One of many compelling Midgard Adventure stories that we couldn’t help but share. Read on to discover what a Midgard Adventure looks like through the eyes of a fellow adventurer.
For me, Iceland is a drug. A narcotic that’s actually good for you, that fills your soul and leaves you craving a return journey before you’ve even departed.
It is stupefying and mesmerizing and gets under your skin, and into your veins. Its otherworldly scenery and breathtaking natural wonders, its incredible people, the silence and solitude, it all seems to have just this slight shimmer of magic that infuses both the sagas of the past and the present like nothing and nowhere else I’ve ever travelled.
I’ve been talking empty words for sometime now about getting back into writing a blog, but study and medical work in Australia had been all consuming for the last two years and then when abruptly I no longer had these things to do, I wasn’t quite sure what to write about, or how to even begin getting back into it. And then, last week I finally returned to Iceland and the words are brimming over, and I’m dying to write about how much I’m in love with it, and why, and share that with you. Maybe one segment, or day at a time however, as it seems the place makes me so verbose I could turn this one week of travel into an entire novel.
It’s been 4 years since my first visit, and the beginning of an infatuation that has now, after a return journey, turned into quite the obsession. My initial solo journey was all about a chance to photograph the Northern Lights in Winter, and I saved frenziedly for months to embark on a rather luxurious itinerary that was put together for me by an expat tour company. That winter trip was mind-blowing and left me concocting varied madcap schemes the entire intervening time about ways I could possibly pack up and move to Iceland. For a while I even talked my Husband into starting to learn Icelandic so he could get a job there but it turns out, that’s not so easy, the job or the language; in 3 months he struggled to learn (or more accurately, pronounce) even one sentence.
Nevertheless, my yearning to return never dimmed and when we moved to London in February this year the first trip we booked within the first week of living here was 7 days back in this fairytale land.
This time a different league and different expectations: bare minimum budget, no concrete plans, a hire car, a Husband and a best friend (who we talked into flying over from Canada at the last minute and blindly putting her faith in our plans) in tow, and a week in the countryside outside of Reykjavik so we could get off the beaten trail and head into the countryside. My only plan was that we would base ourselves in Hvolsvollur*, a name I can’t type correctly on my English keyboard, let alone say properly, even now. I imagine falling in love with Iceland is, at first, similar to embarking on a love affair with someone who speaks none of your language, not a single word, but whose physical beauty is so enchanting that it matters not one whit. This sounds so flowery I know, but honestly, the place is so amazing that I can’t help talking like some ridiculous New York Times wedding announcement**. ‘How to not be able to speak Icelandic ‘ is better left for a whole separate set of musings however, except for the point that even though Reykjavik may be the only place you can kind of sort of say, it’s worth learning some others if you can, so you can figure out where else to head to.
I met Siggi and Stefnir in 2013, two improbable Norsemen who were my guides for 3 days with their fledgling company Midgard Adventures. Siggi is a mountaineering -engineering -climbing -skiing – storytelling -first-responding tourism guru and Stefnir is a softly spoken accordion-playing horse-whisperer, as well as all his other Viking adventures and extreme sports accomplishments. Travelling with these two incredible men was when I first poorly attempted to say the name of their town, as we stopped at their headquarters on the way back to Reykjavik, after two extraordinary nights at their family cabin in the Icelandic highlands. When I heard they had opened up an adventure hostel my holiday plans were as set as they could be; I figured we would go stay there and see where the wind and weather took us.
Most travellers don’t do Iceland like this, basing themselves in Reykjavik and joining a tour from the city out to the sights each day with a mandatory soak in the Blue Lagoon, and after changing it up this time, I urge you to get off the well worn Golden Circle trail and do as we did, if you’re considering a visit. There’s just so much more magic than that one tour bus scene.
We kept it simple at the start, staying in Reykjavik for the first two nights while we waited for Peta to arrive from Canada on Monday morning and made the most of the city’s foodie delights, including multiple return journeys to Braud: the greatest bakery on the planet (not actually exaggerating, I’ve eaten in a lot of bakeries, and a ton of those were in France. I should probably consider marketing myself as a croissant expert) and epic bowls of lobster soup. We even got enthusiastic and tackled the first of our summits for the week, the casual stroll up Mt Esja, overlooking Reykjavik harbor.
I was talked into this refreshing ‘cure your hangover after drinking too many White Russians at the Lebowski bar last night’ stroll by my darling husband who sold it as an easy 45 minute round journey to a lovely viewpoint, and back down again.
It was not. It was a rapid re-introduction into how ridiculously outdoorsy, fearless and self-sufficient all Icelandic people seem to be.
There were virtually no markers, it was a 3 hour round journey straight up the side of a reasonably tall mountain (maybe it was a hill?) and once you got to the viewpoint there were numerous people continuing on with crampons straight up across the ice to the ridgeline. And a bunch of them were trail running this. Not to mention the numerous people who seemed to be simply out walking their dog up the mountain on a Sunday afternoon.
