It takes only ten years of detoxification and total abstinence from cigarettes for a smoker’s body to completely undo the damage of former years of dependence, and return to its original state, as if never touched by the habit of tobacco intake. It is my favourite argument against those who eagerly sentence me to premature death. It also brings me to beg the question, how much time will be needed for a heavily altered ecosystem to find balance again, and heal from the cancers of ill policy-making and forced industrialisation?
Kárahnjúkar. One of the unpronounceable names (to foreign readers) of Icelandic geography. A modest elevation forking into two distinct peaks. It is a location that used to be mostly unknown, even to locals, which has suddenly risen to international notoriety and relevance in the context of one of the most heated debates this country has seen.
And yet, for the most part, Kárahnjúkar is only a label – an inappropriate and rather misleading one, as often happens when the language of media takes over, and obsessively repeated expressions become both sign and referent, burying reality under a veil of indeterminacy and intangibility. Thus, Kárahnjúkar has become the moniker for a much broader region. But it is not healthy practice to underplay the reality of things through ambiguity and vagueness. And some of the areas that will be affected – or utterly flooded – in the context of the much disputed “Kárahnjúkavirkjun” (Kárahnjúkar Power Plant) lay there, where the Kárahnjúkar peaks are unable to show their presence.
The project – a big part of which has now been completed – affects the surroundings of two of Iceland’s most powerful rivers, both running from the icefalls of Vatnajökull: Jökla, stemming from Brúarjökull, and Jökulsá á Fljótsdal, running through the flats of Eyjabakkar from Eyjabakkajökull. The peaks of Kárahnjúkar are far from being a landmark for the entire region. Another landmark, and a common denominator of these lands is Snæfell: queen of Icelandic mountains, the highest non-glacier summit in the country, an immense mass of rock and ice that towers above the land and claims the horizon for a range of many kilometres. This is the Snæfell area, one of the largest wildernesses in Europe, a well-known destination for hardcore trekkers long before it ended up as sacrificial lamb of a harnessing project, and Kárahnjúkar usurped the title of lordship over the region. Curiously, in spite of five years of scrambling up across the Icelandic highlands, I had never hiked here before. “Tourists mainly arrive in Reykjavík, and from there they start spreading,” a hunter once told me. He seemed to apply rudiments of migratory theory to the tourist’s behaviour. “But few reach the opposite side of the country, and that’s why the East is still so wild and beautiful.”
Fljótsdalur valley and Eyjabakkar
My journey begins in Egilsstaðir. It is September 14th, which means I am already on the edge of a possible winter. Unsurprisingly the campsite is basically deserted (with the exception of myself and another solitary journeyman, a Canadian bicyclist on a multi-month adventure across Northern Europe). I am surprised to hear people speaking English at every corner, but in a remote Icelandic town the size of a napkin – there will be a power plant effect, you can bet on that.
I have not been in the East for some years. Coming back, I am only positively impressed by the friendliness of the people. Even after a seven-year lucky career in hitchhiking, I am still especially surprised by how easy it is to find a lift and get around. As if being accepted as a passenger is not enough, farmers offer me carrots from the crop, or invite me to their homes for coffee. It is a refreshing sensation.
The drive through Hallormsstaður is a pleasant affair, too. Lots of trees all around, even surpassing the size of a grown man: a rarity in the Icelandic landscape. The locals proudly call it a forest, which may sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but this remains the largest wood in the country nonetheless. Here, the presence of the trees connotes autumn as a distinct part of the year, not as a mere transition between summer and winter. It may vary in length, depending on when the real cold actually arrives, but it is the moment when the leaves turn red and the surroundings exhibit their most vivid and charming colours. People there seem particularly fond in this seasonal luxury.
Glúmsstaðir is the last farm in the Fljótsdalur valley: beyond it, the wild begins, as well as my walk. No real plans in mind: I have enough time at my disposal (roughly two weeks) for giving myself over to some thorough exploration. The Kárahnjúkar camp is the ultimate destination, and Snæfell a compulsory midway halt – besides that, nothing is truly settled. It feels good, however, to start the journey in sunny and warm weather, as these may be the last glimpses of summer I am accorded.
