An Iceland Expedition (part 9) : When Iceland is a Massive Jerk and Throws You Lemons, walking from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Höfn

Route
Zero Day 7 : Kirjubæjarklaustur
Day 39 : Kirjubæjarklaustur – Lómagnúpur (45 km / 28 mi)
Day 40 : Lómagnúpur – Skaftafell (43 km / 26.7 mi)
Day 41 : Skaftafell – Kristínartindar – Skaftafell (22 km / 13.7 mi)
Day 42 : Skaftafell – Svinafell (9.5 km / 5.9 mi)
Day 43 : Svinafell – Hnappavellir (27.3 km / 17 mi)
Day 44 : Hnappavellir – Fjallsárlón (29 km / 18 mi)
Day 45 : Fjallsárlón – Hestgerði (50.7 km / 31.5 mi)
Day 46 : Hestgerði – Hornafjördur (32.6 km / 20.3 mi)
Day 47 : Hornafjördur – Höfn (24 km / 14.9 mi)
Zero Day 8 : Höfn
Zero Day 9 : Höfn
Zero Day 10 : Höfn

Total walking days: 9
Total km: 283.1 km / 175.9 mi
Average km per day: 31.5 km / 19.6 mi
Overall total km : 1433.1 km / 890.5 mi

I’d been in Iceland for a month and a half. I experienced rain (horizontally, continuously), sun (sporadically), wind (ruthlessly, always in my face), storm (leaving me stuck in the mountains) and I was about to enter hell (all around, ubiquitously).

With a capital H. Hell.

It was Hell because of the fact that I had to spend a week and a half walking along the busy ring road, simply because there are no other roads, with the only respite a day hike around Skaftafell, a popular glacier. It was Hell because the Southeast of Iceland has the worst weather (or so I was told) and I walked through it while they were experiencing their worst weather. And it was Hell because everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

I had just come from one day of happiness in Lakagígar, and it was as though Iceland was punishing me for having dared enjoy myself. So, as an antidote to all the feigned inspirational travel accounts out there, in which life is a string of highs and everyone feels intensely blessed all the time, let me tell you, on a day to day basis, what it’s really like to walk around Iceland:

Zero Day 7 : Kirjubæjarklaustur

I wake up at five to take an early shower and enjoy the privacy to wash some items in the sinks. It’s sunny. I think things will turn for the better. I am almost happy. When I leave the shower room, the sun has been absorbed by a grey sky. By the time I wake up (again), it’s raining. It won’t stop. Walking all day in a non-stop downpour is a very depressing and mind numbing endeavour, but doing this while walking next to the ring road is Hell. I pass. I run from my tent to the supermarket and visitor centre and back. I eat. I read. I wait.

Day 39 : Kirjubæjarklaustur – Lómagnúpur (45 km / 28 mi)

I organise my resupply and put all my food in tiny ziplock bags. I buy the most expensive batteries for my Spot GPS tracking device, hoping they will do a decent job. My Spot tracks where I go using satellites rather than patchy mobile signal and acts as an emergency beacon, in case I get into trouble. It’s essentially instrumental to my safety.

It takes four lithium AAA batteries, which I assumed were standard because, every time I have ever needed to buy batteries at any point in my life, I was able to walk into a shop and just, you know, buy them. Apparently, lithium AAA batteries are not batteries that you can just walk into a shop for and buy. Especially in Iceland. I know this because so far, I have walked into every single store outside of Reykjavik and asked if they were sold. They weren’t. Meanwhile, my lithium AAA batteries ran out after over a months worth of daily use, and the 540 ISK inferior alkaline batteries I used as a replacement ran out after three days. I start to calculate how much these batteries are going to cost me if I have to continue using the low quality and unreliable alkaline replacements. It’s a lot.

Contrarily, at least the weather is looking better today. I leave and walk along the ring road. It’s one long stretch of tarmac. Everything is green and then mossy but ultimately it’s all bare around me and there is just the one mountain in the far distance that I am slowly approaching. It’s a mountain topped by a flat plateau and apart from it getting a little bit bigger as the day goes by, nothing else changes.

