I don’t think we’ve ever been as wet as we were in Iceland. Or as cold. Or hungrier, more tired, or dirtier. I formed this judgement only two weeks in to a six week trip on a day it rained so hard for so long that I thought I would never be wetter than this. Late next night, as we moved our tent from a pool of water, beside a lagoon full of icebergs, I realised I was completely wrong in assuming that was the wettest as I’d ever be. No. With every new day, I was going to be wetter yet.
Even our Gore-tex wasn’t keeping the rain at bay. Would I ever be dry again?
No sooner had we finished our seven day hike to Skógar, on which we’d endured our share of rain amongst the wind, snow, and occasional sunshine, it started bucketing down again. We jumped the bus to Vik, on Iceland’s southern coastline, and listened to the water pound the windows from the dark sky. At Vik, it rained so hard, and the wind blew so powerfully, that lesser tents were failing all around us. As we all huddled in the common room at Vik’s seaside campsite, one poor soul told us that his tent had – quite literally – blown away. An older style “pup tent”, it stood no chance against the rainy gale ripping across Vik and out to sea. As he climbed outside to visit the toilet, he took away the only thing holding the tent to the ground. Without his bodyweight inside, the tent popped its pegs and flew away. If it was ever seen again, it was in Scotland, not Iceland. Our modern tent, fortunately, held up well in a gale, but I quickly went back to it and triple-checked its ropes, pegs, and made sure our packs were weighing it down. His pack was stored in his car, where it was no help at all.
The sun rallied the next day, and we headed down to Vik’s black sand beach. Not content with the soaking she’d received last night, Yon managed to fall into the sea and drench her boots and pants. I tried very hard, but ultimately failed, to avoid laughing at her misfortune.
At Vik we ate a square meal – a trout, a small pizza, a piece of cake, and a light beer. It was a cheap and cheerful 80 dollars (in 2005). But after seven days of pasta and all-but-inedible saltfiskur dried cod, it was more than worth it.
While waiting out the rain, we met a cool English geologist. He was spending the summer studying a glacier, and was nearly at the end of his fieldwork. Exactly because we didn’t ask, he offered us a ride from our next stop all the way to Seyðisfjörður, Iceland’s eastern-most town. He was going to catch the last ferry of the season and take his Landrover and trailer back to the UK.
It was bucketing down again when we arrived at Jökulsárlón, a small lagoon beneath a glacier. Chunks of ice break off the glacier, drift through the lagoon and eventually make their way out to sea.
We walked into the simple cafeteria, ready to order the allegedly excellent soup. A really snotty English waitress looked at us and said “Take your packs outside!”. I said “But it’s pouring”. With a face sour enough to break another iceberg off the glacier, she barked “You wouldn’t do it in London, why do you do it here?”. Yon and I exchanged a look which said “Does this look like f***ing London to you?”, and ditched our gear outside. Predictably enough being recommended by Lonely Planet, the soup was lame. Instead of buying a ticket for the boat ride, a decision we took out of revenge for the awful service, we set off on foot and explored on our own.
It was a miserable night, easily the worst on the entire trip. Worse than windy, wet Vik. Worse than windy, cold Fimmvörðuháls where the gale used the tent to pull a boulder along the ground. We woke – well, “woke” is the wrong word because we never got to sleep – around 1 or 2 am to discover water everywhere. We’d pitched our tent in the driving rain and not noticed that we were in a slight depression. Another few hours of rain turned that into a puddle, then a pool, then a lake. Imagine the fun we had, outside in the dark, still windy, still raining, repositioning the tent by torchlight!
Next day, the sun popped out from the clouds. We were drenched, as was all our stuff. Yon’s passport looked like a prechooler’s watercolour painting. Soaked through, all the visa stamps had run into blotchy blobs of red, blue and green. Some kind of warning about “your passport is a valuable document” was now illegible.
Right on cue, our geologist friend and his buddy pipped their horn as their Landrovers swung into view. We bundled our crap into the back, and hopped in, one in each car. I mentally flipped the bird at the snarky English cow as we headed east on the coastal highway. Cliffs, beaches, and tiny hamlets all shone in the sun, so beautifully that it made up for the sun’s petulant absence the previous few days. We bought the geologist boys coffee and donuts in the little town of Höfn (pron. “hup”; population 1,600), and proceeded east then down the mountain to Seyðisfjörður.
It was the last night before the last ferry of the season. This tiny town of 600-odd hardy souls was – relatively speaking – pumping. Anyone who’d traveled in Iceland this summer and wanted to get home this year was here, ready to sail out next day. It was 31 August 2005.
