Day 33 : Skógar – Vík (42 km / 26.1 mi)
Zero Day 4 : Vík
Zero Day 5 : Vík
Day 34 : Vík – along Sathurlandsvegur (35.4 km / 22 mi)
Day 35 : along Sathurlandsvegur – along 208 (39.8 km / 24.7 mi)
Day 36 : along 208 – Laki / River Varmá (52.9 km / 32.9 mi)
Day 37 : Laki / River Varmá – Laki / Galti (35.2 km / 21.9 mi)
Zero Day 6 : Laki / Galti
Day 38 : Laki / Galti – Kirjubæjarklaustur (49 km / 30.4 mi)
Total walking days: 6
Total km: 243.3 km / 151.2 mi
Average km per day: 40.6 km / 25.2 mi
Overall total km : 1150 km / 714.6 mi
It had been eleven days of no showers and a succession of Iceland’s most popular hiking trails, and I was back in civilisation and on the busy ring road.
After a dispiriting day in the pouring rain and sodden grass during which I was attacked by a screeching bird, I blearily settled down for a short break in the town of Vík. Two days later I was ready to go again. I had a choice to make. I could take two days to walk the ring road to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, or stay with my original plan, which meant take a detour into the Highlands. Up to Lakagígar, the craters of Laki.
The detour was depicted by the itinerary I had found online and was loosely following. In fact, I had no idea what Lakagígar looked like, or why this area was interesting enough to direct me there. Apart from detailing my route and schedule on a practical level, I never did any research on the places I was going to. I wondered if I should skip the whole area.
After Kirkjubæjarklaustur, I was (really not) looking forward to a week-long walk next to the ring road to Höfn. If I skipped Lakagígar, I would be able to get that awful stretch behind me sooner. Not only that, but I wouldn’t have to face the numerous F road river crossings on the way up and down.
I’d seen so many photographs littering the Internet of people wading through muddied rivers in a downpour, waist-deep, arms linked and barely able to resist being swept away by a strong current. I was just waiting to find myself in a similar situation, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I kept looking up videos of people driving through the roads I’d have to take, trying to find out how bad the crossings were, how high the water was and how strong the current, and if there were any alternative routes that eliminated the need to ford these rivers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite figure it all out. Worry continued to muddle my mind.
The Road to Lakagígar
I left Vík unsure of my plans, but luckily the weather was good, and I found myself walking in a good mood. I was surrounded by bright lupine flowers adorning the sides of the road, until they made way for desert-like vistas accentuated by sporadic hills and rocks.
I followed the ring road for the majority of two days, and I was hurting from the heavy pack. I walked along the tarmac in the sun and the wind and watched the weather around me change. Clouds and local showers illuminating the sky above.
I arrived at the point where I had to make a decision: go to Lakagígar or keep moving along the ring road. In the meantime I had found a website describing several possible routes to cycle into Lakagígar. The descriptions of the different roads suggested that the river crossings were unavoidable, but should all be feasible under normal circumstances. I decided to risk it and go.
The day into Lakagígar was a long one. I woke up in the sun, next to a low creek bed close to a quiet road. It was one of the only days it was warm enough to go outside and rinse myself in the water.
The cyclists’ website led me up route 208 and towards the voluminously meandering glacial and spring-fed river Skaftá. I was worried about this river. It had many branches and was huge, fast flowing and muddied. Luckily it seemed there would be bridges across the river in a number of locations. The water was simply too dangerous to wade or drive through. My route directed me across the river over a stretch of raised gravel road, partly flooded, and a bridge. I waded through the wet road and reached the bridge, which was barricaded off by a huge sign saying ‘Private Road’.
I hesitated. A private road.
I knew the road would lead to the Skaftárdalur farm. I wanted to turn back, but the website had mentioned a horse riding path beyond the farm, and that you can open the gate and enter the land. I jumped the sign and reluctantly headed towards the farm buildings.
Entering private roads and farms freaks me out for two reasons. First, you just don’t enter someone’s land if it clearly says you shouldn’t. I still find it strange if access to trailheads is through private land, and sometimes even requires a stroll through farm buildings. I feel like someone is going to find me and tell me to get the hell off their land. Second, I am terribly afraid of farm dogs. Normal dogs I can deal with. Loose running and barking beasts that chase after you and behave like they are a snap second away from Attack, I cannot.
Unfortunately, I had no choice. As I got closer, I noticed a parked car at one of the farm buildings and a couple with a baby sitting further on in a rocky field, while their two huge dogs, a blonde and a black one, made a lunge for me. All my fears at once realised, the dogs surrounded me in a second, holding me hostage by blocking me from both sides.
The family in return didn’t appear too bothered and clearly had no grasp of my impending agony. They looked like they were on holiday.
Then the man lifted his arms and gave the thumbs up. I wasn’t sure if the gesture was aimed at the dogs or at me, but I waved back and yelled ‘Hello’ anyways. A moment later the dogs ran back. I guessed they didn’t mind me jumping the huge, unavoidable sign that said ‘Private Road’ after all. I continued quickly, before the dogs could change their mind and barge after me again.
When I had passed the farm, it was just me. The horse riding path led through rolling grasslands and perfect camping spots.
After some time I reached a dirt road that was completely deserted and faced the first, and biggest river crossing. Luckily I had read that the current was usually moderate, and it was fine to cross. I was relieved to have this information, because the crossing was absolutely huge.
