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The magical mystique of Landmannalaugar

I’ve been lucky enough to go on two amazing excursions with Reykjavík Excursions this month — one of which was a tour up to Landmannalaugar that AAH and I took in early July.

Some of you may recall a trip that EPI and I took to Landmannalaugar in September last year. That was my first trip to a place that is, without a doubt, one of the most amazingly beautiful in Iceland. I had, of course, heard about it for years, particularly about the colours, so I knew it was going to be spectacular — but not until I went there myself was I fully able to appreciate just what they had been saying.

In a word, the landscape is stunning.

Our trip last year was fairly impromptu and we arrived in Landmannalaugar quite late in the day, so we didn’t do any hiking around the area — just basically had a brief gander around, ate some sandwiches, and then got back in the car. [That said, we did stop frequently on the way there, so it wasn’t like we just saw the landscape in a blur or anything.]

This time, however, we got a chance to walk around a bit, and whoaboy, what an experience we missed out on the first time. In fact, I already want to go back and spend a couple of days, just to hike some of the trails and spend some time absorbing the strange yet exquisite beauty of the place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The tour left Reykjavík bright and early at 8 am and we headed east in the direction of Selfoss. We had an excellent guide who fed us fascinating factoids about Iceland en route … seriously, I’m learning so much on these tours about my own country, which is a wonderful bonus.

Our first stop [apart from bathroom breaks] was at a waterfall that I never would have known about had it not been for the guide. It’s called Hjálparfoss and it’s surrounded by all kinds of amazing rock formations. Behold:

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Basalt columns etc.:

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It was still sunny at this time; however, the weather would soon change. We drove on, past Mt. Hekla, and into the interior. Stopped for a photo-op in the middle of a black desert, beneath some heavy clouds:

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Did I mention that erosion is a serious problem in Iceland? That’s because our soil is mostly volcanic ash and it blows away very easily [factoid learned from our guide]. Grazing by livestock also plays a major part — all those cute sheep you see on the side of the road are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing as far as the landscape is concerned.

We drove on through the desert until gradually the mountain slopes started to show a bit of green. [That’s as in moss, not grass.] Just before driving into Landmannalaugar we stopped at an explosion crater that’s hugely impressive. It’s also very large, too large to fit into one picture [at least from where I was standing]:

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You can see what I mean about the moss here. Incidentally, the red in the soil is iron:

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Another few minutes of driving, and we were at our destination. The famed colours of Landmannalaugar came gradually into view.

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As I mentioned earlier, our guide took us on a hike that lasted about two hours:

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We first hiked through a lava field with all its spectacular formations, to the mountain known as Brennisteinsalda — literally “Sulphur Wave”. It’s amazingly colourful, and all around there is steam rising from the ground:

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I could happily have stayed there for an hour or two, hiked up on the mountain and just hung out by the cloud of steam for a while. But alas, time was of the essence, and AAH and I wanted to try soaking in the natural outdoor pool from which Landmannalaugar derives its name.* To do this we had to make haste back to camp so we could have some time in the hot spring.

Soaking in Landmannalaugar

NB this is a photo I took last year. The reason being that by the time we got back to the main camping area it was pouring with rain. We were pretty wet by the time we got there [although we had on rain gear] so the thought of getting our kit off and then having to put on wet clothes again after our soak … well, it just wasn’t very appealing. Plus — again — time was short, and we would only have had about ten minutes in there, which hardly seemed worth the effort.

We vowed to return, and next time to spend some time in the pool. Incidentally, there are showers there so it’s possible to rinse off after your dip.

Just one more photo: a mini Blue Lagoon that you come to just before you get back to the camping area. Did I mention the colours in this place?

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The full set of pictures from this excursions is here. Seriously, a visit to this area is an absolute must. It will change you. However, I should mention that it is only accessible for a few weeks each summer.

* Landmannalaugar literally means “Landmenn’s pools”. Landmenn were the people who lived in the area, and they set out their sheep to graze in the highlands during the summer. [Presumably it was them who ate all the grass, then.] During the autumn round-up the Landmenn set up camp in Landmannalaugar because of the natural pools — where they could take a bath, and also presumably just … chill. As it were.

NB: this is a sponsored review.

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  • Zig July 20, 2010, 5:48 pm

    One laug in the pictures (4th and 5th pictures) reminds me of Red Tarn (Rauða Tjörnin I guess it would be) by Helvellyn in the Lake District. Although yours looks better :P.

  • Joerg July 20, 2010, 9:17 pm

    This is always a great place. I would also recommend the full Fjallabak tour (also done by RE), which takes you further from Landmannalaugar eastwards via Eldgjá as far as Skaftafell. This area is also a paradise for hikers.

    The explosion craters are indeed difficult to capture on camera in its entirety. The best you could try is a segmented panoramic photo. I think, this one might be called Hnausapollur (Bláhylur), even though I always mix it up with its neighbour Ljótipollur.

