If you drive four and a half hours from Reykjavik – and don’t make any stops along the scenic south coast along the way – you’ll reach Jökulsárlón, literally the Lagoon of the Glacial River, a lagoon left behind when a glacier retreated in the 1920s and 30s. Now it’s a huge blue lake, full of blue, white and black striped icebergs which have calved off the glacier and are making their way down to the sea a couple of kilometres away.
You can enjoy this natural wonder from the dusty grey moraines, the bumpy hills where the glacier left its assorted filth behind when it retreated or you can enjoy it from one of the many boat tours. The Zodiac tour on the small inflatable powerboats is probably more adrenaline-fuelled; you wear a flotation suit in case of accidents and you can get right up close to the icebergs and the glacier itself. Otherwise, there’s the ever-popular tour on the amphibian boats, which pick you up from a jetty on solid land, drive down to the lagoon, splash into it and then go for a cruise for half an hour or so.
Jökulsárlón is probably the third biggest tourist attraction on the south coast, after Skaftafell and Skógafoss, so it gets busy and the boat tours sell out. It’s 100% natural and there are no gates so there’s nothing really stopping you from going late in the evening. In the summer, there’s 24 hour daylight and in the winter you’ve got the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights overhead, because this is certainly a remote area free from light pollution. By the time I’d driven from Selfoss via every interesting sight along the way and pitched my tent at Skaftafell, it was early evening and I was only just in time for the last amphibian tour of the day.
You get given an orange lifejacket as you board, you take your seat on the ledge that goes around the edge of the boat and you stay seated until you’re safely on the water. Once the amphibian boat is afloat, you can wander at will, although when it’s fully-laden, there’s not a lot of spare space. You chug around the icebergs, taking care not to get too close in case one of them decides to flip – I’ve not seen this myself but I’ve heard that it happens, and that it happens very suddenly and very quickly. It’s unbelievable that these come off the glacier – at the point where it enters the lagoon, it looks paper-thin and yet the lagoon is two hundred and fifty metres deep there, which is presumably how far down the ice goes. Some of the chunks of ice floating around look as big as medium-sized houses and if that’s only one-tenth of them, then there’s a terrifying amount of ice that you can’t even see. Suddenly the orange lifejacket seems like a very optimistic gesture – as someone who hates being plunged into even lukewarm water, I think I’d go into cold shock and die of a heart attack instantly if the boat suffered any kind of accident. I’ve just quickly Googled it and there’s no sign of any water-related accident, although there was the group of idiot tourists who tried having a picnic on an iceberg and had to be rescued before it either flipped and drowned them or before they got carried out to sea.
They do try to drag your attention away from the icebergs on the boat trip. The driver of the Zodiac safety boat – another very optimistic gesture – fishes out a chunk of ice and throws it over the side to the guide on the amphibian boat. This ice is crystal-clear – freakishly clear, all bubbles and all traces of air inside having been compressed out centuries ago by the weight of ice and snow on the top of it. The guide is armed with a miniature hammer and small pieces will be broken off so you can eat them. It doesn’t really taste of anything except ice. Smooth ice, I suppose, compared to the frosty rough stuff you can make in your own freezer, which has a huge amount of trapped air in it, and surprisingly clean tasting considering how many boats, birds and seals are in the water, and that the lagoon opens into the sea.
If you’re there during the day, there’s a small café-and-shop in a little wooden building – Jökulsárlón has a certain amount of tourist infrastructure but it’s all small and wooden and quaint and it looks like it could just be put on a van and taken away if interest in the places vanishes – and that café specialises in assorted sandwiches and proper Icelandic waffles with cream and cloudberry jam. I have no idea what a cloudberry actually is but I know that the jam tastes a little bit sweet and a slightly bigger bit sharp and not like anything I’ve eaten at home.
And when you’ve had your fill of ice, seals and waffles, you can drive back to your little tent at Skaftafell with its view of a different side of the same glacier that feeds Jökulsárlón.