Not surprisingly, astronauts used to train in Iceland as it’s about as close you can get to emulating the moon. Also known as the desert interior, the barren highlands is brimming with moonlike craters, jagged lava fields and hotpots; glacial springs and lakes; concealed mossy covered valleys and spectacular unnamed waterfalls. My absolute favourite region: it feels as unmapped as the ocean floor.
Mountains bear a watercolour palette of soft pastel hues. Uninhabited as much as inhospitable, the interior wilderness is only accessible in the summer. It doesn’t have services and assistance nearby, and fuel stations are few and far between. Time to get our game face on, this overlanding business just got real.
Taking on multiple microclimates – the highlands, which are mostly 600-800-metres above sea level – call for caution at all times. There’s a local saying, “If you don’t like what’s happening with the weather, wait 10 minutes”. Summertime is no stranger to winter-like weather conditions. It can snow during any day of the year in the highlands.
This is the one place our decision to invest in an expedition truck with 4×4 drive-up-a-wall capability was never better appreciated. Come the onset of winter sometime after official summertime was over, and road closures occurred more and more, White Rhino flawlessly navigated us to places 2WD vehicles simply wouldn’t have a prayer in reaching.
Filled with unbridged, rushing glacial rivers and streams – hiding strong currents and depths – can and regularly flood without a moment’s notice. Although the temperature may have dropped by only a few degrees, in the highlands that can prove lethal when it rains; hypothermia can set in between zero to four degrees Celsius.
For me, there was no better place to experience the pristine and the powerful. Although Iceland is a work of patience because weather and light constantly change; it’s what categorically makes the highlands a photographer’s utopia.
A series of switchbacks fairly high up a volcano unofficially called Apple Crater soon led us into a soft pillowy patch, where the terrain became steeper but friendlier in the upper third. Carefully, and with the backside getting a full cardio workout, we crested the crater and jumped out the rig to stand on the ledge, the drop-off right at my feet.
In a wicked wind-chill, Jason’s ears glowed a cold red in the brisk air. So crazed was I with the cold that I would have agreed to have my fingernails pulled and fed to me had someone proffered me their body warmth. Worth every frozen finger and toe – even my gums were stone cold – the view was about as otherworldly as it gets.
Thorsmork to Landmannalaugur
Laugavegur trail travels through fantastically diverse landscapes featuring high mountains, colourful rhyolite, geothermal areas with erupting geysers, ice caves, sprawling deserts, deep canyons, and, at the very end, verdant birch forests. Lined by active volcanoes and having to negotiate some deeper-than-recommended river crossings, Thorsmork – the valley of Thor – is a beautiful woodland nature reserve surrounded by a symphony of mountains, glaciers and glacial rivers.
It’s where we clocked our first Arctic fox roaming in the wild. (Almost running over one previously that darted out in front of our headlights doesn’t count.) Fed almost daily by the manager of the remote guesthouse, actually, it’s pretty tame to this one lady laden with chunks of reindeer sausage and salami leftovers from breakfast every morning.
And of course, it would have been remiss not to visit the hot spring and steaming river site at Landmannalaugur, near volcano Hekla, among other wonders. Hot steam constantly poured from these vividly coloured mountains. It was like getting a window back on the landscapes the woolly mammoths roamed.
The Icelandic horse may be small in physique, but it’s robust, sweet-natured and sure-footed. It is five-gaited (the norm is four), and the tolt is its speciality, a natural four-beat gait apparently making the ride noticeably smooth but powerful. It’s one of the oldest and purest breeds in the world, and is famous for its stamina and endurance. Around 900 AD, they came as sturdy companions with the Viking settlers.
Ahem, they also feature on the dinner table among many Icelanders. See one with blue eyes and you’ll notice something strikingly beautiful about them, peering out of their white blonde manes.
You don’t squander sunlit days in Iceland; the weather here is as fierce as it is fickle. A cornflower blue sky makes you feel alive; a being made of sunlight not shadow. The clear sky we had there one day was scattered with fulmars, and all around us, the golden gorse of early winter on the endless stretch of ocean was beautiful, gleaming.
The imposing rock exuded an energy that seemed to explode out of it. A wild winter landscape in every direction, centred by a towering black stack above the raging sea, the sound of the wind hurtling round me. Greedily, I grabbed every moment I could on the rock, a wicked response to an obscene reckoning that was this rock.
Ten weeks lapsed, which eventually saw our penultimate day. Dawn broke across the landscape, setting the snowline on vibrant silver fire. We were 170 miles from our ferry. There was a frightful stillness about the island so that the whole place seemed to be in the iron grip of its inestimable will. The skies also on fire were ablaze in neon pink and roaring lavender. The environment took on a glow from a light I’d never seen before.
While the endless silence ensued, a series of violent and rather disturbing weather alerts chased one another across our phones. Urgent communications pinged and urgently beckoned us to respond to a sailing update, our crossing had been brought forward by 24 hours.
A 10-year bombogenesis cyclone was due to imminently hit Iceland in the North as we were to set sail out of the East. That is, if we could safely and physically reach port in time. Consequently, the mountain pass to get us there was due to close, the only route leading us to our vessel.
There really is nothing like a cyclonic weather fest gone freak to round off one’s Icelandic adventures! Everything else wiped out in our glorious surroundings and absolute concentration of the icy ride out of there. I set out catastrophising in a state of uncertainty but reached our final destination restored, exhilarated.
Exhausted after encountering such an extreme environment for as long as we did, I pretty sure Jason felt like a spent salmon: his work was done. Vigilant for three days straight to get us back on the Danish mainland, our captain and his crew, meanwhile, stayed 30 miles ahead of the storm with issue or incident and for that, I’m hugely grateful.
So long, Iceland
Iceland was tangible proof that human-powered exploration was still possible in the generation of the God particle. There will always be hidden pieces of our planet that have defied all attempts to tame them, and many of them are wondrous. Iceland is one of those places. Infinitely precious yet infinitely vulnerable.
For us, there’s more Iceland in our futures, whether that’s our second time or sixtieth, this place just won’t get old. If nothing else, Iceland will sharpen the sense that there is no time to sit around and ponder how life should go. It’s a place that will leave you ready to stop trying to matter. It will make you ready to simply live.