This day I need to wild camp somewhere along the way, but the point I intended to reach appears much farther than anticipated. I walk and walk and get tired. When I think I’ve walked enough I check out a wild camping spot behind a resting area. I have to jump a fence to get there but it doesn’t feel right. I’m afraid I’m on someone’s land.

I decide to continue on while the light fades and it gets late. There’s nothing. Nowhere to set up a tent and hide. It’s after ten when a car slows down next to me and a girl offers me a ride. I decline. She drives off and I am left alone walking next to the ring road in the darkening evening and I cry.

I don’t stop until I reach the mountain I have been walking towards all day. It’s now or never. The road beyond lies within a flat, barren field that stretches into a clean horizon. I stop at the foot of the mountain, which, seen from the road, emerges from some sort of dumping ground for tonnes of pumice broken off the steep cliffs. It looks like a tip that will have heavy machinery load rocks and move dirt around during the day. It looks a bit scary.

I walk around the rocky dirt and wonder if I can camp here, simultaneously knowing I don’t actually have a choice but to camp here. This is where I will be spending the night. I make my way further into the pile of shit until patches of moss and high grass interrupt the piles of rock and everything looks a bit more organic. I select a spot and hope no one sees me.

Day 40 : Lómagnúpur – Skaftafell (43 km / 26.7 mi)

I wake up to the depressing realisation that my inner tent has started moulding. Which is to say, my £529 premium quality reliable and adaptable Hilleberg the Tentmaker one person four season lightweight and bombproof shelter has started moulding.

I noticed this first about a week earlier. Tiny specs litter the fabric right above my head like little black stars consumed by the durable water repellent 30 denier ripstop nylon fabric. I am not impressed.

I breathe in the toxic fumes while I take pictures of the speckled ceiling. I thoroughly intent to let Hilleberg the Failing Tentmaker know that their four season bombproof shelter is evidently not to be used during four season weather conditions. It’s disheartening to know that my one safe haven is betraying me.

Today I need to reach Skaftafell. It’s a popular glacier and hiking area and I’ve planned to stay an extra day for some hiking in the area. It will be my one day of respite from the painful week walking the ring road.

The walk there is a monotonous Hell. The one long road continues but today it’s even more dull than the day before. I’m walking towards the view of the glaciers in the far distance, and there’s nothing to my right or left. Just plains of rock. Slowly I get tired. Tired of it all.

On the way I pass a sign directing me to a picnic area. The sign shows a tree and a picnic table. When I reach the site, there’s a picnic table. There are rocks. There is no shelter from the elements, and there is certainly no tree. I think about the sign and decide I’m happy the Icelandic people opted against adding a sun to the pictogram. That would’ve just been rude.

It takes over nine hours to reach the busy campsite at Skaftafell. Upon arrival I sigh with relief that I made it through the day. Then I notice the tripod that usually hangs off the front of my pack. I haven’t used it all day. I had taken an elastic band and attached it to one of my pack’s straps, and simultaneously tied it around the device’s neck. I watch its legs dangle around, abandoned. The device is beheaded. The two pieces that make up my tripod have separated, and the piece that is supposed to hold my phone when taking a picture has gone. My tripod has broken. I feel like my spirit has broken.

It is suddenly so acutely obvious to me that I have no sane reason left to be walking around this ghastly country on this ghastly ring road. If I can’t even take pictures to document this disaster, what’s the use?

I desperately want to hit things and roll up in a ball and cry but I try to calm down when I set up my tent and crawl inside. Things can’t possibly get worse. When I’m lying in my sleeping bag and try to think positively, a mouse suddenly runs over the outside of my inner tent, centimetres from my face. I try and shove it away from the inside. It haunts me all night, crawling close to the tent, trying to get in.

Day 41 : Skaftafell – Kristínartindar – Skaftafell (22 km / 13.7 mi)

I have pretty much lost the will to live and email my parents, complaining about it like a little girl. It makes me feel imperceptibly better.

I could leave this whole Iceland thing behind but unfortunately, I am stubborn and I like to finish projects unless I really have a good reason not to. I don’t. I mean, I’m not dying of hypothermia or imminently running out of money so I keep going. I feel like a robot and think of solutions to my multiplying problems. I visit the visitor centre and ask for advise. If anything, I need batteries.

