Iceland’s magnificent great walk from Landmannalaugar to Skógar via Þorsmörk, the Laugavegur Trek, is one of the most spectacular long-distance hikes in the world. The remote trail crosses lava, moss and escaping steam, hills of rhyolite and rivers without bridges. Twenty years ago, Lonely Planet predicted that the trip would become as popular as the Peruvian Inca Trail.
Most hikers walk the track from north to south, to benefit from the net loss of altitude. They depart from Reykjavik by bus, a stocky vehicle standing high on its wheels. The four-wheel-drive bus can cross rivers and navigate slippery hillsides. Soon, the sealed ring road will turn into unpaved country roads, at the village of Hella, only 90 kilometres from Reykjavik.
Twenty minutes before departure, the cargo hold is already full because all passengers are tourists with bulging backpacks. But our bus driver, in a green uniform complemented by white socks in sandals, is unfazed. He stoically squeezes in more and more pieces of luggage. In winter he probably works as a teacher or a minister, or some other profession that requires angelic patience. Most Icelanders have multiple jobs and many of the bus routes are only operational during the summer months, when civilian life in Iceland is at a standstill and tourists flock to the country. This bus takes us to the valley of Landmannalaugar in five hours, toilet breaks and photo opportunities included.
Not everyone has travelled to the valley to go hiking. Beside some of the more than fifty small tents lie mountain bikes. Other campers have come here by all-terrain vehicle and carry portable barbecues. Hidden between reeds, a geothermal spring fills a small lake in which tourists bathe until they turn pink and pruned, or until the bus takes off again. Icelandic ponies, for rent for a ride, are standing in a demarcated, pebbled “meadow”.
Theoretically, candidates for the multi-day hike can start walking immediately after getting off the bus and sleep about three hours uphill, in or next to the hut Hrafntinnusker, at 1100 meters. But in reality, hardly anybody ever sleeps there. Why would you, it’s a bleak and desolate spot, while the magical Alfavatn is waiting only three hours further on. Therefore most hikers leave early the next morning. There’s only one tiny shop, housed in a quirky hippy trailer, offering the last chance in at least four days to replenish your rations.
The hike begins behind the watchman’s hut, with a short climb out of the valley. The path of lava sand is more black than grey, due to earlier rain. On either side, grass and moss have grabbed hold of the soil. Your muscles will have warmed up by the time the Laugahraun lava field reveals itself, so capricious that naming it Laugahraun fairytale forest would have been more fitting. The path meanders like a narrow dike between mossy bulges and caverns. At the same time, it is dead quiet, and you can literally see for miles.
To the northwest, there is a meadow so bright green it would hurt your eyes had it been the colour of someone’s outfit. In nature, it’s a dazzlingly beautiful hue. The phosphorescent green turns out to be moss. Deep, soft and treacherous moss, with the character of quicksand! A babbling brook lies sunken into it. It reminds me of Watchtower-type drawings of paradise, only without the kitsch and human figures. Just a smattering of sheep. Naturally deposited alongside these grassy meadows are mountains in the craziest colours of rhyolite. This volcanic rock is a faster-cooled sister of granite with finer crystals, creating reds, browns, blacks, yellows and even greens with ease.
The panoramic lava forest turns into mountains of scree. Rolling hills obscure the view of the possible origin of the fumes rising up further ahead on the track. The earth is blowing off steam. Approaching its source, at first there is the noise; a mumbling, squeaking and simmering. Then the smell; rotten eggs but of purer sulphur than what you’d use in stink bombs. Finally, the image emerges: bubbling light-blue and yellow-grey earth enveloped in steam.
This landscape reminds me of the scenery in many a computer game, each zigzag or slope in the path giving way to a new visual surprise, executed in sublime, high-resolution graphics. The soil under my feet now turns into sulphuric clay. It attaches itself to the soles of our shoes and, once dry, is caking the way facial masks do. Descending into Storihver, the path crosses shallow rivers with crystal clear water. Where a whirling hole pulsates boiling water to the outside, again first there’s the sound, resembling distant noises of a nearby highway. Except there are no highways anywhere near here.
The path crawls to a thousand meters above sea level. Here, the volcanic hills are marked by patches of snow, like Frisian pedigree cattle. The view is wide and plumes of smoke merge with patches of clouds. A flat glacier imitates an ice cap. There are melting snow bridges, still firm enough to assist with climbing and traversing this Icelandic high mountain range. Where the untamed lava soil is covered by snow with bits of glistening obsidian sticking out, someone’s planted high slats marked with red paint, making it easy to keep following the track.
To the left, in southeastern direction, lies the Kaldaklofsfjoll ice cap. A steep descent follows, with bright pink flowers on either side of the path, against a background of black lava, with off and on a glimpse of Lake Altfavatn. This will be the endpoint of today’s hike after seven hours of walking. But first, we have to cross the Grasshagakvisl, the first river without a bridge. Hop step jump, and a couple of wet hems.
