Saturday, December 1

Not so terra firma

Not so terra firma
A week hiking the legendary Laugavegur Trail in Iceland

Iceland can seem daunting and impenetrable. And that’s just placenames which are as much of a challenge as the topography. In fact, while there trekking one of the world’s greatest trails, one struggles for the vocabulary to do justice to a breath-taking land thrown up – literally – by its precarious perch on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Volcanoes and geysers, tumbling waterfalls and bubbling hot springs, the terra is far from firma. And trolls seem to have as much substance and often better press than Icelandic bankers.

I was there with a group of hikers who spend most Sunday mornings on the Wicklow Mountains, followed by a spicy goulash in the Roundwood Inn. We’d been tempted to the Laugavegur, a world-famous walk of some 55km from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk in Iceland’s south-west.

First however, there was the not insubstantial matter of duty free. As intimidating as the hiking was said to be, talk of the price of drink had prompted much pre-trip speculation. But we’d discovered duty free can be bought in Reykjavik’s Keflavík Airport on the way in. Moreover, it can be ordered in advance. The spartan practicality of huts along the route was to be somewhat ameliorated by a couple of trolleys of wine and beer. There was the risk of dehydration for 16 thirsty walkers after all.

The following day we were to tackle Mount Hekla, which last erupted in 2000. Before that, a stop-off at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction. Described as “one of the earth’s most awesome places” (OMG!) by National Geographic magazine, it’s a smoky-azure blue lake with frosted edges of crusty silica, whose water is a bath-like 37ºC.

Reputed to have all sorts of beneficial skin effects, the greatest surprise of this fabulous natural wonder is it’s not at all what it seems. The hot geothermal saltwater which feeds the lagoon has actually been cooled before its arrival by a visit to the local geothermal power station which initially uses the super-heated steam surging up from 2km underground to drive turbines and harvest heat. Iceland’s perception-twisting begins.

“The Gates of Hell” is how Mount Hekla was known for centuries, with up to 30 eruptions in recorded history and goodness knows how many unrecorded. We climb it on an unseasonably gorgeous day, while our expert guide, Jon – who along with our driver, also Jon, meant the entire gang totted up no less than eight “Jons” – casually gave us geology 101.

At the summit, there’s a vulcanologist’s station and an aluminium box protecting a visitor’s book. We spot entries from an Irish father and daughter we know who had climbed it together earlier in the year to mark her Leaving Cert. Sitting down on a narrow gravelly strip to have our sandwiches, the realisation dawns that the ground isn’t exposed through climbers’ boot steps, but because it’s piping hot. Catch the light right and you see steam rising. And this is at 1,500m with snow on every side. Fire and ice indeed.

Helka's "hot" strip across the snowy summit

The Laugavegur trail starts the next day and we’re driven cross-country to the hut at Landmannalaugar in a customised mini-coach, with four monster tyres and four-wheel drive. This Top-Gearesque transporter is soon nicknamed “The Beast”. Off-road is on-road as far as driving Iceland is concerned. You have to tip-toe fat tyres across snowfields and ash deserts and zigzag fast-flowing glacial rivers. Jon the Driver and The Beast make it look easy.

Huts along the route are maintained by the Icelandic Touring Association and Landmannalaugar’s are spotless, if ascetically furnished. Dorms with bunk beds are standard. As is no electricity, separate chemical loos at a distance, and running water, a lottery. It’s like paradise following a hard day on the trail. After a dinner of chicken stew rustled up on a gas ring and the first few bottles of duty free are uncorked, we don head torches and swimming togs to brave the freezing night for a spot a few hundred metres from our isolated hut. There’s a hot spring pond. We lie in waist-high hot water among reeds, gazing up at a spilt galaxy of Milky Way untroubled by light pollution. Except for the nascent glimmering of distant Northern Lights. Later, world-class snoring kicks in and tomorrow, it’s 25km to Hvanngil Hut. 

Iceland is being wrent asunder. And not just because of the “economical” crisis which the Jons patiently field questions about. The island’s existence results from being at the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. And they’re drifting apart, pulling two sides of Iceland east and west by as much as 2cm a year.

There are all sorts of manifestations of this shifting underworld. Sulphurous steam pumps out of holes in the ground. Hillside streams might be glacial cold or scalding hot. Shiny obsidian fields give way to black ash deserts. Vast, sheer canyons are deep-etched by improbably powerful rivers. Beautiful vistas unfold, and yet they’re unlike anything any of us have seen before, as if it’s an old Polaroid where the colours are doing their own thing.

Surging rivers must be waded. Some of us roll our trousers up, while others strip to their undies. Boots are slung around necks. It’s all a bit touch and go as the icy water rushes up around our nether regions. A slip would be bloody cold – if hilarious to the rest - and the current can be so strong that we have to cross with arms linked like some demented can-can troupe. We agree that photographic evidence of these crossings is to be strictly controlled: there’s little dignity in the knickers and shell-jackets look.

Ludwik the cook somehow arranges packed lunches for all each day. Foal (yes) sandwiches are euphemistically referred to as smoked lamb. He calculates our diet in terms of kilos per person and we need it. The days are long and tiring, and the wind, bone-cuttingly cold at times.

We make Emstrur huts and then Þórsmörk, the most spacious accommodation to date with a fantastic view and coin-operated hot showers: five minutes for 500 Kr. Luxury. The classic Laugavegur ends here, but we’ve signed up for an extra day to hike a further 25kms over a pass to the coast.

Vast glaciers slip off their high mountain homes along the horizon. About a tenth of the island is ice-capped, many sitting over volcanoes, including Eyjafjallajökull, responsible for the infamous plane-grounding ash cloud. 

Next day we greet Michael O’Leary’s nemesis face to face, as we skirt its still smoking flank. We get to climb a brand new mountain spewed out in 2010, one side steep and thick with a leg-wearying fine black ash. Almost blown off the top, the surface is so hot, it’s painful to sit on. Later we follow a eye-watering series of waterfalls, one more spectacular than the last until we clamber (in fact, we run, but that’s another story) down the side of Skógafoss Waterfall, as it tumbles 60 meters to our journey’s end at Skógar.

A week in Iceland saw us making more of a fist of the placenames, but still lost for words to evoke a proper sense of this incredible land, this geological toy-box. We only saw one amazing corner of it. It blitzes expectations of a solid earth and bombards the senses in every way. The Gates of Hell? I don’t think so.

We flew with Iceland Express via Gatwick. The excellent Jons, Ludwik and The Beast are with Find The Icelandic Touring Association at

This appeared in The Irish Times Magazine on Dec 1, 2012