ICELAND

 

I have been to Iceland twice, both times in the summer. Twenty-one hours of daylight at its longest, with nothing darker than twilight in between. From fumaroles to fjords, glaciers and waterfalls, Iceland has it all. A sublime, elemental landscape and a photographer's paradise. A friend once described it as "like being at the beginning of time". It's hard to disagree.

 

Leirhnjúkur

Our journey to Leirhnjúkur began in Keflavik International Airport. We transferred onto an internal flight to Akureyri, Iceland's second largest urban area, with a population of around 18,000. The departure gate was locked when got there. Minutes before the flight was due to leave, a woman arrived and checked our boarding passes and those of five others. The other five passengers were travelling separately, but all knew each other. She boarded the Fokker 50 with us and was our flight attendant for the short flight to the north-east. We landed in Akureryi, picked up our car and drove to Lake Mývatn.

There were a number of places around Mývatn that I wanted to go to, but it was Leirhnjúkur that both took me completely by surprise and that I took more from than any other.

As we walked from the road, deeper into the lava field, the scale of the place became ever more apparent. It is a maze of paths through a black sea of lava, created by the eruption of Krafla in 1984.

Parting ways for solo exploration, we walked over the scorched earth, through the strange formations and colours of an active volcanic landscape. Before long, unexpected ice and snow blocked our paths and we reunited to discover a breathtaking view toward distant mountains.

 

Námafjall

A short distance from Leirhnjúkur, Námafjall is a geothermal field covered in fumaroles and boiling mud pools. We drove past and headed back to hotel for dinner, planning to return as the sun lowered in the sky around 11pm.

Returning for sunset, we were surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of hissing, sulphurous steam. As the sky slowly turned a soft pink, the many shades of red and yellow combined to make an already desolate landscape feel like standing on the surface of Mars.

It was like standing on the surface of Mars.

 

East Fjords

Leaving the shores of Lake Mývatn, we began a drive through the fjords of east Iceland. We took our time and made the journey over a couple of days, with an old boarding school providing some of the most interesting accommodation of the trip.

Most of Route 1, the 1,332km road that runs the entire circumference of Iceland, is paved. But here in the rock falls and striations of the east fjords, the road is gravel. This, along with never-ending bends and sheep that run into the road, made for a fun drive.

 

Hvalnes

On the south-east tip of Iceland, the fairytale mountain of Eystrahorn rises over the Hvalnes nature reserve on the eastern side of Lónsvík Bay. Here a black pebble beach is home to many species of sea ducks, including harlequins, scoter and eider. The bay is a 30km wide glacial estuary, framed by Eystrahorn here on the east and Vestrahorn to the west.

On my first trip to Iceland, Eystrahorn marked the mid-way point, where we turned around and headed back across the southern edge of the interior. On the second trip, it was once again the half way marker, but also where I started to revisit some of the places I had been on the previous trip. I had come back to somewhere familiar, after the barren and volcanic north-east. I knew where I was again.

 

Jökulsárlón

The glacial lake of Jökulsárlón is perhaps one of the most widely recognised places in Iceland. Sitting at the base of Breiðamerkurjökull, Jökulsárlón is filled with icebergs that have carved from the foot of the glacier.

These huge pieces of ice drift across the lake, gradually melting until they are small enough to flow down a narrow channel and out to sea. Here they wash back to shore, littering the black sands of Breiðamerkursandur beach.

I have been to Jökulsárlón many times. In the middle of the day and at the edges of light. Usually chaotic, finding simplicity in the lake is a real challenge and it's not uncommon for there to be no ice at all on the beach. Jökulsárlón is a living landscape, ever moving and ever changing. It is never the same twice.

Jökulsárlón is a living landscape, It is never the same twice.

 

Svínafellsjökull

Like Breiðamerkurjökull, Svínafellsjökull is an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier by volume in Europe. Vatnajökull covers more than 8% of the surface of Iceland and its presence becomes a constant when travelling across the open plains of south-east. On my second trip, I had to get closer. After a boat trip round the icebergs of Jökulsárlón, we headed to the moraine below Svínafellsjökull. It was time for our first glacier walk.

 After a walk in over the moraine, we were each given a helmet and an ice axe. We strapped on our crampons and a harness. We weren't roped together, the harness was a safety measure that would allow us to be pulled out should we fall into a crevasse. Dark, foreboding clouds were a constant presence. We carried on undeterred, the storm never reached us.

Our short time on Svínafellsjökull was enchanting. The world seemed replaced by a blue kingdom of ice, glacial streams and waterfalls. The many sizes, shapes and patterns before us were punctuated only by the crunch of crampons on ice.

The storm never REACHED US.