Keeping my shoes and socks on, I made my way through the water. It was indeed streaming quietly, a huge relief since I was balancing on slippery rocks and the water was, as usual, cold. It reached up to my mid thigh. When I finally got to the other side I checked the clock on my phone and saw that it had taken eight minutes to cross.
The landscape opened up and provided vast scenes of moss and grassy hills. I felt deserted by humanity, walking this remote road with not a single car passing me.
Just as the temperature began to drop, a group of young people bewildered me by suddenly emerging from the field next to me, as though they had jumped straight out of a Swiss movie set from the eighties. They were French and somewhat lost, although I couldn’t help much. All I knew was where I was going and where I’d been, but I had no idea what anything was called. They were worried about reaching Skaftá, but I didn’t know how to respond. I was overwhelmed by all these people around me, and forgot that Skaftá didn’t need to be forded, that I had crossed the bridge earlier that day.
Slowly the landscape turned to the gloomily black, Mordor-like lava formations, covered in a desaturated moss. It was getting dark and I wanted to settle down for the night but I had no water. I’d reached a dry patch. There were no rivers or streams for miles.
I passed two unused mountain huts, adding to my feeling of alienation, before reaching my destination of the day: the circular road around the Laki craters. By then, twilight had arrived and I realised I was running out of time. There was one official campsite, but it was in the wrong direction. I decided to continue the other way, hoping to find a wild camping spot and water soon.
It took another few hours of hurrying along fields of volcanic rock up the hilly circular road and wading through a cold stream, before desperately running up and down the Varmá river bank in an attempt to find a flat, grassy patch. It was well after midnight when I finally found a spot.
The Craters of Laki
I woke to a beautiful day. The ring road around Lakagígar was long and I planned to take all day to walk it, until hitting the F206, which would take me back to Kirkjubæjarklaustur in either one or two days.
Initially I had wanted to sidestep the main circular road in favour of a hiking path going further north, but the trail was difficult to find and I realised the ring road offered mind blowing views. I loved walking it. There were few cars and I felt as though I was walking through a fairytale landscape. For the very first and only time, I felt utterly relaxed and at ease, just wandering around and enjoying my surroundings.
It wasn’t until I reached a small hiking trail to Tjarnagígur crater lake that I began to see more day trippers move around by car. The short hiking path was beautiful in the sun, and led through outlandish scapes of lava and moss.
Not long after I met two park rangers. It was the first time I saw rangers on the road and they stopped to chat. They were curious where I’d been, and where I was planning to go that day. Wild camping is not allowed in national parks, but with only one official campsite, it’s simply not possible for hikers to visit the area without wild camping along the way.
The rangers were very understanding and helpful, and assured me that, being a hiker, I would be able to camp closer to the F206. I wasn’t allowed to camp on what they call the ‘crater side’ of Lakagígar, essentially the western half of the ring road. I kept quiet about where I’d been the night before, because I realised I’d been in the no-go zone.
They said to look out for a rolling landscape further ahead, and make sure to camp out of sight from the road. Don’t thread on the moss, and leave no trace, they added several times.
While I had still hoped to reach the F206 by that night, I got too tired and had to find a place to pitch my tent earlier. I skipped a second small hiking path that led up a steep trail. It wasn’t until later that I realised the trail reached a viewpoint overlooking the craters of Laki, essentially the accumulation of everything I had walked around that day. The highlight of Lakagígar, you could say.
But by that point I was more worried about finding a place to sleep. I passed a grassy area which I thought would solve my problem, but there were no secluded spots concealed from the road. I should’ve just pitched my tent, because the road continued at a higher elevation, and I rushed through hills of rock in the cold, with no options at all. It look a long time before I found a small stream with some grass next to it, just about out of sight from the road.
A Day of Storm
I woke to a grey day filled with fog and rain. Rain miserably and steadily pouring down, without a break. I had a long day ahead of me with three river crossings that had worried me for days. Although the rangers had said they would be fine to cross, the pouring rain could add difficulty. I had no desire to get soaking wet and instead opted to stay in my tent all day, simply reading, waiting for the bad weather to clear.
Across the Rivers, Back to Town
The following day was grey and while it rained off and on, I was happy to be on my way again.
Tourists passed me in their cars on their day trip to the craters and for once people smiled at me, some raising their thumbs in encouragement. It made me feel good. Usually, I was ignored. This time several people slowed down and chatted to me, and I got offers of rides.
As I reached the rivers one by one, they didn’t appear swollen from the recent rainfall. There were no intense currents or deep sections and I waded through all of them easily, keeping my shoes on for better grip.
My anxiety about these river crossings always seemed a bit embarrassing to me. I am very aware that caution is crucial, but I always wished I could be a bit cooler about them. I’m not the only one though. A lot of people in vehicles aren’t confident enough to cross some of these rivers, some even turning back while they may be very passable.
This time I managed to get through, and it felt good. After all those worries, everything had turned out with a lot less trepidation than expected. But not everyone was that lucky. I was unaware of this at the time, but the same day I sat in my tent waiting out the bad weather, a group of French Boy Scouts got stuck while attempting to ford the Skaftá river. One of them had to be rescued by helicopter. I don’t know exactly where they tried to get across, but the river is dangerous, and wading through is certainly reckless. That’s why there are bridges. I can’t help but wonder if they were the people I had ran into a few days before.