HIKING AT THE END OF THE WORLD – above Iceland’s deserted fiords

Climbing Mt Hvitserkur. That’s our team up ahead – there’s nobody else around.

My mainstream media client has just published my article about our fabulous trek in Iceland, so I can now release the full story on this blog. Let me simply say it is one of the best treks I’ve ever done in my life.

‘Stop a moment,’ says Rob. ‘You hear it?’

We’re the photographers in the party. On yet another high col we’ve lagged behind our hiking group to take yet more panoramic shots. My boots crunch to a halt. I listen.

‘Hear what?’ I ask.

‘The silence.’

For the first time I notice it. No murmur of traffic, no hum of a town in a distant valley. There’s not a blade of grass and not a breath of wind to rustle it. It’s impossible to imagine a deeper silence. It was probably often like that during the five days we’ve been walking, but I was distracted by the scenery.

Our walk was billed as ‘Hiking at the End of the World’. Iceland itself is remote, and the Viknaslodir region in its far north-east is isolated even by Icelandic standards, with the Norwegian Sea on one side and thousands of square kilometres of untouched wilderness on the other.

This rugged corner of the country has been spewed out of volcanos and ground by glaciers, then buried under metres of snow. The mountain peaks are jagged lava outcrops and the stones on their shoulders are split and shattered, too recently in geological time for water to have softened their sharp edges.

It’s been a long cold spring in Iceland, so the slopes are broken by patches of snow and cut by countless streams, tumbling as waterfalls from the crags, spreading over the lower reaches in tiny rivulets, nourishing slushy lime-green mosses and bright flowering shrubs.

Below us are the fiords, blanketed by mist in the mornings, then emerging impossibly blue as the sun rises higher. Their deserted beaches are of black sand, and their water pouring into them is clear, icy and ‘the cleanest in the world,’ we’re proudly told. Often.

In more accessible parts of the planet, somewhere as gorgeous as this would have tourists pouring from buses, a cafe perched on the spot we’re standing on and gondolas bringing visitors and their cameras up the steep mountain. But here in Viknaslodir we’ve gone days without seeing another human being. That’s partly because it’s not too easy to get here.

Five days ago eight of us, Portuguese, British, American, Swiss and Australian flew from Reykjavik across the country to Egisstadir, to meet our Icelandic mountain guides, Inga and Jon. A small bus with very thick tyres brought us to the Viknaslodir region, dropped us off and drove away. From there we’ve walked.

We’ve covered a modest 65 kilometres horizontally, and climbed and descended a creditable 3500m vertically. We’ve edged along steep snow-covered slopes, clambered over scree and forded or rock-hopped over dozens of those streams. It’s been an adventure, but as we agreed, it’s always felt safe. No thunderstorms, no precipices, no snakes, ‘and no grizzy bears,’ observed Alex, who’s just been hiking in Canada.

Though we’re all experienced walkers, we’ve been grateful to have local guides. Our route was generally well marked, but on occasions it required tramping over trackless mountain cols with fog closing in. When the weather cleared, our navigator Inga was able to lead us across country and over the highest peak in the area, the 770metre Hvitserkir (White Mountain).

Inga, a biologist as well as a mountain guide (‘trained to New Zealand standards’), had promised us a good chance of meeting reindeer on the high slopes. We found their tracks, but they must have flown off to help Santa when they saw us coming. Birds were everywhere though, with gulls breeding in cliff colonies and plovers and whimbrels (Inga knows her birds) whistling warnings as they circled above us.

Jon, large and blond, is a native of east Iceland and a true Viking. He is incredibly sure-footed on the rough terrain and when needed his heavy boots came in handy for stamping footholds we could follow. When Jo slipped on a steep snow-covered slope, Jon magically appeared below her to halt her slide. ‘Since I was ten year old boy I help my father catch sheep on the mountain. Sheep run fast too.’

He showed us the ruins of abandoned farmhouses, where turf covered the walls to keep out the cold. Life was hard in this region. Early last century Iceland was one of the poorest parts of Europe, and few Icelanders had seen water flowing from a tap.

We enjoyed the tea Jon made from wild thyme and tasted the black crowberries he collected, but fortunately we weren’t relying on them for survival. A four wheel drive vehicle arrived ahead of us each evening, dropping our luggage and food for our dinner at the huts.

The huts operated by the Icelandic Touring Association were new, but basic and communal; bunk beds in dormitories, gas stoves and toilets. Some had hot showers, some didn’t. There was seldom mobile phone coverage.

We ate well. Inga proved a dab hand at chucking a salmon on the barby, and Jon’s Icelandic lamb goulash was a revelation. Others chipped in with their specialties – Alex’s New York salad dressing and the Portuguese vegetables were highlights.

After five days on the trail we’re a bit sleep-deprived, partly due to the communal sleeping arrangements, partly because of the midnight sun. Though our legs have had a good workout, walking 6-8 hours each day, we’re certainly not yet exhausted. We want the adventure to go on, but the bus is waiting for us in the valley far below.

‘Better get down there,’ says Rob, ‘and find out what’s happening in the world’. We pack the cameras away and start down the hill.

Detecting the movement, the GPS computer on my wrist switches itself on with a tiny peep. It is a sound so faint that I usually don’t hear it. In the silence of the Viknaslodir mountains it’s as clear as a bell.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: British Airways flies from Sydney to London from $2092.54 return. See: travel.com.au
Iceland Air flies from London to Reykjavik return from GBP228 ($341) return. See: icelandair.com

Hiking there: 50 Degrees North organises five-day hiking tours in Viknaslodir. Cost from $1280 includes guides, transport to start of walk, all luggage transfers, accommodation and meals. See: fiftydegreesnorth.com Phone: 1300 422 821

Staying there: Tent camping on the route is possible and huts can be booked independently. Cost 4,500 ISK (about $36) p.p.p.n. Independent walkers need to carry in their own food, drink and sleeping bags. See fi.is

Safety: The route is normally only passable by hikers without technical mountaineering skills between July and September. At any time of year a good level of fitness and proper wet weather clothing and footwear are required.

The writer was the guest of Fifty Degrees North.


THREE OTHER ADVENTURES IN ICELAND

1. Hiking the Laugavegur region. The trek in the volcanic area past Eyjafjallajokull (the one that caused all the trouble by erupting in 2010) is the most popular in Iceland. Five-day vehicle-assisted trek from $1190. See fiftydegreesnorth.com

2. Walk on glaciers. Iceland’s biggest glaciers are easy to reach from Reykjavik for a day or overnight tour. Beginners get instruction on using crampons. From 19,900ISK. See mountainguides.is

3. Whale watching.
Whale steak is on the menu in many Reykjavik restaurants, but numerous boat tours will take visitors out to see them alive and frolicking. For a list of tour operators, see: icewhale.is

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney.

8 Comments

Filed under Hiking, Travel- Europe

8 responses to “HIKING AT THE END OF THE WORLD – above Iceland’s deserted fiords

  1. Caroline

    The other clean environment, where there’s no sound, and you can see forever is the other land of the midnight sun, Antarctica.

  2. Caroline

    Yes you need to wangle a paid gig there, like I did

  3. Caroline

    Well I just did the laundry, not so glamorous, but the destination made up for it

  4. What an extraordinary hike – thank you for sharing this with us, Richard. It sounds like an unforgettable experience in a truly majestic place.

  5. Now I am really jealous!

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