Based in Boston, Massachusetts, Claudia is a science journalist and editor. Her work focuses on marine science, the environment, and wildlife, particularly regarding how humans interact with the world around them.

Iceland Days 3 and 4: Out of the Highlands, and Back in Again (Rinse and Repeat)

  Einhyrningur, passed on our way into the Markarflótsgljúfur canyon on day 4. I thought it looked like a snarling dragon, head lowered and wings raised for takeoff. 

Einhyrningur, passed on our way into the Markarflótsgljúfur canyon on day 4. I thought it looked like a snarling dragon, head lowered and wings raised for takeoff. 

On day 3 of our trip we woke in the Langisjor hut to yet more rain, though the low fog had at least lifted from the surroundings, revealing the electric-green mossy mountainsides we had missed the night before. After a relaxed breakfast and a cribbage lesson (just passing on the hobbies of the Robert C Seamans crew to another traveler) we left the hut to head back through the highland, with the intention of finding someplace to camp for the night that was out of the rain clouds.

Unfortunately, nature and mechanics were not on our side. The Land Rover had developed a coolant leak, unbeknownst to its driver or passenger; all we saw was that the heat was not working and that the car was losing power on hills, which is a big problem in the highland. (You might guess this from the name.) This was all unfolding in temperatures dipping below freezing, with wind gusting past 20 knots and snow mixing in with the rain—and with the windshield wipers out of commission after the hood caught a gust of wind and smacked against the windshield, disabling them.

By some miracle Donal had cell service, and we were able to reach a friend who recommended we check the coolant levels. It turned out that coolant was... nonexistent. Water in the tank solved our problem of getting into gear on hills, but Donal decided to steer the truck back towards a friend’s hostel in Hvollvoler, at the gateway to the highland, where there was a garage in which he could check out the car’s engine and perhaps repair the lack of heat or wipers.

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Even when forbidding, the highland remains beautiful, and we got thoroughly soaked on our drive out because we couldn’t help ourselves from stopping for pictures. We took a quick swing through the coastal town of Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland, for lunch and a walk along the misty green cliffs and black sand beaches swarming with gulls and puffins. It was one of my favorite spots of the day, even given the brief time we spent there.

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We spent the evening of day 3 and much of day 4 in Midgard Basecamp hostel, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the hospitality and friendliness that its owners and extended family have shown. The hostel is the brainchild of adventure guide and master storyteller Siggi, who dreamed up the concept of an adventure tour company with attached hostel in 2008, years before the tourism boom hit the country. As such, we can firmly say he is single-handedly to thank for Iceland’s boom. Siggi and Stefan invited the two of us to join their extended family to experience an evening in Hvollvoler, which included a bonfire and live music to celebrate the annual meat soup festival (yes… really), games, drinks, and some truly impressive singing back at Basecamp, and a party in the town hall with seemingly half the town and lots of Ed Sheeran covers in Icelandic. (Icelanders love Ed Sheeran.)

If you’re traveling around the highlands or need a stopover between east and west, I highly recommend stopping in to Midgard for an evening—say hi to Siggi, Stefan, Thor, Hildur, Bjarni, and the rest of the crew for me, and when you hang out with Thor at the bar be sure to ask him to sing for you. He has the voice of a Viking angel.

  Tourists hurrying up to snag a picture of Skógafoss waterfall, a stop on our day 3 drive . 

Tourists hurrying up to snag a picture of Skógafoss waterfall, a stop on our day 3 drive

Day 4 opened with rain once again, so it was a perfect day to hold some interviews in the Basecamp dining area. I talked to Stefan over breakfast about what he’s seen in the 11 years since he first came to Iceland, and the two since he moved here permanently (being Swiss in origin). In contrast to some people who I’ve spoken to, he thinks Iceland is finally reaching the level of infrastructure in which it can handle the level of tourism it’s receiving and anticipating for the future. Thanks to the influx of money into the country, there are parking lots, payment for parking and toilets at many of the most popular spots off the main roads. However, the effect of this has also been to create two Icelands: the Iceland that the average tourist sees, and the Iceland that locals visit. Many of the famous sites, like Seljalandsfoss (the waterfall we stopped at on day 1), Skógafoss, and Vik’s black sand beaches are simply too packed with tourists—or seen as too expensive due to parking fees—that locals do not visit them any more. It’s not something that they resent so much as are resigned to; if this is necessary to maintain the infrastructure at these sites, then many see it as for the good of the country.

