An almost perfectly conical volcano covered in bright green moss stands alone in a black sand desert streaked with light streams of water. A bright blue sky sets the tone and tells you the passage of time as spreads of clouds fly quickly over the sun. An imposing glacier stands in the distance, with its white shine contrasting the dark volcanic soil. Opposite to the glacier, a series of undulating green mountains sprinkled with patches of snow, serve as the backdrop of this scenery.
Sounds like a surreal setting or something from another world, but this place exists, and it’s here on earth – in Iceland. It’s called Maelifellsandur, and its crowning jewel is Mount Maelifell – the iconic green volcano.
It’s been a few months since I did this drive, yet I still dream about it and look back at it with joy and respect. I loved and cherished every second of this drive, but I don’t think I’d do it again the way I did it. It was that scary and stressful.
Still, my love for it makes me want to drive it 100 times again if I could.
From the Ring Road to the Interior
It was near the end of my trip, and I had already driven most of the Ring Road of Iceland. For two weeks, I had hopped between waterfalls and glaciers, mountains and seascapes, valleys and fjords, and everything in between. One thing I hadn’t done was to go inland – to the rugged, unspoiled landscapes full of beauty and mystery.
I wanted to go, but there was one problem. I had rented a small car, but for the interior roads, you need a 4×4. For a while, I considered doing it with my small car. How bad can the roads be? Turns out; there are no proper roads in most of the interior of Iceland.
To reach Mt. Maelifell, I would need to drive over dirt roads, volcanic deserts, and do a few river crossings.
Great, a Volkswagen Polo is no match for this adventure.
My search then shifted to doing it as a tour, but only one company in Iceland goes there, they do it sporadically, and the tour is expensive. To top that, no one else was doing it, so I had to pay four times the price to cover the minimum of four passengers to do the tour. That would have cost me over $1000. Hell no!
So, option three, rent a last minute 4×4? I searched for a bit, found a few; their prices were a bit high, but it was my best option so far. Done!
Planning My Way
Once I rented the 4×4 for a day, I went into planning mode. What can I see in one day? Which roads can I take?
Well, the only “road” that takes you to Mt. Maelifell is the F210. In Iceland, roads are classified with numbers (i.e. 210) or with an F and a number (i.e. F210). Number roads are “everyday roads” and can be driven by anyone. F roads, on the other hand, are only suitable for four-wheel drives.
Ok, my plan of attack was to reach Mt. Maelifell through the south, via road F210, then turn north via F233 and return through Landmannalaugar via F208.
“I’m fine! I have a 4×4!”
Well, not so fast, Norbert. As I kept researching, I came across this one site that said:
“The longer northern route via Landmannalaugar (F208) which takes four to five hours might be passable in smaller SUVs as long as they have four-wheel drive, while the shorter southern route (F210) is only suitable for specially-equipped vehicles…”
Norbert being Norbert, I still carried on. I knew I would have to cross a few rivers and face some rough roads, but I had done the Mongol Rally already, which presented me with similar situations. There’s one big difference this time: I was all alone. What if I got stuck or drowned the 4×4 crossing a river?
I hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. Even though this was going to be a day trip, I took extra warm clothes and food in case I had to spend the night stranded in the middle of nowhere.
The Stressful Drive
Around 8 am I picked my four-wheel drive and quickly left Reykjavik. Summer days are extremely long in Iceland, and my drive was going to be just as long.
The first hour and a half were smooth and uneventful, but once I reached the small village of Hella, the adventure started. There I turned left and jumped from a number road to an F road. A warning sign with a 4×4 crossing a river was my welcome to the F210. Great…
Even though the bad roads started here, the great views that came with them were more than well received. I’m not exaggerating when I say I stopped every five minutes to take a pic.
Oooo, look at that mountain. So pretty!
Oooo, sheep!!! Cute!
Oooo, look at that green valley!! I’m going to fly my drone there!
Oooo, snowcapped mountains! I need to photograph those for sure!
Oooo, a river! Oh shit, I need to cross that.
It didn’t take long before I reached my first river crossing. That warning sign was not lying, but at least, it was an easy and very shallow river. Just a 4×4 dipping its toes in a small stream. Giggles!
Now, looking back at it, I believe the more beautiful the landscape got, the bigger and more challenging the river crossings got.
Slowly the “specially-equipped vehicles” warning for the F210 became more and more apparent. I clearly did not have a specially-equipped vehicle with car-destroying big wheels, a waterproof engine, and all that yadda-yadda.
