Day Three – Hraftinnusker to Álftavatn
During the night, safe and warm with a roof over my head, I felt guilty for not sleeping outside in my tent. Why the hell had I brought it with me if I was going to sleep inside huts instead? What had happened to my sense of adventure? The brave souls who yesterday had laughed at the sheets of ice and snow covering the camping ground at Hrafntinnusker were certainly hardier than I was, that was for sure.
Over a stodgy breakfast of porridge and raisins, however, I learned that I had made the right choice. A Dutch couple – one of the few who braved the cold – were sat huddled over a heater, glorying in the warmth and shelter that the hut provided.
“I woke up in the night and there was ice on my face” the young man whimpered. “I thought this was supposed be June.” They had had a thoroughly miserable night and described their numerous discomforts at great length to a packed kitchen of warm and well-rested hikers, who (myself included) listened on with self-satisfied smirks.
Despite my mirth, the prospect of another day of strenuous hiking soon dulled my spirits. The view from the attic window, although stunning, filled me with trepidation. As I watched folk crossing the icy plateau towards the next hut 7 km away, I wondered if this was all a bit too much. Yesterday had proved how unfit I was, and the cruel Icelandic landscape had provided ample reminders of just how it could easily destroy me, and even swallow me up whole. I had images of my parents visiting some desolate spot in years to come, gazing upon a cairn under which my bones shone white.
It was tempting to stay in the hut, and this I did for a while, watching people pack up and head out. They were all unbearably fit and healthy-looking, with all the right gear and the rosy cheeks of proper hikers. Their boots were sturdy and their walking poles reliable, whereas my own boots were falling apart and my pole had so far excelled itself in pissing me off no end by refusing to fully extend, leaving it at a length that even a midget would baulk at. I showed it to one of the few people remaining in the hut, in the hope that he could fix it. Instead he largely ignored my request and spent the next half hour making me feel very uncomfortable with his dark topics of conversation and his seeming inability to blink. In the end he unnerved me so much that I decided to pack up and head out, dreading that he too would be heading in the same direction. If the landscape didn’t kill me, he certainly would.
Before long I was crossing the vast ice-filled plateau, heading gradually south. The sun was in full song, illuminating the snow-covered hills and mountains to a near blinding but beautiful glow. With the snow slowly beginning to melt, black rock was starting to emerge from beneath, creating thousands of unique patterns in the ever shifting light.
What I really feared was walking uphill, something which had nearly ruined me the previous day. Thankfully the gradient here was kinder and soon I realised that the path was beginning to head downhill. There was still the added hazard of losing your way, as the gnarled painted route markers proved ever more difficult to spot and follow. I also occasionally threw a glance behind me, in fear that the weirdo from the hut was in hot, murderous pursuit. Instead the landscape was empty, and I was all alone.
Leaving the icy plateau behind, I scrambled up onto a rocky, dusty orange landscape that proved to be a ridge. This cut a pleasing arc towards the south-east and made for enjoyable and easy walking. Steam escaped from crevices at the base of the ridge, smothering me in the eggy aroma of sulphur and other noxious gases to make the eyes run. Streams and little rivers snaked through the rocks on either side, melting the snow and ice and feeding the greenery that was slowly beginning to return. For a time the only sounds were those of my tramping boots and the soft rumble of water. For the first time on the trek I was truly happy.
Eventually one of the rivers began to dominate and became a substantial milky-white torrent of melting snow. It spread itself thinly across the orange rock, not deep yet still moving at an alarming speed. The route markers stopped here abruptly, with no sign of where the next one might be. Across the torrent stood a high wall of crumbling mud and loose stones, and in the distance could be heard the unmistakable roar of a waterfall. Sticking my tiny walking pole into the torrent to gauge its ferocity, I was left in no doubt at all that this crossing was going to be terrifying.
Before I could even begin formulating a plan, a voice boomed out from across the river, making me drop my pole and fall onto my hands and knees in terror. For an awful moment I thought it was the hut weirdo, who had chosen this desolate and treacherous spot to trap me and do me in. Thankfully the voice belonged instead to a young Frenchman, who pointed to a safe route across the river. He waited patiently while I carefully negotiated the slippery rocks and freezing water, which lapped up over my ankles, slowly dragging me downstream. Nearing the far bank he warned me not to look down to my right, and once safely across he shouted at me to get a foothold and run upwards with all my might before the bank could collapse. This was all safely achieved, and he hauled me up to firmer ground. Thanking him, he pointed down to the edge of the waterfall, which had been only a matter of feet away. It was hardly Victoria Falls, but still fierce enough to drag you down to a broken leg and much misery. Thanking him, he turned on his heels and carried on his way, shouting back that I too should guide the next hiker across.
The Dutch couple from the hut were grateful for my guidance when they showed up, especially as the guy had slipped and injured his ankle up on the ridge. Once safely across we ate lunch together, sharing slices of ham and cheese and gazing in wonder at the view below us.
In the near distance was our objective, the great lake of Álftavatn, which shone a cobalt blue amongst a sea of green mountains. The Dutch couple (I never did learn their names) wanted to carry on, while I sat and drank in the view for a little while longer. I did a really cringey thing while up there and listened to some Björk and Sigur Rós on my iPod. The music matched the grandeur of the landscape perfectly, but I still felt like a twat.
From up high the lake didn’t look too far away, but in Iceland distances can be deceptive. Struggling down the side of the mountain on the well-worn path, my calves burned with the effort. My dodgy knee (which had been treated to surgery only three months earlier) was standing up to the strain admirably, and I happily bounded down into the lush greenness of a river valley.
The ever-changing landscape was proving excellent entertainment and the relative flatness of the valley a welcome relief from the strain of mountain walking. The river had gathered further strength from innumerable tributaries and was now starting to roar with power. I stopped in a sheltered spot next to and filled my water bottle and drank its pureness, feeling like a new man with every sip.
Crossing the river once more proved another obstacle. The snow that had covered the area for months was slowly being eroded away by the river, leaving beautiful but deadly ice bridges. Holes showed where people’s legs had plummeted through the ever softening ice, and to avoid the same fate I ran over the bridge at full speed, almost skipping across so as not to sink in.
Having defeated my second river of the trek, I strode on purposefully towards the lake and the campsite. The land here was flat and marshy, with little birds flittering about as I passed in the late afternoon sun.
Álftavatn proved to be the most scenic stop of the whole trek, and the most haunting. Its name means “swan lake”, a title given to it after a local farmer was lured to a watery by a group of ghostly swans. There were no swans there that day, just a vast flat expanse of dark water that had a certain menace to it. Flanking it were rows of sharp hills, and in the distance stood more mountains, grim and forbidding.
After pitching my tent next to a babbling stream I ate a frugal dinner of lukewarm meatballs and read a little of Grettir’s Saga, which I had picked up in Reykjavík. It was proving to be a thumpingly good read, with plenty of sex and violence. The sun was still high in the sky as I read, enough to give me a touch of sunburn. All should have been well, but for some reason I felt strangely unhappy. To combat this I went for a walk around the lake, which turned out to be ringed with strange black sand. I had seen this once before in the Faroe Islands and ran my fingers and toes through it, marveling at its weirdness.
Despite the beauty of it all I still felt very low. It dawned on me that I was sad about heading back to England in a few days time. Although my existence in London was comfortable and happy, it was not fulfilling. In a few months time I was being pushed into a job I didn’t want to do, working with someone I loathed. “I want more of this” I said aloud to myself, looking around. Yes, more of this would do nicely.