Iceland’s wild Highland interior is a mysterious place. For a large part of the year it’s completely off limits unless you have a snowmobile, a specially modified Jeep, or some cross-country skis, plus a lifetime of experience and a sense of adventure. The few gravel roads and hiking trails that criss-cross the desert are largely snowed in until the short peak of summer. Although some buses run in the early high season, the sparse handful of camping grounds and chalet villages on the way are quiet or even deserted until the thaw finally comes.
So it’s with some surprise that, whilst planning a trip to East Iceland, a chink appears in the armour of the Highlands. One route on the road.is website is marked green, amongst a web of inaccessible red. My eyes trace Route 910 on the screen. It starts at the southern end of Lake Lagarfljót, veering 60km into the interior, skirting the edge of the Vatnajökull national park. I pause at the terminus, feeling a pang of trepidation and curiosity; the road ends at the infamous Kárahnjúkar dam.
Enter the Highlands
A few weeks later, we land in Egilsstaðir airport to find that the east is experiencing a slight heatwave. It’s 22 degrees Celsius; the sky is blue, and the surrounding mountains have just a few smudges of snow across their higher reaches. After the interminably grey summer of Reykjavík, the light and warmth feel like an unexpected blessing. We stand in the car park, drop our bags, and gratefully soak in the sunlight.
The route to Kárahjnúkar heads south, past the mirror-still Lake Lagarfljót. We coast along the forested shore past conifer copses, picturesque picnic spots, and rocky outcrops with views over the still water. Eventually, a bridge crosses the Jökulsá river at the foot of the lake. We pull over and eye the start of Route 910. The road zigzags up a steep mountainside, vanishing over a high ridge, and off into the Highlands.
The car labours up the slope. At the top, the scenery changes instantly. Gone are the bucolic green fields and forests of Lagarfljót. A barren tundra stretches out before us, scored with weathered ridges, lingering tracts of snow, and beige and reddish dunes. The temperature immediately drops five degrees—we’re just north of the Vatnajökull glacier, and frigid winds sweep over the plains from the south, whipping up a veil of sand that hangs in the air, blurring the horizon. The sunlight is diffused through the dust cloud, bathing the chilly landscape in an eerie golden glow.
Empty or full?
The onward road is paved and, other than some lines of blown sand, surprising well-kept. Most of the roads in the Highlands are boulder-strewn gravel tracks, but Route 910 is a crisp basalt road with a neatly painted centre line.
It was lain during the construction of the Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant and the associated dams, reservoirs, and underground tunnels. Located on the very edge of the Vatnajökull National Park, its construction was heavily protested, and became a point of international controversy, with groups gathering to camp on the land and hold up the process.
Their issue was that Iceland’s Highlands are the largest desert wilderness in Europe, and one of the few sizeable undeveloped areas that remain. To some, this wilderness seems like an inhospitable wasteland, populated only by geese and reindeer—unused, and ripe for utilisation. To others, it appears a rare vision of untouched nature, and an irreplaceable resource of unknowable value. In the end, perhaps predictably, industry prevailed over environmentalism, and the construction went ahead.
As we draw closer, trails of telltale power lines recede into the distance, but nothing can prepare me for the sight of the dam itself. We cruise around a final corner, and there it is: two vast diagonal banks of stones, heaped up to a high land bridge, almost a kilometre long. Far below, the opaque surface of a vast reservoir ripples geometrically against the rocks in the unforgiving wind. I’ll later learn this man made body of water is called Hálslón, and is around the same size as Manhattan Island.
We trundle over the dams in silence, somewhere between awestruck and shocked, and park at the end. Walking back along the dam, the mass and height of this piece of industrial architecture is dizzying. A couple of small renovation areas are unmanned, their ropes flapping disconsolately; the clean lines of the dam, like something out of Blade Runner, are juxtaposed against the jagged crack of the Hafrahvammagjúfur chasm stretching off into the haze.
Taking in the scene, I’m struck by a feeling of wrongness. These man made textures—shiny metal railings, smooth paving stones, plastic traffic cones and concrete walls—are an echo of a civilisation that has no place in this wilderness. Here, vast mountains rear up into the sky, plains of pebbles stretch to the horizon, and gleaming glacial rivers roar over the empty expanse. Nature is raw, loud and omnipresent—and all is as it should be.
As I scan the vast lake one more time, grains of sand swirl around me in the air, stinging my eyes. I wonder if the Kárahnjúkar dam will one day be as inscrutable a landmark as the pyramids, or if, long after that, this impressive and terrible structure will itself be taken over once more by nature, and turn back into dust.