An Iceland Expedition (part 14) : Askja(!), walking from Egilsstaðir to Mývatn

Route
Zero Day 16 : Egilsstaðir
Day 69 : Egilsstaðir – route 1 / 944 (26.2 km / 16.3 mi)
Day 70 : route 1 / 944 – Skjöldólfsstaðir (38.3 km / 23.8 mi)
Day 71 : Skjöldólfsstaðir – route 901 (33.9 km / 21.1 mi)
Day 72 : route 901 – route F905 (23.3 km / 14.5 mi)
Day 73 : route F905 – route F910 (24.6 km / 15.3 mi)
Day 74 : route F910 – route F910 / Kreppa river (30.8 km / 19.1 mi)
Day 75 : route F910 / Kreppa river – Dreki hut (Askja) (39.1 km / 24.3 mi)
Day 76 : Dreki hut (Askja) – Dyngjufell hut (29.6 km / 18.4 mi)
Day 77 : Dyngjufell hut – Botni hut (24.8 km / 15.4 mi)
Day 78 : Botni hut – Kráká river (39 km / 24.2 mi)
Day 79 : Kráká river – Myvatn (20.2 km / 12.6 mi)

Total walking days: 11
Total km: 329.8 km / 204.9 mi
Average km per day: 30 km / 18.6 mi
Overall total km : 2328 km / 1446.6 mi

Zero days in town are busy days for hikers. They are called zero days because you make zero mileage, but in reality, they are the busiest days of the trip.

With already so many days lost to bad weather in the East Fjords, I didn’t want to stay in Egilsstaðir any longer than necessary. I gave myself one day, and it was a busy one. Laundry (the most expensive so far, at 1900 ISK for one load of washing and drying), emails, uploading pictures, charging devices, shopping and organising food for two weeks. It kept me busy until the early hours.

I was headed to Askja. A milky blue crater lake quite far into the Highlands, a true moonscape where NASA astronauts go to train. But I didn’t know that back then, I hadn’t done any research. I’d become pretty good at throwing myself into the deep end, exploring the unknown.

All I knew was that I needed to walk a lot of F roads with a lot of river crossings to get there. That I did research, as I was worried about them, and I gathered enough information to select the best route there (the best route being the one with the least river crossings.)

I packed enough food for thirteen days and lugged my heavy pack alongside the ring road for two. Two long and infuriating days, until I finally hit the first dirt road into the Highlands.

The weather had been good. The first day I headed into the Highlands was actually the one and only day during the entire Icelandic summer that I walked without my leggings. (Until about 4pm, when it became, suddenly, absolutely freezing cold.)

The landscape was a desert of sand and rocks. The area is prone to sandstorms and I watched the sand flurry around me, carried away by the strengthening wind. The days went by and I walked the roads further and further into a bleak existence. I passed through the rivers without any problems, but watched cars get stuck and waved to people in tourist buses carefully driving through.

Despite the sporadic vehicles, I felt like I was truly on my own, and I was gradually moving into a far flung landscape. The weather turned and it got colder and darker.

For the first time the land was too barren for water sources, and I carried enough water to last several days. At night I camped close to the few rivers there, hiding from the road, volcanic landscapes of black rock. I filled plastic bags with sand to anchor my tent in the soft soil.

One night, a loud shrieking startled me. I thought it was a bird. Some birds make strange, barking noises out here and I thought, perhaps it’s a big bird. But as the shrieking continued and got louder and louder, my perception of the bird grew bigger and more unbelievable. I thought something was going to attack me.

When I finally dared to look out of my tent, I saw a black arctic fox howling close by. It was the animal I’d coveted to spot. I’d been hoping for a white one and I thought it would be cute, but it was actually really annoying.

At that moment I realised I was in such a wild, isolated place. The only person hiding out in this forsaken landscape in miles, sheltered only by some thin scraps of fabric.

When I reached Dreki, the hut closest to Askja, I was exhausted. I arrived late and it was cold, very cold. I struggled to set up my tent in the hard soil, my hands numbing with the lowering temperatures. I made it work by using some of the many stones lying around.

It quickly got dark. I thought fondly of the earlier days hiking around Iceland, when the sun never truly set. I could walk around all night, or read in my tent until the early hours. But it was almost September now, and the nights wore only specks of stars for light.

While I prepared dinner in the fading glimmer of my head torch, I noticed there was some commotion outside. A man called out about the northern lights and I thought it was a code name for something, everyone had told me the northern lights could only be seen during winter.

