It seems like the last two years have seen Iceland topping on everybody’s travel wish list, and we were not excluded in this herd. The incredible natural phenomenon, Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights that could only be seen in the northern hemisphere, is the reason why many travellers head to this far-flung Nordic nation; well, at least that was our reason. We had penned in Iceland on our travel destination plans later in the future, since travelling to that part of the world is not exactly cheap. We needed time to raise the travel funds, but when an article surfaced on our Facebook newsfeed, stating that the Aurora Borealis will become dimmer for the next ten years beginning May 2016… we started panicking.
Suddenly Iceland was on top of our list, and travel plans to other destinations need to be deferred until later. We simply had to work extra hard to save money for this aurora hunt of ours!
It is unlikely for us to only go to just one country whenever we travel long-haul. Scandinavia is a natural choice this time. Photos and details of our Scandinavian trip (minus Finland) can be found on our Instagram (@gayatraveller) and Facebook (Gaya Traveller).
We visited Iceland for seven days in the last week of September. It was Autumn, which is off peak season on the tourist calendar. Autumn means it is not as cold as winter, but there is a chance of rain. Rain means cloudy skies, indicating that we might have lower chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Truthfully, we did get three days of rain. But when it was a sunny day, it was surreally gorgeous!
Getting There and Around
- Malaysians do not require a visa to enter Iceland.
- Keflavik Airport is the main gateway for most passenger flights to and from Iceland, and it is open 24 hours. It is located 48km from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and largest city.
- We travelled to Reykjavik by flight from Bergen, Norway. We walked out of the arrival terminal without any immigration process, which means our passports were neither checked nor stamped. It was quite disappointing, honestly! Our friends who flew in from London had their passports stamped and luggage checked.
- Renting a car is probably the best way to explore Iceland because you get to go at your own pace, and wherever you feel like going. The roads are not congested, and the speed limit is only 90 kilometres per hour at most. The only challenge is perhaps getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road. Iceland is a left-hand drive country.
- There were eight of us on this all-girl self-drive trip. We rented two cars to get around the southern part of Iceland comfortably. We highly recommend renting a four-wheel drive vehicle as some of the roads are rough. Certain roads, especially at the northern side of the country, only allow four-wheel drive vehicles. Be sure to decide on your routes before booking your rental car. Iceland probably has the most car rental companies available, so finding one that suits your needs will not be a problem!
- For the adventurous, perhaps renting a camper van would be more interesting. Companies like Kuku Campers, Happy Campers, and rent.is rent out mini camper vans, complete with wi-fi. We had seen these campers drive up ascending gravel roads with no problem. There are parking lots with shower and toilet facilities (pay to use) available.
- For the uninitiated, there are various ground handlers offering tour packages at attractive prices.
- Iceland is a touristy country whereby we saw more tourists than locals when we were on the road. Perhaps there are also more sheep than locals here since we do not even see the farmers on the farms. Sheep, horses and cows are left unattended within fenced fields.
- English is widely spoken but rarely written on signboards, labels, etc.
- The exchange rate is approximately ISK1,000 = RM40. A credit card is acceptable everywhere, even for toilets and off-street parking. Having a credit card is vital to visit Iceland.
- The landscape of Iceland varies. Majestic mountains, countless waterfalls, streams, and creeks can be seen throughout Iceland. Some parts are covered with grass and various other types of vegetation; some just black sand or earth. Moss covered lava rocks create the most unique panorama of all. The land is barren, but not without something interesting to be observed by curious travellers.
- It is easy to spot rainbows in Iceland, especially when it rains. We were greeted by a double rainbow as we disembarked from the aeroplane.
Places We Visited
Reykjavik is where the population is most dense, and home to many modern buildings, museums and sculptures. This includes the striking Hallgrimskirkja Church, Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager sculpture.
Whale Watching & Whales of Iceland Museum
While there are no guarantees of whale sightings on this three-hour whale watching excursion, it was an interesting experience. We did not see the two Minke whales that were detected on the captain’s radar, but it was exciting nonetheless. July is the best month to catch sight of the whales in the wild. The museum houses many life-sized whale species with interesting narrations and displays.
