LIFE AT THE EDGE
The awe-inspiring landscapes surrounding Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier are a reminder to grab life by the reins.
We slam our pickaxes down into the ice, taking a breather from our rabid scramble up the glacier.
Suddenly, a thunderous cracking sound bounces off the mountains on either side of us. Our chatter dies away as we whip our heads up in unison, scanning the cavalcade of jagged ice above for signs of movement.
When nothing stirs, our guide Kasha breaks the silence.
“Let’s hope the Öræfajökull volcano doesn’t erupt today!” she laughs, picking up her axe and turning to face the looming ice wall. Everyone is oddly quiet as we fall in step behind her.
It’s a startling reminder of where we are: hiking across the largest glacier in Europe in one of the wildest countries in the world. The glacier, Vatnajökull, is unfathomably huge, covering around 10 percent of Iceland, complete with several of the country’s most explosive volcanoes beneath. It’s the perfect place in Iceland for thrilling adventures – exactly what I’m here to experience.
“That’s one of the best things about being in Iceland; nowhere is safe from natural disaster. But as we like to say here, þetta reddast, which means 'It’ll all be OK in the end!'” giggles Kasha.
This is Iceland’s unofficial motto, and Kasha’s easy-going attitude in the face of such powerful nature is a common theme on my trip around the southeast corner of the country.
It’s here that offers the easiest access to the glacier and the landscapes that surround it, all protected as part of Vatnajökull National Park. And despite a booming tourism industry in Iceland, the number of people out this far from Reykjavik have dwindled, congregating around a few select sights.
One of those is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where giant icebergs are pulled across the large body of water by underwater currents and Iceland’s fierce winds. I skip the crowds by visiting after dinner; in summer, Iceland enjoys almost 24 hours of daylight, making it easy to avoid the large crowds touring late at night. Near midnight, I watch as the golden glow of ‘sunset’ unfolds across the water, in the background the faint cries of birds and the splash of seals as they frolic in the calm water.
The next day sees me arrive at the shores of a different glacier lagoon, this one far more unknown: Heinabergslón. Together with my guide Óskar, we set out to explore the lagoon in kayaks, paddling out as a mist claws its way across the giant icebergs. For a few hours, we glide between the chunks of ice, admire pocked caves, and drift underneath large ice overhangs. The scenery is otherworldly.
“Looks like a good place to land over there,” muses Óskar, making a beeline for a large iceberg. He steers his kayak into the ice, the nose crashing up onto ‘land’. He jumps out and motions for me to do the same. I paddle hard, lifting my oar up as the nose of my kayak edges up onto the glacier, the bottom scraping as Óskar pulls me onto the iceberg.
We strap on crampons to our gumboots, the sharp spikes letting us freely roam without fear of slipping. “This is the only place where it’s safe to walk on icebergs,” says Óskar. “Here, they get larger towards the bottom, making them stable. In the other glacier lagoons, it’s the opposite. They can flip at any time.”
It’s another reminder that Iceland is a country not to be trifled with. Each day I’m dwarfed by my surroundings, driving up dirt roads that end at dramatic glacier tongues, towering mountains all around, hardly another soul to be seen.
On my final day, more of the same. With my guide Siggi I’m venturing into the Lónsöræfi Nature Reserve, an area next to the glacier thick with twisting valleys, birch forests, and rushing glacial rivers. It’s one of Iceland’s last wilderness frontiers. “Only around 600 to 700 people come hiking here each summer,” Siggi points out. “I think you’re going to love it!”
He’s not wrong – the place is fantastic. We bump along rough dirt tracks while Siggi catches me up on the gossip of the area: who sold what house, for how much, family feuds – he knows everything and everyone. That’s the nature of an island like this.
Things get more serious as we start driving across the shifting black sand of the valley floor, fording steely-grey glacial rivers. I get out of the car at various points to explore on foot, winding my way through birch forests and alongside rivers, even startling a reindeer.
My final hike for the day is a doozy. Siggi lets me out in a valley and agrees to meet me on the other side of a mountain. I scramble up the steep slope, arriving at a windswept and barren plateau with my camera in my hand.
I feel suddenly vulnerable, aware that I have no phone reception and that the weather in Iceland can change in an instant. With dark clouds at my back, I step up the pace across the plateau, the trail now dwindling into nothing, leaving me to scout for landmarks Siggi had mentioned.
‘þetta reddast’ I tell myself, adopting the Icelandic motto as I push on.
Despite the nagging worry that I might be heading in the wrong direction, it’s hard not to be impressed by my surroundings. The panoramas from here are incredible. I can’t see any roads, hear any cars, or see a single house; I could be the only person in this entire nature reserve, or the entire country. It’s exhilarating.
I do make it back to Siggi, but the feeling of being alone in a vast wilderness stays with me long after our day is done.
These landscapes aren’t simply meant to be admired and photographed. Instead, it’s about being humbled by the gargantuan nature of this country which immediately puts our life and all our worries into perspective.
get in the know Vatnajökull National Park is the largest protected area in Europe.
You can fly from Australia to Reykjavik with Finnair from AU$4,200 return.
For hiking in Skaftafell and tours on the glaciers, Hotel Skaftafell (around AU$240 a night) is perfectly located. Closer to Höfn, Hotel Jökull (a smidge over AU$200 a night) also acts as a great base.
Glacier hikes, lagoon kayaking tours, snowmobile journeys, and more are all available year-round on Vatnajökull Glacier. In winter, it’s also possible to visit the ice caves underneath the glacier – an experience that’s out of this world.