An Iceland Expedition (part 2) : A First Glimpse of the Highlands, walking from Borgarnes to Þingvellir

Route
Day 11 : Borgarnes – Varmaland (37.8 km / 23.5 mi)
Day 12 : Varmaland – Reykholt (29.7 km / 18.5 mi)
Day 13 : Reykholt – Husafell (32.6 km / 20.3 mi)
Day 14 : Husafell – Halfway to Ok – Husafell (15.2 km / 9.4 mi)
Day 15 : Husafell – Wild camping along road 550 (44.3 km / 27.5 mi)

Day 16 : Wild camping along road 550 – Þingvellir (34.2 km / 21.3 mi)
Zero day 2 : Þingvellir

Total days: 6
Total km / mi: 193.8 / 120.4
Average km / mi per day: 32.3 / 20.1
Overall total km / mi : 482.2 / 299.6

Preparations 

I had arrived in Borgarnes cold and hungry, weary of the long days walking next to the main road, and unsure of my journey as a whole. It was difficult, a difficulty I’d been ponderously anticipating, but hoping would prove unwarranted. The weather condition were severe, at times, and I knew I couldn’t handle them. I had to consider cutting sections out of my journey, so I wouldn’t be in Iceland beyond the three summer months, instead of the four and a half months I had originally planned. The positive twist to that, was that it would allow me to omit the areas that I reckoned may be dull or mundane to walk through, although I still did not know exactly where that would be. I was even thinking of turning the circular walk into a ‘West to East’ journey, if that would prove a better fit. But when I left Borgarnes, I simply did not yet know.

I had enjoyed a rest day in Borgarnes, cleaning all my clothes and gear and I had taken a long soak in the local pool. When I left, I felt somewhat ready to hit the road again. I had organised my food resupply and had accumulated enough food for just under a week, not knowing exactly if I would adjust my route along the way. Because it was quite a short time frame, I had indulged and selected some luxuries, but in practise, it meant I left Borgarnes with significantly more food than necessary. The portions I had created were huge, and I was carrying heavy items, like three punnets of tomatoes and a huge pepper. I had been so hungry in the days before I reached Borgarnes, that I had been too eager to select a larger variety of food. When it came to it, I was happy enough to just about fit it all in my pack and be able to carry it on my back. More than half the weight on my back was food, and I was ironically luckily that the sun shone but the air still felt cold, so I could wear all my thick layers. I wouldn’t have been able to fit everything in the pack with all the food.

My backpack, everything in it, and all the food I had bought

A Long Road Ahead

Once on the road, I went in the direction of Husafell, a supposedly popular destination for a range of day hikes. It took me three days to reach it, and they were, I soon discovered, the most frustrating and monotonous days ever, and they made me rethink everything I set out to achieve, once again.

The first day I walked on the smaller gravel roads behind the main road, but after a range of summer houses and fields of the purple-blue summer lupine flowers, I was suddenly met by a number of barking farm dogs that stopped me in my tracks immediately. Each time, my fear forced me to backtrack way, way back, and I found myself fording a large stream, negotiating uncultivated land and getting stuck in huge patches of impossible grass along the way in my attempt to avoid them. After the last unlucky encounter, I gave up on the car-less back roads. I jumped streams and large patches of land. It took me over an hour to find my way back to the main road and when I finally reached it, I jumped a closed fence next to a troop of horses to save myself from everything that had just passed, and spend the day screaming in frustration and sobbing quietly, hating every second of it.

After that, I had no choice but to walk on the road, where I was haunted by cars, or next to the road, in soil impossible for pedestrians, postholing in the grind, or balancing  unsteady ankles on bulky grass plumes. Every day, the distances to the locations I wanted to reach were longer than I had originally estimated, and even the short days that I was looking forward to, ended up long. I was wholly unmotivated to keep on going.

One evening I arrived in Reykholt, tired and moody, finally at my destination for the day, when I realised the campsite I had been aiming for, did not actually exist. Moreover, I had passed a campground five km back, but hesitantly kept on walking, because I really wanted to make it to Reykholt. It would make the following day to Husafell shorter and I thought that this small place had everything. There was even a bus stop. But I was mistaken. There was a bus stop and a hotel but that was it. There was nothing else. In my anguish to just pitch my tent at a campsite, I wanted to give up right then and there.

