Iceland: Breathtaking South Coast

We took another day trip from Reykjavik, also by GeoIceland, and this time we explored the south coast of Iceland. Similar to the Golden Circle tour, we waited at the entrance of our hostel at 8.30am to wait for the van to pick us up. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Javier was once again our guide for the day.

It was a long drive to our first stop, Skógafoss (almost 2 hours). I stayed awake for the entire journey, determined to keep my eyes open to take in the gorgeous scenery of Iceland as much as possible. Most of the other people in the tour had nodded off not long into the journey.

The moment the van turned into the road that ran parallel to the south coast, we could immediately see the sharp divide between the highlands and the coastal lowlands. On the left side of the van. towering cliffs, which used to form the coastline, ran on for miles and miles. On the right side of the van, the grasslands, the new coastline, stretched out far into the horizon.

Meanwhile, it was common to see small waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. I’m not even sure that all of them are named, given the great number of waterfalls all over Iceland. I snapped the photo below while I was in the moving van.

Small waterfalls – a common sight in Iceland

Skógafoss

Skógafoss is one of the largest waterfall in Iceland and like the small waterfall in the photo above, it is located along the cliffs of the former coastline and can be seen from the road. Because of the huge volume of water that passes through Skógafoss, there is greater erosion of the surrounding cliffs, hence the ‘V’ shape at the top of the waterfall.

A perpetual spray of water is produced by the powerful Skógafoss and on a sunny day, a single or even double rainbow can be seen. Unfortunately for us, the sky was grey and dreary at that time, hence we had no chance of seeing a rainbow. We walked to the edge of the pool created by Skógafoss, but did not linger for long because of the spray which was wetting our clothes.

Panoramic view of Skógafoss

Our tour moved on to the next destination, Sólheimajökull. While we were on the way there, we bumped into a farmer and his horde of sheep crossing the road. This made for an interesting sight! I was so surprised at first to see a whole army of sheep surging in our direction. They then got onto the grass and continued their journey. I took the photos below while I was inside the van.

Sólheimajökull

An Icelandic guide from another tour told us that Icelandic names aren’t as complicated as they sound, and in fact they are made up of conjoined words. Take for example, Sólheimajökull. “Jökull” (pronounced as ‘yoh-kool’), in English, means glacier or ice cap. Hence any word that has jökull as a suffix is most likely the name of a glacier. I’m unable to find out what Sólheima means, though. In Google Translate, separating the suffix from Sólheima will give me “Solheim glacier”, but I have no idea what Solheim is.

Anyway, Sólheimajökull is actually the glacier tongue of the much larger Mýrdalsjökull (mire dale glacier), but is pretty accessible than most glaciers in Iceland. There is a road leading up to it, if one could really call that a road. When the van first turned off the Ring Road into that small road, I nearly thought that we were going off-roading. The road is really just a dirt path littered with potholes and rocks. Bouncing up and down on our seats, it was indeed quite an experience riding on the dirt path.

Sólheimajökull in the distance

Sólheimajökull

It was hard to believe that that was really a gargantuan block of ICE that we were seeing. Never before had we seen so much ice, and in such huge proportions as well.

Javier told us that while it may not look like it, Sólheimajökull is actually retreating rapidly away from the coastline. In the first photo above, Sólheimajökull used to stretch all the way to the edge of the photo. In fact, he showed us a huge rock located randomly near the carpark and told us that when he brought a tour group to Sólheimajökull at almost the same time the previous year (October 2012), the stone marked the beginning of the glacier. It was indeed shocking to see just how much the glacier had shrunk.

Much of Sólheimajökull is covered in dark brown volcanic ash from previous eruptions. If you look at any part of the ice up close, you can see the layers of dirt trapped in the ice, signifying the number of eruptions that part of the ice has experienced. The various shapes of the glacier makes for a very otherworldly landscape.

While we were there, we could see some tour groups preparing for their glacier hike. They were decked out in full hiking gear, ranging from wearing crampons to tying ropes to link all of them together for safety. Climbing a glacier isn’t child’s play, as glaciers are highly active and unstable, although they may not look like it. Ice may unexpectedly crack or one might fall into a hidden crevice, hence, never ever go glacier hiking by yourself. Always go with an experienced guide!

Our tour wasn’t a glacier hiking one, hence we only hung around at the edge of Sólheimajökull, admiring the scenery. Occasionally we ventured on the glacier, being careful to only step on the parts which were covered with a layer of volcanic ash, hence ensuring sufficient friction for walking.

