Iceland is the prettiest place in the world.
There are probably people who would disagree, and might argue on behalf of another location. I bear such people no ill-will and I do not question their motives. They’re just wrong.
Now that I have a car, I decided to get out from the capital a bit and do some exploring. This is both less and more courageous than it seems: Iceland is very safe, the roads are very well maintained, and it probably has better wireless connectivity than any other nation on earth. You can’t get hurt, you can’t get stranded, and you can’t get lost.
Except you can do all of those things, of course, if you’re not reasonably cautious. Iceland is a country, not a day-care center.
My goal was Háifoss (pr. HOW-i-foss), the second-tallest waterfall in Iceland. Spilling over the edge of a canyon to the rocks over 400 feet below, it’s beautiful and dramatic. It’s also not easy for the casual tourist to reach: getting to it requires a substantial hike over rough terrain or driving a gravel road of the sort car rental companies here forbid you from traveling.
The route to Háifoss from Reykjavik starts on Hringvegur, the ring road that runs along the perimeter of Iceland. About an hour east of Reykvavik you come to Hveragerði (pr. KVER-a-ger-thi, where the g is a soft guttural and the thi sounds like “this” with the s missing), a town of about 2,300 people and what seems like an equal number of hot springs and plumes of steam rising from the earth.
Hveragerði sits atop a geothermal district where magma lies close to the surface and heated water boils up out of the ground. Sometimes the water subsides, leaving a steaming hole in the ground called a fumarole, and sometimes the steam dies out, leaving just a deep pit. The townsfolk used one of those as a municipal garbage pit until an earthquake in 1947 brought the fumarole back to life, blasting the rotted garbage out of the hole and raining it all over town. Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor.
Just beyond Hveragerði (and the much larger town to the east, Selfoss), I turned to follow the Þjórsá (pr. THYOR-sau) river, the longest river in Iceland.
The river flows through a series of canyons and broad plains past Hekla (pr. HECK-la), a nearly mile-high volcano.
Hekla has been very active in historic times, with at least 20 eruptions since the first permanent settlement in about 874 AD. Some of the eruptions have been extraordinarily violent; during the Middle Ages, Europeans called the mountain “the gateway to Hell,” and Icelandic lore has it that the herm “heck” as a synonym for hell is merely a corruption of Hekla’s name.
Getting to Háifoss requires leaving the paved road that parallels the Þjórsá river. Unfortunately, it rained heavily for a bit, and in the brief deluge I missed my turn-off. So I turned to my trusty iPhone (miles from anything – still a great connection) and its mapping feature, which informed me that I had to backtrack about 40 miles. That really didn’t seem right to me, but who am I to question the great computer cartographers of Cupertino?*
As it turned out, I hadn’t missed my turn – it was about two miles in front of me. But apparently my phone decided it wanted to see some Icelandic farmland, and so I wound up taking it on a tour. Sly and devious, that phone is. I have to keep that in mind.
But after the tour, my phone’s directions were spot on.
There is no paved road to Háifoss. The gravel road you have to take is about 10 miles of an auto repair shop owner’s dream. Several times I was absolutely sure I was going to leave some important piece of my 4WD car’s undercarriage stuck on a rock. Prudence probably demanded turning back.
Prudence and I have never been formally introduced, however, and I was not about to give up. At no point was I in any actual danger, but stubbornness is one of my many flaws. Someday, my tombstone will almost certainly read “he’s stubborn, he’s stupid, and he’s here.”
After about 45 minutes of very cautious driving, my phone and my car arrived at the falls. You approach from the east; there’s a 400-foot drop, and on the other side of the canyon, Háifoss and a slightly-smaller cascade called Granni.
There was no one else there, and probably for miles in any direction. Just me, a pair of gorgeous waterfalls, a really deep canyon … no guardrails … no markers clearly showing the edge of the cliff …
It occurred to me that if I slipped, it would be a long time before anyone found my body. They’d probably have to track me by my cell phone. After taking a tour of the local farms.
* If you think I enjoyed that bit of alliteration more than I should have, you’re probably right.