After 4 days weighing head torches, speedos and shopping for dried foodstuffs, my first day of my Icelandic adventure began with a night at my Mum and Dads, and a 4 am drop off at Manchester Airport from the ever kind and helpful Peter Kidwell. My first job was to get my backpack wrapped in protective cling film followed by some last minute shopping for Compede blister blasters after the epic fail of Boot's own brand back in June.
After a two and a quarter hour flight sat next to wriggly 2-year-old sitting in his mum's lap, I landed at Keflavik airport at 9 am. The 50km bus transfer to Reykiojic cost 2500 IKR and took 45 minutes. I arrived at the bus terminal with three hours to kill.
There was an imposing church behind the bus station, and I decided to take a stroll to the prominent landmark my friend Clifford Darlington described as part Thunderbird, part Italian Trulli. A brief google informed me it was Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran parish church topping 74.5 metres high, it is the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures in the country.
After an amble around the capital city, I caught a bus to the Landmannalaugar area. My bus was a serious piece of kit with raised suspension and what looked like 4 wheel drive. The 4-hour journey took us tarmac roads with the last 30 miles on volcanic tracks and five river crossings. The bus ride was exactly 1% as scary as travelling in Nepal, but some steep descents and high rivers added to the sense of adventure.
The bus wound its way through volcanic desserts and river valleys. The remote landscape both inspired and made me a little edgy -I was further away from civilization than I had anticipated. My nerves were soon calmed when we rounded the final corner before Landmannalaugar. Not only were there the few expected mountains huts, but there were also tents and camper vans to rival a medium sized music festival. Finding a pitch for my Big Agnes (tent) proved a little taxing. There seemed to be a binary choice- rock fields or bog? Fortunately Big Agnes, contrary to her name, and like her owner, has a small footprint. I pitched on a mildly moist stretch of grass between a rocky path and a brook. I made a pretty tasty meal of pasta, pesto and pine nuts, used the excellent facilities to clean up and spoke to Jill.
My highlight of the day was a dip in the hot spring. Which brings me back to my backpack weight saving. On Sunday in a bid to save a few grams I found a pair of running shorts that were acceptable in the 80s golden age of middle distance running. The only person I know still wears such minimalistic attire is Sandbach Strider's Scott Portman. I managed to get into the spring without scaring too many children. Unfortunately, my walk out wasn't as discrete. I emerged from the water in full view of a group of Japanese tourists armed with cameras. If you can picture the polar opposite of Daniel Craig emerging from the Caribbean in Casino Royal, you will get an idea.
I'm finishing off the evening listening to Iceland's excellent Kaleo, drinking a mug of PG Tips and it's still light.
Day 2 Landmannalaugar to the moon (Hrafntinnusker)
After breakfast, I started the climb out of Landmannalaugar to start the Langavegur trail. Day 1 of the trek goes pretty much straight up and beyond the snow line. I walked through stunning rainbow coloured volcanic hills peppered with hot rock belching acrid sulphuric gas. I found a lunch stop up-wind of a volcanic spring and used the hot water to wash my pots.
The second half of took me over snow fields and black volcanic hills. The monochromatic landscape of the afternoon contrasting wildly from the kaleidoscope of colours of the morning. The trek across the snow fields was hard work and made progress slow. I was reminded of the unforgiving landscape when, 1km before camp 2, I passed a memorial for a young 24 year old hiker who had died in a blizzard so near to shelter.
I arrived at Hrafntinnusker at 3 pm. The weather has just started to turn, I battled strong winds and light rain as I pitched my tent. Hrafntinnusker is bleak. Stone circles surround each camping pitch to try and protect tents against the wind. A fine black volcanic dust gets everywhere, even inside your inner tent. The next 15 hours were wet with high winds, and all the tents took a battering.
I managed to cook inside the porch of my tent and stay warm and dry throughout a bleak night. Only emerging from my tent to visit foul smelling by drop toilet.
Not all the campers stayed dry. A surprisingly cheery Ukrainian couple told me that the rain had got into their tent, as they cooked breakfast under a corrugated iron porch that served as the camp kitchen.
I left Hrafntinnusker at 8 am looking for the sun.
Day 3 (trekking day 2)
After a cold and wet night in Hrafntinnusker, I left for hoping for better weather in Álftavatn. Following the early morning trek through snow fields and precarious snow bridges, I dropped into an area of volcanic activity. Boiling water and steam emerged from the earth with sulphuric gases stinging your nostrils. Yesterday I used a hot spring to wash my pot which gave me a cunning plan. I was doubling up on my evening meals and sealing the remainder in zip seal bags for lunch the following day. Inspired by 1980s boil in the bag dinners I experimented with reheating my cold pasta dish with the steam from emerging the ground. I prodded my bag after five minutes and success-I had a piping hot meal. The boil in the bag meal could be making a comeback!
