REYKJAVIK, Iceland – Senior associate editor Ian McLaren thinks back to the time he navigated Iceland in a Toyota Hilux modified by Arctic Trucks...
The blurb on the back of the Arctic Trucks corporate T-shirt reads, “The worse the weather, the better the experience”, but for a city boy like me it’s difficult to imagine how this experience could possibly be improved upon via a dramatic fall in air temperature, hampered visibility and massive drops of rain lashing the side of face. The South African-built Toyota Hilux whose bak I’m standing in may be engineered to tackle some of the most extreme conditions Mother Earth has to offer, but at this moment I’m in my happy place as a steady flow of the invigorating, icy fresh air fills my lungs as the convoy makes its way towards a snow-white horizon.
From my vantage point astride one of the largest vehicles in Arctic Trucks’ Hilux fleet, I’ve watched as the terrain ahead transformed from heavily rutted cracks and too-far-down-for-rescue deep crevasses to a highway of freshly strewn snow as we navigate towards what could easily be the edge of the world. The fact that I’m one of only a select group of people fortunate enough to journey onto the largest glacier in Iceland is front-and-centre on my mind as the convoy carves soon-to-be-erased-forever tracks into the landscape.
It’s taken four days to reach this point in our journey, from the immaculately clean capital city, Reykjavik, to our camp at the base of the Vatnajökull glacier; a road trip that’s, to date, delivered one breathtaking highlight after another. Having packed for, well, a land covered by ice, it’s taken to this point to actually reach snow and temperatures that might call for anything more than a t-shirt.
Our friendly hosts and tour guides for this week-long trip are the adventure-junkie gentlemen from Arctic Trucks. Established in 1990, this company is at the forefront of developing and manufacturing the kind of modifications to off-road vehicles that will see the final product confidently stride towards any obstacle placed in its way, snow-covered or otherwise. Based in Reykjavik, and from a workshop brimming with everything from beefed-up quadbikes, V8-powered Formula Off-Road creations and mammoth Nissan Patrol SUVs, the pride of the shop remains the updates created for the legendary Hilux.
Shipped as far and wide as Antarctic research base camps, our convoy was made up of the AT35 fitted with 35x12,5-inch R15 tyres on 10-inch wheels and with a 40 mm raised ride height; the AT38 fitted with 38x15,5-inch R15 tyres on 12,5-inch wheels and boasting 420 mm worth of ground clearance; and the big daddy AT44 with its 44x18,5 R15 tyres and 480 mm ground clearance.
Based then on the seventh-generation 126 kW/360 N.m 3,0-litre D-4D Hilux double-cab, the various Arctic Trucks modifications include heavy-duty differential locks on both axles, additional transmission transfer boxes (including a crawler gear), extra heavy-duty dual air-filtration systems, compressed air tanks, customised roll hoops and nudge bars, mounted tool kits and supplementary fuel tanks.
Iceland’s varied and dramatic landscape is the result of the extensive volcanic and geothermic activity experienced throughout this 103 000 km2 Nordic island. Having the Mid-Atlantic Ridge rift running directly through the middle of your country is going to have its pros and cons. On one hand, the effects of having the earth’s crust pulling itself apart on your doorstep has resulted in some of the most dramatic natural landscapes, geysers, waterfalls and compressed raw energy found anywhere on the planet (geothermal and hydropower provides nearly all of Iceland’s power needs – including heating the pavements in winter). On the other hand, the country’s near-360 000 population shares a home with 130 volcanic mountains, 22 of which remain active.
Raw beauty aside, the most striking thing for me during the first few days of our road trip was seeing houses built at the foot of mountains with massive glaciers lining their shoulders. At any time, volcanic activity anywhere close to these peaks could melt this heavy ice and send a flood of water towards the ocean, taking with it anything in its path.
The most recent reminder of this delicate balance between beauty and destruction was broadcast around the world in March 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, simultaneously bringing European air travel to halt with its resulting ash cloud. The world saw the cloud but not the two-metre-tall wall of water that left a trail of destruction in its wake as it surged through the Thórsmörk Valley (Valley of Thor).
Arriving at this valley just months after the ash had settled was an eerie experience. We would later pilot our convoy of modified Hiluxs up this freshly carved valley towards the base of the still-simmering Eyjafjallajökull. Rejoining Iceland’s Route 1 ring road, we would later make our way onto the dramatic landscape of Vik Black Beach, with its lava-stained black sand. A day later, I had my breathe taken away by the magnificence of the Jökulsárlon glacier lagoon.
One of the most spectacular road trips you could ever experience culminated with a slow but steady excursion onto the 8 100 square-kilometre Vatnajökoll glacier, by far the largest on the island. It’s here where I would later relinquish my driver’s seat in favour of an altogether more visceral perch atop an AT44. Listening as our convoy crushed freshly laid snow beneath its rubber, it was impossible not to be completely captivated by both the sheer size of this ever-shifting sheet of ice, but also the splendor of this raw wonderland.
I took three things away from my trip to Iceland. One, a reinforced opinion that a Toyota Hilux is the double-cab you want once the going gets particularly tough (and, yes, there’s also a dealership in most towns throughout Iceland); two is that the Icelandic people represent some of the hardiest and toughest, yet also friendliest folk I’ve ever encountered (many of whom live their lives knowing that, at any moment, Mother Nature could come knocking); and lastly, a newfound appreciation for the impact we as a species have on this planet.
Writing this while confined to my home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I take some consolation in the fact there are currently places on Earth where the water is that much clearer, the air that much cleaner and the flora denser for the fact that the humans occupying the land are having to take a break from their daily grind.
My trip to Iceland was booked and paid for by Toyota South Africa, and while I’ve been extremely fortunate in my job to have seen and experienced some incredible places, there’s nowhere I’d rather return to with loved ones in-hand than to the quite spectacular ísland.