From Iceland — Destination Desolation: Iceland's Highlands

Destination Desolation: Iceland’s Highlands

Published August 24, 2012

Photo by
Mia Wotherspoon

At just about 17,000 kilometres and 30 hours of flying time from Melbourne, Iceland isn’t the most obvious destination for a road trip. But Iceland sponsors sights and experiences that are truly unique to the island and I am conscious of its inimitable value.

When I met Jón Bjarki six years ago, we talked about the idea that our countries knew a sort of mutual loneliness. Both strung out in absent parts of the ocean, they barely know one another. But Iceland and Australia possess inescapable similarities. Our penchant for coastal living, for instance, our empty lands that sprawl for miles, alive, haunting, and irregular. We occupy little space in the minds of others and our people engender a historic apprehension of the land. Perhaps a harsh land breeds a resilient people. Yes, we are closer than we think.

Over two weeks, my ‘tour guide’ and close friend Jón Bjarki takes me on a tour de force road trip into the highlands, bound for the black desert of Sprengisandur. Our aim is to go wild, to subvert typical tourist routes, to feel ‘lost.’


Driving into virginal isolation

Four-wheel driving in Iceland is rife with thrills; it is no easy feat. Even the most well primed jeep will feel the pressure and we feel anxious as we settle into the nascent stages of our trip. We cross from the Ring Road onto Fjallabaksleið syðri, and the road is as un-refined as roads come: extremely narrow, loose gravel, and littered with big rocks and potholes.

We knit our way through green paddocks and up into wandering valleys. Free roaming sheep graze far and wide and demarcations to the land, such as fences, seem non-existent, something that drives the impression of virginal isolation. The Icelandic landscape is ever changing; we pass through snow capped mountains that give way to muddy expanses of sodden sand.

As we drive into the night, the sky grows dull and scattered rivers and puddles of water are illuminated. Here we are faced with our first river crossing, a monstrous thing at least two and a half feet deep. Every crossing is a risk and one must proceed with caution and supplies and ropes in case something goes wrong. I find myself gripping the dash and short of breath as we heave the jeep into the gushing waters. We take it slow, hobbling and heaving over loose rocks at her bottom, and I can see that Jón Bjarki is breaking a sweat behind the wheel. We make it, thank god and hope the river’s geniality is a sign of things to come.

From here, we continue along the west side of Katla, the infamous volcano that lies underneath the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. The beast looms like the elephant in the room, so to speak, and as I watch the piquant sun bathe her in light I am struck by just how precarious a little world Iceland really is. We spend our first night camping under a mountain by the name of Strútur and wake to angelic, emerald surrounds.

Through green pastures and springs, we hike for about two hours to a legendary hot spring called Strútslaug. The spring is rarely overcrowded and is one of the few hot springs completely untouched by amenities, tents and pipes. We soak aching muscles and look out to a sultry turquoise lake beyond the mountains; this is easily a hidden paradise and we are not yet two days in.

Finding a tucked-away trinket

From Strútslaug we take the Fjallabaksleið nyrðri route and head for the popular hiking spot, Landmannalaugar. In a last minute decision—a bloody good one—we take a detour to the Langisjór lake. This lonely road takes us through the first of the wastelands that we’ll encounter further north. These are the beginnings of Iceland’s badlands, famed for their deep corporeal nothingness, bleak and evocative. Jón tells me tales of ancient outlaws that inhabited these areas in decades passed and after hours of roaming through otherworldly craters I begin to grow uneasy, as if the landscape is giving way to some nagging disquiet within.

Langisjór lake is one of the true trinkets of this country. A sanctuary only accessible by four-wheel drive, it is situated far from civilization at the southwest border of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier. Surrounded by lonely green walls, layers of mist and vibrant, fluorescent moss, this is the kind of spot that will make you grieve for nothing at all. I can’t help feeling like I’ve stumbled upon a lost paradise. The only human we see is the caretaker. We pass him two days later on our way to Landmannalaugar and he waxes lyrical about the toils tourism has taken on parts of the island.