Day 2 of the Langavegur is where you see the money shot. As you exit the volcanic fields you are treated with a Tolkienesque landscape of conical volcanoes protruding across a 10mile volcanic plateau. My pictures don't do it justice and I have copied on from a professional photographer below.
I arrived in Álftavatn, pitched my tent by the lake and enjoyed some welcome sunshine.
Day 4 (trekking day 4) Dust
For the large part of the trek from Álftavatn to Emstrur is across the volcanic plateau. Three river crossings, across icy glacial melt, add some excitement to what is the least spectacular of the four days. The first two river crossings are knee deep and involve rolling up your trouser legs, donning your crocs/sandals and bracing yourself for the freezing waters. The third river crossing is a different beast. I could see from other trekkers that river was moving very fast and was way over knee high. My legs are only 29 inches long and rolling my trouser legs up wasn't going to be enough. I packed my trousers, unbuckled my rucksack and took the plunge. The icy current was hard work. The water came right up to the top of my rolled up boxer shorts, and half way across my legs started to go numb. I made it across, but appreciated how quickly the body stops working in icy cold temperatures.
I arrived at a very windy Emstrur at 3:30 pm. Limited camping spaces, on terraces of volcanic sand, meant there was a rush to try and find a sheltered spot. It took me less than 10minutes to discover there wasn't any shelter. My first attempt at pitching my tent blew my pegged ground sheet and inner tent from the ground. For my second attempt, I used rocks to secure my pegs only to find the wind had changed and was battering the broadside of my tent. For my third attempt, I managed to rotate my tent and re-peg it securely with rocks. Exhausted I climbed into my tent and could hear the wind blowing volcanic dust against the tents. The dust was fine enough to get under the skirt of my outer tent and make its way through the mesh of the inner tent- everything was now covered in fine black dust. I had dust in my hair, dust in my ears and dust in my eyes. My attempts make some tea was thwarted by dust. I put on my airline eye mask, got into my sleeping bag and took shelter. I awoke three hours later covered in dust, but the wind had stopped!
Day 5 - Final Day trekking - Mushrooms Emstrur to Þórsmörk
Thankfully, the wind and dust storm had not returned, and I managed to cook breakfast and clean my gear. Climbing out of Emstrur there is warning sign informing you that you are heading to an area where serious flash flooding occurs once or twice every century; the snow topped volcanoes erupt, melt the ice, and the whole valley is flooded. In the event of an imminent eruption, warning shots are fired from the volcanic huts, and you are advised to head for higher ground, how high it didn't say, but I was ready! The landscape for day 4 has been forged by the intense flash floods which result in deep canyons and a large river plateau that runs into the sea.
I found the perfect spot for lunch and cooked the meal I should have had the previous evening. I was joined by a group of Kiwi trekkers who had collected a stash of mushrooms. They clocked me as a man with culinary knowledge and asked me if they were edible. My friends know that when I'm asked a question that I don't know the answer to, I confidently reply with the first thing that comes in my head. Not wishing to see my fellow trekkers hallucinating around their calor gas flame, or worse, I took a cautious approach and messaged Sandbach's mushroom expert, Chris Steel, with a picture of the mushrooms. I also did a quick google search just in case Chris had partaken in too many Sunday afternoon shandies- both gave a positive thumbs up. The mushroom they had found is the beech bolette that grows in the beech forests of the Þórsmörk region.
Arriving at my final campsite, I was met with civilisation. There was food, cold beer, hot showers, electricity and most importantly grass to pitch my tent on. I showered for the first time in five days and washed my filthy clothes and emerged clean and resplendent in my sky blue 80's running shorts and matching crocs.
I ate dinner on a luxurious wooden bench with a Marjorie and Rob from the Netherlands. We shared tales of the Emstrur dust storm, and I shared my boil in the bag technique that I was now using to reheat today's lunch. They told me that we're planning to trek for two more days to Skogar and had arranged for food to be sent to tonight's camp site. Unfortunately, their package had gone missing. A helpful bus driver had managed to get them some fuel, two fellow trekkers and I offered them our remaining food. Rob and Majorie repaid me with beer at £9 a pint and the offer of photos from the glacier. I also met up with the Kiwi travellers and sampled some of bollette mushroom.
After a good nights sleep, with some rather vivid dreams I'm now travelling by a 4x4 bus to Reykjavik.