Kjölur – a strip of barren land stretching between the glaciers Langjökull and Hofsjökull, slicing the country north to south like a fence. This highland route, impassable in winter, is drawn out as a thin line in the middle of a gravel desert. As one of the most inhospitable locations in the country, a land of outlaws, ghosts and folk tales, few other places are capable of conjuring comparably dreadful images in the local collective consciousness. Being banned by civilised society and sent to Kjölur to scratch out a living among the rocks and winds was the punishment for criminals in the old days. The outlaws sent here have achieved an almost mythical status, isolated from their fellows and roaming the untamed regions of the country’s interior. Tales of their exploits haunted and fascinated the living. A good example is Eyvindur, who fled along with his female companion Halla and wandered lawless in the highlands for over 20 years. In a process of role-reversal, as happens with the infamous, yesterday’s villains have become today’s heroes. Eyvindur, Halla and their ability to survive hardship even in the country’s wildest regions is now celebrated in a stylised monument you can see in Hveravellir, the heart of Kjölur. Hveravellir is also, incidentally, the starting point of my journey to the interior.
In Hveravellir, the presence of an active geothermal area has fostered the formation of a tender oasis in the middle of the desert with patches of moss, fumaroles and steaming waters. It is a lovely place, which, without overwhelming the visitor, will forge a lasting impression. Ferðafélag Íslands (the Iceland Touring Association) built a hut here in 1938. The hut is still in use, and the presence of a natural bathing pool makes it an even greater aesthetic pleasure. The hut and its warm spring make an ideal destination for tired travellers or the passing evening partier.
I was immediately impressed by the difficulty of reconciling the rigid discipline of the wilderness with the hip living I had found in Reykjavík. Waking up on a Saturday morning, still slightly hung-over after the alarm has been vainly yelling for over two hours, I realised in dismay that I had missed my only chance to get to my destination with the morning bus I’d missed. The next course of action was clear: hitchhiking, a favourite in the lonesome traveller’s repertoire, though never an endeavour to be openly advised.
Hitchhikers in Iceland will find they are picked up more out of mercy than enthusiasm. The empathetic characters I have encountered while hitchhiking have proven among the most touching and interesting of my lifetime. My rescuers came in the form of a father showing his two young daughters the places of his youth, where he used to man huts on behalf of the Touring Club. I was accepted kindly, offered coffee from a thermos and homemade sandwiches. My next ride came from Hafþór, a 4×4 and highland routes enthusiast, as well as being a volunteer for the rescue team. He drove peacefully, like someone who was just enjoying the opportunity to spend time in his natural environment. He took the time to guide me through the sophisticated workings and devices of the Icelandic 4×4 Club (Ferðaklúbburinn 4×4).
I arrived in Hveravellir early Sunday afternoon, some 24 hours later than scheduled. There were few people around challenging the harshness of the wind. They seemed immobile and silent. I could smell autumn as I took a spin through the steam of the geothermal area’s fumaroles and glass waters. Yet, the season was more obvious in the people I came across than the air.
Wind and a gentle drizzle accompanied my steps as I left Hveravellir. I watched the hut become small until it was only a luminous dot in the distance. A black stone stood out from the ground’s monotony, a dozen meters in front of me. It looked like a fierce Cerberus from where I stood, a watchdog of the underworld I was about to thread my way through. I found myself faltering. This was the threshold of my voluntary exile. The barren landscape was embellished only by my Gore-Tex and North Face gear, the singular reminders of the civilisation I had left behind in Reykjavík.
If my arrival on Kjölur was unwelcome to its ghosts, I probably chose the worst possible spot in which to set up my camp. My choice was at the end of a ten-kilometre walk up the banks of Dauðsmannskvísl, the Dead Man’s Stream. A grim name mirrored by nearby Langjökull imposing its sepulchral contours on the landscape. Keen skills of observation were not necessary to discern a sharp drop in temperature at night. For the first time in five years, I found myself cold as I restlessly turned over in my sleeping bag. I was sure that I heard the wind turning sinister and running with menacing voices. It took me a while to manage to slide into a tormented sleep.
