The Hvítá—White River—originates in a lake on the Langjökull glacier, where melting ice and rainwater begin their journey seawards. As the Icelandic highlands give way, the Hvítá plunges down the 30 m (100 ft) drop of Gullfoss waterfall, the climax of the Golden Circle, and then flows, tumbles and meanders its way through the low-lying farmland of South Iceland, before finally reaching the North Atlantic. Along the way, it passes Drumboddsstaðir, a family-run farm north of the Ring Road, reachable by one of those unpaved rural tracks I’ve always envied people for having a good reason to drive down. Today, I have a reason: a river rafting trip with Arctic Adventures.
GETTING INTO GEAR
Base camp is a converted farm outbuilding, the bar-cum-reception desk decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, a kayak, cowboy hats, a rubber ducky and a taxidermy raven. A small dog darts around, seeking affection from the river’s many guides, Icelandic and international, based at ‘Drumbó’ over the summer. They kit us out: neoprean suit, water-wicking under layer and water-resistant outer layer, neoprene booties, helmet and life vest. Then it’s into an old school bus, and we’re off, past pastures where newborn lambs graze, along a pebbly road down to the river.
Safety instructions are brief, and sneakily profound: Everyone paddle together as a team, and things will be much easier. Accept that you’re going to get wet. So we’re off, and immediately into the rapids. The white water churns, and I see our prow rising up the crest of a breaking wave. I feel like I’m in one of those movies about shipwrecks, where the camera pulls back to show a trawler practically vertical, riding out the storm of the century.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
If you could see us from shore, this is not the image that would come to mind. This stretch of Hvítá is Class One and Two rapids, our guide tells us; at Arctic Adventures’ base in North Iceland, they lead adrenaline-packed tours down Class Three and Four rapids (Arctic Adventures offers a wide variety of tours on water, ice, and rock, from snorkeling to glacial walks to highland hikes, as well as multi-day tours for private groups.) Here on Hvítá, the water does much of the work: we shoot a narrow gap, and paddle through churning and bubbling eddies, but conditions are largely ideal for the school groups on the other rafts to splash each other—and for me to admire the scenery. Like a passenger looking out the window on a road trip through a place where there are no roads, I crane my neck, watching the low riverbanks rise into a canyon of humpbacked black volcanic rock—it looks like we’re coasting through a flood zone. “That’s where we go cliff-jumping,” our guide says, pointing up, “but today the river is too deep and the current too strong.” So I content myself with views of the rock pillars and arches emerging from the water, and the rock walls of ancient basalt, its rigidly geometric formations eroded into startlingly abstract mosaics.
As we approach the headland just behind the farm, our guide asks the question that’s been on my mind the whole trip: “Does anyone want to jump into the water?” Well, as I’m wet already... The glacial meltwater, filtered by lava rock, has a stunning clarity, almost a sweetness. It is also very cold—I know, right?!?—and I feel I’ve earned the reward awaiting me back at HQ: a lengthy sit in the sauna, and a dinner of Icelandic lamb, hot off the grill on the front porch.