Auðun seemed far from convinced.
His taxi bumped and swayed across the rubble road on the plains south of Akureyri. One by one, we dismissed his every question whilst simultaneously doubting our every answer. Yes, we knew what we were doing. Yes, we understood he was very experienced: taxi driver, pilot, fisherman and mountain rescue. And yes, we promised to phone him tomorrow when we inevitably needed a lift back out.
June, Auðun had assured us many weeks ago, is a wholly inappropriate time to traverse the wild Icelandic interior. “I recommend that you think better of your traveling and make new plan for it” his email had cautioned bluntly. But with an air of misplaced confidence we had ignored him and booked a lift with a different taxi firm, who then proceeded to hire Auðun for the journey anyway! No wonder he didn’t seem pleased. Here we were, in June, two men and two weeks of food. And we wanted to walk south to the volcanos, waterfalls and mountains beyond.
Suddenly we came across a portion of road that he declared impassable and with a farewell wave we were on our own. Scarcely rested following three hours of sleep in the cheapest hostel in Reykavik, Elliott and I picked our way uphill in the blazing sunshine. Determined to prove Auðun wrong, by mid-afternoon we had climbed hundreds of metres of ascent to the plateau. Wearing a heavy pack but a smug grin I strolled across the last of the winter’s snow. It wasn’t long before great icy lakes began to displace us sideways from our trail by several kilometres at a time, the distant glimmer of marker poles across the ice our only anchor with civilisation. Predictably they were soon lost for good and we stood alone in the expansive lunar landscape as rain began to fall. In this bleak and lifeless monochrome world my bright yellow trousers couldn’t have looked more out of place.
“Are the numbers going up or down?” I yelled supportively across the winds. Elliott’s face was locked to the stuttering dance of the GPS’s arrow, his feet unconsciously mimicking its wild swings of direction. He looked quite drunk. We agreed to camp at the first lake we found that looked drinkable.
“In this bleak and lifeless monochrome world my bright yellow trousers couldn’t have looked more out of place”
Three days later, I found myself longing for the drama and apprehension of that first gruelling ascent. A crossing of Iceland is far from newsworthy and online accounts are plentiful, typically accompanied with gushing superlatives as writers enthuse over the majesty of the landscapes. I had come to conclude that the authors were deluded, for none of them mentioned quite how boring it could be.
Elliott and I had quickly settled into a comfortable routine. Breakfast was porridge, cooked one at a time in the porch of the tent. We would pack and set off, hiking across the flat, rocky plains as the landscape drifted past at a painstakingly slow pace. The horizon was kissed by two great ice caps, beautiful white mounds guarded by mountains bursting forth from the earth beneath. But these lay so, so far away and between them we sat for three days, pacing out time on an infinite, boulder coated treadmill.
Conversation topics were never in short supply because we barely spoke, instead finding our own natural cadence and slipping slowly apart until Elliott’s silhouette bobbed gently out of sight like a cork adrift on the rolling seas. The landscape was punctuated by occasional breaks for snacks or water, or perhaps to remark upon the lack of things which punctuated the landscape.
In such circumstances the most mundane of objects take on a beauty far removed from their modest status. Elliott was pained to step on the small pink flowers which grew amongst the rocks, fearing he might end the only life clinging desperately to this barren landscape. I was a particular fan of the road signs which hung weathered and bent, mocking our progress with an absurdly large distance to a place we couldn’t pronounce. In just a few weeks the winter snows would retreat and regular buses would traverse these roads, but for now we stood here alone. It was thus with some surprise when on day four we met the Swiss Cheese.
“Conversation topics were never in short supply because we barely spoke, instead finding our own natural cadence and slipping slowly apart until Elliott’s silhouette bobbed gently out of sight like a cork adrift on the rolling seas”
“Oh my gawwwwwd, this view is amazzzing,” our fellow adventurer from Switzerland drawled in perfect English. He was hiking alone from the northernmost to southernmost tip of Iceland, a far longer and harder journey than ours, and he seemed deliriously happy when recounting his past week struggling in thigh-deep muds and melting snows. Quite plainly our new friend didn’t share our views on the monotony of the landscape. He grinned widely from ear to ear, pausing often between words for effect, “You are the first, people, I’ve seen, in five dayyyys”. His solitary journey had sent him mad, and we nicknamed him the Swiss Cheese to cheer us up.
