic roads being largely flat and straight – I was flying along, I was managing all the controls being on the wrong side and I could reverse the thing far better within a few days than I can reverse my own car at home after more than six years.

On the second or third day with the car, I came across my first gravel road – just a little one, the 48 between Þingvellir and the Hvalfjord. It was terrifying! It wasn’t just that the road was bumpy and potholed and I feared for my deposit because of the gravel dents, it was the fact that suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere and completely alone. That road was the reason I abandoned my plans to go to the Westfjords – fear of much longer and much lonelier gravel roads.

Up in the north, I took the eastern road down past Dettifoss, under the impression it was the tarmacked one. It’s not! It’s at least forty miles long and it feels like driving over a cattlegrid for forty miles. I had my tentpegs on the back shelf, having not yet washed them and packed them away and the things tinkled and rattled for the whole forty miles, which took hours. The speed limit is 80km/h (50mph) – I got scared if I hit 40km/h. Every single vehicle I encountered overtook me at terrifying speeds. And it really felt like I was driving through the Highlands. No signs whatsoever of civilisation but plenty of signs of glacial desert and of volcanoes and of endless nothing. Magnificent in its way but I hadn’t been prepared for a gravel road at all, let alone a seemingly endless one. Forty miles at such slow speeds takes forever.

I’d also had fun filling the car up with petrol. Icelandic petrol stations, in my experience, request payment before filling and they ask you how much you want to put in. Most of the petrol stations I met had a button for “fill tank” and I was ok with that. But the very first one I came across didn’t have that option and demanded a monetary value. I had no idea how much petrol cost in Iceland, no idea how big my tank was, no idea exactly how much there was left in there, no idea how much the car drinks. I’d been with it less than twenty-four hours and it felt cruel to throw such guesswork at me. As it turns out, using my very rough conversion rate of 200kr to the pound, fuel seemed more or less the same price as at home and I reasoned that the tank in the little i10 couldn’t be that different in size to my Panda at home and took an educated guess that worked out pretty accurately – plus I noticed a sign that said the value I entered was the maximum it would allow and that if I put in less petrol than that, it would charge me for however much I actually took so I didn’t worry too much if I was wrong as long as I was a bit higher.

I took photos of that car everywhere. My parents laughed at my photos because every five minutes, there would be another picture of the car on a nice background. Above is on the track down to Djúpalónssandur because it’s such a lovely lava field. By the time I came to hand it back, it had entered my soul and I will admit, I cried like a child for the rest of the day after we were separated.