Iceland 1981

Circling the island in a Lada and a tent. Our lasting impressions from Iceland trip in summer

Iceland entry in 1981 Our friends showed us pictures from Iceland and told stories from an island so wild and beautiful, we had to go. On June 26, 1981 we arrived in Keflavik Airport.
Back in 1981, Icelandair was the only airline to fly to Iceland and Miami in the US. They also offered the best price to fly from Zürich in Switzerland to Miami in the US. Added bonus, we could stay for 13 days before continuing to the US. Our rational was to spend a few days in a warmer climate, after enduring a cooler summer vacation in Iceland.

We don't show many pictures of the stunning waterfalls, hot springs and other attractions. We do however show pictures from the Iceland we visited back in 1981. Something you won't see today anymore.

Polyglott Reiseführer Back in 1981, there was no digital photography. We took the pictures on 35 mm film. We came back with about 600 images. The quality of the slides has degraded over the years. All the technical details are at the end of this page. Enjoy Iceland as it was back in 1981. The same was true for the travel information, no Internet. We bought the Polyglott travel guide to prepare for the trip. All of Iceland on 63 pages with a few sketches for illustration. We were in luck, our booklette was revision 4 from 1980, so fairly up-to-date information. But most of the travel tips came from our friends.

We boarded the Icelandair DC-8 in Zürich. Reading up on this bird, there are still four in operation today, in 2021.

Bording the Icelandair DC-8 in Zürich airport

Let the adventure begin
We picked up our rental car, a Lada NIVA 1600 with prepaid mileage for a trip through the Highland. It's a much shorter trip than circling the island. Our rental contract included a clause that defined the cost of any kilometer exceeding the limit.

Let the adventure begin The road circling the island was not paved, except near the big cities. This picture from the hard packed gravel best describes the road. This was shortly after Reykjavik when there were still fences along the road. We watched a video from Steve and Gareth taking the Ring Road in 2017. The same circle we did. Entertaining story and they reminded us on our trip. 40 years ago, there were hardly any hotels or nice cabins to spend the night. Have a look at their Circling Iceland - Full Iceland Travel Documentary.

Lada on bridge The road through the Highland was still closed due to snow. Our two options were to cut the trip short or circle the island. We opted for the roundtrip. When we returned the Lada, we paid for the extra kilometers as per rental agreement. We spent more than US$ 6,000 for the car rental, gasoline NOT included. With only US$150 left in our pocket, we continued our journey to Miami. We were broke. No panic, we had money wired to us in Miami.

Camping When we booked our trip, tourism was not yet well developed. Hotels were available in Reykjavik and Akureyri. Our plan was to camp along the way. Even so there was little information, it worked out great. We didn't meet many travellers, maybe two more tents in the campground.
The tent in the pictures is still the same we use for Winter Camping trips today. This was our shelter for many adventures in Europe and here in Ontario.

Inside the tent We spent most of the time on the road and the living space for the short nights was cozy. Many of the campsites were on a patch of grass with a wire fence. Possibly a good idea after seeing the free roaming sheep and horses. We always had to watch for sheep that decided to cross the road in front of us. The sheep came in all sizes and wool conditions. Some were really shaggy looking, others kept their good looks.

The horses in Iceland are a special breed. Smaller than a typical horse and well adapted to the climate here. Read all about the Icelandic Horse.

Sheep in Iceland Horses in Iceland

Horses and Glacier

Ladder over fence Instead of a gate, we saw fence ladders. What an interesting idea. We searched for them on the Internet and they are well documented by hikers visiting Iceland recently.

On our travels, we passed two places where fish were hung on drying racks. Not sure if these were Cod or other fish. After reading about the Cod Wars, this is likely a sight of the past.


The weather
Most of our pictures show heavy, low hanging clouds and drizzle. Searching for 'What is the best month to visit Iceland?' returned 'June to August ... enjoy the balmy temps'. Hmm, balmy wouldn't be our word of choice. It was not cold, but the clouds and the drizzle justified a sweater and a rain jacket.

Iceland cloudy days Iceland cloudy days

Blue sky for one photo shoot The clouds opened up for the photo shoot of the Geysir. Getting a picture was a time-consuming project. The camera had manual reload and by the time we were ready for the 2nd shot, the show was over. We took about 6 pictures in 10 minutes intervals or so. No rain, but the spray from the geysir got us. Just can't win, you always get wet in Iceland.

The nights were very short, less than two hours. It was not dark, just dim. One night, we tried to sleep and the clouds were opening up again. We heard a lot of people talking, laughing and working. It was in the wee hours and the car wash beside the campground was busy. So we did as the Icelanders do, we washed the Lada.

Car wash in the early morning hours The Lada got plastered with the dirt from the road. Most of the time, the door handles were muddy. After the car was clean, we were tired again and went back to sleep.
Iceland is just south of the Arctic Circle. The sun always sets, even if it's only for one and a half hours. We just missed the summer solstice, it was a week before we arrived.

signs to Askja And since we are talking about the weather, we got fresh snow overnight.
But lets start from the beginning. We planned a trip to Askja Lake. The road was either as smooth as silk or rough as a washboard. We crossed large fields of sands or crawled over lava fields. The signs were of no help to us, but the Askja mountain was impossible to miss in the far distance.