Again, I have never been here before, and I am aware that I am exploiting the moment as a last chance to see these places as they used to be, and will be no more. I don’t really feel the coming doom as an incumbent threat, but the consideration clearly affects my sensations as I approach. I seek the wild essentially for the sense of freedom it brings back to my life, but in this case it feels different. I dislike any flavour of a scheduled, calendared, or charted trip, which inevitably takes something away from the pure enjoyment of a looser plan. I have a sort of existential bitterness about this, even. I used to believe – or at least to behave according to the conviction – that there is always a second chance in life, that a missed opportunity will be redeemed by another similar one. I must now realise that it is not always so.
The countryside along the banks of the river Jökulsá á Fljótsdal runs smooth, almost bucolic in bright weather. Rich vegetation with cliffs of basalt towering above and sheep roaming ubiquitously, is bordered by the river bed playing nice tricks with the rushing muddy waters, forcing them to continuous jumps, falls, unexpected bends, in an unbroken and almost hypnotic chain of potential camera shots. Trees – real ones – make their appearance again in Kleifarskógur, a tender and truly lovely wood embellished by the yellow shades of its flora, fast and gushing waters falling from the cliffs above and cutting its precipice. Further on, Snæfell discloses itself for the first time, accompanied by its vassal Laugafell, and that presence saturates the picture. A work camp is built here, where one of the four dams that are part of the Kárahnjúkar Power Plant project will soon be operational. The sight obviously does not help to make the surroundings more charming. There are explosions in the distance; a farmer told me yesterday of drilling machines, the diameter of five metres, piercing and wounding the mountains – I am starting to grasp the scale of what is going on.
Where the land is completely flat, the waters of Jökulsá á Fljótsdal become placid and slow, spreading over a vast area and branching into a number of veins and rivulets. This is Eyjabakkar, a wetlands pullulating with life to an extraordinary extent, and one of the main havens for birdlife and biodiversity in Iceland. But biodiversity, we all know, is not synonymous with cash, and heavy industry rarely makes poetic distinctions. So part of Eyjabakkar is ready to be submerged by a water reservoir: right here, right now.
The flatlands extend unbroken southwards in the distance. The only elevation in the range is now Snæfell itself, which has grown terribly close on my right, mysteriously enveloped by the thick fog that has descended on the land. A reddish tonality dominates at the chromatic level, but it is not given to shine in today’s dull weather. I have never learned to take swampy grounds into more serious account when making my route, and the outcome is always the same – and mostly an unpleasant – one: I end up walking in soaking wet shoes. Great. Pink-footed geese take flight in flocks. I can hear their call above me, as my march becomes miserable and faltering.
I reach the western flank of Snæfell, where the welcoming hut is located, after a walk at altitude through mist and drizzle. The thick veil of fog condemns me to an almost blind navigation for the whole day. The hut’s seasonal opening is already over, and I can be only grateful that Ferðafélag Fljótsdalshéraðs (the local Touring Club, which built and runs the shelter) has agreed to leave a set of keys at my disposal. I have become seriously wet by now, and drying out my gear will surely prove easier here than inside a tent.
Now Snæfell is entirely hidden in a cloak of melancholy. The lesser elevations of Sauðahnjúkur and Fitjahnjúkur occupy the scene in its stead.
Jökulsá á Brú
Jökla, Jökulsá á Dal, Jökulsá á Brú: three different names for the same glacial river. They run from the Brúarjökull icefall, cut the land west of Snæfell, carve one of the deepest and sheerest canyons in Iceland, skirt the peaks of Kárahnjúkar themselves, and finally direct their own course towards the eastern coast, carrying with them amounts of mud and silt unrivalled by any other stream in the country. It is this watercourse and its surroundings that will pay the highest toll for the realisation of the hydro-electric project. The first 20 km of the river and anything along it standing below 600 m of altitude, as well as part of the icefall itself, will be regularly submerged by the water reservoir – every summer – just to reappear again in wintertime, when ice-melt is least intense, by then deformed and covered in mud.
