Iceland's Interior and Coast by Camper, July 21-27, 2012

We came dangerously close to not squeezing in a family trip this summer, as the kids' summer activities continue to grow in scope: The youth orchestra that both Tim and Emily play in took a two-week tour to New Zealand. Tim went to a cycling stage race in beautiful Mt. Hood, Oregon, and another one in not-so-beautiful Augusta, Georgia. Emily attended the two-week Juilliard Summer Percussion Seminar in New York City. Toss in the required orchestra camp at the end of the summer, and little time remained!

Fortunately we found a solution. Last year's family vote for summer travel brought us to western Mongolia, but Iceland was a close runner-up. With Iceland being a fairly easy destination, we decided that three of us could start a trip there while Emily was still in New York, with Emily joining us for the second week. (Jennifer's mother, visiting New York at the time anyway, would attend Emily's final concert and escort her to JFK airport for the relatively short flight to Iceland. Geography worked in our favor.) There was even a hidden advantage to this plan: We were interested in traveling through Iceland's remote interior in a camper, and the only camper suitable for the rugged terrain (a tough 4-wheel drive, photo 1) sleeps a maximum of three. Furthermore, Tim wanted to devote serious time to photography, not something that ranks high on Emily's list. After Emily arrived we'd embark on a hut-to-hut trek, which suits the entire family.

So, feeling a bit bare without Emily, three of us set off for Reykjavik. (Esoteric fact: This summer Tim and Emily are visiting both the southernmost and northernmost capital cities of the world.) For the first day or two we thought the camper part of the trip might turn out to be a bust. For starters, the weather was oscillating between low clouds and heavy rain. We soon realized that the vast, bleak expanses of the interior highlands need clear weather to be appreciated to their fullest, or perhaps at all. After a fair amount of driving, a critical gas station marked on our map turned out to be abandoned, necessitating backtracking a full 1½ hours on poor dirt roads to top up the tank. Later, stopping at a remote road-intersection hut, the warden told us that the next 70 miles of our route was the worst road in Iceland (and that's saying something). It would take at least six hours to drive, so she recommended the equally fast 250-mile alternative. We nevertheless opted for the 70-mile route, which was indeed a six-hour adventure, winding over volcanic terrain of all descriptions: sharp lava (photo 2), lumpy lava, and Alex the driver's favorite -- deep black sand. Our tough camper did remarkably well, although at some point all of that lurching emptied the contents of the overhead cabinets onto the floor, including dishes, pots & pans, clothes, books, one laptop, and one Kindle. (Miraculously, despite significant cosmetic damage, the laptop and Kindle survived.)

Then, in the remotest of remote locations, the engine suddenly and inexplicably overheated (photo 3). Alex sleuthed down the cause: the engine fan had stopped turning. That's when we discovered that the camper rental people hadn't actually put in the toolbox they'd meant to include before we left. Surprisingly, there was sporadic cell service in the interior, although not where we'd broken down. Envisioning a few miles walk to find a cell signal, then waiting 1-2 days for a rescue, Alex fiddled with the fan and ... miracle! It started working again, and worked the rest of the trip. From that point on everything, including the weather, slowly improved. Things still weren't perfect -- for example, we drove 50 miles each way on another bad dirt road to visit an ice cave, only to discover it had collapsed. But overall we had interesting and good times far more than the opposite, and by the time we returned the camper Tim was declaring what had been a "3 out of 10" trip early on to have reached a lofty "9.5 out of 10".

Part of the reason for Tim's transformed opinion, and indeed much of the point of this part of the trip, was the superb photographic opportunities (photo 4). Tim's portfolio will come later, but he anticipates it to be his best travel photo collection yet. We visited crater lakes (photo 5) and other volcanic features in the interior, numerous glaciers (photo 6), uncountable waterfalls in both the interior and coast (photo 7), and an iceberg-covered beach (photo 8). Particularly enjoyable was an evening photo session on coastal bluffs with adorable puffins for company (photo 9), and a spectacular 10:45pm sunset (photo 10). The 4x4 camper allowed us to drive just about anywhere, and we definitely took advantage of it.

Prior to our trip we'd read dire warnings about the numerous unbridged river crossings in the interior, including horror stories of cars and even campers being swept away. We were lucky to have gotten one of the beefier campers available at Camper Iceland, and we had no problems. (Photo 11 is tame -- one of the few crossings where we could snap a photo.) Other drivers were less fortunate, including a pair of french brothers who were cursing their tiny rental 4x4 when we came upon them (and it) stuck in the middle of a shallow river. They were very grateful when we helped push them out (photo 12).

Next: After returning the camper back in Reykjavik, we're meeting Emily at the airport and spending a day in the capital city. The next morning we're off for the second major component of the trip: a six-day hut-to-hut trek. We'll connect the very popular four-day Laugavegur trek with two additional days crossing a glaciated pass adjacent to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, made famous when its eruption shut down European airports in 2010.

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