The vast, desolate highlands of Iceland are the largest area of uninhabited and largely undisturbed nature in Europe. They sit in the centre of the country, extending over much of the island’s landmass, towering above the shelf of land that forms most of Iceland’s inhabited coastline.
The highlands are almost completely wild. The two main driving routes of Kjölur and Sprengisandur are unpaved, boulder-strewn trails that wind their way through wide-open desert, undulating hills, flanked by snow-striped mountains and sky-high, vivid blue glaciers. This vast, natural emptiness is a powerful draw for people seeking to escape from city life, and the wild landscape has an emotional effect on visitors. The highlands are a rare place in the Western world where nature rules unchallenged, and the land’s silent roar elicits fear, wonder and respect for nature in many who pass through the region.
The landscape is varied, but unvaryingly rough. In the north, jagged lava fields and shifting glacial flood rivers are challenging driving even in a modified Icelandic “super jeep.” The western route of Kjölur is a winding, dusty desert trail on which it’s possible to drive for an hour without encountering another soul. To the east, the dramatic Sprengisandur route cuts inland from Vatnajökull. Each glacier, big or small, is a force unto itself: an organism of compacted snow, squatting high in the mountains and overspilling into picturesque, glittering glacier tongues.
Human interruptions are few. A few small camping grounds exist, sometimes clustered around geothermal oases that give rise to green areas rich with plant life and bubbling hot springs. In such a vast wilderness, human life seems to attain a different focus. Each building seems to grow in significance: a tiny dot of humanity in a huge swathe of land. The scarcity of objects and lack of access to supplies also invites a more mindful approach to consumption.
But far away in the city, the current Icelandic government seems deaf to the voice of nature. Controversial industrial projects that seek to harness the glacial meltwaters may seem environmentally friendly at first glance, but hydroelectric dams require access roads and power lines, and their construction destroys waterfalls and floods large areas of undisturbed land. Each new development is met with loud resistance, not only from NGOs and activists, but from the Icelandic population. A campaign called “Protect The Park” found 80% of Icelanders would support the foundation of a national park across the entire region.
At this crucial moment, the future of the highlands hangs in the balance. In the following article, we’ve drawn together some of our favourite photographs of the highlands. While the pictures speak for themselves, you’ll also find some thoughts on the area’s significance from people who’ve lived and worked there, and from those fighting to conserve and protect this precious, bleak, beautiful, one-off part of Iceland.
“It’s the deserts that breed prophets. It’s the silence that brings you closer to god or whatever invisible spirits may be out there. The solitude brings you closer to your own true self.
“Icelanders of old would only pass through when they had to, to attend Parliament or reach the more populous settlements in the south. A few unfortunate souls spent years up here, banished from the world of men. Perhaps they learnt something we will never know.
And yet there is something about the desolate magnificence that almost forces you to consider your place in the universe. Perhaps the astronauts did when they came here to practice their moon landing. Or Tom Cruise, when he used it for a post-apocalyptic dystopia. You won’t find anything quite like it on Earth. But maybe on other planets, haunted by their own alien spirits.”
“Icelanders have a bit of an inferiority complex about themselves and their nature. They think: ‘It’s much more beautiful in Canada, or it’s much more beautiful in Colorado.’ But when you take people to these areas who have been all over the world and they say, ‘Wow, this is something,’ then you realise yourself that this is worth something.
“[The tourist boom] is perhaps happening too fast, at least for the Highlands, because we haven’t built the infrastructure. It’s a little bit like having a party, and inviting a lot of people, but you don’t have enough seats for them. I see it as a huge question for all Icelanders—not just us living now, but for future generations.”
Tómas Guðbjartsson, from here.
“Holuhraun was, during and after the eruption, off limits; the volcano spewed out toxic gases that sat over the area. But when the eruption was over, rangers were surprised to find that a river thought to have been swallowed by the eruption had re-appeared. Somewhat incredibly—‘like a gift from the land,’ in our guide’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.
