Hveravellir to Gullfoss
It is the final trek of our trip. We’re lying on the flank of a volcano, confined to the inner of our tent following a day of hiking amidst persistent swarms of flies… possibly the worst day of hiking I’ve ever known. As we put up the tent at 9pm we actually saw the stunning views, perhaps for the first time all day. It has been one of those head down, plod on days and although we were surrounded by beauty we simply haven’t witnessed it.
In one of the few fly-free moments of the day, my attempt to take a photo of Jen on the bridge crossing an Arctic-blue river ended in disaster as we both were engulfed by yet another swarm.
One begins to realise how such small insects, in swarms, can take down large animals. When they work together with such persistence in their goal, any creature – man or beast – will tire and give up fighting eventually.
So, here we are. It is day three. We think we have covered around 60 of our planned 90 kilometres, which is good as it means we’re right on track to get the bus from Gullfoss back to Reykjavik in a couple of days’ time. It seems odd that Gullfoss, still 30 km away, is the nearest town. I say town… many places on the map are actually very small, so Gullfoss could just be a campsite with a cafe attached. One comes to expect such things, and after a while arriving at any kind of building becomes a luxury…
We have enough water to get to the next hut/camping facilities tomorrow, but we must ration ourselves. Thankfully there’s a patch of snow within a few hundred metres of our current spot, and as with day one of this trek, we may have to melt some to make morning coffee and breakfast. The coffee we’re carrying is dreadful, and those who know me best know that two things I enjoy most are coffee and a nice blend of pipe tobacco. The coffee we have is little more than milky water, and my tobacco, the first nice blend I have had in weeks, has been smoked several times today simply as a means of keeping the flies at bay – a trick I was taught when learning to fish! It has therefore been less-than-enjoyable and largely wasted… *Grrr*.
The trek so far has been wonderful on the whole. We arrived at the start point fairly late on the first night, but with the benefit of Iceland’s round-the-clock daylight at this time of year we managed to cover around 20 kilometres. The trek is fairly flat, which is something of a luxury for us! However, it is also around 45-50 kilometres further than we have ever walked in one go before… the entire trek is somewhere between 90 and 100 kilometres in length. We are essentially hiking southwards between two glaciers, imposing against the skyline on both sides. They are majestic, old and have a strange tint of blue to them.
As we so often do, Jen and I have decided to go against the flow. Most hikers seem to attempt this route heading from south to north, a 44-km stretch ending at Hveravellir. Now that we’re walking twice that distance in the opposite direction, Jen and I reckon people choose to head north because they’ll usually have the prevailing winds behind them! For us, trekking with our faces to the south, the southerly winds are a burden. There is also the luxury, for those who walk from south to north, of being greeted at the end with a natural geothermal bath. We have already enjoyed the pleasure of those piping hot waters, both at the Blue Lagoon (prior to this trek), and then at Hveravellir, our start point.
In the past few days we have witnessed stone and rock formations forged from lava flows. From ancient eruptions they have left their mark on the landscape as a reminder that nature does as it will. That said, back in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, the power of magma is harnessed in order to produce hot water for the city, so much so that millions of tonnes of surplus hot water ends up being piped back into the sea, the heat wasted.
Interestingly, the hot water in Reykjavik is odorous, so using it, especially to wash! is not exactly pleasant for me anyway. The smell of sulphur can be quite overpowering here.
Our trek this week is concluded at Gullfoss, which is only a stone’s throw from Strokkur, the largest of Iceland’s spouting plumes of boiling water, at a place called Geysir. Altogether we will have been there three times before we leave Iceland: once on the Golden Circle Tour, again on our bus ride up to Hveravellir, and finally in a couple of days when we’ll return to Reykjavik at the end of our trek. Geysir draws an incredible number of tourists every day, and Strokkur spouts 25-30 metres high at very regular intervals, between 5 and 10 minutes.
Back to day one, and our bus journey took just over 5 hours. We hadn’t expected there to be stops at so many of the tourist spots, as we thought it was a regular bus ride from A to B. I guess all buses passing through these places stop there as a matter of course. After all, there’s an average of 1.67 cars per Icelandic driver in this country and therefore, aside from the drivers, one is unlikely to see an Icelandic citizen on a bus.
