You probably recognise Iceland's Vatnajökull glacier from countless movies and TV shows including Game of Thrones, Batman Begins, and most recently Christopher Nolan's upcoming science-fiction epic, Interstellar. We went hiking on it.
Ever since seeing Batman Begins for the first time in 2005, I've been intrigued by the scene where Bruce Wayne journeyed to the Tibetan Himalayas to train with the League of Shadows. While planning my trip to Iceland, I learned that those scenes were filmed on and around the glaciers in Skaftafell. I had to go explore them myself.
Full Disclosure: Icelandic Mountain Guides let Daniel and I hop onto their Glacier Adventure Tour for free. We were part of a typical commercial trip with a dozen or so other guests.
Daniel Bruce Lee is searching for a Blue Flower.
Those scenes were specifically filmed on Svínafellsjökull, an outlet glacier for Vatnajökull (Europe's largest glacier) located in a national park of the same name on the southeast part of the island. The glacier bumps up against Hvannadalshnúkur, a volcano and the highest peak in Iceland.
Icelandic Mountain Guides maintains a hut near the national park visitor centre in Skaftafell, and they offer guided climbs of Iceland's highest peak, in addition to the one Daniel and I attempted on our own before Iceland nearly killed me. They also offer a variety of more accessible adventures, like the glacier walk that Daniel and I joined them for.
It's no wonder why so many Sci-Fi directors feature these glaciers as off-planet environments.
Why Go? Iceland is known, among many other things, for its glaciers. Their jagged features, muted colour palettes and expansive size make them truly otherworldly -- hence why so many directors choose to feature them as far-off planets in science fiction movies. A glacier walk with Icelandic Mountain Guides is the best (and safest) way to experience them firsthand.
The four-hour glacier adventure that we went on is really reasonably priced at about $US110 per person. That includes ice axe and crampon rental and group transportation between the IMG hut at Skaftafell, and the glacier itself (about a 10-minute van ride).
The tour led us from the glacier's intersection with solid ground all the way into the outlet's interior. We got to see mini ice caves, witnessed incredible up-close views of the mountains, and pretend that we were Bruce Wayne. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable about local history regarding the glacier and knew heaps of Icelandic folklore as it pertained to our hike. And they made sure that nobody died.
One of our guides on the glacier walk, Jon, demonstrates how to fasten a climbing harness.
What You'll Need To Bring: You don't need much for the glacier walk as IMG provides crampons, ice axes and harnesses (although we weren't ever roped up.) What you will need to do is wear a pair of hiking boots and dress for the cold. Rain, snow, or even hail can pop up at any time in Iceland, so bring some rain gear too. A bottle of water and a snack or two couldn't hurt either.
There are motels in the area, but you can also camp at the Skaftafell national park visitor's centre for about $US10 per person, per night, which is what we did. If you plan on doing that, bring basic camping equipment and food. The campgrounds have nice bathrooms, laundry facilities and an outdoor cooking area.
Hitchhiking in Iceland is said to be incredibly easy, especially during the summer months. We didn't have the best of luck, but we didn't have the worst of luck either.
How Do You Get There? From Reykjavik, we used a combination of hitchhiking and bussing to get to Skaftafell, stopping in Vik to camp on the black sand beach along the way. Renting a car definitely would have been easier, but Daniel and I just quit our jobs, so we utilised the cheapest transportation that we could find.
The #51 S bus (Iceland's national bus line) runs from Mjodd (the Reykjavik transfer station) all the way to Hofn, stopping at several notable destinations along the way. You can either buy tickets at a station, or pay on-board the bus. The buses themselves are coach style and have a lavatory and Wi-Fi! I don't know exactly how much we paid (because we probably hitchhiked about ½ the time) but expect at least $US50 one-way.
You can see Vatnajökull throughout Interstellar's latest trailer. Hint: It's the place which looks most alien.
If you're travelling in-season, the Reykjavik Excursions coach line offers travel passports that allow you to jump on and off nearly anywhere, but those can get pretty expensive.
Another option is to rent a car. A cheap compact car rental will get you along Iceland's Ring Road (but you probably couldn't venture into the island's interior, which features rough roads) for around $US50 per day. That option would definitely offer heaps of flexibility, but could potentially slow your trip. Daniel and I would have liked to stop every 20 minutes to explore and take photos! If renting a car, however, one thing to keep in mind is fuel costs, which worked out to be approximately $US2.37 per litre!
Our guides helped those who needed it along the way.
Who Can Do It? Just about anyone. IMG's minimum age requirement for the glacier walk is 14. People in our tour group ranged from young adult to retirees. The walk itself was not physically demanding, and the guides helped people in need along trickier sections.
Daniel and I got into the mountains on our own, but we didn't get on top of them. If you're visiting Iceland in-season, check out IMG's guided climbs.
What We'd Do Differently: Had we been visiting Iceland in-season, it would have been great to go on one of IMG's guided climbs. The nearby mountains were stunning and are Iceland's highest. Their summits would provide amazing views of the ocean and surrounding area.
Pictures: Chris Brinlee Jr, Daniel Bruce Lee