There are few things more exciting than waking up in Iceland with a full day of travel ahead. As I pull open the blinds of a bedroom at Akureyri Backpackers—lodgings so comfortable that the term “hostel” seems ungenerous—I’m overjoyed to see the sun shining brightly in a cloudless morning sky. The mercurial, regularly unseasonal weather can dictate everything in Iceland, so a perfect late-summer day is a fortuitous start.
Over the next twelve hours, along with a photographer and a guide, I’ll be embarking on a super jeep trek deep into the Icelandic highlands. As well as the barren beauty of the region, we’ll see some of Iceland’s most dramatic, far-flung volcanic sites, such as the Askja caldera, its neighbouring explosion crater Víti (that means “hell”), and Holuhraun—the new lava field born during the Bárðarbunga eruption that began a year ago, to the day, as we set out eastwards.
After the hourlong drive to our meeting point of Reykjahlíð, we arrive to find our guide relaxing patiently in the warm sun. His name is Sæmi, and he’s a former park ranger of the Askja region—a job that involves living up in the highlands for weeks at a time to monitor the area, providing information to travellers, maintaining hiking trails and dirt roads, and developing new sites of interest. This work has left him with an exhaustive knowledge of the area, on subjects as varied as the shifting of glacial rivers to the chemical composition of the rocks they flow through, as well as local folklore, underground volcanic systems, and the use of the area as a filming location, and by NASA’s astronauts during preparation for the Apollo moon landings.
Sæmi is a friendly and hospitable guy who switched from ranger to tour guide when he started his young family. He and his wife—also a former ranger—now run a small company called Geo Travel, in collaboration with a handful of local guides, all of whom have specialist-level knowledge of the area. “It’s a living,” smiles Sæmi. “But more importantly, we’re doing something fun and enjoyable.”
Into the wild
The Super Jeep is an imposing and rugged vehicle—a Nissan Patrol 2.8L, modified to take 38” tyres, with a crawling gear for river crossings and other difficult types of terrain. With padded leather seats and air spring suspension front and back, it’s also a pretty smooth ride. “The Patrol is popular with guides in this area,” explains Sæmi. “It’s a good car, but it’s also partly because if everyone drives the same model, it’s easier for us to get spare parts. If everyone drives something different it can be a hassle.”
We’re soon roaring past pearlescent lakes and raw umber mountains at a steady 50 km/h. Our first stop is Hrossaborg, which acts as an informal marker of the highlands’ beginning. The name of this large tuff crater translates as “horse city,” after its historic use by farmers as a handy naturally formed pen for rounding up grazing horses. It’s also picked up the nickname “The Cruise Crater” since featuring as a location in the film ‘Oblivion’. Sæmi sets about letting half of the air out of the Patrol’s chunky tyres, making them more able to deal with the rough road ahead. I wander away from the car, turning over a stone in my hands and absorbing the chilly emptiness of the windswept highlands.
The king and queen
The road takes us across the world’s largest lava plain, Ódáðahraun, located between the twin mountains of Snæfell, a high snowy peak far to the east near Egilsstaðir, and Herðubreið, a towering bulge visible from many parts of Iceland. “When you can see both of these mountains—Snæfell the king, and Herðubreið the queen—you know it’s a good day for this drive,” says Sæmi.
The varied landscape of Ódáðahraun is the result of lava fields from many different eruptions combining, from prehistory to the present day. The translation of the name is, approximately, “bad deeds lava,” taken from tales of fell spirits occupying the gnarled black rock formations, and from its use as a hideaway by outlaws. Its terrain changes rapidly, from an expanse of sandy, boulder-strewn dirt to a vast tract of black flatland, studded with countless gleaming black pebbles, to an undulating track that winds steeply through jagged, sculptural lava formations. Even crossing the bleak and violent tableau in a comfortable super jeep rather than on foot or horseback, it’s easy to feel the sense of foreboding that led to the name.
A desert oasis
In the heart of the wasteland lies Herðubreiðarlindir, a desert oasis close to the foot of Herðubreið, where a freshwater spring emerges from beneath a basaltic lava sheet. Over the years, this has given rise to a patch of verdant heathland. The air is alive with birds and insects, and a few wooden huts stand watch over a small camping ground.
