Return to Iceland, Pt. 2

Highlands Tour

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We woke to the news that Tom Petty had died. I listened to his music a lot in high school and college. He was one of those guys I’d figured would be around for a long time. The fact that he’d died at 66 reminded me that anything could happen at any time – while planning for the future is important, enjoying the present is equally so. And for the present, a full day awaited us.

We’d booked Moonwalker Tours to take us on an adventure in the highlands. In 2015, the proprietor, Bessi, introduced us to the famous Golden Circle, with a couple of extra special stops (including a memorable visit to Langjökull, where we filled our water bottles from a glacial stream).

We took advantage of the included breakfast – and, importantly, coffee – at the adjoining restaurant. At 9:30, Bessi arrived and greeted us warmly, having remembered us from our previous trip. He asked what we’d been up to since then, which is always a question I have trouble with – like, how much do you want to know? Two years is a long time! And that’s to say nothing of the bear that 2016 was. So I boiled it down to working hard, seeing sights in California, and saving up our vacation time. Of course, unavoidably, we chatted a bit about the political situation in the U.S. (I believe I described it as “a f***ing mess” and “embarrassing”); but also in Iceland, which had its own ongoing shakeup in the government.

Bessi remarked that he usually picks people up in Reykjavík, so he’d have to improvise a little, taking some roads he usually doesn’t take. I told him I was glad we could give him a challenge. Besides, I liked the idea of having a slightly different tour than others before us. We marveled at the good weather – we could see all the mountain tops and autumn colors. The last time we’d been in this area, everything was under a layer of clouds. “I had a tour once with just miserable weather, just raining the whole time, could barely see anything,” Bessi said. “I had to bring all my best jokes on that one.”

Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, was ever-present on the horizon as we drove north. Bessi explained that it sits near the mid-Atlantic ridge and has a large magma system under it. Hekla is constantly studied and monitored. If it were to erupt, every cellphone on the island would get an SMS alert, providing a few moments’ warning. Better than nothing, I supposed.

Europeans in the middle ages referred to Hekla as “the gateway to hell.”

He asked about our itinerary. I shared our plan to drive around the west side of the island from Hella through Reykjanes, on to Borgarnes, then Hvammstangi, Sauðárkrókur, Akureyri, and finally Mývatn. It turned out Bessi grew up across the water from Hvammstangi (“What are you going to do there?” he asked, laughing – it’s a very small town) and went to school for a while in Sauðárkrókur. “How big was the school?” I asked, “Couple thousand?” Bessi got a kick out of that. No, the college only had 300 students!

Bessi offered an Icelandic playlist for background music, which we readily agreed to. He apologized saying he might have to skip some songs since he’d put it together while drinking. We assured him it was fine – “That’s how you get into the flow!” I said. The playlist included Dimma, SSSól, Sigur Rós, Katla, and more, including some Icelandic hip-hop. Bessi explained that the lead singer of Dr Spock was the country’s minister of health. Their song “The Falcon” is about the country’s oldest and most powerful political party, the very same under which the government has now collapsed three times in recent years.

The Highlands

The Highland Center provided us with snacks to keep ourselves fueled throughout the day. My favorite was Hraun – the word for “lava” – and indeed, the lumpy chocolate-covered candy did resemble a lava field. Just outside, Bessi showed us an old turf shelter. We clambered into the tiny, cramped space. There was just enough timber to hold up the roof – the rest was stone and earth. While I couldn’t argue with its ability to protect people from the elements, I didn’t think I’d last long in there! My height was disqualifying. That, and my soft modern way of living.

Soon we were in the rough and barren terrain of the highlands. After a brief stop to deflate the tires (for better traction), we were on our way to Sigöldugljúfur. The canyon was once carved out by the river Tungnaá, which is now dammed by a large power plant. This created a lagoon behind the dam and stifled the normal flow of water. I asked Bessi if there was a lot of controversy surrounding these kinds of installations. He said there was, and people were trying to stop the utilities from building more power plants, because the country has enough power. To make matters worse, sometimes the plants were built solely to power polluting industries (such as aluminum smelting).

