Trolls, snowmobiles, and the ‘Bloody Gate’

In the land of ice, I discovered my inner daredevil

November. It’s not the best month; the days are dreary, the nights are long. But despite this, I never think to plan a trip away at this time of year. But this November was different. I was going to Iceland.

For my first Black Tomato research trip, I was thrilled to be heading off to the land of fire and ice. After scrolling for hours on Instagram and opening a hundred or so tabs on the internet (all part of the research, of course), I was completely hooked. I wanted to see those black sand beaches, the golden waterfalls, the blue-white glaciers and mossy lava fields. I wanted to taste skyr and Arctic char – and I did, at a dairy farm, a Viking Langhús (or ‘long house’), and a petrol station, but more on that later.

I’ve always loved adventures (reading about them, that is). But this trip made me put down the pages of my book and forced me to become the adventurer of my own tale, as dramatic as that may sound. After all, what better setting is there than the land of fire and ice?

This is the story of how I learnt to embrace the thrill of adventure and to step out of my comfort zone – into ice caves, onto glaciers, and rhyolite mountains. Let’s begin.

waterfall in iceland

The way of water – and milk

It’s hardly unusual to drink water, humans do it all the time. But lying down between clusters of rocks, on a blanket of moss and snow, simply quench your thirst, is a little unusual. And that’s where I found myself on my first day in Iceland, hovering over a trickling stream a few steps away from Glanni waterfall, with our guide – Indi – offering words of encouragement as I did so. It’s pure Icelandic water, he said. And safe to drink, don’t worry.

He had already demonstrated the process to us once, casually lying on his front and sticking his mouth into the water that flowed from the natural pool upstream. With far less grace, I managed to splutter and gulp down a few mouthfuls, hoping the resident elves and trolls weren’t offended by my poor attempts (apparently, they like to dwell here). But Indi was right, the water was delicious – cool and fresh.

As we made our way back up the wooden steps that led to Glanni waterfall, past chunks of ice and low spindly trees, he told us that this area is also popular among students at Reykjavik university in the summer (it’s the perfect place for a picnic – and not many tourists know about it). Even though we visited in winter, on a gloriously sunny (albeit cold) day, we had the whole area to ourselves, passing the occasional local here and there. Fortunately, no one witnessed my spluttering. After taking plenty of snapshots and videos of Glanni – a rather lowdown waterfall with several different cascades (some turned to ice, some not) – we headed onto the next, just a short drive away.

Now, growing up, C. S. Lewis’ ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’ was a key part of my childhood; I read the book (a tattered, well-worn version that had been passed down to me from my grandmother), I watched the movies (both the Disney and BBC adaptions) and even went so far as Paris to have my photo taken with the White Witch and her right-hand dwarf, Ginarrbrik, at Disneyland. I was seven at the time. So, naturally, I was delighted when we walked up the path to Barnafoss (‘Children’s Waterfall’) and seemed to step into a scene that looked like it had been taken straight out of Narnia. Gushing milk-blue waters made their way past countless icicles and snow-covered rocks in the form of deep rivers and multiple falls. It was breathtaking. And I loved every second of it.

But the story behind this waterfall was less magical than the novel I knew. Four children, who had once been playing by the stone bridge, had fallen in the river and perished. According to the legend, their grieving mother ordered the bridge be destroyed, Indi told us as he pointed at the gap where it should have been, so that no one else would die here.

tectonic plates in iceland

Swapping one dark tale for another, the following morning we got up at – actually slightly before – the crack of dawn. Our destination? Thingvellir National Park. As part of the Golden Circle, it seemed only fitting that we arrived at sunrise, just as the first rays of sunlight were beginning to touch the earth. Here, dramatic block-like rock structures – the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates – rose up from the ground, lining the rivers that form from the meltwaters of Langjökull glacier. This is the only place in Iceland where you can walk between two tectonic plates, our guide remarked. It’s also the filming site for Game of Thrones’ ‘Bloody Gate’ – an ancient fortification that guards the entrance to Eyrie.

As we walked along the wooden walkway that led between the two towering continental crusts, we saw long tufts of yellow-brown grass peeking out from between the dark boulders that made up the rugged landscape. Our boots crunching on a light dusting of show, we arrived at Oxararfoss, the waterfall that flows directly down Iceland’s tectonic plates themselves. The water gushed over a white canvas of icicles and compact clumps of snow – all glinting in the sunlight, making them look amber and gold. The river, partially filled with rocks (some trapped in ice, others covered in snow), was a pale greyish blue, and contrasted beautifully with the bright yellows of the higher rocks that the sun had managed to reach. After all, it was still early. But not too early for ice cream.

