Exploring South Iceland

A Month in Vatnajökull | by Rohan Riches

Before going on any adventure, I always beg, steal or borrow a travel guide from friends of friends. Sure, this leaves me with outdated guides, reviews and maps, but the scribbles in the margin more than make up for it. A month before flying, I decided to read up, once again, on Skaftafell National Park.

"They say Iceland is the land of fire and ice and if this is true, then Vatnajökull must be where ice meets earth."

I didn’t sleep on the first night. Or the second. Or third. I lay there in my tent feeling exposed as the 60mph winds whipped the weak nylon around me. Despite my two jumpers, my sleeping bag and my woolen rug, I shivered violently. My teeth chattered. I struggled to believe I would get through another night in these conditions, let alone a month.

I stumbled to breakfast the next morning, rubbing sleep from my eyes, in desperate need of caffeine. If I was at home, I would be miserable. Looking down across the barren plateaus, surrounded by seductive waterfalls, with nothing but the Icelandic wilderness to explore, I was instantly happier. Of course, the extra strong coffee in hand helped lift my mood. 

Though I had read and researched Vatnajökull repeatedly before visiting, I had severely underestimated — what felt like the never-ending list — of opportunities to explore. I was volunteering in the park, which meant I was lucky enough to live there for the month, hang out with rangers and glacial tour guides. I was told about the hidden spots, the unseen Skaftafell. Some people might consider a month there too long. They might go stir-crazy with the lack of shops in the area – our local supermarket was over a 90-minute drive away. But for me, it was heavenly.  

There was a group of us camping and volunteering at the National Park. Adventurers. Explorers. It seemed like everyone was eager to out-do each other, when Martin brought up exploring the waterfalls. As I stood at the precipice of the waterfalls, it was only then I noticed the incomparable views. When I considered the small number of people lucky enough to witness them falls from our hidden spot, the landscape before me became more beautiful, more enthralling. There was a platform to watch the waterfalls at a distance. But, to relax at the edge of them —a slight mist dousing us — was refreshing.

It was almost like every few days, someone else set a new challenge. We were exhausted after working through the day, but the enthralling midnight sun captured our attention. It compelled our night-walk to Morsajökull — an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull glacier. Winding trees and mud-trodden trails paved our way with dew soaked the trees surrounding our path as we trampled over moss-covered rocks. It felt like a race to reach the glacial lake, as half the group ran ahead. But, the rest of us knew we wouldn’t be sleeping that night, instead, we would immerse ourselves in the wilderness around us.

We had already lost sight of the other half of our group, so none of us had any rush to catch them up. Instead, we took breaks, sitting on cliff edges, watching the nothingness in the distance. It was simple yet it left us feeling lighter. Humbled. The changes in nature through the night, as it prepare for a new day, it’s peaceful rest disturbed by our quiet chatter. As we sat at the mouth of the glacial lake, stars absent from the clear skies. You could easily assume it was 2pm, not 2am. I can’t remember who it was that suggested a night-walk, but I’ll be forever grateful for it.

I felt blessed to have been able to immerse myself in the Icelandic wilderness for a month — all for the good of the park. What I would give to spend a year there, watching the season’s change, the nights growing darker before the vibrant colours of the northern lights paint the sky.

Weeks later, when the time came for us to leave Skatftafell, I knew it would be that extreme swim I would miss the most. Forcing the boot shut, we all crammed into the tiny car — Icelandic band, Sigur Rós playing and the newcomers at Bolti waving us goodbye. Simply driving northwest, ready to unearth the buried charms to the natural land we were exploring. We were ready for our next venture together.