South of Djúpivogur, the fjords recede into the background and you enter the altogether different world of southeastern Iceland, a coastal band between the East Fjords and Vík which is dominated by Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull. Covering eight thousand square kilometres, almost 150km wide and up to 1km thick, Vatnajökull’s vast size gradually sinks in as it floats inland for hour after hour as you drive past, its glacier tongues flowing in slow motion from the heights to sea level, grinding out a black gravelly coastline as they go. Vatnajökull National Park covers 12,000 square kilometres of this unspoiled wilderness – an extraordinary eleven percent of Iceland’s total landmass – accessible by hiking, four-wheel-driving or even by snowmobile. Flying is perhaps the only way to absorb Vatnajökull’s full immensity: glaring ice sheets shadowed in lilac; pale blue tarns; and grey, needle-sharp nunataks – mountain peaks – poking through the ice.
Given Vatnajökull’s proximity, Iceland’s “mini ice-age” between 1200 and 1900 hit the southeast especially hard – not to mention the devastating jökulhlaups that flood out from beneath Vatnajökull’s icy skirt from time to time – and it remains a thinly settled area, even though all glaciers here are retreating as the climate warms once more. Vatnajökull’s eastern flank is accessed at Lónsöræfi, a private reserve managed by Stafafell farm, close to the regional hub of Höfn. There’s the stunning sight of icebergs floating on the lagoon at Jökulsárlón; and the ice cap’s southern glaciers and adjacent heaths to explore at Skaftafell National Park and Skeiðarársandur, a huge glacier-induced wilderness between Vatnajökull and the sea. Moving away from Vatnajökull, Kirkjubæjarklaustur is the southeast’s second settlement, near where lava fields and craters at Lakagígar stand testament to one of Iceland’s most violent volcanic events. Note that almost the only shops and banks in the entire region are at Höfn and Kirkjubæjarklaustur, which are 200km apart.