The Great Hotpot Adventure

Text by Manol Z. Manolov | Images by Manol Z. Manolov and Nikolay Bratovanov © 2017

The rain is falling again. Low clouds mixed with wisps of fog are gently floating on the autumn air, as the murky day drags on. Once more, our Dacia is traveling down the wet road - we are stubbornly persisting on the way to our final destination, the southeast coast of Iceland. Then, suddenly, we see the car. Out of nowhere, a lone human figure appears from the misty surroundings. As we slow the Duster down and approach the roadblock, we begin to realize that our journey ends here.
We had wrapped up Day Four, persevering through the outlandish weather to pay visits to the Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón glacial lagoons. Severe conditions make chores out of the simplest tasks, and after the exertions of the day, we had decided that we’d had enough of sightseeing. The only thing left to do was head east to spend the night, and at least continue our forward progress.

In case anyone had doubted the severity of the storm that had ruined many a touristic dream and lay waste to hundreds of innocent fish lives at Iceberg Beach, the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration men were here to set the record straight. When we approached the roadblock, we were promptly made aware that the violent throes of Icelandic fall had managed to collapse a very important bridge along the Ring Road (Iceland’s main road that circles the island). So important, namely because it was to help transport us to Höfn - the final and easternmost point on our trip. Now, the severance of the Ring Road had effectively halted any further passage to the east. The massive fjells of the Vatnajökull National Park blocked any escape route to the north, and circumnavigating them would mean backtracking from our current position and undertaking a long and strenuous journey on a combination of F-roads. As for the bridge, it would take at least a few days for it to be repaired. We simply did not have the time to spare for either one of these options. The only thing left for us was to turn back.

Darkness was a few hours away, and we agreed that the best option (since we were heading back west, anyway) would be to spend another night at the Vik campground. It had a common kitchen area (although a flimsy and sparsely equipped one) where we could cook, and it also offered Wi-Fi to help us formulate further plans and adapt to the change in schedule. We made our entrance in darkness, as had become our signature, registered at the office and got straight to preparing dinner. A violent storm was raging outside. The kitchen area enclosure, which seemed like an afterthought that was attached onto the existing office building, shook, rattled and groaned under the pressure of wind and rain. A blocked-up door, its panes of glass cracked and shattered, suggested that it was not the first time the building had failed to withstand the ravages of the local climate.

The kitchen area was already full of people, and of course, also featured a cat:
We had to wait our turn to use the electric-powered stovetops, but at least we managed to snag a roomy table for ourselves and commenced preparations for cooking:
One of the richer dining experiences on this trip followed - eggs, french fries, rice and pickles:
After dinner, it was time to retire to our suite. Another night in the Dacia beckoned, and sleep could not come soon enough after a day of storms, broken bridges and plenty of driving.

The morning after greeted us with marginally better weather and ample space in the kitchen:
The wind had abated a bit and we discussed the state of affairs over breakfast, trying to decide how to best make use of the day. The ultimate conclusion we came to, was that we were tired. We had been in Iceland for five days already and had been on the road non-stop, taking breaks only for food, shelter and sleep in the car at night. It was time to slot in (what we thought would be) a welcome day of relaxation. It was time to hit the hotpots.

