Two things on my Icelandic bucket list were to walk on a glacier and to visit an ice cave. Ice caves can be really stunning with amazing shades of blue and sweeping arcs of ice, and well, who doesn’t want to walk on a glacier? After asking Katherina, my friend who works as a tourist guide and has been basically everywhere in Iceland, I settled on the caves at Jökulsárlón and booked a trip with Extreme Iceland, as this is not the kind of thing you want to try on your own for obvious reasons.
I tried to arrange to go with friends to share the driving (not recommended for one person in one day or you will be hanging) but it never happened. And then storm after storm came, the road east was impassable for a few hundred kilometres and the whole thing had to be called off for another time, until the boy said he had never been and we arranged to go together, staying at Vík the first night, as it’s a bloody long drive to Jökulsárlón. And then when the rest of Europe was suffering from the Beast from the East and sub-zero temperatures Iceland had a mini-heatwave. And late the night before we got an email to say the cave at Jökulsárlón had melted and we had been rebooked for a combined glacier walk and ice cave visit at Skaftafell (not quite so far) and later in the day so we didn’t have to get up long before the crack of dawn. Oh happy days!
The landscape on the south coast can be desolate and quite boring to drive. You can see your destination for an hour or more before you reach it, and after the Öræfajökull eruption of 1362 wiped out a large farming community the area was known as Öræfi, the “wasteland”. Upon arriving at Skaftafell, where you must now pay for parking at the machines inside the visitors’ centre, you get kitted up with crampons, an ice axe and a helmet. You should dress appropriately for the weather – lots of layers, bearing in mind it will be a lot colder on the glacier, though you will be moving. Good hiking boots are a must. When I had planned this trip initially I was going to bring my kuldagalli, which is a big insulated winter suit and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. But you basically have to be naked inside it and not moving and in +7º I would have died. So in the midsts of NorthFace trousers and brightly coloured jackets we rocked up in tattered lopapeysas, hoodies and some thermal underwear, which was just fine given the weather.
A short bus ride past Svínafellsjökull and we set off towards the glacier. It’s not a long walk, a little uphill, but the pace is fine for even only moderately active people. And on the glacier itself you are going at a reasonably slow pace, though the crampons feel strange at first. Though there are lots of groups on the glacier at any one time, they’re all at different locations, so it doesn’t feel too busy. Our Australian guide was super excited to have a real Icelander on her tour, a first apparently; and made everyone at ease with a little talk while she explained all about ice, glaciers and crevasses. Though no messing was tolerated as it is quite dangerous and deep cracks in the ice are masked by snow, so you must really know what you’re doing or go with someone who does. The cave itself was not huge but very pretty, and will only last a year. The caves are formed by the wind, not water, which was interesting. There is time for pictures along the way, but of course, I could have stayed for hours longer, even though all in the tour was over three hours.
But we were not finished. After a quick bite to eat in a nearby petrol station, the cafe at Skaftafell is hideously expensive, we headed on to Fjallsárlón, another glacier lagoon before Jökulsárlón and much less visited.
There were quite a few people out on the ice, which as you might imagine was not the brightest thing to do, especially as you could see the melting patches, and 112 posted pictures with captions to the effect of “What are these people doing??” on their Facebook page. Though not as showy as Jökulsárlón, I really liked the peace and quiet, busying myself taking a million photos, and then just appreciating the view as the sunset.