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The locals call it hell. We walked over twisted black rocks, huge lava formations and still-smoking remnants, beginning to believe it ourselves.
This is the “viti” (hell) crater of Krafla volcano, a ten-kilometer yawn in the hillside, once believed to be a sign that beneath the Earth’s broken crust lurked Satan himself. If it is, he must have had a bad decade between 1975 and 1984, when a volcanic episode led to a huge magma chamber being burped from depths of the ground and splurged onto the surface, leaving a swirled, set mass of lava, bubbling mud pools and steaming fumaroles.
It was through this surreal carnage that we headed to Leirhnjukar Hill, a pink and orange landmass with a milky green lake staring at us with a single, cataract covered eye. After this drama, we needed to relax! We were whisked away to Myvatn nature baths where a 2,500m deep borehole brings the water to the surface, creating bath-temperature, man-made hot springs.
The water has a number of special characteristics – it contains a high amount of minerals, silicates and geothermal micro-organisms making it perfect for bathing. Two steam baths sit alongside for those wanting a full detox, and the lagoon itself is a wide, bright blue expanse ready for swimming, lounging and nattering with your fellow trekkers. As you can imagine, after an hour of enjoying this heavenly location, we emerged feeling invigorated, albeit slightly wrinkly!
Akureyri was our next stop en-route to the Kerlingafjoll mountain range. The northerly town is an important port and fishing centre, but we were here for one reason: the church. From the blackened and lava-burnt landscape of hell, we’d moved on to a house of God. It was a world away from Krafla.
The imposing white structure atop the hill rose out of the ground in staggered steps, and inside was awash with colour and light. The altar is framed by many tall, thin stained glass windows which formed part of a set from Coventry Cathedral. The light tumbles through the painted biblical scenes, leaving blue, gold, red and green shimmers on the floor.
Breaking up the days with another thermal pool visit (it has to be done!), we headed into the Kerlingarfjoll Mountain range. Our leader told us stories of the ‘hidden folk’, Iceland’s more mythical history. The hidden folk are the elven equivalents of the fairies at the end of the garden, mischievous creatures with magical qualities, often blamed for unexplained happenings and sudden changes in the weather.
As we started our hike it became clear we must have strayed into one of their hideouts and upset them. The mists descended upon us and our ascent was an eerie, shrouded walk where anything more than ten metres ahead of us was lost to obscurity. We reached the 1,400m summit still surrounded in white, where our 360-degree view was of mist, not mountains.
As we wandered back down, demoralized, a slither of blue broke through the clouds, then another and another – suddenly the spectacular promised views materialized all around us. What was minutes ago a sea of white mist was revealed as a golden spread of swells and hills, stained this colour by the yellow sulphur in the volcanic earth, contrasting with the pristine patches of pure white snow.
Before long, our childish side kicked in and we couldn’t resist some fun on a snowy slope, “gracefully” tobogganing to the bottom, minus the toboggan; it’s amazing the speed you go at, using waterproof trousers alone! Laughing and sliding all over the place we skidded down, shrieking and skimming ungainly over the ground.
The joy of Iceland lies in its never-ending variety of landscapes, and how even when you’re on your way down, it leaves you on a high.
View our walking tours below and follow in Ian’s footsteps as you go trekking in Iceland.