Anyone for desert Iceland-style?

by Clare.Jones

For a few weeks each year, the snow and ice of Iceland’s desert interior melt, allowing access to a remote wilderness region. Four wheel drive or mountain bike are the only ways in

Odd as it sounds, this could have been the moon. Not so strange, perhaps, when you consider the Apollo astronauts trained here in preparation for their lunar landing. Staring into a landscape of lava rubble, where vast plains stretch for miles, you could be forgiven for thinking you were a long way from home.
Whilst Iceland may well be Europe’s furthest outpost, this landscape is in fact the closest Europe comes to desert. But whatever its classification, one thing stands: this vast empty space, which feels very much in the middle of nowhere, is one of Europe’s greatest wilderness areas.
In its barren expanse is a world of ice caps, snow and mile-upon-mile of lava fields. Yet, to get into this space for most of the year is nigh on impossible. In winter it remains choked by snow, making an impenetrable natural barrier between north and south. Only in the brief weeks when winter turns to summer is there an opportunity to get in.
Traditionally, routes through Iceland’s uninhabited Central Highlands were used as summer short cuts between northern and southern coastlines. It wasn’t just the harshness of the terrain that kept people away though. Some of the routes across were believed to harbour outlaws, and Icelandic folklore tells of ghosts who still haunt the interior after they were captured and killed by vicious wild men.
Whilst the modern traveller doesn’t have to come face to face with outlaws any more, travelling through Iceland’s interior isn’t like travelling anywhere else in the country. The outlaws may have gone but that’s about all that has changed. It is just as wild and just as barren. There is no accommodation (save camping), no services and in some cases no roads.
Nowadays, the most popular means of transporting yourself through the interior is either by four-wheel drive or by mountain bike. Routes through the interior include the Sprengisandaur and Kjölur, which have now become fairly well established, although these are not roads in the true tarmac sense of the word.
The Kjölur is the more popular, thanks to its greener and slightly less inhospitable terrain. At its highest point the route reaches 700m as it passes between the Langjökull and Hofsjökull icecaps. In fact it’s hard to get away from Iceland’s glacial activity. Glacial ice and cooled lava cover approximately one tenth of the total 39,699 square miles of the country. The country’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, is equal in size to the total combined area of all the glaciers on the European continent. For one island, that’s a lot of ice.
Choosing to cross the interior via the Kjölur route gives you the chance to explore some of these famous geological spots on the way. Geysir is just one of them. This is the place after which all other spouting hot springs in the world are named. It was here the Great Geysir first began erupting back in the 14th century.
Unfortunately, today its eruptions are infrequent. Luckily for the tourist industry, Great Geysir has a sidekick that can be called upon. Now it is nearby Stokkur, or the ‘butter churn’, that continues to attract the crowds, reliably spouting and spraying. Besides the main attraction, the site has all kinds of weird and wonderful puffing, venting, hot springs. A boarded walkway takes you round and gives you the chance to see psychedelic algae, amazing coloured minerals and pools, and a lot of hot air.
The imposing Gullfoss waterfall is the next star sight that you can reach en route. Here, the icy waters of the river Hvítá drop some 32 metres over two falls into the menacing 70-metre canyon below. It also marks a distinct turning point in the route across the interior. It’s time to say goodbye to the tarmac of the F35 and hello to the unmistakable dust of the off-road trail. From here you stand on the edge of a journey that will take you through scenery that blends bleak with barren to produce impressive and inspiring. The interior packs its scenery with a definite punch.
The hub of the Kjölur route is Hveravellier, an oasis in the desert of hot pools and springs and usually one day's drive by 4WD or two by bike. The campground here is a hive of activity, whilst its hot springs perhaps provide the most unique setting in which to savour some of Iceland’s geothermal waters. Here, in the middle of nowhere, swimsuit-clad travellers rest weary muscles and soak up an extraordinary panorama.
You can drive and cycle the remaining section of the route in a day and be back down in the lowlands and the lush green farmlands of the northern peninsula. Here the green seems that bit greener and the tarmac roads that bit softer. As for the interior, it really could have been the moon, only the spacesuits were optional.


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Clare Jones is a travel writer and photographer who loves a good adventure and has been lucky enough to make this her work travelling across the globe for a variety of magazines and newspapers. She is co-author and photographer of the international best-selling BBC books Unforgettable Things to do before you die, Unforgettable Journeys to take before you die and the recently published Unforgettable Walks to take before you die. She has also co-authored the AA titles, Extreme Places and the flagship Key Guide to Spain. She has been on assignment in over 50 countries and five continents exploring them on foot, by kayak, under sail, by mountain bike as well as skiing and climbing. One of her most testing adventures was a three-month sea-kayaking expedition from Vancouver to Alaska, as part of the first British all-female team to undertake this 1000-mile epic journey. She is a Winston Churchill Fellow and was honoured with the Mike Jones Award for accomplishing this journey. She is also sponsored by Salomon. Her work has been featured by a variety of publications, including the Sunday Telegraph, The Times, Mail on Sunday, The Scotsman, and The Herald, USA Today, Geographical, Health & Fitness and Traveller. Clare is also an assistant television producer and has worked on several BBC documentaries.