Chasing Waterfalls | The Problem With Iceland

A road trip in southern Iceland is one for the bucket list, just remember that it's a tough act to follow

Featured Image: Jack Clayton

They say that when the all-conquering Alexander the Great looked upon the breadth of his domain, he wept. They say he did this because he knew, deep in his heart, that there were no more worlds left to conquer; a bittersweet sense that he’d achieved everything he wanted to and, in doing so, stripped his life of purpose. Historians are still to clarify whether Alexander the Great was listening to the sad, sad, sounds of Death Cab For Cutie at the time but that’s a mostly irrelevant discussion which we’ll save for another time.

Staring down at the epic Skógafoss waterfall, on a beautiful June day in Iceland, I’m hit by something bordering on what ATG, as he was probably known to his mates, must have felt. It’s, by my estimation, the millionth jaw-dropping, heart-melting, waterfall we’ve seen on our four-day Icelandic road trip and, well, quite frankly I’m emotionally and physically spent.

“It’s addictive Iceland”

Moments before we got to it, my pal Tom had spotted the waterfall as a point of interest on Google Maps. Eyes tired from the relentless beauty of this mad, spectacular, place I nearly went full Brenda from Bristol (“You’re joking? Not another one”). Instead, with my head pressed against the window in a borderline nap state I said “Naaah. Let’s skip this one. I’ve got waterfall fatigue.” 

Of course, I was wrong. As soon as we could see it from the road, we knew. We all knew. Iceland does this to you. It’s a laughably nice place to be in, whether you’re in a hire car or out on foot it makes you want to savour every moment like no other place I’ve been to.

Pictured: Skógafoss from the viewing platform. Photo: Jack Clayton

Pulling my DSLR out of its bag for one more rodeo, we walk up to it in the evening light and watch as a bride and groom have their wedding photos taken in front of it. I can’t see the photos from where we’re standing but I’d wager, and sorry if you’re reading this mum and dad, that they’re nicer than my now divorced parents’ wedding photos on Canvey Island.

There’s a staircase by Skógafoss, a reflection perhaps of the fact that Iceland now gets more than two million visitors a year. It winds its way up the side of the waterfall like a metal rattlesnake, gifting anyone who powers through the deep thigh burn the mother of all views.

Looking down at it from the viewing platform, I’m ambushed by a feeling that all people lucky enough to work in “adventure travel” dread. A feeling that you’ve just completed Earth. A feeling that every place you visit, from this point forward, will be a downgrade of what you’re looking at right now. Unlike Alexander, the tears stay inside my face. But like Alexander I’m struck by a gnawing, emo A-Level philosophy, question: “What now?”

Pictured: Skógá River. Photo: Jack Clayton

In June, the sun sets at 23:55 in Iceland (and even then, it doesn’t really set in a classic sense). Being so far north, the country treats its summertime visitors to some of the longest and best “golden hours” in the world. It’s a place where #NoFilter takes on a whole new meaning, a destination where the light and landscape combine in ways that can seem genuinely otherworldly. While looking down at Skógafoss, the light around us shifts and we suddenly find ourselves basking in the dreamiest “golden hour” imaginable (unbeatable moments getting beaten moments after they’ve presented themselves to you is a regular occurence in Iceland but this one takes the biscuit). 

Rather than head back to the car, we decide to make the most of the excellent light by stretching our legs and following the hiker’s path that runs along the Skógá River. The waterfalls that make up the River are numerous, and we soon find ourselves falling into the habit of walking a few minutes, stopping as if hit by a tranquilliser dart, reaching for the cameras and snapping away; trying desperately to do justice to the sights that we’re seeing. 

Pictured: Skógá River in the evening light. Photo: Jack Clayton

Every corner we turn, every hill we go over, presents a new view to be impressed by and another opportunity to fall ever so slightly more in love with Iceland. 

“Just a bit further,” one of us says.

And we go a bit further. And then a bit further. And then a bit further still. It’s addictive Iceland. It gets under your skin. Like a football sticker album when you’re eight years old, it’s a thing that calls you on and makes you want to complete it. Any decision to turn back in this place always comes with a big fat sense of FOMO hanging over it, a feeling that if you don’t carry on you may miss the view that makes all the nine out of ten views look like five out of ten views. Decisions to keep moving forward rarely disappoint and this rapidly means you descend into a vicious circle where the urge to continue marching on gets ever more present and all-consuming.

Pictured: The walk back to the car. Photo: Jack Clayton

Dazed, like we’ve just gone three rounds with Drederick Tatum, we eventually find ourselves drifting back to our small, plucky, hire car; a hire car that’s taken us to glaciers, taken us to the black sand beaches of Vík, taken us to the Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach, taken us to the edge of the known universe (Interstellar, Star Wars, Prometheus are just some of the sci-fi films that have been shot in Iceland). 

We’ve driven our little Suzuki on some extremely bumpy dirt roads, roads where it feels like the entire car is going to fall apart if the suspension takes just one more heavy hit. We’ve explored as much of the island’s south side as possible in the time permitted and yet it still feels like we’ve only seen a small fraction of what this extraordinary place has to offer. Except for the waterfalls, that is. There’s surely not a single waterfall on the bottom half of Iceland we haven’t seen. Seriously, ask me anything you want about waterfalls on the bottom half of Iceland. Anything. Go on. I dare you. 

“Visit Iceland and you’ll feel things you didn’t know you could feel about a waterfall”

Skógafoss, Gullfoss, Gljúfrabúi, Seljalandsfoss, Porufoss (Game of Thrones filming location), and the rest; while here, I fall (sorry) for them all. Sure, it’s rare to get time alone with any of them as there’s usually at least one coach load of tourists somewhere in the vicinity wherever you go. But such is the nature of the spectacle that even shared ones in Iceland have isolated moments that feel like they’ve been put on entirely for you. Yes, visit Iceland and you’ll feel things you didn’t know you could feel about a waterfall. 

So, go to Iceland. But also, stay, don’t go. Because once you go, you’ll never want to go anywhere else again. Iceland’s beauty, and Iceland’s curse; it’s biggest strength and, for everyone who visits, it’s most lingering problem. Once you’ve touched greatness like this, what else is there?

Pictured: Seljalandsfoss (over the rainbow). Photo: Jack Clayton

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So Iceland is an amazing country with a lot of amazing waterfalls. Arguably too many amazing waterfalls, in fact. It's basically impossible to drive five minutes in any direction here without feeling the need to stop and look at a waterfall. Not sure how people who live in this country get anything done. Anyway, here's a photo of me looking at a pretty cool waterfall in Iceland || Credit: @bedders_ || #iceland #waterfall #adventure #travel #outdoors #chasingwaterfalls

A post shared by Jack BB Clayton (@jackbbclayton) on

Do It Yourself

We flew from London Luton to Keflavik International Airport (about 50km from Reykjavik) with EasyJet. Keflavik has a number of hire car options. In Reykjavik, we stayed in the 4th Floor Hotel. While in Vik, we stayed in the Vik Hi Hostel. Southern Iceland is home to a number of spectacular waterfalls, including Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss (just under 30km separates the two, and seeing both of them in a day is easily doable).

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