How not to hike : a novice in Iceland

Day One – Landmannalaugar

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It didn’t take long for me to start regretting coming to the desolate depths of Iceland. The last proper roads were a distant memory as the bus bounced and jolted through an eerie, dusty and unwelcoming landscape towards the base camp at Landamannalaugar. I had been waiting for this moment for months, but now I was scared.

“You don’t know what you’re doing” my brain was screaming, “What were you thinking?” In fact, many of my friends and family had said the very same thing, as if genuinely fearing for my life. Well, I was here now and there was no use in being afraid. I had never done anything like this before and, me being me, had chosen perhaps one of the most challenging and dangerous treks for a complete novice. It was both an exciting and frightening prospect. Exciting because this was Iceland and it was beautiful, frightening because I was no real hiker and I would be doing this all by myself, and with a bad knee.

Even though Landmannalaugar is in the middle of nowhere it was a positive metropolis compared to the places I would be travelling through over the next few days. Here there was already a small town of tents, huts and even a small coffee shop, filled with eager trekkers from all nations. For most this was the end of the trail, and now they sat around drinking well-earned beers after completing the 5-day hike from Þórsmörk, 35 kilometres to the south. The last day had been the toughest, one of them whined:

“All uphill, snow and ice, going on forever. You feel like you want to die.”

Those dark words provoked similar emotions within my heart, which was rapidly losing enthusiasm for the venture. When the hiker learned that I would be starting my trek here, rather than ending it, he looked at me as one does a condemned man, before giving me a reassuring pat on the shoulder. A beer would have been better.

The first challenge was putting up my new tent. This was a recent birthday present and had only been erected once, in the peace and sunshine of my dad’s back garden. Then I had help of course, now I was on my own. Rather than lovely green Yorkshire grass to pitch it on, the land here was soft and the pegs refused to stay in. Nearby a couple of older men chuckled at my troubles, having put their tents up in record speed. Rather than help they watched me struggle with a keen interest. Pegging them to the ground would have been enjoyable, had the ground been firm enough to hold them down long enough. Instead I was left alone with my frustrations.

“What the hell are you doing here, Lawrence?” I muttered under my breath.

Eventually I got the damned thing up, thanks to a few of the huge rocks provided nearby, which did a grand job in preventing the tent from being claimed by the winds that were starting to stir. Job done, I collapsed inside for a rest, but soon wanted to try out a couple of new purchases in the form of a stove and gas burner. However, having nearly blown myself up within seconds of this endeavour I forgot all about a cup of tea and went to explore instead. Having spent so much time battling with the blasted tent I had somehow forgotten all about the stunning scenery around me. It was harsh and desolate, but achingly beautiful, with a swift-flowing river overlooked by golden mountains glowing in the late evening sun. On hands and knees I lapped up the ice-cold water straight from the river, and afterwards felt sad that I would only get the joy of that first taste of Iceland just the once.

The discovery of hot springs was a very welcome surprise and I ran back to the tent to grab my trunks. A couple of warnings about hot springs: firstly, they are not always as hot as advertised. The type myself and many others took a dip in, a laug, is gorgeously warm in most places, but float away but a few inches and your body will seize up in frozen agony. Secondly, some hot springs are a lot hotter than you think. A swim in a hver (the evil twin of the laug) is an excellent idea, but only if you want to kill yourself. These boiling pots are best avoided and thankfully scarce in Landmannalaugar.

Slowly but surely I was starting to fall in love with this unforgiving place, but still something didn’t seem quite right. It was late evening and it was still light. It was a few days after midsummer, so of course the sun wouldn’t be leaving us, especially this far north. Delighted at having even longer to explore I headed along a seemingly forgotten pathway. This was Grænagil, “green gorge”, where the rocks had a queer greenish tint. Another small river ran this way, crystal clear and deliciously fresh and cool to taste. Fresh, sharp glacier water was quickly becoming a favourite tipple.

The more I explored the more spooked I became. The rocks closed in and took on sinister forms. One looked like a face grinning malevolently, another like some twisted, deformed creature clawing at me. This was a lava field, created only 600 years previously and now a dark maze that unnerved and confused. The almost total silence only increased the sense of unease.

Just when I thought I was totally lost the pathway ended abruptly.  The view below opened up before me, revealing miles and miles of seemingly disfigured and distorted rock – a sea of hardened lava frozen and silent. The sight took my breath away, an experience I would be getting used to over the next few days. It was time to get back to camp, if I could somehow find my way through the lava maze. Tomorrow would be a long, hard day.

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