Undiscovered Iceland: The Cold Road

It was the closest I've ever been to death. A windshield was the only thing between me and a 30-metre drop into the icy waters of a fjord. And black ice does not heed commands to "stop!" I was sliding towards oblivion, the steering wheel spinning without effect, when the tyres gripped the asphalt and rolled me back towards life. I had survived another day in Iceland.

Near-death experiences are not all that uncommon in Iceland. This is a place where volcanoes, avalanches, earthquakes, tidal waves, crevasses, gales and floods pose a daily threat to existence. It is also no nanny state. Survival instinct was built into the very foundations of this nation - if you weren't tough enough, you died. Sometimes even if you were tough enough you died. As a result you have livestock that can survive in temperatures far below freezing and a human population with a truly lifesaving trait: common sense.

This unfortunately didn't translate into financial acumen when Iceland burst onto the banking scene more than a decade ago, with the foolhardy idea of turning a country into a hedge fund. Some have suggested that a speedy recovery from the financial crisis has been helped by how accustomed Icelandic people are to calamities. But in the past few years the economy has been bolstered by a new asset - one that may prove even harder to control than a financial sector run by currency-swapping fishermen.

Tourists. Just under a million came last year seeking adventure within the confines of a European, English-speaking country. Their numbers have tripled since 2000, exceeding the local population of 323,000 threefold. They bring in healthy business, exceeding the revenue made by fishing year on year since 2013, and open up jobs for younger generations in the travel sector. But they also destroy the landscape, strain the country's infrastructure and put pressure on emergency responders by getting themselves into tricky situations for which they are unprepared.

In the south of the country, where glacier lagoons, black-sand ice beaches and waterfalls dot the landscape, hoards of visitors arrive in tour buses, regularly getting out to take photographs and stand in the freezing wind before moving on to the next site. Even during the winter, which over the past two years has become a popular time to visit Iceland, the famous Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon fills with people every day, come rain, snow or shine.

I didn't want to be surrounded by other people. For me, one of the draws of coming to Iceland was to see as few humans as possible - and I imagine that many other travellers here seek a similar escape. I wanted a real adventure and the undiscovered corners of this country would be its setting.

There is an undeniable flaw in this sort of thinking. It's the same naive thought process that starts with an idealised notion of adventure and ends in someone driving over a glacier, or being stranded on an iceberg after trying to have a picnic on it (both true stories). I embraced the delusion of what was possible to achieve in Iceland as a moderately qualified traveller, believing that I could and would ford rivers and climb volcanoes unassisted. Maybe it's because Iceland's wilderness is so accessible that I thought I could go camping in late October across the northern coast of the country, which seemed to me a real possibility until my enthusiasm was tempered by a round of laughter on my first night in Reykjavik.

"It looks safer than it is," said Egill Rafnsson, a blonde 33-year-old Icelandic guide with a penchant for puns who goes by the name of Eagle because tourists can't pronounce his name. He would be taking me into the Westfjords, the northwesternmost tip of Iceland, a peninsula just a few kilometres short of the Arctic circle that can sometimes be unnavigable by car (at which point your only option is to fly.) This was a journey I had originally thought I could easily complete on my own, and in a Toyota Corolla. "Not-so-nice-land," he said as we stood at a viewpoint and were pelted by freezing rain that turned to snow and back again.

The Westfjords are by far the least visited part of the country. There is a total population here of 7,300 spread over 22,271sq km - an area roughly the size of the state of Vermont - and most of the land is completely undeveloped. It's connected by a series of treacherous roads which wind around fjords and stretch over the flat, snowy tops of mountains - routes made more difficult by the fact that the area is known to have the worst weather in Iceland. By travelling this late in the season I was tempting fate, but I had Eagle and a ridiculously robust vehicle. After the Westfjords I would continue on my own across relatively more well-trodden areas towards Mývatn - a crater-filled lake where volcanic energy is harnessed - before making my way back south.

I asked Eagle why so many people come to Iceland. "The beauty of the landscape. A little getaway from the beat of the big cities," he said listlessly. He took a finger off the wheel of our Nissan Patrol which was sitting on 38-inch tyres (just think monster truck) and pointed at a small crop of trees outside the window. "In Iceland three trees is a forest." He's right, there are very few trees - his ancestors ripped them out hundreds of years ago for firewood, and I guess they haven't had the willpower to grow back.

As we climbed up Kaldidalsvegur, which translates as 'the cold valley' (you can guess why) a light snow began to fall around us. Within minutes the snow was deep and the road almost impossible to see. A red and yellow sign blocking the road read ófært, which means impassable. "Not for us," Eagle said and continued driving.

