“Why on earth am I doing this?”
The question surfaced a bit earlier in the morning and lingered there for a handful of seconds, as a last desperate warning or unconscious solicitation to withdraw. I was at the Akureyri campsite, while a light but persistent drizzle hit the ground and my bare hands intent at packing up the tent, and an array of images buzzed within my head – projections and anticipations of all the misery to carry out that same operation under blowing winds, heavy rain, and dozens of miles away from a friendly voice or the nearest cup of warm coffee. A rather depressing scenario.
It is not uncommon to falter on the verge of a long-awaited moment. As I found out a long time ago, however, being chronically late is a basic and nearly impeccable antidote for such sudden weaknesses of the mind. So the questions ceased while the scramble continued with only one apprehension left: to make it in time for the bus, possibly without any disastrous tumble in the process.
Waiting – the activity in life I dislike the most. In this case the wait is fortunately short, and allows for a very welcome cup of coffee. This morning’s stress rush was beneficial: besides getting rid of all lingering fears and doubts, I could reach the bus station some fifteen minutes early, enough to settle the last organisational details. I dropped a couple of boxes at the office, and made sure that they will safely reach Mývatn and Askja – my next destinations – within a few days. I am planning to stay in the wilderness for more than one month: a Trex bus will take me to Ásbyrgi, in the North-East, and from there I will be walking for hundreds of kilometres, all the way to Þingvellir, at the opposite corner of the Country. There is no way I can carry all equipment with me from the beginning, so I must rely on timely deliveries of supplies along the way.
It seems that the ride to Ásbyrgi will be an intimate affair, concerning only me and a couple of other hikers, obviously Germans. The bus driver – a friendly chap of few words and many smiles, who smirked at my complimentary ticket – has been busy (and evidently self-satisfied) for several minutes, stuffing the wagon with all sort of packages and endless cartons of milk. Finally, he slams the container’s door closed and turns his eyes towards me. It is time.
It is around noon. I must have slept the entire way. The woods and shrubs of Ásbyrgi look silent and lazy today, as absorbed in some sort of uneasy wait. There is little traffic, which is strange, considering how this place is a favourite among foreign and Icelandic tourists alike. The atmosphere does not feel particularly electrical. Even the weather seems undecided whether it will offer a fair and sunny sky or the “Weather of Great Occasions” (that is cloudy, foggy and drizzly). I linger on: the freshly renovated visitor’s centre makes for an interesting stop and passionate introduction to the area and another cup of coffee for makes for an excellent excuse to postpone the start a bit still. A few last retouches to my backpack, and at last I am convinced that it truly is time to start: only matter of moving the first steps, and all the rest will come easier. It is July 9, and I have begun my journey.
There is a marked and well-tended path leading southwards from Ásbyrgi to the waterfall of Dettifoss. It unfolds along the western bank of the mighty river Jökulsá á Fjöllum, within one of the most important protected areas in the country: the Jökusárgljúfur (Glacial River Canyon) National Park. It is a reserve of unique geological formations, fragrant birch woods, rich fauna, and easy walking. The low elevation, the grassy and soft soil, the presence of an organised trail network – all of this makes for a comfortable, family-friendly hiking experience. Likely it won’t be your ultimate Icelandic adventure, or the most spectacular scenery you will ever encounter in the inlands, but the region remains well worth the exploration, and predictably one of the most trodden trekking resorts in the country.
For me, it represents an ideal preparation for the upcoming effort. I have chosen one of the hardest routes through the Highlands, across deserts, marshes, glaciers, and roaring rivers: I can expect plenty of challenges and dramatic landscapes ahead. For the moment, enjoying a mellow and leisurely start, just long enough to fully get into gear, appears to be the most reasonable and pleasant option.
The trail’s initial portion runs along the eastern side of the highly scenic canyon that is Ásbyrgi’s trademark and greatest attraction – from a strong vantage point at the southern edge, the gaze can embrace it in its entirety. Mythology and poetry claim this place to be a mark in the earth left by the passage of Sleipnir, Odin’s steed.
Geologists, on the other hand, have interpreted it as the outcome of a jökulhlaup (glacial flood burst) of ridiculously huge scale – possibly an even more catastrophic and unconceivable explanation than the former. Personally, at least, I have some troubles depicting a flood stemming from a glacier (probably following some under-ice eruption) so terrific in scale that it inexorably ploughs hundred of kilometers of land, excavates a deep and nearly rectilinear gorge, and finally impacts the soil with such brute violence that it models a hoof-shaped canyon out of bare rock – and all of this, in the mere turn of a few hours. Whatever the origination myth, it is hard to deny or underrate the sort of serene and majestic fascination that the overgrown glen of Ásbyrgi – with its steep cliffs, thick vegetation, and emerald green ponds – exercises on the visitor. Even when all appears blurred and faded under a leaden, sullen sky, like today.
