I feel like all the hikes I’ve taken this year have been in preparation for this hike – Landmannalaugar in Iceland.
With frenzied New Year’s resolve, I had bought my ticket to Iceland on January 1st, 2015. Two main factors came into play:
- I was mad that I wasn’t able to make my planned Taiwan/Hong Kong trip with Jen because of the darned dog bite incident. I had to forfeit my plane and lodging expenses and missed out on my big trip of the year. I needed another one to look forward to – stat.
- I’ve always been charmed by Iceland’s black sand beaches. That led me into a Wikipedia rabbit hole of geological wonders: Geysirs! Hot springs! Volcanoes! Shifting tectonic plates! I wanted to journey to the center of the earth too!
I was based out of Reykjavik, but this hike was the best part of my trip so far and I am enthusiastic to share it with all of you. After this post, I will review Reykjavik and Vik, which I have a day trip booked for on Sunday (which will be today, when this post is scheduled to go live!)
Landmannalaugar is in the interior of Iceland, where nobody lives. The terrain is too mountainous, and the biting, windy weather too unpleasant. However, the lack of inhabitants makes for a stark view of nature in all its grandeur, and makes it a popular hiking spot.
I chose the Landmannalaugar tour with Trek Iceland because a) it was a manageable day hike; b) it culminated in a geothermal hot spring and c) Trek Iceland had a modern website in English. You’d be surprised at how unnavigable some of these websites are.
It took about four hours to get from Reykjavik to the trailhead. We had to traverse through lava fields and vast moss plains, most of which I was asleep for. Jet lag, yo.
When we arrived at the base camp, our guide, Henry, put out a bunch of food and instructed us to eat.
I really like the simplicity of what we were given. I personally don’t really eat pre-sliced bread these days, eschewing it for more healthful carbs.
With unwashed hands, I made myself a sandwich of ham, salami, sliced cucumber and a mushroom spread. I forgot how delicious pre-sliced bread is. I sneakily made myself another slice with Nutella, hoping that I’ll work it off. Thus began our hike!
After half an hour of walking through a lava field, we see a postcard-perfect valley with grazing sheep. The hike thus far wasn’t bad yet. It was raining, but not prohibitively so. The temperature was about 11 degrees Celsius, or 52 degrees Farenheit.
Our ginger-bearded hiking guide, Henry, is German. I thought he’d be Icelandic because of how strongly he felt about preserving Iceland’s nature (and because he had a red beard!), but he’s just a passionate guy who loves getting paid to hike. He was very knowledgeable about the area. For instance, the moss you see takes hundreds of years to grow, and he told us that some vandal in the ’60s carved his name in the moss and you can still see it till today.
En route to the peak of the active volcano Brenninsteinsalda, we saw some sulphur steam vents. Apparently, we were sitting atop a magma chamber below us, i.e. we were hiking on an active volcano. The air around us smelled like farts. Henry said a foolish American in one of his groups had put his hand right over the steam vent and got scalded – of course he had to highlight that he was American.
From here on out, the rain started falling harder, and as we gained in altitude, the wind whipped around us. The weather was honestly kind of shitty and I felt like I was gonna be blown off my feet, but I got a picture of the view.
Henry told us of an Icelandic saying: What do you do if you get lost in the forest? You stand up! Trees do not grow in these parts, as the temperature is too cold and the wind too strong for any tall structure to remain standing.
I also took a selfie. You can see that I am soaked through. After this, I stopped taking photos because my fingers were freezing from not having gloves. I thought specifically to bring gloves, and I ended up forgetting. Bah.
At this point, my sole objective was to get through the damn bloody hike and end up in the hot spring. I was cold and miserable, and my hands were dirty from trying to stabilize myself on the slippery rock.
I’m going to skip past the part where we hiked through obsidian fields and through the Grænagil canyon and instead focus on my growing misery. With the hot spring to look forward to, I tailed right behind our guide Henry, at points even surpassing him entirely while he waits for the group.
“Somebody really wants to get to the hot spring, huh?”
Damn straight. Cold fingers and wearing a wet parka sucks. Why is everyone else so slow? Where is that elusive hot spring when you need it?
When we finally reached the end, Henry informed us that while the hot spring awaits us, it’s about 200m away from the changing area, and while no one would stop us from stripping right by the hot spring and jumping into it, it would be a bit of a challenge to get from the changing area to the hot spring.
I ran to the changing area to get into my bathing suit as fast as possible. However, yet another thing stood between me and the hot spring: my cold-immobilized fingers. Seriously, they did not work. I was standing half naked in a dingy stall, trying to hook on my bikini strap but to no avail. My fingers failed to bend at the very tips, and were stiff pieces of useless shite. I abandoned Mission: Change in The Changing Area, and switched to Mission: Enter The Hot Spring Naked. Fortunately, I did manage to put my bikini bottom on; that required much less finesse.
But this is Europe, right? Nobody cares about women’s nipples. Clutching my parka closed over my shirtless body and bare legs, I sprinted the 200m of boggy boardwalk from the changing hut to the hot spring area. Once by the hot spring platform, I dropped my hiking paraphernalia, and grabbed my bikini top with me into the pool.
Never did tepid river water feel so refreshing. I felt a twinge of squeamishness at the algae floating around me, but what the hell, right? Brain-eating bacteria doesn’t enter through my genitals, I don’t think. The pool was shallow enough to reach my shoulders as I waddled on the pebbly river bed, in an attempt to camouflage my nudity. When my fingers warmed up enough, I put on my bikini while submerged in water.
The hot spring was amazing. It’s fed by a lava-heated water source and a glacial river source. How magical is that? Nature’s hot tub! All my squeamishness about slimey algae and “dirt” melted away as I luxuriated in the enveloping warmth that melted away the chill from the hike.
I was amongst Americans, the French, Poles, Germans… all of us were enjoying this beautiful pool. There was certainly variability in how hot certain areas of the pool was, depending on the strength of the flow from the hot and the cold source. People would migrate closer and farther away from the mouth of the stream in observable patterns.
After soaking for about an hour, I left warm and satisfied.
Parked right next to our 4WD bus was a “Mountain Mall” truck, selling hot soup and snacks and stuff. I just think naming a bus a “mall” is amusing.
Overall, this hike was the best part of my trip (provided Vik doesn’t blow my mind tomorrow). There’s nothing like going through adversity to make you grateful for the simple things in life. I could have very well succumbed to a misplaced step and ended up broken in a pit, or Brenninsteinsalda could erupted and I could have turned into coal and left my trove of secrets unbeknownst to everyone forever. I find the idea of imminent death slightly romantic – I suppose I am somewhat of a thrill-seeker.
Next up: blog posts on my experiences in Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon, and Vik!