My word, how about that for a spooky piece of synchronicity!? I woke up this morning thinking ‘…and what shall I do with my morning off before sorting out shopping and kit for our impending Jura trip?’ I pondered a little before concluding that ‘it’s probably about time I wrote something about my trip to Iceland with the boys a few years ago’. I uploaded my pictures of our magnificent five-day walk from Skógar to Landmanalauger and then had a look at the BBC News website. Ouch. What a coincidence. The first two days of our walk had skirted the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, beneath which a volcano that had lain dormant for 200 years spectacularly erupted yesterday, sending torrents of melted glacier water pouring down river valleys and a huge plume of steam and volcanic ash into the atmosphere. The various UK news websites seemed more concerned with the disruption caused to UK airports than the impact the eruption is having in Iceland itself. Seems that the volume of ash in the atmosphere will seriously hamper visibility for flights to and from UK airports. I remember reading somewhere that for months after the 1883 eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa – west of Java in Indonesian – the volume of dust in the atmosphere created remarkable sunsets around the globe. Perhaps it’s worth keeping an eye on the evening skies in the coming days.
Anyway, August 2006 it was when I set off with Steve, Dan, Paul, Jons and Andy for our much-anticipated trip to the Land of Fire and Ice. Only the week before, I had returned from six weeks of walking the high-level route in the Pyrenees – the HRP (Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne), but I was already itching to get walking again. The other boys are all teachers and they were all looking forward to being somewhere as far away from the classroom as possible and, really, this was the place.
Even from the air Iceland looks more than a little extra-terrestrial, an impression that was reinforced on the bus journey from Reykjavik to Skógar, where we would be camping for the night. I think this impression is chiefly promoted by the combination of highly weather-eroded black volcanic rock and its upholstery of almost hallucinatory iridiscent green mosses, lichens and other vegetation.
Anyway, after a few hours on the bus we arrived at our destination – and what a campsite! We pitched our tents near a small scattering of others a few hundred yards from the mighty, thundering curtain of glacial melt water that is the Skógafoss waterfall. This was all very exciting and after quaffing some of the local firewater, I was making all sorts of outlandish promises to run up the mountain opposite our campsite before breakfast.
Dawn brought me a sore head and I wasn’t feeling great as we set of up the path that winds its way up to the pass between Eyjafjallajökull to the west and the hugely massive Mýrdalsjökull to the east. Despite my pounding head and queasy stomach, the magnificent landscape had my full attention. We climbed up alongside Skógafoss and then another fantastic waterfall and then another and another and another and another. And so it continued.
When we had set off the morning was sunny with blue skies and white fluffy clouds. As we gained altitude a fine mist descended to meet us. by the time we had arrived at the unmanned refuge below Fimmvörđuháls it was a real pea-souper.
We took a break while deciding what to do next. It was only the middle of the day and we had plenty of hours of light ahead of us. On the other hand, visibility was very poor and there was a stretch of glacier to cross on our way over the pass. In the end we stayed at the refuge and pottered about the environs. We were joined at the refuge by a rather forlorn looking middle-aged German chap and his bright-eyed ten year-old son. They were a little reticent at first, but they soon relaxed into our company. The man seemed to have some sort of nasty burn injury or similar affecting one hand. He also had the rather worn, lined and ruddy face of a drinker. He was friendly enough in his quiet way and he and his boy seemed fiercely protective of each other. We marvelled that the young lad was undertaking this walk, which was no Sunday stroll, and the father explained that his boy was already a seasoned adventurer, having accompanied him on a trip to Baffin Island the previous year.
The following morning was bright and clear as we left the refuge and crossed the pass, shimmying across a stretch of ice before beginning the long descent to Þórsmörk. The views over to the Eyjafjallajökull were impressive, but nothing could prepare us for what was to come.
Descending a path worn into the volcanic earth we arrived on the magnificent high plateau of Morinsheidi, which gave magnificent views onto both Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull and the Krossa valley by Þórsmörk.
When we eventually made it down to Þórsmörk, we were presented with the issue of how to get across the Krossa river. There appeared to be a bridge some way down the valley, but the had thought we would be able to ford the river with our boots off and trousers rolled up. No chance of that; the water was to deep and fast moving. As we stood pondering our situation at the water’s edge, a coach on humungous tyres came chugging along dropped into the river, wobbled about a bit and then lurched out on the far side. Wow. On cue, a huge four-wheel on even huger tyres pulled up and offered us a lift across. I’m not a fan of people using 4WD’s to do the shopping and school run, but in this context you could certainly see their utility.
Once across, we continued on our way, soon passing the rather homely and inviting-looking Skagfjordsskali refuge, where dozens of delightfully-formed Scandawegian chicks were hanging out their laundry, the air full of their tinkling laughter. We looked at each other for guidance and with some resignation, continued on our way.