Day two continues on a coal-grey wagon track, that crosses the first river, again without a bridge, at a kilometre-and-a-half. The map is marked with a circled dovetail: fordable place.
Experimenting with crossing methods is partly necessary and partly part of the fun. I exchange my walking socks for a spare, thick woollen pair and cross the stream, with hiking boots on again and my trousers rolled up. My travel companion crosses barefoot. It’s crucial to keep up the pace, because the icy water straight from the glacier hurts. This is where self-made mantras can come in handy (lovely warm water lovely warm water).
An hour and a half further on we both take off our trousers to wade through the much deeper Bjaffalakvisl. This time, I cross over on socks only. While some hikers are equipped with sandals, they too will still have to deal with the powerful current and bumpy, slippery boulders. Looking down, I don’t see my feet nor the bottom of the river, only dizzyingly moving water.
The crossing is followed by a valley like a giant pasta bowl, with a frayed edge of lava mountains. Lava shows itself here in all stages of crumbling; ash, sand, scree, gravel, chunks, rocks, hills, boulders and mountains. The path is an alternating mixture of gravel and sand, protruded here and there by slate-like plaques.
This lava desert is scattered with cheerful concentrations of flowers. In shades of pink from light to dark, there are arctic thyme and other pansy-type blossoms and heather-like flowers I don’t know the names of. But further on, monotony lurks, although the desolate landscape is not hostile, thanks to velvety moss on the mountains.
Close to the edge of soft sandy hills, the track becomes crooked and – for the first time – teeming with oncoming foot traffic. Mostly Icelandic teenagers carrying heavy backpacks with dangling pans and tethered guitars. After five-and-a-half hours of walking, the Botnar is near.
The hut overlooks ravine landscape and offers a view of Entujokull, a colossal spur of one of the largest glaciers in Europe, the Myrdalsjokull. The glacier tongue is ribbed with mint blue gorges. The messy stripes come from shifting ice that scrapes lava from the subsurface, centrifuging down agonizingly slowly.
A moss-covered ravine is the backdrop for most of the third day. In the foreground of the vast landscape are again those soft volcanic hills, lots of flowers and a mountain in the shape of a rhino. The path lies on a plateau, as it were. For the first one-and-a-half kilometres of the day, the view of the glacier spur is unobstructed. The trail sometimes meanders down temporarily to cross a cavern with a footbridge, white-grey glacier water racing underneath.
Every area with birch trees and shrubs is immediately declared a national park by Icelanders. Like Þorsmörk, the Forest of Tor. What we see as common bushes is a delicacy here. Seen in that light, conquering a wild river like the þröngá is a reasonable sacrifice. But the crossing is nowhere shallow, the water wildly flowing and opaque due to grit being dragged along.
The travel guide strongly recommends soloists to use a ski pole or any other form of support (‘and don’t look down!’). Even my tough guy-companion tackles the crossing on shoes this time, without trousers or socks on. Fortunately, he already stands steadily on the other bank when – in spite of all my mental preparation, I fall into the river. He rescues me from the icy glacier water after I’ve gone under once already. Ski poles? Carrying an anchor is a better idea.
Many hikers end this track in lovely Þorsmörk, to return to Reijkjavik or Skaftafel by bus. But another day of walking offers a spectacular crossing between two of the largest glaciers in Europe. What’s more, on the other side of the pass awaits Skógar, with excellent hotels, meals and… wine. This additional long day-hike starts on slopes which, despite their angle of almost 85 degrees, are lushly covered with grass and wildflowers. The glaciers Myrdalsjokull (left) and Eyjafjallajokull are already visible.
There also blows a howling wind, chasing clouds of lava ash into the air. The hills of Landmannalaugar lie in the distance. After a steep climb of 800 metres, there is an elongated, bare plateau that catches a lot of wind – and today also rain. Or maybe every day, because the weather here has the name of being the worst in the whole of Iceland. It’s definitely living up to that reputation for the last fifty metres to the top, where strong winds undermine the little grip that hiking boots may have on the gravelly track. To take one step forward and up might take five attempts. Bending to lean into the wind hardly makes any difference; with 74 kilos (backpack included) I’m almost blown off the mountain.
The pass itself, over snowy plains and past two Swiss looking mountain huts, is child’s play. Just like the four-hour descent to Skógar. But the rain and wind are relentless here and visibility is reduced to about five metres. These conditions are the only reason this trip will never be as popular as the Inca Trail. But it is at least as spectacular. Twenty years on, Lonely Planet’s prediction hasn’t come true; it’s in fifteenth place on the “37 Best Walks in the World” list according to Wanderlust Magazine. The Inca Trail is at number 1.
© Sitara Morgenster