I left town in a situation of most dramatic haste: being chronically late also has an obnoxious side. The franticness of my last days in Reykjavík has left a visible scar in my mood and, no matter what, I still feel loaded with nervousness and irritation. As the first kilometres roll by, I am mainly focused inwards, trying to give my thoughts the same placid green colour of the surroundings. I don’t have to wait long, however, before the usual little miracle that I have got used to over the years occurs: the wilderness slowly takes over, painful memories give way to immediate enjoyment, tension melts into inebriation. No, it won’t be the most spectacular scenery I have ever experienced in Iceland, but even at the fourth visit the Jökusárgljúfur National Park can reserve delighting surprises. The craters of Rauðhólar – adorned with pointy pinnacles and vividly red as if stained in blood – certainly are one of those, and seem to act like a border beyond which all is mystery and wonder.
The path winds among arcane basaltic formations now – towers, caves, fortresses, and skulls of rock. Products of the torment of the land, to a keen eye they could appear as cyclopean artefacts of times immemorial, which the course of ages has covered in trees and scrubs. I dream of a megalopolis once inhabited by some cruel and ancient civilization, such as the ones conceived by the morbid imagination of H. P. Lovecraft. It is a fuzz of voices and footsteps that brings me back to the concreteness of the present: I am only a couple of kilometres away from the resting point at Vesturdalur, and visitors are more frequent in this part of the park. I reach the campsite after my first day of marching spent under overcast but dry weather. I barely have time for crunching my dinner before finally paying toll for last week’s lack of sleep. Without even realising it, I collapse like a sack of potatoes onto my sleeping bag (rather than inside it) – it is not even nine o’clock.
Fair weather greets me at awakening. The landscape gradually changes texture and grows idyllic, while the almost disquieting sculptures of basalt that accompanied my course yesterday become progressively rarer, until fading into memory. For a dozen kilometres, the surroundings are a sequence of colourful and blossoming vegetation, gashing waters, and mirror-like ponds. As the path approaches the waterfall of Hafragilsfoss, the walk becomes more technical and challenging – but the increasing effort is repaid by some of the most charming views encountered so far. The waterfall itself, nested deep inside the gorge and crowned in floating rainbows, offers a memorable spectacle.
When Dettifoss finally irrupts, it seems orchestrated a with savant cinematic touch. As the Hafragil lowlands are left behind, the landscape changes its face abruptly and entirely. It becomes barren – utterly barren – a monotonous stretch of black sand and solid, crude rock. Only minuscule patches of vegetation are scattered here and there: small and untamed flowers pathetically emerging from the wasteland around just to ask “What are we doing here?” One could easily think of a Western movie’s final and epic duel, or even St. John’s Apocalypse, set in such a place: in no way would it feel out of context. Yes, the sensation is that of being at the far end of the world. Not to mention the roar – that constant, overwhelming noise of precipitating waters that draws nearer.
When the main actor eventually reveals itself, it is still cloaked in a cloud of drizzling splashes, raised up in every direction by the impact. The real risk after all of the expectation- building, however, is disappointment. In reality, the mighty Dettifoss actually sucks. There is nothing beautiful, cosy or picturesque about this waterfall: just a square wall of fluid mud erected there to scare the children into tears or delight those statistics-lovers such as yours truly. (“Hey, after all this is the waterfall with the greatest flow volume in Europe!”). And yet, in spite of its lack of aesthetic value, every summer the banks of Dettifoss enjoy an unceasing pilgrimage of visitors, devotees ready to stand in awe before its nude display of wrath and power. I am not exempted, and the morning after my arrival I am there, under a clear blue sky, paying visit to and spending a generous portion of film on this Moloch of dirty water and silt.
So it has come that the third day of my journey has begun, blessed by sunny weather and the rarity of some 25°c in the air. My high spirits, however, are fated to shortly face a sudden demise. I have only walked a couple of kilometres from the waterfall when I stop again for a few photos. I kneel, camera in hand and pointed at the horizon. A sudden breath of wind blows the fine sand all over me and my precious equipment. I wait it out and continue, but my zoom-lens does not respond anymore: it got stuck by the grains and simply does not turn any more. I make a first attempt at remaining calm, sit down and smoke. “Once the cigarette will be over, I am sure the lens will work fine again” I tell myself. The facts contradict my delusional optimism. My attempts at keeping calm crumble. I swear, try to force the lens, but the screeching noises suggests to me that I am doing more harm than good. Apparently, I must accept the evidence: for the moment, I cannot rely on a camera any more – clearly, an unbearable perspective. I sit down and smoke again, thoughtful. I try to repeat to myself that the unforeseen is part, even the very juice, of adventure. Maybe. For now, however, I only see the adventure prematurely slipping away: I feel miserable and perplexed about the course to take – just a lonely and bent figure in the landscape at the end of the world, three days into my 40-day journey.
Thanks to Trex (www.bustravel.is ) for Reykjavík- Ásbyrgi transportation
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