Greenland and Iceland 2009

Still calling

Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Still calling

I got the bus back to the airport at 5am. I watched the Icelandic scenery in the morning sunshine, not really wanting to leave. At the airport, I checked in, and then walked outside the airport for one last look at the country. The airport car park did not seem likely to provide me with a nostalgic memory, but to my amazement, in the far distance, there again was Snæfell. My totem for this trip had shown itself once again. It was a sign, a clear and unmistakable sign that this would not be my last trip to Iceland. I was looking forward to the next one already.

Last day

Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Last day

As my bus rumbled in through the suburbs of the capital I spotted a sign that said the temperature was 28°C. I spent my last day in the city enjoying the incredible heat wave. I walked out to Seltjarnarnes, the tip of the peninsula that Reykjavík sits on. I wanted to go right to the end, but it’s a nesting place for thousands of very aggressive birds. I suddenly found myself in a Hitchcockian nightmare and had to beat a hasty retreat as terns and gulls started swooping at me.

I could see Snæfell across the bay again. The snowy peak rose from the waters and stood out sharply against the deep blue sky. Once I was out of range of the bird attacks I looked across the bay and wondered when I was going to go there.

There was not much left to do. I went to the Hallgrímskirkja and went up its tower, but it was covered in hoardings and the views were poor. I sat by the Tjörn for a while and looked back on another incredible trip. I watched the sun dip below the horizon at 11.30pm. And in the morning I packed up and left.

Þingvellir

Jul 12, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Þingvellir

I got a bus to Þingvellir. I’d wanted to go here last time but we hadn’t had time. I’d always thought it sounded like a pretty awesome place so I was looking forward to finally seeing it. It was a hot sunny day again, and Iceland was in a fantastic summery mood. We stopped in Laugarvatn and I bought an ice cream.

At Þingvellir the bus normally stops at the Hotel Valhöll, but startlingly the Hotel Valhöll had burned down the previous night. Emergency service cordons blocked the road. We took a detour and stopped at the national park service centre.

I went for a walk. The summery weather had changed a bit, and it was overcast. This was good. I’d always imagined that Þingvellir would be forbidding and atmospheric, and the hot sun didn’t really work for me. Under grey skies I liked the place a lot. I walked down huge chasms, finally reaching the site of the Alþingi. There was a sense of history. Here was where Iceland defined its nationality. Here was where the first settlers met each year to pass laws. And here was where two continents drifting apart were slowly tearing the country into two. Great chasms flanked either side of the sunken plain, across which a river flowed calmly.

The next day it was blazing sunshine again. I hiked back down the chasms but it wasn’t quite the same. I scaled a large rock face to get up onto the North American plate, and I looked across to Europe on the other side of the plains. The Öxará river fell into the gap, diverted into the plains by the early Norse to provide water for their assemblies. I relaxed in the sun until it was time to head, for the last time, back to Reykjavík.

Midnight geyser

Jul 11, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Midnight geyser

I stopped a night at Geysir. We’d stayed here ten years ago, and for some reason we’d copped out and stayed in the hotel. Not in proper rooms or anything, a cheapo dorm in the loft where we were allowed to lay our sleeping bags onto wooden boards, but still I’d have preferred to be outside. So this time I camped, and it was good to be here again.

It’s touristy here, very very touristy. Hundreds of people mill around during the day, and I found the sight of name-tagged travellers following guides with little flags very depressing. I amused myself by watching people fail to understand what geysers do. It was a breezy day, and every time Strokkur erupted, masses of hot steaming water would fall back onto the ground nearby, marking out a large wet streak stretching away from the geyser. To me it seemed obvious that standing there would make you get wet. It wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. I watched one guy standing right in the target zone. Strokkur erupted; he took lots of pictures; he realised he was about to get very wet; he turned and ran; he tripped and fell; he lay face down on the ground as tonnes of hot water fell on him.

In my malicious traveller-superiority state of mind, I chuckled inwardly. The guy got up and he was perfectly ok. He walked away, dripping but nonchalant, affecting a “that’s exactly what I expected to happen and I don’t feel stupid at all” attitude. But we all knew that he did.

