Mega ring road plus 21 hour daylight in Iceland equals epic GT-R fun
Stanfords, the world’s best cartographic shop, deals me a pre-flight downer. Maps and guides to Iceland are to be found on its “Europe” floor. I wanted it to be more exotic than that. At least another continent. Well, now, having sampled the whole thing in one headlong day, I can report it’s another world. Several other worlds actually.
The original plan was to circumnavigate the country by its Route 1 ring road, departing Reykjavik at sunrise on the longest day of the the year and getting back by sunset. That’s 21 hours at this near-Arctic latitude. Most guidebooks say you should take a week, minimum. Any old how, the morning before we set off, we learned the country’s greatest band Sigur Rós was doing the same route in the opposite direction, composing on-the-hoof a soundtrack to match the resulting livestream. Which sounded far better planned and more culturally appropriate than anything from Top Gear. So we swerved onto a new path, a plan better suited to our inclinations and to the car we’re driving. We’re sticking approximately to Route 1, sticking to the allotted hours, but allowing ourselves detours to anything else that tempts a 562bhp four-wheel-drive car that’s as volcanic as the country it’s passing through.
Despite the Stanfords categorisation, Iceland is only half in Europe. Its western segment is strictly in North America. An active volcano chain rends the country asunder. It’s part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary of the tectonic plates of those two continents. The plates are moving apart, so if you’re thinking of trying this next year, be aware you’ll have an even longer trip. By 4cm or so.
Reykjavik is like Legoland. It has all the paraphernalia of a global capital – parliament, striking modern cathedral and opera house, port and airport – but none of the scale. It’s highly engaging, though, and plenty of its restaurants do a mean fish supper. On that, we fortify ourselves, then grab a scant few hours’ sleep.
Sunrise, our starting flag, is at 2.55am. Sunset, the end target, three minutes past the following midnight. But there’s no dawn, no dusk, no night. It never gets dark. Our day begins and ends under glutinous, claggy cloud, not the fiery red skies and golden glow I’d been hoping for. And with this absence of darkness, the smearing into daylight is mind-numbingly languid. The first hours are low coastal roadway and rolling hills. Causeways cross coastal inlets, plus one long tunnel that runs underneath and smells strongly of fish. Time has ground to an aimless crawl: it feels like a dull winter’s 4pm, not a high-summer 3am… or 4am or 5am or 6am: the changes in light are infinitesimal.
Still, the combination of the antisocial hour and the sparseness of the population does mean the road is ours and ours only. It demonstrates how this newly face-lifted GT-R has been house-trained. On a run like this, the old one did your head in. Its road noise reverberated your skull, and the ride was shocking – literally as well as figuratively. The new GT-R is capable of being a lot more placid. With its dampers set in their comfort mode, the surface’s brittleness is eased off. The V6 revs comparatively high because there’s no seventh gear, but it’s no hardship to be hearing one of the world’s more purposeful engines, even if it is operating at a fraction of its full purpose. There’s tramlining where trucks have squashed parallel tracks into the road, but nothing more than a gentle tug of the wheel. The all-Europe navigation system doesn’t cover Iceland (d’you hear, Stanfords?). But it’s pretty hard to take the wrong road when there are so darned few of them. We settle into the deep leather seats, plug a phone into the Bose, and find an Icelandic indie playlist on Spotify. So it’s an appropriate car for the long and comparatively gentle tarmac sections. Godzilla as a GT. Who knew?
As we curl onto the northern coast, the landscape casts aside its gentility. Under the vast skies brood endless mountain ranges, cut with rivers crashing into thunderous waterfalls. The roads convolute with it, and their twists give the GT-R something to do. It bites to the challenge. Even in the rain, it digs deep into an immense reserve of security, violent in the force but placid in the demands it places on you. It involves and converses with the driver but doesn’t start arguments. Out of a corner, the immense complication of the pistons and gears and torque-apportioning driveline is irrelevant. The turbos seem to be swinging directly at the wheels, catapulting you away to a new tract of countryside.
We pass the deep blue of Lake Mývatn. It’s flanked by a forest of jagged black rock towers, like raving pagan dancers suddenly petrified for eternity. Tourist buses appear from nowhere, decanting their occupants into several hot-spring baths. Small industrial installations sit at the head of steaming fissures, collecting geothermal energy. Iceland’s entire electricity supply is renewable, from this superheated water and hydropower.
