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Monday, April 10, 2006

Skogar Treks (Iceland)

The village of Skógar might comprise just a few farms and a museum and some Tolkiensian Hobbit holes poking through the grass, but it has also become a gateway to one of Europe's last great wilderness areas, the huge, threatening Eyjafjallajökull ice cap in south Iceland, as well as the terminus of one of the world's top 10 treks. Not that I have ever trekked it... not yet, anyway. Later this year I will go to Iceland and if I have money and the time, I will definitely go to Skógar. From what I have read online, the name of the village means "forest", so it is probably the former site of a forest, although there don't seem to be many trees there now, they were chopped down centuries ago. I've heard the village is also close to the beautiful waterfall Skógafoss, which presumably means "forest waterfall", and is a major tourist attraction. There is another waterfall close to the ring road called Seljalandsfoss, which I would like to partake as well if I can make it. In the village itself, one can find a museum displaying the evolution of Icelandic houses and technical devices such as old aircraft and cars. The founder of the museum, Þórður Tómasson, is said to like showing guests around and has interesting stories to tell.

Seljalandsfoss, just off the ring road near Skogar in south Iceland.
Since I haven't been to Skógar yet, I have to delve into the blogosphere, to see what the fuss is about. The thing about the Internet, it is almost like travelling, as well as going back in time (if you look at the older sites.) Some of the bloggers you read come across as travellers you might share a room with, and they all are interesting characters. Take the Australian blogger Danny Yee, for example. Danny is just one of the many hikers and trekkers who have arrived in Skógar to take on the cunning walk. He trekked up to Þórsmörk ("Thor's Field"), a waystation on the trip to Landmannalaugar near the Hekla volcano.

Danny wrote of his trekking experience:
The morning was bright and clear. "Fossbuin" was closed, so we could neither shower nor pay for the campsite. We packed everything ready for our hike, but then went to check out the Skógar Folk Museum. This consists of a number of buildings: old farmhouses, many of them with turf walls, a reconstructed church and schoolhouse, a large modern building housing the folk exhibits, and a brand new Technology and Transport Museum. Þordur Tomasson, the curator who inspired the museum, is still going strong, and he performed for us on one of the little organs, singing along, and on a dulcimer.
After checking out the museum and the amazing houses with grass growing on their roofs (just like the Hobbit Holes in The Shire!), Danny and his team trekked on to Þórsmörk. This is actually a short trek by Skógar standards -- the standard walk is a whopping 70+km long, up to Landmanalaugar (although people usually follow the route in reverse, from Landmanalaugar down to Skógar, possibly because it is easier as it is mostly downhill.) If you are interested in reading the accounts of some trekkers who have taken on this trek and won, visit these following sites (eds. note: these are so old they are in the archives now!):

Nir Halman's Landmanalaugar to Skógar Trek
A good web-blog from the days when web-blogs didn't even exist. This site will give you a good introduction to travel in Iceland, especially if you of the pennypinching disposition. But first, allow me to get an anti-Semitic rant off my chest: If you have ever been to Thailand or India you will have probably come across Israeli backpackers and been shocked by their aggressive bargaining tactics. It seems that Israelis have an almost allergic reaction to spending money while they are on holiday, and they will do anything -- anything -- to avoid coughing up the cash. I have even seen them bargaining in fixed price places like Kodak film development clinics (Bangkok), provoking the wrath of both fellow customers and staff. Some restaurants and hotels in Thailand and the subcontinent now refuse to admit Israeli customers for this reason -- to spare themselves the grief of a 3-hour argument about the bill. I haven't seen any "No Israelis Allowed" signs in Iceland yet, but they could start appearing, if the frigid island attracts more visitors of the ilk of Nir Halman.

