Alone In The Wild: A Highland Getaway At Kerlingarfjöll

Alone In The Wild: A Highland Getaway At Kerlingarfjöll

Photo by
John Rogers

The journey to the highlands mountain resort of Kerlingarfjöll starts early, on a grey and rain-spattered late summer morning. At the crowded BSÍ bus terminal, travellers yawn as they wait in line, their waterproof rucksacks lined up neatly beside them. As usual, I’m underdressed for the inclement weather, wearing jeans, boots, a sweater and a raincoat, accompanied by a single clinking tote bag full of booze, snacks, a bluetooth speaker, and a pair of ill-fitting rain pants. A familiar feeling descends upon me as I regard the other passengers—that of being a perpetually underprepared hiker, heading out into the Highlands wilderness with an uncertain destiny.

A few hours later, after brief stops at Geysir and Gullfoss, and a bumpy crossing over the bleak and beautiful highland desert, the bus trundles down the unpaved track into the Kerlingarfjöll mountain resort. A tall, gnarled rust-and-ochre escarpment leans over the camp, cradling a winding blue river, a campsite, a visitors centre, and a small village of A-frame cabins. My accommodation for the night is one of the latter, and as I enter from the persistent drizzle and shake off the raindrops, I’m delighted to find such luxuries as made-up beds, radiators, a plug socket, one bar of 3G signal, and a small en-suite bathroom with a hot shower.

Rained off

The cabin is even more appreciated as the day wears on. The grim weather doesn’t let up, and I sit huddled by the windows watching the shower intensify into a violent rainstorm. The sky darkens into an inky grey blot, sending campers scampering between the toilet block and their disconsolately flapping tents. Without a flicker of envy, I see a sole hiker trudge ponderously up the gravelly trail towards the main hiking trail, the wind tearing at his clothing. I take off my hiking boots decisively, draw the curtains and settle in to wait for a break in the downpour.

“I drift off to sleep quickly, serenaded by the now torrential rain drumming on the roof.”

The evening draws in without much improvement weather-wise, but in the visitor centre dining room they’re serving hot dinners to French hikers, conspiratorial couples, German families, and a quiet Chinese tour group. I pretend not to watch them while I tuck into a piping hot dish of Plokkfiskur. As the waitress takes my empty plate, she mentions that most of the hikers heeded the warnings not to hike up to the Hveradalur geothermal area today, but that the weather looks set to improve by morning. Back at the cabin, I drift off to sleep quickly, serenaded by the now torrential rain drumming on the roof.

Stony banks

At around 10 am the skies clear, and I stride out towards the trails bathed in warm sunlight. The return bus to Reykjavík will come at 2 o’clock, making the approximately four hour round trip to Hveradalur overambitious. A sign at the base of the mountain path tells of an hour-long hike to a nearby wild pool. Glancing regretfully at the coloured markers trailing off into the mountains, I turn left, and start out along a faint path that skirts the riverbank.

“The red and yellow anoraks of distant hikers catch my eye in the sunlight, dotting the high spine of the mountain ridge.”

Every other hiker at Kerlingarfjöll takes the high road, and there’s not a soul to be seen on the low path. I cross steep scree slopes, green hillocks, and the stony banks of the river in peaceful solitude. At one point, the distant red and yellow anoraks of other hikers in the sunlight briefly catch my eye, then vanish over the high spine of a mountain ridge a couple of hundred metres above ground level. It’s the last I’ll see of them.

Secret pool

Little more than a sheep track, the trail to the pool is an easy but engaging hike, alternately rounding large rocks, crossing outcrops, or vanishing into sand flats before reappearing and clinging to the edge of the burbling stream. It passes through a long corridor of sheer cliffs that opens out into a wide, sandy valley. I step carefully over the stones of a tributary stream, startling a grazing ram, who ushers a herd of sheep up into the foothills. I feel their eyes watching me disappear into the distance.

“The rocks are slippery with algae, and my feet sink into the glittering black sand.”

After 45 minutes, I cross a final grassy slope and arrive at the pool, and the path’s end. Past a small wooden deck, a large pipe sticks out above the pool’s rippling, steaming surface, emitting a jet of hot geothermal water. I strip down in perfect privacy and slide in. The rocks are slippery with algae, and my feet sink into the glittering black sand. A ceiling of grey clouds has descended overhead once more, and starts to spit fat droplets of cold rain, but in the embrace of the water’s natural warmth, the weather no longer matters. I close my eyes and lie back against the rocks and drift away blissfully, with no concern for city life, rainstorms, the long journey home, or anything but this delicious moment.

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