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.
John Rogers, on Holuhraun: read more here.
“It had always been a dream of mine to see Iceland’s Highlands. When I finally did, it was a quasi-religious experience. Rolling through the Martian landscape, you begin to understand why early settlers thought this part of the country was the domain of monsters and mythical beasts. The cliché is true: it feels not only like a whole other country, but a whole other world. You don’t really get the whole picture of Iceland’s character until you’ve traveled through this forbidding area, stopped by the side of the road and listened to the absolute silence, and gaped in slack-jawed awe at the incredible geological formations you’ll encounter. It’s a good thing this place is only truly open to visitors for a few weeks of the year, because it really deserves to remain as unspoiled as possible.”
“Iceland’s Highlands are currently the largest untouched area of nature in Europe. The government has plans to build over 50 dams and power plants. This could end Iceland’s wilderness in just a few years. We propose to start a national park in our Highlands. Surveys already to prove that the majority of Icelanders agree. 80% of Icelanders want to see this land remain untouched. I am a musician, not a politician, and I prefer to stay at home and write songs. But I feel like that 80% needs a spokesperson—and I can use my platform to make their voices heard.
“Iceland is still a magic place. It’s a tiny island with a vast wilderness. There’s almost no infrastructure, because of the small size of our population. So things can happen fast here. Sometime a good thing, like a music festival, or a green movement. But sometimes it means bad things can happen fast too.”
Björk, musician & spokesperson for Protect The Park, from here.
“There is a tendency for industry to fill up every possibility that it has. This means, if you have the know-how, and the raw materials, there is a tendency to go as far as you can. With this attitude in mind, it seems that our engineering and construction talent screams that nothing can be done if you want to protect anything somehow.
“After the industrialists are living in a country that has harvested ten times more energy than the population can consume, they will inevitably hit the wall. But before they hit the wall, they will have caused lots of pain, lots of damage, created lots of protests, sadness, enemies and pollution. Maybe they will even have created an island where their kids no longer want to live, because there is nothing left to stay for. And afterwards, they will have to recreate themselves, which will be a painful process for them. Creativity is always painful.
“So, a best case scenario is that they would understand this obvious fact now—that they will have to recreate themselves. We cannot just accept this phase of endless construction and expansion. We instead need to use the resources we have in a sober way, focus on the energy we are already harvesting, and increasing the value of that.
“So, it would be to everyone’s benefit to collectively come to terms with the fact that we live in a very beautiful country, and that a national park would add value to the existing active resources in the long term. Using every resource to the maximum would actually stain the whole idea of Icelandic energy with manipulation, greed, and disregard for our planet.”
Andri Snær Magnason, writing in response to the question, “What would happen in your dream 2016?”
“Iceland’s Highlands are considered one of the greatest wilderness areas still remaining in Europe. The aesthetic natural variety that unfolds in a few days’ trip in the central highland is unique: glaciers, glacial rivers, glacially sculpted landscapes, barren plateaus with wide horizon and an endless view, colorful geothermal areas, natural freshwater springs, lava fields, steep and odd shaped mountains and mountain ridges including unique tuff ridges, permafrost areas, and beautifully colored tundra vegetation. Conservation of the Icelandic Central Highland is of great importance.”
Steinar Kaldal, Hálendið
“Being in the Highlands is a life-changing experience. It’s not quick, like having an epiphany—it’s something that slowly takes a hold of you. You can visit these places every year, every summer, every day, and you always see something different depending on the weather or how you feel. So it’s a very personal thing also.
“You feel very small. You experience the forces of nature—something bigger and more powerful than you are. Despite all the technology and power that we have as humans, and as a society, this is still something that’s mostly out of our control. It’s beautiful, precious and important—and it keeps us in place, somehow. When we are up there, we are dependent on nature, and not the other way around. It’s a sobering thing to feel like you are less powerful than your surroundings.”
Hrönn Guðmundsdóttir, Ranger