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Behind the volcano

This guest post comes from Elisa, an American expat living in Reykjavík, who writes the beautiful blog Reykjavík Harbor Watch. I’ve long been a fan of her writing, and am so pleased she agreed to contribute to the IWR.

Stale tire air, bugs in your hair, it’s summertime in the Icelandic highlands. One of the things that keeps me here is the magic of a weekend tour in the interior of the country, a delight that’s a major reason you see so many ridiculously souped-up Jeeps here. On Laugavegur, they’re a minor inconvenience and look totally out of place, but take them into the highlands and it all makes sense.

On Saturday, S & I joined a fellow Land Cruiser pair, J & D (plus J’s 70 year old trooper of a ma) on an exploration of one of the great routes of the Icelandic interior. We decided to approach via Hella, and with a short stop to deflate the tires for maximum grip & lowered vibration, we hit the first part of F210, Syðra Fjallabak. The first bit of this track is rather upleasant, winding straight through a lava field with none of the comforts of a normal road. It’s bumpy, slow going with the only reward being the knowledge you’re going into the wilds, and an occasionally nice view of Hekla.

Just south of the mountain Laufafell it starts to get more interesting, with a few waterfalls and charming pools along the ridge to the right, one of which we stopped at for lunch. Places like this are everywhere here but even after 5 years my thrill at finding them hasn’t worn off. The rivers are always sparkling, the waterfalls enchantingly mossy, the pools beneath glow turquoise with enticing mystery (although the icy temperature makes them instantly less enticing!). Sit down, take a sip, ponder the view.

Icelandic lunching

The next part of the trip is one of the best bits, when the road dives directly into the water and one splashes merrily along for several hundred meters in a shallow pebbled stream. Next, a river crossing, but this year the rivers have been extremely low in comparison to last year, so there was none of the grave analysis and extreme low gear normally used.

Driving in the highlands

After that we climbed the ridge which offers the panoramic views of the backsides of many of the highland’s excitements- to the north, the mountains that ring Landmannalaugar, to the south a glimpse of the glaciers- Mýrdallsjökull and the now famous Eyafjallajökull. We’d heard that the latter was still doing something but weren’t prepared for the cape of steam that ringed the massive crater tipped directly towards us. Now I understand why it’s not been declared finished.

We stopped soon after for camping at Alftavatn, where a luxurious, newly constructed hut houses hikers from all over the world on their way to Þórsmörk from Landmannalaugar. We pulled up in comparably comfortable style with our fresh food, our huge tents, our inflatable mattresses (J’s mom needed to be comfy and well blanketed!) and enjoyed the evening there even as the sun clouded over in the wee hours. Actually, that makes things a bit nicer since otherwise summer camping gets extremely hot in the very early hours.

Next morning we continued on, branching away from F210 to follow closer to the glacier and stop at another one of my favorite spots, a small meadow at the intersection of two absolutely charming waterfalls, beneath a mountain so green and lush it appeared to be upholstered in velour. There we grilled fish and I splashed through the iced river to explore the adjacent area, brimming with gurgling spring-sources and miniature blue flowers. This is what I love best about Iceland- the freedom to enjoy a gorgeous place in total peace.

The road from there meanders along with a raging glacier-fed river the color of coffee and then abruptly ends on the open section of Rte 1 past Vík. From there it was a short inflate of the tires and then, three hours of pavement driving to home.

Taking this route gave us plenty of opportunity to see how the volcano had changed the landscape in the area.  Two years ago, I’d camped in the same spot and the view of Eyafjallajökull had been a smooth white arc, blending almost perfectly with the sky and clouds above. Now, it’s gray and hacked apart by the crater in the center, unrecognizable as a glacier. The area where we were driving was liberally sprinkled with ash that coated the car and left a gritty layer in our mouths, our hair, our skin. The patches of snow that still clung to the mountains north of us were all gray, and everywhere else we drove on the south coast has a similarly blue-gray tinge beneath the greenery. In spite of this, I do think that for the first-time visitor these changes (other than the obviously strange-colored glacier) would be almost unrecognizable, and even in the few weeks since I was last there, the situation has improved noticeably. In the end of June, the piles of dust could be seen behind the tiny plants on the beach at Vík, and the roadsides were thickly sprinkled with ash. Between Dýrholaey and Seljalandsfoss a month ago was a dust-blizzard so thick we couldn’t see the massive waterfall at Skógarfoss when we passed it. This trip it whizzed by in a blaze of sunshine and German bicycle-tourist spotting. After the desolate tourist landscape of a month before, it was nice to see that visitors have returned and are enjoying this beautiful place again.

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Iceland from the inside: http://reykjavikharbor.blogspot.com/

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  • Mike Richards July 29, 2010, 12:18 pm

    Thanks Elisa,

    That bottom photo is just jaw dropping – and you’ve had some more awesome weather by the look of it. I assume that’s Eyafjallajökull smouldering away in the background.

  • Stephen Cowdery July 29, 2010, 3:26 pm

    I couldn’t imagine the IWR getting any better, but this is simply wonderful. It is hard to express in words what Elisa’s elegant posts have meant to me over the years; they are travel writing taken up a couple of notches. When people ask me what Iceland is really like I always refer them to her blog and the IWR.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford,ireland July 29, 2010, 4:45 pm

    Wonderful piccie’s of a largely empty landscape, for God’s sake somebody do something and put up a parking lot, ha ha ha.

  • Michael Lewis July 29, 2010, 5:57 pm

    “when the road dives directly into the water and one splashes merrily along for several hundred meters in a shallow pebbled stream”

    Doing that could destroy Salmon or Trout spawning redds (depending on time of year), but generally not the best of things to do for the ecology of a stream to drive a 4WD through it. Suprised its legal in Iceland to do that.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford,ireland July 29, 2010, 10:49 pm

    @Michael Lewis good ecology point well made sir.

  • Joerg July 29, 2010, 10:54 pm

    The area behind the volcanoes is definitely my favourite hiking area in Iceland. Apart from the Laugavegur there are a number of other choices like the Strútstigur or the Sveinstindur – Skælingar trail and I am time and again stunned by the colorful landscape, particularly the neon green moss. If I am not mistaken, the prominent green mountain on the picture with the Eyjafjallajökull is Hattafell.

    One of the places along this road I hope to visit at good weather conditions one day is beautiful Mælifell, a singular neon green cone standing out of the black sands behind Mýrdalsjökull.

    The landscape in the South has indeed changed a lot since I had been there in may. Particularly at Rauðafell and Þorvaldseyri it appears amazingly green with the still black mountains in the background.