For our next stop, instead of pulling up at another waterfall, a geyser, or a volcanic crater – those came later – we found ourselves at a small dairy farm within the heart of the Golden Circle. No crowds or tour buses in sight. I only take people I like here, joked Indi. Pleased to be counted among them, we walked into a small wooden café where we sat watching the dairy cows through the many windows as we tucked into some fresh skyr ice cream – full of protein and fresh. White chocolate, mango, coconut, banana mars. Take your pick.

Iceland extreme adventures

Dashing through the snow

Langjökull, also known as the ‘Long Glacier’, is a place for adventure. Today, we were going snowmobiling – my first ever time on a glacier, or a snowmobile. I was nervous, having never been particularly good when it comes to practical or daring exploits. Go-karting, jet-skiing, rock climbing. Whether it’s coming last, falling off, or slipping, adrenaline-fuelled activities aren’t exactly ones I excel at. So, as our guide explained how to drive the snowmobile I was about to climb onto, I listened carefully to every instruction.

Kitted out in special gloves, a helmet, a neck scarf, and a (very stylish) oversized jumpsuit, I was as ready as I would ever be. Our guide jumped onto his own snowmobile and began leading the way, a trail of us following in his wake along the snow-covered track.

It was fun, as I held on to Arin – my friend and colleague – for dear life. Both a little wary, we had decided to drive together, taking it in turns to be the one to steer. Sloping white landscapes spread out before us and bursts of powdered snow flew up at our heels. I laughed as we picked up the pace. Coming to a halt, it was all going so well until we managed to capsize – twice. Later, I would realise I now had a bruise the size of my shin (falling on ice that is nearly 600 metres thick will do that to you), but the memories will far outlast any injuries I sustained. Like they say, no pain, no gain. Arin even managed to capture it on video as we fell – a video we have already rewatched many, many times. And so has everyone else.

When you fall off a horse, the advice is always to get back in the saddle again as soon as possible. Following that logic, we clambered back on and (quite literally) drove off into the sunset. This was the best moment for me, the drive back. Not because our experience was coming to an end, but rather because of the thrill I had felt throughout the entire thing. It was exhilarating and addictive. And as the sun – a glowing orange bulb sinking behind a jagged mountain – reflected off the glittering ice, it was beautiful.

I had got a taste of what it was to be scared and to put myself out there in the Icelandic wilderness, trying something I had never done before and enjoying it. Working remotely, I spend more time indoors than I do outside. Dashing through the snow was like a breath of fresh air – and it fuelled a desire for more thrills, to feel that same sense of wonder and achievement that I had felt on the glistening surface of a glacier.

Fortunately, I still had several more days in the land of fire and (lots of) ice.

Mind the gap (and the ghosts)

Starting off the day in a wooden Viking Langhús (or ‘long house’) at Torfhús Retreat is always a good idea. Dining on a breakfast spread fit for the (Norse) gods is another. As we tucked into different flavours of smoked salmon, cheeses, pastries, fruit, and skyr yoghurt between Viking torches and fresh flowers, Lūlli – our guide with his own super jeep – came to take us on another adventure. This time, into the highlands.

Being part Scottish, I had imagined the highlands of Iceland to be similar to those that I knew. Needless to say, that was not the case. Crossing barren desert – a rocky landscape filled with dust clouds and one lone track – it looked more like we were in a western movie than in the centre of Iceland. As if on cue, Lūlli began playing movie theme tunes to set the tone – Mission Impossible, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and so on. As we drove through seemingly endless sand dunes, he began to tell us local ghost stories associated with the landscapes we were getting deeper into.

