Black Sheep Down
Let’s start from the beginning: On a sunny Saturday morning at the end of August, a psychic Finn, an Austrian with a knack for magic mushrooms and one of those Germans who seem to populate Iceland these days leave Route 1 at Hella to turn north towards Hekla. The volcano lures with its nearly perfect peak, covered in snow, looking as if dipped into a bowl of cream. Six hundred years after the brush off “Go to Hekla” was coined, the area seems the perfect place to build your summer cottage: meadows, little streams, the view of the mountains and even a little (in terms of low) forest – everything you could ask for.
On the road to Landmannalaugar, the adventurous three decide to take a look at Landmannahellir, a cave that is only accessible with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Though the guide book says it used to be a traveller’s shelter, traces of toilet paper suggest modern travellers have lost respect for the cave’s life-saving quality of the past. Outside the cave, with a sunbathing Austrian in front and Hekla in the background, you get the strange feeling you are on a mountain pasture in the Alps – but instead of cows, you hear sheep bleating in the distance. Oddly enough, every flock in this area has exactly one black sheep, no more no less.
The journey proceeds towards Landmannalaugar, a valley separated from the outside world by mountains on three sides and a brook on the fourth. All normal (waterproof) cars can pass it during summertime. And so does the Suzuki Grand Vitara the three adventurers are driving. To their disappointment, the parking lot is very busy, and both tourists and Icelanders are making the place as lively as a beehive. The three decide to have lunch in the kitchen at the Landmannalaugar hut, which charges 200 ISK per person – a fair price for a filled belly. Afterwards, the three explore the valley, have a look at half-naked people sitting in the hot pool (despite warnings of parasites biting most actively during August and September) and climb up a hill for an even better view of the rhyolite mountains, which shine in various colours in the sunlight. This is where the Finn utters her first premonition of catastrophes to come: “When I went on a hike from Þórsmörk to Skógar last autumn, we had a few experienced hikers with us “but in the Icelandic wilderness, it only takes so little for things to go wrong.”
In fact, the hiking trek from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk and Skógar is, according to the guidebook, the premier hiking trek in Iceland. Apart from that, you can take several smaller hiking trips around Landmannalaugar, most of which pass some major attraction of the largest geothermal field outside Grímsvötn caldera in Vatnajökull. Though sorry not to get the opportunity to visit the star among stars, the “ugly pond” Ljótipollur, our three adventurers decide to expand their trip “a little” and take the historic Sprengisandur route up north. Various trips through the loneliness of Iceland’s nature have made them allergic to the touristy centres in the south. Quiet is what they are looking for.
Good Night, Pig
And what they find. Driving through the desert for hours, the sun begins to set in the distance above Hofsjökull. If you thought the Westfjörds were the most desolate, quiet place in Iceland, you have not been to the centre of the island. Every now and then, a lonely bird keeps the car company along its way north. It remains a mystery how birds manage to survive in this part of the country, with no vegetation as far as the eye can see. To travel along the Sprengisandur route, you not only have to have a four-wheel-drive to pass the little streams that cross it now and then, you also have to go during summertime. It is mid-August, and a few days earlier, this road was closed due to snow, and it will soon be closed again for the winter.
It is getting dark and the adventurous three are tired. They stop the car on a bank flanked by three glaciers: Vatnajökull, Tungnafelljökull and Hofsjökull. A beautiful view to wake up to in the morning. With an outside temperature of minus three degrees, they decide against putting up the tent and turn the car into a low-quality sleeping bag accommodation. After shifting places and positions a few times, the Austrian sings a few lullabies (both Austrian and Icelandic, the latter one involving a line that claims somebody is a pig).
Do Not Do This
The next morning, after the Finn and the Austrian have told their dreams − both mysteriously involving the German moving to France − they discover that the battery of the car is so low they cannot get it started. They try pushing it down the bank and jumpstart without success. A look on the map tells them the next hut is at least 20 kilometres and a few river-crossings north of them. The next hut south seems even further away. A discussion ensues about whether to wait for a car to pass or to hike to the next hut, or split up and do both.