Then came a big river. And what that means? A serious river crossing. How did I know it was serious? Unlike the five or six rivers I had crossed until now, this was the first one with a river crossing warning sign. Hmmm…
I got off the car to read it carefully… (and to assess my situation)
“Crossing Requires Caution” (Noted.)
“Where is the crossing?- Rivers change” (I guess right in front?)
“Tire tracks do not tell the entire story.” (I see a few tire tracks, I suppose I’ll take the one most traveled)
“Has your engine been waterproofed?” (Nope!)
“Is somebody watching while you cross?” (Nope. There’s not a soul for miles.)
“Probe the crossing yourself.” (Are you kidding? I’m not dipping my feet in that freezing water!)
“Use a safety line.” (Don’t have one.)
“Wear warm clothing in bright colours.” (Yay! Got one right at least!)
The river was quite wide –about 30 to 40 feet wide– and the current looked strong enough to worry me. I was not willing to wet my feet in freezing water, so I estimated it to be deep enough to require substantial maneuvering while crossing, but not that deep to prevent me from passing. And off I went.
I put the vehicle in its four-wheel drive mode and charged towards the river. The more I got into it, the deeper it got, and the slower the car went through it. I could feel the water hitting and dragging it slowly, which made me hit the gas harder to power through it.
It was a success! An adventure measured by my heartbeat rate, which was through the roof!
The next three hours were spent with a mix of stunning views and challenging crossings. At one point the river crossing was not just a crossing; the river was the road! It was so confusing. I could see the tracks leading towards the river, but I couldn’t see a way out on the other side. Still, with a cloud of WTFs in my mind, I went into that river and followed the current. It wasn’t deep enough to worry me, but the drive was long enough to make me think I was crazy for driving ON a river.
I admit, that one was fun!
As I got deeper inland, I noticed how the landscape changed from lush green moss mountains to a flat black sand desert. I was almost there.
The landscape was surreal, but more surreal for me was the fact that I was there, all alone. In the distance, I could see the mountain –Mount Maelifell– my goal.
Once there, I turned off the engine, got off, and sat on the ground to look at it. All I could hear was wind. No birds, no river sounds, nothing. Just wind. I think I had never felt so alone and content at the same time. I accomplished my mission, and I was awarded such a beautiful mountain. I looked at every detail of my surroundings. The squishy moss, the coarse volcanic sand, the glacier in the distance, the moving clouds – everything.
I spent like an hour sitting and walking around the mountain. I hoped to see humans at some point, but no. It was just me. This was my domain. My surreal paradise, even if temporary.
I wanted to stay longer, but Iceland being Iceland, a dust storm came my way. It was time to go.
All the joy of being alone in nature faded away about five minutes after I left the mountain. I came across the worst river crossing so far – warning and everything.
I repeated my assessment, but this time I feared it more that all the previous ones. This one looked deep. Very deep.
Like before, I went in; I felt the drag, and I powered through. Only this time I could feel the vehicle getting deeper, and deeper, and deeper, to the point where the water reached the top of the hood. Fear of flooding the engine rushed to me just like the water rushed onto that hood, so I pressed the gas even further to leave that river as quick as possible. The vehicle sped up slightly. I could feel the rocks right under me with every bump, bang, and scratch in the undercarriage. I hit several rocks. I felt like I was crashing my rental intentionally.
But then, after that fear and chaos, I slowly crept up the other shore. I stopped for a few minutes to let the engine drain all the water (luckily it didn’t drown) and to check the car all around to make sure it was all peachy. My heart wasn’t peachy, though. I did not want to do that again!
Following the plan, I left the F210 and turned left to the F233 to reach Landmannalaugar, but quickly, an even stronger crossing came by.
I stopped. After a few minutes debating it, I decided it was too risky.
“Ah, fuck this… I’m getting out of here.”
I couldn’t risk this one. My gut told me I would get stuck in that river. The weather was deteriorating, and I didn’t know how many hours it would take for someone to discover my stranded self. A day or two? I hadn’t seen a single human being since I entered the F road. There was no phone signal either.
I decided to play it safe, scrap the plans to see Landmannalaugar, and leave through the shorter (still F and full of river crossings) road down south. Luckily, that played well as the way south towards Vik was mostly “smooth” compared to everything else.
Almost at the end of my F ordeal, I stopped for a few minutes to marvel at the landscape. I couldn’t believe I went through all those mountains on my own. And not only that; but that I witnessed nature in its rawest state with not a single human in my distant radar.
This is a day I’ll never forget.
As for the F road… they got my share of fucks… that F should stand for that.