If you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of an Israeli backpacker, check out Nir's site. This is one of the older Iceland adventure blogs on the Net -- it dates from 2001, and describes a visit Nir and his girlfriend made to Iceland in 1999. I enjoyed reading about how they try to save money by eating in supermarkets or BBQing their meals outside -- I should add that there is a bit of Nir in me, the last time I went to Iceland I was so short of money I was forced to sleep at the airport and hitch a ride to Blue Lagoon. One of the cool things Nir and his girl manage to do while in Iceland, is make the Landmannalaugar to Skógar trek. As Nir writes:
This trek is considered the best (but also the most difficult) in Iceland. It starts in Landmannalaugar, the site of a rather big hot water spring at an altitude of 600m. It is a remote and exposed place in the highlands bordering a big lava field from which Hekla volcano can be seen. This place is obviously popular with the tourists who visit it during the summer time. In the winter time, when a thick layer of snow covers the surroundings, it is left alone for the locals, who come to bath naked in the hot springs. The trek to Skogar is 70km long, and usually takes a week to walk. It is considered unique in the world as it passes through lava fields, volcanoes, hot springs, geysers as well as genuine alpine scenery of eternal glaciers, a high snow-covered mountain-pass and numerous snow fields.
The other great thing about this trek is that the route is lined with well maintained and cozy huts where hikers can stay the night. Payment for accommodation at these huts is, well, optional. And you can assume that your typical Israeli, passing through this beautiful part of the world, will option out of paying if payment is only optional. The loyalty system doesn't work for every nationality, I am afraid. Nir's website is proof of that. One of the classic parts of Nir's adventure happens when they come across a group of Icelandic folks having a BBQ at a popular mushroom picking place en route:
They are eating huge amounts of BBQ meat and freshly grilled potatoes while we eat pasta and mashed potatoes made out of dried potatoes powder. We look at them with eager eyes and then with surprise when we see the amount of leftovers they throw in the garbage cans. We don't understand why they ignore us. They are so many and we are only 4 "poor" tourists. They could have offered us some of their food... Only when they see our mashed potatoes powder they start to talk with us, and offer to us the remaining 3 pieces of the cake that they have eaten. What a pity they didn't talk with us before and offered to us the meat...
I too know what it is like to be a poor tourist in Iceland, forced to subsist on packets of dry noodles from Japan and cans of Asahi Blue, and tins of sardines and old bread. Next time I go to Iceland (June this year) things will be different -- I am going to live like a King. Lamb and roast pork and hotdogs for me every day -- I can hardly wait. Bring on the adventure!

Rowan Castle's Landmanalaugar to Skogar Trek

Rowan Castle visited Iceland in 2002 because he needed to get away from work and reckoned that the Landmanalaugar to Skógar trek would be the perfect place to unburden the stresses of modern life. In the process, he traded the burdens of workaday living for the burden of a 56-pound backpack! On his website Castle wrote:
This route is rated as Iceland's premier walk, and some guidebooks even claim that it is one of the best treks in the World! It starts in the South Central Highlands, amongst the colourful rhyolitic mountains and geothermal vents of Landmanalaugar. These mountains were laid down by volcanic action, and then dramatically eroded to create undulating hills of multi-coloured mineral deposits. As the path loses altitude, it descends out of these hills and crosses a bleak lava desert of black ash, punctuated by pyramidal mountains and raging glacial rivers. At the other side is the wide valley of Thorsmork (Woods of Thor), which has stunning views of two of Icelands huge ice caps - Eyafjallajokul and Myrdalsjokul. The route then climbs out of the valley, along a sharp ridge and crosses the Fimmvorthuhals Pass between the two ice caps. From there, it descends sharply to the North Atlantic coast, finishing at the sixty metre high Skogafoss waterfall at the small settlement of Skogar.
Castle describes the long trek from Landmanalaugar to Skógar in gruelling prose, with blocks of text interspersed by links to his photo gallery. I liked some of the little incidental touches, like the discovery of some little Arctic flowers in a crevice somewhere, their fragile beauty contrasted against the massive glacier stretching for miles and miles into the distance -- the microcosm within the macrocosm. Castle described some mud he had found on his trek thus: "a stream at the bottom (of the ravine) emerged from a perfectly formed tunnel under the ice, but the stream had deposited strange bright orange mineral deposits onto the black ash. The contrasting colours of orange, white and black looked like they belonged to an alien landscape."

That's why I love Iceland -- I just can't get enough of those alien landscapes! And if you want to plunge yourself into one alien landscape after another, go read Rowan Castle's site. Even if it doesn't formally exist any longer!

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