Stefan also had this sort of attitude with large tour bus groups. As a business owner, he wants to attract them because they bring money into the hostel and fill dozens of beds at once, but like many that live here he sees the tour bus groups as “different;” interested more in ticking off boxes on an Iceland bucket list than truly appreciating the country.

I got a different, more expansive perspective on this issue from Björg Árnadóttir, who is the CEO of Midgard Adventures, an active hiker and tour group leader. Björg is also the head of the board of the marketing union in the south, and she sees great unrealized potential in the regions of the south—including the highlands—in being more coordinated in both their marketing and conservation plans. Currently these regions market themselves and organize tourism separately, and have few laws requiring tourist companies within each region to contribute to conservation efforts within the region.

For example, Björg mentioned that many tourism companies in the south are registered in Reykjavik, rather than the area they operate in. This means that most of their taxes — many issues in Iceland seem to circle back to taxes — go back to Reykjavik instead of paying into the area, where they could contribute to efforts like bulking up infrastructure or increasing ecological education. Apparently there was a plan on the table recently to create funds for each region that would do just that, by requiring tourists to buy visitor passes for each region they want to visit. These passes would only be priced around 1500 – 3000 krona (roughly $15-30), but they would create a fund that local governments could draw on to support tourism and conservation in each area. The fund would have also been a source that businesses could go to for a loan in order to build new infrastructure or start a new venture.

While this all sounded like a good idea to Björg and to me, it was killed by the vote of large companies like Icelandair, which owns the biggest tour bus company in the country and has a strong say in what happens regarding tourism here.

  The misty, rainy road back into the highland.

The misty, rainy road back into the highland.

For Björg, who is a nature guide at heart, the politics are the wearying part of this; even the debate over whether the national park should be established in the highland now falls into this category. She simply wants to get people out into nature and to appreciate it without seeing it destroyed.

Perhaps appropriately, that's exactly what we did after speaking to her. After one quick stop to grab pizza at the only pizza place in the area — as such, the Game of Thrones crew had it flown to them by helicopter while filming in Þórsmörk — we drove back into the highlands, moving through patchy rain and mist that makes the area even more beautiful than when it is seen in the sun. 

  Two thirds of this family of sheep kindly stopped and posed for a portrait, though the mum wasn't too keen on being photographed. 

Two thirds of this family of sheep kindly stopped and posed for a portrait, though the mum wasn't too keen on being photographed. 

  A portrait of the artist as a damp, out-of-focus traveler.

A portrait of the artist as a damp, out-of-focus traveler.

Our drive on day 4 took us into a stunning black volcanic canyon called Markarflótsgljúfur, where the Land Rover had to squeeze through a few tight spots in the rock and follow a winding river between walls sculpted like artist's clay.

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We took an hour or so to stop and explore the canyon, which was full of little (relatively speaking) geologic microcosms. Around every corner was another strange type of rock or unusual formation, as well as a strange human formation: a sheep herder's shelter built into what looked like a lava bubble or stream-worn cave in the bottom of a cliff.

  As I opened the door, all I could think was "please don't be a tomb. please don't be a tomb."

As I opened the door, all I could think was "please don't be a tomb. please don't be a tomb."

The interior of the shelter smelled very strongly of sheep and looked as though it hadn't been used in a while, though that may change soon, as roundup season is coming. Here in the highland, sheep farmers spend autumn traveling through this area and gathering up any scattered sheep they may find. They then bring the accumulated ruminants back to a several-week-long "roundup," where they're organized by their tags and returned to their owners. Over the course of the summer, these sheep can wander over hundreds of miles, so its no surprise sheep farmers build little shelters like these for the several-day trips required to find them all. 

  Donal taking a break to admire all the neature.

Donal taking a break to admire all the neature.

As both dusk and a thick-looking rainstorm approached, our final stop took us to the top of a fairly steep hill that gave amazing views of the surroundings. I'll admit to being a little nervous as the Land Rover's tires skidded in the mud seeking traction... I couldn't shake the worry that we might roll backwards down the hill.

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We made it to the top without issue eventually, and took in 360 degrees of green mountain and dark ash without another human being in sight. Even as locals fret about tourism, that's something that the highland — and many other parts of Iceland — still offer in abundance. 

Iceland Day 5: The Hike That Might Not Have Been

Iceland Day 2: to Landmannalaugar & Langisjór