Luckily the girl I speak to considers my ordeal an interesting little project and gets busy. She is sure you can buy them in Reykjavik, but I have no interest in paying 9600 ISK (96 €+$) for the one way bus fare for the sole pleasure of locating some batteries. She starts calling shops in Höfn and looks online to see if I can buy the correct batteries from an Icelandic website to have them delivered to a post office along the way. In the end, there are no batteries in Höfn (which doesn’t surprise me) but she has found a website through which I can order some for a price that so high that I spontaneously block it from my memory.

I spend about an hour trying to add all the details on the Icelandic site until it wont allow me to actually check out the goods and pay for them. I try the computer at the visitors centre and the website gets stuck, again. After numerous attempts, I can do nothing but give up. I thank the girl profusely and leave. Meanwhile my parents have emailed back and offer to try and find some lithium batteries and a tripod and post them to Höfn.

I set off on my day hike. I’m in a queue going up the mountain, until I take a turn to the longer route towards Kristínartindar mountain and it thins out. I look out over a view of the glacier. The view is nice and I feel profoundly numb. Fog begins to engulf me as I continue on the loop, symbolising my emotions perfectly.

Day 42 : Skaftafell – Svinafell (9.5 km / 5.9 mi)

My parents have located batteries and a mini tripod which they are sending to Höfn. I ask for them to add some hiking socks I left behind, as one of my two pairs is filled with holes due to grit coming in during river crossings. The package should arrive around the time I get to Höfn. In theory, timing could almost be considered perfect. I feel some relief and hope seeping back, lifting my spirit almost unnoticeably. It’s a thin line between despair and survival.

When I leave Skaftafell the wind picks up. It’s only a few kilometres from the campsite back to the main road but I can barely push myself against the wind to get back to it. As I focus on each separate step, a cyclist passes me, struggling to take me over. I watch him move along until he soon gets off his bike and continues to push along on foot. When we reach the ring road he drops his bike on the floor in despair.

I continue on my way until I get, very literally, blown off the road. A car watches me as I tumble down the slope next to the road, surely a fun thing to see. I get offered a lift but instead try to keep on going. I find myself progressing a few steps until the wind fights back and I have to assume a solid position, bracing myself as if awaiting the start of a run, unable to move and unable to just stand as solid gusts wait patiently to throw me off my own two feet.

There is no way I can keep on walking but I am in luck, there is another campsite very nearby, and the only downside is that it’s completely exposed. The wind is raging and there is no protection anywhere.

When I arrive I watch two tents flying around in the air. They would have flown off, never to be seen again, if someone hadn’t fastened some of the guy lines to a fence. Another one is flattened against the ground. The girl there tells me this area experiences the worst weather in Iceland. Then she tells me this weather is, indeed, really bad. So I am walking through the worst area at the time of the worst weather. Great.

I set up and watch my tent struggle. Inside, the noise is insane. As the campsite gets busier I watch everyone position their car right next to their tents, shielding them from the wind. Except for mine. I put in ear plugs and turn on my music to level out the flapping of my tent.

Day 43 : Svinafell – Hnappavellir (27.3 km / 17 mi)

The following day the wind is still going strong. I assume the storm will calm down as the day goes by. I head off and realise I was wrong. It’s not getting any better. If anything, the wind appears to be getting stronger and on top of that, it starts to rain. I am blown into the grind once again, and almost fall constantly. Walking in this storm is ungodly. My progress is slow and soon I am drenched. The day continues as a viewless slog through the rain and what I’m doing is thoroughly miserable.

I aim to reach another official campsite today. I have noted down a number of campsites between Skaftafell and Höfn that weren’t marked on my paper map, but the Maps.me app that I use shows quite a few. I should be able to get to the one closest by.

I am a little worried, because Icelandic campsites are generally exposed to all elements, including the wind, caused by the lack of trees in the country. But at least there’d be other people, and facilities.

