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East to West: 1000 km of Iceland - Part 1 East to West: 1000 km of Iceland - Part 1
2022-01-26 16:37:00

Iceland. A land of beauty, wonder, and brutality. Would crossing it east to west be possible? It certainly sounds like a good idea.

"Hey Tamar. How is Iceland?"  Tjeerd asks after a few weeks of silence on my part. I’m guiding the Laugavegur trail in Iceland and the last time we were on an adventure together was when he joined me for parts of my 700km walk with my camel through the Netherlands to promote my, then recently published, bestseller book Fulltime Avonturier.

I haven't seen him since, but I don't need many more words to break loose about Iceland, about the fantastic views, lunar landscapes, glaciers, ice caves, volcanoes, lava fields, colourful mountain ridges, and finally my favourite: the adorable, cartoon-esque puffins I got to see at sunset on a black deserted beach in northern Iceland. "This is insane, Tjeerd!!! You would really love this amazing land of fire and ice!"

Although I cannot see through the phone that Tjeerd is nodding agreeingly, I can hear that he doesn't waste time thinking. At once he enthusiastically says, "OK. I'm coming."

This time without having to think long on my side of the line, I say "Great. Do you feel like crossing Iceland with me then? I'm inspired to traverse from the east coast to the west coast. A 1000km long hike. We are a bit late in the season though. Many highland roads and wilderness huts will already be closed. We can expect winter weather and it is not at all certain that we will be able to complete the trip." For a moment there is silence. "Care to join?" I'm pretty sure he nods again before repeating "I'm coming."

And so the preparations begin.

I’m still out guiding 50 people along the Laugavegur trail and Tjeerd is still in the Alps tickling glacier crevasses during an ice and snow course with the Dutch climbing association. But the planning goes on. We look at routes on the map, contact hut wardens and rangers, send messages to a few of the scarce people that crossed east-west before, and the chaos begins. How do we want to walk? Where can we drop food? Where will we find water? What rivers will block our path? Will we need to cross any glaciers? And what about the deserts?

Everywhere we go we are helped by merciful samaritans, who support us in many selfless ways.

"Going well huh?" I say to Tjeerd, bent over our to-do-list, once he arrived in Iceland a few weeks later. It's the end of August, my guiding work is finished and all we have to do is send food parcels to the people who will distribute them across the interior of the country for us. Hopefully, that is. Most packages are still on their way on August 28th as we start at the easternmost point of Iceland, Gerpir. There, we are joined by a whole herd of reindeer, and we camp on a sun-drenched black sand beach. It seems to be off to an idyllic and prosperous start, were it not for the fact that we are both sick. Our noses are dripping, we sniff a lot, and during the night my temperature rises and the energy you want at the start of such a big trip is nowhere to be found. Yet we persevere. The clock is ticking.
“Last year I was snowed in between September 1st and 5th,” a ranger tells us.

"You guys are prepared for tough winter conditions, right?" another asks.

With our feet in the ocean in the warm autumn sun, we can hardly imagine such problems. What worries us more, at that moment, is the weight of our bags. 25 kg each, without water and knowing that there are still some very dry stretches to come!

We walk on.

A beautiful coastal route on sheep tracks leads us along the fjords and past the last signs of civilization, where we feast on lobster soup, shrimps, fresh bread, a big bag of peaches and potato chips, no expedition complete without chips. It’s then that the real wilderness begins.

Our sickness symptoms slowly ease as we trade green, steep forest trails full of blueberries for high altitude mountains, glacier vistas, and finally a rocky black desert. Apparently, walking 25-35 km a day, fresh outdoor air and good company is the cure for a speedy recovery.

From Laugarfell we make our own path through the valleys around Snaefell - Iceland's highest mountain - to finally receive our first food package in its adjacent hut. It is an exciting and memorable moment. Although at the same time it means that from now on we will be eating dry food. Our lobster soup days are over. At least another month or two...

Yet, we are completely ecstatic as we continue westward in beautiful weather. Until the wind kicks in. It’s almost a storm (16m/s) as the small wooden hut where we are having a well-deserved rest day is shaking on its foundations. We feel like the three little pigs.

When we walk on the next day the wind is a little weaker (12m/s) and this time blowing from behind! How lucky can one be? We walk 34km to reach the natural hot spring of Laugarvellir that day, enjoy the hot shower and sleep in a beautiful green valley. The last one we’ll see. Then we enter a world of black and white. Rocks, sand, and ice surround us as we look out to Snaefell in the east, Herdubreid in the northwest and the magnificent 100km-long Vatnajökull glacier with Kverkfjoll as its most distinctive protrusion in the south. There we go.

A skeleton of a bird in the black sand reminds us of the age of the dinosaurs and it feels like we are going back in time. At least overpopulation is far from a problem here. Here it is empty. Bare, black rocks. Vast fields of volcanic rock with the occasional finch to welcome us. "Welcome to Mordor" it sings.

The gods seem to be playing with us, as the moment we enter the desert raindrops fall from the sky. It feels like a tease, having just filled our bottles to cover 50km of drought. It only stops again once we reach the Linda River which, like an oasis surrounded by angelica, saves our dry throats from thirst. One more day of 'relaxed pounding on', as we have come to call our 30+ km days, and we reach Kverkfjoll. A true destination in itself, as I was told earlier by an Icelander who was absolutely right about this amazing environment.

Here we could entertain ourselves for weeks!

I have seen many deserts in the world, but this one is totally different. The strange shapes the rocks take, the colours you don't expect at all, the consistency of the sand. No wonder the Icelandic people strongly believe in trolls, elves, and hidden people. "Sigurdur developed this area from the 1970s onwards, building the roads and huts and trying to maintain gardens in the oddest places" Atli, the hut warden, tells us. As he warmly welcomes us, he talks extensively about the upcoming obstacles on our journey. He himself has walked the country from northeast to southwest and knows very well how happy we are when he hands us half a cauliflower, an onion, a bag of carrots and some potatoes. "Real food!!!" both our pairs of eyes seem to exclaim, and we eat everything as fast as physically possible, licking our fingers and enjoying every bite.

We have two more days to go. 70km, towards Askja, the volcanic caldera we marvelled at from the plane. Once there, we will have completed a third of the trip, 333 kilometres. On the one hand I am amazed at our speed. On the other hand, I also regret that even if we do everything on foot, my brain is not able to process it. Too much beauty, too much amazement, too much wonder at the dreamlike world these highlands offer us.

I wipe away a tear in joy and zip up my down jacket a little more. "Are you comfortable in your portable sleeping bag?" says Tjeerd, commenting on the Infinity jacket I love so much and pull out whenever I get a chance. I nod. I'm sitting comfortably. And I'm super exciting for what the next stage of this beautiful journey has to bring!

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Words & Images by | Tamar Valkenier

Tamar Valkenier is a true inspiration when it comes to exploring this world in its wildest and most remote areas. Be it a two year solo bike-packing trip through Europe, Australia and Indonesia; a five months solo expedition through the Mongolian Altai mountains with her own horse, camel and dog; a three month hunting trip in New Zealand or a traverse of the Jordan desert with the aid of a donkey – Tamar is always looking for the pure and wild way of exploring unknown places.

Read more about Tamar here