A few minutes later we saw two tourists inching along the road in a two-wheel-drive car, bewildered at the snow around them, and I took pity on them - they both looked terrified. I asked Eagle if he sees this kind of thing a lot - people heading out without the right equipment. Yes, he sees this a lot. Eagle talked about how the explosion of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 was almost like a marketing campaign for the country, putting Iceland on the map for many people who would otherwise not have thought to visit.

"We want to keep it clean, we don't like littering, we don't like people's faeces in our gardens." [Eagle is not just saying this, there have been several accounts of tourists defecating in public, including at the famous Gullfoss waterfall, and the government has had to put up signs that read 'no human waste' at several high-profile sites.] "We have to have places for that to happen. But it's hard when you want to keep something untouched and remote," said Eagle. He's not the only Icelander who thinks this. A recent study showed that 65 per cent of the population believe the pressure of tourism on Icelandic nature is too high.

Modern life slipped away as we drove across this lunar landscape, where the horizon seemed impossibly distant. The only people we saw over 100km of driving were mink and arctic fox hunters who trudged into the snow with their guns held tightly across their chests. Outside the car the temperature had dropped from this morning's 5C to -5C and the wind whipped the finest particles of snow into my face. A light dusting had settled on the black mountains surrounding the valley, clothing them in a shroud of white lace. I heard nothing. I saw nothing. Except the outline of a road and white over black. And I was only an hour away from Reykjavik.

Axlar-Björn, Iceland's most prolific serial killer, lived and operated his murderous trade in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a wild outcrop of land halfway between Reykjavik and the Westfjords. This was 400 years ago, but as we drove towards Hótel Búðir, where we would bed down for the night, the scene was set for the perfect murder. Standing in front of the opaque grey of the Atlantic Ocean was a solitary building - a church with a phosphorescent cross glowing in the twilight. Next to the church, a raven floated on an air stream I couldn't see. The Icelandic landscape had done all my imagination's work for me.

I like to think that Iceland's landscape has inspired the countless musicians and writers this country has produced. More books are read and written per capita here than anywhere else in the world. (One in ten Icelanders have written a book.) Their musicians have clout on the international stage - Björk's and Sigur Rós' unearthly tracks mesmerised audiences around the world, introducing the island's music to a global market. Music is an important part of life for all Icelanders. You'll find many people in Reykjavik walking around with guitars strapped to their backs or synthesisers stuffed into a bag, getting ready for one of the many annual music festivals here. I assumed that an incredible excess of space and time is what inspires these artists most.

"It's mostly boredom," Eagle said when I brought this up. He had an amazing ability to answer my incessant string of questions with revealing dead-end responses. "When's the most scared you've ever been?" I asked. "Don't know," he replied.

That night as we ate reindeer and cormorant in the candlelit dining room, the thick walls suddenly felt less substantial, and the rawness of the outdoors was palpable. Hótel Búðir sits about 100 metres inshore from the Atlantic coast on a grassy knoll that's battered constantly by wind. I shivered violently as I smoked outside after dinner, and when Eagle ventured further away from the building I followed him into the dark, turning a corner only to be blasted by a gale. I quickly retreated. The old house howled through the night, reminding all those inside their cosy beds that a wall was the only thing between them and the cold, dark night.

of many, many fjords that we negotiated, as the roads move around each peninsula like a pencil tracing the outside of a hand. The route was punctuated every so often by the crossing of a fjord mountain - flat, high places where absolutely nothing exists but snow, rock and the invariable frozen lake, and the horizon extends for miles and miles. Your perception of your own significance in this world quickly diminishes - you are tiny, a moving black speck surrounded by a world of white.

We were about an hour away from our destination of Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords with a population of around 2,600, when this moving black speck almost disappeared for good. With a sheer drop on our right and a mountain to our left, Eagle lost control of the car. Our wheels slipped on invisible ice and the headlights shone into the blackness of the fjord below, but Eagle reacted quickly, gently taking hold of the wheel and bringing us back into the centre of the road. I remembered again what he had told me on the first day: "It looks safer than it is."

In the morning over steaming cups of coffee he would say to me: "Remember when you asked me what's the most scared I've ever been and I couldn't answer you? It was last night."

