Iceland has always been a destination for the adventurous, with glaciers, fjords, volcanos, earthquakes, and all sorts of landscapes from plains to peaks. In the very middle of summer, it’s unexpectedly warm. Most of the snow and ice has long since melted away, leaving only the mountain tops and glaciers covered, while green grass and bountiful trees take the opportunity to spring into life. Visually, it’s a combination of Norfolk and Mordor.
There are countless roads criss-crossing the countryside but, once they’ve been revealed by the melting ice, you’ll find that many of them aren’t actually proper 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 quite as easy to cover as you might expect.
Nissan Navara Tekna DCI 190 Auto 4WD
Price: £25,000 – £38,000 estimated (£36,000 estimated as tested)
Engine: 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, diesel
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Top speed 111mph
0-62 mph 11.2 seconds
CO2 emissions 194 g/km
Fortunately, I’m in the latest Nissan Navara, a rugged one-tonne pickup truck that has been updated to blend SUV luxury with workhorse practicality. Iceland should test it to its limits, but the day starts with an easy run along the coast to our overnight stop. Speed limits in Iceland are low, with the equivalent of a motorway section restricted to just 56mph, so driving is actually quite boring, but there’s plenty of scenery to glance at as you go along.
It’s getting late as we reach our destination, following a stop for some dinner at the Umi Hotel. As luxurious as the Umi was, it wasn’t suitable for the rugged adventure we’d got planned, so we headed five minutes up the road to what was a glorified shed. Looking from the front, there was a plain so flat you’d swear it had been built 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.
It had reached midnight by the time I decided to retire, but it was still daylight; Iceland is so far north that, at the peak of summer, there’s little more than an hour of twilight each day. As the clock ticks round to the early hours of the morning, it could be literally any time of day. Sleep patterns are already out of the window.
The next morning the sun didn’t so much rise as simply stayed where it already was. With no idea what time of day it was, it was back into the Nissan and along the main roads for a while. There’s multi-link suspension under the bed of the Navara, promising a smoother ride than you’ll find on archaic leaf-spring competitors and, 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 detritus in the back, while tackling tough terrain.
That’s handy as, after just a few miles, we turn inland and find the tarmac ends abruptly. It’s the last time we’ll see smooth running for the rest of the day. Impressively, the navigation system on the new eight-inch infotainment system included these dry gravel roads, complete with epic clouds of dust, that in turn gave way to rougher rock-strewn roads. We had to slow down a little in the Navara, but the less prepared already had to turn back and find another route. The larger SUVs carried on until the road gave way to rivers, torrents of melt water having washed away the road leaving behind no clues as to how deep the freezing was. The 17-inch wheels of the Navara didn’t have enough rubber on them to float us over, but there was enough height to wade through all of crossings, pure Icelandic water washing over the bonnet and, during more enthusiastic moments, splashing onto the roof.
However, as good as the Nissan was, the sight of modified vans, lifted buses on balloon tyres, and tank-like track-propelled trucks, made us feel just a little inadequate. The Navara might be mammoth on the King’s Road, but there are far more impressive kings of the road in Iceland.
A stop for lunch, and a spot of mountain biking, prepared us for the next leg – a convoy of cars taking the back road to Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that caused travel chaos across Europe when it erupted 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 headed to. The Navara’s four-wheel drive system was essential here, but occasionally we needed to drop into low-range for more control and traction.
Even with the increasingly challenging tracks, the Navara didn’t miss a beat. From 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 we reached a black lava-sand beach.
Even then, 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. Stepping out of the car for some photos, it felt like an unwanted exfoliation, but at least it would leave my skin clear and smooth. I was less sure about the benefits to the Nissan’s paintwork but it seemed to stand up to the punishment.
With the lava storm swirling around, the dark sand ground beneath us, and the grey Atlantic ocean just visible through the gloom, it was Iceland at its bleakest but somehow, most impressive.
It was a straight line to our campsite for the night, racing along the beach in a convoy of Navaras 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 fine sand off.
After another night of restless sleep under the midnight sun, it was back into the Navara for a short run to the airport. With time to spare, we stopped 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 was breathtaking, but over too quickly.
The Navara coped admirably. There can’t be many cars as comfortable in the Cambridgeshire countryside as they are in the geologically turbulent tundra of Iceland.