A short while later we arrived at the Markafljot river valley, where we illicitly camped for the night. Wild camping is not allowed on the Skógar to Landmanalauger path, but we were just a short distance from the refuge and we were very careful to leave no trace of our stay. Next morning it was boots off and cross the river valley, which made for a bracing start to the day. Our footbath was followed by a climb up and along the edge of the Markafljot valley as the landscape became evermore unearthly.
Near Sandar, some of the company engaged in a little light cairn-building before we dropped down towards the river again with magnificent views onto Entujökull – a glacial tongue of the Mýrdalsjökull.
We crossed the river on a suspension bridge where it flowed through a steep-sided gorge. Continuing on our way the landscape took a turn for the bleak as low rain clouds rolled in to complete a dismal picture. We soon arrived at the Botnar refuge and campsite and decide to pay the exorbitant fee for a pitch rather than continue on into the forbidding Martian landscape in the rain. The afternoon was taken up with wandering around the nearby river valley before hunkering down damply in our tents for the night.
The morning was overcast, but importantly for our spirits it was dry. The German chap and his boy had stayed at the refuge as well and we set off together after striking camp. After a short distance our horizon was framed by the striking black and iridiscent green form of Hattafell rising up from the Martian plain. Steve knows a good canvas when he sees one and an idea quickly coalesced in his fertile imagination. We were marched out to a level area and Steve had us stand at walking pole length from each other, each holding onto the pole of the person next to them. We then had to shuffle around in a circle for several revolutions et voila!
Our German companions had watched the creation of our piece of environmental art with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement, but they gamely continued along the way with us, pretending that we weren’t really completely bonkers. Much of the rest of the day’s walk passed through scenery which showed no signs of becoming any more like the pastoral landscapes of the Home Counties than what we had already seen. The route also featured a number of river crossings, with and without the benefit of bridges.
As the dafternoon drew on, so the rain came in again and as we passed the refuge on the shore of the Alftavatn lake, we eschewed the luxuries therein and committed ourselves to the Spartan life under canvas once again. A short distance beyond the Alftavatn refuge we perpetrated our second naughty wild camp of the week at a fine spot near a river valley. The afternoon was passed playing a variation on the theme of ‘golf’ dreamt up by Dan. It involves spacing walking poles at intervals around the terrain and hurling rocks at them, the object being to hit the’m in as few throws as possible. Sounds rubbish I know, but really it’s excellent. Believe me. When we were bored of ‘golf’ we went for a wander along the splendid river valley and on our return Jons cooked up a marvellous cous-cous and chorizo fandango on the trangia. Never to be forgotten.
The next and final day of our walk dawned wet, wild and windy. Soon after setting off we had something of a climb to tackle and once on the higher ground we were taking something of a battering from the wind and rain. Before long we were all a bit damp, except Andy who was absolutely soggy on account of his very knackered, ahem, waterproofs. It was all very exciting, but I think we would all have taken the sunshine and gentle breeze option had it been available.
The landscape between Alftavatn and Landmannalauger is no less remarkable than that preceding it and there are numerous hissing, frothing, steaming, bubbling, sulphurous fumaroles for added entertainment along the way.
We couldn’t really linger to enjoy these thermo- geological marvels, so we battered on and eventually arrived at the Hrafntinnusker refuge. We dripped our damp way into the refuge’s kitchen/dining area and proceeded to soggily munch the sad remains of our food to the mild distatste aof a group of suave young Parisians who didn’t look as if they’d walked anywhere at all very recently.
We headed off back out into the maelstrom and were soon beginning the long descent to Landmannalauger and journey’s end. We stooped to pick up large glassy black lumps of obsidian that were scattered about the place to take home as souvenirs. Not far from the refuge we passed a small memorila to a young Israeli man who had got caught out in a blizzard a year or two before and died such a short distance from safety. This put our dampness in perspective. After a while the weather began to lift and as we were on the final downhill stretch, a rainbow arched over the curious rock formations above Landmannalauger.
On arrival we pitched our tents near the refuge/visitor centre complex and sat around feeling damp and knackered. The last thing I felt like doing was removing my wet clothes to then get into one of Landmannalauger’s famous thermal springs. I really had had enough wet for one day and a spring, hot or not, is still wet. All credit to Andy then, the wettest of us all, who marched off to the springs with a purposeful stride. We all caved in and followed him and this really was the best thing to do. The hot springs were wet in an entirely different way and soooooooo soothing. The aches and pains were soon washed away.
Obviously, a gathering of so much prime British manhood in one small hot spring made for something of an eye-catching spectacle. If only those delightful Scandawegian chicks could see us now!