Day 20 : Selfoss – Borg (31.3 km / 19.4 mi)
Day 21 : Borg – Laugarvatn (23.3 km / 14.5 mi)
Day 22 : Laugarvatn – Geysir (35.6 km / 22.1 mi)
Day 23 : Geysir – Gulfoss (27.1 km / 16.8 mi)
Day 24 : Gulfoss – River Fossa (41.7 km / 25.9 mi)
Day 25 : River Fossa – Rjupnavellir (42.5 km / 26.4 mi)
Total walking days: 6
Total km: 201.5 km / 125.2 mi
Average km per day: 33.6 km / 20.9 mi
Overall total km : 768 km / 477.2 mi
I had a predicament for a long time, and Selfoss held the last opportunity for me to make up my mind. I was slowly approaching a long patch without supermarkets, as I was headed inland towards some of Icelands most popular hiking trails, Laugavegur being the main one. I would go 15.5 days without a supermarket, apart from a tiny, expensive shop at Landmannalaugar, the start of the Laugavegur trail, where I would be able to buy some sort of snacks. I was unsure of the specifics, so I couldn’t count on it.
I had never carried 15.5 days worth of food before, 11 at the most. And I remember my pack being completely stuffed. Apart from the weight issue, I had no idea if I could actually fit that much food in my pack. I couldn’t help but wonder, how hungry would I be? How would my hunger influence my enjoyment of the trails I was so looking forward to hike?
My original plan had been to organise a food package to be delivered to the hut at Landmannalaugar, right in the middle of this stretch, by one of the bus companies that transport tourists and offer this service. But I could only organise it from Reykjavik, and as I had altered my route earlier, I never passed it when I was originally supposed to.
I considered my options. I was thinking of taking a bus back to Reykjavik from Selfoss, but it seemed like a big ordeal. Alternatively, I could simply take a bus back from Landmannalaugar, stock up in Reykjavik and return, but when I looked up the prices, it seemed like a huge expense. And all that for a food package.
So I decided to go with my last option. I was going to carry the food. I decided to take on the challenge. Iceland, I guess, was becoming the walk of challenges. If I could survive Iceland, I could survive anywhere. And I was going to survive carrying 15.5 days worth of food. The last supermarket would be in Laugarvatn, two days away, and the first one after that would be in Vik, a days walk after finishing the final trail. And I was going to do it.
The two days to Laugarvatn were interspersed with rain and monotony. I walked next to the main road in the loose gravel of the horse path, and it was as though I was postholing through snow.
Once again, I was thoroughly unmotivated. I wanted other things. I wanted to hike the PCT in the US, I wanted to be on an actual trail, I wanted to live in NYC with my friend, I wanted a sunny day so that I could wash all of my clothes, I wanted to eat the foods I knew I couldn’t have while I was in Iceland, I wanted to start the hiking trail that was weeks ahead of me. I wanted everything I didn’t have.
I walked on the loose grind next to the road with too much food in my pack and I thought: Maybe I don’t want anything. Maybe I’ll take whatever I have now. Why do I want to spend my life wanting all of the things I don’t have, be a person I’m not. Why am I not happy walking in the middle of Iceland with 18 kilos on my back in the cold rain, with mud on my clothes and everything in my pack damp. Why not?
And I thought to myself, yes, this is it. Until time passed and it got cold and my feet, ankles, legs hurt, and it was difficult. All I wanted to do, was to scream at the stupid rocks that lined the path next to the road, because I was tired and I wanted to be in my tent. But I had another 15 km to go before I got anywhere close.
I was thrilled to arrive in Laugarvatn. The supermarket was small, but once I looked around, I realised they had everything. I bought 15.5 days worth of food, and arranged everything in neat ziplock bags once I got back to my tent. A kilo of couscous, over half a kilo of instant mashed potatoes, a kilo and a half of muesli, five packs of wraps, plus nuts, chocolate, vegetables, salami, six tins of tuna, chocolate milk powder and instant coffee, among others. When I was finished and put everything in my bag, it didn’t fit.
I checked what was still in its original packaging: the wraps, a few tins of tuna and the sweet corn I couldn’t open. I closed my pack with everything that fit and put the rest in a shopping bag. I went back to the shop and returned the remainders. I sincerely hoped that shop at Landmannalaugar was going to sell something I could use.
My pack was heavy. I took three breaks that first day, and stumbled after the last. I was following the track next to the road whenever it was there.