I flank the course of Jökla twice, first along the east bank – starting down from Gamla-Jökulkvísl, the ancient springs that now lay north outside the glacier’s surface – and then on the west side. The experience turns out totally different from my previous ones – and not because of the change of perspective. It is the sudden mutation in the weather conditions that affect my journey the most now. I see my first reindeer this morning, as soon as I start walking, still slightly numb after the night. The animal’s silver mantle flashed swift and sudden like an apparition in the impenetrable fog, merely a few metres away from me. I did not even have time to think of putting hands on the camera. Such a sight, so early in the day, felt like an omen. And in fact, shortly afterwards, the snow began to fall, slow and in big flakes at first. Rapidly it becomes a storm in every sense. I push my way northwards now. An evil frontal wind makes it particularly difficult to keep my balance. The temperature must have dropped almost 15°C during the night, and considering today’s weather conditions, I can only feel glad and sage for having dumped my original plan of a two-day traverse across Brúarjökull. It seems that winter has come.
The storm ceases sometime during the night and still weather greets me upon awakening. It is still freezing cold, however. Under the white cloak of snow, the landscape only reveals its contours, unreal and stylised in a monochromatic representation. Small ponds surface every now and then, dark mirrors to the sky, which appears like a plate of stainless steel. It reflects a pale light, colder than the snow itself. Kárahnjúkar is now big and visible, standing out against the vast flatness in front of me.
I have been out here for one week already. The thought of the cold and other possible snowstorms (more than probable this time of year) are coming to feel like a deterrent, pushing me from carrying on any further, though I will eventually be thankful for not giving up. As I re-descend the course of Jökla along the west bank, heading south towards Kringilsárrani, a radical change takes place, and I am awarded the most unexpected revival of summer I’ve ever enjoyed: three days in a row of crystal-clear sky, terse visibility over a range of 60 km, and warm sun. I am back to wearing my lightest clothing, something I thought wouldn’t happen again for the rest of the year. It remains terribly chilly at night, and every morning I have to cope with a thick layer of frost spread over my tent and the land. Packing a frozen tent proves particularly miserable, and even muddy or sandy soils are turned hard as solid rock all the way until noon.
Over the last few days, the surroundings have completely changed in shades. Light brown is now pervasive, while patches of vivid and deep red stain the slopes around me. Autumn has finally imposed its colours on the landscape – the last autumn anyone will ever be able to admire around here. I usually find the thought of autumnal decay to be made bearable only by the perspective of the following resurrection. But a sleep without awakening – such as the one which is now expected here – that’s a different issue entirely.
I have covered a very wide part of the area around Snæfell by now, and I believe I am finally starting to grasp its peculiar and specific beauty. Especially fascinating for me is how different these locations feel from the rest of the Highlands. Even in the most remote and solitary places, far away from Reykjavík, Iceland is punk-rock: a young land, fast, rugged, raw and barren, with sudden and disharmonic explosions of energy and violence. And Iceland is noisy: thundering and growling waters, feedbacks in the wind – I never have the perception of silence, falling asleep in my tent in some remoteness of the countryside.
But here it is different. Here everything is dilated, solemn and majestic, almost grave, overgrown in the red and green of the vegetation – because royalty does not tolerate nudity. And silent, terribly silent – a silence you can hear and listen to. All the lines in the visual range – straight and regular – seem drawn according to geometries of Euclidean perfection. Parallel lines form stratified terraces that almost look man-made.
It feels curious, but hardly accidental, how emotionally Sigur Rós have fought for the preservation of this region, when one thinks of how perfectly their music and the surroundings appear to reflect each other. In both, the sense of melancholy and nostalgia for something which is not here seems to shine through – something that, in this case, soon will be no more.
The oasis of Kringilsárrani lies right beneath the glacier, protected as an island, encircled as it is by the two impassable rivers of Jökla and Kringilsá on the flanks, and Brúarjökull at the back. A preserved wilderness area, unique both for its fauna (besides the rich birdlife, herds of reindeer freely roam here) and its geology (seldom will you appreciate so neatly the millenarian action of the glacier in shaping the land).
