Iceland summer 2012: Þórsmörk

Today started early when I woke up at 6.30am. By seven I was having breakfast and by 7.50 I was bored enough to go and stand outside to wait for the bus. To my surprise, the bus was actually already there, ten minutes early. I got taken to the ticket office, exchanged my piece of paper for a ticket, as usual, and waited for my bus.

When it arrived, the bus was a truck. I didn’t realise at first – I saw the truck arriving and assumed it was Landmannalaugar or somewhere equally remote and inaccessible. The booklet hadn’t mentioned Þórsmörk being a bit off-roady. I liked the look of the truck, the twin of the one I did the Golden Circle trip in last year and I was delighted when I spotted an AH30 – Þórsmörk sign in the front.

The guide, Matthias, I recognised from my caving trip last year (more precisely, I recognised that it wasn’t an Icelandic name and my brain made the leap from there) and then my mouth, without permission from my brain, decided to inform him of this. He said yes, probably it was him but he had bigger concerns.

“Do you have any better shoes?”

I was wearing my trekking sandals. I’d thought about bringing my boots just in case. I’d gone so far as to pack them and then I’d decided they were just too big and heavy and my sandals would be just fine. I assured Matthias that my sandals were tough.

“We have to hike.”

“I’ve climbed mountains in them. They’ll be fine.”

He wasn’t convinced. “We have to cross a river.”

“They’re waterproof. They’re tough. Really, they’ll be fine.”

He still didn’t seem convinced but he didn’t argue any more. The truck gradually filled up and we headed out of Reykjavík on the Ring Road, past the power station at Hengill (the name of one of the volcano planes I didn’t know yesterday) and down to Hveragerði. This is a journey I’ve made twice before but never in daylight. The volcanoes along the roadside look very different when they’re not under the snow and yet similar enough that I recognised them. They all look very green and brown and streaky and pretty and wild.

We sailed through Hveragerði which looks very ordinary when it hasn’t got those greenhouses glowing orange in the night, through Selfoss and across a vast agricultural area. Matthias talked, first in English and then repeating it in his native German and I took a few notes. I learnt that 20% of Iceland’s electricity is geothermal and the other 80% hydro power. I learnt that Hengill, the volcano running the power station (the world’s biggest geothermal power plant) is the closest active volcano to Reykjavík and erupts around every 5000 years. It only erupted 2000 years ago so Reykjavík feels safe from it for quite a while yet. The Vikings were apparently active in the ninth, tenth, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which I wrote down because it made me giggle – it sounds like they took a century off. They liked Iceland because it was like Norway, full of fjords and glaciers “and strange exploding mountains – but they could cope with that”. I learnt Icelandics lived Viking-style, in single farmsteads dotted around for a thousand years and the first villages only really sprang up during the nineteenth century when fishing became a big industry. Icelandic cows are smaller than European cows and only produce 5000-6000 litres of milk per year, as opposed to 16000 and that sheep live all over the place in summer and live in sheds in winter and are sheared in October and March.

Then, with all the information finished, we made our first stop, at a petrol station at Hvolsvöllur. We had about twenty minutes there to buy lunch if we wanted, either at the petrol station or over the road at the supermarket. I had brought lunch with me but I did get another drink and some chocolate and then I went back into the car park to enjoy the view. There was a big pointy snowy volcano just about visible on the left and some smaller snowless pointy ones to the right. I didn’t know what any of those were at the time but I was going to find out.

Not much further on, we turned off the road. Some big pointy jagged mountains (the smaller ones I’d seen at the petrol station) were visible on the horizon. I looked over my mental map of Iceland, decided that I didn’t know of any volcanoes in that area and deduced (correctly!) that they must be the Westman Islands. They’re big. Big pointy chunks of rock. I was expecting them to be much smaller and a lot flatter. Then on our left was a big waterfall – Seljalandfoss. We weren’t stopping there just yet but we would on the way back. Five minutes later, the road ended.

We drove on a gravel track over the riverbed where glacial meltwater comes down. It’s also where the flood came down when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and melted its glacier. It’s just a huge dark grey floodplain and it looks like the surface of the moon, if the moon had shallow windy rivers all over it.

We had to drive through these rivers. It was exciting at first – we’re in a big truck and we’re driving through rivers! – but we went through so many it soon became quite normal. Some of them were little streams, some of them were quite fast, some of them were quite deep, some of them were quite wide.

Þórsmörk is a pretty little valley full of trees hidden in the space between three volcanoes. To the south is the famous Eyjafjalljökull (always prefaced with the words “this volcano has a very difficult name”). We were creeping along its very edge, because the “jökull” means the glacier on top and the whole thing isn’t just one cone, it’s a big volcanic massif. To the east, or right in front of us, was Mýrdalsjökull, which is much bigger and has a much bigger volcano hiding underneath it – the infamous and overdue Katla, whose caldera is 10km in diameter (compared to Eyjafjalljökull’s, which is only 1km – when Katla goes up, she’s going to dwarf Eyjafjalljökull’s drama) and to the north, by a dotted collection of volcanoes topped by the Tindfjallajökull.