When I get close to the site a guy on a bike, struggling in the opposite direction, gets off and informs me that there is no campsite further on. They’re all in the other direction, towards Skaftafell, he says, and the next village only has a five star hotel. The way the guy speaks about the lack of campsites suggests there may not be any campsites until Höfn at all, but I am too afraid of the answer to actually ask.

As I bid him farewell, I watch my anguished little world collapse just a bit more. The last thing I wanted is to have to find a wild camping spot in this rain and wind and impossibly flat landscape. What am I going to do?

When I reach the five star hotel I try and look for the campsite from a distance, just in case, but the guy, unfortunately, wasn’t mistaken. There’s nothing there.

Instead, the sodden field across the street from the hotel hides some dirt roads that lead to fenced off farmland. The land is flat, nowhere to hide. But further along the road I see barren land, plains covered in volcanic rock and I know I have no choice but to wild camp here. I have little hope of finding a sheltered spot. I prepare myself for a camping spot fully exposed to the wind, the rain, and possibly in plain view of the road.

I walk down the slippery paths and move along a fence in the grass, next to a stream as it digs further into the ground. To my surprise I find a concealed spot, a stream bed just about big and flat enough, albeit sodden from the rain and grubby with mud.

I set up and realise I’m in luck. The small slope down to the stream shelters me from the wind. I sit in my tent and listen to the howling across the land. I think about the days to come. Three, or more likely four days until Höfn. And all I want to do is sit in my tent and hide.

Day 44 : Hnappavellir – Fjallsarlon (29 km / 18 mi)

I drag myself through the wet grass down the side of the road. My feet are wrapped in plastic bags, my shoes drenched from the past few days. The road is busy and the storm still hasn’t calmed down. I wish I was faster so I could leave this road behind me, but I desperately despise every second of it, which makes me even more slow.

Today’s views are the same as before. Everything is the same. Whoever comes up with a stupid idea of walking around Iceland, shouldn’t do it.

It begins to rain once again and I have to sit down to put on my rain pants and put the rain cover on my backpack. I want to curl up and disappear but instead I have to keep on walking. Gusts of wind blow me back and forth and slowly drive me insane.

I think of blogs I read about the wind in Patagonia. About using pack liners instead of rain covers because they get blown off in the wind. I don’t use pack liners but my rain cover is cinched tight around my pack, it fits perfectly. I think of those people walking around Skaftafell with their rain covers. Big rain covers traipsing behind tiny rucksacks. Small rain covers attached to only cover the front section of a large pack. I don’t get it. Why don’t these people buy covers that fit their bag? How is this functional? Not only will they get blown off in the wind, they will get ripped off by simply walking against something. It makes them look like idiots.

I think about this while I struggle along, slowly going insane. When I reach for a water bottle I notice something is wrong.
Oh, no.
My rain cover is gone.
I take off my pack and hurriedly see if it’s still attached somewhere, somehow. This can’t be happening. I feel the blood draining from my face when I realise it’s really gone.

I look around. The wind is speeding towards the sea, howling across the land that stretches out to my side. I look at the cars passing. What do I do? I run back. I need my rain cover. I can’t do without it, I’m in Iceland. I run across the road and look everywhere, in the streams closest and the plains further on. Where could it be? Has it reached the sea by now or has it stuck behind something just beside the road? Where did it dislodge? Was it nearby or an hour ago? Surely someone in a car would have seen my pack cover fly off. Why didn’t anyone say anything?

I run and run and look everywhere until I don’t know what to do anymore. For a moment I feel like I’ve lost everything that was just about holding me together. I run back until I have to accept it’s stupid to keep on going, and then I cross the road and walk up again, hoping hoping hoping to still find the cover, somewhere, somehow. I find nothing. I can’t believe I am one of those idiots that loses their pack cover in the wind.

When I get back to where I left I’m not sure how to breathe anymore. I thought everything bad that could happen, had already happened. I want to scream my face off and leave this bully of a country behind but instead I get out my phone and order a new rain cover to be delivered to my parents. When they get it the next day, they can forward it to Höfn.

Then I continue walking and try to not think about how I really feel. The wind has finally calmed down.

I reach Fjallsárlón glacier that night. I stand in the midst of the tourists as they sense the approaching cold of night and return to their cars.