Fog, a thick fog at that, was the distinguishing mark of my second day. It made a soft and seemingly endless layer I had to pierce on my way around the glacier. The few times the mist cleared up, I had short glimpses of what the surroundings could look like in more forgiving weather: conic volcanic shapes, stains of red rhyolite on the mountains’ sides, faint blue tongues of ice descending from Langjökull. In total I must have had only a few minutes of visibility over the time of my eight-hour march. Yet, even on such a day of weather as I had, my encounter with the highlands remains one of the most impressive and fascinating I have had. Of course I am not speaking of encounters with other humans.
At this point I had not met anyone since I left Hveravellir, not that I had expected company anywhere on the trail. There is a sense of anguish given off by scapes of such seemingly infinite vastness, I thought it only natural to react by journeying inwards at this point. Inward journey became a seemingly unbreakable chain; I came across slivers of broken consciousness, rediscovered fragments of memories I considered gone, intimate truths I had thought lost. NASA astronauts were once sent to the Icelandic highlands, as an environmental preparation for moon-landing. Now, having been there, I understand why. I used to find this kind of hyper-consciousness while hiking distressing; I thought of it almost as contrary to a healthy outdoors philosophy. Now I try only to accept and understand its subtleties.
After another night’s frost, another troubled sleep, I woke to find the fog lifting at last. Now, a gentle and persistent drizzle had descended, which seemed meant to accompany me throughout the third day. My tent packed, reduced to a bundle of synthetic fabrics, water and coarse sand, I began the long traverse through the immense Hallmundur lava field.
The lava flow there has built a gothic necropolis: an intricate maze of arcane sculptures and black spires aiming to the sky. I was squeezing myself through narrow passages and frequently scrambling for footing. Beside the ramparts that encircle the vast lava flow, the land suddenly became green: water-bearing strata have created a wake of small lakes, and the ideal nesting environment for wild geese. I saw three of them flying off, alarmed by my approach. The journey assumed the shape and feel of a cruise navigating on rough waters, among cliffs, and through razor-sharp rocks that wreaked havoc on my rain pants. As the lava became less rugged, the traverse also turned easier. I proceeded on cyclopean plates of solid rocks, among cracks, pits and secret alcoves.
It could be stated that Iceland would have made a much better setting for The Lord of the Rings’s Mordor than New Zealand, I thought as I crossed this charred environment. Scarcely original, perhaps, given J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration in Icelandic epics. I was surprised at how well this barren and scarred place was able to provide decent camping grounds: one of the many hollows offered me an effective shelter against the incessant wind. The hard soil there has been tamed and made pleasant by the patient efforts of moss.
I awoke on Wednesday morning to see how the Eiríksjökull glacier snapped the scene into focus under the rejuvenating light of clear skies and warm sun. Eiríksjökull looks like a misshapen cake covered in icing, so different from Langjökull’s sinuous elegance. Langjökull merges seamlessly into the whiteness of the clouds. But, in that day’s fair weather, Eiríksjökull was a most welcome sight, exploding onto the horizon, it seemed almost friendly. Using such a powerful reference point, navigation become ridiculously easy. I had no need for a GPS, a compass or even a map.
Next, the oasis of Flosagil made a triumphant appearance. Miraculously standing out even more remarkably than what I had seen that morning, it was surrounded by wasteland and desolation. Here lie the springs of the river Hvítá, not the raging waters that give birth to the celebrated waterfall Gullfoss. This is another one, homonymous to that of Gullfoss’s fame. It is true that Icelandic toponymy tends to reproduce itself over the country with a sense of naïveté that can sound almost embarrassing to foreign ears. Here I was in a large valley, ploughed open by fast waters and encircled by glaciers. There are four of them: Eiríksjökull; its relative and antagonist Þórisjökull, rounded and capped with snow; Langjökull, guarded by sharp summits, like a watchful tyrant; and Strútur, a cruel peak, dark green and as perfectly conical as can be imagined, easily capturing one’s gaze.