Our walking terrain consisted mainly of natural lava fields, and was hard going. The rocks are awkwardly sized and shaped. Solidified lava is abrasive and pointy, not something one would wish to fall on. The land was barren. We were walking between two glaciers: Langjokull, which is Iceland’s second-largest, and Hofsjokull. We could see for miles in all directions. Had we not been walking essentially between mountain ranges, it would have been easy to assume the area was simply grazing land, as it appeared endless.
We had allowed ample time for the hike, giving ourselves an extra day, to ensure we arrived in good time to catch our bus from Gullfoss back to Reykjavik. So for the first night, we stopped when we felt like it, and found a place to wild camp next to a blue/grey coloured river edged with snow. As with most wild camping one can pick any pitch within sight, and this one suited perfectly. We had seen no other hikers on that first day and were fairly visibly staying close to a cairn. It shouldn’t really have been a surprise, at 10am the next morning, to hear footsteps passing very close to the tent… the first hikers we had been aware of so far on this trek simply passed right by us. That was literally a wake-up call, and time for breakfast!
On the second day we followed the river all the way to Hvitarnes. A couple of hours into our walk that day, we came across a hut at Pverprekknamuli. It appeared deserted, so we headed in and found two noteworthy things… an Italian coffee maker (the on-the-hob kind) and coffee! In need of advice/reassurance, I stopped to wonder what my good Facebook friend Kim Whaley would do in such a situation… then did what I thought she might have! In my defence, we left the place tidy, put money in a box near the exit for use of the facilities, and having tasted REAL caffeine for the first time in a week, set off again at about three times the pace at which we’d arrived! It’s probably no surprise that we covered 30km that day, which meant that in a day and a half we had covered the distance that the guides suggest should take 2-3 days!
You gotta love coffee!
So, we stopped that second night at Hvitarnes campsite next to lake Hvitarvatn. At the very end, we had waded the river next to the hut to reach said building, having followed signposts straight to the water, which it turned out was the wrong ‘Garden Path’. Whilst paddling I managed to drop a hiking shoe in the river! And retrieved it a second later, thankfully. Well, they do say that most accidents happen in close proximity to home… and on that night that’s exactly what happened.
Day three is where this blog began, and it’s probably best to skip it. We had by now achieved our initial goal (to complete the “core” 44-km section) and were entering extra time. However, on that third day we probably managed 10 kilometres at best before ‘retreating’ to the tent. Words cannot describe how awful it was, slogging forward for five hours while swatting flies that relentlessly landed in eyes, in ears, up noses… but at least stopping when we did meant an early night, some writing and lots of sleep.
We were up and away fairly early on Day 4, but not before we had met some tour company guides who ran an outfit taking tourists snowmobiling on the glaciers. We had pitched fairly close to their hut, and that morning we were looking for water. On our arrival the previous evening there had been nobody around… however, we’d spotted a snow glacier (water source!) within a hundred metres, so we had decided to pitch there anyway. The guys who turned up the next morning were great. Our first hint that they would turn up came when we were awoken by the sound of a generator at around 9am. I mentioned to Jen, and she concurred, that it would be normal to set timers an hour ahead of arrival time to warm the place up, and, like clockwork, at a few minutes past ten they arrived! We were invited in to fill flasks and bottles with fresh water, and served a free coffee before eventually heading on our way… a great way to start the day after walking through hell the day before!
Day 4 was a hiker’s dream! There were lots of dramatic views as we headed towards the end of the glaciers, plus the sun stuck with us for much of the way and we left the swarms of flies behind us.
As if we needed any more encouragement, it seemed as we left the track and hit a mud road that every 4×4 that passed us would wave or smile.
I think we might even be the stars of several home movies, given the number of day-trippers who were recording videos through the passenger windows of passing vehicles…
Finally, we arrived at a green hut on a river junction that is off our paper map. Jen had also photographed a larger map to cover our “extra” section, but this hut had not been on that either. It wasn’t until we had checked the place out, claimed it for the night, spread our stuff all over the place and settled down that I remembered reading about an ‘unmarked’ hut on this trek. It is essentially a run-down shack which is no longer used by trekkers (although writing and signatures all over the interior walls suggest different). Why isn’t it used? Because it is believed to be haunted… At that point in time, we were far away from any Wi-Fi, and Jen asked me not to look in any of our guides to check whether this was THE one or not. At the time we didn’t want to be informed that it was! We spent a rather tense night in the silent, creepy hut…
The Final Day!
