Hopefully, readers will excuse me if I dwell on the sappy expression “the heart of Iceland” in the course of this story. The phrase had already started to haunt me in Reykjavik while I was planning the trip and gathering information. I spoke to several people about Þjórsárver, supposedly one of the most challenging passages of my journey. The responses were all similar: it is a magnificent place, a unique spot in the Highlands where you truly will experience the heart of Iceland. María Dögg, a veteran guide for Ferðafélag Íslands (The Icelandic Touring Club), went a step further and identified “the heart” as Arnarfell, the 1,100m mountain at the edge of the Hofsjökull Glacier that dominates the underlying plains of Þjórsárver.
Þjórsárver does represent something unique in the whole Arctic panorama. This is confirmed by international treaties and biologists’ statistics. Situated close to the country’s geographic centre, protected by the Ramsar Convention for the conservation of wetlands, the area is also the most populous breeding site for pink-footed geese in the whole world. And yet, for the most, it remains somewhat of a secret and unexplored jewel, nestled among glaciers and a wrath of broad, treacherous rivers. Most visitors prefer to steer clear of it, intimidated by the challenges posed by the oftenswampy grounds. Long before I reach Þjórsárver, I start fantasising about a hidden core of the island, an oasis of unusually lush vegetation and abundant waters, as so many had described it to me. I imagine it as a forbidden paradise rewarding the traveller’s toils with countless wonders.
Þjórsárver may well be the core of Iceland, but there is another heart in the Highlands, one which pulses with the rhythm of jeep engines and water pumps. I finally reach the Icelandic Touring Association’s hut in Nýidalur late in the evening on July 23. For the whole day, water has been pouring from the sky. The shelter is swarming with people, most already asleep – I hear the distinct murmur of snoring and deep, regular breathing coming from the dormitory inside. And yet, even though night has come and a veil of restfulness has fallen over the house, a sense of activity, together with a pungent smell of kerosene, immediately assail me. Everything is quiet, but nothing is entirely still this night in Nýidalur.
There is a ceaseless sequence of creaks and dampened noises, an acoustic backdrop woven by the efforts of some latecomer intent on washing up the traces of an untimely dinner, sliding a backpack along the floor, or heading out into the cold dimness for a last visit to the restrooms. Boiling water is still stirring in a huge pot on an oil stove that makes the kitchen possibly the hut’s cosiest spot, an alcove of warmth and intimacy in a place where being alone appears to be a challenge. A dog strolls around, joyfully displaying its tongue while I get rid of the most drenched parts of my outfit. Soffía, arguably one of the very best hut wardens I have ever known, kindly invites me to take a place inside, in the only bed left free for the night.
It had always been in my original plans to take a day of rest in Nýidalur – but contingencies turn it into two. For some reason, the box of supplies I sent there is late. I spend my time lazing around, seeking respite from the harsh wind and enjoying the wonderful hospitality offered to me by the Touring Club. During this forced stay, I have the opportunity to better grasp the evocative flavour that the place exudes. Moments of utter frenzy constantly alternate with moments of absolute quiet in Nýidalur.
All sorts of travellers seem to stop there for a rest – Dutch bikers, Icelandic drivers, solitary French walkers – who all get caught in conversations around a cup of coffee and the common room’s bare tables. Perhaps Nýidalur could best be described as a crossroad of tales and experiences. I cannot avoid thinking back to the epic train in the Old West, as celebrated in so many movies. There are no trains in Iceland but it is easy to imagine this place as a transit station at the edge of the railway, as a neural node of explorers’ and adventurers’ trails knotted in the bravest attempt to colonise the solitude of the Highlands. Transition, movement, casual meetings and exchanges are what seem to characterise Nýidalur most profoundly.
I recognise some of the faces around from memories of different places. A group travelling with Hálendisferðir proves particularly friendly and keen to save me from the risk of starvation that my missing box has cast upon me. In the afternoon of the second day, two young German hikers hit the hut. They have been going in the opposite direction of a portion of the same route that lies ahead for me. I question them about Þjórsárver and we spend all evening investigating maps, discussing equipment, exchanging tales and GPS points.
I depart from Nýidalur in the first hours of a morning buzzing with movement. My box has finally arrived. It was brought the night before by Siggi, Soffía’s husband, and he will be in charge of the hut for the next few days. We exchange some words while sipping the first coffee of the day and staring through the window at the frost that the night has left behind and the array of caravans ready to leave the campsite. “This is the centre of the Highlands” he tells me with a gleam in his eye. I nod in assent. I cover the ground to Þjórsárver in a few hours of marching under a gentle drizzle, traversing a no-man’s-land made of greyness, stones and pebbles.
I wake up to my alarm clock at 3:30 in the night: it is time to wade, and the favour of the morning’s earliest hours is required, however masochistic that may feel. The weather conditions look optimal for the upcoming challenges: entirely dry, still, and as cold as it gets in July.
It must be roughly 8am when I start the Þjórsárkvíslar crossing: the dreaded springs of Þjórsá, Iceland’s longest river. One after the other, I leave behind all the threads of an endless web of streams and rivulets.
I feel a mixture of relief and disappointment about the smoothness of my progression, but it is not meant to last much longer; it is promptly dissolved by the appearance of the river’s last branch, frightening in all its breadth and might, surrounded by the notoriety of grim tales and warnings. The water’s depth varies in a range generously estimated to be between 50cm and 150cm. The prospect of confronting a violent flow up to my chest has admittedly been the source of many headaches over the last few days. In the end, however, the Þjórsárkvíslar will not treat me that badly. The water level suddenly rises above my waist, but with a detour upstream I am able to find a relatively innocuous course in shallow waters, all the way to the other bank. I do not know how long I have been soaking in the river, probably some ten minutes. What’s certain is that as I gain the high ground again, the bite of the cold has made me totally hazy, I am speaking in tongues and can hardly remember how to spell my own name.
I climb to the top of Arnarfell, where the metaphor of the “heart of Iceland” gains shape and reality. A tight grid of arteries and veins spreads over the plains of Þjórsárver, vital lymph pumped by the glacier on the periphery of the island. The torment of additional wading is temporarily avoided by cutting across the nearby glacial tongue: the grim and photogenic Múlajökull. It is a breathtaking 5km walk along razor-sharp edges of ice and sudden chasms.
Despite all the thrill and wonder, however, my farewell to “the heart of Iceland” is not an ideal one. I start my third day in Þjórsárver under the encouraging omens of high pressure and a new wind blowing from the South. I naively think that this blessing of the weather gods will descend upon me. Misplaced hope: in a couple of hours I am bathed in a torrent of rain. For several kilometres I find myself walking in sandals and underwear, my bare legs exposed to the lashes of the wind and water showering from the sky: a last unpleasantness imposed by the swamps around Nautalda and the sequence of streams left to be crossed.
I assume that I have finally crossed the last river, get my clothes and my boots on only to find out that I am wrong – for the second time that day. The westernmost branch of the Blautukvíslar is still before me – and the evening’s late hour and ceaseless rain have roused the river into a muddy fury. I am about to make camp and give up, but the thought that circumstances may not be any more favourable the next morning eventually convinces me to persist. It takes no less than three attempts and plunges into the water, and a number of bruises, before I finally find the right wading spot.
As I reach the other side and set up my tent for the night, I still feel the wet and freezing clutch of the river upon my skin. I am exhausted by what has probably been the hardest and most miserable day in three weeks of walking. Comfort and warmth in the welcoming resort of Kerlingarfjöll, however, now lie only one day ahead.