Upon closer inspection of the ice, my friend exclaimed, “The glacier looks like its sweating!” True enough, when I peered closely at the ice, I realised that the glacier was indeed melting slowly. I could see drops of water gathering at the edges of the ice, hanging there for a brief moment before gravity took over. Sweating glacier was a really interesting way of describing the melting, though!

Sólheimajökull melting slowly but visibly

As we turned and headed back to the van, I kept looking back, trying to take the opportunity to capture everything in my head – the peaceful and quiet atmosphere, the crisp cold air, the sprawling glacier, everything. Knowing that my Iceland holiday was coming to a close was making me feel slightly gloomy. With that said, here’s a photo of the midday sun at Sólheimajökull (but looked more like a sunset) to match my pensive mood.

Reynisfjara

After lunch, we proceeded to Reynisfjara, where “fjara” means beach. Reynisfjara has a famous black sand beach where the Reynisdrangar, basalt sea stacks, can be observed. My travel mate exclaimed how the beach reminded her of her trip to Hawaii. This wasn’t surprising, considering that both Iceland and the Hawaiian islands were relatively recent volcanic islands.

Sea stacks at Reynisfjara

The black sand was really cool, although it was really more like small black pebbles. From the carpark, the rocks gave way to stones in decreasing size the closer they were to the shore. The black sand is actually tiny fragments of lava, which were formed when lava cools down rapidly upon contact with water and shatters into sand.

From another location (not Reynisfjara), the full array of the sea stacks can be observed better. I only realised this after viewing some photos of Reynisdrangar from the Internet. However, at Reynisfjara, you are able to see the powerful waves crashing against the shore, as well as the imposing basalt columns of Reynisfjall (‘fjall’ meaning mountain).

Incredibly strong waves crashing onto Reynisfjara

Reynisfjall

Javier explicitly warned us not to go too close to the shoreline, as there had been instances of tourists and locals alike caught by surprise by particularly large waves and dragged out to sea, some to their ultimate and untimely demise. Javier himself had been caught by a wave previously but was fortunately able to swim back ashore.

At Reynisfjall, there is a small cave-like indent in the side of the mountain, with basalt columns lining the entrance of the cave. We went up for a closer look.

Imposing basalt columns of Reynisfjall

Me posing for a photo in the cave in Reynisfjall

After we were done camwhoring, we decided to head back to the van. While walking back to the van, I suddenly recalled that beside warning us about venturing too close to the shoreline, Javier also warned us about going into the cave in Reynisfjall as the rocks inside are unstable and might break and fall from the ceiling. From the photo above, the rock fragments lying around me were clear evidence that this was indeed a valid warning. Oops. Oh well, luckily nothing happened to us!

Dyrhólaey in the distance, as viewed from Reynisfjara

I noticed this landform while I was at Reynisfjara. It wasn’t until after my Iceland trip that I realised that I was actually looking at Dyrhólaey. Dyrhólaey is a puffin paradise during summer (July to August) and it draws many tourists who wish to ogle at the cute little birds in suits.

Eyjafjallajökull

Yup, this is the volcano which rose to instant notoriety during the 2010 eruption that had grounded many flights in many parts of Europe. It’s also the most recognised name that hardly anyone outside Iceland can pronounce. The guide for our second Northen Lights adventure gave us a small tutorial on this. Repeat after me: Ehyah-fyatla-yokul. Have fun with it! (if you can read phonetics, this would be a more accurate guide: ˈeɪjaˌfjatlaˌjœːkʏtl̥)

If you had been following what I wrote above, you would realise that the ‘jökull’ suffix would mean that it is a glacier, and that’s correct. Eyjafjallajökull actually means the glacier of Eyjafjöll, where Eyjafjöll is the volcano under the ice cap. Eyjafjöll, on the other hand, is also a conjoined word, eyja meaning islands and fjöll (being the plural form of fjall) meaning mountains. Hence Eyjafjöll means “islands of the mountains”. Finally, putting everything together, Eyjafjallajökull literally translates to “islands’ mountains’ glacier”. Cool, huh?

Signboard describing the 2010 massive eruption, with Eyjafjallajökull in the background

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss is a very special waterfall that can be viewed from the Ring Road. From the road, it doesn’t look very impressive. It doesn’t have the same scale as a huge and powerfull waterfall like Gullfoss, neither does it have a unique facade.

