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Driving through rivers in Iceland's majestic, icy terrain

It's 9 a.m. just south of the Arctic Circle and the sun won't be up for another hour and a half. Sitting high in the cabin of a 4x4 that smells faintly of diesel fumes, our headlights punch a hole through the dark in a way that reinforces how small we are in this landscape. In the distance, other cars move as specks of light slowly through the sky. There must be a hill ahead, but it's too dark to see.

We're driving east from Iceland's capital, Reykjavík, towards Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, grounding air traffic in Europe. The 4x4s belong to ISAK, a local family-owned company with a fleet of highly modified Land Rover "Super" Defenders. The plan is to drive them, with the help of ISAK guides, across the frozen landscape to the Thórsmörk valley, nestled between three glaciers, and then – daylight and weather permitting – up the volcano. Finally, we'll have some soup.

In photos: An awe-inspiring off-road drive through Iceland

This island in the north Atlantic is younger than the dinosaurs which, in geological terms, makes it a newborn. It sits on a volcanic hot spot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. A volcano erupts, on average, every five years here. The result is the very definition of a rugged landscape. It's nearly impossible to explore much of it as a tourist, especially in the long winters.

Unless you have a Super Defender.

During the Second World War, the U.S. military set up a base in Iceland, on what would become the front lines of the Cold War. Along with fighters and bombers, the military brought Jeeps and Dodge trucks. Icelanders wasted no time in using these new 4x4s to explore the largely uninhabited interior of the island.

Since then, Icelanders have been perfecting the 4x4: adapting it to float over snow and ice, and wade through deep rivers. On city streets, sub-compact Hyundais drive alongside balloon-tire monster trucks that could crush them – demolition derby style – and nobody looks twice.

Icelanders call all back-country modified 4x4s "super-jeeps," although most are not, in fact, Jeeps. Toyota Land Cruisers of all vintages are popular, as are Hilux pickups, Nissans, Ford vans and Land Rovers.

Riding shotgun in the Super Defender is Jón Baldur, founder and owner of ISAK. He has a short white beard and a wide smile. The company uses modified Defenders because there's something romantic about them. "They have nostalgia for people," he says. Probably because Defenders have looked the same since the mid-1980s, even the 1970s. They're analog, utilitarian. But, they do require constant maintenance.

The air outside is crisp and cold but not unfriendly. It's the sort of air you want to fill your lungs with and hold on to. By the time we leave pavement behind, it's 11 a.m. and the sun is spilling warm pink light over the horizon. On our right, a 50-metre-high waterfall. We're at the doorstep of the Thórsmörk – Thor's Forest.

The road is dirt, peppered with potholes that would rip a wheel off a normal car. Then the path turns to snow and ice. Then it's nothing more than a pair of deep trenches dug by super-jeeps which have come before us. Eyjafjallajökull is to the south, Tindfjallajökull glacier is to the north, and the gigantic Mýrdalsjökull glacier is due east. In between is an infinite white valley more fit for sled dog than machine.

Judge the depth of a rut wrong or drive over that bright-white-snow instead of this other-white-snow and the truck could fall through the frozen surface into a glacial river running below, which may or may not be a problem, depending on how deep it is and how fast the truck is going when it breaks through. It's like driving over crème brûlée.

Jón says it's time to switch into low range. This allows the truck to crawl at walking pace in first or second gear without stalling. I'm constantly shifting the six-speed manual gearbox.

The on-board VHF radio crackles with something in Icelandic. It's Arnar Sigurðarson, ISAK's young operations manager, driving the Super Defender ahead of us. The third vehicle in our convoy carries Binni TKTKT and Magnus TKTKT, co-owners of the Volcano Huts, where we'll be stopping for soup.

The day will be a race against time – daylight – and constantly changing weather.

The idea when building a super-jeep is, "to increase flotation, especially for snow driving," Jón says. "To fit 38-inch tires we need to get these vehicles lifted. We drop the spring mounts and cut out the wheel houses, mount fibreglass fender extensions, lower the ratio of the axle differentials to compensate for the increased size of the wheels." A local specialist, SS-Gíslason, puts it all together.

Finishing touches include an engine-mounted compressor to inflate the tires after off-road driving, a snorkel (really just a vertical pipe) to avoid getting water in the air intake, a VHF radio to communicate if driving in a group, differential-lockers, spotlights, GPS, a few metres of rope.

"And a shovel under the rear seat, of course," Jón adds.

He is fond of the shovel. It is his favourite tool. "People often overlook it for all the high-tech stuff," he says. His accent is German – he was born there – but he's lived in Iceland since he was a teenager. His first car was a Land Rover, bought so he could reach the Thórsmörk valley to hike and camp.

"The shovel is the most simple and efficient. The physical strain that you get out of it is something, something I like, and something maybe people don't do enough."

We're not going to make it up the volcano today. In Iceland, the weather forecast includes wind-speed in metres per second. Today, it's blowing too fast, whipping the snow up into thick cotton soup. It's too dangerous, and with me driving so slowly, we're running out of light.

Here on the 64th parallel north, there's only six hours of daylight in January. Just 222 kilometres to the north of us is the 66th parallel, the imaginary line that defines the Arctic Circle.

Up ahead on the path a super-jeep is stuck. Not one of ours. A Nissan Patrol. Without speaking, Jón grabs his shovel and runs towards it. Arnar and the Volcano Hut guys go, too. The snow stings when it hits my face.

They hitch up a tow rope and pull the stricken SUV 40 metres to more solid ground.

These are the laws of the land: always help others. Nothing feels better than camaraderie in a lonely place.

Iceland has no standing army. The country's greatest threats come not from other nations, but from the ground, the sky and the sea.

The act of driving across such jagged terrain is fun in itself. There is satisfaction in crossing difficult rivers and climbing steep hills. It is the satisfaction of facing challenge and overcoming it. But to think that's all this is misses the point. The best thing about off-road driving is where it takes you. I see spectacular beauty, raw and dangerous, elusive. A simple pleasure, yes, but when was the last time you saw something wild?

Ironic that you must take a machine to see, but that takes nothing away from the experience.

In a large timbre frame building at the Volcano Huts, we finally eat hot soup – stew, with lamb and vegetables – the best soup, ever.

The light is fading already by 2:30 p.m. We could shave an hour and a half off the return journey if we can cross the big river further upstream.

Jón throws a big rock into water. "To listen to the sound it makes." If there's a layer of ice below the surface, which might break if we try to cross, he'll hear it. The water is frigid and flowing fast out towards the sea.

This river's not safe, but there's no way to get out of the valley without crossing at least one big river. We try another.

Never drive against the current, Jón says. But the exit on the far bank is up river. The current feels like it could tip the Defender over as we drive through water up to the doors. I prepare for the shock of icy water. But Jón is stone faced, unbothered. He's watching the waves. By the far bank the current is slower, so we can double back and crawl towards the exit there.

No matter how big your 4x4 is, in Iceland, nature is bigger.

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