Iceland Part 2: Hiking the South Coast
Everything I heard about Iceland, besides the obscure culinary dishes, was about the nature. My main goal was to see the the vast lands I heard of, and hike them. I did 3 major hikes on my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th days. In those 3 days, I did over 27 miles. First let me say, Iceland has some weird terrains: vegetation is difficult to manage, so it will be flat lands of dirt, ash, and rock, then a random mountain or crater. Parts of the land reminded me of photos I’ve seen of Arizona or even of Africa. Also, because I went in the winter (without snow) everything was golden. Dead golden grass everywhere.
Another goal of mine was to “unplug” and not take my phone around with me. I definitely decreased usage, however, I wanted to share some of these moments with close friends (plus share my location for safety reasons, seeing how I did one hike utterly alone). There’s a weird feeling when you’re alone: you have no one to share a moment with. Part of that feeling was freeing, and at other times it heightened the solitary state. With my closest friends, I didn’t really have stories to come home with, they knew everything almost as it was happening, which later I became annoyed with myself for, but I also didn’t have to sound like a broken record.
On my second day I hiked Sólheimajökull Glacier, which was on the award winning documentary “Chasing Ice” of 2014, about climate change. I love documentaries, and this one always stuck with me. The glacier was breathtaking, but very easy to do. Although stunning, you could see the markings along the coast of where it was over the years, and you could see it melt as you were on it, which was depressing. Because the glacier has been so worn down, the paths were easy and walkable, and where it’s harbored at the base of dormant volcanos, it’s covered in detritus volcanic ash, adding to the ease of the hike. I highly recommend wearing snowpants for any ice activity, especially the day I went, there was constant rainfall. On this tour they also provide crampons (spikes) to add to your boots and ice axes.
Sadly, this day got cut in half because Iceland randomly experienced a hurricane, and I’ve never experienced winds like this. You could lean your body against the wind, and it would hold it up. Due to the fact the glacier sits at the base of a valley, rocks from the top of the mountains were flying down, and ice chips were blowing off from the peaks of the glacier and mountains, hitting us in our faces. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous at that point, but it was definitely unpleasant. From the glacier we were suppose to hike to a waterfall, and then drive to a second waterfall location and enjoy the black sand beaches, but we drove to the first waterfall and then headed back to Reykjavik. I was bummed, but I basically got to experience Skogafoss Waterfall alone, because everyone stayed on the bus besides one girl and myself. I did the tour with Arctic Adventures, and they refunded our small group half of the expenses - other than the weather, they were great to work with.
On my third day the storm had gotten so bad that even some shops in Reykjavik were shut down. Iceland’s site, SafeTravel.is, became such a huge resource. It tells you what parts of Iceland are shutdown due to weather, and you can enter all your emergency information, what tours/hikes you’ll be traveling, around what time you’ll get back, connect your GPS on your phone to the site, basically allowing Iceland’s rescue team to track you, which I did for my hike on day 3.
Well, on my third day, basically all of Iceland was shut down: every area was flagged a red zone. But, as the stubborn Bostonian that I am, I felt a little wind was nothing, and it was surprisingly 50º out, obviously ‘summah’ weather, and I wasn’t going to spend all day in a bar. Absolutely no tours were going out that day, and Reykajadular valley was a must for me. It’s a popular spot in the spring and summer; hiking over a multitude of hills and entering the hot springs valley. On this “beautiful” day, it only had a yellow warning sign…. meaning my dumb American self thought it was safe enough. “Idiotic,” was a simplification.
I had to take 2 buses, the 12 to Mjodd (the Worcester of Iceland) and the 52 to Hveragerði, and in total I *think* was around $30 round trip. The buses are expensive, the drivers don’t really speak a lot of English, and they require exact cash, so if you only have an 1000 ISK bill, but the bus is 500 ISK, sucks to be you. There is an app that you can download to pay for the bus via card, which was much easier, and most of the buses have wifi.
So now that I just took a bus over an hour into the middle of nowhere, it drops you off at a random gas station, at the base of the mountain. It’s a 40-60min walk from the station to the starting point of the hike. I wish I hitched a ride to the base, because the winds and rain sucked. The whole time I was cursing myself, and telling myself I should have gone back. I get to the base, also where the parking lot and information / cafe is, and I only see 2 cars parked and the cafe is closed. It has come to my attention, this popular spot is deserted, and I’m an ass. The issue with Reykajadular is it’s a geothermal area, meaning it has natural hot springs sporadically throughout the hike. I’m not talking about jacuzzi style, I’m talking about boiling hot mud pits if you don’t watch where you step, boiling pools, and some areas that are nice to lounge in. The paths are steep, at that time icy and muddy, and my only safety tips I had were from what I read: if you smell sulfur or see steam, DANGER, and a downloaded map. Clearly, I was prepared.
But then a miracle happened. It stopped raining, the wind started to blow in my direction, uphill, and the sun came out! I viewed it as a sign: I had to hike this spot. It was stunning. The whole valley was so eerie and beautiful, covered in steam from the hot springs and absolutely no life to be found. I saw one Raven and one beetle, and I searched for that beetle! On the way up I met one couple leaving, and I thought to myself, well there’s one of the two cars, I’ll keep going. The steam did make it a bit challenging to see the paths at some points, I did slip and fall once (which is terrifying alone) but after a few hours I made it to the safe area of the hot springs to get in. I then found the owners of the second car, they were sitting in the end of the hot stream so I decided to give them a bit of space. Got in some nice warm water, the further you go up the stream, the hotter it gets, so when I first got in, it was FREEZING (not really, it was like bath water, but plus the cold air and winds, it was not entirely enjoyable). Once I found a nice hot tub spot, the skies turned black, and thunder, lightning, and hail started to downpour. I felt like a sitting duck, I was terrified. The other couple and I rushed out of the streams and started yelling at to one another that we had to go. I think if I didn’t have this couple helping me down the mountain, I would have pooped myself….. or have been seriously injured. The winds were against us, plus the hail was cutting our faces, making it impossible to see. To give you an idea on the winds at this moment, It was lifting my backpack off my back that had my camera equipment, food, water bottles, and a towel in it. The man of the couple almost slid down into a hot pit along the path, overall I cannot describe to you how frightening it was. Once we got to the end, just like that everything stopped. I learned the couple was from Northern Ireland, and we shared some hot tea from their thermos and a pastry. They also gave me a ride back to the gas station and waited with me for my bus. I am so grateful for this couple. I felt a little like Jack Kerouac having this amazing (and dumb) adventure with strangers, and it was all so worth it.