You will either love it or hate it. Most love it. Whichever it is, the Icelandic Highlands never cease to fascinate both locals and their visitors. The island is only habitable along the coastlines as the Highlands cover most of the country. And, it is a dangerous place.
The Highlands is where the forces of nature are at their most extreme. You get volcanic activity, raging glacial rivers, glacial runs, killer weather. It is a volcanic desert of grey, black or brown earth, lava and volcanic ashes. But, now and then you stumble upon mind-numbingly beautiful oasis-like areas, like Herðubreiðarlindir and Askja.
You can only cross the Highlands during the Icelandic summer as their gravel roads are closed during the rest of the year. Still, that doesn't stop the true Highland fanatics of whom there are quite a few in Iceland. One of them is Þórhallur Másson, a builder living in Akureyri. To him, there is no such thing as "off limits" when it comes to the Highlands.
Þórhallur fell in love with the Highlands when he was a child, and his parents took him camping there every summer. At the tender age of sixteen he joined the Akureyri Rescue Services where he had to train in even appalling conditions during wintertime. Today, he knows the Highlands intricately and travels there all year round. When asked what fascinates him so much he is quick to reply: "The vastness."
The rock desert
Þórhallur goes on to elaborate: "Some people only see sand and scree, but they are not looking properly. The Highlands are such an extensive area and constantly changing. There is something about this rock desert. You can be driving along admiring the mountain shapes and hues stretching afar, when you are suddenly upon a Dell with wonderful flora, like alpine fireweed. And, I find the Highland coarseness quite beautiful.
The Highlands are a volcanic area, and you will also find most of the glaciers there. The glaciers don't stay the same. Some of the glaciers are in retreat, others have disappeared altogether. The landscape is constantly changing. It changes from summer to fall, from fall to winter, from winter to spring. It even keeps changing throughout the day. It changes by light and shadows. It never stays the same, and it is impossible to get bored with it.
I go to Askja at least ten times a year. The landscape around Lake Askja and south of Dyngjufjöll where the lava flowed has changed dramatically due to the eruption and the flowing lava last year."
To most this would sound like hazardous journeys. And it is dangerous, even to the experienced experience Highland man. "Of course, we get into tricky situations now and then," says Þórhallur. "It is not unusual to return home twenty-four hours later than planned. And, of course, I have had misfortunes. My car had jumped into a river when a snow-bank broke beneath it. The car was in a really bad shape. I have often found myself in tricky situations, but this was the only time my heart missed a beat."
Þórhallur travels the Icelandic Highland throughout the year. When asked which he prefers, summer or winter, he is thoughtful for a moment before replying: "I can't say. All seasons have possessed different quality of charm. Still, the winter may be my favorite. There is no dust, no midges, and fewer people. But, then again, you can be caught in a snowstorm. I also like the autumn. The air is cooler than in summer; the vastness is veiled in snow, and the air is much clearer than during summer."
Þórhallur drives his own Highland Jeep, a Landrover Defender with 44-inch tyres. But, what is accommodation like in the Highlands?
During winter, we sleep in lodges and during summers in tents. Well, we sometimes opt for the tent as well in winter. It depends on with whom I am travelling. I spread a reindeer skin on the tent floor and then we have excellent mattresses and sleeping bags. The coldest night I have spent in a tent was -15°.
The summers are different and every year I take my family to the Highlands. It is the highlight of each summer. Last summer we spent 22 nights in a tent, and we loved it."
Þórhallur has quite a number of favorite areas in the Highlands. "I always love Ódáðahraun. Hveragil in wintertime is unique. That's where I always take my "spring-bath." After parking my car, I hike for about ten minutes along a warm river until I reach a waterfall. There, in a natural pool where I bathe and shave off my winter beard. You can't bathe there during the summer because the pool will be too hot. So, every year, on the first Icelandic summer's day, my friends and I go there for this annual ritual to welcome the summer.
Other favorites are Þórsmörk, which is a favorite with most Icelanders, and Lónsöræfi, which very few get to visit but most would like to. It is where I hunt for reindeers every year."
Hiking and Jeep tours
But, being a true Highlands fanatic, Þórhallur doesn't just drive around. He also loves hiking. "Some people only like jeep tours, others like hiking. I love both," he says. "I keep myself in top form to be able to enjoy the Highlands as I prefer. Anyone who is interested can take to the Highlands in their preferred way. It is simply a question of finding out what you want to get out of it. And, it is never too late to start. If your interest is piqued, you will find your approach.
The only thing you must constantly keep in mind is to be very careful. No matter how experienced you are. No matter how benign the area you are travelling through looks, not all is as it seems up there. And, turning back when faced with doubtful situations is the proper thing to do. Be sensible."