In this toy town hemmed in by imposing mountains that frequently cause avalanches, you'll find a school, a hospital, an airport and shops and restaurants - but in the winter you won't find sunlight. The surrounding mountains block out any rays and the sun doesn't climb high enough to shine on the town. By 9AM the sun was up but the light was hampered by thick clouds. It was a Sunday morning and most people were at home eating eggs and bacon. The roads were almost impossible to walk on even with proper boots, such was the thickness of the ice on the asphalt, so I shuffled instead. I watched a giant icicle fall on the hood of a car right before the driver unlocked the door, and after that I stayed away from the edges of buildings. It was all very quaint and quiet and cold. It was hard to imagine that come summer this town would fill with tourists from ferries that offload over 3,000 passengers at a time.

Originally a fishing town, Ísafjörður grew as a busy trading post from the 16th century onwards, but many of its inhabitants still make their living from the fish that live in the frigid North Atlantic. Eagle told me that the fishermen here didn't learn to swim until very recently, as it was viewed merely as a way to prolong certain death caused by hypothermia. Fishermen would head out each day, wrapping themselves in fish skin and thick lamb's wool, and if they fell in close enough to shore sometimes their wives would watch them perish, the couples able to yell last words to each other. Looking at the steel grey of the fjord water I could see why they didn't bother with swimming, and I wondered what the fishermen of the past would think of that morning's handful of recreational kayakers floating across the water.

Later that day we drove past a bright green house in Þingeyri, a town of 250 people about 45km south of Ísafjörður. Eagle told me that it's owned by a Belgian/Danish couple who bought the house years ago and restored it, expanding it originally into a coffee shop for locals and tourists and then branching out into horse and bicycle rental. They weren't home that day, but later over a phone call I asked Wouter Van Hoeymissen and his wife Janne Kristensen why they decided to start a family and a business in the middle of nowhere.

"We fell in love with the beauty of the country like most people do when they travel to Iceland," Wouter said. "It can be pretty boring here - nothing to do, no one to talk to. My best friend is 80 years old. But it is beautiful and peaceful." Wouter and his wife have seen a dramatic jump in the number of tourists coming to the area, even though they live in the least-visited part of Iceland. "The biggest change for us is also what kind of tourists we're getting. Four years ago you got more adventure-minded people, explorers with more common sense."

He believes that Iceland will struggle with a lack of information about how dangerous the country can be, and says they desperately need more infrastructure to protect the wildlife, adding: "I think Icelanders are about to completely fuck up their tourism industry in the next five years."

I talked about this with Baldvin Jónsson, who has been a guide in Iceland for 18 years, and takes tourists into the highlands and beyond, as well as working as a rescuer. He also believes that a lot of work needs to be done to educate tourists and preserve the unspoiled landscape of the country.

"I usually start all my tours by trying to terrify people. It sounds nasty to say it but you often need to use strong words to get them to respect what they're getting into." He says the government has been far from proactive in addressing how things should move forward. "Most tourists claim unspoiled nature is the reason they come to visit. We need to protect the land and at the same time find ways for people to be able to enjoy it, it's a delicate balance." One solution he suggested was to increase infrastructure only in the lowlands, near the ringroad, where most tourists go in any case.

One of the most pressing topics in Iceland right now is a government proposal to create a new power line running through the highlands, which is one of the largest untouched areas of wilderness in Europe. Björk and writer-environmentalist Andri Snær Magnason recently protested against the plans, calling on the people of Iceland to sign a petition and prevent the project from moving forwards. Baldvin said he was also very concerned about what the plan would mean for the highlands, as building roads there would give people access to so much more of the area.

"If you build roads in the highlands you'll find that people will come. That traffic will create demand for more infrastructure and cause a spiralling effect. It will become a lot more difficult to find places where you can see unspoiled nature."

At that moment, I didn't have any problem finding unspoiled landscapes, as the majestic Dynjandi waterfall came into view. From across the water it looked frozen, an unmoving wall of water pressed up against the mountain. But when we got out at the foot of the waterfall it was very much in motion, and a fine mist landed on my coat. Its wide spread of water looked like the veil of a bride, the liquid's thunderous pounding made louder by the fact that there was nothing else moving in the fjord.

As we made our way south towards the foot of the Westfjords - where I would take a bus that would bring me towards Mývatn - Eagle warned me that the drive coming up could get a little hairy because of three challenging mountain passes. The weather wasn't great that day either - in areas thick snow made visibility poor and the wind was so strong it would bend our antennas until they were horizontal to the road. I dug my fingernails into the leather of the car seat as we began the descent of our first mountain, and I knew then that challenging wasn't an accurate enough description for what we were about to attempt. Imagine a two-lane road. Cut the road in half. Then paint a line down the middle. And then cover half of that in drift snow. Add a gradient of 10 per cent and 25 hairpin turns. And sheer cliff drops for the entire way down. Not-so-nice land after all.