Prior to our departure, Elliott and I had both harboured doubts that we would really reach the coast before our time was up. Pleasant evenings spent alone with Google Earth had yielded what we felt was the shortest possible crossing from the northern coastal town of Akureyri to a southern finish at Skógar. In addition, Auðun’s 40km taxi ride had saved us a further day or more of tedious walking along the grassy estuary. Despite this, we were four days in and the finish line seemed as far away as ever.
Early next morning the Swiss Cheese beamed at us, “Don’t you knowww, its only ninnnne dayyyyys to Skogarrrr”. Off he sped in pursuit of endless Icelandic happiness. Feeling sceptical, we spied a large lake on the map someway off route. Desperate for some greenery to punctuate the greyscale vistas, we headed off on our detour.
“Our fellow adventurer seemed deliriously happy when recounting his past week struggling in thigh-deep muds and melting snows”
“Hello. Do you know you’re in the middle of Iceland?”
A predictable joke, but it was still enough to make us chuckle. This was our first encounter on the hike with native Icelanders and the men peered out of their monstrous jeep at a sorry pair of dust-covered British hikers. We stood back for a moment, admiring his JEEP1 number plate. The natives were off fishing for the day and shook their heads with a hearty laugh when I suggest they should try hiking instead.
Throughout that day we circumnavigated a huge lake, arriving early evening at a derelict hut which guarded the lake’s outflow. Much to our amusement, our favourite Swiss hiker was already in residence, boasting of his beautiful walk along the shoreline.
“I saw a lake today – it looked just like Greenland,” he began.
“That’s cool, when did you go to Greenland?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I’ve never been.”
As Elliott and I silently plotted our escape to solitude, a barrelling cloud of dust announced the arrival of a monstrous jeep. The number plate was strangely familiar. Our favourite Icelandic fisherman rolled down the window, “The next day’s hike is nothing but a boring, rocky road. Do you want a lift to a beautiful camping spot next to a famous falls? It is only 40km.”
We were sold. The Swiss Cheese looked at us aghast with disappointment. “You sweet water pirates!” he cried, his mixed metaphors suddenly all the more amusing. A few moments later and we were free.
“The Swiss Cheese looked at us aghast with disappointment. ‘You sweet water pirates!’ he cried”
The rain fell hard onto the tent the next morning. On closer inspection, it turned out to be thousands of insects trapped beneath the aptly named flysheet. We donned our face nets and headed out to do logistical battle with brushing our teeth beneath the masks. Over the next week my feeble little face armour would prove more than a match for Iceland’s airborne armies and by the end of our trip it had absorbed an attractive cocktail of sweat, sun cream, dead flies and toothpaste.
However, life was looking up. I’d finally solved my rubik’s cube, the weather had settled down, and our eyes widened in delight at the dramatic water-worn vistas of plunging waterfalls, rocky gorges and moss-coated cliffs we’d been promised. We rolled on down the valley and across the road to a secluded campsite hidden amongst soft mossy rocks. Elliott grinned as we pitched the tent that night “Downnnn’t you knowwww,” he drawled mockingly, “it’s only five days to Skógar.”
Elliott and I made a rather unlikely combination. A two day trek in Sri Lanka was the sum total of his prior hiking experience so I thought him rather brave to attempt our journey. As a former colleague and housemate of mine we were well acquainted and he brought to the team a keen culinary appreciation. Arriving at Heathrow prior to our departure, Elliott had proudly presented me with forty individually sealed meal bags: measured, weighed and labelled in anticipation of the journey ahead. His meticulous preparations for our fortnight’s dining were a key contributor to the success of the trip.
However, these meticulous preparations didn’t quite extend to the weight distribution of our packs. It was the end of day six and I was unpacking my bag. “You must have a lot of food in there,” I began, “I’ve got enough meals in mine for the rest of my trip!” Elliott had a look, he had exactly the same. Perfectly fair perhaps, if we ignored that I was also carrying our shared tent, stove and fuel. The realisation of our uneven loads dawned on us and I tossed a great pile of meals his way. In his defence, he gestured meekly to my lightweight sleeping bag and roll-mat, compared to his more rudimentary Sports Direct offerings. “I don’t buy all this fancy kit so I can haul your arse across Iceland” I retorted, and the matter was settled.
“Over the next week my feeble little face armour would prove more than a match for Iceland’s airborne armies and by the end of our trip it had absorbed an attractive cocktail of sweat, sun cream, dead flies and toothpaste”
To our utter astonishment we caught up with the Swiss Cheese the next afternoon. The day before he had put in a double shift to overtake us and recoup the gains we’d made with our lift. Even better, our missed day sounded just as miserable as we’d been led to believe it would be. Our fellow hiker seemed a little more melancholy as he slowly chewed his food, “In like porridge, out like porridge” he observed dryly.
