Weeks 49-51 (5th-16th Jan) – Iceland

After almost a year of being away, our last stop was Iceland, just 3 hours northwest of home. The furthest north we’d ever been on the globe, we were greeted by icy gale force winds and mounds of snowy ice on the roads and pavements. After a 5-hour flight that left New York in the early evening, we arrived in the early morning, having missed an entire night. We picked up our snazzy white Golf hire car, with much-appreciated heated seats, and drove to nearby Reykjavik through a volcanic landscape peppered with snow. We checked into our adorable guesthouse, Grettir, which was tiny and red-roofed, like my childhood doll’s house.

We quickly discovered how expensive Iceland is—the only affordable food around was noodle soup, but luckily it was the best noodle soup ever. Even more quickly, we discovered that days were incredibly short. We’d been lucky not to get much jetlag on the world tour, but Iceland’s extremely short daylight hours proved difficult to adjust to. The sun didn’t rise until 11.30am, and was almost pitch black up to that point, so it felt like our alarm clocks were lying to us. No sooner had it risen, it started to set again and had vanished by 4pm.

On the first day, we explored the adorable town of Reykjavik, and admired the view of the tiny buildings with brightly-coloured roofs surrounded by glacier blue water and lilac snow-capped mountains from the roof of the very angular Hallgrímskirkja church. Windspeeds were 59kmph and I struggled to stay on my tiny feet—one man got blown straight over, so Peb went to the rescue. Then we had very fresh and ludicrously expensive fish’n’ chips by the sea, where it was somehow even windier.

The following day, we drove through beautiful snowy landscapes and mountains to Thingvellir National Park and the “Golden Circle”, as it’s known. We stopped at the impressively frozen Gulfoss waterfall, and fussed some beautiful Icelandic horses—short and very fluffy—one of whom tried to eat my coat. We saw the impressive Strokkur geyser erupt to around 20 feet, then took a walk in the Transatlantic ridge, the gap between the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia. On the drive back, with not a single other car on the road, an arctic fox picked that exact moment to cross the road. Thankfully he was fine, and we were lucky to see him.

The next day we left Reykjavik, albeit after a long wait in a laundromat café (a great idea, as Iceland is pretty short on laundromats). We drove south towards Vik, the southernmost point in Iceland, and drove through stunning scenery of snowy mountains, distant ocean, and snow-covered fields of horses. We stopped at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, huge falls whose spray had created icicles of everything nearby, turning blades of grass into ice bubbles. We spent a night in Vik, with a takeout for dinner from the petrol station as there aren’t many food places around, at our lovely guesthouse suitably in the middle of nowhere. Before long, we got our first glimpse of the Northern Lights there, greeny-white waves across the sky.

The following morning, we continued along the south coast, stopping at Vik’s incredible black sand beach Reynisfjara, so stark it resembled an old photo—jet black sand, foamy white waves, and a flat grey sky. It’s edged by a giant wall of tetris-style rocks and a cave full of jagged rock formations. As we followed road number 1, the main ring road around the island, it became more barren. Beautiful landscapes, no houses, just mountains and expanses of snow. There were miles of strange green rocks, then black volcanic desert sands, then huge totally frozen waterfalls, of which Foss a Sidu was particularly eye-catching. It would be an understatement to say that we were astonished by the beauty of Iceland.

We spent two nights at Fosshotel Nupar, which has nothing around it for miles. Our room was one of the best on our travels, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a door straight out into the snow. The perfect place to wait for the Northern Lights. We were in luck. The lights were out again, more huge waves of green-white light moving across the sky.

It’s hard to convey how barren that part of Iceland is. With a population of a mere 329,000 in the country (that’s less than a third of the population of the city I live in!), almost half of whom live in Reykjavik, you can drive for miles without seeing another car or human. Even the towns and villages are sparse, and most of the time we ended up having dinner in petrol stations, which seemed to be the done thing.

The following day, we headed further southeast. We stopped to run around in the fresh, sparkling snow like children, in a landscape that looked exactly like an advert—one side of the road was adorned with huge mountains, bright blue glaciers, and snow-enveloped volcanoes of Vatnajokull, and the other side was plaited glacier sands running down to the distant sea.

But the best was yet to come. Often described as the most beautiful place in Iceland, Jökulsárlón features in several Bond films and many a famous photograph. It’s hard to put into words how breath-taking this glacier lagoon is, with lumps of blue, white, and grey glaciers floating serenely in the lagoon, having broken off from the huge glaciers nestled in the surrounding mountains. Peb even spotted a lovely seal swimming in the lagoon.

It was probably the coldest I’ve ever been, but it was undoubtedly worth the numb extremities to see one of the most beautiful places in the world. And the beauty didn’t stop there. Further downstream, the glacier meets the sea wall, and lumps of glacier have washed up on the black sand beach there, creating the aptly-named “Diamond Beach”. To perfect a wonderful day, as we switched off the lights to go to sleep, we noticed some bright green waves outside. Cue standing in the bitter cold in the snow in our pyjamas to watch the most breath-taking display of the aurora, which was literally dancing around the sky in pink, yellow, green, and white.

The following day, we took an unbelievably cold walk in Skaftafell National Park up to Skaftajökull, a stunning bright blue glacier. As we crossed the volcanic sands to the huge crevices of the glacier, we got caught in a sandstorm that left the landscape looking somewhat lunar-eqsue. Beneath the glacier is a smaller glacier lagoon, and as it was frozen, we walked out to see the icebergs lodged in it.

After another night at the lovely guesthouse in Vik, the day was upon us…

The final day of our trip. It’s hard to believe we’ve been away for almost a year, and we’ve seen and done some incredible things. We made the most of our final day, standing on top of the cliffs at Dryholaey where the puffins live when they’re not somewhere (sensibly) warmer, admiring the absolutely stunning Selfoss waterfall surrounded by icicles, some 4 feet high, and graced by a rainbow. We checked out the now harmless-looking Eyjafjallajokul, the active volcano that caused air travel chaos when it erupted a few years ago, and whose volcanic ash even formed a layer on our cars in England.

For our final night, we stayed at Garün Guesthouse in Selfoss, an adorable chalet-style wood cabin complete with pointed roof and hot tub under 2 feet of snow—in Icelandic style, we high-tailed it through the snow in our swimwear (and woolly hats) despite it being -8.5 degrees outside. Amusingly, we couldn’t get back in the house afterwards. Thankfully, we made it back in and ended the year by watching Big Bang Theory, the show we had started from scratch in Australia and were now up to date with, our surrogate friends and family while we’d been away.

We did our final packing of the year, the two rucksacks we left home with had spawned into two rucksacks, a laptop bag, a suitcase, and a hold-all. The following morning, we drove to the airport via the pretty Reykjanes peninsula, wild scenery that ran alongside the sea, and mused on our return home and what we would do next. As it happened, our final flight was plagued with delays, but we made it. Almost a whole year.

9 countries, 14 flights, 8 boats, 5 campervans, 2 sleeper trains … 47,387 miles or 76,263 kms.