11 August 2006

taking the high road

Last weekend was the Icelandic equivalent of Labor Day (a month earlier... should give you an idea of what the weather is like here), Verslunarmannahelgi, so everyone goes mad and leaves town for various country destinations.

I joined a trip of friends going to the interior of Iceland, a vast desert network of "roads" that are only driveable during a few short periods every year, and only if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, preferrably jacked up for ease in crossing rivers. My chariot of choice was a brown diesel Econoline van from the 80's (very stylish), sporting 38-inch tires and a plethora of equipment for all emergencies- a winch on the front, a telephone (cell towers do not exist where we were), fire extinguisher and first-aid kit, a full set of tools, extra gas tanks,and a refrigerator. Truly a pimped ride.

One of the main access points of the highland road network is just past Þjórsárdalur. The edge of civilisation is the "highland service center" of Hrauneyjar, your last chance for fuel and incredibly expensive ramen (ringing in at $1.50 for the kind that runs six packs for a buck in the States). From there, the road heads northeast into the highlands.

The landscape in this terrain is so incredibly different from anything I've seen before, and so huge, that the photos I took came out woefully inadequate. This area is the largest desert in Europe, but unlike most deserts, it does not lack for water. Unbroken vistas of black dunes would suddenly reveal a massive, raging river, edged by a fringe of psychedelic yellow-green moss, and almost always, a piece of one of the several glaciers in the area was always visible. Sometimes the view would be the massive glacier tongues crawling from between peaks, other times only the crest would show behind the mountains.

We had started on the relatively "busy" Sprengisandur ("exploding sands") road that goes all the way to Rte 1 in the north, but turned off to smaller and smaller roads, until we were on a track that was only a road because everyone had more or less agreed to drive in the same place. The track was marked with the usual yellow posts, but at times it was hard to find the next one, and in many places the difference between the "road" and the not-road was indistinguishable. We were driving on lava either way, and the texture did not make for a comfortable ride. Still, we managed to enjoy some excellent hors d'oeuvres prepared by backseat caterer K, ranging from proscuitto-wrapped melon to pepper cheese and grapes on crackers. Travelling in style!

My driving companions were all very well informed, so I learned about the forces forming each new type of mountain, and whether it had been created under a glacier or not, from fast-moving lava or not. They also described all the potential hazards that could befall adventurers here, and why, for example, one must drive quickly over the outwash sands below a glacier. Important stuff to know.

There are a few places that break up the plant-free landscape, like the charming green campsite below the Queen of icelandic mountains, Herðubreið. We stayed a night there, a strangely populated area for somewhere so remote. The site had toilets, running water, and families that had come with the portable version of all the comforts of home (more on Icelandic camping philosophy sometime later...).

We emerged to civilisation in the north to refill briefly about halfway through the trip, frightening a few Mývatn area tourists when the diesel beast pulled up next to their tourbus. The weather report was rumored better in the south, so we headed back into the interior, following a lovely farming river valley to one of the best waterfalls I have seen yet, and then into Sprengisander (someone speculated the name comes from all the tires that must have exploded when vehicular crossings were first attempted), and finally back out to paved roads, shops, and greenery.

We spent our last evening in the campsite at Þjórsárdalur, tucked among the trees and listening to some faraway outdoor concert. The cobalt-navy sky was perfectly clear and at the darkest time we even saw a strip of northern lights hovering over our fire.

Not wanting to go straight back to the busybusy city, we took the long way home, up past the Gullfoss tourist mecca to the powerline access road that stretches below Langjökull. This is the first glacier I ever saw (MFG!) in my life, so it was a thrill to see the view behind the craggy mountains.

Our route returned to pavement at Þingvellir, where, after a hotdog pause, the two vehicles parted ways and we all returned to town, arriving just in time to catch the end of opening hours at Laugardalslaug. Nothing feels so good as hot, abundant Icelandic water after four showerless days!

Ship sighting: I saw the Clipper Adventurer arrive yesterday, back for at least the second time this summer. This is a hard-core "adventure" ship with itineraries in Antarctica and the Falklands scheduled for next winter. You can join if you've got a spare 10K.


SB said...

It sounds like you've found some amazing travel partners!
Again you've seen more than I ever did living there for 20 years ;D
Wow, it sounds like you've lucked out!

tsduff said...

I know that thrill you have described of seeing a glacier for the first time. I'll never forget it myself. Awesome trip - awesome travelog...

ECS said...

hi Sirrý! I've been told that same thing by several other Icelanders. You're a citizen of an amazing country, and I'm doing the best I can to get around and see stuff. I'll keep reporting so you can feel like you went too :-)

Terry- I saw Langjökull for the first time almost two years ago, and I was so ecstatic I took about 20 rather blurry pictures of it. Can't see much from Gullfoss, and taking photos in the car is rather unsuccessful. Still, I will always have a fondness for it, even though some of the eastern glaciers are much more spectacular.