Here, as in the valley of Þórsmörk in southern Iceland, the interplay of abundant waters and a favourable micro-climate have enabled the formation of rich brushwood vegetation. Nothing grows even close to the size of a dwarf bush, but a variety of colourful and tenacious flowers, fragrant moss, and – to my utter surprise – sturdy mushrooms have found a way to proliferate on the borders of the lava. I am no horticultural connoisseur, but I would bet that some of them are edible, and would make an excellent contribution to a first-class risotto. It was here that I finally breathed a sense of peace. In the soft twilight, the wind was ordering the clouds about in the sky, driving them northwards with inexorable determination. A single wisp of cloud appeared reluctant to part from its romantic embrace with Strútur. Perhaps solitude was making me soft at this point, but I thought that I had never witnessed such a touching and poignant leave-taking from the nature before.
As I set out for the last stage of the journey, the wind picked up. It felt as chilling as a couple of days ago. The temperature, though, had clearly risen during the night. When I found a reprieve from the cold breezes, it was actually rather warm. The sky grew low again, oppressive. “The sort of sky that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wouldn’t feel like a bunch of complete idiots riding out of,” to quote the late Douglas Adams.
The climb to the top of Strútur was not difficult, not even under the weight of several days of supplies, nor the assault of the rain lashing my face. Only a measure of patience would be able to help me work out the easiest route around the mountain’s flank. The enterprise was well worth the effort. From the summit, at almost 1,000 metres altitude, the view was simply breathtaking, even in the premature darkness imposed by a veil of clouds. My gaze reached every glacier, captured all their details. From here a hiker opposes, almost in challenge, the snow-laden peaks of Langjökull. The valley below appeared in all its vastness, flattened under a heavy crust of lava. And there, stretching away in the distance, could be seen the highland route of Kaldidalur, leading towards the southern slopes of Langjökull. “I’ll cross it one day,” I promised myself.
I arrived at my final destination sometime in the afternoon. Húsafell was sleepy, blissful in its enviable location. The huts and campground rest there on the borders of a tender wood – rare in Iceland – and at once close to the glaciers and far away enough to escape their sinister shadows and coldest winds. It was a strange sensation to see this place almost deserted. Húsafell is often swarming, almost to the point of being overwhelmed by human life, as it is an ideal destination for Icelanders’ family holidays and big firms’ leisure trips. But just then only the wind seemed to move. All else was idle. Oh, there were few visitors, as in Hveravellir, I again had the impression that everything was happening in a sort of slow motion; people were whispering rather than talking. No one appeared particularly interested in knowing where I was walking from, why I give myself the displeasure of being a hiker, or where I was headed to. It didn’t really bother me. Despite always being able to enjoy a chat at the end of a backpacking tour, I had grown used to quite a different sense of solidarity in exploring the Icelandic countryside.
Whatever, I thought. I could at least enjoy my beer. It tasted even better after a beam of sun had cunningly found its way through the clouds and brought some unexpected warmth onto the restaurant’s porch. Nevertheless it was a bittersweet pleasure at that point, imbued with melancholy.
Then I was on my way home, hitchhiking again. I witnessed a glorious sunset over Borgarnes. I saw Snæfellsjökull, the mystical glacier, in the horizon. The fading sun cast pink reflections on the sand, made translucent by the low tide. It felt quite ironic: after one month of travelling as far as possible from Reykjavík and urbanisation, I got to take the best photo of my summer there, in a comfortable spot only 70 km away from home. Yet, while I lit myself a cigarette by the shore, this image remained painfully imprinted on my mind as a last link to a world I was, at least for the moment, going to leave behind. From then on, it would be all a sequence of greasy hamburger smells, bored kids wielding their Coke bottles as weapons, mugs driving sports cars around gas stations.
It was still windy. As darkness fell, the mountains coloured purple. They felt very close as they imposed shapes in the night’s cool air. A few scattered tents interrupted the industrial greenness of my campground. In Iceland, the fair season usually leaves suddenly, without transition, or even warning. One morning I will wake up to storms outside. And I will know that summer has gone. Just like that.