75% of Iceland’s energy is derived from hydropower. source

In this case, despite – or perhaps because of – the dam, the canyon looked very dramatic. Small waterfalls trickled down the sides, gathering force and speed before hitting the riverbed. Where we were standing, moss grew everywhere, and here you could find small wild berries growing on the ground. They were perfectly edible (if somewhat tart). Bessi said the berries grow at his parents’ farm in Akureyri. When the frost arrives, the berries ferment and alcohol forms inside. The birds show up to eat the berries and get drunk! Apparently, instead of singing, they shout.

sigoldufossar
land rover in mountainous landscape

Bessi guided MOON1 on an all-terrain detour through the desolate environment. As we emerged from a particularly rough and bumpy stretch, I asked Bessi if he did his own maintenance on the truck. He said he does as much as he can, but takes it in for a checkup once or twice a year at the mechanic (who, of course, exclaims “What have you been doing to this thing?!”). Our next stop was the crater lake Ljótipollur, meaning “ugly puddle.” It was certainly not ugly, though my pictures kind of came out that way! I had trouble capturing the scale of the place. At any rate, the views were incredible; volcanic mountains rose in the highlands to the south, and a river delta stretched to the north.

hiker enjoying landscape

From here we could see the whole of Frostastaðavatn, another lake, and our next destination. Frostastaðavatn was even larger and therefore more challenging to capture in terms of scale. It was quite beautiful, with an ancient lava field entering the lake on one end and a small, isolated island seeming to float on the water. Bessi mentioned the lake was stocked with trout decades ago, and that, in fact, Eric Clapton had caught the biggest one last year.

ancient lava flow entering lake
extinct volcano crater iceland

Landmannalaugar

The road was in rough shape and I was glad that Bessi was taking care of the driving today. We could see where smaller cars had simply driven off-track around the tough spots, damaging the landscape. Not long after arriving at Landmannalaugar, Bessi found out that the road was being closed for the winter – and, presumably, to prevent more people from going off-track.

After Bessi gave us the lay of the land, we were off on a walk around the area. The landscape was so striking as to feel surreal and almost overwhelming. A short hike brought us the to the start of the Laugavegur Trail. I tried to imagine what it would be like to embark on a multi-day hike to Þórsmörk through this harsh environment.

hiking path through lava field

The Laugavegur Trail runs 55km from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk.

We returned to the truck to get our swimsuits and towels. The facilities seemed actually quite nice for a remote campsite, with toilets, sinks and a few shower stalls. We changed and then put our hiking pants and rain jackets back on for the walk down to the hot spring. Apparently, Bessi had brought an older couple up this way, and they, expecting some kind of a spa experience, refused to change or go in. I couldn’t believe it – if you came this far in the first place, why would you pass up the chance to soak in a hot spring in the highlands? It might have stopped them being wound so tight!

As for us, it was looking like we’d have the spring to ourselves. We doffed our outerwear and gingerly entered (it was somewhat cold where the steps were). The water was only about two or three feet deep. Once we were closer to the source, it became comfortable enough to immerse ourselves, though we moved around chasing the warmest spots. Sitting there in the hot spring, surrounded by the Landmannalaugar landscape, the frenzy of the past few days seemed to melt away. We soaked for about thirty minutes feeling quite lucky to be there.

landmannalaugar natural hot spring
boardwalk icelandic highlands

Now we were ready to tackle the rest of the day. I made sure to carry out some trash we found near the spring and we found Bessi waiting in the parking area – parked next to another Land Rover, naturally (“it’s law,” he said). He remarked that the 4×4 drivers can’t help but laugh when they see people pull up here and put their spare tires on. A friend of Bessi’s had a guy ask him for help filling his tire. “I fixed the flat,” the guy said, “but now I need air.” Bessi’s friend checked out the tire and discovered that it had been “fixed” with duct tape!

Dómadalur

Our next destination was Hekla itself. With an eruption every 10 years since the 70s, and the last one having occurred in 2000, it was assumed that Hekla was overdue. Bessi had been checking Hekla’s status throughout the day and was prepared to divert us elsewhere if the volcano showed any warning signs. Things looked nominal, so we proceeded west on F225 through Dómadalur – “the doomed valley” – a quiet, lifeless desert. “Nothing survives here,” Bessi said, and that certainly looked to be true.