Indoor flea market opens on Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. This is where the locals shop for items like clothing, leather goods, and groceries.
The Golden Circle
This is a popular tourist route in southern Iceland, a loop that spans approximately 300 kilometres beginning from Reykjavík down to the southern uplands of Iceland and back. Most tours and travel-related activities in Iceland are located within this route, which is a good idea to follow if you have limited time in your hands to discover Iceland.
Thingvellir National Park
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in an active volcanic area, just 49 kilometres east of Reykjavík. The Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, was established here in 930 A.D. and held its sessions there until 1798.
Hot spring area Strokkur geyser erupts every 10 minutes and sends a spectacular water and stream column 30 metres up into the air. Other geothermal features include mud pools, fumaroles, algal deposits and mini geysers. Entrance is free.
The thunderous Gullfoss, or The Golden Waterfall, is considered the most beautiful Icelandic waterfall that drops down 32 metres into a narrow river gorge – definitely a sight not to be missed!
Kerið is a volcanic crater lake in Grimsnes in South Iceland. It is 55 metres deep and about 3,000 years old. Its steep circular slopes resemble an ancient amphitheatre. Admission is ISK400 per person.
The release of Bollywood movie Dilwale in December 2015 somehow determined our route around Iceland. The movie featured many beautiful Icelandic landscapes that we needed to simply see with our own eyes!
This is the waterfall that appeared in the movie. There is a big cave behind where you can walk around the waterfall. Don’t forget to bring your raincoat when exploring the place!
Plane Wreck, Solheimasandur
Perhaps the only manmade attraction in Iceland! Travellers need to walk four kilometres one way to the site. The carcass of a white plane set on the black sands makes a dramatic contrast. The path leading towards the site is clearly marked.
Black pebble beach with Gardar, the most amazing cliff with regular basalt columns. Out in the sea is Reynisdrangar, spectacularly shaped basalt sea stacks.
This is one of the biggest and most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. It is 25 meters wide and has a drop of 60 metres.
A large glacial lake, this is the birthplace of icebergs! The view of blue icebergs is spectacular. Just across Jökulsárlón is Diamond Beach, a black sand beach with ice scattered on them, turning the whole site surreal.
Everywhere you turn and look in Iceland is picture-worthy. The country is blessed with unique and interesting landscapes. We need to go back to discover the rest of the country!
Kirkjufell Mountain and Kirkjufellfoss Waterfall
Kirkjufell mountain makes an interesting focal point. Surrounded by beaches, the mountain has a lovely walking trail around it. Not too far from the mountain is Kirkjufellfoss, a small yet charming waterfall. Together they form a fairytale-like landscape that we had never seen before.
The Bridge Between Continents, Reykjanes
This 18-metre bridge lies across a canyon that was formed due to the movements of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It is interesting to cross between the two continents in just a few seconds!
The canyon is 100 metres deep and two kilometres long with Fjadra river flowing through it.
This place is characterised by cliffs hanging by the sea with a lighthouse on top, giving away a spectacular panorama. We were lucky to spot two Orcas (killer whales) swimming! During summer, Dyrholaey is home to thousands of puffins and other bird species.
Eyjafjallajökull is a volcano completely covered by an ice cap. The sleeping giant woke up in 2010 and made worldwide news due to the impact it had on world aviation. Eyjafjallajökull Erupts Visitor Centre is located at the foot of the volcano. Admission is ISK800.
The Magical Aurora Borealis – Our Encounter
Much to our surprise, the Aurora Borealis can be seen as early as dusk. We were making our way back to our car after visiting the Seljalandsfoss waterfall when an elderly man excitedly pointed to the sky, telling us that the Northern Lights had just begun. It was a good thing that he had told us, or we would have missed the phenomenon! Through naked eye, the Northern Lights seemed like streaks of light coloured clouds. It was not like the photos and videos we had seen prior to our trip at all. We were expecting vivid night skies with hues of blue and green!
