Adventures in East Greenland and the completion of a long-postponed mission in Iceland
In the summer of 1999 I spent a month in Iceland. It was a mindblowing time and I always had in mind the idea that I'd go back some day. Being the type of person who finds some kind of significance in the passage of round numbers of years, I always thought that 2009 was the likely time, but I was never sure if I'd just go back for a long weekend, or for another month of intense travel. In early 2009 the weekend option was looking more likely because I was planning to to spend my main summer break cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats. But then, for various reasons that plan encountered difficulties, and in a moment of curiosity I looked up flights to the north. In a moment of impulsiveness I ditched the cycling plan and booked a three week trip to Iceland instead.
I reminisced. On our last day in Reykjavík, a miserably wet September day, I'd briefly considered the possibility of a day trip to Greenland. It's not even a two hour flight from Reykjavík to Kulusuk in East Greenland. But it would have been wildly expensive and really stupid to go somewhere like Greenland for a matter of hours. But now I looked again at the giant white island, and decided it was time to go there. In another moment of impulsiveness I booked flights from Reykjavík to Kulusuk.
My journey started at dusk one June evening. By the time my flight from Heathrow to Reykjavík took off, it was dark in London, but as we flew towards the Arctic we chased down the Sun, which rose again somewhere over the north Atlantic. Not long after this strange new dawn at 11pm, I caught sight of wild scenery far below, and we descended into Reykjavík. The Sun was low on the horizon, and shone through a misty haze to give the country a magical glow. I saw the Blue Lagoon, surrounded by lava flows, steaming gently. A bright double rainbow blazed. We landed just before midnight, and the sun set as I got off the plane.
It was incredible to be back in Iceland, but for now I was just in transit. At 6am the next morning I headed out to the tiny city airport to get a flight to Greenland. As we flew away from Iceland, I saw Snæfell's perfect snow covered dome, blazing under a cloudless sky, and it seemed that hardly had I lost sight of that than we were flying over the ice-choked seas off the coast of Greenland. We landed in Kulusuk, and I got off the plane into a different universe.
Travelling by plane, you get whisked from one part of the world to another part so quickly that sometimes the change can be shocking. But I don't think I've ever felt as stunned and disorientated as when I landed on Kulusuk Island. The plane had dropped down into a small valley, surrounded by wild mountains, and snow was everywhere. The sky was grey and the air was cool, and I was having a hard time believing I was in Greenland.
I walked out of the tiny airport building, out into the tundra. I didn't have a map of the island, but in the distance was a group of day trippers, who I guessed would be heading for Kulusuk Village, so I followed them. A dirt road leading from the airport to the village was the only indication that people lived here; otherwise, all was deathly quiet and calm. I climbed a small hill, feeling tiny in the vast landscape, and saw the village not far away. I climbed down towards it and had a look around.
There was not a lot happening in Kulusuk. I walked to the end of the village to look out over the ice-choked seas, and didn't see many people. Huskies were lying all around, looking very relaxed but leaping up and barking if I walked too close. I sat on a bench overlooking the sea for a while.
Soon I needed to head back to the airport, to get a helicopter to Tasiilaq. I bought some food in the Pilersuisoq shop, appreciating for the first time just how breathtakingly expensive Greenland was going to be, before hiking back out across the tundra to the airport.
I'd been in a helicopter only once before, to see Uluru from above, so I was looking forward to the trip to Tasiilaq. It didn't disappoint. There was just me and two pilots on board the helicopter. We lurched off from Kulusuk, swept down the valley, over the village and out to sea. I bounced around in the back, taking photos left and right. A few minutes later we flew over a mountain ridge that seemed so close below us that I could have jumped out and made a safe landing, then dropped down over a fjord to land at Tasiilaq.
I camped just outside the town, on an ostensibly organised site that had no facilities bar one horrific toilet. I don't mind camping in basic conditions but having no running water does make things more difficult. But I had a sheltered spot on a grassy promontory overlooking the fjord, and I was in Greenland, so I was pretty happy. I set up my tent under the cool grey skies. I was severely sleep-deprived after my late arrival in Iceland and early departure to get to here, so I lay down and slept.
When I woke a few hours later, I knew I was in trouble. I had all the signs of imminent disastrous caffeine withdrawal - a slight shaking, a feeling of paranoia and a rapidly developing headache. Groaning slightly, I got up and stumbled into town. I'd heard there was a book shop where you could get coffee, but it was already closed for the day. So I staggered on towards the largest supermarket in town, hoping in a crazy way that they would have some kind of cafe in store. They didn't. Luckily I found some instant coffee, and now all I needed was water. Could I find any bottled water in the whole shop? No, I couldn't. I found apple juice, and considered what kind of brew that would make. My symptoms were severe, and I seriously contemplated this option. Then, I found some soya milk, and decided that might work better. Unable to think about anything else, I shuffled back to my campsite, staring wildly and clutching my shopping like an eccentric OAP. I lit my stove, heated up some milk, made a ghastly, stupidly strong pseudo-coffee, drank it so eagerly that it spilled down my face, then made two more in quick succession.
