The road to Landmannalaugar, in the Icelandic highlands, is 50 kilometers of rough rock, dirt, and gravel. There are no bridges on the road, and any rivers must be forded by car. This was our second run at F225, and this time we were prepared. We were driving in convoy with our intrepid (and talented) wedding photographers, Genevieve and James Nisly (check them out here: http://www.genevievenisly.com/), who had flown all the way from Cleveland, Ohio with us to take some fantastic and adventurous wedding photos. This was going to be our second day together, after an exciting time hiking through sulfurous volcanic vents the day before. The drive posed new and exciting challenges for flying the Phantom - we wanted to do some car follow video, and showcase our Suziki Grand Vitara conquering the Icelandic countryside. However, to do so one of us would have to fly from the passenger seat as the SUV bumped and rolled over rocks and through rivers while the driver focused on following the barely-visible road markers and keeping the car from spinning off the road.
Once we'd planned the route, turned on the radios, and done a comms check, we were off. Our first trip to Landmannalaugar was in driving rain, gusts of wind sending clouds of ash across the vastness, turning the road into rivulets of black mud. This time, however, gleaming ice caps shone from distant peaks and the sky, streaked with clouds, made us feel tiny among the hills. As we drove, the Phantom chased us along, until finally, we arrived at the first river crossing.
The previous week's rains had swollen the river past its banks, and we disembarked to try and ascertain the correct path. The drone suddenly became more than just an addition to the trip - it became a scouting tool. We flew ahead a few hundred feet, following the tracks in the ash, until another vehicle appeared. From 400 feet, we watched as it sped towards the river, and without slowing down, crashed through the water. Suitably reassured of our next steps, we hopped back in the jeeps, sped up, and made our way through the rushing water.
Another hour of crunching rock and gravel later, we pulled over at the intersection of F225 and F208, the final few kilometers to Landmannalaugar. Before climbing the final hill, however, we veered off to explore a wide, perfectly still lake nestled among the rocky spires. The placid water shone, mirroring the sky above and creating a beautiful juxtaposition of dark ash and shimmering clouds. Our photographers immediately set to work photographing us both in a variety of poses, capturing some truly incredible photos. Before we left, though, we had to see what the lake reflections looked like from the air.
Of course, we had to take one of ourselves with our incredible wedding photographers!
At long last, we arrived in Landmannalaugar, the land of painted mountains. Its reputation came from the variety of oxidation on the faces of the mountains ringing the vast meadows in Landmannalaugar, which gives each mountain a unique hue from green to bright red. The campsite was expansive - tents and 4x4s stretched into the distance, and nearly a kilometer away, crowds of half-clothed adventurers waited for a dip in the naturally occurring hot springs.
We traversed the boiling rivers and stood among tufted cottony plants, watching the sheep climb higher on the mountain faces, and reveled in a successful journey.
We'd been lucky all day to have outrun the clouds and rain, but as we packed up and prepared for the long, bumpy ride out of the mountains, the first drops began to fall. We trundled up the rocks, nervously checking our watches as we watched the sun begin to dip behind the cliffs. Iceland's F roads often traverse deep chasms, sheer cliffs, and raging rivers - all far more hazardous in the dark.
We elected to take the northward F208, a far less challenging road that would more quickly exit the highlands, though we'd been excited to backtrack across the wild landscape we'd just left. Eventually, the rain slowed and the clouds parted, and we tried to capture the beginning of another long, beautiful Icelandic sunset.
Little did we know that the best was still yet to come. After a short break and a quick check of our car tires, we were off again. The clouds, wispy and grey, rushed across the sky, accentuated by the soft orange glow of the sunset. Suddenly, we rounded a turn to emerge on top of an expansive summit crowned with a towering rock cairn. Off in the distance, we could see the glacial cap of Myrdalsjokull gleaming in the setting sun. Without warning, the sky suddenly was engulfed in red flame, and the placid lake at the foot of the mountain lit up in response, mirroring the deep red hues above. We couldn't help but stop, even though every minute of sunset drew us closer to a harrowing drive in the dark. Awestruck, we could only hold our breath and take in the beauty as the Phantom IMU warmed up. Finally, we were airborne.
The rest of the drive passed in silence. Darkness had fallen, but a full moon now shone brightly in the sky, casting a pale, ghostly glow across the dark ash. Hours later, we'd left the rocky highlands behind, a memory of Iceland's untamed wild and the sensation of freedom and adventure.