On September 1, after hanging at the local hostel with all the departing tourists the night before, we roamed around town. It was dead. There wasn’t a soul in sight, nor a cafe open. We ended up in the local supermarket (helpful tip for cheapskates – they have free coffee). This was Zombie Apocalypse territory – it was as though someone had simply erased all the town’s inhabitants overnight. It was just us, and the supermarket ladies, who were left below. After climbing over some disused bulldozers (yes, there really wasn’t much to do in low season) we decided to go for a hike.
We stocked up on picnic stuff and climbed up into the hills above town. What a glorious place it was, too.
Egilsstaðir and the Organic Farm
We stuck out our thumbs at the edge of town and the very first car pulled over and took us in. A slow crawl up the mountain pass brought us to Egilsstaðir, another windswept but attractive Icelandic settlement of 2,200 people. It’s the hometown of four-time World’s Strongest Man Magnús Ver Magnússon. We didn’t see him.
We waited a day or so here while trying to persuade Eymundur to take us as volunteers on his nearby organic farm. Eventually he relented. Over dinner in his cosy house, he said, “I actually didn’t need you guys to come, I have enough people as it is”. I replied, “Yes, but I’m a lawyer, I’m trained to persuade you otherwise”. He laughed, agreed, and set out tomorrow’s work: picking potatoes.
Picking spuds turns out to be pretty boring, even in a setting as glorious as Iceland. But it was fun enough, mixing it up with the hippies on the volunteer organic farm. Bless them, the hippies, for they mean well. But wow, are they lazy. Yon and I, and one or two others, carried the load of spud picking, spud sorting, spud packing and cooking the group meals, while the hippies discussed important issues like whether a shift system was fairer, whether each person should specialize in what they were good at, or whether that was elitist and everyone should do a bit of everything. By the time they were done debating a process to discuss which of these issues should be addressed first, the rest of us had done all the work. Want to know why capitalism always wins? There’s your answer.
Eymundur was a great guy, though, committed to eco-farming but practical with it. He seemed happily amused at the hippy antics and was generous with the food he provided us. We both liked him. We took away his recipe for “Gabriel’s Breakfast”, a barley-based meal that many of our friends have since enjoyed when staying with us. It’s named after his young son.
Yon and I decided to make a Chinese meal for everyone, so with Goran, a self-described “kibbutznik” from Israel, we went into the forest Eymundur had planted himself. Yon was in her element, a forest-elf gathering mushrooms for a giant stir-fry.
And then it was time to leave. Time to move on. We’d picked a ton of potatoes but it was a restful week. There was still much more to see. Eymundur dropped us on the outskirts of town, and out went the thumbs again.
An ancient and silent man picked us up, and drove at an extremely safe speed towards Mývatn.
The terrain was lunar, and in fact was one of the areas used by NASA in the 60s to design equipment and train astronauts for the moon landings (or, if you believe the nutjobs, to fake the whole thing).
We couchsurfed here with a strange character named Illugi (pron It-lewie). A non-stop talker, he regaled us with his exploits as a fish tinner, as a security guard in a Reykjavik strip joint, and as a crazy local tour guide. Much to his father’s apparent dismay, he put us up in a spare room at the family hotel. Just after they had a big argument about this, we all stood outside together silently watching the Northern Lights. Awkward!
But what a place! A large lake, snow-capped volcanos, and the enormous Hverfjall crater, a kilometer across and 2,500 years old. We climbed its steep slope and looked down into the crater. Not until our night stroll in the high Bolivian desert five years later did I feel as much insight into how the surface of the moon must look.
Apart from grey moonscapes, volcanic activity also delivered Mývatn a bright palette of pink and red mud.
Not far out of Mývatn was a hot spring similar to the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik. We huddled inside its hotpots while waiting out a snowstorm. Nearby was a remarkable volcanic area which we explored as the weather switched from sun to snow and back.
Around this area, we discovered someone had made some Hverabrauð – a kind of thick bread, tasting of honey, which is baked by leaving it in the hot volcanic earth. We bought some, and discovered it was exceptionally delicious. Another quirky Icelandic staple, developed organically from the island’s peculiar conditions.
But the last word on Mývatn is its secret underground hot springs. This is one of those places in the world that you just never forget. Illugi told us how to find it, and it was lucky he did because we’d never have found it on our own.
This remarkable, beautiful cave was the highlight of the entire trip for Yon. She braved the 40+ degree waters and soaked in the warmth, while I just marveled from the subterranean shore. It was beautiful, almost unearthly, and we had it all to ourselves.
As she swam, I reflected on our month in Iceland. Thirty days of wet, wind and cold punctuated by teasing glimpses of sun. Hungry, tired, dirty, but loving every second. And looking forward to more.