Later in the evening, the place was empty. I went up to Strokkur at midnight and listened to the subterranean bumps and rumbles and watched some eruptions. I chatted to an Icelander there, who kept on predicting that the next eruption would be huge. “It always does a big one after three small eruptions”, he told me. “Um.. maybe after four small eruptions”, he claimed. The Icelander told me that his father had set up a ski-resort in the Kerlingarfjöll, a group of wild mountains near Hveravellir. We could see them in the distance from here. My guide book from 1997 mentioned the place but it had now closed down due to insufficient snow in the summer.

In the morning I walked up the hill. The views over the countryside seemed different to what I remembered ten years ago, somehow, but it was only when I compared photographs later on that I realised that the plains were now dotted with summer houses. There had not been a single one ten years before. Saplings had grown into trees, the hotel had expanded, paths had been built. I hate the changes that tourism forces on places, hypocritically imagining that somehow I’m not part of the reason for them.

Hveravellir

Jul 09, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Hveravellir

As we drove back to Reykjavík I saw the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast. Red Eldfell and green Helgafell looked familiar and I remembered the great times I’d had on Heimaey. I was tempted to go back but I had new places to go. I spent a night in Reykjavík, limping about with a foot injury that had suddenly flared up, and then I headed out into the interior again.

I got a bus across the Kjölur route to Hveravellir. It was an Icelandic nostalgia trip at first as we passed through Hveragerði and Selfoss, and then stopped at Geysir and Gulfoss. After that, we were into new territory for me. The tarmac stopped and we were in parts of Iceland that are only accessible for three months each year. We rumbled on. It was a sunny day and it was really hot inside the bus. The landscape was desert-like. We stopped a few times on the way at points of vague interest, and every time we did I was slightly shocked to get off the bus and feel cool air.

We got to Hveravellir in the early afternoon. There was not a cloud in the sky. I spoke to the guy in the small shop as I bought a coffee, and he said it had been like this for a week and didn’t look like it would change any time soon. I almost couldn’t believe him. In my Icelandic experience, stable weather for seven hours was almost unheard of, let alone seven days.

But he was right. It stayed awesome the whole time I was at Hveravellir. After the daytime visitors had gone, there were just a handful of campers left. I went to explore the hot springs. In the strangeness of an Arctic midnight, the twilight sky never faded to darkness and the landscape looked surreal. A full moon peeked above the horizon. The geysers here were all constantly bubbling. A mud geyser spurted intermittently, and I spent ages trying to photograph it before I finally caught an eruption.

I kind of fancied doing a long hike from here. I could have spent two or three days hiking to Hvítárvatn. But the strenuous bits of my trip were behind me, I only had a few days left, and I decided to relax a little bit. So I saw what I could at Hveravellir, relaxed in the sunshine of the arctic desert, and then headed back towards Reykjavík.

Nearing Þórsmörk

Jul 07, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Nearing Þórsmörk

I didn’t go back for it. On the other side of the river was something strange and astonishing, an Icelandic forest. I’d never seen one of these before and I felt like I was in a different country as I walked through the woods. An hour or so later I reached a sign saying Þórsmörk and I was nearly done.

I walked to Langidalur. My guide book said there was a shop here. There was but it was closed, and the place was more or less deserted. A vehicle had got stuck in one of the massive glacial rivers here and was being pulled out by a tractor, but otherwise nothing much was happening. I walked to Húsadalur, home valley, and it turned out this was where everything happens at Þórsmörk. I pitched my tent and rested my weary feet. I was done.

Landmannalaugar’s hot pool is one of my favourite places on the planet, and my guide book said there was a geothermal hot pool here as well. I’d been looking forward to it. In the end, it was massively disappointing – it was hardly warm at all and far from spending hours in there recovering, I spent about five minutes in there shivering before I could take no more.

Instead, I went for a walk. In the late evening, when all was quiet, I walked to the Krossá. I sat and watched the raging glacial torrent carving its way through the Icelandic landscape. It was cloudy and gloomy and atmospheric. I’d finally made it to Þórsmörk. I’d considered pushing on over the Fimmvörðuháls pass to Skógar, another day or two’s walking, but my time was not unlimited and there were other places I wanted to see. I decided my hike was over, and in the morning I headed back to Reykjavík.

