Unfamiliar sights, unfamiliar surroundingsWednesday, November 15th, 2017
For now, any thoughts that I may have about exploring other countries have been put on hold. Instead, I am rekindling my enthusiasm for British hill country wandering by catching up with unread issues of TGO magazine. My overseas attentions have caused a few of these to pile up.
The results are plain so far with a few walks around Cheshire, Derbyshire, Shropshire and Yorkshire having happened. Completion of the Sandstone Trail was among these as was revisiting Calderdale and the Peak District. This is a habit that I should like to continue.
None of this means that I am about to cease heading overseas and one of those excursions is the subject of this piece. It became a possibility following a life change at the start of 2015 and began a series of Scandinavian explorations that have continued since then.
A sad life event in January 2015 was to be a life changer for me and outstanding work resulting from this still continues as I write these words. The new circumstances bring additional responsibilities that are set to persist for a few years yet. It also opened up other avenues for I now could consider overseas hiking trips and they were not realisable before then.
Strangely, the event in question also elicited a sense of release now that the sense of added burden over two years had ceased. It was this that allow my thoughts to turn to overseas ventures during February 2015. The possibility that came to mind was an extensive one: the Alps. After some months, my research resulted in an article elsewhere on this website.
The aforementioned compilation took quite a while and brought home to me how I had forgotten how unnoticed the build up of my knowledge of British hill country had been. It was the effort expended in doing this all at once for other parts that drew it to my attention. The same could be said for my subsequent collations of car-free explorations of American wilderness as well as the delights of the wilder parts of New York state.
Even before the prospect of self-powered explorations of other countries was realisable I still compiled some articles on here that were intended to be useful for planning visits to Scandinavia. It was a business trip to Sweden that got these going and the resulting collection also features Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Magazine inserts and other inspirations caused me to build up what is there.
All of these give me something from which to draw inspiration for various outdoor escapades. For the first of the lot, Switzerland was in contention until I saw predicted temperatures of 30° C for places like Geneva so that thought was postponed until September. Somehow, Iceland then came to mind and fitted in with a habit of going north for a summer break that has sent me to Scotland so many times.
Heading for Alien Shores
Not being someone that is guided by fashions of the day, my eventual choice of destination is an interesting one. After all, Iceland is one of those fashionable if expensive countries to visit at the moment. The feel of the place also is so very different from that with which I am familiar in Britain and Ireland. First, volcanism is ever present and ensures bare countryside in some parts. Then, there is the latitude so you find icefields and glaciers too. The mix is as exotic as it is alien and that is before the winter appearances of the aurora borealis even comes to mind. Lastly, you also get long hours of daylight during the summer and these kept me out of doors well into the evening while I was there.
One thing is more familiar though: the vagaries of maritime weather. This is where I came up better than I might have expected; going north does not guarantee fine weather all that often as my Scottish incursions have taught me over the years. A tentative drizzle around Landmannalaugar was as wet as it got during my stay and sunshine abounded much of the rest of the time of my stay.
Things looked cloudy enough when I looked down from my flight as it reached the end of its journey from Manchester to Keflavik. Those initial glimpses of Iceland revealed just how rugged, barren and empty the landscape of its south-western corner actually is. Seeing signs of human habitation and endeavour in this very different setting was a contrast that will not leave me easily. Trees were going to be a rarer sight here than the comparatively more lush corners of Britain and Ireland.
Getting Bearings and Other Necessities
It had been a while since I arrived somewhere where I had such scant knowledge of its layout so one of my first tasks was to find my way around Reykjavik after arriving from Keflavik by coach. This was mixed with other needs like getting something to eat, buying maps and checking into my hotel. All took place as the sun played hide and seek among the clouds over my head. The weather had brightened since my morning arrival in the country.
Somehow, I had come to Iceland without a full set of maps. While I had seen maps stocked in the U.K., the scale typically was 1:100000 and I wanted to see if I could do better. In the event, what I found in various shops (including tourist information centres) was the same and even applied to IÐNU’s own shop too. There were some exceptions such as the 1:75000 IÐNU Sérkort map of Suðvesterland but I was to find that a GPS receiver would have been more useful for hill walking in Iceland than elsewhere and that thought would have applied even with default Garmin maps.
While my quest for maps was not as successful as I might have liked, my traipse around Reykjavik itself unearthed far more treasures. Along the city’s coastline, I found an art installation called the Sun Voyager, Harpa concert hall and Höfði House (where there was a major summit between then Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980’s that formed part of a process paving the way for the end of the Cold War).