But soon I heard more movement and I curiously unzipped my tent’s fly. It was so cold I couldn’t bear to leave my tent and remained hugged inside my sleeping bag while awkwardly manoeuvring my upper body out of the tent, twisting my neck to look up. There it was, the black sky illuminated by the northern lights.

A pale green brush moved along the roof of the earth. It was so unexpected. I watched for a while until the cold got too much. Later, as I walked back from the toilet block, the sky was filled with more stars I’d ever seen. It was almost like a Milky Way.

That night was too cold to fall asleep.

I woke up to a bright day. I was lucky. It had taken me seven days to reach Askja, my only destination on this stretch, and I was granted with good weather. Finally the gods were with me.

After walking a succession of F roads to get here, I was going to continue along the well-known Askja Trail (although not well-known enough for me to spot any other people), all the way towards Myvatn, a lake and town back on the ring road.

I had skipped the first two days of the official trail, between Herðubreiðarlindir and Dreki hut (Drekagil). Including the first two days had always been my intention but proved a huge detour which didn’t seem worth the effort. I’d established the landscape was similar to the flat rocky expanses I had already been walking through for days, albeit on an F road, not a trail.

For the first time, I had also underestimated how long it would take for me to reach my destination. Doing the entire trail would mean that I had no emergency provisions left. I had experienced enough bad weather to know not to underestimate this necessity. By elimination the first two days I was covered in case I got plagued by some of the frequent sandstorms or the usual relentless downpour.

There were two ways to get to Askja from the hut. There was the main road, which drove all the tourists in and out that same day. Then there was a hiking trail over the mountains. Only eight kilometres, with a few steep climbs and descends, and the most enchanting moonscape ever.

It took me hours to get through with all the pictures I kept taking. Up and down I went through the black sand and crazy hills, while I looked out over the colourless panorama stretching out below.

I reached the two craters Öskjuvatn and Víti after a careful descend. They shone gloriously in the sun. A bright blue crater and a small, milky one next to it. All the tourists wandered around milky Víti, some venturing down to bathe in the warm water.

When I reached the parking lot it had gone cold. I was the only person continuing on the Askja trail, and my initial excitement soon turned to despair. I was facing a field of black raggedy rocks, strewn about carelessly.

It looked as though a battle field of Orcs had turned to stone before getting smashed to pieces. The stone was brittle and dangerous. I followed the signs but there was no actual trail. I jumped from pointy piece to pointy piece. It was exhausting.

I soon realised it would take all day to cross the field, and I was nowhere near the next mountain hut, where I was planning to camp. I jumped rocks for hours until I got to a field of icy snow close to the edge, and I opted to walk the ice rather than jump the rocks. It was faster although I had to be careful in the sun. Some patches were softening and my feet dug deep into the wet ice.

When I finally reached the far end, I climbed up to the pass over the mountain. Pieces of rock broke off as I hoisted myself up the ascend, quite an infuriation exercise.

I hiked the rocky mountain for hours, skipping along the rocks and jumping across wide snowmelt streams which are not usually there – I’d been warned there wasn’t any water along the trail. This time, there was lots.

I continued down the mountain when the sun sat low in the sky, blinding me. I got worried. I still hadn’t reached the mountain hut and it was late. It was almost dark when I finally descended through an otherworldly, mountainous scene of grey sand and reached the hut.

When I tried to get inside, I couldn’t. The door was stuck. I set up my tent outside and listened to the wind, fiercely throwing itself into the tent’s fabric.

The next day was cold and windy. I reached the mountain hut early in the day. There was a small lake and camping spots, but the wind had only increased in strength, and there was no shelter from it. I decided to stay in the hut. This time I did manage to open it.

I was the only person there. It was strange to be inside, amongst other people’s belongings, and I didn’t quite like it. Sleeping on mattresses that many people had used before.

I realised how much I love my tent ritual. Crawling into my sleeping bag, making food and reading a book at the same time. Somehow, everything turned more complicated when I had to organise all my items onto tables.

Still, I stayed inside. I wasn’t keen on another sleepless night listening to the wind ravaging my tent.

It took three days through vast land with little sun and high winds to progress through the tracks of rock.

There was little life around me, and at times the sand funnelled right at me and I had to run through the dunes with my hands covering my eyes. The landscape was bare but the walking, apart from continuously hitting rocks sticking out of the road, was fairly straight forward.

The last day on the road the weather turned for the worst. Walking next to Myvatn lake should’ve been a beautiful sight but instead it poured down, the sky grey and humid, while I entered civilisation and a busy road.

I arrived at the campsite drenched. But I’d made it. I had come out of the Highlands.

And finishing the Askja section of my walk meant I was close to finishing the hike around Iceland. With this final big hike behind me, I didn’t have long to go.