It’s easy to get distracted by the routine of Reykjavík life. Mine goes something like: intern, race to Bónus before it closes, write, make a fool of myself at Paloma, eat take-out in bed and feel like a sack of shit the next day… and repeat. Which is to say: Every now and then, I need a reminder that I’m currently living on a little volcanic island on the edge of a freezing ocean. Sometimes I just gotta plop myself in some water heated by Earth’s mantle or stomp around atop an ash-coated glacier to really refresh my memory: I am in Iceland, I am in Iceland, I am in Iceland. I really am.
One such reminder came by way of Grapevine’s Travel Editor John, who hooked me up with a group tour. The “group” aspect made me a little nervous at first. Maybe it’s an only child thing, or maybe I’m just bad at making friends, but I’ve never been great with “group activities.” But, I can’t traverse a glacier alone, so here I was with my squad for the day: a smiley blond tour guide named Tómas; a friendly Australian couple adorably named Ollie and Ellie (reallie!); our photographer Art; and Linda, an eccentric little Swiss lady in sunglasses who insisted we eat have some of her “cakes” (her word for cookies). I decided I liked her instantly.
After embarking from 101 Reykjavík, it didn’t take us long to reach our first destination, the Hengill geothermal area, where we were strongly greeted by Iceland’s national scent: sulphur. After bouncing our way down a gravel road, we found ourselves suddenly alone in strange terrain—vividly green and eerie, filled with massive clouds of steam emerging from giant gorges, creeping over rolling hills. Climbing out of the van, Linda lit a cigarette. “I am a geyser, too!” she said, puffing away.
We began an easy hike to Reykjadalur (“Steam Valley”) and, fitting with the morning’s theme, we went at a leisurely pace. Linda walked alongside me, explaining that this was her first time in Iceland. “It is a strong island,” she said. “It touches me in my heart—such a mystical place.” I looked around and tried to experience the hike the same way she did. I am in Iceland, I am in Iceland.
To be honest, Reykjadalur is hardly off the beaten path. A short drive out of the city, it’s recently morphed into your typical tourist spot; however, when we arrived at the hot springs, the area was fairly empty and secluded. Ignoring the fact that we were literally guided to this spot, it felt as if we had just stumbled upon our own oasis—this winding stream that looked less like a river and more like the earth had cracked open, surrounded by a constant haze of steam.
My primary concern, in typical American style, was the lack of changing rooms. As I began scoping out the area for a secluded hill to get naked behind, Tómas pointed to four walls making a cross shape and said, “You can change there.” Uh… I paced around for a few minutes, debating which spot would be the most private (none, really), and finally resolved to surrounding myself in a towel and very carefully peeling off my clothing and slipping into a one-piece. Whew.
Testing out the water, I learned that Reykjadalur is kind of special because it is a meeting place for two rivers— one hot and one cold—which join to form pools with perfect temperatures for lounging. I got a kick out of watching other people go through the same discovery process, hearing them yell in different languages upon realizing the river to the left wasn’t a hot spring after all. “¡Fría!” “Zima!” I found a geothermal sweet spot, neither too hot nor cold, rested my head on a rock, and more or less passed out, while Linda, long overheated, enjoyed a cig in the grass.
After more than enough soaking time, we eventually hiked back, passing some gurgling holes in the ground. Some were filled with sickly grey mud that would moan and spit up like Earth’s little babies, while a massive hot spring nearby—a giant mud pit with a bluish colour rivaling that of the Blue Lagoon—furiously huffed and puffed, bubbling over. “Good way to get rid of a body,” one of the Australians remarked, peeking in. (Note to self: watch out for the Australians.) Next to the spring, a group of perhaps the most spoiled sheep in Iceland lounged in the steam.
Watch your step
The next stop on our journey was Sólheimajökull, “Sun World Glacier.” Emerging from the van, we each got fitted with crampons—spiky jaws for your feet so you don’t fall to your death while traversing the icescape. Along with crampons, Tómas also armed us with ice axes, which was putting a LOT of faith in us, if you ask me. He warned us not to swing them around and to hold them a certain way, but goddammit, have you ever held an ice axe? Such a feeling of power! Such a taste of destruction!
It took us maybe an hour of hiking to get to the glacier. I don’t know what I was expecting—that we would just park our car and then immediately be on top of a glacier? The hike was pleasant, and we got to stop at a river from the glacier and refill our water bottles with some of the world’s cleanest water.
Arriving at the 200 metre tall Sólheimajökull was a bit of a shock. From a distance, it appears icy, brilliantly white, but as we approached it, it took shape as a dizzying landscape of dark, ashen crags. Less North of the Wall and more Detroit in February—that mix of hardened slush and oil that forms one impenetrable monster that lingers until mid-March. We peered down into a gaping crevasse of the glacier and saw a group of people trekking along, appearing impossibly small and vulnerable against the harsh terrain.
Perhaps most fascinating and also most terrifying were these holes in the ice—moulins, as they’re called—that went down for uhhh… forever. Some of them were tiny—little bright blue holes that you could peer into—but others were yawning and wide, and ready to swallow careless hikers.
The majority of the time we were clomping across the glacier, the sky was overcast and moody, but at one point the ever-fickle Icelandic sky changed its mind and suddenly Sólheimajökull came alive with sunlight, living up to its name. I became aware of a slight trickling noise and noticed that the glacier was alive, its walls twitching as parts of it melted in the sun. I was reminded of that feeling you get when you look at a colony of ants on the ground—the moment you realise the dark mass is made up of tiny pieces, all moving in unison.
On the walk back, I felt as if I was traveling on some distant ruddy planet— a strange feeling that’s not uncommon in Iceland once you get out of the city. It was isolated and beautifully dangerous—this massive beast that will likely vanish in years to come. While finishing our trek off the glacier, I turned back to get one last glimpse at it, careful not to fall to my doom in a crevasse.
“We are alone,” Linda said. I nodded.
Just like in video games
It was pretty late in the evening when we left the glacier, but Tómas still managed to stop at a couple waterfalls on the drive back. We started with Skógafoss, a 60-metre fall that, like most natural attractions in Iceland, made me feel puny and worthless in the grand scheme of things.
We didn’t spend too much time at Skógafoss, but it was enough, and then we were off to Seljalandsfoss, the famed waterfall that visitors are able to actually walk behind. I immediately thought of that one shortcut in Mario Kart (Koopa Troopa Beach—everyone who’s anyone knows you gotta drive through the waterfall if you want to win).
I approached the great Seljalandsfoss, but no, it wasn’t enough to get close to the fall—I had to go behind it. Which resulted in me getting truly drenched—to the point where I couldn’t even see the dang waterfall because my glasses were so wet and fogged up. It was invigorating to say the least, but I think I’ll reserve any future excursions behind waterfalls for N64.
Back in the van, I processed all we had done in the last thirteen hours or so. We had swum in stinky water warmed by the belching belly of the earth! We had marched across a desolate wasteland of ice and ash! We had just walked somewhere that, in my mind, I only thought possible in video games! And now, safe and warm, we headed back to Reykjavík to catch the start of that fashionably late Icelandic sunset.
I was in Iceland, this “mystical place” indeed.