The famous Icelandic volcano that caused chaos for air traffic across Europe back in 2010 is described by our guide as “quite small” before he goes on to explain that there are six volcanoes ready to erupt, and at least three of them will be utterly devastating.
The revised Nissan Navara, the vehicle I’m tackling the extreme terrain in Iceland in, might be tough but I don’t think it’ll quite stand up to that level of punishment.
It’s midsummer when I arrive, when Iceland is surprisingly short on ice. All but the snow and ice on the peaks has melted away under the constant sunshine, revealing a landscape that’s rich in glaciers, fjords, volcanoes, lakes and formations created and discoloured by the gases and chemicals seeping through the rock.
Surprisingly lush green grass covers the coastal regions, while bountiful trees take the opportunity to spring into life. Visually, it’s an unsettling combination of Norfolk and Mordor.
The same lack of snow and ice reveals that many of the roads that criss-cross the island aren’t actually roads at all. Gravel tracks lead to most places once you’ve left the smooth tarmac of the island’s perimeter road but, thanks to the turbulent nature of the island, they’re not necessarily in the same place that the maps show.
Fortunately, the Nissan Navara, a rugged one-tonne pickup truck that has been updated to blend SUV luxury with workhorse practicality, should make mincemeat of most of the terrain we’ll face in Iceland. The day starts with an easy run along the coast to our overnight stop though, Iceland’s equivalent of a motorway not exactly stretching the Navara and its 2.3-litre turbodiesel power.
Speed limits in Iceland are low, with most major roads restricted to just 56mph. Driving is actually quite boring, the road following the flat edges of the island, and giving you little to do but glance at the scenery as you go along.
It’s late as I reach my destination, following a stop for some dinner. Waiting was the swish Umi Hotel, a wonderful five-star modernist hotel overlooking the bleak coastal plains. Sadly, I wasn’t staying there and was instead holed up in a glorified shed nearby. It’s rugged, I guess, which suits the nature of the trip. Looking out of the window at the front, there was a plain so flat you’d swear it was man-made rather than formed by lava flowing through the earth’s crust. Behind were some cliff faces, short enough to not be too imposing, but tall enough to hide what was lurking behind.
Oddly, it was still light, despite turning midnight. Iceland is so far north that, at the peak of summer, there’s little more than an hour of twilight each day. That leads to an odd sensation where, without the benefit of a watch, you simply wouldn’t know what time of day it was. Sleep patterns are immediately discarded, the brain struggling to make any sense of things. In these circumstances, the Navara’s good-looking black-lined LED lights, new for this model, seem a tad superfluous.
With the sun rising (or rather simply staying where it was but now accompanied by my alarm going off) it was back into the Nissan Navara, heading towards the mountains of Iceland. While progress was easy, I look around and found that the interior is quite SUV-like, with the dashboard almost lifted straight from the X-Trail. There’s all the kit you’d need too, from heated seats and DAB radio to leather trim and climate control, and the cabin is pleasingly accommodating. Even the rear seats are suitable for adults, although kids might find the lack of USB ports off-putting.
There’s a multi-link suspension system under the bed of the Navara, promising a smoother ride than you’ll find on leaf-sprung competitors but, while it’s definitely more refined than many, there’s still a jiggle at lower speeds you won’t find on most SUVs. Mind you, most SUVs can’t carry almost 1.2 tonnes of wares in the back while tackling tough terrain.
The tarmac ends rather abruptly after just a few miles, and it’s the last time I’ll see any solid roads for the rest of the day. Surprisingly, the navigation system knows about these dry gravel roads and displays them on the new 8.0-inch infotainment touch screen. The gravel soon gives way to rougher rock-strewn tracks, requiring me to slow the Navara down and take a little more care. Those in regular crossovers had to turn back and find another route through, while larger SUVs carried on until the road gave way to rivers.
The torrents of meltwater had washed away much of the road and, without anything beyond more rocks to gauge depth, it became a bit of a gamble as to just how deep and fast any of the freezing water was. Big 18-inch wheels wrapped in tall 60-section Continental tyres, combined with ground clearance of 223mm, meant the Nissan Navara had enough height and traction to wade through all of the crossings, pure Icelandic water washing over the bonnet and, during some more enthusiastic moments, onto the roof.
However, as good as the Nissan was, the sight of modified vans with jacked-up suspension, lifted buses on enormous balloon tyres, and tank-like track-propelled trucks, made me feel just a little inadequate. The Nissan Navara might be king of the King’s Road, but it’s got nothing on what the locals of Iceland drive.
A stop for lunch saw me forced into doing some physical activity, something my muscles aren’t used to, before getting back into the Navara for some ‘extreme’ terrain. That turned out to be the back road to Eyjafjallajökull, the famous volcano that ruined so many travel plans in 2010. It sits under a huge ice cap that, in turn, leads to a number of glaciers, and it’s the Gígjökull glacier that we head to. The Navara’s four-wheel-drive system becomes essential as I started scrambling across the loose, rocky surface, just occasionally needing to drop into low-range for more control and traction.
Even with the increasingly challenging tracks, the Navara didn’t miss a beat. From traversing rocky outcrops to driving along the bed of an ice-cold river, there was nothing that even looked like it might get close to defeating the mighty Nissan truck. At least until I reached a black lava-sand beach…
The soft sand was more like black icing sugar than any ordinary beach, offering little support and readily swallowing up anything that might stop for more than a few seconds. Nissan was confident that all that was needed was some preparation, and that was nothing more than letting some air out of the tyres to reduce the pressure and create a wider footprint on the powdered surface. With winds whipping up from the Atlantic, the sky was dark with black sand, and visibility was reduced to just a few metres.
The scene had the abrasive lava storm swirling around, the dark, intimidating sand beneath my feet ready to devour everything, the gloomy light from the low sun, and the threatening, grey Atlantic ocean audible but, at times, invisible. It was Iceland at its bleakest but, somehow, most magnificent.
It was time to escape the threatening terrain of the Iceland coast and take a near-straight line to our campsite for the night, racing along the beach in a convoy of Nissan Navara trucks that were arguably travelling just a little too quickly for the conditions. Little attention was given to the waves crashing onto the beach, the truck just smashing through the water. If the saltwater was a concern, nobody from Nissan was mentioning it. At least it would wash the sand off.
After another night of restless sleep under the midnight sun (a white tent in what is effectively daylight is a poor choice), it was back into the Navara for a short run to the airport. With time to spare, we stop off at some stunning vistas, taking in geothermal steam blasting through solid rock, lakes formed from water trapped in volcanic craters, and plains that look like the surface of the moon. It’s breathtaking, but over too quickly as I rush back to catch the flight.
I pass by many a filling station, glad that the huge fuel tank in the Navara means we can avoid paying £1.60 a litre to top the truck up. Nissan’s official figures promise economy of 38mpg, but the conditions I’ve faced haven’t exactly worked in the Navara’s favour. The trip computer reads around 19mpg as I hand the keys over, which is probably a good result for a car that has travelled across mountains, glaciers, rivers, beaches and fields.
It proved there that it can cope with anything a mere mortal might throw at it in one of the most unforgiving territories on earth, so it should cope with a run up the M1 without breaking a sweat. The geologically turbulent tundra of Iceland is more appealing commute though.