You’ll be pleased to know I bravely managed to almost summit this, only threatening divorce most of the way up. It was stunningly beautiful; I just recommend less vodka mixed with milk prior to setting out next time.
Having survived this, our next goal was retrieving Peta from the bus stop at 7am on Monday morning, and after a stop to buy 3 of everything at Braud (just in case Peta was hungry after getting off the plane) we pulled up to the terminal and waited.
Thank god, Iceland has much better Internet than literally anywhere in Australia (Myles actually Facetimed me from the summit of one of the mountains we hiked), as Peta turned out to be at a bus terminal on the opposite side of town, with a different tour company. Completely my fault for giving her the wrong company name, but luckily there are only two bus companies.
Crisis averted, we collected her and set off down Route 1, their iconic road that circumnavigates the country and is, in my opinion, the most spectacular drive on the planet.
It seems like only moments after you leave the city outskirts that the scenery turns otherworldly; dramatically black jagged mountain mounds painted with striped remnants of winter snow, surrounded by saturated green moss fields are juxtaposed against red earth cliffs and vast muted yellow grassy plains. The roads are all raised to avoid snowdrifts in winter, and all incredible straight lines or long sweeping curves that make you feel oftentimes that you’re flying through some farfetched movie set.
We drove the not so far 100km out of the capital city and head to Thjofafoss first, The Waterfall of the Thieves (they used to drown them there apparently), a lesser-known waterfall that we couldn’t actually find on a map but I’d seen mentioned vaguely on an expat blog. After turning off Route 1 we followed 26 for half an hour, passing literally no one coming in the other direction, and finally spotted a small sign on the side of the road somewhere around the 50km mark. We left the car at the turnoff, as we had no idea what the road conditions were like, and it’s only 4km to this supposed waterfall. The winds were verging on extreme that day but we had a tail wind to walk with and it was pleasant enough on the way there, although puzzling, as we couldn’t figure out how there could be a dramatic waterfall out of sight in this lumpy but basically flat and desolate lava field.
We rounded a corner and the earth almost dropped from under our feet, and we realized we’d been walking on the edge of a gorge that was just out of sight, thanks to an imperceptible rise in the ground to our right. Thjofafoss is wide and mighty and SO blue, sits against a photographers dream backdrop of Mt Burfell and was completely deserted. It’s a little disconcerting to have it appear out of nowhere, and as in most spots, there are no rails or paths or actual lookouts, just crumbling black rocks and cliff edges against the many channeled glacial fall in the foreground and a shallow but slowly deepening set of rapids running through a canyon in the background. An epic start to the first self guided day, even though I sacrificed a camera filter and a lens cap to the angry wind gods, and even if the walk back into the headwind took us twice as long and was a real battle. Oh, and also we could have easily driven down the road right to the waterfall, which we then ended up doing on a futile hunt for my lens cap.
We retraced our steps back to the Ring Road and arrived at Midgard Base Camp on that exceptionally windy afternoon, to the warmest welcome by the delightful Hildur, one of the large Midgard family. Midgard is the name for the home of the humans in Norse Mythology, and is connected to Asgard, the home of the gods via Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. Standing there, in this vast landscape, talking to these beautiful humans, you can almost believe it’s all true. Ah, but as the Icelanders would say matter-of-factly, ‘of course it is real, you don’t doubt it do you?’
Our guided tour as we checked in included an explanation of the Icelandic names on all the doors: the showers are named after iconic waterfalls, the rooms after secret favourite places of the family running the business. Hildur asks us to pronounce ours; we can’t. She tells us we can have a free drink if we can do it perfectly (this is a big deal given the absolutely rubbish AUD to Icelandic krona exchange rate) but that no one yet has ever received one. It was Entajokull, if you’re wondering. And no, it’s not that easy and no, we never got a free drink.
The room looks across open farmland straight to Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that stopped the world in 2010. Between this spectacular sight and us is almost nothing for kilometers except a herd of Icelandic horses and a cluster of red roofed farm buildings. It’s the most beautiful hostel view I’ve ever seen. The weather was fickle that day; one moment squalls of rain and the next a sun shower that gives way to the biggest brightest rainbow you’ve ever seen framing the glacier shrouded volcano. This is no deterrent, if you let the tempestuous local weather interfere with your outdoor plans you would never leave the cosy inside bar, or the rooftop hot tub. Although maybe that’s not the worst holiday plan I’ve ever heard.
We had no idea really what we were planning to do next, I knew there was plenty of stuff to do in the region after trawling through the sparse Icelandic blogs I could find, but I didn’t have a sense for really where anything was or how long it would take, or if we could tackle any of it on our own. Stefan, the jolliest man on earth, to our rescue. After we wandered over to the front desk and laconically informed him that we really didn’t have a clue what we were up to, he dished us up an itinerary of local sights, within a couple of minutes and accompanied by about a thousand chuckles, that we could easily drive to and shouldn’t be too crowded.