Landmannalaugar, a meeting spot for campers, hikers and tourists, is a busy expanse of, well, tents suffering from what can only be described as an unfortunate dose of co-dependence. The hot spring at the edge of the site is packed full of bodies and I find it difficult to relax without thinking of skins cells.

We reluctantly spend the night here, do a short hike and then scuttle toward Sprengisandur for more deserted landscapes.

Sprengisandur runs north through the middle of the island between glaciers Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull. An ancient and infamous highway, it refers also to the bleak and barren desert that spans every which way for hundreds of kilometres. Sprengisandur fascinates me most about this beautiful country, perhaps because it defies traditional concepts of beauty—though beautiful it is—and forces me to experience the darker side of the island.

The land is mostly lifeless and black; only where there is water can sparse vegetation be found. And of course, there are no sheep, which in itself feels strange. The gravel road is challenging to navigate due to endless rocks and crevices and is impassable for half of the year due to snow and floodwaters. When the weather is warm, the glacial melt water increases and the rivers swell, much as they do when it rains. Jeeps must cross these rivers regularly which makes the weather a prime consideration for those wanting to take the journey.


The grandeur of nothingness

As I drive through the black desert I cannot help compare it with the Australian outback. It is not hot nor crimson nor brown and suffocating; here things are eerie and disarming. The black rock and volcanic ash make this an almost apocalyptic experience and I am conscious of the need to let the landscape take me somewhere.

Sprengisandur presents no signifiers; nothing for human consciousness to grab hold of and in this, the challenge becomes psychological. The mind must allow itself to become a part of the landscape, to become still.

After a few hours, we take a detour off the gravel path and stop on a hill to watch Hofsjökull glacier, aloof and paternal in the distance. We open a bottle of wine and grill our lamb. The air is silent and still and the sky, translucent. This is the essence of why we came, to feel the grandeur of nothingness. We watch the sun set over the arid sands and then set up our camp; it takes some time to etch our pegs into the hardy rock beneath. As Jón fills my head with old folk tales I learn that these old superstitions are a part of the reason this forbidding land appeals to me. I dream of ghosts and giants, elves and outlaws and pay tribute to the few who dared use this route in centuries past.

As we head off the next day bound for Siglufjörður, our fascinating journey through the centre of the island feels like an initiation to other landscapes. Just like the land, we become lost in our own thoughts and I begin to think about the things I might tell people on my return.

Many come to Iceland for her fjords, her geothermal springs and geysers, her monstrous waterfalls, rolling mountains and impressive glaciers. But perhaps it is the forgotten desert that offers the adventurer that extra mile—no pun intended—on the Iceland experience. I encourage others to embrace Sprengisandur and bewilder themselves. But go with adequate supplies, another human being and a good dose of courage, for this is not for the faint at heart.


Hot Pot Anyone?

We drove far. With a grand total of 2135 km’s over 2 weeks, we were
determined to sample the best of the island’s hot springs. And we did.
Each had its own quirks but only one was perfect. Find our pick of the
pack below.


A two-hour hike from Mt. Strútur, this is by far the most idyllic and
untouched of them all! Simply paradise—this is not to be missed.


Off Kjalvegur mountain road, next to a huge geo-thermal field, and
equipped with a camping spot, this pot is in a geo-thermal
paradise—don’t forget your camera.


At the north end of Sprengisandur, this pot is currently undergoing some
unsightly renovations but once finished will be a good camping stop
over when travelling north. The pool itself is beautifully made.


This pool in the Strandir area has been used for decades to teach local
kids to swim. Whilst this has great facilities and is a huge size, it is
more of a swimming pool and may be too cold to bathe in at night.


Come one, come all! The surrounds are stunning and the facilities
fabulous but be warned, if you don’t like bathing with the hoards this
pot is probably not for you.

How to get there?

It seemed like most of the effort was just driving here, but the walk
amongst the desolate moonscape of the Icelandic Interior was only about
10-15 minutes each way.

Time: 8 hours 43 min.
Distance: 500 Km
The road: Sprengisandur, F26
Book a car:

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!