Last summer, Laura and I followed a series of long distance trails in Iceland. Here’s my account…
The bus pulled away leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere. Concerned passages stared at us from the windows, exchanging looks of bewilderment.
‘Here?’, I’d asked the driver.
‘Yes…’ he’d replied uncertainly, ‘we think’.
And that was that. He stopped the bus half way across a huge expanse of ash and opened the door. We hopped out with our rucksacks and started walking.
Rain fell and panic rose.
The rain, at least, fell lightly. And, this being Iceland, we counted that as a blessing.
The panic was on account of us electing to alight at what increasingly seemed an entirely arbitrary point of track whose only defining feature was that it fell outside the remit of our maps. But using the classic navigational rule-of-thumb that dictates you should usually walk away from large volcanoes that have recently erupted, we soon found the trail and started on our way.
A large, heavy and mysterious cardboard box appeared at our door. Inside lay 26 Arctic Man-Day Ration Packs.
When I’d emailed the company to ask them for a sample of their dehydrated meals, this wasn’t quite what I’d expected. And given that Laura was the one to receive the delivery and was blissfully unaware of my plans to write a review of ration packs, to describe it as unexpected might perhaps be an understatement.
The freebies formed the base of the supplies we’d be taking to Iceland with us and I spent the next day filling sandwich bags with Asda own-brand Ready Brek, milk powder and a surprise ingredient (sugar) to supplement them. Adding in whatever chewy bars and nuts were on offer in the supermarket, I created for us eight large bags of food each.
Eight large bags with enough food to fuel us through as many days in the mountains.
It takes but a few steps to walk your stresses away.
Topping out on our first hill with the weight of those home made ration-packs on your backs, the drizzle had begun to fade and we caught a glimpse of what looked distinctly like blue sky.
As with all good expeditions, the build up to going away had been moderately stressful. Would we have enough food? Would everything fit in our bags? Would EasyJet permit my huge cardboard box full of Arctic rations and homemade-porridge-pouches onto their plane?
We were knackered before we’d even reached Reykjavik. This was demonstrated most clearly when, fives minutes into a short bus journey to our campsite, we missed our stop and neither of us could be bothered to do anything about it. We just stayed onboard and dozed for an hour whilst the driver completed her route around the city and eventually came back past our campsite.
But we’d found transport into the mountains, we’d cached our supplies half way along our planned route, we’d convinced a bus driver to drop us off in no man’s land and we’d started walking. It felt good and I can feel all worldly worries slipping away with each step.
Barely an hour into our first day’s walking, we spotted a tiny turf coloured hut below us. The drizzle stopped. The blue sky appeared in earnest. And we’d made it to our first camp site. We eagerly pitched our tent to capitalise on the dry weather and brewed up some hot water for tea.
I have walked on glaciers and snow slopes. Through peat hags and boggy marshes. Across running rivers and up frozen ones. I’ve walked on sand, gravel and dirt. But I had never before spent a day walking on volcanic ash.
The landscape was other worldly.
To my right were imposing mountains which I knew were active volcanoes. Against their grey slopes were luminous greens and bright, burnt oranges. To my left were grassy pastures with grazing sheep and incongruous rising steam. And all around me was black soot through which a trickle of greasy water wound its way across the valley. It looked like another planet. Like a cheap TV or an American sitcom with the contrast turned up. Everything was HDR.
We trudged across the ash plain taking all of this in. There was no one around and no sign of life. Just us and a huge black valley of dust. Or at least that’s what we thought until we saw a big white coach full of tourists merrily driving past in the distance. Like a Grey Hound casually pootling across the surface of the moon, it looked comic utterly unlikely.
But this would become a theme of our trip. Whenever we thought we’d reached the most remote spot in Iceland, away from the trappings of modernity and never before visited by man, a tour bus would trundle into view looking entirely incongruous and leaving us utterly baffled as to how a vehicle like that could get to a place like this.
We sought shelter from the cold wind behind one of the many large boulders strewn across the valley and each opened our ration pack for the day. It was like a little lucky dip at every snack stop (‘I got a Penguin. Nice!’ and ‘Sesame snaps… Gutted’).
Iceland was a good 15 degrees colder than it was back home and our bodies were yet to adjust. We sat shivering in the wind, despite wearing all of our layers, so stuffed down some cold Tracker bars as we quickly as we could before continuing our march to warm up again.
Undergo Mountain Leader training in the UK and you will be taught various methods for crossing rivers. You will also be taught that it is something to avoid in all circumstances unless absolutely necessary. So it had been a surprise to discover that the official walking route we were to follow would involve multiple river crossings. But, we rationalised, if the crossings are part of a well-known tourist track then they’ve got to be pretty straightfoward.
‘This is definitely the narrowest part’
‘Doesn’t that mean it’ll also be the deepest?’
‘Really? It doesn’t look that deep…’
I leaned forward and plunged my walking pole into the torrent to assess its depth. I got a wet hand and lost my balance before finding any evidence of river bed.
‘Er, let’s go for that wide bit over there’
I stripped off my bottom layer, put my sandals on, extended my poles to full length and stood at the river side. I felt both like a hero – leading the way in a bold crossing of the raging rapids – and a fruit loop – fully clothed on top, butt naked below, standing in drizzle with my hood up.
I waded in.
Cold, cold water rose to my waist and pressed me from the right. I buried my poles into the river bed and took one careful step at a time. I found my stride and scrambled out the other side as Laura snapped photographs of my semi-naked celebratory jig.
