They weren't kidding on the plane when they told us we could experience all four seasons at once here in Iceland. On one of our hikes today we were sweating in the heat of full summer - and in sunshine strong enough that I started to sunburn - but by the time we reached this point, near the end of the day, the temperature was dropping fast and I was bundled up in a winter coat, gloves and hat. It was just one of many of the disorienting, beautiful, and unexpected moments I found on this, my first 40-hour day that brought me to Iceland.
The first came from my first hour on the plane: while trying to fall asleep, I noticed a haze on the horizon that at first I thought was dawn off in the distance. But that couldn't be right- we were only an hour out of Boston. I watched for a few moments more and the haze started to move, reaching feathery fingers of light upwards, undulating like a curtain caught in the breeze: the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights. With the plane's motion it was almost impossible to get a good photo, given the slow shutter speed needed, but I have proof:
A few hours of light sleep later, and I was landing in Reykjavik, a remarkably clean and pretty airport compared to most in the states. My host Donal was waiting on the other side of customs, and after quick stops for coffee and a pastry we were off towards the highlands- driving first along the southeast coast, rife with tiny fishing villages and horse farms and not much else. The area is mostly ancient lava plain now crusted with Iceland's pervasive moss, and it's remarkable to see someplace so undeveloped.
Our drive into the valley of Porsmork involved lots of stops along the way, many of which have names that I can neither spell nor pronounce- though I may add them along the way as I look at a map. One of the first very apparent trends was the difference between the sites along the main road and those within the valley itself, which requires a heavy duty 4-wheel-drive vehicle to cross the sometimes deep braided rivers that are strung throughout it. Off the main road, like at this waterfall, there was an abundance of tourists, carried by large buses on tour trips.
By the time we reached Volcano Huts within the valley, there were many fewer people around. This is a somewhat lighter season, given that it's end of summer, but it was still incredible to see there were no more than ten people hanging around the community dining area of this little camping hostel. We sat down with Magge, one of the managers of Volcano Huts, to talk about this very topic - growing tourism and its pressures on the valley.
I was unsurprised to learn that a local group wants to build a footbridge over the deep braided rivers that keep many tourists out, something that he and many others who live and work here are quite opposed to. There still would not be the level of tourism that this country sees in the Golden Circle, thanks to its inaccessibility, but the locals worry that the influx of on-foot tourism could still have a negative impact on the valley -- both on the delicate ecosystems that exist here, and on the "feel" of the place. People who enjoy it here seem to love that you can go on most hikes here without seeing more than one of two people along the way, and take photos without catching tour buses and crowds of tourists in them. There may be a story here.
When the end of the day rolled around, we headed up on this (literally) breath-takingly steep hike to Valahnukur (I can only spell it because I have a photo of the sign) for sunset, where we were treated to some stunning views of the entire valley. As with the rest of the day, we had the entire summit to ourselves for over an hour, until a single photographer- Frank - joined us for the sun's dip below the horizon. Moments like these make me understand why the people who love this place are so desperate to protect it.
Tomorrow we are onto the painted hills further down the valley, for doubtlessly more incredible views and more to learn. I'm unsure if there will be wifi outside of Volcano Huts' welcoming campus, but if not, I'll be writing up drafts to post when we arrive somewhere connected.