The Land of Waterfalls

by Vicky Qiao

On a road trip through Iceland, a traveler ditches her itinerary and allows herself to be enveloped by the magic of the landscape, one waterfall at a time.

“A land untouched by human hands 
Where seasons change within minutes 
Where roads stretch out into endless desert
Where waves roar onto pitch black sand 
Where glaciers cut clear into mountains 
Where the raw beauty of nature beams with glistening light.”

I wrote this short poem in May 2019, while sitting in Keflavík International Airport and waiting for my return flight to Canada. I was still feeling grounded from my trip; the past ten days in Iceland had reconnected me with nature in ways I could’ve never imagined. 

Part of me knew that this feeling would soon drift away once I returned to Toronto, that without the waterfalls, mountains and vast Icelandic sky, I would lose touch with this untapped version of nature. I recalled some of the mesmerizing imagery and tried to translate it into words—knowing that they would never suffice.

Ten days earlier, I had landed at the same airport outside of Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland, with my suitcase, water bag, and a heart full of excitement. I had spent hours searching, planning, and editing my itinerary for weeks. Little did I know, it would stay at the bottom of my bag for most of the trip. 

It would be a journey like no other, I thought to myself. And it was indeed. I looked through the window on the bus ride from the airport to my hostel; the morning fog skewed my sight, but I could still spot the chunky black rocks that were piled up on the roadside. 

Buckled up in the small Volkswagen Golf we rented, we hit the road and drove through the infamous Golden Circle. Upon entering Þingvellir National Park, I was transported into the realm of natural wonders. I’d never seen clouds this low, desert this vast, and mountains this grand—at least not all together at once. 

Gullfoss was the highlight of our Golden Circle excursion. Standing on the canyon of the Hvítá River and looking over one of Iceland’s most visited waterfalls, I wallowed in its power. The glacier water plunged over the top and tumbled down the second step. Misty fog ascended from the waterfall and spread into the air and onto the onlookers. The relentless energy of Gullfoss was contagious, and I walked away from the canyon refreshed and uplifted. 

If Gullfoss was a restless warrior who stomps with great vigor, Seljalandsfoss would be a pacifist who heals and inspires with gentleness. 

Towering down from the 65-meter cliff, Seljalandsfoss gleamed in the morning sunshine. A double rainbow showed up right as we approached the base of the waterfall, as if the chirping birds, misty air, and fresh mosses weren’t enough to make Seljalandsfoss a site of pure magic. 

A loop trail guided us into the waterfall’s overhanging backside. Some visitors put their raincoats on, but I couldn’t care less about being blasted by the waterfall’s mist. I closed my eyes and listened to water bursting and pouring—nature’s symphony.

The crowd dispersed as we walked toward the end of the trail, but I caught a subtle harmony under the distinct sound of Seljalandsfoss. 

“Let’s keep walking a bit.” We took a detour to discover where the sound was coming from. My tendency to “take the road less traveled” would later put us in a risky situation, but at the site of Seljalandsfoss, it brought us to Gljúfrafoss—the mysterious twin of Seljalandsfoss.

Referred to as the “spooky” waterfall, Gljúfrafoss embodies a sense of mystery in its hidden location and obstructed view. With the rocks blocking parts of the waterfall, I could only see parts of Gljúfrafoss’ eccentric, intense flow through the veil of a heavy mist.  

We sat down on the grass a few feet from the falls. Birds circled around the cliff in a blue, cloudless sky, and a little house with a red roof stood in the distance. 

We recalled the time when we visited Niagara Falls together years ago, and here we were, on the other side of the globe, still chasing waterfalls. 

Unwittingly, we stopped following my carefully curated itinerary. Gone with my list was my obsession with planning. The spontaneity in making stops along the route was exciting and, in a sense, liberating.  

Our route took a little twist at Öxi Pass—literally and figuratively. 

Studying the map as we headed North from Djúpivogur, a mountain pass caught our eyes. It was shorter than the Ring Road we were supposed to take and would get us to our next stop faster. 

With all the hidden gems and unplanned adventures, we were on a roll. A shortcut never looked better. Without knowing the condition of the road, not even the name, we took the detour.

It didn’t take us long to realize the decision we had made was not a wise one. The gravel mountain road was extremely narrow and steep, and with minimal visibility due to the heavy mountain fog, we could barely see our surroundings. Not to mention that our small hatchback was not made for a rocky road like this. My heart sank every time the undercarriage hit the rocks. “We’re totally paying for the damage fee,” said Suzanne, the better driver of the two of us, who was moving the car at snail speed.

I pulled out my phone to see how much longer this nightmare would last. There was no signal. 

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, searching for peaceful moments from my memory drawer. The waterfalls that we’d seen in the past few days resurfaced in my mind. I thought about the journey of Earth’s water, flying down the cliff, a moment that many streams and rivers long dreamed of yet might only encounter once. And without pause, the water continued its way forward, into the greater lakes and oceans. 

And so did we—moving forward amidst challenges and roadblocks. 

After what felt like an eternity, we got back to the normal highway. “We’re never telling our moms about this,” said Suzanne.

A quick Google search later proved our recklessness to take the Öxi Pass without research—“Avoid at all costs,” “Adverse weather conditions,” “Only suitable for well equipped 4x4s and mountain trucks.”

We certainly learned our lesson the hard way. Nature is full of surprises, but some are more dangerous than the others. 

Reynisfjara (a black sand beach) was more pleasant. Walking up the beach, I felt like we were entering a black and white movie — grey sky, white waves, and smooth black sand. The default imagery of turquoise blue ocean and yellow sandy beach was nowhere to be found. 

Diamond Beach took the surprise to the next level. Giant, glistening “diamonds” scattered across the black sand beach, adding a sense of sci-fi mystery to the film noir scenery. 

The diamonds are actually iceberg fragments that have drifted ashore from the ocean. Standing still in the water were the bigger fragments, the solid white of the ice softly faded into turquoise blue on the edges, as if it were painted and blended with watercolors.

I took a deep breath, and the icy air immediately filled my lungs, soothing the body’s interior and releasing all tension. I thought about all the juices and powder we spend money on for “detox” and “cleanse”; if only we all had access to nature’s therapy.

From waterfalls to glacier lakes and from mountains to beaches, a road trip might have been the only way to truly experience the magic of Iceland. Drastically different landscapes transitioned smoothly and unfolded in front of our eyes as we drove. One minute we were surrounded by rocky, Mars-like landscapes, and the next it changed to vast, green land with horses roaming in the fields.

Perhaps ditching my carefully-planned itinerary was the best choice I made in order to fully immerse myself in what Iceland had to offer. 

Editor’s Note: 
This article resulted from our “Your First Published Article” scholarship program. To be informed of more opportunities for travel writers, follow us on Facebook and join our free Newsletter.

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