Over a short rocky path lies a tiny man-made hole in the ground, lined with chunks of grey rock, going a couple of metres deep. Sæmi stops here to tell us about the life of the outlaw thief Fjalla-Eyvindur, famous for surviving a twenty-year banishment from civilisation, which was normally considered a death sentence. He was caught and arrested, but escaped his captors during a church service, fleeing on the back of a stolen horse. He built this shelter using the horse’s spine and skin to make a roof, and passed the winter of 1774-75 eating the horse meat, and wild angelica root that grows nearby.
Whilst many unlikely embellishments have been added to the Eyvindur legend over the years, the sight of his shelter more than justifies his place in folk history; anyone who could survive here during the bleak Icelandic winter deserves the recognition.
Explosions, landslides, tsunami
An hour south, past the dramatic canyon of Drekagíl (“dragon canyon”), we pull over and embark on the two and a half kilometre hike to the Askja crater. It’s a freeing feeling to be so high up, crossing a plain of powdery snow amidst all this raw nature, far from any trace of civilisation. After we trudge over a final muddy bank, the explosion crater of Víti comes into view. This spectacular formation is a deep cone with a saucer-like lake of vivid, milky-blue water at the bottom. The walls of the crater are an earthy spectrum that runs between dark, crumbling mud scored with long cracks, deep ochre outcrops and bulbous bulges of visceral meat-coloured rock, like the exposed innards of the earth.
The shore of nearby Öskjuvatn—the lake that fills the Askja caldera—is littered with small, floating lava rocks. Sæmi relates a story of two German scientists who were lost here long ago, never to be found. Current thinking is that their dinghy was swept away by a tsunami caused by a landslide. As we talk, we hear a distant rumble and splash echoing across the lake—our heads snap up as one, and we sit in a sudden alert silence. “If it’s a big landslide… we run,” says Sæmi, before breaking into a smile. “But, you know, it’s more dangerous to be on a highway than to be sitting here.” His reassurances aside, it’s not the first time during the day that I’ve felt a tingle of excited trepidation to be so deep in this unpredictable wilderness.
Chugging slowly back down through Askja’s lavascape, we round Drekagil once more to catch our first glimpse of Holuhraun—an astounding horizon of inky black rock, still steaming, like a city on fire. My heart skips a beat as we enter a region of the highlands I’ve previously only pored over on maps.
Holuhraun was, until recently, off limits; the eruption spewed out toxic gases that sat over the area, and blew over different parts of Iceland. Only scientists and members of the media were allowed to enter, with the company of a professional guide. Sæmi was one such guide. “I took some trips there,” he remembers. “We had to bring gas masks, and have a sensor to know when the level was getting dangerous.”
But when the eruption was over, rangers were surprised to find that a river thought to have been swallowed by the eruption had reappeared. Somewhat incredibly—”like a gift from the land,” in Sæmí’s words—the water was heated during its journey through the lava to Holuhraun’s eastern edge, emerging at around 38-42 degrees, which also happens to be the bathing temperature of Iceland’s geothermal hot pots. A pathway was duly marked across the brittle lava, avoiding any air bubbles and unstable areas. We follow the trail gingerly, the featherweight pebbles making a sound like broken crockery as they clatter over the sharp, twisted rocks.
There are ten or so people already at the bathing spot when we arrive—mostly Icelandic families who’ve driven here for a day out, some with young children. We get changed in various nooks, hanging our clothes on the rocks and sliding into the inviting water. The river is shallow, with a steady current and a pleasant temperature that fluctuates according to the flow of various hot and cold tributaries. Behind us, the broken lava juts up dramatically against the sky; in front of us, the water flows away across plains of steaming black sand. As I take my hands and feet off the ground, I’m swept gently downstream. It’s an experience that feels at once like temporarily sliding out of day-to-day reality, and being embraced, somehow, by the earth’s natural warmth.
We linger there for hours, without really noticing the time go by. When we finally dry off and drift back towards the car, the sun is already setting, and we’re the last remaining bathers.
We pack the car in a quite dreamlike state. Somewhere on the long road back to civilisation, Sæmi says he hopes the river will still be hot when the winter thaws.
Drifting into half-sleep, I murmur that even if it doesn’t, I’m grateful to be one of the lucky few to have experienced it.