It is an overcast, cold day when I arrive at the BSÍ bus terminal and board the mini bus along with 11 others for the early Sunday morning guided tour of Landmannalaugar and the “Saga Valley”. The forecast is for a warm, sunny day, but despite all evidence to the contrary, our driver Sævar is optimistic, proclaiming his faith in Iceland’s temperamental weather gods.
From the moment our journey begins as we leave Reykjavík and drive through the suburbs, Sævar is sure not to miss details on everything from Kringlan shopping mall and Iceland’s tallest building to the country’s energy sector and recent events in the news – they’re all on the agenda.
Life in the Age of Settlement
After being on the road for an hour or so, we make our first pit stop at Selfoss to grab a snack and pick up some additional passengers. The 14-strong tour group, consisting mostly of tourists from Europe, are all on their first trip to the southern highlands. I sleep through the next part of the drive until our first stop, after venturing off Route 1, at Hljáparfoss waterfall in the Þjórsárdalur Valley. By now, the weather has cleared up and the cool waters of the symmetrical twin falls’ underlying pool and adjoining river are tempting. And I’m not the only one thinking about taking a dip, but there isn’t time.
Back on the road, we pass a nearby hydropower plant, an example, our guide tells us, of the way power plants are unobtrusively built into the existing environment in Iceland, though I’m not sure everyone would agree. Just down the road is the reconstructed medieval farmhouse where we take a short break from the road. The house was built to celebrate 1100 years of settlement in Iceland and is a near replica of an excavated ruin of the farm Stöng, and of the kind which existed during the Commonwealth period from 930 to 1262. We’re told the original farm was covered in thick layers of volcanic ash when Hekla erupted in 1104. The lopapeysa-clad museum guide tells us that the building’s main room is where the community worked, warmed themselves by the fire and slept. Apparently, around 30 to 40 people lived together on the farm and all but the chief and his wife, who slept in a private bed closet with their weapons guarded closely, slept on the hard wooden benches by the open fire.
After wandering around the farmhouse and the adjacent church, trying to get a sense of what life must have been like, we return to the road. We make our way up the painfully bumpy road leading to Landmannalaugar, past a lake so still that the scenes of the surrounding mountains are mirrored into its waters, and on to the rather inaptly named Ljótipollur or “Ugly Pond” crater lake, with its aquamarine waters that contrast with the earthy tones of its banks. Up here we get a 360-degree panoramic view of the underlying areas, with each direction offering a sample of the varied landscapes and colours of the area.
Bathing in a Natural Pool
We drive on to Landmannalaugar where we catch our first glimpse of the stunning diversity of the colourful mountains. To reach the camp area, the driver skilfully traverses the minibus over a series of river passes. At the base camp the group is left to spend the next three hours as they wish and most of us head straight out on the 90 minute trail into the lava fields of Laugahraun above.
The diversity in shape of the mountains at Landmannalaugar is only matched by their variety in colour, a combination which has led visitors to often describe as eerie and reminiscent of the fantastical scenery featured in Tolkien. The mountains apparently take their many colours – black, blue, brown, green, grey, orange, pink, purple, red, white and yellow – from the igneous rock rich in silica known as rhyolite. The silvery shimmer of jagged rocks spread out in the vast lava field contrast with the pastels of the ryholite mountains. Further along, after a short ascent, hot water and steam bubble up through vents in the earth and the unmistakable rotten-egg smell of sulphur greets us when we most need a breather. There are still pockets of snow here and the path crosses several sections of the melting slush.
My main observation is that throughout the whole walk, and despite the phenomenally good weather with temperatures of around 20°C, we pass only a handful of others on the trail. With the base in view, we pass a pen of horses, which we hear can be hired for riding in the area.
But I’m more keen on trying out the hot springs. On my way along the wooden path over the boggy banks of the stream leading to the hot springs, I spot a warning sign lying uprooted in the mud. I overhear the couple in front mention something about parasites in the water. More eager to finally experience bathing in a natural hot spring than concerned about bugs, I ignore the sign and join the others in the soothing waters. Later, I check the warning sign on my way back to the bus. It reads that it is strongly recommended against bathing in the pool due to the presence of duck parasites. Later I read that while the parasites can be dangerous to birds, scientists disagree about how serious the bites can be, and some fear that they can adapt to the human neuro system. Not particularly comforting, though I’m still not feeling the “swimmer’s itch” they supposedly cause.
After a very long day, we head back towards the capital, after admiring the sweeping views of snow-covered Hekla. When we reach the road from Selfoss, it’s congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way back to the city. Having been one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, with thousands of people now returning from the annual horse festival in the south, as well as folk generally taking advantage of the great weather, heavy traffic was predicted – Sævar says it’s the most traffic he’s experienced in his history as a driver.
Despite having visited Landmannalaugar, one of the country’s most popular destinations, in mid-summer, we were still able to experience this magnificent area in relative solitude. Next time, I’ve decided, I’ll be attempting the famed four day hike from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk.