In September 2015 Dom led a gaggle of us to Iceland to walk the famous Laugavegur trail. We began in Skόgar, on the South coast, at the foot of the beautiful 60m Skόgafoss waterfall. The day before starting the hike was spent messing about on the beach by the imposing breakers of the North Atlantic. We spotted some seals and puffins and found a plastic lid that flew better than the majority of Frisbees, which immediately became a trusted and valued team member. As night fell on the eve of our adventure we lay together outside our tents as Mule read to us aloud from the Hobbit, under a rising moon.
The first day of the walk was by far the longest and hardest. This was not the Laugavegur trail proper but an extension that took us along the course of a swift river punctuated by at least a dozen beautiful waterfalls, up to a mountain pass between two glaciers. One of these was Eyjafjallajökull (which some of us could proudly pronounce by the end of the trip), notorious for the eruption that brought Europe to a standstill. After 1000m metres of up came 800 of down as we descended into the wooded glacial valleys around Thόrsmörk, arriving at the campsite in time for a breath-taking sunset.
Day 2 was completely different. Having got the toughest part of the trek out of the way we allowed ourselves to take it easy. First we passed through dwarf birchwoods and crossed stony river beds. When we were forced to wade through one we discovered how fiercely cold meltwater streams are. With clear blue skies overhead and a glittering glacier on the horizon we strolled through a wide dry valley that felt like it should be in Africa rather than Iceland. Towards the end of the day, after crossing a rusty bridge over a deep, sheer-sided ravine, we came across a woman who had been left behind by her companions. It was gut-wrenching to watch her collapse to her knees as she struggled up a steep ashy slope towards the campsite, but our pity was mingled with frustration as she refused every attempt we made to help her. It was probably a metaphor for life or something like that.
Day 3 was completely different. We had climbed into a land of fog and dark-coloured slag. All around the ground was what looked like bare ash apart from a few mountainsides that were a sickly green. It rained all day, and if that didn’t get us wet enough there were two more ice cold rivers to ford. Still though, the landscape was impressive in its way, particularly the wide featureless black plain which could easily have been Mordor. That night, however, the clouds moved on and we braved the chill to keep a vigil for the Northern Lights. As we watched, a vague glow in the sky appeared and gradually grew stronger, and took on its iconic curtain-like form, and slowly danced for us. With many of us having ticked off a major life goal, we went to bed.
Day 4 varied significantly from the previous three. It took us up to the highest point of the trail, through Reykjafjöll (‘The Smoking Mountains’) – rolling multi-coloured peaks dotted with boiling sulphurous vents. Mule and I jogged up to the summit of Háskerðingur off the path to take in the view, and we could see for ever. Far off in the distance we thought we could see Vatnajökull – the giant glacier that covers 8% of Iceland’s entire surface. We enjoyed the moment, blissfully unaware of what was about to befall the group…
We came down and were catching up to the rest of the group when we saw some commotion in front of us. We were crossing an area where meltwater had carved the rocky ground into ridges, and the gaps in between the ridges were filled with ice, or so we had thought. Mule and I arrived at the source of the commotion to find Luise being hauled out from under the surface of the ice. What had appeared to be a deep frozen snowdrift was in fact only a layer a couple of inches thick forming a sort of ice cave. Luise had been walking across with her pack and had suddenly fallen at least five feet to the stony ground, and a chunk of ice fell onto her ankle. She wasn’t able to walk, so we made her warm and comfortable, sent Rhodri and Mule to jog the last 3km to the campsite to see if they could help, and called mountain rescue. After a couple of hours of waiting, a helicopter arrived. Luise was strapped into a stretcher and a few of us carried her to the helicopter, which made us feel bloody cool. With her safely on her way back to Reykjavik, we finished the day’s walk at the high and bleak Hraftinnusker campsite, where large chunks of smooth obsidian lay scattered over the ground.
