The Fljótsdalur valley is a secluded place. It begins at the foot of Lake Lagarfljót, where Route 934 winds through narrow shelves of farmland, clasped between high mountains on either side. When the land gets too steep to be useable, the fields become woods that become scored cliffs with waterfalls tumbling from their rugged peaks. The Jökulsá river flows down the valley’s centre, veering southwest from its source in the high Eyjabakkar wetlands beyond.
There are a handful of farms along the way, many of them owned by members of an extended family that has lived in the area for generations. The farmhouses sit quietly by the riverside, with few signs of life other than parked cars in their driveways and clusters of sheep and horses, standing still in the wedges of green pasture.
The last farm in the valley is different from the others. It’s been reinvented as the “Óbyggðasetur,” or “Wilderness Centre”—a foothold in the Highlands for visitors to embark on all kinds of intriguing adventures.
We pull up in the driveway, taking in the majestic landscape. Behind us, the road weaves back into the hazy distance; ahead, the mountains rear up into Highlands, grassy at first, then brown and barren in the cold, lofty heights.
A path leads down to the main house, which seems like the oldest in a loose cluster of buildings. A pair of woolen long johns flap on a wooden frame, and some handsome horses look on, disinterestedly munching on grass. We’ve just arrived, and I can already feel the hands of the clock slowing down to a calm, specific pace.
Arna and Denni are the couple who run the place. As we arrive, Denni is just finishing up a tour of the Wilderness Centre’s museum. He bids the guests farewell, and we settle down to chat over a coffee.
This locale, he relates, is an independent municipality with a population of 76. Denni grew up here, and took over the house in 2003. “It had been abandoned for some time,” he says. “We slowly started building it up, and running riding tours up to the Highlands. I was always finding new loops to do. We had guests who’d come back year after year. People who liked that the area was quite authentic—like the old Iceland.”
The idea of “old Iceland” would become something of an obsession for Denni. When he started renovating the dilapidated farm into a museum and guesthouse, he discovered that it was something of a time capsule. There were hoards of trinkets, tools, clothing and objects of all kinds, left dusty and untouched, “just in case,” for decades.
He shows us around, pointing out details like the old-fashioned light switches, which he had imported from Germany. The power points are concealed for authenticity, and any modern wiring is also hidden away. Ornamental ephemera lines the walls and windowsills, including an old camera, a well-worn cough sweet tin with a marble inside so it rattles, and traditional cutlery and crockery in the kitchen. Every detail is considered, down to the type of nails used to attach the corrugated metal cladding to the building’s facade, all in order to create a fully immersive time travel illusion.
One of the centre’s attractions is a museum about the area’s landscape, history, and culture. The entrance hall has an enlarged map of surrounding wilderness on the floor. Denni talks us through the features of the region, starting with how the map itself was surveyed by team of doggedly determined Danish soldiers.
The exhibits, he explains, were constructed with the help of some “artistic friends.” It shows in the ingenuity of each display. There are peepholes that show landscape vignettes, and a sculpture made of pages taken from works of Icelandic literature that refer to the valley. Life-sized models depict dramatic moments from famous local stories, such as the shepherd who got lost and had to sleep in a snow hole, surviving by the warmth of his sheep. Upstairs, there’s a lovingly recreated traditional Icelandic communal sleeping attic, used as hostel accommodation. The attention to meticulous detail makes the whole endeavour ring true.
After a dinner of meatballs and locally-sourced vegetables, we turn in early, waking up to a sunny morning, eager to go exploring. The Wilderness Centre offers all kinds of tours, including Super Jeep trips, hikes, horseback riding, and more. We decide to borrow a couple of mountain bikes, and we’re soon barreling along the dirt track that leads further into the valley with a flock of sheep churning up dust as they run down the road ahead of us.
After a few kilometres, the trail terminates at a small wooden cable car over the gushing Jökulsá river. The only onwards route is a hiking path that vanishes off into the valley. There are a series of impressive waterfalls up there, apparently, and various ways up into the Highlands, where there’s a geothermal area, and the nature-rich wetlands. Across the river, there’s an abandoned farm that’s open for visitors to take a look.
But there’s no rush. We relax for a moment in a patch of long grass, soaking up the hot sunshine and listening to the sounds of nature—the river and the breeze, the bees and sheep. It’s an idyllic choose-your-own-adventure scenario. After a while lost in thought, I eventually stand and look around, smiling broadly, and thinking: “So… what next?”