The Vanishing: Dark Tourism Awaits In East Iceland’s Highlands

The Vanishing: Dark Tourism Awaits In East Iceland’s Highlands

Main photo by
John Rogers

Gravel road, near midnight. Each yellow road marker emerges from the fog, only one visible at a time. They mark the edge of the road and pull us slowly forward. Without them, we would stop the camper. The fog is so dense that our windshield wipers must occasionally flutter to clear our view of the road. And yet our camper slinks up the mountainside, 30 km/h, and down to 20 at moments.

This is East Iceland’s route 939, also known as Öxi Mountain Pass. The pass is, however, impassable in winter. In other seasons, Öxi offers a shortcut to Lagarfljót and Egilsstaðir if weather conditions are favourable. This night, they are not.

Moxie for Öxi

There is no discernible edge to the left of the one-lane road, and no guard rails to provide assurance against a steep plummet into a rocky ravine. To the right, the mountain ascends at a sharp angle. We pass a road sign warning of rock slides. Farther on, a few small boulders pepper the road.

Öxi’s shortcut proves a long, harrowing ride. It isn’t until we descend to the surprising lush forests surrounding Lagarfljót that we exhale our relief. It is now the witching hour. We set up camp at Atlavík. The gentle shush of the lake’s waves lull us to sleep.

Serpentine loop

Lagarfljót is famed for a cryptid serpent thought to inhabit its depths—akin to Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. Having survived the drive over Öxi and a night near a lake monster, we set ourselves the goal of looping Lagarfljót’s scenic shore. We drive first to Egilsstaðir for lunch at Salt Café & Bistro, which offers a serviceable and wide-ranging menu of items unusual to find in the subarctic northeast. Next, we round the western edge of the lake.

“Suddenly from the yawning sprawl of the highlands, we see it: Kárahnjúkar.”

Numerous paths veer down wooded slopes as we drive above the lake. Hallormsstaðaskógur forest is Iceland’s largest woodland, having been protected for over
100 years. We pull off the road by a pine enclave and set off on a hike to the shoreline.

After twenty minutes, we have reached the windy shore with no sea serpents in sight. We do, however, discover treasure in the form of rare wild strawberries. Our harvest is tiny yet tart. We savour the berries as we return to the camper.

Disaster tourism

Iceland holds within its perimetre numerous disaster tourism destinations.

The most famous from recent events, without doubt, is the volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Similar sites include Heimaey for its 1970s eruption, the Laki craters formed in the late 1800s, and Hekla, which has had a history of erupting every decade or two. Abandoned herring factories have been a big draw, particularly through their renovation into art centres, museums, and even a hotel. One could also include numerous military installations such as the former NATO base in Hvalfjörður, the US military base in Keflavík, or the decommissioned SOSUS listening centres near Höfn and Hellissandur.

“Iceland holds within its perimetre numerous disaster tourism destinations.”

Arguably the most infamous of such sites is the tallest concrete-faced rockfill dam in Europe—Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant, constructed an hour’s drive from Lagarfljót. We consider whether to make the drive as dusk approaches, aware that we could face a second night in a row of difficult driving. The pull to witness Kárahnjúkar is strong, though, and so we wind up a steep slalom road—this one paved—en route to the dam.

Damn, Kárahnjúkar

The dam’s impact on the reindeer population of East Iceland has been notable, as it separated reindeer from their traditional breeding grounds in the highlands. As we drive, we look constantly for reindeer but none are to be spotted. They had, in essence, vanished from the ecosystem where they formerly would have spent their summers.

And then, suddenly from the yawning sprawl of the highlands, we see it: Kárahnjúkar.

The heavily contested hydropower dam was constructed in the early 2000s in order to power the Alcoa Fjarðaál aluminum smelter. The site of much unrest formed the Hálslón reservoir, a body of water 27 km long and up to 200 m deep. This renders it comparable to, though deeper than, Iceland’s fjord Hvalfjörður, which measures 30 km long and 84 m deep. The reservoir is conspicuously marked out of the Vatnajökull National Park boundaries, which it otherwise borders to the reservoir’s east and south.

Ghost waterfall

The dam’s architecture is astounding. Overwhelming. Awe-inducing. We arrive to crawl the camper along the concrete drive on the dam’s lip. The reservoir is so full that its waterways have been opened to release its glacial-melt overspill. Water rushes down a concrete valley to cascade over a basalt cliff into the gorge below. Great gusts of mist rise from the waterfall, so much mist that the fall itself vanishes. Perhaps a trick of the eye, but it appears the water never reaches the gorge.

Words leave us. After a solemn walk around the dam, we climb into our camper to find our next uneasy rest.

Sænautasel

Night has arrived. We opt to drive an alternate route back to Lagarfljót. But the F-roads are slow-going, and we end up far from our original destination. It is dark as we drive, a foul fog descending over the highlands and light rain sprinkling our ride. An owl swoops through our headlights. Thrushes play dodge with the camper van.

After a series of intuited right and left turns, a few lights glimmer ahead of us through the gloom. And then a dim lake stretches its calm body toward the horizon, half-shrouded in fog. It is not Lagarfljót. We have arrived instead at Sænautasel, where basic camping facilities for bathroom and washing-up greet us.

As we park, a slender mother cat slinks from the shadows to greet us. After 24 hours of murky driving, the cat takes to us gently, offering emotional support as we make camp.

We don’t discover what we hope to see—reindeer, a sea monster—but we do discover life in unexpected places—wild strawberries, the mother cat. It’s eerie to see how Kárahnjúkar haunts the highlands. Life thrives despite.

Accommodation provided by: lakehotel.is and kukucampers.is

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