Imagine our excited faces once we viewed the photos from the camera! At dusk, the colour is a softer mix of turquoise and green. As the sky turns darker, the lights turn into swathes of vivid green.
We decided to continue our drive because there was quite a distance left to go before we reached our intended hotel for that night. Along the way, we could see the streaks getting longer and more prominent. Our screams of excitement seemed endless, and for the sanity of the driver (our sister Irma), we decided to find a good spot to park the car and look at the sky.
We had been out the whole day, which means there was not much battery power left on our cameras! The cold weather causes the battery to run out faster. However, the experience of seeing it live was more than enough for us. This was the reason we decided to come to Iceland anyway.
Our second encounter of the Northern Lights was on our final night in Iceland, which was on 28th September 2016. We were just finishing our visit to the Whales of Iceland Museum when one of the staff at the museum told our sister that the Northern Lights were forecasted to be active that night – it is difficult to predict when would be the next time the Northern Lights would be active. It was expected to be so good that the city of Reykjavik will turn off their lights for a few hours that night.
We drove out to the outskirts of the city, near the airport as our flight was at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. After we have checked in and done our final packing, we headed out of the guesthouse and searched for open space away from the bright lights. We looked at the sky from the moving car to see if there were any sign of the Northern Lights, and much to our delight, there were quite a few!
We found a nice spot and parked our cars on a secluded country road. There was another car parked about 30 metres ahead of us. So there we were, having girl talk that lasted for a couple of hours with topics ranging from food, travel, dieting, fitness regime and work, apart from the ‘wows’, ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ while staring at the sky. That other car then decided to pack up and leave but slowed down when they passed us by. Much to our delight (or perhaps horror?), they greeted us in Malay and told us how surprising it was to meet fellow Malaysians on this secluded road! What are the odds of bumping into your fellow countrymen somewhere out of the way in Iceland? They must have heard every single conversation we had, haha!
Not long after they left, we decided to venture to another location, this time to a more secluded spot. We parked and breathed in the crisp night air. Suddenly, something amazing happened: the Northern Lights started to shine brighter and brighter, and the sky was multi-coloured, unlike the bright white streaks we were familiar with. It was colourful even with our naked eyes. They were literally dancing! The lights moved so radiantly that we swore we could hear them sing. It was truly magical, there were no words to describe what we saw and how we felt watching nature’s light show. We were spellbound and in awe all at the same time. We were mesmerised. We still could not believe our eyes and kept asking ourselves if this was truly happening.
We had tears in our eyes because we knew what we saw that night was special. What a fantastic send-off it was! We definitely ended our Iceland trip on a sweet note. News and reports of the Northern Lights activities that night apparently made worldwide news, and we were beyond grateful to experience it first-hand.
Gaya Traveller’s Driving in Iceland Experience & Tips
- Malaysian driving license is accepted, International Driving License is not required.
- Book your rental car direct, not via a third party as we did. We ended up buying additional insurance from the rental company to make things easier.
- Rental processing took a long time (two hours for us) since we had to meet many people and receive detailed explanation by the company staff. Allow ample time for this.
- Since there are many car rental companies to choose from, consider the bigger ones that are located at the airport. The rest offer free pick up and drop off at the airport. So perhaps it is a good idea to rent from those located at the airport.
- Forget renting GPS. Offline Google map is easier to use and better.
- Petrol stations are too far in between, so when you see one, just fill up your tank. Make your toilet stops as well at the station.
- Switch on the car lights all the time while driving.
- When cars merging at a bridge, whoever reaches the bridge first, have the right of way
- Left-hand drive. The maximum speed limit is 90km/h. There are speed camera posts, but we did not see any policeman. Just drive slowly and enjoy the fantastic view.
- Seatbelts are compulsory for everyone.
- Select your car according to your destination wish list. Get a four-wheel drive for all access.
- Look out for sheep – you are liable if you run over one!
- Do not leave your car door ajar for long because it could be swept away by the extraordinarily strong wind – it happened to us before!
- Best to have at least two drivers. It is a huge island, so plan your journey well.
Don’t forget to read our other travel stories here on Gaya Travel website.