He had offered to pull over if there was a view we liked. Because Bessi had picked us up from Hella, he mentioned that we were doing the tour in the reverse direction. “I haven’t gone this way yet – everything looks a little different!” he said with a big smile. We ended up stopping twice. The first stop featured what I refer to as the “weeping mountain” due to the many channels on its surface. Here we truly felt alone – no other cars, no animals, no sounds but the wind.

landrover at domadalur
domadalur mountain with path

I asked for the second stop when I noticed the ethereal light reflecting off snow-topped Hekla. I saw this several times on the trip, usually above glaciers or mountains with snow, where the light seemed to glow somehow. The dark grey clouds suggested rain coming from the southeast. Would we get to Hekla before the weather did?

cloudy hekla landscape

Hekla

Bessi put MOON1 through its paces on the way to the summit. We passed through lava fields from 1948 and 1991, which can be discerned by the amount and color of moss gathered on the rocks. “I think we can go higher,” Bessi would say periodically, pointing out the dropping temperature with a wink. With the road becoming narrow and steep at times, he took us as far up as he could, which was plenty high; even with the rain approaching, we could see for miles around. Bessi pointed out all the major glaciers and ice caps visible on the horizon.

tourists at hekla volcano

Eventually the cold drove us back into the truck. As we headed back down, Bessi exclaimed, “I almost forgot!” and fished out two tiny bottles of Brennivin from the console. “This was to drink at the top. Have you had it before?” We said we had and that we rather liked it (even though the flavor is a little unusual – officially caraway, but licorice or fennel to my palate). It definitely helped warm us up.

It was time for the last stop, a colorful volcanic crater that Bessi had pointed out earlier. This was Rauðaskál, so named for its red gravel, punctuated by streaks of bright green moss. We watched the clouds rolling in and saw that Hekla’s summit was now engulfed.

volcanic crater
cloudy mountain

When we rejoined F26, Bessi stopped so that he could put more air back into the tires. Noticing that he hadn’t needed to pull much gear out to do this, I asked if he’d built in the compressor. “Yes, and the tank is under the back seats. It’s much faster now, I just have to hook up the hose. I’ve made some improvements since the last time you saw the truck!” These included higher clearance, bigger wheels, and new headlamps.

Hella

Finally we were on the way back to the hotel. We chatted about this and that, and the topic of the new Costco came up. “It’s the best!” Bessi said. “I’ll go there and wait in line for one gallon of milk, that’s how much cheaper it is.” Apparently the local grocery stores had fixed their prices high, and now Costco was forcing them to compete. In the US it can be easy to be cynical about large companies due to their voracious appetite for growth, so it was interesting to hear Bessi’s perspective. It reminded me that there are usually pros and cons to anything and everything.

We talked about moving and living in different places and I mentioned that one of our friends is gearing up to live in Berlin. Bessi said he loved Berlin – when he was trying to figure out what to do some years ago, he debated whether to start Moonwalker Tours; open a brewery; or simply go to Berlin and get a fresh start there.

hekla warning sign
moonwalker tour operator

Bessi dropped us off and we thanked him for a fun day. It was great to let someone knowledgeable do the driving, and safely, to places I would never have attempted to go on my own.

We were pretty tired out so it was a bit of a bummer when our room keycards wouldn’t work. The staff was apologetic and kindly offered us tea while they re-synced the keys. It was kind of nice as it gave us a chance to decompress and talk about the day.

For dinner, I’d made reservations at Hotel Rangá, where we had spent half of our honeymoon. It was nice to revisit and treat ourselves to a big, fancy meal. Katelyn had wild mushroom soup and a langoustine main, while I had the seafood soup and a lamb dish. Of course, neither of us could resist filling up on their delicious bread, topped with fresh butter, salt flakes, and olive oil. A beautiful sunset accompanied the meal.

My only regret was that we couldn’t just waddle back to our hotel room; thankfully, Hotel Kanslarinn wasn’t far. We spent the rest of the evening resting and getting ready to check out in the morning. There wasn’t much in the way of TV channels. One was showing Nowhere Boy, a John Lennon biopic. Another seemed to be stuck on the menu screen of an unidentifiable DVD. We opted for Nowhere Boy, and, somehow, made it through the entire thing before falling asleep.