There’s a hiking path between this glacier and the next, Jökulsárlón. The 15km is longer than the road, but I need the break. The only problem is that there is no water along the trail and there is no water where I am. I fill up from a rain puddle. It’s been raining for days and it looks clear so I go with it.

I start the path until everyone’s disappeared out of sight and I set up my tent in the moss.

Day 45 : Fjallsarlon – Hestgerði (50.7 km / 31.5 mi)

I am happy to start my day on a trail, even though it’s short.

Jökulsárlón is busy and crowded with tourists. There’s a small souvenir shop and I desperately want a hot coffee. I need a treat. I struggle inside and the queue is so big and unorganised that I instantly give up.

The day continues amongst volcanic plains and I hope for a short day. According to my app I am nearing two campsites, and when the inside of my legs and ankles start to hurt more and more, I am desperate to call it a day as soon as possible and hope to stay at the first.

When I finally reach it, I am ready to breath out. Until I realise there’s no campsite. I think about the sites ahead of me and fear the worst. I walk another ten kilometres to the next camping ground, but again, there is nothing.

Evening catches on and soon I walk in the dark, not knowing what to do. My short day is turning into a very long day. I pass a picnic table next to the road and wonder if I should just sit there and try to sleep with my sleeping bag wrapped around me. But is it safe? And what if it starts raining again? I don’t risk it and walk until I see a small beach below me.

I take the chance and climb down sodden grass and slippery rocks and skip along big pebbles to avoid the flooded patches. There is some grass along the sand and there is shelter from the cliffs but there is nowhere clean enough to pitch a tent. There are rocks everywhere, too big to move, and poo covering the entire area. I go back and forth until I have to give up and climb back up. I can’t camp here.

I continue until I face a steep incline up a grassy mountain on the other side. There’s a plateau further up. Without thinking about it, I force my way up, stepping on rocks and soaking my feet once again to make it to the platform, chasing away some sheep. I am high up, looking out over the road and the misty sea. I hope the drivers don’t look up.

Day 46 : Hestgerði – Hornafjördur (32.6 km / 20.3 mi)

I wake up to a drizzle and wait, hoping it will clear. It doesn’t. I look out over the platform onto the ring road and the sea, which is being swallowed by the approaching fog. I wish the weather was better. I wish it was clear and sunny, because this would’ve been an excellent spot to camp, with a marvellous view. Instead the fog thickens and I walk into the cloud, another drab exercise in a lifeless haze of grey.

I have no hope for the campsite I am supposed to pass and indeed, there is no camping ground to speak of, only cottages. I move on, finding a spot to camp amongst Iceland’s favourite: rocks and sheep.

Day 47 : Hornafjördur – Höfn (24 km / 14.9 mi)

It is the final day to Höfn and at last, as if by magic, the sun breaks out. It makes walking easier, it makes everything better. Suddenly I have a view, and I even spot some trees. I realise how much I miss them, and fantasise about camping amongst them. Slowly more houses appear. How strange it is to get to civilisation!

Zero Day 8/9/10 : Höfn

I’m in Höfn for three days. Much longer than I’d like to spend anywhere, but I need my packages. I visit the post office every day and leave empty handed every single time. The girl at the counter starts to look at me weirdly whenever I walk in. It appears the perfect timing doesn’t work so well when posting to Iceland, evidently.

After three days I decide that I need to go, really go. I leave without the things that I can’t do without, that are essential to my walking here. I leave without batteries and without a new tripod, and without socks that have no holes. I leave in the rain without a rain cover.

Luckily, I never had a worse week and a half in Iceland – After Höfn I never walked such distances along the road again, and I never faced another succession of lousy catastrophes. (Well, apart from those few days I thought a mountain was going to kill me, but that’s an entirely different story.) I had survived ten days of Hell.

On top of that, I was headed to a pretty exciting hiking area: Lónsöræfi, where trails don’t exist and you need a GPS and maps to find your way around. After more than a week on the road, it was a compelling prospect to have ahead of me. Even in my somewhat detached capacity, I was looking forward to it. It seemed like an adventure. And tripod or no tripod, I was going to chase this adventure.