Rivers, Refugees and Rhyolite – at Landmannalaugar
After a nervous but rewarding first day exploring the Icelandic interior in our trusty 4WD Dodge Durango, we head off on the Fjallabak route towards the tourist honeypot of Landmannalaugar. It’s the starting point for several of the most popular hiking routes in Iceland, but on the bleak night we visit, it’s overcrowded and apocalyptical. But then, when you have a Dodge you have nothing to fear. Except river crossings…
Two more rivers to cross…
We’ve been promised rivers. Warned against them even. But we’ve only crossed one since we hired the 4WD, to the disappointment of the kids in the back. But I’m relieved. They make me very nervous. And I think Stuart is too. I’m sure he closed his eyes and hoped for the best during the river we crossed by accident. And now, as cold light falls on a bleak valley, there are two. They lie between us and the Landmannalaugar camp site. And they’re deep. I can’t even see a way through them, but there’s no going back; Stuart has wrestled with the wheel for over four hours on bumpy tracks as the landscape increasingly blackened until it started to resemble mile-high mossy slag heaps. He is done in. Unlike the Dodge. It barely registers the muddy miles.
Ready for rough and tough
Encountering so much as a petrol station in this volcanic wasteland seemed as unlikely as meeting The Pope. But still, we came across quite a few buses. Not little explorer minibuses, but huge coaches; descending from the mist like tourist tanks. Now with the light fading they are all gone, back to Reykjavik or wherever they came from, and it’s just us and the rivers.
I shut my eyes. If we’re going to be washed downstream, I’ll find out from the kids reactions. I don’t want to see our sturdy vehicle splutter and drown. But I needn’t worry. Once again the Dodge proves it is made for the tough stuff. It glides through the first with ease, and then goes on to take the second. At glacial pace. “Slowly, slowly” we all repeat, crossing our fingers in the back. Soon every window is spattered in river water and we look like a proper expedition vehicle. But while we might be physically equipped for the Icelandic interior, I’m not mentally prepared for the scene that lies before me.
Campsite or refugee camp?
An array of sodden tents, stinking trolls hair and slabs of rock from the dark side of Stonehenge add up to a cross between a pop festival and Armageddon. Around fifty bedraggled canvases hang heavy with rain, sagging in waterlogged ditches, held down by rocks. A mass of refugees huddle in doorless shower blocks. Heavy with the smell of damp, their clothes hang from every nook as they brush their teeth as though they might wash away the cold with the plaque. Others huddle on picnic benches trying to cook noodles on one pot MSR’s in the wind. Or they race for the hot pools near the geothermal river; their heads shrouded in hoods, legs clad in only in swimming trunks. Ignoring the bright green weed, the notice of ‘swimmers’ itch,’ and ‘bathing at your own risk,’ they plunge in; desperate for the heat.
Retreat to the Scooby bus
Meanwhile, we wrestle with the tent. We can’t get pegs in the ground as it’s so hard and stony. Stuart picks up an empty packet of painkillers. “The last guy used them all up after sleeping on this,” he says, not looking forward to his bed and breakfast set up. Cameron helpfully hauls over boulders to weigh the tent down. The wind bites. We can’t cook in this and we retreat into the Dodge for a picnic, thanking Go Iceland for providing us with our own mobile refuge from this refugee camp.
The morning is a replay of the night before. Everyone is still brushing their teeth after trying to heat up food on a one pot stove. We grab a marmalade sandwich, and escape into the lava, away from the path everyone else is taking. We have seen a plume of smoke and want to investigate.
And we enter a different world. There is no one here. No human anyway. Perhaps a troll or two, or some of the hidden people, playing hide and seek in the lava. I’ve never walked through a lava field before, and its a humbling experience. We pick a route through black mushrooming rock, trying to stick to a path that’s barely there. We are alone in this wilderness. Only half a kilometre from the honeypot, not so far from the madding crowd.
Head for the stinky fumarole
We walk on and on through the contorted rock. There is just one goal and we know the prize will stink. But stink in a good way; that tell-tale smell of sulphur that lets you know something interesting is happening just under the earth or just around the corner. Eventually we reach an angry mass of ash, a huge mound of smoking holes. Mountains full of eggy stench is what Iceland is really good at. We breathe it in, intoxicated and revolted all at once. I try to explain to Cameron where the steam is escaping from and what makes the earth so discontented in Iceland. I’ve cribbed it all from the guide book and I hope I’ve got it in the right order.
The buses arrive
We head back on the main path. We certainly did our walk in the right order; lava fields before tourist trail. Because now we meet hundreds of people, all walking in a neat line towards the smell. Some have tour guides at the head of the pack. Others are on their own, with heavy backpacks. No one says hello. No one smiles. Tourist zombies?
And then we set eyes on the mirrors
Half way back to camp and we don’t notice the people any more. We’re too busy looking at the huge black stones that lie in every direction before us. It’s like we just entered the Evil Queen’s hall of mirrors. The geological term for this awe inspiring sight is Rhyolite. It’s a mineral filled lava that cooled so slowly it developed a smooth glassy surface. The slabs of standing stone glitter in the brief flashes of sunlight. And it’s spectacular.
A frosty goodbye from camp refugee
Back at camp, it’s much the same picture as the night before; just slightly emptier. But the wagons are rolling in with new refugees and their bedraggled belongings. It’s of no consequence to us; we are moving on. We have swum with the risk of swimmers’ itch and been brushed by floating green trolls’ hair. We have walked a solitary lava path. We have seen the earth smoulder and burn under our feet. We have looked in the mirror and glimpsed a dark perfection. Our job here is done. There are many more rivers to cross. The Dodge is ready.
And finally Stuart is converted
And Stuart is ready for The Dodge. He seems to fill the seat and hold the wheel in a way he didn’t before. And as we move out of the camp, and start to meet the rivers that the F208 Fjallabak route is famous for, he doesn’t even get out of the car to measure them up which gives me something new to worry about. No more Mondeo Man, I think he’s a Dodge Dude now. Glacial river and tephra desert are all in a a day’s work. He puts his foot down. We are off.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. And to Go Iceland who equipped us with one of their 4WD fleet to enable us to venture out and bring you this story. All views and opinions are as ever our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.