Seljalandsfoss

What makes Seljalandsfoss so special is that it is one of the few waterfalls in Iceland where one can walk behind the waterfall. Tourists are generally advised to walk from the right to the left for safety reasons. The spray of the water makes the ground muddy and left side (when viewed from the front) of the pathway behind the waterfall is a downward-sloping muddy path. It is therefore easier to attempt to climb this muddy path from behind the waterfall than to descend the path when going by the front of the waterfall.

As for us, we simply turned and retraced our footsteps when leaving the waterfall, as the other side was simply too muddy and slippery that day for us to attempt to climb up the pathway out.

It is a truly surreal experience standing behind the waterfall and watching the water gushing down in front of you like a gigantic shower.

You will get wet from the spray. Just don’t go too close to the edge of the pathway behind the waterfall, as it is a sure way to get soaked.

Gljúfurárfoss

Gljúfurárfoss, which is another waterfall just a few minutes walk away from Seljalandsfoss, is like the lesser-known stepsister of Seljalandsfoss, but it rivals Seljalandsfoss in every way in terms of beauty. With its facade partially hidden by a huge rock, most people would probably not give it a second look.

Gljúfurárfoss with its unassuming facade

Javier, however, told us that he would give us something extra that was not part of the stated itinerary – he would bring us right up close to Gljúfurárfoss!

Not many people know of this or would even attempt it, but it is possible to get up close to Gljúfurárfoss by walking through a crevice in the rocks. This crevice can be seen at the left side in the photo above. There is a small stream that flows out of the crevice, hence waterproof shoes are recommended. When we were there, the stream was only a small trickle of water, thus making our task easier. I would imagine it to be a lot more difficult had the stream been gushing with fast-flowing water.

To avoid stepping into the water, we hopped from rock to rock as much as we could. As I was very worried for the safety of my camera which I originally hung around my neck (yup, like a proper tourist), I kept it in my bag. This made my task of walking through the crevice easier as I was able to grip the walls with both hands at the tricky parts. Therefore, do be careful if you do try this out.

The crevice, as seen from the inside

When we finally scrambled our way through the crevice, my breath was taken away at the incredible sight in front of me.

Gljúfurárfoss in all its unhidden beauty

Incredible as the view was, it was also incredibly hard to take photos inside. The mist was quite thick and my camera lens got damp quickly. In addition, the poor lighting condition due to the only source of light being directly above us caused photos to be over-exposed. It is difficult for photos to do justice to the sheer beauty of Gljúfurárfoss. One really has to be there to experience it for him/herself.

Gljúfurárfoss – Looking directly up

The foot of Gljúfurárfoss

Gljúfurárfoss plunged into a seemingly shallow pool of rocks and pebbles. Inside the crevice, there was a relatively dry rocky platform where we could stand to pose for photos or simply take in the view.

We emerged from Gljúfurárfoss, wet but satisfied. Compared to Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfurárfoss will make you even more damp as the spray is confined within the crevice, thus making the air heavy with moisture. If your jacket is not waterproof, it is advisable to get a raincoat.

As it was approaching 6pm, the sun was setting rapidly. We were greeted with a breathtakingly beautiful sunset. The photo below is one of my favourite photos among all my Iceland photos. I love the colour produced by the milky blue sky blending with the golden sunset. A small farmer’s cottage lies to the right of the photo, while on the left is Seljalandsfoss (not shown). In the distance, a silhouette of jagged sea-facing cliffs can be seen.

We stood quietly outside for a while to admire the sunset, as well as to dry out our jackets before boarding the van. Suddenly, my friend noticed how the setting sun cast ridiculously long shadows of our bodies on the ground. So amused she was by this occurrence that I decided to snap a photo of our shadows to remember this moment by. It turned out that the resulting photo also made my personal list of favourite photos in Iceland.

While on the van back to Reykjavik, my friend was checking out the Northern Lights forecast and found out that the forecast was pretty good today, as the dreary clouds that had hung over the sky for the whole day were starting to disappear. After a quick discussion, we booked a Northern Lights tour for that night on her phone, using international data roaming!

Our sad attempt at drawing a smiley face on the misted interior of the van’s windows while on the way back to Reykjavik

It was a day filled with so many exciting and beautiful places. I would dare say that out of all the days I had spent in Iceland, this was the most enjoyable day. Even while writing this post more than one year after my Iceland trip, the memories came flooding back to me as if they happened yesterday. It took me so long to write this post because of the many times that I would stop halfway to research and also to reflect fondly on my exchange days.

Iceland, I will definitely be back someday soon! <3