On the trail

Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

On the trail

I left Emstrur early. I had just a few hours to go to finish the job I’d started ten years before, and I was in a good mood. The trail started with a steep descent, so steep that it required a little bit of abseiling, using a handily-placed rope. A bridge crossed the Ytri-Emstruá river, and then the trail reached the point where that and the Markarfljót joined. One was dark grey and the other was light grey, and the different shades flowed side by side.

I followed the course of the Markarfljót. The trail was flat, it was warm and sunny, and I made fast progress. Then the trail turned steeply upwards for a while, and the views got more and more amazing the higher I got. I reached a ridge, and far below I could see what looked like a modest river. The path dropped down towards it, and the closer I got, the more I could see how much I’d underestimated it. By the time I got to its banks I could see it was not going to be easy.

I was glad to meet a couple of Dutch hikers who had just crossed. If I fell and was swept away to a grim death, at least someone would know. They had found a decent place to cross, and they shouted back across the raging torrent to direct me. They also threw me a pair of flip-flops – until now I’d just crossed all the rivers barefoot. I tied everything to my pack and ploughed into the waters.

The rivers until now had been ankle-deep at worst but this one was over my knees straight away. In the middle it was up to my hips and the current was pushing me downstream. A slip would have been disastrous but luckily I made it across. I thanked the Dutch couple and gave them back their flip-flops. Then I realised I’d left one of my socks on the other side of the river.

Wild parts

Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Wild parts

When I got up the next morning it was raining hard. I spoke to the warden at the hut, and he reckoned it would start to clear in a couple of hours. So I waited before setting off. I tried to write my journal but my hands were too cold, so I wandered along the lake as the drizzle eased off.

The warden was right. After a couple of hours it was no longer raining, so I set off. The going was much easier than yesterday, and I set a furious pace again. Having started late, I found there were quite a few people on the trail in front of me. After a steep climb down to a bridge over a wild river, I found a huge dusty expanse in front of me, with five or six groups of hikers strung out across it. I like targets when I’m doing things like this, and I chased them down during the day.

The trail crossed a few more rivers. They were all brutally cold but not too difficult to cross. They were quite welcome, amid the desert-like scenery. Grey dust blew about, and there was hardly any vegetation or colour to be seen. The skies matched the ground, a uniform slate grey as far as I could see.

Later on it got less forbidding. A vivid green mountain came into view, looking to me like it could be the crazy home of some Norse god. On this part of the trek I could easily see why Icelandic folk tales have it that every other rock in the highlands is home to a spirit or goblin of some sort.

Eventually I crested a rise and found the Emstrur hut beneath me. I was two thirds of the way to the end.

Over the pass

Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Over the pass

I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out.

Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk.

Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.

Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.

Better already

Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Better already

Early the next morning I got up and left. The word yesterday had been the the wardens would try to stop anyone setting off who didn’t have a GPS system, the weather was that bad. I didn’t have a GPS; I just had a map, a compass, three days of supplies and a wild desire to trek. So I looked shiftily about, saw no wardens, and hurried onto the trail.

I set a blazing pace. The early part of the trail was extremely familiar and I felt like I remembered every footstep as I crossed an old lava flow, to a heavenly meadow on the other side where I remembered thinking it would be awesome to camp. In 40 minutes, I was at the ignominious spot. I passed the spirits of three defeated youths, reluctantly picking up their too-heavy packs to trudge back to the hut. I gave a thought to my younger self and pushed on into unknown parts.

The trail climbed. Soon I had incredible views over ancient lava fields and hills coloured red and green and all sorts of colours that rocks normally aren’t. I passed Stórihver, a hole in the rocks which belched out jets of steaming water, and soon reached places where snow lay on the ground. Higher and higher the trail went, and eventually I reached the clouds. Cairns marked the route but occasionally I had to wait for a few minutes for a break in the thick fog to show me the way ahead. I slogged across what seemed like a huge snowy plateau, cairn by cairn, and the cloud was so thick that I almost walked into the Hrafntinnusker hut before I saw it.