The engine huffed and puffed loudly as the modified Toyota Hilux bit its way over yet another stretch of sand, continuing on its run through an ever-shifting cloud of fuzz and dust. One more traveller was challenging the old Gæsavatnaleið trail.
Winding across a plateau of lava, sand and bare rock at the outskirts of the Dyngjujökull glacier, only a generous amount of optimism and naivety could induce someone to call Gæsavatnaleið a road. And the Icelandic Road Administration, in fact, has little or nothing to do there. Similarly, it would be quite superficial to consider Gæsavatnaleið a simple drive. Rather, it is a real off-road rally, fit to exhaust the most enduring car and wear out even a highly experienced driver, a province of intrepid travellers and dedicated Rescue Team volunteers who proudly roam this no-man’s-land in search of situations where some help may be welcome – a pioneer’s scenario that seems drawn from tales of other places and other times. Perhaps symbolically, the trail takes its name from the only, tiny oasis of life and vegetation within an otherwise unbroken wasteland: the minuscule ponds of Gæsavötn, surrounded by moss. Besides that small interruption and feeble glimpse of greenness, all else is black and naked along Gæsavatnaleið, between Askja and Nýidalur.
Travellers are regularly warned against the route. Regardless of the direction from which one approaches the track, the antiphony is the same: the land wardens will question the driver as to what sort of car is about to stand trial, whether it is owned or hired, whether it has 35-inch tyres, at least, between its body and the harsh ground. They will point out that while the road is only about 100 km long, one should realistically allocate 6-7 hours to complete it, that mechanical accidents are pretty common, and, also for that reason, that travelling in a convoy is definitely the least masochistic option. They will try to make sure, in the end, that nobody ventures further, unless relying on a monster vehicle and entirely conscious of what the undertaking might entail. Among all the routes and itineraries within the Icelandic highlands, Gæsavatnaleið is the only one for which I would gladly make an exception and give up walking in order to join the motorized legions of those rally drivers and adventurers.
I waved my hand and gazed at the car glimmering white and eventually disappearing in the distance, until fresh tyre marks on the ground and a dissolving cloud of dust were all that remained. I pushed on and walked in complete solitude, roughly following the course of the trail for the remainder of the day. I walked until my skewed shadow was anticipating my steps late in the night, determined to cover, in two days of marching, the sixty kilometres that separated me from fresh water in Gæsavötn.
Surprises were conveyed by the unreal and deceiving gleam of the evening. I reckon it was around 21:30 when I first stared at that new and unexpected devilry of the land. It appeared to be dark grey, hit by the last rays of a descending sun, a razor-sharp and menacing barrier straight ahead to the South, an array of acuminate teeth rising like a wall from the ground, geometric and angular, as if cut by square and knife. I halted and remained still for some time, trying hard to decipher the strange spectacle that had just appeared before my eyes: from afar, they looked like hills of crude rock, and yet I had never heard of anything like that being in this part of the country. I hit the trail again and quickened the pace.
It was under such circumstances, my gaze still fixed on those mysterious sculptures looming ahead, that I came across the mud. Concealed behind a row of mounds of sand and lava, lay a whole plain. Commonly flooded and submerged by the wash of glacial waters, it now unfolded arid and droughty, drained by the unnaturally dry season and consequent paucity of rain. It might be hard to believe that so much artistry can be produced by something as obvious and prosaic as dried mud – yet that appeared to be precisely the case. It looked like an abstract painting in the late night air, stretching for many acres over the soil, a dazzling sequence of shades of black and grey, of sinuous lines and cryptic patterns.
Not even the closest examination proved sufficient to lift the veil of blindness entirely from my eyes. Not until I broke the ice with my trekking poles, stroke after stroke, did all disbelief and incredulity abandon me. Deceived by the distance and feeble light, what I had mistaken for rock and an absurdly shaped range of hills, eventually revealed itself to be the grim front of the Dyngjujökull glacier: it did not glimmer white and immaculate with ice and snow as one would expect, but stood there threateningly, clad in a layer of silt and dirt, black and turbid like the very soil underneath my feet, black down to its very core, to its subtlest veins of crystal. I observed this imposing and disquieting glacial tongue of black ice for a long time, trying to embrace and comprehend its nuances. Most of the time I shivered in discomfort. Later on, I filtered clean some of the meltdown water, and made camp by the moraine. The following day I walked the remaining kilometres to Gæsavötn. Drizzle and wind broke out late in the afternoon and did not cease until nightfall.