Our traverse was to cover a distance of 380km, but most visitors to Iceland choose just to hike the immensely popular Laugavegnar trail. This was to form the final few days of our journey to Skógar. On our last night before we joined the tourist trail we pitched the tent beside an ethereal lake in the crater of an old volcano. Throughout the day the ground beneath us had changed, from the fairytale mosses of before to a volcanic lasagne of wind-blown ash mixed with beautiful, contorted lumps of rock. When morning came we packed our bags and battled through a succession of terrific, swirling dust devils which beat our packs and faces with the remnants of Iceland’s volcanic past. Suddenly we rounded a corner and there lay Landmannalauger, the start of the final hike southwards. For the first time, I genuinely believed we would make it.
The trailhead’s chief attraction is a popular thermal spring which I promptly introduced to my naked, filthy body. The pool slowly filled with tourists who weren’t enamoured with my trunkless bathing, less still with my dash back to the toilet block wrapped in a travel towel no larger than a pillowcase. We rewarded ourselves with a double pasta meal and constructed a formidable rock wall around our tent to keep the weather at bay. It was lucky we did. That night Iceland let rip, a procession of barrelling rains tearing at the fabric of our little home. With hindsight we had been blessed with a week of incredible fortune and it was only right that we experience a small taste of the infamous weather systems of which Icelandic travellers speak so often.
“That night Iceland let rip, a procession of barrelling rains tearing at the fabric of our little home”
The next morning this “small taste” of Icelandic weather was rapidly in danger of becoming a “full-sized” taste. Sure, we could smell the volcanic craters, but seeing them was another matter. The day’s hiking was a stiff, seven hour traverse of Hrafntinnusker, where reduced visibility, extensive snow cover and rain that veered through every conceivable angle sought to beat us off course. Between breaks in the clouds we caught glimpses of the foreign landscape through which we rode, an incongruous mix of hot and cold where sweeping rivers of snow plunged through cracks in the earth, only to beaten back by the smoking fires of a dormant beast far beneath.
Some nifty GPS work and a desire to escape this torment saw us through and we rolled into Álftavastn late that evening. The hiking season had only just begun and the hut was barely open, inhabited that night by a sole Canadian hiker heading north to the coastline. Elliott and I decided to reward our good progress with a night off from camping and when the hut wardens joined us for dinner they brought us a gift of fresh salad and avocado to share. After a fortnight’s subsistence on couscous, porridge and nuts these beautiful, luscious riches seemed to come from a world we had long left behind. Our return gesture of half a bag of instant custard powder was politely declined.
Energy and enthusiasm restored, the next two days took us to Þórsmörk across a succession of small river crossings. The crossings themselves were quick, bracing and accompanied with just a small amount of swearing. More amusing was the inevitable people-watching as crowds gathered around these bottlenecks to debate tactics, question clothing choices and goad each other into being the first to enter. Our final day was a stupendous crossing of the infamous 2010 Icelandic eruption of which many European holidaymakers were well aware. I snapped off a piece of virgin rock from the ground beneath me as a souvenir and looked at Elliott, “I’ve got t-shirts older than that” he joked.
I thought back to the evening of day six when Elliott scrambled forty metres down into a gorge in desperate search of water, or to the morning of day ten where we rebooted the GPS and discovered for the first time a detailed map of Iceland hidden on the memory card. I remembered the way Elliott had kept his back pain at bay for two weeks with an absurd inflatable cushion wedged precariously between his rucksack and right hip. From day one I’d been forming and re-forming contingency plans, yet we had exceeded all of our expectations, crossing an entire country whilst navigating mostly on a single sheet tourist road map.
Our final hike downhill to the coast at Skógar delivered more breath-taking waterfalls and scenery than the entire two weeks of hiking combined. It was ridiculous that such a concentration of wonder would lay hidden here when we had so longed for this in the mountaineering purgatory of the first week’s hiking. But this was Iceland, beautiful yet ridiculous, a landscape so full of natural contrasts that if described in a work of fiction your novel would be classed as sci-fi. I sat with Elliott beneath the final falls of Skógarfoss, couscous in one hand, completed Rubik’s cube in the other. For these two sweet water pirates, it had been a wonderful journey.
“I thought back to the morning of day ten where we rebooted the GPS and discovered for the first time a detailed map of Iceland hidden on the memory card”