It was 0545hrs (5.45am) when things got eerie! Jen sat bolt upright in the sleeping bag as she was woken by the sound of ‘something’ rubbing against corrugated iron. We spent a rough few minutes listening to the noises and staring at the door… was someone coming in? Eventually we arrived at the conclusion that a clever ewe might have worked out how to use her behind to knock the door and loosen the latch so it would open. The hut itself was bare, and I doubt even the farmer would have discovered the intrusion until the winter months! Panic over – no ghosts there then – but by now we were two wide-awake trekkers with our end goal, at a guess, about 15 kilometres away. For me once I’m awake that’s it, no more chance of sleep… end of, so to speak. A brisk wander to the river later and I was back with water to make porridge and coffee. By 0715hrs (7.15am) we were on our way again…
For me, two odd things always happen on the last day of a trek. While I believe most people tend to have a brilliant last day, in my case the bergen always seems heavier (it never is!) and my muscles, for a short time anyway, seem to want to prevent me achieving the goal… Oh, and a third thing: the final day always seems to start AND end on an uphill stretch!
Half an hour or so later, I’d gotten over the trauma of muscle decay, was coping ok with the weariness probably caused by drinking “coffee” that had in fact been diluting the usually-high caffeine levels in my blood, and I had made it up that first darned hill. All seemed to be good, and I am delighted to say it was…
In fact, things were going so well that we thought we might even reach Gullfoss before the coffee shop opened, which clearly would have been a disaster! But the final few hours of hiking went well, and we passed the time counting how many drivers would wave to us on the way past. On the previous day it had been invigorating to receive waves, smiles and thumbs-up signs from drivers. On this morning we received 9 waves from 17 drivers… Not bad – more than a 50% success rate!
We had Gullfoss in our sights long before we had expected, and in the distance on the other side of the valley we could see Geysir, or as described previously the plumes from Strokkur. This geyser spouts boiling water and steam 30 metres into the air every 5-10 minutes and can be seen – trust us! – from more than 10 kilometres away. To be standing 10 kilometres away and see, on opposite sides of the Kjolur plateau, the hazy mist above Gullfoss waterfall on your left, and the steamy spray from Strokkur on your right, is quite remarkable. One might even equate it to visiting two natural wonders of the world simultaneously! What an end to our 90-kilometre adventure. Whilst we couldn’t have asked for more (other than decent coffee on some days!) as we sat sipping our second consecutive cups of authentic coffee we had a brainwave: rather than wait 7 hours for the bus, why not have some fun attempting to hitchhike, and potentially save ourselves some of the £60 bus fare…
Jen, being the articulate one, drew a ‘Reykjavik please’ sign in big black letters on a scrap of paper, and off we headed towards the wrong side of the road! For several minutes we received nothing but ‘pointing hands’ and soon realised our error. Sheepishly we moved back to the carpark and started again, and some minutes later a car stopped and the occupants (a very nice French couple) informed us they were heading to Geysir. This was one stop in the right direction on our bus route, and a busier place than Gullfoss, so we accepted gratefully and hopped aboard!
At Geysir we stuck out our thumbs again, both suspecting – from the looks we were getting from passing drivers – that we had actually beaten a number of people who had passed us previously without offering a lift. We must therefore have been quite a confusing sight to them… This raised our spirits and quite frankly our giggles… so perhaps this is what drew the attention of a passing Finnish house-builder on his day off. This delightful gent not only took us all the way to Reykjavik, but insisted on dropping us right at the campsite entrance, and would not accept any petrol money for his trouble… he even wanted to remember us in a photo 🙂
Genuine kindness, it seems my friends, is still alive, and sadly for us that’s the end of our trekking adventures (until we return to the UK anyway).
But do please come back, as the stories behind the stories are yet to be told!
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…