Journal of a 23-day Icelandic road trip

Tuesday August 4

LANDMANNALAUGAR, ICELANDIC HIGHLANDS

This was our first really physical day. We slept well, but getting up was hard. It was damp and very cold, the instant coffee tasted like yesterday’s soup (one word of advice here: don’t use plastic cups!), and I cast a circumspect eye over the heavy gray sky.

We got a map of the site from the campground warden, and strode out for Bláhnúkur (Blue Mountain).

It was a hard climb, let me tell you, and the sand didn’t make the going any easier. Then it began to rain. But our efforts were rewarded by the landscape that slowly unfolded before us.

We reached the summit of Bláhnúkur, a violent wind blowing around it, and gazed out at the multicolored mountains around us, and at the huge lava field, Landmannalaugar’s key feature. I tried to take a few pictures, despite the rain.

We were overtaken during our ascent by a young man climbing at lightning speed, and what I really noticed was how basic his gear was: jeans, waterproof jacket, and low shoes, the kind you’d wear for the office. He had no gloves, no scarf, not even a hat, and the temperature was around 6 °C (43 °F), with an icy wind.

He sat on this ledge for a while, alone and silent, then walked back up to us. I asked him where he was from, we exchanged a few words, and I took his picture. His cameras were just like his clothes: a low-end 35 mm camera, and a Lubitel (Soviet Russia’s mass-produced answer to the Rolleiflex).

So, here’s Drew, straight from Oregon. Maybe he’ll see this photo someday? I hope so!

The rain had now become a storm, to my great despair. I tried to protect my camera, which was dripping with rain; the viewfinder was all misted up, the lens soaking wet, and the front element was covered in water droplets.

But I tried to capture the magic of the place as best I could.

+ Note for readers of the eROADBOOK: have a look at the ULTRAPANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPH No. 2 / 20 +

It wasn’t easy, because the rain created a gray curtain on the horizon, which softened the image and dulled the colors.

But you have to accept the rain when you come to Iceland, and I actually prefer that particular atmosphere you get in a rough climate.

We climbed down the other side of the Blue Mountain, a vertiginous descent on the sandy trail. Emilie devoured the slope like a mountain goat, while I was rather less agile, falling twice on my backside; no injuries, but I was a bit concerned about my gear.

Here we are in the lava field, a scene of indescribable chaos, but fortunately there was a marked trail. The volcanic rock was very interesting to observe; vitrified, and transparent as glass in places.

Higher up, we discovered our first fumaroles, with a very strong smell of sulfur. I tried to take a few photographs, but there was so much steam coming up that the lens misted over. We found a rock to shelter behind, and took a little break.

Now we were climbing a second mountain (with a round summit), totally bare, and covered only by tiny stones. The wind was blowing with incredible force as we approached the summit (there was nothing on the ground to block it). I glanced back at Emilie, who looked at me incredulously, but there was no point even trying to speak to her – the wind was blowing so hard it was impossible to hear anything.

Unlike the United States, trails in Iceland are not marked by cairns, but by colored sticks planted in the ground. We soon understood why: no cairn could withstand such a wind. The only cairns you see in Iceland are those that have been built up by passing hikers for amusement.

The trail then led us down the far side of this mountain, toward what seemed to be the start of the vast lava field that separated us from the campground.

Finally, after more than five hours of walking, and two summits, we were happy to return to base camp. We’d seen some fantastic scenery, but I was very worried about the quality of the photographs, let alone the fact that my camera was literally soaked. Indeed, we were surprised to see that the campground was almost deserted (see photograph below), where it had been full that very morning. Doubtless the atrocious weather had got the better of many adventurers!

We got straight into the car, because the day was far from over. Direction Ljótipollur, just a few kilometers away, and which I mentioned to you yesterday. This giant crater, famous for its blood-red slopes, has a surface area of 430,000 m² (4,628,481 sq. ft.) and was created following a huge eruption in 1477. The conditions were atrocious, but I managed to capture this image, which gives you an idea of the beauty of the place. This vast, deserted, almost gloomy crater makes you feel that some monster of the deep might have made its home here.

It was already 5.15 pm as we hit the famous F208 track, to return to Vík on the south coast, where we planned to spend the night, as per our roadbook. It was rather late, and the weather was increasingly gloomy. We had no experience of Icelandic tracks, and many fords to cross, but we had to press on!

ROAD F208, SOUTHERN ICELAND

The trip took nearly three hours, and was an eventful one. First of all, we came across some Spaniards, a group of friends in three hired sedan cars. This type of vehicle is not only unsuitable, but also legally prohibited from this type of terrain! We led the way for them across the first two fords, praying each time that they wouldn’t get stuck. At the second ford, one of them ripped off its license plate in the water. The fords were getting wider, so we left them in the care of some other 4x4s who’d driven up behind us.

Further on, we met two cars coming the other way, which slowed down and stopped beside us. A visibly panicked Danish woman gesticulated out of her window, asked me if I’d got a compass, and loudly insisted that this wasn’t the right way to Vík and that this track was heading inland. After some discussion, we decided not to listen to her, and continued on our way, while she drove off in the opposite direction, followed by other cars she’d convinced to turn around!

We finally got to Route 1 around 8.30 pm, feeling as if we’d been to the edge of the world, like something out of The Lord of the Rings. We found refuge at Vík campground, and were in luck, for there was a common room in which we could warm ourselves up and eat our soup.

We were a little exhausted, and rather quiet. It had been a long day, full of strong impressions, and our heads were full of images as we watched the rain beat down outside.

There was a table of French Scouts next to us, who suddenly, without warning, would start singing a Scout song all together at the end of each sentence. It was by far the strangest thing I’d seen all day.

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