Across the sea, there was Esja and the hills that lay about it acting as a lure that never caught their quarry. Looking at the aforementioned 1:75000 IÐNU Sérkort map of Suðvesterland reveals a variety of paths and tracks criss-crossing the area so that makes it a good place to visit on another visit. Sometimes, you collect possibilities as well as seeing sights and gathering experiences.
Traipsing hither and thither took me to such varying sights as Reykajavikurtjörn, Hallgrímskirkja and Hljómskálagarður. All inspired photos as and when the sun allowed. Even with spells of sunshine, I still got to other needs like checking in at my hotel to offload my luggage and enjoying an evening meal in between map hunting. My arrival there might have been early but my room was ready so I could be accommodated at that stage. After a little organisation, I was on my way again and my base was to see little of me over the course of my stay aside from sleeping and breakfast.
A First Incursion into Icelandic Countryside
What suffered from staying out of doors so much and until 23:00 was planning and the late bedtime caused a little oversleeping too. Neither of these were helped by dopey confusion regarding the time caused by the Fitbit on my wrist not being set up to synchronise time zone with my phone. It was a setting that I had yet to find before it could be fixed.
While the morning disarray ultimately meant that I had to choose between Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar for the hill walking outing of my trip, the alternative choice of a tour that took in sights like Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss was more than enough compensation. It helped too that this happened on the sunniest day of my stay in Iceland.
The outing that I was to enjoy began from Reykjavik’s BSÍ coach station, the one where I arrived the day before. Though it was part of Iceland on your Own (IOYO) bus network, the journey was accompanied by a recorded commentary. Even so, we were to have lengthy stops too and the first of these was at Þingvellir where those who dared could cross the rift between the European and North American tectonic plates to meet again with the coach on the other side. Though even this sounded a tad risky, I still fancied a spot of further exploration so I took up the option and was rewarded with ample views. This was not a solitary stroll though for this is something of a honeypot. Even so, there remained quieter corners where you could photograph pleasing parts of the landscape without intrusion.
In the end, I found myself awaiting the coach and not the other way around and that is the better way to have things. A day spent around Þingvellir would not have been so bad but there were other sights that I would not have seen. Our next calling point was Haukadalur where there were geysers to be seen. On the way there, we travelled along an unmetalled stretch of road that was the first of my trip to Iceland. There would be more to come the next day.
The one that gave its name to all these gushers is less active these days so everyone awaits the action of Strokkur, much newer than the celebrated Geysir that only gets activated by earthquakes nowadays. Apparently, the underground tubes conveying the superheated water under pressure get clogged over time. The water temperatures are such that getting too close earns more than a scalding so it is best to keep a safe distance and it is surreal to see streams of steaming water running along the ground.
Another result of the spectacle apart for a slight sulphurous stench is that life cannot get a foothold so bare ground is what you get. Seeking aspects that looked more green, I continued up the slopes of Laugarfjall and that provided the required visual relief. There were wider views of the surroundings too as I pottered about before descending again. We only had so much time and I got to feeling that I had my fill anyway.
Gullfoss was our next port of call and was where the coach turned to retrace its journey back to Reykjavik. It is here where there were connections with coaches going north to Akureyri, an all day excursion through the Icelandic highlands that could be done faster with an internal flight. Going slower along the ground might reveal more though.
It may not be Iceland’s biggest but the sight of Gullfoss was to amaze me and it is little that it draws so many. Such is the amount of water cascading down precipices that it wets both visitors and their cameras. My own camera should have been wiped more often than I did but the photos remain memorable even if some post-production was needed on some of them. Dettifoss in the north of the island is supposed to be even more impressive than this and it is difficult to see that could be.
When the coach began its return journey, there was a different ambience to that on the outbound journey. It was more chilled and it was no waste to pass previously experienced sights again. Spending some more time around Þingvellir granted differing sights because the sun had moved during the course of the day. That made photos of Þingvallavatn, a very large lake, all the more successful and it was a quieter time to visit too.
After a pleasing outing, there was a chance for more strolling around Reykjavik in the evening sunshine. It was a good way to finish a day of seeing a variety of landscapes that many see as part of a Golden Circle tour. My exposure to Icelandic countryside had been boosted but a walk around nearby Esja and its neighbours would have compensated if I missed the opportunity that gave me so much. A further hill country incursion remained outstanding and I was not about to muddle that.
