The bus bounces over the bleak highland desert under heavy, spitting clouds, taking a sharp right turn and trundling down the track towards the Kerlingarfjöll mountain resort. A few kilometres later, a tranquil scene comes into view—a tall, sculptural rust-and-ochre escarpment standing over a surprisingly verdant valley, cradling a winding blue river, an idyllic campsite, a visitors centre and a small village of A-frame cabins.
My accommodation for the night turns out to be one of the latter. Shaking the rain off my anorak and stepping inside, I’m delighted to find such unexpected luxuries as made-up beds, radiators, a plug socket, one bar of 3G signal, and a small en-suite bathroom with a hot shower. For the Highlands, this level of comfort makes my cabin a palace.
It’s even more appreciated as the day wears on. The grim weather doesn’t let up, so I sit huddled by the window, watching the shower intensify into a violent rainstorm. The sky darkens into an inky grey blot and campers scamper between the toilet block and their disconsolately flapping tents in the downpour. Despite my plans for a day of hiking, I watch a sole hiker trudge ponderously up the gravelly main hiking trail without a flicker of envy. I take off my boots decisively, draw the curtains and settle in to wait out the weather.
The evening draws in without much improvement. 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 and tuck into a piping hot dish of Plokkfiskur. As the waitress takes the empty plate, she mentions that most of the hikers heeded the weather warnings and didn’t hike the trails today, but 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.
Old women mountains
The prediction turns out to be correct, and the next day, I set off on a hike up to Hveradalir, the geothermal valley nestled deep inside Kerlingafjöll (“Old Women Mountains,” in English). The trail begins by zig-zagging up a steep hillside to the top of a long, pebbled, jet-black expanse. Before long, the cabins are out of view, and my senses tingle keenly, awakening to the feeling of amplified nature in this vast empty space.
I stride through fields of glistening pebbles, running down steep slopes and labouring up the other side. As the trail ascends higher, bands of snow start to appear, and I take the opportunity to cool down by lying in the snow.
After a couple of hours, the wind starts to carry the distinctive smell of sulphur and the ground changes from firm dirt to an orange clay that clings to my boots heavily. I arrive, panting, at a viewpoint overlooking a deep chasm with several plumes of steam jetting emphatically into the air.
Hveradalir turns out to be bigger than I could have imagined. The onward path leads gradually down a long ridge into the valley, over the course of an entire kilometre. Steps have been hammered into the sticky clay of the earth like stitches in the ground, which changes colour through a spectrum of bright yellow, earthy red, mouldy powder blue and vivid bottle green. As the colours change gradually beneath my feet, it’s intensely stimulating, and a sense of adrenalized awe courses through me. The long descent feels like nothing so much as walking down the spine of a dragon.
At the base of the valley, various paths converge from different directions, intersecting and splitting off again. As a result, the bottom of Hveradalir has become an improbable hiking junction, and a mid-Highlands meeting point. A long procession of silver-haired hikers in brightly coloured raincoats stride purposefully past us, heading back up the hill with bulging backpacks that hint at a multi-day route. A family of German tourists disrobe and gamely jump into the warm, burbling stream for a soak. Through walls of steam, I fleetingly glimpse figures wandering the pathways in all directions, taking in the otherworldly scene.
Suspended in time
It feels like the regular flow of time has been suspended, and I wander the trails, prolonging this immersive moment. Steam pours skywards from the countless hot-spots, melting the lingering snow into organically formed sculptures; the hammered rungs of the various trails look like lines drawn over the earthy hills.
Eventually, I take an upwards path that loops around the other lip of the valley. The bright, unctuous mud gives way to firm ground, and the trail leads through broken lava outcrops and mossy, boulder-strewn fields. Back at the summit, I bang the mud from my boots, still intensely present in the moment. I take a long final look back, and a broad smile steals over my face. I start the return journey to the Kerlingarfjöll campsite with a spring in my step, brimming with joy from this fantastical, sensually overwhelming place.
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