The approach to Kringilsárrani is a walk across Brúarjökull, and through a rather primitive but effective ropeway scarily suspended above the impetuous waters of the river Kringilsá. It is a sort of rite of passage introducing hikers here to a different world. A couple of kilometres further along the river, Töfrafoss (i.e. “the magic waterfall”) offers itself up as a spectacle of immense power, a crowning twofold rainbow springing from the crashing waters.
Hraukar appear as a stripe of tumuli covered in emerald green grass and surrounded by clear ponds. From here towards the Brúarjökull, a staggering and truly unique sequence of glacial moraines develops, giving a strange impression of dynamism to the land. And it is around Hraukar that more reindeer start making their appearance. I count about a dozen in one day, but I never manage to get closer to them than some 20 metres.
If Snæfell is the landmark and the patron of the whole region, Kringilsárrani definitely represents its spiritual core. A reindeer country, shamanic, hieratic – it seems infinitely vaster and higher than it actually is. As one stares at the snow-clad peaks all around, a superior sense of ascension and elevation comes to dominate, while the perception of space appears altered in the strong magical aura that pervades the surroundings. As I climb one of the few hills near the glacier, just up to 700 m, the outlook over the horizon becomes breathtaking, even inspiring. As if the place were appositely built to be an observation post, the gaze embraces all the main summits of the Highlands: the Snæfell massif with all its peaks, to start with, and Kverkfjöll, like embedded in Vatnajökull, and Trölladyngja, Dyngjufjöll, all the way to Herðubreið, which usually looks like a Christmas-cake; today it appears like a crown. And yes, also Kárahnjúkar in the north, the most recent – and heretical – acquisition in this pantheon of celebrated mountains, the place where the doom of the whole region is engraved like a sentence into reinforced concrete.
Part of Kringilsárrani – including Töfrafoss – is going to be directly affected by the flooding, and will be disappearing under water. And even though most of the area will not meet the same fate, it is hard to believe that the fragile ecosystem won’t suffer heavily from the environmental changes all around.
Here in particular, the perspective of such locations submerged under an artificial lagoon gives the disturbing feeling of profanation of sacred ground. It is not the thought of lost and marred beauty that bothers me. Landscapes change – often for the worse – for natural reasons as well as artificial. A waterfall cannot be preserved in a museum. Rather, in this place, it is the deliberate attack on diversity and otherness that I find truly appalling. These areas used to host a highly diversified basin of life – machinery is going to cover it under a veil of non-existence. This region used to represent a unique instance in Icelandic landscape, a term of comparison against which the country could define itself. Now its otherness will be denied, specificity erased in the total levelling of the geographical spaces. Yes, it will be another fragment of difference rendered to the Moloch of oblivion, according to that perverse logic of homologation and univocal thought, sadly inherent to industrialism.
When I finally get to the Kárahnjúkar camp, on Monday, September 25th, I have eleven days and around 180 km of walk in the wild behind me.
There is intense traffic and the activity of cars, trucks, and Caterpillars is evident all around. Noises come from every direction in the distance. The girl who sells me my coffee asks me, almost shocked, why on earth I bother to walk. I suppose that my motivations would not be understood, so I give it to her plain and simple, “It is my job.” At least this explanation does not elicit any objection.
I find a lift. Someone will drive to Egilsstaðir in half an hour.
From this vantage point, I take a last look at the canyon carved by Jökulsá á Brú, winding southwards. It is my last chance to stare at it as it is, before it will be buried under the surface of an artificial lake, but strangely I am still spared that sense of imminence. The main dam, the one erected on the western side of the Kárahnjúkar mountain, is close at hand now. A sheer and immense wall obstructing the canyon – it almost gives me a feeling of vertigo as I stare at it. And as it stands beside there, idle and close, Kárahnjúkar looks both succubus and accomplice, as someone who has made a deal with the devil and is now victim – willing or not – to the stipulations of an inescapable fate.
The waters of the river run exactly beneath my post, waiting for the moment they will be definitively contained and accumulated. Already now, they look still.
Ferðafélag Fljótsdalshéraðs (Tel. +354 863 5813) for accommodation at the Snæfell Hut.
Campsite Egilsstaðir (Tel. +354 471 2320) for accommodation in Egilsstaðir.
Ljósmyndavörur (Tel. +354 568 0450) for high-quality Fuji films.