Our first stop was a geothermal site near the farming village of Hruni. By our calculations, two hot pots were to be found in the vicinity. The day was proving to be nicer than expected, with blue skies and almost no wind, and the scenery around Hruni was beautiful.
We pulled over to meet two wooden statues guarding the entrance to the village. They represent what is believed to have been an outlaw couple, that used to raid nearby sites back in the day. Their names, which were listed on an adjacent sign (five cameras and not one reference picture taken...!) elude me. The woodwork is quite interesting and the couple are covered in real sheepskins.
They also have mittens on!:
In addition, a lovely dell lurked right behind the statues:
It was all, however, just a short-lived distraction from the goal: hotpots awaited and we swiftly moved on. Continuing down the road and following the directions of our hotpot map (yes, such a thing does exist), we proceeded to Hrunalaug, one of the natural hot springs nearby. The road soon morphed into a dirt one, bypassing the historic Hruni Lutheran church, located atop a scenic valley. We made a very quick picture stop to document the majestic views and the church building:
Back on the road, we passed by the first ominous clues to our fate that day - signs by the wayside showing the way to the Hrunalaug pot. As we approached, we noticed the second bird of ill omen: a large dirt lot, already very sparsely populated by another vehicle. Hopes of remaining undisturbed in the hot water amidst scenic surroundings were dissipating quickly. Ever optimistic (well, Nikolay, anyway:)) we thought we would check out the place regardless. After all, we had come all this way... A narrow path led us from the lot to the site of the hotpot, where, lo and behold, we were rewarded with the sight of a young-ish couple of large proportions, shamelessly and fully exposed inside what looked to be a very narrow bathing hole. Naturally taken aback, we pondered retreat. At the last minute, we shifted our view slightly to the left and realized that the ‘pool’ extended further out, featuring an additional built-out rectangular section that could accommodate a few other individuals. Regardless, with the naked tourists in dangerously close proximity, we decided to head back to the lot and make our decision there. Aside from the two cars, there was still no one present. This allowed for a moment of hesitation that soon cost us dearly. While we were considering whether to move on or to subject ourselves to the uncomfortable presence of the tourist couple (who were plainly intent on doing more that just bathing), our decision was made for us. Not one, but two more cars approached the Hrunalaug lot. Upon parking, they immediately displayed their contents for all to behold: more tourists carrying towels and bathing suits. It looked like our visit to Hruna would remain limited to seeing the grand sights of the tiny village.

At least there were sheep nearby, perfectly positioned in front of a dramatic sky background:
Onward then, to the Secret Lagoon (another hotpot site nearby). Considering the location of said spot (along a main road and basically inside the nearby village of Flúðir) any delusions that it would be a lagoon, or a secret one at that, were banished almost immediately. Our arrival was greeted by a large structure, a big parking lot and another sign pointing out the way to the ‘secret’ lagoon. It didn’t take long to realize that the Secret Lagoon had grown the Icelandair Hotel Fludir all around itself and metamorphosed into a tourist attraction. Denied again.

We could already tell that our initial hotpot experience had left us with a completely false impression of the ‘wild’ hot springs of Iceland. The tourist epidemic had spread to even these remote sites, and the concept of ‘off-season’ was now officially dead and buried. It looked like the best we could hope for was a hot shower at the Gesthús Selfoss.
To salvage some of what looked to be a bit of a wasted day, we hoped that at least our cat would still be there…

Stubborn though we were, the exploration continued for a bit longer, taking on a somewhat desperate character in the process. Pursuing the elusive hot water and ravaging the wild, guided on by imperfect maps, we stumbled on miss after miss, never really managing any hits. Wrong directions into a beautiful, but foot-deep mud-enveloped forest, a hot pot that no longer functioned because the supply of cold water to add to the spring (a common design of some of these so-called Icelandic hotpots) to get the temperature right had ceased.... and on and on it went.

It was time to head back to camp and at least look forward to a dinner indoors, with the luxury of a stovetop and cooking utensils.

At the end of what was supposed to be our day of relaxation, we felt almost more tired than before we started. Our ‘looking for hotpots’ experience had run into the same wall of overpopulation and the ubiquitous tourist presence. I am still not quite sure what we ended up gaining from this day, so in a way, I regard it as wasted. Looking on the positive side, though, while driving around various remote places looking for hot springs, we were able to see a few scenic new spots and encounter what looked like truly wild Icelandic nature. We took the Dacia on its first true off-road experience, and at the end of the day, also got to reunite with our old friend, the Gesthús Selfoss cat. So, perhaps, it was, like so many things in life, ultimately neutral.

In closing, it is only fitting that the last word of Day Five belong to what was once more, the highlight of our day:
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