Askja. For a long time, since my first visit in 2001, that little and harsh name evoked the mightiest images of dread and desolation in my head, of unspeakable mysteries and vanished German explorers. For a long time, I associated Ódáðahraun – the stretch of lava, sand and nothingness that envelops an endless area of 6,000 km2 in its deadly embrace – with the wasteland par excellence. A place of twisted rock, chocked earth and overwhelming devastation, capable of shaking in a few miles the most light-hearted assumptions about the cuteness of life, nature, and everything: the perfect school-trip for those (fortunately, I believe, not many) considering a career in nihilistic philosophy. Not surprisingly, for a long time, I anticipated the traverse of that desert with a mixed feeling of reverential fear and ultimate challenge.
It is July 14; the weather is slowly opening up and becoming fair. As I put more and more kilometres between the village of Reykjahlíð and myself, the Mývatn lowlands exhibit their most celebrated sights. I stroll along the rim of the great Hverfell crater, where visitors mark their passage in stones and pebbles. I duck underneath the lava arches and alcoves of Dimmuborgir. Some German tourist thinks that my backpack is too bulky and that hikers are all insane. The last drizzles of the day make the cigarettes wet in my fingers.
I leave Dimmuborgir behind along narrow and tortuous sheep trails. The lava layer is cracked and broken, but I believe sheep are just too fearful to be unwise: to trust their common sense seems safe. With sheep I get to share not only the paths, but also the torment of the midges. They launch their assault as the sun pierces the last clouds and the air becomes hot and stuffy – they won’t desist till nightfall. I end up swallowing a few, spitting out some others, but it is a trial for the nerves. I try to remind myself of the great prophets of non-violence: St. Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama… It does not work, and before long I am turned upside down by images and impressions of total warfare. Fighting this fight is pointless, and I patiently let my reservoir of tolerance be eroded away.
The last farm on my way lies cheerful under the sun, by Grænavatn and a jeep track. There is a pleasant barbecue smell in the air, but nobody around inviting me to join the feast. When I set up camp along the river Kraká, it is already past ten and mist has descended onto the land.
Entering the Highlands
Where do the Highlands begin? What gives them their character? What distinguishes them so ineffably but still so neatly from the rest of the emerged lands? I have passed no border, reached no landmark, gained no altitude. And yet, I realize that the quality of the experience, from a certain point on, has radically mutated – sweetly, smoothly, and yet firmly. The awareness of this difference falls on me like an epiphany. But why and how has the transition occurred? Is it the shape of the sky? Can it change in the turn of a handful of kilometres? Is it the colour of the light? Or the absence of anything but myself and my footsteps, perhaps? I am baffled. But in spite of all riddles – or, more likely, because of them – I’m enthralled. While Reykjahlíð, way on the horizon, still beckons me with promises of comfort and safety, the Highlands, as ever before, have kicked in.
I walk far from the jeep track, trying to keep my course as straight as possible due south. Barren, sandy ground and overgrown areas alternate in a seemingly regular pattern. I pass a patch of vegetation painted in the most unlikely crimson red a flower ever exhibited. It is another day of heat, bright sky, and limitless visibility. The uniform flatness that lies ahead gets broken finally by the imposing shapes looming in the deep distance, like Gods or wardens waiting in a watchful sleep. I can see Trölladyngja shaped like a shield, and the ice of Dyngjujökull behind it, glittering white. And, shortly after, the Dyngjufjöll mountains encircling the craters and chasms of Askja appear too, muscular and compact like a fist on the land, peremptory as a statement.
It is already after eight with a sense of twilight in the air, when the lava of Ódáðahraun eventually begins. Great, rounded slabs of volcanic rock are deposited on the earth, carved and smoothed in an almost orderly fashion, like a pavement of stone laid down by hands larger and older than those of men. I follow my own shadow, skewed by the declining sunbeams, across this cyclopean platform, and I am driven to reckon that, in its minimal and essential simplicity, the whole sight is among the most intense and inspiring ones that my waking eyes ever seized.