It was later on in the day when I saw a black lamb sitting beside the gravel road I was walking on. A few other sheep hurried along as I approached, as they do, but the lamb sat there, shivering. It looked like it was crying. I passed it, thinking it best to leave it alone, when I saw my track was roped off in the distance and I had to backtrack to get back to the main road.
When I got closer to the lamb it was desperately trying to move, but its front legs weren’t working. It barely shuffled along with one, the other didn’t work at all. It was pushing itself forward and collapsing. I walked past and cried at its suffering. There was nothing I knew I could do. I guessed it would die.
Once I reached Geysir it was sunny, and I strolled along the sprouting hot springs with the other tourists. I did my laundry because it was cheap, and it was nice to have clean clothes ahead of the long hike, the hike without supermarkets, showers, hot water or electricity.
Once I left Geysir in my freshly washed items, I walked next to a busy road that was under construction. The road led from Geysir to the waterfall Gulfoss, two of Iceland’s most visited attractions, and I got covered in dust along the way, setting off my journey dirty and soon, sticky from the hot sun.
After a warm day, the temperature plummeted and I took a back road to the alternative east side viewpoint for Gulfoss, as it would lead me to the F road I wanted to take in the direction of Rjupnavellir. I passed some farms on the way, and then there was nothing. The road seemed so quiet, so remote in spirit, that I got scared. I felt a huge surge of relief when at last, a car passed me. I knew they were tourists going to the viewpoint. Nobody else had any reason to be there.
When I reached the Gulfoss, I was the only person there. I was in the middle of nowhere, looking out onto a huge waterfall, and on the other side, a gorge and a world apart from me, was the main viewpoint, the Gulfoss visitor centre, the car park, and the people. All in rain gear, approaching the waterfall carefully, as the mist from the plummeting water hazed them as though it was raining. I stayed dry on my side.
That night I camped in the vicinity. I struggled through the lupine flowers and the low bushes, veering off the path that had led to the viewpoint, and tried to find a camping spot in the bulky grass. I slept as though I was lying on a huge massage ball, arranging myself around the protruding piles as they poked me in the back.
On the Art of River Crossings
After leaving Gulfoss, I went further into the Highlands and found the elusive road I had planned to take. It was somewhat of a shortcut to Rjupnavellir, which marked the start of three consecutive hiking trails. The road had no name on my map, but was dashed like a dirt road, so I assumed it was similar to the 550 route I had taken before.
When I got to the turnoff, I sat down to take some water from a stream and put on more layers. After the warm morning the day before, the weather was grey and cold again, the usual for Iceland. Several big cars passed me. Tourists, no doubt, enjoying a ride on an F road. F roads demand special vehicles in Iceland, and not all rental cars are allowed to enter. They often include rough tracks, and require fording rivers. As far as I can tell, people navigate these roads for fun. There’s not generally anywhere to head, other than the odd tourist destination, or the route itself.
I only saw a handful of cars that day, but I got my first taste of what a true F road has to offer. It didn’t take long for me to catch sight of my first river crossing. Shit, I thought, succinctly. That’s a river, cutting right through my road. After a brief hesitation, I decided to put on my flip flops and ford the river wearing those.
It proved a long winded ordeal, taking off my pack and shoes, balancing myself in slippery flip flops on slippery rocks with a current going, and then drying off and getting back on the road again. I thought of just wearing my shoes, getting through the river quickly and just letting myself get soaked, but it was too cold and my shoes could stay wet for days. I wasn’t prepared for that misery unless I had no choice.
That river crossing proved to be the first of many. Two were small, and I managed to balance on rocks and skip across. The worst were the ones where I though I could hop across, and after walking up and down the riverbed for ages, trying to find the right rocks that would get me to the other side, I found out I couldn’t, and still had to go through the motions of undressing and dressing again.
When I got to the fourth crossing, I watched a huge rocky plane stretch in front of me, with several river sections meandering across. Two cyclists were on the opposite side, preparing to make their way across.
I took off my shoes and decided not to overthink this huge stretch of icy water, and began to wade through, my feet plowing against the current, step by careful step, balancing on the rocks underfoot, the rivers too wide and making my feet and legs get stiff with cold. I met the cyclists in the middle, and asked how many more river crossing there were on the other side. Three, they said. And be careful with the last one. It’s big, you’ll see when you get there.
I kept on going. The evening stretched before me, and as I passed a sloping hill, I saw a group of people parked next to the road, setting up a tent and a table with food as though they were accommodating a group of marathoners that were about to pass us on the road. I watched them as I approached, four guys in the middle of nowhere, and me.