But I was rewarded about an hour later when we crossed the second mountain as the sun was setting. The sky turned pink, and so did the snow we were driving over, velvet powder pressed underneath the wheels. The clarity was so good at the top of that mountain that by dusk, when all I could see were the headlights of cars miles and miles away, it felt almost as though we were flying.

I could smell Mývatn from miles away. A powerful sulphuric stench that filtered through the freezing air. It was as if the Earth had indigestion, a smell emanating not from the lake the area is named after, but all the volcanic activity around it. Mývatn looks like an icy soup bucket, a shallow pool of water filled with pseudo-crater islands that's a paradise for various bird species. In double-digit subzero temperatures and fading light along with the gently steaming vents surrounding the water, it resembled a Tolkien-esque badland. As I drove towards my hotel for the night, I passed a woman pushing a pram. The thermometer read -11C.

"The water smells bad, always," the woman at the Vogafjós Guesthouse reception told me about the showers. Behind her there was a glass wall and behind that was a dairy farm where cows were being milked. A glass tube filled with white liquid ran around the inside of the room. She saw me staring. "Yes, it's milk."

We were about 500km from Reykjavik. The guests sitting around me had travelled far to get here, and I liked them for it. Over 50 per cent of them were Asian, and they in particular had come a very long way to freeze in northern Iceland while sitting next to a cow (however cool the concept of blending a restaurant with a dairy farm was.) But they loved it. In the morning over breakfast they went outside for an impromptu photo shoot just as the sun was coming up. I ate another slice of geysir (rye bread) and made my way towards the Krafla volcano.

This very active volcano is also home to the Krafla power station, the country's largest geothermal power station, which draws heat from a total of 33 boreholes. In the 1970s and 80s several eruptions caused a magma chamber to emerge, and recent drilling found magma at a depth of only 2.1km. This is energy coming from the centre of the earth, and it's what makes Iceland one of the few places on the planet that is completely self-sustaining without the use of fossil fuels.

After a soak at Mývatn baths, the north's less-crowded, smaller version of the blue lagoon, I left for the south. A five-hour ride over gravel roads with thick fog and blindheads ensued, but there was no ice, the temperature had warmed to 8C. This was supposedly Highway 1 - the A-road - but there were areas that still weren't as developed as the rest of the island. At one point a few rocks painted yellow deposited on the side of the road served as the only warning that there was a hairpin turn coming up.

When I arrived in the southeast town of Höfn late that night, I was relieved to have made it all the way down in one piece. I was still in Iceland now, but it wasn't the dangerous and unexpected wilderness that had both enchanted and frightened me. There was still not much development, but there were streetlights here and there, guardrails on the roads, and most significantly, tourists. Thousands of them. In cars and in buses.

I watched on the icy beach as photographers with lenses longer than their arms waded into the water to get a better shot of an iceberg. Later, on a famous beach near the southern town of Vík, a couple climbed up the slippery rock face of a cliff for a photo opportunity. I watched as a family with two young children clambered down a slippery cave to look at the boiling water pool at its base. And as a large tour bus left the famous waterfall of Seljalandsfoss at dusk, I found rubbish lining the trail - the first I had seen in many days.

Here in the more developed south, visitor numbers are high and there isn't enough infrastructure to support them, or keep up with all the effects they have on the environment. This time round the stability of Iceland's economy depends not on intangible numbers in banks and trades, but in the preservation of the land itself. If the government doesn't invest in creating places for all these visitors then its wilderness will be jeopardised. But putting up fences and guardrails is an inherently un-Icelandic thing to do.

On my way back to Reykjavik, I passed a sign pointing right, which I intuitively followed to the great lip of a glacier, curving into a valley. At the start of the trail a sign warned about the many dangers of exploring the glacier: "Some have never returned from a glacier visit, their fate still unknown." I walked towards the glacier across a field of wet sand and shallow water - the volume of the ice was threatening, its slow grinding movement clear enough to hear. I wanted to get closer, but I stopped and I walked back to the car instead.

The Lowdown

If you decide to drive around Iceland be sure to start your trip with a night at the 101 Hotel in Reykjavik and end it at the ION Adventure Hotel in Nesjavellir, about a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik. A double room at 101 Hotel starts from £175, book your stay at 101hotel.is. Double rooms start from £158 at the ION Adventure Hotel, reserve your room at ioniceland.is.

Airbnb is an excellent choice for remoter areas in the country.

If you're looking for a guide to take you on any adventure around the island use Adventure Patrol.