The final day of the trek was unlike those that preceded it. The campsite was essentially on an exposed mountain pass so that night was cold, wet and windy, and we woke up in a cloud. It took a while to motivate ourselves to leave, and subsequently dismantle, the only shelter available to us (our tents) and set off. The wind was high and visibility was poor. We marched from trail marker to trail marker through an icy, rocky dreamscape, keeping the group much tighter than we had previously so as not to lose anyone in the cloud. When at last we descended out of it, we were rewarded with a rainbow and, shortly afterwards, a view across a glittering lava field towards journey’s end at Landmannalauger. It did not take long for people to dump their things and make for the hot springs, and for Rhodri things got especially steamy. Emily and Natasha only had a brief session before catching a bus to meet up with Luise (aaw), but the rest of us were in it for the long haul. Getting out felt bad.
We had a rest day at Landmannalauger. This involved a chilled stroll round a few of the nearby hills and a look at a large crater with a lake in it. At the campsite there was a small shop on a bus where we could get crisps and beers. After dinner it was back into the hot spring, as there seemed to be a consensus that if a person was sitting with their friends in a hot spring in Iceland, sipping a beer as night fell, then they could probably be said to be living the dream. Eventually the water was occupied by various romantic couples whispering sweet nothings to each other, and a loud group of UBESters. We probably didn’t factor into anyone else’s dream.
The trip back to Reykjavik was eventful for some. A few of us had decided it would be worth trying to dodge the bus fare back to the capital by hitchhiking instead. We had heard that it was fairly easy to do in Iceland – we just needed to find someone to take us from the campsite as far as a main road and it would be plain sailing. Collectively our results were mixed. Adam and Kamran had a merry time in the back of a van with some drunk fishermen, while Mule and I found ourselves marching through an empty plain without being picked up for about 16km, wondering if it was possible to walk all the way with no food. Having finally found a lift, it was abruptly cut short when we hit a rock and the car’s petrol tank burst. We definitely felt a bit guilty about getting in the next car to come along and leaving our helpers stranded on the roadside.
There were a couple of days left in which to explore, so the next day we bimbled aimlessly around Reykjavik (apart from Emily and Natasha, who had a very definite aim of seeing a whale – they didn’t). The most memorable part of the day was undoubtedly the Phallological (which I’m pretty sure is a word the owners just invented) Museum. This contained not just preserved specimens of the penises of the mammals of Iceland, but also a pantheon of penis memorabilia – more than one would think there would be any need for. “I think I’ve seen enough penises now,” Dom was reported to have said, shortly before leaving the establishment.
That night Reykjavik was lashed by an Atlantic storm. Emily and Natasha’s tent collapsed in the early hours of the morning and they evacuated to the campsite communal room and tried to get some sleep under a foosball table while a “drunk racist smoking man” complained about them. A couple of the other tents were damaged too, and the consensus was that it had been a bad night. I had quite enjoyed it, snuggled between Alex and Ciaran, listening to the wind. When morning came we hired two cars and most of us went on a road trip round the golden circle of tourist attractions which were:
-The Hot River. Actually after a long uphill walk turned out to be a tepid brook.
-The Crater Lake. Smaller and generally worse than the one at Landmannalauger.
-Gullfoss. A cool waterfall. After the first day we thought we might get tired of waterfalls but in fact the supply of them had rather dried up on the walk, and this one was pretty impressive.
-Geysir. Some geysirs. One of them went off every few minutes. It was badass.
-Þingvellir. Pretty interesting. The place where the first parliament in the world was held in 930, where a third of the entire population of the island turned out to declare independence from Denmark in 1944, and where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet and you can see them.
Meanwhile Mule had spent the day riding the famous Icelandic horses. There is probably a joke in here to do with mules and horses that you can make for yourself if you like. That night we had an end-of-trip meal at a Big Lebowski-themed bar. We had been reunited with Luise when we had got back to Reykjavik, and her sister had flown out to be with her too so she joined us. It was a merry end to a wondrous trip. My lasting impression is of the astonishing variety of beautiful landscapes we passed through and of the many indescribable views. Huge thanks to Dom for organising the trip and being awesome on it. You’ve shown your quality – the very highest.