The Icelandic Highlands are initially memorable for all the things that they are not. Most of the roads to this desolate expanse of uninhabited landscape in the middle of the country are closed in the winter. There are few accommodation options. This is not a part of the world that offers hospitable services or guarantees of any kind. The mobile network is scarce. Isolation looms large. The soundtrack to any experience here is almost certainly silence. We know we will be challenged; but that’s precisely why the beloved and I, after weeks of travelling through Iceland, feasting on nature’s opera, are determined to seek the Highlands out.
It becomes clear from the outset–this ‘nothing’ in the middle of Iceland, is more absolute than elsewhere. Everywhere the eye looks is a feature, a detail. Here a crater. There a black sand desert. Everywhere glacial moraine, hot springs, a congregation of active and spent volcanoes, an assortment of climbable crags, and vegetation in colors like goblin-green and over-bright pink–that look forged out of a fairytale. Our conversation involves bandying about words like tephra (solid matter ejected into the air by an erupting volcano), moraine (a ridge of boulders, clay and sand deposited by a glacier), and scoria (volcanic gravel that has cooled rapidly, creating a glassy surface.)
A four-wheel drive all-terrain vehicle (with some of the air let out of the tires to increase traction) is as essential as our sturdy walking shoes to negotiate the gravel roads and un-bridged streams. Haifoss–the third tallest waterfall in Iceland–on the edge of the Highlands, is our first stop. The wind is strong and there are no safety lines, so we operate our tripods with heightened caution at the cliff’s edge. And that’s the other notable thing about being here–there’s nothing to obscure your view. There’s no one selling you anything, or offering to take your picture for a fee. There’s only the exuberant waterfall, challenging you to get as close to the cliff’s edge as you dare. Leading us further off the straight and narrow, the nearby double waterfall Hjalparfoss and a garden-of-Eden lookalike in the form of Pjorsardalur valley beckon.
Onward into the Highlands we drive. Blahylur is the first crater lake we confront. As the name suggests, these lakes are formed in volcanic craters or calderas. You’d be hard-pressed to find another person here. As far as the eye can see, it’s a vast desolate expanse of green mossy soil, bright blue water and brown earth. The only feature that punctuates what can best be described as ‘God’s own minimalism’, is the congregation of sheep that can be found just about as commonly as superlative waterfalls in the country.
But no matter what you’ve read about the Highlands, nothing quite prepares you for your first encounter with Landmannalaugar. Ornamented and barnacled with geological features that look forged out of some deep subconscious–from multicoloured rhyolite (light-coloured, fine-grained volcanic rock) mountains, to gloriously bright-green lava fields, broken-up by winding blue rivers and streams, the area takes our breath away–literally. For, as the guide suggests, a good way to change perspective is to climb a crag or mountain. We pick the blue-black coloured (due to volcanic ash and lava flows) Mount Blahnjukur volcano to trek up, for a sweeping overview of the surrounding mountains and valley.
I huff and puff, negotiating the steep carpet of gravel and small rocks that lie strewn in my path. The views–as we turn each bend, only to be introduced to further terrain to surmount–induce in me a feeling of vertigo, and I beg like a pauper for the last drops of water from our bottle. But I’d do the trek again in a heartbeat. Every few minutes, the colours of the attendant hills morph, and patches of light creep atop the plateaus. In this beautiful but ruthless landscape, that has no regard for your bank balance or Instagram following, it’s best to stay in pairs, aware of those you’re travelling with, for it’s likely that they’re the only help available in the immediate vicinity, should the need arise.
We perch on a crag for 20 minutes of a spectacular sunset, with rays that render the earth and clouds that they stream through, lustrous. Meditating here, seated upon a carpet of volcanic black sand, against varying colours of green moss, it leaps to mind–if you’re even remotely familiar with the rich Icelandic tradition of literature, you’ll know at once where the inspiration for the country’s rich artistic heritage came from. Of course, this includes everything–from medieval prose sagas to contemporary Nordic literature to the band Sigur Ros. We smile at the narration of an epic tale involving werewolves, trolls and ghosts, but the guide frowns at us. You’re in Iceland–here you take these things seriously.
Appetite worked up from all that trekking, we drive to our hotel (one of a smattering in these parts, apart from the campsites). Like most structures, it is low-rise and doesn’t try to compete with the landscape in which it’s set. The focus is a neat, clean functionality. We assume that we’re finally going to get to try some hearty Icelandic fare–traditionally-cured fish, vegetables fermented in brine and served with dense, dark-and-sweet rye bread–but nature has her way again. The Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis (that form when solar flares are drawn by the earth’s magnetic field towards the North Pole), have decided to dance for us. An experienced guide takes the weather forecast and personal experience into account when deciding where to go for this magical display of light; but what you end up seeing is ultimately (like many of a journey’s best experiences) down to fate and good luck.
We drive to the outskirts of the Highlands–to Gullfoss or the Golden falls, located in the canyon of the Olfusa River, keen to have a setting to be illuminated by, beneath the Northern Lights. And truth be told, Gullfoss exerts her own siren call. Situated between basalt columns, this is ample proof–if proof were needed–that water is the world’s most dynamic architect. We stand for hours in the cold, negotiating the perfect spot to park our tripod, dressed like self-regulating ecosystems. But with the otherworldly glow of lights shimmying in the sky, I forget that my nose is falling off with the cold, that I can’t feel my fingertips. All the sensation that I care about is the one conjured by the ethereal colours that illuminate the sky and the waterfalls– green, violet and occasionally purplish-red.
The next morning we drive to another world–that looks straight out of a travel brochure cover shoot. We are heading to Veidivotn, an area punctuated by desert lakes in a volcanic basin. Along the way, we bump into a superlative view of Mount Hekla, one of the area’s most active volcanoes–that was fondly dubbed “Gateway to Hell.” Developing bifocal vision, once we are at the stunning blue lakes and craters that punctuate the area, is a good idea. The small stuff at our feet–in the form of a carpet of low grass, pale white mushrooms, bright orange flat caps, grey-green lichen and tiny flowers with a bright yellow centre (whose name I could never figure out), are all equally worthy of scrutiny.
It’s the end of our time here and we have much to salute. There is something about driving through a land, free of the clutter of cities and the cloned monopoly of malls, that reinforces in us the idea–that while culture is a great testament to the ingenuity of our race; the sublime truly does abide in nature.
There are a few one-stop flight options between Delhi and Reykjavik. From Reykjavik, niche travel agencies offer speciality guided tours into the Highlands. You’re best off doing your research online, before you find one that best suits your nature and requirement.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Hotel Highlands in Hella (double room from â‚¹9,900 per night; thehighlandcenter.is). It was comfortable and clean, with a reasonable restaurant attached. If you’re on a budget, there are a fair number of camping options available in the Landmannalaugar area.
What to See & Do
All places we visited were either in or around Fjallabak Nature Reserve, since it takes an experienced driver-cum-local guide to navigate the terrain to reach most other attractions.
The Haifoss waterfall near Hekla volcano promises an extraordinary sight.
The glacial lake Blahylur is an isolated expanse with unpretentious beauty.
A climb up a mountain or crag at Landmannalaugar is the best way to experience the region. Mount Blahnjukar is a scenic option.
To get a view of the Northern Lights is a matter of chance, but if they show up, an experienced guide will know where to take you.
Veidivotn is defined by desert lakes among a volcanic basin.
Good to Know
Much of this area is only accessible from mid-June to end September, when the roads are safe and the area is resplendent with colour.