We stopped at the foot of one of Eyjafjallajökull’s glacier tongues and I had to get Matthias to write this one down because it’s not on any of my maps and my Icelandic isn’t quite good enough to work out spellings from pronunciation. It’s called Gigjökull and he told me “gig” means “crater”, so I could add that to my vocabulary. Two and a half years ago, we’d have been standing in front of a pretty lagoon, filled with floating icebergs and with the glacier’s tongue sticking in it. Then Eyjafjallajökull erupted and dumped a lot of sand and ash in it and utterly destroyed it. That doesn’t mean it’s not a completely alien and incredible landscape.

Our next stop was quite a lot further on, at the Básar base camp. That was a surprise. To drive for over an hour across a gravel road that you can’t even see against a grey riverbed that looks like the moon, accessible only by 4x4s and then come across a campsite, with decking and manicured bits of lawn, people with caravans and even toilets. We stopped there for a quick lunch, then Matthias pointed at the mountain above us. “We have forty-five minutes to climb to the top of that mountain.”

We didn’t really take him seriously but we followed him into the trees. When the Vikings first came here, Iceland was 40% covered in trees. Now it’s under 2% and I think most of them are in Þórsmörk. We crossed a couple of streams and climbed up through the woods and suddenly we were halfway up a mountain. We stopped for Matthias to explain that Þórsmörk means “Woodland of Thor” (Þ being an ancient letter called Thorn, pronounced “th” as in Thor and mörk meaning woodlands) which I already knew because I like to do the reading and then as he was going to do the German explanation, all the non-German speakers could go on ahead. We did. Very slowly. Because every few metres you’d come across another gap in the trees and another spectacular otherworldly view.

We walked across the ridge of the mountain, taking photos down both sides – the tree-filled valley and green mountains on the left and the vast grey moon-like plain on the right and within a few minutes we’d crossed and were standing beneath the big lumpy rock that Matthias had pointed to from the ground. From a certain angle, it looks a bit like a frozen troll so we called it Troll Rock. I don’t know if that’s an official name or if it has an Icelandic equivalent but I can’t find it on any maps so I will leave it in English. Matthias pointed out that the mountains around here are mostly made of trachyte which is little more than compressed ash and is therefore vulnerable to wind and rain, which is why they all have a swept tumbledown look to them.

There were steps down from the other side of Troll Rock and that’s a long way and a lot of steps. My knees were trembling when I reached the campsite just because of the pressure on them of climbing down so many steps. That was the first stop and because we’d done so well, we’d make it a little harder.

Back in the truck we turned back and started going west again to stop off at a canyon. I didn’t manage to get the name of it. (The booklet says it’s Stakkholtsgjá) The first half was easier for me, I could wade to the mid-point and then take to the stones. Then it was a boing-boing-boing bit, where you can’t stop, you just have to jump across three or four stones as quickly as you can. I paused on one to adjust my feet and decided to step onto an underwater one on my way only. I used the stepping stones where it was easier to but equally, if it was easier to get my feet wet, then I got my feet wet. We lost two members of our group there. They didn’t want to jump across a river.

It was well worth the tricky crossing. We had a smaller and easier stream crossing and suddenly we were in a dark, narrow canyon and a few more steps (or splashes) beyond that, we’d reached the end and were standing under a tall thin waterfall falling from miles above our heads. It was pretty spectacular. The Danish woman I’d borrowed earlier to be my personal photographer took the camera out of my hands to take a photo of me crouched on a rock in front of it all.

After a splash back into the main canyon and another wade across the river, it seemed I’d won the battle of boots vs sandals. Matthias and the old man of the group were grinning and pointing at me and evidently discussing my feet in German. Matthias switched to English long enough for me to hear that I must have “skin like a seal” – I think they meant that it’s very cold water. The only downside was the sandals let in things like sand, grit and volcanic ash and by the time we got back to the truck, my feet were coated in black dust. I scraped the worst of it off and tried to sit still until we reached the next stop.

We’d done well again. Time to make it a little harder still. Another half-hour drive back through Þórsmörk and we came to a very well hidden little place just off the main track, which had a sign pointing to it and therefore I know that our next canyon was called Nauthusagil – at least, I think that’s what I’ve written down. It’s very hard to read because I was trying to write it as our big truck was trundling over volcanic rock.

This was another canyon and it was much narrower and much greener. It was also much easier to cross the river here – no need to pick my way across and make the odd flying leap – this water was crystal clear and much colder than the last one. I paddled my way along with the rest of the group, zigzagging across all the time, except that I was paddling while they were stepping carefully and then we reached an unexpected obstacle. We had to step across nice and carefully and then, holding onto a rope for balance, climb along the wall and then up a waterfall. I had no doubt that my sandals were up to it but I knew if anyone was going to fall in, it was going to be me.