‘Don’t use the zoom!’, I cried, ‘the cold has not been kind’
The first half of our week’s walk followed a deserted track which we shared with no one. Not a soul.
The second half tied in with an incredibly popular walk which we shared with dozens of others. As such, arriving at our midpoint – where we’d earlier stashed half of our supplies – meant arriving at a civilisation of sorts. Tens of brightly coloured tents pitched across a rubble floor by wooden buildings with showers and toilets.
The place thronged with people beginning the popular walking route or having just finished it, with day trippers fresh off the bus from Reykjavik and cycle tourists weary from high winds and heavy rain. And every one of them, at some point during their stay, stripped down to their underwear or swimming costumes and made a desperate dash away from the campsite in the cold, blowing, rain to reach the magic river that ran hot. We joined them in one of Iceland’s many natural jacuzzis, resting our weary muscles and enjoying some effortless warmth.
The walk was popular for a reason. The next day we walked through hot fields of steam, past waterfalls with huge drops, amidst mountains of dark black with orange hues and bright green moss, and, finally, across a long stretch of frozen snow, over an alpine pass and into a hidden valley.
At the start of the trip we’d come to this midpoint by bus to stash half of our supplies, avoiding us having to carry them. We’d held back on our daily food allowance in the first few days though and allowed extra for the second half. As a result, our bags were at the heaviest on that day. It also happened to be one of the steepest days on our route and, with lots of other walkers around, that meant the inevitable petty pressure to compete.
‘Quick, that Italian couple are gaining on us, swallow the Kit Kat and let’s get going…’
At the top of the snowy mountain pass, we hunkered behind a hut and warmed ourselves with hot chocolate and rehydrated reindeer stew, freshly heated on our stove. The vehicle that interrupted our view at least had the decency to be a serious-looking 4×4 but we still marvelled at how on earth it had got up here when all we could see was snow, ice and mountains.
Descending the other side we faced a long march through grassy lowlands on our way to that night’s camp.
‘Wait… what? Why are you taking your trousers off!?’
Laura sounded panicked.
‘What? Why aren’t you?’
‘I thought we were just doing our feet’
‘No way. I’m committed now’
And I sat down in the three-inch deep icy stream and scrubbed myself with glacial melt water as rapidly as possible before running, bright pink and hollering, back to find my towel. Washing opportunities were rare and, being that the weather was continually cold and forever wet, rarely appealing.
That night the wind came. The next morning, rain joined it.
We sheltered in our tent until 10am in the vain hope that it might pass but luck was not on our side. We stepped into the maelstrom and packed our sodden belongings into our rucksacks as quickly as we could before setting off at a brisk pace to stay warm.
Ten minutes into the day’s walking we hit our first river crossing so went through the farce of taking off our boots, rolling up our trousers and wading through the chilling water in our sandals. We’d heard there was another river to cross in a mile so, despite it being freezing cold, we continued our march in shorts and sandals. The river never came though and we just looked increasingly stupid as we strayed further from water, our legs turning pink in the cold.
The clouds passed that evening and our route diverged from the tourist track once more. We pitched early in a quiet green field surrounded by trees and relaxed with a book and lots of hot drinks. It was our last night in the wild.
‘Hi!’, shouted a man in shorts.
They were a bold choice for the summit of a snow capped mountain.
Moments earlier we’d bern scrambling up steep frozen snow a degree or two away from requiring axe and crampons. The wind had howled around us but now we were in silence. We’d dropped off the highest ridge and stood in a bowl of snow with rolling white slopes in every direction. It was beautiful but tranquil to the point of being eery.
Tranquil, that is, until…
‘Hi! Is this the right way?’
Where he’d come from, I don’t know. But he bounded up to us as we sat sipping icy water and beamed a big broad grin.
‘Is this the right way? I was following the path but now I don’t see it’
Any path there had been was long since covered in snow. Sporadic flags marked the way instead but they were surprisingly hard to join together, repeatedly obscured by layers of white hills.
‘I think we’re heading in the right direction. You’re welcome to walk with us if you want?’
‘Nah, it’s OK. See ya!’
He bounded off over a summit of scree where he promptly fell onto his bum and skidded down the slope.
‘I’m OK!’, he yelled back before picking himself up, wiping a little blood from his knee and heading off into the distance.
As the snow faded behind us we reached our high point for the day and saw, in the distance, the sea. The coast was where our walk would end.
We descended until collapsing at the banks of a stream to quench the first that had accumulated in the hours since our water had run out. I filled my bottle and slurped greedily at the fresh water.
Our attention turned to address hunger with the realisation that, since the end was in sight, our rations no longer needed to be rationed.
‘I’ll trade you a Maple Crunch Bar for two of those salamis’
‘Done. And I’ll swap my apricots for your salted nuts…’
As we neared the coast, we gradually left the isolation behind and began to encounter an increasing number of other tourists who’d walked up from the car park where our walk was scheduled to finish.
We felt like heroes with our big packs, aching muscles, wide eyed stares and general dishevelment. But we were hardly alone in our achievement. Others will have finished the same walk earlier that day and no doubt others would finish it later. But it was the first time we’d done it and that’s always a good feeling.
Back in Reykjavik, long hours of soaking in hot pools and plunging into icy water awaited us. Not to mention hot drinks on tap and hot meals served at tables. But for that evening we pitched our tent at the foot of an almighty waterfall, inflated our mattresses and lay down one last time in the tent to reminisce about the miles we’d covered and demolish what remained of our ration packs.