Our laden backpacks are wearing us out. We are progressing at a very slow pace under a scorching summer sun on an uncertain terrain. A terrain that not only happens to be a hardly practicable muddy marsh but also a nesting area with dozens of birds nose-diving and screaming above our heads, fiercely chasing us away from their territory. What was meant to be a smooth-sailing shortcut off the main track had become an unpredicted detour. It’s 2pm, the sun is at its highest and we’re at the northernmost point of mainland Iceland right below the Arctic Circle at the 66° parallel north.
Crossing Iceland on foot with little resupplying and almost complete autonomy is something you think through months in advance. Planning for every single detail of every potential situation one might come across in an adventure of this kind – certainly unusual. And many questions arose. What terrain would this lead us through? What pace would we set? What would the meteorological conditions be? How would we sustain ourselves and make sure we’d get enough calories every day? Where would we sleep? Others, less essential for our wellbeing but equally important when it would come to documenting the trip: finding a solution for keeping our cameras on throughout a month without any certainty about electricity. Our goal was clear: the trip would take us from Raufarhöfn to Skógar, from north to south in 25 days over 500 kilometres. We’d carry most of our food and everything we relied on for a month: twenty-five kilos on our backs for every single hour, every single day of the adventure.
For months, we had longed for an immersion into Iceland’s wildest, untouched landscapes. We eagerly wanted to confront ourselves with a physically demanding and mentally challenging experience. We’d battened down the hatches. We were ready.
And off we went, starting from the northern tip precisely two days after the summer solstice. At this time of the year, the sun simply doesn’t go down below the horizon. Because of the tilt of the Earth, sunbeams hit its surface with a direct angle and light is less scattered in the atmosphere. The result of which is permanent daylight, extraordinary clear colours and bright, vivid hues. Sunsets last for hours and literally never end.
The following days would take us through the resplendent Asbyrgi canyon on to the Dettifoss waterfalls, offering an ever-changing scenery and breath-taking views: a woodland of birches, pines and firs at its bottom, flanked by massive honeycombed basalt cliffs majestically emerging from the ground, stretching over several kilometres… We followed a man-made furrow meandering through short woolly willow bushes, crowberry shrubs and other short trees. Soon enough, we faced a completely different tableau. Bright-orange and dark-ochre ash, legacy of a strong volcanic activity, had been sculpted by the elements into a fragile architectural landscape. Huge tubular basalt formations appeared again, agglutinated together into a massive boulder sitting on the ground as if it had popped out off the Earth like a frozen bubble on the surface of a lake.
We had come to Iceland to get impressed, and so far nature was taking a certain pride in holding up the challenge.
Standing on slippery rocks aside the deafening torrent of the Dettifoss waterfall perfectly illustrated the phenomenal intensity of emotions that struck us throughout our voyage. We got challenged, intimidated, left stunned in valleys of an endless diversity, astounded by the pristine beauty of nature wherever we went. We walked on grass, mud, rocks, ice, sand, ashes and snow. Navigated bleak foggy rocky deserts and dried lava flows. Crossed small fords and icy rivers, snowy passes and untouched majestic mountain circuses. We dived into natural hot springs and slept along windy lakes. Stumbled on steep slopes of coarse pebbles, got lost on a volcano – the infamous Eyjafjallajökull – and gazed at herds of wild horses passing by.
Rolling off the beaten tracks for a month with little social responsibilities cut it all down to the essential and allowed us to grasp a true sense of priorities. When eating sufficiently every day becomes a matter of concern, all other worries seem desperately futile. We had mentally prepared to be hungry, to go to sleep every night with a big calorie deficit. But living with it day by day was a different story.
After a while, we began questioning the mere necessity of our modern world imperatives, seemingly becoming constraints when looking at them from the environment we found ourselves in. We’d entered a monument of nature, with an immense sense of serenity and accomplishment. Moments of struggle gave us a better understanding of our strengths and weaknesses and turned out to be an immensely liberating experience.
Stopping wasn’t an option. It wouldn’t be one anyhow when you’re in the middle of a 300,000 square kilometres island, days away from any form of civilization. And when you think about it, it makes everything much easier. If you can’t stop, you can’t fail. So you don’t. You take another step. And another one. And you keep going, worries left far behind.