I did make a slight misstep across – I was just in the process of realising that the big stepping stone everyone else was using was actually easier than trying to find a foothold under the water when I lost my balance very slightly. No, I didn’t fall in but I did have to throw one hand very quickly in to steady myself. The climb around the edge of the splash pool and up the waterfall was no problem – it was like an easier version of the Twin Pots in Swildons and it even had a rope. Beyond that was our goal – another hidden waterfall at the bottom of a tall, thin, moss-green canyon and again, very much worth the effort of getting there.

We splashed (or stepped) our way back to the truck. By now, my feet had been in the very cold water for a bit too long and they hurt a bit but they very quickly improved on being out of the water and I was silently gloating my triumph. “Have you got better shoes” indeed. This latest splash had even washed all the ash and filth off them.

Back on the track and we’d finished up behind a coach and three cars – for a gravel track across the surface of the moon, it’s amazingly busy. We very quickly lost the cars – at a river crossing they all headed upstream rather than follow us and five minutes later, we’d reached another river crossing. Matthias didn’t wait for the coach to get across. He was going across alongside it. In fact, he was overtaking it. Overtaking in a river! I suddenly had to adjust my view of Matthias.

We rumbled along at a much more satisfactory speed (Matthias overtook a car, this time on the gravel track) and reached Seljalandfoss. It’s forty metres high, the water runs off Eyjafjallajökull and you can walk behind it because it falls from an overhang. Matthias explained that this had something to do with the sea – the overhang was cut out by the sea right after the ice age and then the sea was pushed back and all the fjords became Iceland’s lowlands – isostatic rebounding was the phrase he used, I think. I’ll google it later. He told us that you could walk up behind the waterfall, easier to use the path on the left, or maybe the right. I can’t remember. I got distracted because he’d also commented “Some of you already have wet feet – you might want to take the direct route”. Without knowing what Seljalandfoss looks like, it’s hard to tell whether or not he’s joking although I suspected he was.

Seljalandfoss is quite spectacular. It’s a big white waterfall that just tumbles down off the cliffs and throws up a lot of spray and rainbows and everything is green around it. I followed the path up to the right, got soaked by the spray and hurried round as quickly as I could while taking as many photos as I could. A few more at the front and it was time to go back to the coach.

That wasn’t it. I thought that was the last of it but no. We stopped quickly at the petrol station at Hvolsvöllur and then went along the Ring Road to Selfoss. Not long after that, I spied a white snow-capped cone to my left which wasn’t on my mental map. It dawned on me that we weren’t on our way to Hveragerði and that we hadn’t crossed the suspension bridge in the middle of Selfoss. I had no idea where we were. The more I looked at the volcano, the more familiar it looked and so did the big white glacier next to it and the teeth-like ones next to that. Somehow we were looking at exactly the same view we’d seen that morning – the three boundaries of Þórsmörk. And yet surely we hadn’t turned back. I had my guidebook out, open to the south-west map, turning it over and over, trying to make sense of it and then finally I spied the next river crossing – this one a huge wide flat one (and us on a road and on a bridge) and figured out that we were on the 34, crossing the Ölfusá, which is the same river as at Selfoss but this was where it met the sea. We were stopping at a black lava beach.

That was another spectacular sight. Being in my sandals, I couldn’t resist sticking my feet in the North Atlantic and got two sandalfuls of tiny black stones for my trouble. I retreated further up the beach to tip them out and just got my feet covered in black sand. I took photos up and down the beach and out to sea and then retreated to the car park to clean my feet as best I could and take photos of the river meeting the sea and of the guardians of Þórsmörk in the distance.

Matthias seemed to have forgotten about the English translation because he talked in German all the way back to Reykjavík. I know enough German to understand that he was talking about whale-spotting mostly, that the flight to Akureyri in the north is 1hr 50 mins and that there is a type of whale 8m long. The blue whale may or may not be 80m long. He talked solidly in German for getting on for thirty miles and never translated a word of it into English until we reached the outskirts of Reykjavík.

We were all dropped off in the centre of town, since the truck isn’t really designed for Reykjavík’s narrower streets, which suited me fine as it was where I’d planned to disembark anyway. To my surprise at 7.30 at night all the shops were still open. Not just the supermarkets – all the souvenir shops, the bookshops, everything. I stuck my head in a few on the way back and in the square where the Christmas market was (I really need a proper name for this place) I stuck my feet in the fountain to wash off the remains of the beach. Maybe not the done thing but better than trailing black lava all through the guesthouse.

And then I was back and done for the day. Give or take five minutes, it had been a full twelve hours. I have taken 344 photos today. I think my estimate of 1000 photos over the entire trip is going to be a bit on the low side.

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