All this geologic activity indicates we’re crossing the volcanic ridge now, and suddenly the land’s palette goes red, a rock-and-sandscape of barren ochre and rouge and tan and caramel and garnet. I expect to meet the Mars Rover rumbling around the next corner. After the red planet comes Uranus – a cold desert, naked of all vegetation, grey and unyielding and in places utterly featureless. It looks like speed-record territory.
Eventually back among the fields of planet Earth, we turn off the ring road and head towards a peninsula of desolate mountains too remote but not quite high enough for anyone to bother climbing. But they do have a road, without question the most intriguing and tempting one in the country, a writhing and tormented pass of dozens of hairpins that go without tarmac or Armco. But by the time we get to the base of the pass, there’s nothing to be seen above. The whole range is swaddled in a mountain fog. Maybe the other side of the ridge is better. No turning back now.
I head up in all trepidation, fighting with the disorientation of fog blindness, barely able to discern even what’s up or down. We keep on climbing, feeling our way round one hairpin after another, until a barely discernible ethereal brightness begins to bathe us from above. Suddenly we burst out above the cloud, purgatorial deprivation giving way to celestial abundance. The road snakes its way between snowy pillows and windswept peaks, and beyond the saddle lies another staircase of bends to the valley floor a world below.
Despite the harsh sounds of gravel on wheelarch, the GT-R’s motions are softened by gravel, the particles acting as a lubricant, adding a lateral sway to its straight lines and a delay to its cornering. But it’s still amazing how much purchase it finds to thunder through and out of the bends. You probably want me to tell you about shutting the skid controls off, using R mode to send more torque rearward, and generally making a hero of myself. I shall in return remind you about the size of the drops at the edge of the track. This is one of the great driving adventures of my life and I cherish both of those (the adventure and the life) so don’t want them shortened, thanks.
Egilsstaðir would call itself Iceland’s eastern metropolis. Its population, just over 2,000, is barely a Surrey village. But it feels like a road-trip hub, and back on the tarmac of Route 1 we get petrol – more petrol – and sandwiches. The road is a bit dull for a time after this, so when offered a shortcut we take it. Another gravel track, this one navigates a plateau before crashing down another series of hairpins, too steep for a caravanning family trying to slither their way up. Across the valley, the basalt escarpment shows the dramatic layering of successive aeons of uplift and volcanic outpourings. This country feels primordially ancient, but like most old things – not least the R35 GT-R – it keeps on changing, by evolution and spasm.
The south coast looks like the home stretch on a map, but trust me – it’s still a chuffing long way. There are hayfields again, and the road is bounded by vivid purple lupins and a blue ocean beyond. The sun arrives, a blazing saturated contrast to the low-key tones that have washed most of the day so far. At length what looks to be a bank of low cloud forms on the distant horizon. In fact it’s our first view of the Vatnajökull, a glacier the size of Norfolk plus all four Yorkshires. Swirly-outlined chunks of deep turquoise ice float lazily away into the meltwater lagoon. They have a story to tell. This ice cap is so big, it has an active volcano underneath.
Now the land goes flat and gravelly, Route 1 aiming along it as straight as light rays, doing nothing to stave off my fatigue. Except every few miles it crosses a braid of glacial meltwater, and because it carries so little traffic the bridges are single-width steel-girder structures. Each time I slow down to burble over the crossing, and then drop to second and floor it. The V6 fills its lungs, the rev-counter swings, change-up lights glow orange and red, it grabs another gear, and in no time another, and again. Better than caffeine.
Rain is driving back at us now, and with it comes a powerful sense of night impending. Yet it never comes; dim never surrenders to dark. West of Vík, sinister black-sand beaches are crowded with nesting seabirds. At Skógafoss another towering waterfall photo-stop. Afterwards, a slowly increasing frequency of habitation. Eventually a short stretch of dual carriageway. Then at last Rejkavik.
The sky says 8pm; the clock says just before midnight. Made it. We return for our finishing photo to the point in front of the glassy new opera house where, 21 hours and 898 miles earlier, we’d called it a start. The day passed at a surprisingly reasonable 27mpg because we hadn’t wanted to make a high-speed spectacle of ourselves. Probably just as well, because several cars now stop and phonecam the GT-R. They’ve been expecting us. Our trip has become some sort of Icelandic social-media meme, and we’ve been Snapchatted multiple times over the circumnavigation.
One single day, one country, two continents, and the powerful suggestion of other planets. Steam and ice, mountains and plains, endless swings of weather and climate. This might be the first visit by a GT-R to the country, but in all those circumstances, on all those highways and tracks, it never felt the slightest bit out of place.