Shorts and suntan lotion, and hot pools at midnight

An Icelandic Saga Part Two: Chapter Seven

Day 13. 18 August 2002

Sunday. Our last working day. I wake after having a bitterly cold night, not helped by the fact that the zip on the sleeping bag broke and whilst I could get myself warm by tucking myself in – as soon as I was to move everything became cold again.

It is an effort to get up, especially, when emerging from my tent I find a thick frost on the grass and ice dew frozen on my flysheet, but clear skies and sun. However once breakfasted I soon warm up, and by the time we are ready to make with tools to the worksite I have detached the legs from trousers and applied my suntan lotion.

We walk to Rauđhólar – the red hill – and witness fine views across the canyon. Chas had been told that the steps (some of them subterranean) were in a shocking and terrible state. As it turns out there’s only an hours work at most caring for what is really just one huge pile of (volcanic) ash. We begin with a coffee break – although in the unaccustomed heat the favoured beverage is water. With the task quickly complete, we break for an early lunch on top of the Rauđhólar and move on down the hill to an area famous for its rock formations laid out by nature to resemble a castle keep surrounded by ramparts, castle walls, and bordered on the east by the great river. As we descend into the ruins there are towering walls, which in their placement exactly resemble basalt columns that have been built into walls and plastered over with a covering of smooth rock – in places this covering has broken away revealing the stone construction beneath.

We split into smaller groups, descending on sections of path back along the trail to Vesterturdalur, taking out problems surfacing, repairing steps, and turfing braided paths; moving swiftly like we had never been there. Back at camp we are driven for the final showers at Ásbyrgi, where I – having avoided injury shifting massive rocks for nine days, all but knocks myself unconscious on the soap dish. Ouch!

Emerging, clean once more, all the party have had showers, and a last visit to the petrol station, enjoy an ice cream as the van is cleaned ready for our last journey through the highlands. In addition to cleaning the van, some remedial repairs are required when, after two weeks of driving over rough terrain, upon opening the back door one last time, part of the frame falls off – the long road to Dettifoss has finally taken it’s toll.

We then have time to just chill around the camp, pack the greater part of our gear, and enjoy a short walk on the flower trail before a final Vesterturdalurian meal of roast lamb, cooked succulently on the barbeque, followed by fresh fruit salad and a short speech of thanks by Chas together with some toasts of Brennivin – the Black Death.

Day 14. 19 August 2002

Monday. Waking at six-thirty, I force myself out of my bed by pulling the stoppers from my air bed and quickly realising, as the air gushes out, how uncomfortable the ground is. I dress quickly, and head to the washroom for a last wash in icy clean Icelandic water. Returning across dewy ground, and under a sky of breaking clouds, I strike camp quickly, folding away my tent, tying my sleeping bag to the rucksack and stashing my wash kit.

The VOs have made us breakfast for this last morning, and having downed our last Vesterturdalurian coffee we throw our packs into the trailer, dive into the blacked out van hit the road for home.

Rounding the headland near Husavik, Chas spots something out at sea, and pulling over we spend about fifteen minutes watching what at first we think to be a minkie whale but in fact a black-nosed dolphin or porpoise.

We stop in Akureyri for provisions of fresh food, souvenirs and liquor before heading off Route 1 for the road into the hightlands. Climbing higher into the mountains, with Hofsjökul and Langsjökull looming in the distance, the terrain becomes harsher, bleaker, with shrubland and lava flows giving way to a cold dessert of loose rock, black sand, and sparse vegetation. Despite this apparent inhospitality, sheep manage to find grazing – as usual, mostly in the middle of the road. On one occasion two white and two black shep run in formation down the road in front of the bus ignoring numerous accelerations and horn honking by Sara.

We stop near some dammed lakes for a hot chocolate, cinnamon bun and photo opportunity. Driving on we arrive after a right turn at the bleakest, loneliest sgingpost I have ever seen, we arrive at our mountain hut destination of Hvevelere. We quickly find our bunks and dump our bags, making for a quick change into swimming cosumes before crossing the car park, passing the intriguingly entitled artwork – Caged Bums – and sinking into the warmth of the natural hot pools.

With steam rising out of the ground on one side, and a view of a glacier on the otherside we lounge for an hour or more in the hot pool, enjoying conversation, jokes, sharing memories of the holiday and favourite moments, and … and Egils Icelandic beer.

Forcing ourselves out of the hot pool is hard, but eventually we must, and return to our room in the mountain hut, lounging about in shorts and t-shirts, enjoying the buffet supper of traditional Icelandic foods that Chas and Sara have organised for us. We sup beer and snack on cheese, salmon, pickled herring, artic char (remember the Fish Man of Hólar?), and sheep’s head pâté.

Following on from the meal, comes the quiz – with Quiz Masters Summer and Melissa laying down strict rules – including bribery of the judges being allowed. With questions culled from JókulsÁrgljufur promotional material, signage and maps, and the pages of the free Keflavik copies of Iceland Review, we are allocated into teams by a draw from Sara’s hat. The Vikings come last, with my team, The Sheep Heads coming a close third to The Caged Bums’ second place. Chas’ (name unrecorded) team comes through in first place, but we all say they had the benefit of ‘local’ knowledge…

As darkness begins to fall we head back out to the hot pool for a night time dip. Walking back across the car park at midnight, with a camper vans, jeeps, buses parked up, and a smattering of tents pitched to the gravel campsite between the two solitary huts; the sound of laugher of people enjoying the night being carried on the cold wind sweeping down across the plain from the glacier; I feel myself to be truly in a frontier town mid-way across the country. And as I snuggle deep into my sleeping bag, this feels like the last homely house out there…

Chapter Eight: The Golden Circle, admiring a rain-soaked view, drying off down town and drawing on tables in 101 Reykjavik…