We were sitting in a random parking lot in Egilsstaðir when my travelmate and I realised we had to think of a plan. From the start of our road trip around Iceland, we’d had our hearts set on the remote and beautiful crater of Askja, but instinct said maybe it was too far into the Highlands to reach. We had no monster truck with huge tyres, after all—just a modest rented SUV. But despite the fact that East Iceland offers many exciting places that radiate natural beauty, the idea stuck with us that Askja was our Valhalla—and that not getting there would condemn our restless souls to an eternity of wandering the Earth.
And so, we set out our way. The journey began with a drive along mountain roads winding their way up to the volcanic desert of the highlands. When you hear the word “desert,” you probably get a mental image of hot sand and Arabians on saddled camels. Icelandic deserts can look warm, too—at least through car windows. But the moment you step out of a car for a closer look at some exotic rockpile, the glacier wind strikes to remind you that you’re definitely not in Egypt.
After driving along these remote, deserted F-roads for a while, I couldn’t help but think about the ancient cosmologies in which the Earth was thought to be flat. The plains were so vast it made me ask myself if NASA had faked its images of our spherical Earth. But the landscape soon changed again when huge mountains appeared to the north, interrupting my cosmic thoughts.
The road was challenging, and soon the SUV started to disobey orders. The only way to climb the mountain roads was to drive in the first gear while heavily pressing the gas pedal. I held the steering wheel so tightly the palms of my hands got red and painful. I was concentrating as hard as the pilot of a spacecraft—perhaps like the very astronauts who used this area during training for the Apollo missions. There’s no question why they chose Askja, of all the locations this Earth has to offer—this area feels alien compared to the rest of our home planet.
Catching a breath in a natural pool
Close to the ruins of Laugavellir, an abandoned farm, a geothermal stream flows into a small pond, where it hits a dam, creating a waterfall and bathing spot. As driving had been stressful, it seemed like a perfect place to relax. I’m pretty sure this place is a well-kept secret, because we were the only ones enjoying this exotic pool. The wind was strong, and it was chilly changing from our winter jackets into swimwear, but we were soon letting the water warm up our bodies and souls. With our eyes shut, we inhaled this magical place while listening to the sounds of flowing water and howling wind.
We could have stayed all night, but our schedule called. Blinded by the beauty of this remote natural spa, we didn’t know that we were about to face even worse road conditions. As our road trip had already taken us through small rivers crossing highland F-roads, we knew to expect them on our way to Askja as well. But next, we reached the mother of all river crossings. We stopped and eyed the rapidly flowing water, throwing in a rock to test the depth. When it landed in the water, the splash was as big as if I’d thrown it into a sea. We were freaking out a bit—but, still, we didn’t want to turn back. We’d come too far. So we decided to get some sleep and think it through in the morning.
The lunar expedition continues
In the early hours of the following day, we read the instructions on the river crossing warning sign, looked at the water, and decided to go for it. What came next were perhaps the scariest twenty seconds of my short life. We felt the powerful pull of the river on the SUV, but we followed the advice of a ranger we’d met, who told us to drive slowly but not to stop. We stayed calm, and drove along the markings, holding our breaths till we finally were through. With huge relief, we’d conquered the crossing.
Our hearts were still pounding as we continued through the lava fields. The twisted rocks reared up around us, as if someone had poured molten metal into cold water and then frozen the angular, randomly shaped results. It didn’t felt like a road trip so much as a surreal journey into J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mordor.
We finally reached the parking spot and began the 2.5 km hike to the Askja caldera, sloshing through wet snow and mud. Our boots and clothing soon looked like we’d been rolling in a pig pen. But we were about to see something amazing. There aren’t words to describe the happiness we felt when we finally found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, standing at the edge of Askja. Standing on the edge of the huge, sprawling crater and looking down to the beautiful milky-blue lagoon of Viti, framed by snowy mountains and the blue lake behind it. We were glad that we’d listened to our hearts. In this moment, we felt grateful, happy, and most of all—alive.