But I couldn’t. I knew walking back to the campsite wasn’t an option, and all I could do was find somewhere to stealth camp. The town had a small forest with some of the first trees I had seen in Iceland. More of a small park of trees on a hill slope than anything, I walked up the short trails, knowing it was my only option, going higher and higher until I got off-track and pushed my way through the bushes and flowers and trees. I kept going, always thinking I saw somewhere suitable in the distance until I got close and saw the low shrubs and rocky ground. I got all the way to the top, when I finally found a spot grassy and flat enough to pitch a tent.

Everything was disappointing those days. The most enticing thing I was taking photographs of seemed to be my own tent. I felt as though Iceland was simply not for me. I hated the daily walk in Iceland’s unchallenging landscape. I hated the roads in the flat or slightly undulating landscape, the rolling type, never scenic or absorbing or steep enough to get you tired, or keep you entertained. The road that stretches in front, repeating the same view over and over again, as though someone was holding a postcard in the background of a movie set, and forgot to change it for the different scenes.

When I had almost arrived at Husafell, I passed a waterfall, Hraunfossar. It was large and impressive and I arrived from a point without tourists, and I watched from afar. I tried to let it lighten my mood, but it didn’t. I had to tell myself to sit down and make a peanut butter sandwich so I could calm down and relax.

I arrived in Husafell at a loss. I decided to stay an extra day, and did a day hike towards the glacier Ok. It was covered in snow and far, far away. I walked several hours, until I realised that Ok was even farther then it had seemed, and instead of growing closer, it just grew farther and farther away. When I checked my map, I had only gone halfway. But I was on a hiking trail, and it was enjoyable, so I took my time and then returned, relieved to have seen something else. Something that wasn’t the road, which I was not looking forward to continuing.

At Husafell, I decided to cut a section out of my route, hopefully avoiding a large drudging stretch meandering all around Reykjavik and the southwest. Instead, I was going to walk down the 550 road, straight to Þingvellir, another popular area. It would take an estimated two days, and I would have to wild camp along the way.

Into The Highlands

Expecting another few days of lifeless road walking, I went on my way and listened to music to keep myself occupied. I exited Husafell through a tree-filled piece of land until I reached the 550. Suddenly I was looking into a vast, barren landscape, all rugged and rock with views onto low, black mountains afar, covered in a low mist. I realised I had stumbled upon the edge of Iceland’s interior, the Highlands. The dirt road was silent, save for the few cars and tourist buses that sporadically drove back and forth, the people inside looking at me in shock and wonder. It had begun to rain and I pulled out all my rain gear, but I didn’t mind.

I was in the Highlands.

This was what I was waiting for, what I was hoping for. It was dramatic and harsh and monotonous, but in an arresting way, in the way I imagined Iceland to be.

Soon I was surrounded by rock and snow and a fog that grew thicker as I went up in elevation. It was eerily quiet and I listened to uplifting music, dancing along the rocks, so I wouldn’t freak myself out.

I walked a long day, and I started to look out for places to camp. It was almost 11 pm when I finally spotted an area that wasn’t covered in rock. I feared I’d have to camp right next to the road in the dirt, until I got to a stream with grass surrounding it. It was perfect, a water source and grass. You could see my tent from the road, but I hadn’t seen anyone else in hours, so I told myself it would be all right. I set up camp, swamped by flies, and didn’t hear any cars until late the next morning.

It took another long day to reach Thingvellir. Slowly, the dirt road turned to Tarmac, and I had to take a lot of small breaks to rest my feet. I dont normally take breaks. Often, I just walk, and I eat snacks along the way, until I get to where I want to go. This day I was tired, and some of my toes felt like they were going numb, even though they were fine. It was an uncomfortable sensation.

I was keen to get to Þingvellir as fast as I could. Once I rounded a steep section of road around a mountain, I could see the lake that neighbours it. I was close, I thought. But deep down I knew I wasnt. Watching my destination from a distance was demotivating. It still took hours to reach it.

Once I got there, I found the information centre attached to a shop and cafe, and paid for my camping. I had been thinking of taking a day off, to rest my feet, and when I woke up the next day to pouring rain, I had a great excuse.

I sat in the cafe all day, drinking bad refill coffee and treating myself to a baguette because the unexpected day off meant I didn’t have enough food to last me until the next supermarket. The baguette tasted amazing to me, and I pondered over everything, deciding which direction to go next. Did I go East, straight to Geysir and the long hiking trails I was looking forward to? Or did I risk a detour and go South around the lake to see what was down there?

I couldn’t be sure.