Cold Fever

Tramping in the Icelandic interior

The cold was biting. The glacier loomed before us, covered in a thin layer of snow and barely distinguishable from the low white sky. The only visible landmarks were the large gravel ridges behind us. Ottur, our guide, stopped, put down his pack and pulled out a map, compass and a small black box. He flicked a switch on the box – a global positioning system (GPS) receiver – to check our geographic coordinates. With no visual references, we were relying on signals from satellites orbiting 20,000 kilometres from Earth to guide us.

Despite the cold, the whiteout, and the blanket of snow, we weren’t in the mountains and it wasn’t winter. We were in Iceland, in midsummer, at an altitude of less than 1000 metres, on the edge of Eyjabakkajökull, a glacial tongue of the Great Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest icecap. Vatnajökull dominates the southwest of Iceland, the mid-Atlantic island positioned astride two of the planet’s major tectonic plates. Beneath the icecap the land is hot and furious. Volcanoes periodically erupt, melting the ice and flooding the coastal region. I had met my companions five days before in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, from where we travelled northeast over unsealed roads. We stopped first at Geysir, namesake of all lesser geysers, and the spectacular Gulfoss waterfall. As we drove inland towards the snow, the rough gravel road lay parallel to an endless line of ancient cairns, marking a path through the bleak lava fields.

When we stopped at a traditional sod farmhouse, a large blonde man treated us to some local delicacies. Iceland is populated by 300,000 descendants of Vikings and Celts, and we sampled some of their culinary relics: smoked trout and an acrid-smelling, dried fish that our host cut into tiny cubes with a large knife. “Is this rotten shark meat?” I asked, remembering the Ram’s Testicles and Rotten Shark chapter of my guidebook. “No” replied the affronted Ottur, “It is shark meat, that has been buried …”. Right. Traditionally, shark meat is cured by being buried in sand for three months. It emerges with a strong ammoniac taste, and these days hakarl is most often eaten as part of a midwinter feast, followed by a hearty swig of evil-tasting Icelandic schnapps, Brenniven, or “black death”.

After crossing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, passing from the North American to the Eurasian plate, we turned off the gravel road onto a dirt track, richly coloured with red-brown volcanic soil, to a mountain hut at the base of Mt Snaefell. The hut slept 60, and was managed by Raghilda Ros, a large Icelandic warden who was there with her even larger husband, and a band of hearty-looking Icelandic children who ran around, inside and out, in little crop tops and shorts.

We woke in the morning to find that it had snowed in the “night”. Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle, so in mid-July the sun is never far below the horizon, and even at midnight, the cloudy sky is white and there’s no need for a torch. We walked towards Mt Snaefell, spying tiny mosses and flowers poking through the light covering of snow.  At 1833 metres, Snaefell is not high, but at this latitude, everything is more extreme. After a four-hour ascent, we made it to the windy, icy summit without crampons or ropes, with snow fresh and soft enough for an exhilarating slide down. Back at the hut, we ate vaffules made on a waffle iron over the wood-burning stove, washing them down with some belly-warming Arctic-cranberry vodka.

The next day, at the start of our glacier crossing, I stood shivering with my fellow trekkers at Ottur compared the GPS readings with a list of coordinates that told us where we should be. As we crossed the stony ridges of lateral moraine – piles of sharp gravel-like stones deposited by the ice – the light snowfall reduced the visibility to less than 100 metres.

Before us lay Eyjabakkajökull. It may be only a humble glacial tongue of the Vatnajökull icecap, but even so, is bigger than New Zealand’s Fox and Franz Josef glaciers put together. After getting his bearings, Ottur stopped every 15 minutes to consult his GPS receiver. There was no track, and we followed in blind trust, walking in single file to avoid crevasses.

Over the next week we walked 120 km, in temperatures hovering around zero, around the edge of the ice cap, crossing streams on snow bridges, sleeping in mountain huts and swimming in icy tarns.

Iceland’s scenery – Narnia meets The Land That Time Forgot – was spectacular, but some of the mossy flood plains formed by rivers running off the ice cap could soon be flooded by dams – New Zealand is not the only country to attract aluminium smelters with the lure of cheap hydroelectricity.

As we left the glacier, we tramped across spongy moss then broken basalt that crunched underfoot like glass. Hoof tracks in occasional patches of snow and mud showed that Iceland’s elusive reindeer were never far from us. Heading downhill towards the coast, we disturbed fragrant herbs and encountered our first Icelandic “forest” of twisted waist-high trees. At our last hut, we met the warden, Helga, who greeted us and burped loudly between mouthfuls of thick slices of smoked lamb.

Driving back to Reykjavík, we stopped for a boat ride on a glacial lake full of floating blue icebergs. Nearby, on the east side of Vatnajökull, glacial tongues reached almost to the sea, dwarfing the houses and farmlets on the grassy plain below. We drive by, safe and warm in our 4WD bus, en route to Reykjavík for a soak in the hot pools of the bizarre Blue Lagoon, where wastewater from the city’s geothermal power plant provides one of Iceland’s top tourist attractions.

This story originally appeared as “The land that time forgot” in the LISTENER, 25 July 2009.

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