Askja Mountain Road to Askja

Askja cabin About 100 kilometer after leaving the main road, we found a mountain cabin. It was cold when we arrived and we signed in to spend the night in the cabin.

We were unable to drive to the crater, the snow was too deep. Looking back, that was a good thing, we almost ran out of gas on the way back. We would have been stranded somewhere on the way back.

Askja cabin

Snow in the morning Morning surprise, snow in July.

We found the cabin, or Dreki on Google Map. It was the only shelter when we were visiting. Today, we see six buildings and a real road. What an improvement over the wooden stakes and paint patches that suggested the direction when we were on our quest.

Turf House We saw a few places whith turf houses. After some searching on the Internet, we found them. These are the The historic Glaumbćr Turf House in North-Iceland. The structures are now owned by the National Museum of Iceland.

Turf House Turf House

Church turf house Another turf building we found was the Saurbćjarkirkja Turf Church in North-Iceland. The church as well as the Glaumbćr Turf House were not open for visitors. It may have been the time of day or both places were closed to protect the buildings.

We passed some smaller towns along the circle road. The only record we have are the pictures, but we don't know the locations anymore.

Town in iceland Iceland 1981

We found where these two pictures were taken, in Húsavík, Iceland. After searching on the Internet, we could clearly identify the church. Nothing else, the harbour and buildings have drastically changed. The town is referred to as the Whale Watching Capital of Iceland, Looking at the tourist information today, we would definitly go back there for a stay.

Húsavík, Iceland 1981 Húsavík, Iceland 1981

This was the only image we could map to an address. The road has changed, see for yourself. It is 3 Skólavörđustígur>
Reykjaví 1981

Reykjavík 1981 Reykjavík 1981

Geothermal power
Harnessing the geothermal energy is one of Iceland's leading knowhow. But it is not their biggest resource to generate electricity. A search on this topic states that 75% of power in Iceland is from hydro (source from 2021). With the melting of the glaciers, this may not last forever.

Thermal Power Plant Iceland 1981

Green House with geothermal heating In rural areas along the way, we noticed many places that draw heat from hot springs to heat their homes. Some installations may have been crude, but they seemed to work. Other places use the hot water to heat green houses.

Hot spring below ground A different kind of geothermal force brought us here to Iceland. The geysir as we mentioned at the beginning and all the other hot thermal ponds, mud holes and cracks. Back in 1981, we knew about two hidden hot springs where taking a bath was possible. Actually, by the time we arrived, there was only one left. The water in this cave is no longer suitable. After an earthquake, the temperature rose and made it impossible to go for a swim.
These activities are caused by the Eurasian Plate moving east and the North American Plate moving west. Iceland is torn apart by the tectonic forces and that is the reason we came here.

Hot Spring Hot rocks

Warning No matter where we stopped and enjoyed the hot springs, geysir, water falls or any other attraction, we didn't see a single fence. Some places didn't even have a parking lot and parking the car on the shoulder worked well. Only once did we see a sign that made the visitor aware of the danger. This was at the Geysir site.

Glacier in Iceland in 1981 South of the Vatnajökull National Park is a long stretch of road that is prone to washouts. The way we remember, the road was not guaranteed to be open at all times. We didn't have any problems and got a good look at the enormous ice fields.

Glacier in Iceland in 1981 Glacier in Iceland in 1981
Glacier in Iceland in 1981

Scanning old slides
These images were shot with a Minolta SLR from the early 1970. A reliable camera for thousands of pictures. The film was likely a Kodak Ektachrome. The slides have been stored for over 40 years and they didn't age well. Unless the exposure was exactly right and the contrast range was within a limited range, the dark features of the image were lost.

photo conversion process The scanner is an HP flatbed scanner with a film/slide option in the lid. The software runs on Windows XT. This combination of old pictures, old scanner and old software took a lot of work to get some acceptable pictures.
The scanner at 600 dpi produced a ~2400 by ~1500 pixel image which was fixed with Corel Photo Shop Pro X9. Most of them were resized by 20% or 25% and the results are the pictures above (Photo fixed).
The example shows the result of the scan (Original scan), the small insert in the red frame to the right is directly from the scanner in the original resolution. It is possible that the scanning quality deteriorated after 10 images due to heat. This is pure speculation. To finish this project, we had to accept some flawed results. But keep in mind, our goal was to publish old pictures from Iceland the way we enjoyed the island in 1981. The airplane is outdated, the roads are now mostly paved, but it would not surprise us if the Lada Niva is still running somewhere. The cities and towns are not recognizable anymore.

We hope you enjoyed the 40-year-old Iceland through our eyes.

Photographed July 09, 1981
Digitized January 31, 2022
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