A First Immersion in the Icelandic Highlands
It was difficult to pick between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk but I somehow plumped for the former and there was an early morning start because the outbound coach that I needed left at 08:00. The day ahead was going to be duller than the one preceding it but my course was set, probably by a guidebook that I consulted.
The journey ahead was a long one as it stopped at Selfoss and Hella before leaving metalled roads for the gravelled F-numbered roads for which it would need both its four wheel drive and ground clearance, especially at river crossings. It was this section stage of the journey that both took most of the time and took us through the most isolated countryside with next to no human habitation to be found. There were some good reasons for this because we were passing near Hekla, one of the island’s volcanoes. The cloudy skies made the empty landscape about us appear even more desolate.
When it came, Landmannalaugar’s wildness was striking. The presence of a mountain hut, ablution facilities and a campsite is about all there is to the place. It really felt like a seasonal settlement solely there to serve outdoors lovers and the sense of isolation was unmistakeable. In some ways, the place reminded me of photos of Everest Base Camp in the Himalaya even if they are very different locations in many ways.
There were patches of grass and a natural geothermal pool but this was no domesticated holiday camp and the weather added its own share of rawness under overcast skies. Having limited time, I started on my walk with one of the 1:100000 scaled maps that I had with me. A 1:25000 scaled one might have been available from the mountain hut but I had some experimenting to do.
My walk took me back along the only road into Landmannalaugar towards Nåmshraun but I found a track leading uphill onto my first summit of the day before that point. That top was both unnamed and unpeopled while I was there but it got me up to 710 metres above sea level so views of my the surrounding hill country opened out before me. What was missing was sunshine so I must admit to feeling somewhat deprived, even after the delights of preceding days. Other photos had spoiled me and raised expectations that little bit too high.
After some height loss, the walk to the top of Suðurnámur began in earnest. My surroundings grew ever wilder as I continued and finding progress on such the small scale map that I had was difficult. A chat with a fellow walker who had the larger scale map show the wisdom in having that item but I still had to trust the path as far as a reassuring signpost. Hikes often are better off not being completed in short spaces of time and this was one of those. It did not help that the time for my planned return to Reykjavik loomed larger in my mind and that never speeds up the passage of time.
It was around Vondugiljaaurur that I decided on a later departure even if the only one in my head was at 20:30 and meant an after midnight arrival in Reykjavik when I was flying home from the city later that morning. The first thing not to be rushed was the descent to the valley floor because of its steepness and the seemingly fragile surface on which I was threading. Then, the sun broke through the cloud cover to light up what surrounded me on the valley floor and there was no way that I could rush away from that. Lastly, there was no sign of the human habitations from which I had started walking. They were not that far way but it felt as if I was in another world. It is amazing what a craggy upland pavement can do to obscure such things.
Even so, the distances were not as large as I had grown to accept. Arriving at Landmannalaugar’s facilities just ten minutes earlier may have kept me running to my planned timetable but I was to seeing my coach leaving as I neared the end of my hike. With more time available, another walk may have been in order but one felt enough for me that day. As things stood, I now had time to survey and photograph sights like Norðurnámur and the sun emerged again to do its magic as I pottered about. There were spells of dampness too and the chill in the air became apparent after I stopped being so active.
When I found that another company offered an earlier return journey, I was more than tempted to use that. After all, there is no cafe in Landmannalaugar where one might linger and depending on a later bus with a flight next day did not seem prudent. Leaving at 18:00, it was good to be on the way back to civilisation again. My first taste of Iceland’s wild country certainly felt more of adventure than I expected and there is much here that could draw me back again.
A first visit never gets you under the skin of a place and that is what I found in Iceland nearly as much as Austria and Norway. My time there was short too so I naturally needed to pick and choose between different options that were in my head. Other destinations have drawn me to them since then so a return to Iceland remains outstanding.
Seeing Landmannalaugar with more sunshine remains one possibility and it helps that I have a better for how wild it feels. My first encounter needed the longer day that I spent there and that lesson will not be overlooked if there is a repeat visit. Other spots like Esja near Reyjavik or Þórsmörk deserve exploration too and Akureyri in the north of the island looks promising. A cross country coach trip is another idea so a longer stay might do no harm on any future visit. Who knows what delights such a thing could bring? For now, I have photos from the last trip as a reminder of the rewards of such a venture.
Return journey between Manchester and Keflavik with EasyJet. Scheduled coach journeys between Keflavik and Reykjavik. Coach tour with Reykjavik Excursions that included visits to Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss. Coach travel from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar with Reykjavik Excursions and return journey with Trex.