Sometimes I wonder if I should give up coffee.
My cravings were alleviated, but my enthusiasm for Greenland was limited by the prospect of four days camped here with no running water and no showers. I decided to see if there was space in the hostel which owned the campsite. There was, and they said they had been mistaken in letting me use the campsite because in fact it was not yet ready for use. So I packed up my camping things and headed indoors, found a kitchen, brewed lots of coffee, and felt my enthusiasm renewed.
Once I'd recovered from my caffeine deprivation, I was in a position to appreciate just how incredible Greenland is. I went for a walk up Blomsterdalen, a valley running from the fjord up into the hills and mountains of Ammassalik Island. A few locals were out for picnics at the town end of the valley but further up there was no-one. I passed the cemetery, as bleak and haunting as all Greenlandic cemeteries are, and followed a river up to a series of frozen lakes.
On my way back into town I decided to head up into the hills. Hiking here was a dream - no trails, no people, just pure wilderness. I climbed up to a ridge and looked down over the fjord. A ribbon of clouds drifted past the bleak mountains across the water, and icebergs drifted down the fjord.
I scrambled along the ridge back towards town. When I reach Tasiilaq I saw that there was a football game about to start on the town's dusty pitch, and I decided to watch. I was not sure if it was a Greenlandic league game or just a village kickabout, but it looked pretty organised. A small but very vocal crowd cheered the teams on when the game began.
The game was extremely one-sided. The team in red played stunningly badly and I honestly would not have played any worse than them if I'd gone on. I may not be able to control the ball well, tackle people without kicking them or escape from markers, but I can put the ball into an open goal from within the penalty area. The reds couldn't, and the stripy team raced into a four goal lead. I didn't stay for the second half.
The next day when I got up at 7am, the village was covered in a bright white fog. I was imagining that I might be forced to have a very boring day not doing much, but quite suddenly the fog disappeared, and I decided to go on a boat trip with six other people who were staying at the hostel.
The plan was to circumnavigate Ammassalik island. This 70 mile trip would take us to a couple of the remote settlements in the district as well, and hopefully down Sermilik Fjord. This bit depended on the ice having broken up enough for our little boat to get through. Ably piloted by our boatman, Tobias, we set off.
It was still a bit cloudy as we sailed away from Tasiilaq. Our little motor boat was pretty fast and as soon as Tobias put the power down we all had to huddle down to avoid some serious wind chill. We headed anticlockwise, and once we were in the open seas we passed some huge icebergs.
The sun was beginning to come out. We sailed for a couple of hours, stopping on an island with some ancient Inuit ruins before we reached the village of Tiniteqilaaq. I'd thought the scenery up until now had been pretty amazing but here it blew my mind. We docked in the village, climbed a small hill and suddenly had the unbelievable Sermilik Fjord in front of us.
I'd bought a small map of Ammassalik Island for the staggering price of 17 pounds, and I was determined to use it. My target this day was to climb Sømandsfjeldet, a vicious-looking mountain behind town. It was only 800m high but the word was it was no easy climb.
Once again the hiking was a dream. After a short time on recognisable trails I was out in the wilderness, just keeping my eye on the mountain top and picking my way onward and upward. I soon reached some impressive heights. The going was tough, and parts of my climb were incredibly steep, but spurring me on were some awesome views. I could see Kulusuk island in the distance, looking much colder and more forbidding than Ammassalik Island, and I could see the endless expanse of sea ice stretching way out to sea.
What I could also see was a bank of cloud in the distance. I pushed on higher, but it was becoming pretty difficult to edge my way up. The clouds seemed to be coming closer, and I still had some pretty tough climbing to do before I could reach the summit. If I got caught in cloud up here, there would be a definite possibility of death. I decided to make a strategic retreat.
It was my last day on Ammassalik Island, and I wanted to do a good hike. My outrageously expensive map had details of a few, and I decided to take the Bassisøen loop. It started with a long walk up the fjord, past icebergs bumping against the shore, to a valley which headed away inland.
The first half of the walk was on trails. I followed the course of a river upstream, past eerily semi-frozen lakes which somehow to me made the jagged peaks around look dramatic and threatening. At the top of one lake I passed a couple of other hikers, who were on the other side of the river. I should have realised I was on the bad side of the lake - I'd had to scramble over a huge rockfall which blocked the trail, and now I had to take a perilous leap over a powerful river to get back onto the path. It was not an easy jump and I was glad to get over unscathed.
