Back to the travel, back to Iceland and today I’m taking you to one of my favourite corners, Landmannalaugar, which is pronounced more or less how it looks, except that “au” which sounds a bit like you started saying “oi” and finishing saying “eye”. We don’t have an equivalent sound in English but it’s a bit like the vowels in the French feuille.
Landmannalaugar is an oasis in the middle of the Icelandic highlands, a natural hot spring sitting at the foot of a lava field, with a small campsite built up around it. This lot is surrounded by a gravel plain, which is ringed by brightly coloured streaky mountains. It’s really pretty.
In theory, you can drive there yourself, if you can persuade the rental company to let you drive on roads that are banned to rental cars, if you can ford the occasional river and if you can follow a road that looks like this for five hours:
Personally, I find it difficult when there is no visible road. So you travel by bus, either by tour bus (which may well take the form of a day tour – a very long day) or by scheduled bus, which is basically the same thing.
It takes around five hours from Reykjavik, on a proper tarmac road – the Ringroad – and then you turn off and drive one of two ways, which is either the gravel road that runs north of Hekla or the gravel road that runs south of Hekla. It’s very green at first but soon enough turns into black desert. When people describe Iceland as looking like the surface of the moon, they’re really not too far off too here. (Reykjanes, the bit between the airport and Reykjavik, on the other hand, looks nothing like the moon.)
The final hurdle is the ford at the “entrance” to Landmannalaugar. You can, if you’re brave and skilled enough, drive a normal car to this ford but you then can’t cross it. Without having tried it myself, it doesn’t look any harder than the ford at Brockenhurst.
If you can’t ford the river, you have two choices. You can walk to the campsite via the footbridge or you can hitch a lift from someone else. This photo is taken from the lava field overlooking the campsite – by the time you reach the ford, you’re a couple of hundred yards away.
In the middle are the facilities – there’s a big barn with sinks and toilets and showers (400kr – 2 x 200kr coins, if I remember rightly) which is the building at the top as you look at this photo. Immediately below it is a bunkhouse (the front part is open during the winter for changing if you happen to visit in the snowy months) and the building to the right is the wardens’ cottage, for the paying of camping fees, buying of maps and leaving your details if you’re going to walk the Laugavegur trail. My tent is that little yellow dot just above the apex of the washbarn, next to the silver car. See it? That’s my home!
At the far right – the south – the campsite is very stony but it becomes quite soft and grassy the further north you go. The south end is used by groups – every time I’ve been there, it’s been filled with matching tents. The little green tunnels tents are just about visible in the above photo but there’s also a dozen little matching red-and-orange dome tents hidden in the shadow of the lava field. They’re welcome to it – it’s stony! I had a very heavy bag so I only managed to drag my luggage halfway across the site but I found a lovely little pitch, a bit of grass just the size and shape of my tent in the the middle of the gravel.
Funny story – I got up and packed up my tent ready to be on the bus at 8am. I took a photo of my pitch. I began to get suspicious that the bus wasn’t ready and waiting for its passengers, given that it’s a ten hour journey each way. I discovered that the bus wasn’t coming today and I’d have to wait until tomorrow, so I had to put the tent back up. To anyone nearby who wasn’t privy to the internal panic and discovery, it must have looked like I packed everything away simply to take this photo.
Landmannalaugar can be very windy – I was quite disappointed to miss out on it, especially as I got a lot of rain instead. I poked my head out of my tent and watched an alarmingly large puddle growing around one corner of my tent. The rocks are there to weigh the tents down in the event of wind but given that the soil is so thin and so gravelly, you shove the tent pegs in as best you can and then use the rocks to anchor them because left to their own devices, they’ll just fall straight out of the ground as it crumbles around them.
Anyway. I haven’t mentioned what it is that draws people to this inaccessible gravelly little campsite in the middle of nowhere. The hot spring. The campsite sits at the foot of the lava field, the one I was taking photos from earlier, and boiling hot water pours from under this lava. It meets a cold river and there’s a spot where the two mix to make a lovely lovely hot bath.
During the afternoons, it gets packed with all the tourists that arrive on the coach for the day trip. If you camp, it gets quieter later on. Being natural, it’s full of weeds and greenery and slimy things but if you ignore them, you’ve got a lovely hot pool out in the mountains. You can sit closer to the spring where it’s hotter or if it gets too much, you can paddle down the river until it’s cool enough for your tastes. Changing facilities are either the barn or that wooden structure.