The psychic Finn’s second premonition, “I don’t think we will have to walk far until somebody picks us up,” comes true when a car passes the moment they are about to leave. The two tourists in the car take the Austrian to Nýidalur, the next hut up north, to get a starter cable and a car to help. About an hour later, a bus full of German tourists picks up the Finn and the German, telling them that there is indeed a warden and a cook at Nýidalur, but no car. The bus proceeds south with a speed of about 10 kilometres per hour.
Meanwhile, the Austrian has reached said place and realizes there is neither a starter cable nor a car. However, tourists tell him about several alternative possibilities to restart the car, including one that had proven helpful in Namibia. The Austrian is given a lift back by an Englishman in a Swiss Pinzgauer-van – whatever that says about globalization – and they try again to start the car, but fail.
At Versalir, the hut south of the tragic happenings, the staff have phoned Nýidalur, who said the Austrian had gone off with somebody and a starter cable and would drive the car back south to get the other two adventurers. Waiting for the Austrian and the car, the Finn uses the opportunity to tell the German about what appears to be something in between the first and the second foreboding: that she had thought about what would happen if the battery would go off before she fell asleep last night. Finally, the Austrian appears – with the Englishman and the Pinzgauer, but without the Suzuki.
It is 2:30 on Sunday when the car is finally restarted by Siggi and Kia from Versalir, and the adventurous three decide against the Finnish saying “Siberia teaches you” in favour of “it can’t get any worse” and “now that we’ve come this far,” and continue their journey north. The best of the following events includes a Western movie-style river-crossing duel, which the Suzuki wins against a car that is far bigger but does not dare to be the first to cross.
At the junction at Laugarfell in the northeast of Hofsjökull, the adventurous three follow the advice of the Englishman and dive into a hotpot overlooking a skyline of mountains. After the coldness of the night and the exhaustion of the day, lying in a big bathtub at 39 degrees is something absolutely worth the 200 ISK they pay. It is also worth watching the elegant moves of an Austrian who claims to have been the school champion in synchronized swimming – one-man synchronized swimming.
Eyjafjörður to Akureyri
From the junction, the three take the Eyjafjörður approach that leads up to Akureyri. While the southern part of the Sprengisandur road was characterized by black mountains, an endless prairie and the white glow of the glaciers, the scenery changes frequently in the northern half of the route. Black turns into brown, sand turns into stone, until you finally reach the eeriest part in all of Iceland near the source of the river Eyjafjarðará.
From here, the road descends in steep, serpentine turns with thick fog obstructing the view down the side of the road – saving the lives of the faint of heart.
Even the fearless three get the creeps. The atmosphere of this place, which consists of grey stones and fog, is reminiscent of hell, except for the freezing cold. The barrenness and lack of vegetation gives the impression of a bombed city, a doomed place abandoned by every living soul that once inhabited it.
While the three pass this scene of hell with bated breath, they are being rewarded by sparse vegetation in the riverbed below. The moss turns into grassy slopes divided by little streams. This is the spring that pursues winter, the oasis that follows the desert. The first sheep are spotted by the adventurous three. Good to know there is life on earth. The Austrian concludes that where rich vegetation is, there must be magic mushrooms, and hops out of the car every few hundred metres to search the meadows for the precious mushrooms. Wrapped in a blue blanket, he looks like a druid in Avalon.
Soon after the sheep, the first signs of civilization return to the scene. And the first traces of culture. Worth a visit are the little church at Grund, which looks as if it has been imported directly from Moscow, and a Christmas hut further up the road. This might be a culture shock at first, but for our three adventurers it is a good way to get re-acclimated as the day draws in and the city of Akureyri comes nearer. Soon, they will be headed for the big city in the south, the adventure will have ended, but their memories of this trip will be with them for a long time.