The trail continued until two valleys met. I turned left, around a large mountain, and carried on. This next valley was quieter, colder, and snowier than the previous one, and I was back in the dreamy wilderness, with no trails and nothing to restrict where I went. I trekked along the shores of a large frozen lake, and for no good reason at all started wondering if there were any polar bears around. Apparently they're not uncommon here in the winter but rare in summer. For a few seconds I convinced myself I'd seen something white moving about on the opposite shore of the lake, but I soon decided that was ridiculous and carried on.
Eventually I reached the end of the lake, and my trek was nearly done. I just had a couple of hours to walk back down a valley to the village. After a little while I reached a jeep track which I followed for a while. I passed a small hydroelectric station which was covered in graffiti. I was still miles from anywhere. There really can't be very much to do in Tasiilaq when you're growing up.
My time on Ammassalik was over. Before I'd left London I'd booked a ticket for the ferry back to Kulusuk. The helicopter ride over had been fun but I really fancied a little sea voyage off East Greenland. It was the first scheduled ferry journey of the year - the sea ice had only recently melted enough to allow easy sailing. I packed up my things and wandered down to the port under gloomy skies.
The boat was supposed to leave at 9am, but there was little sign of any activity. I hung around on the dock until 9.30 and then vaguely wandered on board. I showed someone my ticket, and then watched dark shoals of large fish speeding around in the water. At 11.15, we chugged away from the dock, and set off for Kulusuk. The only passengers were me and five Danes. I stood on deck in the chilly breeze, swaying with the boat and watching icebergs drift by. The seas were mostly clear. The boat didn't even need to avoid most of the icebergs - it was quite happy to ride over them.
After a couple of hours I imagined we were not too far from Kulusuk, and I started to think about what I would do there for two days. Suddenly, a crew member asked to see my ticket again. He looked a bit worried and I wondered why. I soon found out. The boat was not two hours late but two days late. Its weekly run took it all around the settlements of Ammassalik district, and today it was not actually going to Kulusuk, but to Sermiligaaq, the most remote village on the schedule. My journey was not nearly over - it had barely begun.
I sometimes have crazy dreams about accidentally getting boats or trains to completely the wrong place. This was the first time it had ever happened to me. I felt a slight sense of panic for about 10 seconds, and then realised that this was in no way a bad thing. I would have to spend another 90 pounds on a helicopter back to Kulusuk in the morning, but on the plus side I was in for a 12 hour round trip up the savage coast of East Greenland, to a remote village that I wouldn't have otherwise gone to. The crew and the Danes couldn't understand why I was smiling so much.
We sailed up Ammassalik Fjord. It was nothing like as ice-choked as Sermilik Fjord. It was a dull grey day and the seas and mountains looked gloomy. I lost track of time as we gently rolled along, rising and falling with the swell. I chatted to the Danes, who had travelled a lot in Nordic parts, and I chatted to one of the crew who could speak English. A couple of the other crew had simply said "Kulusuk!" and laughed as I passed them on the deck. It was all meant in a good spirit.
After almost six hours we reached Sermiligaaq. It was a slice of Greenland life that I was incredibly happy to have had this chance to see. The tiny ragged village was the first sign of human life that there had been in all the miles of fjord since Tasiilaq. It seemed unbelievable that people could live here. The arrival of the boat was quite an event - our main mission here was to deliver supplies. The Danes and I left the boat crew to their work. We had an hour to kill before heading back and I wandered around the village. The only activity was at the dock - everywhere else was deserted. In the cold drizzle it didn't look like a very inviting place.
The boat finished its delivery, and we headed back. I watched Sermiligaaq recede into the forbidding mountains, and we sailed back into the endlessness. It was 5pm, and it was getting colder. I spent most of the return journey indoors, sheltering from icy winds. I'd brought no food with me, naturally, having expected to be on Kulusuk by lunchtime. But the Danes took pity on me, sharing biscuits and sandwiches, and the crew even offered me a share of their cooked dinner. It was very kind but I had to refuse on the grounds of vegetarianism. I probably offended them greatly. I felt bad.
Eventually, at 11pm, we chugged back into Kong Oskars Havn, and the familiar sights of Tasiilaq drifted back into view. The heavy cloud made the Greenlandic evening almost feel like it might turn into a night. I got off the boat and walked unsteadily back up to the Red House, where luckily they had room to put me up again. That night, and for days after, I felt the rocking of the boat as I lay in bed, and I saw icebergs and mountains and stern grey seas when I closed my eyes.
In the morning I had to rush around Tasiilaq. I needed to buy a helicopter trip back to Kulusuk, so I hurried down to the helipad. They turned out not to sell tickets there, but they told me I could get them at the bookshop. I hurried to the bookshop but it wasn't open, and it wouldn't open until after the last helicopter had left. So I hurried back to the Red House and used their internet connection. It cost me more than 6 pounds for 15 minutes, but I booked my ticket, then walked back down to the helipad, told the guy at the desk my reservation number, and waited for the helicopter to arrive.