  • PeterRRRRR July 20, 2010, 10:22 pm

    I’m a bit confused — you write that this area is only accessible for a few weeks in the summer, and that you visited last September? It does look stunning, not to be missed, etc. and I’m thinking of a visit in late September, if work schedules can be re-arranged.

  • Jennifer July 20, 2010, 11:57 pm

    Great photos! I took this tour during the summer of 2005, but didn’t bring a camera. The tour was definitely one of the highlights of my trip, but it was raining for us too and very windy. Somehow the rain and the wind just added to the exhilaration. Our tour guide told us a very funny story about the evacuation of a nursing home when Hekla erupted in 2000. As I remember it, the nursing home residents were moved out so quickly that they didn’t have time to take their dentures. When they were later served breakfast none of them could eat. After realizing what the problem was some brave soul went back to retrieve them while Hekla was still erupting, but in his hurry he just just jumbled them all together in the same sack so no one was sure which teeth went with which resident.

  • alda July 21, 2010, 12:18 am

    Peter — I guess I count the first couple of weeks of September as the summer. We were there in the first week (I think) and they were closing about a week later, meaning the site keepers leave and facilities are shut down. RE only does the tour until the end of August, I believe. After that the weather can get very unpredictable in the highlands and people might even get snowed in.

    Jennifer — that is a hilarious story!

  • sylvia hikins July 21, 2010, 12:51 am

    If you took more control of your free ranging sheep, I am sure you could grow more trees which would in turn help to stop soil erosion and enrich the ground. Last year when I was in a little Greek Island, Symi, the once forest that had been decimated for boat building was never able to re-establish itself because of the free-ranging goats. Out walking, I saw olive trees so nibbled by goats that they looked like bonsai. Your Viking ancestors came to a land of trees. How about growing them all back?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Andrew July 21, 2010, 6:49 am

    Is this ‘black desert’ the place where the American astronauts trained because it looks like the surface of the Moon!? It looks bleak in Summer, so I hate to think what it’s like in Winter! All those places look spectacular, though, and most are colourful in their own way. I’m now thinking of a holiday in Iceland – finance permitting, of course – and this is a good guide to Iceland for me. Have you thought of publishing a guidebook?

  • alda July 21, 2010, 11:36 am

    Andrew — no I think they actually practiced walking in a lava field on the Reykjanes peninsula. As for the guidebook — thanks for your faith in me, but no, I had not thought of that. There are so many guidebooks to Iceland already, I don’t know what I could possibly add.

  • Rose July 22, 2010, 8:48 pm

    N-i-c-e. I have wanted to go to L. for some time, and next time I go I’ll consider taking R.E. I certainly don’t want to ford rivers in my rental car 😉

  • Mike Richards July 23, 2010, 12:49 am

    Another great review Alda and it sounds like the same journey I took last year into the interior. In some places they were planting hectares of lupins to try and bind the loose ash – the colours of the flowers were amazing against the incredible drabness of the landscape. There’s a spot on the run up to Ljotipollur where apart from the colour of the sky you could be driving across the Moon. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was one of the parts of the island that was selected for training the Apollo astronauts.

    Ljotipollur looked incredible – all reds and astonishingly vivid greens. And that was on a gloomy day, I can’t wait to see it on a bright and sunny summer’s day. If you can’t get out that far, or if it’s winter when you visit Iceland, there’s another brilliantly coloured crater called Kerið which is often a stop on the Golden Circle tours.

    As for Landmannalaugar – words just fail me; the rhyolite outcrops are utterly extraordinary – yellow, green, red and set against the much darker basalt. I’d love to see it at sunrise or sunset – it must look like a furnace. The one question I can’t get out of my head is – how did anyone ever find it?

    Were you able to get to see Hekla at all? Apparently it is quite a fickle mountain and usually hidden behind the clouds. We had okay weather when we went up it last year, but I still think it is the coldest, windiest place I’ve ever been. Not that it was stopping the locals riding motorcycles up and down at full speed. Me? I was thinking, this is a nasty place to break a leg falling off a bike; them – ‘Yeeehaaa!’

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/46971595@N00/3800119705/in/set-72157621855125083/

  • alda July 23, 2010, 1:04 am

    Thanks Mike. Yes, we got a good view of Hekla, although because I’ve seen it so many times it’s not really a biggie for me. Hence no picture. 🙂

  • Mike Richards July 23, 2010, 1:10 am

    @ Alda

    Oh to be lucky enough to be blasé about Hekla 😉

    I was getting all nostalgic about Iceland today when reading Yrsa Sigurdsdottir’s ‘Ashes to Dust’ which has just come out in English. Great book, twisted imagination though.

  • Mike Richards July 23, 2010, 1:43 am

    Ooops I forgot to mention, the Icelandic Post Office has just issued a set of stamps that not only commemorate the Fimmvörduháls / Eyjafjallajökull eruption – but actually contain small amounts of the ash!

    http://www.postur.is/english/desktopdefault.aspx

    Very cool indeed. And why is it the Icelandic Post Office site’s English pages are clearer and easier to use than the Royal Mail’s – for whom English should be their first language???