If you’re really lucky, you can also go out there in winter in a superjeep (and if you’re a solo traveller, you’ll probably get to sit in the front!). The road looks like this in winter:
I got changed in the entrance to the bunkhouse, pulled on thermal layers and coat and boots for the run down the boardwalk – an incredible distance in a snowstorm – and dived into the hot water, having the sense to put towel and thermals in a drybag (but not the boots), and enjoyed the experience of being in a natural hot pool in very deep snow in the middle of nowhere.
I started getting out of the swimming stuff and into the thermals for the run back to the hut while standing on the wooden structure before realising that it was too cold and too snowstormy for that, so I pulled my coat around me and wrapped my travel towel around me like a skirt, feet shoved in boots, laces undone, and ran like crazy. I would like to state for the record that those travel towels are astonishingly windproof and that being icewhipped is really warming. I don’t even know how many layers I put on but I wasn’t cold at all.
The hot spring is great. Landmannalaugar means “the people’s pool” and so the people go to the pool, summer and winter. But the main reason people make the effort to camp out there is for hiking. It’s where the famous Laugavegur trail starts, a 55km hike across the volcanoes from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. You can do it in either direction but it’s generally accepted that Landmannalaugar is the start point. If you’re unwilling to set out into the wilds for four days on your own without a map (ie any sensible person, including me), there’s plenty to do nearby. I planned to arrive early Sunday afternoon and depart first thing Monday morning, scuppered by the bus schedule as mentioned earlier, which meant I had an afternoon, an evening and then another whole day. I spent my first afternoon doing the trail through Green Canyon, which I’d wanted to do since I spied it on a day trip the year before. You follow a signpost along the bottom of the lava field south of the campsite until you come to a lump of green rock. It’s green. I can’t explain to you how green it is. Photos don’t do justice to how green it is.
That green rock is like the doorway to the trail and you enter by stepping up an obsidian step. I kid you not. Obsidian is a volcanic glass, formed in this area. These are obsidian mountains, or at least, they’re a kind of rock called rhyolite which is streaked with obsidian. I picked up a couple of small chunks of raw obsidian from the ground, with the intention of polishing them up until I discovered it’s more complicated than just scrubbing them with a toothbrush and expecting them to shine.
This particular trail follows the canyon, then you climb up and out onto a lava field, following marker posts which are almost invisible when you stop and look back at where you’ve been. You emerge from the lava field onto a bare track riddled with solfaras or solfataras (the internet won’t tell me which is correct. Maybe both?), which are like open wounds in the earth, big grey and yellow patches of sulphur, in both solid and gaseous forms, hot stinking steaming geothermal patches. From there you can follow the track down, past a green meadow bordered by streaky rhyolite mountains, past a green-blue pond and then back up onto the lava field that overlooks the campsite to take in the view before scrambling back down to the hot spring. It takes a couple of hours and I did it by accident, not realising it was any further than a few hundred yards down the canyon until I’d been out for quite a while. I had nothing on me but my camera and my waterproofs – and it wasn’t even raining, so they were annoying to carry. But if you set out deliberately, maybe with a map and a drink, it’s a really nice little walk.
You can also climb Bláhnúkur, which is the blueish mountain with the sharp ridge next to Green Canyon. Or you can wander across the gravel plain to enjoy the mountains that ring the place from ground level. I ventured down Brandsgill, a canyon on the other side of the mountain, criss-crossed with glacial streams, wide enough to have to wade across. Waterproof hiking sandals make this a joy. What’s better than paddling in shallow but ferocious and freezing water?
The more I look at the photos, the more I realise how much better my slow, chunky old camera is than my new one.
The final great thing about Landmannalaugar is this:
This is the Fjallabuð, the Mountain Mall, a pair of old American school buses, which have been painted green and driven somehow across the Icelandic mountain desert. These buses function as shop and cafe, selling basic food supplies and any camping bits and pieces you may need. I had a cup of hot chocolate there in the evening, made my favourite way – buy a cup and make it yourself. I like mine milky so I had just enough boiling water to dissolve the chocolate and topped it up with milk. After a long day and lovely walk across exotic terrain, as the night doesn’t draw in – because of course, in Iceland, it doesn’t get dark in the summer, although the sun does technically sink below the horizon for an hour or so – it’s really nice to sit out at a bench with a map painted on it and drink a cup of hot chocolate made your favourite way before heading back to your little tent to listen to the rain beating down on your canvas. By the way, if you camp at Landmannalaugar, you do run the risk of a sheep wandering past your tent very early in the morning and waking you by bellowing virtually in your ear.