In the departure lounge there was a middle-aged Inuit listening to loud tinny music on his mobile phone. His tastes were very cheesy. A young Greenlander started speaking to him and I wondered if the young guy was going to ask him to turn it down. But as they spoke, I heard the older guy say "Bluetooth", and they started swapping tunes.
I got the helicopter back to Kulusuk. As I was walking from the airport to the village, a Greenlander offered me a lift, and I chatted to him during the short journey. He was 47, and he'd always lived in Kulusuk. He said that the first tourists started coming here when he was still a boy. He was going out seal hunting later in the day, and told me that whale hunting would start later in the year. Apparently the whales were too far off shore at the moment but when the sea ice melted more, they'd come closer to the shore.
He dropped me off in the village. I was hoping to stay in a hostel but it turned out to be full. The hostel owner, an Icelander, gave me a lift out of town to a camping area, and I set up my tent there. He warned me to look out for polar bears, and I laughed, but he was actually serious. Apparently one had been seen near the airport only a month earlier.
Not long after I set up my tent, two small children came over from a nearby house. By means of sign language, they indicated that they wanted to swap residences with me. They moved themselves into my tent and pointed me towards their house. They played for a little while, until it started raining. They left me to my small patch of grass and headed back to their nice solid dry warm wooden house.
The temperature dropped and the rain got heavier. I tried to cook some noodles in the porch of my tent, running a serious risk of setting the thing on fire. Ice formed on my gas canister, and the water never got hotter than a hot bath. "I love camping", I said to myself as I chewed the crunchy noodles and listened to the rain battering on the canvas.
I got up the next morning to find thick fog enshrouding Kulusuk. As I packed up my tent, I heard the plane from Reykjavík approaching, but I couldn't see it. Then suddenly it passed breathtakingly low over my campsite. I saw the dark shape and heard a huge roar, but not long afterwards, I heard it again much higher.
I packed up and walked across the tundra to the airport. The fog was still thick, the plane had still not landed, and there was an air of slight tension. It had been circling for more than an hour by the time it landed, and there was relief in the airport as it finally pulled up at the terminal. The most relieved people were a huge group of Greenlandic children, who were clearly going on a big trip to Iceland. We all boarded, the Greenlanders were waved off by their families and I looked back at the snowy landscape and bade farewell to this incredible place.
Barely two hours later, we were back in Reykjavík. Coming from London, Iceland feels pretty remote. Coming from Greenland, I had the sense that I'd crossed an enormous but invisible boundary, leaving behind a place where humans lived on the brink, where there were no towns or villages, really, but just houses on a landscape, and returning to somewhere safe, serene and blessed. Greenland is closer to Iceland than London is, in terms of distance, but on a scale of human experience, Iceland is far, far closer to London than it is to Greenland.
In the evening it was sunny and warm. I walked by the harbour. Ten years ago we'd been slapped about by a violent sea wind walking along here, but today it was calm, and people cycled, ran and walked along the bayside path. As I walked, I noticed a dim grey triangle on the horizon to the north where the sun was getting low in the sky. It could only be Snæfell, 75 miles away across the bay. Seeing it from this far away seemed to me to be a good omen for the next part of my trip: to hike the Laugavegur.
I'd been here before. Ten years ago, we planned to hike the legendary Laugavegur, a three day crossing of some of Iceland's wildest scenery. We'd given up after a matter of a couple of hours, not through any desire of mine but because my two travelling companions didn't fancy it. In retrospect I could see we would have had a miserable time if we'd carried on but still I left with a powerful sense of unfinished business. If there was one thing I wanted to do on this trip, it was to finish the job.
So I got an early morning bus to Landmannalaugar. Even if the hike had been a failure, Landmannalaugar had been one of my favourite places in Iceland. The weather was unremittingly foul and bleak and that only made me like it more. The sombre mountains just seemed so atmospheric and wild to me then. Wallowing in nostalgia, I listened to 7:30 by the Frank and Walters as we rumbled along the Fjallabak road to the back of beyond.
It was almost like I'd just rewound ten years. Rain was battering down on Landmannalaugar, which looked as familiar as if I'd been there yesterday. I really, really didn't fancy camping - our night here on the gravelly campground had been horrible. So I went to see if I could get into the warm dry hut. By great good fortune I happened to reach the warden's hut at the same time as some people who had one more reservation than they needed. I gladly took it off their hands. And then I made straight for the most heavenly location on Earth, the hot pool. Bathing in hot volcanic waters in the remote hinterlands of Iceland while it rains steadily is just too awesome to describe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.