The last mystery of Gæsavatnaleið awaited me at 1,200 m at the Dyngjuháls pass. Like a host of silent totems, dozens, scores, perhaps even a couple of hundred cairns dotted the slopes, votive tributes of past journeymen asking for safe passage over this ominous trail. I tried to erect my own, and as I watched it stand briefly, clumsily, and then collapse to the ground, I could only feel relief for having most of Gæsavatnaleið behind and not before me.
Despite looking pathetically powerless as a tiny, shiny dot in the boundless black nothingness all around, Gæsavötn does nonetheless make for an uplifting sight. It welcomed me like an eagerly awaited breath after a prolonged apnoea. I camped on the moss, in yellow and orange hues, rather than green, from a summer so avaricious for rain.
From the very beginning, I had seen Rjúpnabrekkukvísl as the first declared challenge on the route. I had heard many frightening tales about this river – enough to spoil a few nights of sound sleep. They spoke of stones whirled around by the violence of the waters, of desperate falls into the stream, of days spent drying backpacks drenched by the splashes of the river. It is July 22nd, and I wake up and set off fairly early in the morning. It is common knowledge that wading in large glacial streams should be done in the early hours of the day, when the ice melt is least intense. The weather seems willing to assist me at first, but it soon turns to intermittent burst of drizzles. My own experience with the wading of Rjúpnabrekkukvísl, however, turns out to be less dramatic than the darkest expectations had suggested – dry summers can have their advantages. The river bed is rugged and bumpy, and certainly does not facilitate the best balance. The dirty and muddy waters gush impetuous, rough and furious at the surface. Fortunately, however, they do not reach much above my knee, and I make for the other side without any excessive scares. It is only for a short while in the middle of the crossing that I get the disturbing impression that the strength of the flow is too much of a monster to tame, and that I might be overcome. As I touch the opposite bank I am cold and trembling. It is a particularly generous (and painfully untimely) downpour of rain that denies me the opportunity to fully enjoy having accomplished the feat.
Thus, I finally enter Vonarskarð – the Pass of Hope – nestled between the glacier Tungnafellsjökull and the north-western slopes of Vatnajökull. The horizon progressively enlarges into the immensity of a flat plain, the black lava makes room for the monotonous greyness of glacial debris, perfectly oval and conic elevations peep out all around in the guise of the area’s most prominent landmarks. I leave my waterproof clothing tucked away in my backpack three times, and instead let the light drizzle wash over me, waiting for the sun to reemerge and dry me again. I inevitably overrate my good luck and misread the weather: the fourth time, there will be no more getting dry again – only getting wetter. I camp at around 1,000 m altitude, on the slopes of Laugakúla, where the presence of gushing thermal waters has created an oasis of moss and lush vegetation. I fall asleep under pouring rain, and I wake up under pouring rain the following morning: there is no possible way to delude myself – this will be a miserable day.
I see little or nothing of the glorious geothermal area of Vonarskarð, hidden as it is in a mantle of thick and impenetrable fog. I catch only sporadic glimpses of the colourful and steaming muds, of the glaciers in the distance, of the vastness of the plains beneath, and think with some regret that this may be a magnificent place under different conditions. There is not much more to the day: I cross the mountains and walk my way along the river in a narrow but sufficiently comfortable ravine. By the time the valley widens, my boots have given in to the overwhelming wetness, which only adds to the day’s overall misery. By the time the familiar and much longed-for shape of the Nýidalur hut appears within sight, it is late in the evening, and I am soaked. Since I set off, however, I have managed to cover almost 300 km, and half of the journey already lies behind me.