I expected there to be a few people around as we set of foss ( the Icelandic word for waterfall) hunting, as tourism in Iceland has absolutely exploded in the last few years. In 2010 there were half a million visitors; by 2016 this number had climbed to 1.8 million international visitors. Considering there are only 337,000 inhabitants, this is a pretty overwhelming figure. To our considerable delight, ‘not too crowded’ meant deserted and for the next 3 hours we saw no one. We passed the occasional car on the back roads we were taking, but shared Gluggafoss with nothing but another rainbow and some local birds that make the most peculiar noises as they dive, somewhat like a pac man video game. I still don’t know what they were. Gluggafoss – the Window Falls – is a relatively small (only 44m high) waterfall with a series of cascading pools and burbling streams running through channels and holes in the soft basalt ledges and has a hidden cave behind the lower fall, all sitting the middle of warmly yellow rolling grass hills.
From there we hit our first gravel road down to Stora Dimon, a hill that pokes up incongruously from the middle of the flood plain, with jaw dropping views from the top of braided glacial rivers wrapping around the bottom of Eyjafjallajokull and its neighboring peaks. It is of course, not just a hill, but as the legend goes a troll frozen following an epic battle***, the details of which are helpfully written in Icelandic on a sign at the base of the hill. This easy 15 minute stroll up the hill has no actual path, and is so steep you are climbing on your hand and knees by the top, but the dried grasses provide a sort of hand hold and do genuinely resemble troll hair, and the view is indeed incredible. The 100km/h wind gusts made it a little awkward to stand up on the ridgeline however. Don’t worry, we didn’t attempt to.
After a scrambly slidey on your bum type of descent we managed to wrench the car doors back open against the by-now gale force winds, an actual feat of heroics the Vikings would have been proud of, and set off half an hour down the road to Seljalandsfoss, one of the more iconic waterfalls in the region, a 60m single fall of water from the lip of a cliff that appears to have been just carved out of the land with a knife, so improbable does it seem, jutting straight up from the plains by the sea. Here we encountered our first crowd of the trip, around 20 other tourists braving the blustery evening winds and clambered up around the slippery rocks to stand for our instafame moment behind the powerful curtain of water. It’s thrilling and wet and freezing all at once and we started to think about heading home for a soak in the hot tub and some sort of makeshift dinner from the convenience store (the good old Aussie dollar means you can’t really afford to eat too much in Iceland. Intermittent fasting is supposed to be good for you though, right?) but then remembered that Stefan had told us about another less crowded foss right next door, and how can we pass up any foss in Iceland?
We wandered up the meandering path to the left and eventually found not much at all, just a roped off pile of rock with some chain going straight up a cliff and a stream gushing out of a cavern. Peta was, of course, the intrepid explorer and clambered straight up the rocks while I dithered around down the bottom, trying to figure out just where this foss actually was. I heard her yelp from somewhere up, well, somewhere and figure if she’s yelping there’s no way in hell I’m climbing up there, and then finally remembered Stefan told us you have to walk up the stream across some rocks to see the actual waterfall. It was spring and it had been pouring, so the rocks were not so visible but my boots are supposedly gore-tex and the hot tub beckoned after this stop. I hopped from almost submerged rock to kind of sticking out bit of wall with literally no grace at all, ended up just walking through the water and was rewarded with a moss covered grotto, and what felt like all the water in Iceland falling off the edge of the world above my head. The roar was incredible and you had to shout to make yourself heard but standing there was mesmerizing and we lost track of time for awhile, humbled by the sheer force of nature.
This to me is Iceland all over, the violence and terrible power of nature right in front of you at all times but just slightly softened with a tint of fairy dust: the endless plains of jagged lava are smudged with a foot of luxurious moss; the volcanoes are capped with turquoise glaciers and ski-able slopes; the crack between the continents that widens every day is filled with the clearest crystalline water in the world; perfect black sand beaches are littered with diamond like pieces of ancient glacial ice, yet you can’t turn your back on the beaches for fear a sneaker wave may drag you into the ferociously cold North Atlantic, and hugely powerful waterfalls are framed perfectly by dramatic basalt cliffs, frequent rainbows and perfect sunsets.
Finally, we were roused back to reality by the arrival of another couple who wanted our spot for some photos, and frozen and windblown, we acknowledged that we’d probably had our fill of foss chasing for the day and headed back to Base Camp as the sky started to turn purple. We arrived in time to brave the very short but still very windy dash across the deck in our swimsuits and sink into the wooden hot tub with our beers to watch as our favourite volcano was painted in pastel hues and the vast sky dimmed into night.
‘Peta’ I asked, “are you glad we talked you into this?”
The swift thousand-watt smile in response was answer enough, and we headed to bed via our microwave meals and some duty free gin and tonics. Day one of mission fulfill Iceland craving: success.
*None of the Icelandic words I have included in this story are spelled correctly, my English keyboard can’t cope with it. Apologies, but that’s what Google is for.
**If you’ve never read one of these and need a good chuckle, I highly recommend. Some of them are real doozies.
*** I think I have all the details of this story wrong, but as I can’t read Icelandic I can’t figure out how the real legend goes. Troll troll battle battle something someone was violently murdered and frozen in stone. Or something.
Big thanks to Rachael for writing this beautiful story.