 

Interior

One of the most striking things about Iceland is the sheer variety of the landscape. The south is green, even lush in places, yet volcanic desert, glaciers and rhyolite mountains are all just as abundant.

On my first visit we travelled to Landmannalaugar, in the Interior, Iceland's inhospitable central area. Our journey began in a landscape that could have been moorland in the north of the UK, but it wasn't long before the road turned into a dirt track and a very different landscape came into view.

Situated at the start of the famous Laugavegur hiking trail, Landmannalaugar is dominated by a large lava field that sits at the base of a colourful rhyolite mountain range.

At the campsite, most visitors bathed in the natural hot springs (swimwear discouraged), but we instead made our way slowly through the dense boulders towards a large steam vent.

The ground around the vent was hot, too hot to stand on for long, and the air full of sulphur. We turned and made our way back, discovering that in our earlier excitement to reach the vent, we had in fact missed an easy path that ran alongside the lava field…

 

Eldhraun

The Eldhraun lava field was created by the eruption of Laki in 1783–84. One of the greatest eruptions in recorded history, it killed an estimated quarter of the population of Iceland and caused disease and famine across Europe. The resulting economic disruption and food poverty is considered to have contributed to the French Revolution.

Today that somber history feels at somewhat at odds with the experience of visiting Eldhraun. Whilst it is still no doubt bleak, it's hard not to be overtaken with wonder at the deep, soft, spongy moss that has now covered the lava. Just be careful not to fall through the moss where there's no rock underneath.

 

Southern Waterfalls

Iceland is a land of endless waterfalls. Even just driving round Route 1, it's possible to see many from the road. But there were four waterfalls across the south of the country, almost from one side to the other, that drew me in.

The first, Háifoss, is the third highest in Iceland, at 122m. We arrived on a sunny morning and were greeted by a rainbow arcing from the falls to the valley floor below. I was also taken by the troll face that keeps watch over Skógafoss, a waterfall on what used to sea cliffs, which are now over three miles inland.

Finally, two waterfalls in Skaftafell: Svartifoss and Hundafoss. Svartifoss is located in a large natural amphitheatre made of basalt columns, like those found at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.

 

Thórsmörk

Thórsmörk, a vast glacial valley in the south west of the country, is one of the most popular hiking areas in Iceland and the end of the famous Laugavegur trail that starts at Landmannalaugar. There is a large campsite here that is served by regular buses from Reykjavík, which makes it sound easy to get to. It’s far from easy to get to.

Getting to the campsite involves either walking long distances over steep mountain trails, which is how I got there on my second trip, or crossing large, fast flowing glacial rivers. That's how I got there the first time. We were in a specially adapted 4WD, high-wheelbase bus, but still had to be towed across the larger rivers by a lorry.

The second time I made the journey to Thórsmörk, we walked the last section of the Laugavegur trail, from Fimmvörðuháls. The final descent into Thórsmörk is both challenging and spellbinding.

It was absolutely pouring with rain, which made the steep ridges and fixed-roped traverses a scary experience at times. But it was so, so worth it and remains one of the best bits of hiking I have ever attempted, anywhere in the world.

At the bottom, a super jeep was waiting for us. First to take us for tea and cake at the campsite, before driving us across the rivers, out of the valley of Thor and back to the waterfall of Seljalandsfoss.

It's far from easy to get to.

 

Fimmvörðuháls

This was the first half of our route to Thórsmork on that second visit. Fimmvörðuháls is a volcanic area situated between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull and the site of the major eruptions that closed European airspace in 2010. Rather than hike up to the snowline on foot, we were instead driven to around 900m in a superjeep. Quite the luxury and what can only be described as a truly off-road experience. But from there, we were exposed to the elements. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in a total whiteout, grateful that we were with such an experienced guide.

At sea level, it was a wet and windy summer. But here, at just 1000m, we were in another world. Walking in a blizzard, we passed frozen lakes, snow covered peaks and the volcanic crater from the first eruption in 2010. But it was when we stopped for lunch that we arrived at one of the most special places on Earth: a three year old mountain.

This was Magni, a new peak that had been created by the first eruption in 2010. It was made up of small, loose, red stones that had yet to be compressed by time into something more solid. As we sat down to eat our lunch, we realised that the ground beneath us was still warm to the touch. It wasn’t mist that was rising from the loose stones of Magni, it was steam.

It turns out that a three year old mountain is still warm to the touch.

 

Þingvellir

There was perhaps no better way to end my time in Iceland than at the edge of the European continent. The site of the Icelandic parliament from 930AD to 1798, Þingvellir is an area of deep historical and geological significance. This is the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, two continents slowly drifting ever further apart.


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