I kept walking until I got closer and greeted the guy at the table with that open kind of hello, the hello you use whenever you meet a stranger in the middle of nowhere, the hello that sounds like you just met your best friend from kindergarten for the first time since you were kids.
Immediately, my worried dissipated. They were four Americans. The guy offered me cookies, saying they bought too much, and I took a mini brownie, wishing I could eat everything they had stalled out. We also talked about the river crossings, and they conceded that the last river crossing was a big one. But those cyclists managed, they said. They saw them when they were there. They got across.
It was almost 10pm when I got to the last river crossing. The big one I had to watch out for. I approached it carefully. The river wasn’t as wide as the multiple river crossing where I met the cyclists, but it looked deeper, and the current seemed pretty strong. I made a quick calculation in my head and decided to take off my socks and cross with my shoes on. I needed to be steady to ford this river.
I treaded carefully. Placed my feet on the rocks and felt the movement below. The water was cold, and sucked into the material of my shoes the instant I put them in the water. As I took each step, I felt the current getting stronger and stronger, and I had to take a moment after each move to settle and get my balance. But despite my efforts, my pack was heavy with food and I remained unsteady. I wished I had trekking poles, I would be able to balance myself. I thought of the cyclists. The bikes would’ve given them something to hold on to.
I looked in front of me as I struggled and realised I was nowhere near the middle of the river, and the current looked to get increasingly stronger ahead. I looked back, I had only gone into the water a few meters.
I can’t do this, I thought. I will lose my balance and fall.
I turned, worried, and felt the cold cling to me as I withdrew myself from the water, moving up from my legs into the rest of my body. I tried not to think of the failed crossing as I moved down the river bed and quickly set up my tent for the night.
How would I cross the next day? Would the water be calmer? Could I try and cross further upstream? Could I hitchhike across? What if no one cared to stop and give me ride? I had learned that day that I really hated river crossings, but there was one thing I hated more, and that was hitch hiking. Still, I had to get across. I tried to stop thinking about it and prepared for sleep.
The next morning I moved along with the plan that had formed overnight. I packed up my tent and moved upstream. The river was quiet there, and it was wide and meandered, which was usually a good spot for river crossings. It meant the water was often shallower, and would be easier to ford. I put on my shoes as the night before, and headed into the water.
Maybe I was going to be okay, I thought. Maybe this would actually work, and I wouldn’t have to hitchhike across.
As I moved further and further, the shallow water got deeper. Suddenly, it was approaching the top of my thighs, and I looked ahead and knew it was going to get deeper. I let out a sigh. The river was winning. I wasn’t going to get across on my own.
I went back to the road and sat down on a rock. The river looked as strong as it did the day before. I wasn’t going to try again. It was ten in the morning and I had no idea when a car would pass, but it was the only option I had. I waited.
An hour later, I was getting cold. I sat in my wet gear, and although my clothes dried quickly and I had put on my socks, wearing my flip flops, the cold in the air started to get to me. I watched my wet shoes next to me on the road. I would have to wear them for the rest of the day.
At that moment a car appeared, and I quickly stuck out my thumb, and I wanted to give a big smile, but only managed a desperate look on my face. When the windows lowered, I quickly yelled out and asked if they had space to get me across the river, when I saw they were the Americans I met camping the night before. I knew them, they would definitely help me get across. They had been headed in the opposite direction the day before, but had decided to backtrack and go elsewhere. I couldn’t believe my luck.
One of them picked up my dripping shoes and they made space for me and my pack. They manoeuvred the car along the river carefully, making sure not to hit any big overturned rocks, and got to the other side safely.
I made it.
After the river crossing I felt I had nothing to worry about anymore. An hour later I passed a waterfall, and I took my time to appreciate it. There were two streams chasing down a steep incline and it was stunning. The river I hadn’t been able to cross on my own had lead there.
It was the last day before I would begin the hiking trails I had been waiting for so eagerly. I got off the F road and walked a long, endless road to the trailhead. I was ready for it. Another hiking trail, finally.
I walked till late, the road never wanting to end, while I was all too aware that the first days on the trail ran almost parallel, but in the opposite direction, to the road I was headed down. I watched as I passed a turnoff to the first mountain hut I would camp at after my first day on the trail. I tried to see if I could spot the track in the distance, but I couldn’t. It remained hidden from me, the trail undoubtedly mocking me from the other side of the volcanic slopes.