The Highlands of Iceland are any outdoorsman’s dream—and one that, in the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve never experienced. But, on a stunning summer day, myself and a photographer find ourselves zooming down Route One South in a massive 4×4 Superjeep, ready to finally witness Iceland’s famous interior, the Hekla volcano, and Landmannalaugar.
Our guide is Erik, an experienced all-terrain obsessive who tells us that this highway drive is the boring part of the trip, but that it’ll end shortly. Soon, we’ll be entering the wild with two goals: an Superjeep exploration of the Hekla volcano and Landmannalaugar.
And as the opening chords of “Long Way To The Top” by AC/DC burst from the speakers, we abruptly turn off the paved highway and onto the unpaved 4×4-only Highland track. With but two faded tyre tracks on a dirt road marking the upward path towards Hekla, the song seems correct: It’ll be a long way to the top if we want to rock ‘n’ roll.
Don’t go here?
The dirt road starts smoothly enough, but gets rougher and more bumpy with every metre we drive. Inside the car, as the rocks on the road get bigger and the road narrows, we start rocking harshly from side to side. Instantly, we hold on for dear life as the car shakes and turns—nearly horizontal, it feels like—to and fro. Erik calls this “the Icelandic massage”—and he’s right, it certainly is one way to loosen those muscles.
It is at this shaky moment that, in what feels like a bizarre act of God, a travel advisory sign appears on our right side. Warning us of the imminent eruption of Hekla, the disclaimer urges travellers to either turn back or exercise extreme caution, as if simply being aware of the possibility of an eruption will save you from the onslaught of deadly pyroclastic flow.
Immediately after the foreboding sign, my breath catches in my throat as Erik belly-laughs. He’s a pro at this, having travelled to Hekla innumerable times, and tells us he can’t promise we’ll return to the Ring Road unscathed—but we’ll have a hell of a time. Spoiler alert: We didn’t die.
Iceland’s premier roller coaster
Climbing the steep incline of Hekla in our 4×4 Superjeep is like a roller coaster with better scenery. We’re surrounded on all sides by dusty brown badlands, with dollops of moss-covered lava stacked haphazardly as far as the eye can see. In the distance, we’re treated to a view of a quartet of glaciers—Vatnajökull, Langjökull, Mýrdalsjökull, and Eyjafjallajökull. Seeing four of Iceland’s most legendary sites in one horizon is something I’ll remember until I die—which hopefully, I think to myself, won’t be here on the side of Hekla.
As the tumultuous ascent continues, Erik marks every 100 metres with a yell. Summiting the entire volcano is, unfortunately, impossible—but we get as close as possible and jump out of the car to take in the crisp mountain air. Just a stone’s throw away, looming over us, dotted with pure white snow, is the crater of the volcano, which I still expect to explode at any second. While it’s nowhere near the highest peak in Iceland, the foreboding nature of Hekla makes it seem as large as Everest and as ominous as Mount Doom. But, almost as soon as we’re there, it’s time to go—spending extended amounts of time in the area is, of course, risky.
On the way down, we begin to push the car to its limits, getting close to cliffs and doing small drops and climbs. Our next stop is Landmannalaugar in the Friðland að Fjallabaki nature reserve—the ending point of the multi-day Laugavegur hike, and one of the jewels of Iceland’s interior.
After the awe-inspiring majesty of Hekla, I fully expect Landmannalaugar to be something of a let-down. As if the weather is reading my thoughts, it instantly begins to hail and mist over as we pull up to the camping area of the nature reserve. Huddling in the information area, the landscape lost to us in the overwhelming rain, I decide that—no matter the weather—I will indulge in some pool time, and head through the mist over to Landmannalaugar’s famous geothermal hot spring to unwind.
Due to the weather, the pool is nearly empty. That said, I find it the perfect place to soak in and forget about the stresses involved in driving up an active and overdue volcano. A flowing river with hot water seeping in from the sides, the bathing spot can feel on the cold side—you have to search for warm eddies and huddle by the rocks for hot water. While it’s not my favourite spring in the country, it’s a welcome break from the bumpy roads.
After the soak, we continue the adventure. Despite the weather, the Friðland að Fjallabaki area is dizzying. The expanse stretches out in all directions, with long swathes of black sand punctuated by jagged cliffs and rocks. Turn a corner, and you’re suddenly greeted by a monstrous red crater or a freezing waterfall. There’s so much to take in that it’s overwhelming. Within the impenetrable mist of Iceland’s interior, a great many treasures are revealed.
We take our time, stopping to look out over beautiful rusty cliffs or explore tracks and trails too small and remote to be included on Google Maps. Even in bad weather, this region is thrilling to witness. We stop by waterfalls so remote they don’t have a name, and drive down roads so faded, it’s a wonder we even know where they are. I’m constantly grateful for the intrepid superjeep, which takes us so far from the well-beaten tourist trail that we’re often completely alone.
Driving back to Reykjavík—unfortunately, on paved roads—I’m struck by the majesty of what I just experienced. Hekla, in all her explosive beauty, mixes with the gorgeous bleakness of Landmannalaugar, and in my head, I know I’ll be back in the Highlands, hopefully exploring trails even more remote.
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