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Volcanic Heart Of Darkness

A day-long safari through the deserts of the southern highlands
21.9.2012
Words by Eli Petzold
People often set aside the interior of Iceland as “other” from the rest of the country: it's a barren, uninhabitable desert, accessible only by certain vehicles at certain times of the year. Before going on my jeep tour, the only thing I knew about Iceland's interior was the vast and silent unknown that people talk about so often.

I head to the Arctic Adventures office on Laugavegur on a day with nasty, biting winds. Siggi, our tour guide, takes us—a group of seven—to the car, a Ford Excursion with tires more than half my height. As we leave Reykjavík, Siggi gives us the run-down of the day's trek: we'll explore the area around the volcano Hekla and then head to Landmannalaugar where we'll be able to hike or explore on our own.

GATES OF HELL

The group is sleepy and quiet as we soar through the southern lowlands while Siggi relays stories about the scenery. My attention wavers. Hekla appears to the right, its head hidden under clouds. I've only ever seen it shrouded like that. When we turn off Route 1 and head north, I start to wake up with excitement. It's not long before we reach the beginning of the F-road. The signs warn travellers: “Don't even think about it if you ain't in a 4x4.” The landscape has changed drastically since we left the farmland of the south coast—a hilly desert of black ash and pumice on all sides.

We weave our way towards Hekla as Siggi tells us about its history. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, erupting as recently as 2000. But the deadliest eruptions were earlier, such as the 1104 blast that buried nearby settlements in ash. In medieval Europe, Hekla was believed to be an entrance to Hell—people dared not go near because they feared the voices of the damned escaping from beneath.

The road towards Hekla is sinuous and steep. Desert turns to lava field, rigid and reef-like. I notice that the field is lacking the Icelandic moss that so often accompanies this common geological formation. That's because, as Siggi explains, these lava fields are from a 1970 eruption. The poetry of newly-born earth is not lost on me.

We reach a crater, coloured red by oxidation, and go outside to find a powerful, freezing wind. I close my eyes and listen and think about the voices of the damned. After exploring the Hekla region, we pass through another black desert—this one of craggy obsidian—on our way to Landmannalaugar.

GATES OF EDEN

The high winds are blowing lots of dust and ash in the air, hampering visibility. When we  reach Landmannalaugar, the famous colourful rhyolite hills are nothing more than hills in the distance. Siggi explains that we're supposed to spend three or so hours here, exploring on our own, but because of the harsh, cold winds, we could spend less time outside and more time in the car looking at other things.

Still, I'm hell-bent on at least dipping in the hot stream that gives Landmannalaugar its name. I strip my four layers off, pull on my swimsuit and run into the water as fast as possible. It's warm, hot in some places. I relax completely. I'm sad that the conditions are too severe to allow for a pleasant day of exploring, but I admire the beauty from the warmth of the stream.

When I get back to the car, the whole group is waiting for me and they think I'm crazy for swimming. But if anything, I feel warmer, despite the seconds of being wet in the cold wind. Siggi fills in our extra time with a tour of the area's waterfalls and features, where the real treat is Gjáin—literally “the canyon”—a small gorge filled with vibrant green life nestled beneath a harsh desert landscape like a miniature Eden. I sleep through the ride home. Reykjavík is still windy and frigid, but after my trip to the interior, it's nothing to complain about.

This trip is provided by Arctic Adventures. Book your trip at www.adventures.is or call +354-562-7000



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