I used to avoid ghost stories at all costs, covering my ears when friends would tell scary tales on Halloween and looking away when we’d watch horror movies to celebrate the holiday. But as I watched the eerie scenery slip past the window, I found myself wanting to hear the spooky stories behind this land. Perhaps the devil-may-care attitude of the Icelanders I’d met was starting to rub off on me. People come here at night to try camping, Lūlli explained, gesturing to a vast sandy plain that looked much like another. Apparently, they’re not the only ones; many have claimed to have heard loud whistles and shouts – the call of a group of sheep herders who once froze to death with their animals. The cycle repeats each night, reflecting a perilous journey they once tried to make across the desert. On the horizon, a small cabin comes into view, away from the track and (quite literally) in the middle of nowhere. Far from abandoned, this cabin was actually a guesthouse for hikers. There was only one problem – the resident ghost had a habit of kicking people out of a particular bed each night without fail. The guesthouse even featured on a ghost hunting TV show, and later the owner had to throw the bed away as no locals would stay there anymore and he was losing business.

geothermal area in iceland

After several hours, the landscape started to transform into snow-capped mountains and icy waterfalls. We pulled up to take a closer look and Lūlli joked and pointed out what he called ‘dragon canyons’ and ‘troll rocks’, showing us the shapes of the surrounding stone formations and how they looked like each creature. After a quick pitstop to capture some content, it was onwards and upwards. Our destination? Kerlingarfjoll – a geothermal area of springs and mountains, bubbling heat and bitter winds.

Making sure we were prepared – with crampons, hats, and many, many layers – Lūlli led us into the breathtaking landscape. A true embodiment of the name ‘land of fire and ice’, here sweeping folds of snow were smeared across hills of brown sand and jagged mountains. The smell of sulfur drifted in the air and puffs of steam billowed out from small, winding rivers. It was spectacular, a place of magnificent and mind blowing proportions. I’d never felt so small – in the best possible way.

Narrow steps had been built into many of the hills to create sprawling hiking trails and small bridges with metal grates had been constructed over the boiling springs. As we got closer, I noticed with some concern that the bridges only had a few steps with rather large gaps in between. Lūlli explained that they are only like this in winter – a safety measure to stop heavy snow causing them to collapse and people falling in. Gripping tightly onto a thin piece of rope loosely tied along one side of the bridge, I failed to find that entirely reassuring but took a rather large first step anyway. A leap of faith. Then another. And another. After making it across the first bridge with no mishaps, I began to find it rather fun. Rewarding, even. After hiking – and leaping – our way around, we returned to our super jeep where heated seats and a treasure trove of snacks awaited us. Doritos, Lion chocolate bars, sweets. Rewarding, indeed. And nice and toasty.

Duck, Duck, Splash

Another day, another glacier. I’d already had a taste of what it was to walk – and dash – along a glacier. Now, it was time to step inside one. As we made our way towards Kötlujökull where the Katla ice cave is located, it felt as if we were walking on the moon. Hiking through sweeping folds of black sand, we passed small rocks and large blocks of ice – a hint at the mighty natural formation that loomed before us. Streaks of black riddled the surface, contrasting with the glistening pale blue of the ice. In a way, it looked like a mountain, only the snow was black and grey and the rock was white and turquoise.

With our crampons on tight, we stomped over the path carved from ice. The harder you stomp, the better the grip, our guide had advised us before we began the ascent. We climbed higher, reaching the top, only to descend into an icy crater, following our guide who led us towards a small opening on the opposite side of the space. One by one, we ducked beneath the entrance, careful not to hit our helmets and headlights on the solid surface.

Before embarking on my research trip, I’d searched on the internet for images of everything from the best volcanoes to visit in Iceland to the most mesmerising ice caves. And as I looked ahead through the tunnel of ice, I wasn’t disappointed. Just like in the pictures, natural clear and blue formations formed weaving trails through the glacier, with some areas under cover and others offering pockets of daylight. Ducking became second nature; the small tunnels often too low to stand upright in. In some parts of Katla ice cave, narrow streams covered the path. Needless to say, I was grateful that I’d listened when they advised us to bring waterproof shoes. Especially when we headed into the final section, splashing through glacial water that fortunately did not seep into my hiking boots. The same could not be said for everyone.

When you travel with a Black Tomato guide, the strenuous hours of research and internet scrolling isn’t necessary. They will take you to the best of whatever you wish to see.

glacier in iceland

This is only the beginning

There were many other scenes and plot points of my luxury adventure into Iceland. There was the glimpse of the Northern Lights across the Icelandic sky. There were nights in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, soaking up the silica, blue-green algae, and mineral salt. Soothing, enriching. There were moments of calm in the welcoming hotels and moments of thrilling pursuits in the great outdoors. Dark tales, snowy sports, and a spark of something new.

My research trip to Iceland enabled me to embrace the great outdoors – to challenge myself and push both my physical (and personal) boundaries. And I’ll be back.


Our Travel Experts are ready and waiting to plan your own tailor-made journey into Iceland – from Kerlingarfjoll to Langjökull.

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