I reach the hut of Botni (erected and managed by Ferðafélag Íslands as a support to the travellers on the Askja trail) after walking a couple of kilometres on the track, along pinnacles of lava and a last oasis of clear water. There is a small crowd around: an Icelandic guided tour. Some well-meaning woman asks me why on earth I am travelling alone – she finds it so boring, you know. I reply that most often I am bored among people. Social interactions for the night practically end there.
The next day I walk across ceaseless lava and black sand to the next hut, at the foot of Dyngjufell. Stating that the sort of experience intrinsically offered by the Highlands is different and unique compared to anything else is a judgement of intensity, not of value. It is to say that all sensations – inebriation as much as poignancy, liberty as much as anguish – appear qualitatively different here, neater and deeper, as if you were staring at them in their nudity, without veils in between. My last two days, for example, have been pervaded by a sense of melancholy subtended to every movement and every glance – an aimless longing without focus and without object, hopelessly amplified and reverberated by the unlimited vastness around, by the terse light that is dyed orange as the sunset approaches.
The Dyngjufell hut is welcoming, properly tended, and free of guests. Although the weather is warm and dry, I am glad to take a place inside: it is my first time sleeping indoors since I left Reykjavik. During the night, the sky becomes saturated with multiple colours. It is a jaw-dropping midnight sun, almost ridiculous in its chromatic vividness, like some expressionist painting. The gorge nearby is reflecting violet shades. I generally try not to overromanticize nature and its workings, to take it at surface level, but for what it is. Tonight, however, I cannot help to sit there in awe and contemplation, intimately glad to be alone, out in the wild. I cannot help but look around and find it beautiful. Poignantly beautiful.
It is the fourth and final day on my way to Askja. I inaugurate the morning by falling down the steps right outside the cabin. I clumsily land on my knees and am thankful that nobody is around to see and laugh at the feat. Besides the accident, a couple of kilometres into the mountains are already enough to realize that today is going to redeem my previous impressions of the whole walk. Except for a few utterly memorable moments, in fact, it has been quite a dull affair until now. Partly because that whole sense of challenge and inaccessibility that I had built up over years of waiting has been exposed as absolutely ungrounded: I haven’t yet met a single obstacle or difficulty on the way. Even water – scarce, but still sufficient – has not presented a problem. And in part because I found the last days’ landscape to be rather flat and monotonous for the most. Today, however, offers a different perspective.
A narrow path immediately starts climbing up, across barren plateaus and slopes lashed by the winds. The inexorable action of erosion has carved the surroundings into the grim and spectral shapes of a mosaic desert. At around 1,000 m the snowfields begin. At 1,300 m Jónskarð is reached – the pass that, like a breach in an impenetrable wall, leads the way into Askja. And the sight from up there, in clear weather, hits with such strength it blows you away. Because Askja is like a sanctuary, erected in the womb of the mountains, embedded in the foundations of the earth. Even the sky seems to get lost and absorbed in the depths of that lake.
I arrive at the base camp at Drekagil late in the evening. Herðubreið – the celebrated Queen of Icelandic mountains – has been towering above the track for the last kilometres. My dominant thought, however, is that all the walking on lava I’ve endured these days should be enough for the rest of the summer – to say that I am sick of it is an understatement.
Ferðafélag Íslands has undeniably done a great job at Drekagil. They expanded the hut, installed running water, improved all the facilities – and still with due care for the environment. Basically, they’ve laid down the ground for making one of the most remarkable locations in the country accessible and enjoyable to the wider public. In fact, the place is swarming with people. Different groups are sleeping at Drekagil, but the members of some British speleological club definitely stand out as the most noteworthy. “We spend several weeks in Askja every now and then, looking for and mapping lava caves,” they proudly explain. I don’t know what to think of their hobby, but must admit that they are an excellent crowd, coherently embodying a genuine conception of mountaineering made of guiltless nicotinism, heavy alcohol consumption, and coffee cups rinsed with dirty fingers.
The mounds before the campsite are a perfect vantage point for appreciating another immaculate twilight – the silhouette of Herðubreið is imprinted in the distance, crowned with flocks of gentle clouds. It’d be a unique spectacle under any circumstances and sharing it with a few occasional companions and a bottle of whiskey does not make it any worse. In a couple of days I’ll be walking further, still deeper into the country’s interior.