By Ragnar Sverrisson’s (Helfró)
Iceland has changed a lot in the 30 years since I was one of the incredibly lucky few to be born here. Until just about 10 years ago, we were almost totally unknown to everyone in the world. Seeing a tourist in downtown Reykjavík was a cause to close your eyes and make a wish, as if you just saw a shooting star. My parents were avid travelers and many of my earliest memories are being alone with them in the wilderness. Not a person in sight for miles and miles, mountains wrapped around us in a remote fjord or hundreds of lakes visible for a hundred miles as there are no trees to obscure the scenery. Many of my friends grew up with similar experiences.
Iceland is largely a desert. Although if you take a closer look, tiny plants are found almost everywhere, even in the seemingly barren black sands in the highlands. They are small and tough, resilient like the ancestors who were cast out from Norway and outlawed to Iceland.
Today, a lot has changed. Breath-taking beauty, formerly underlined by the extreme sense of loneliness and futility as you gazed upon it alone or with a couple of your travel partners, has now become a hotbed of buses, tourist shops, cameras, loud voices, lines and litter. Iceland became a part of the tourism roadshow big time. It has saved our economy, but many of the most sacred natural wonders are now more like a perverse branch of Disneyland, inevitable when the almost unbearable silence has given way for the bustling noise that accompanies large crowds.
Due to my job as a radio tower climber, I travel all year round and still get to find myself in absolute solitude from time to time. All this being said, I will now betray the secrecy of some of the lesser known, harder to access pearls in Iceland. In the hope that you, my friend, can find your own little paradise, even if it’s only for a moment, where the realization of how incredibly meaningless our daily quandaries are sets in. Here they are in no special order. Just don’t tell anyone else about them.
5. Snæfell, Lónsöræfi
Snæfell is my favorite mountain in Iceland, and there is a lot of competition. It is the highest mountain that is not inside a glacier, although it has small icefalls of its own, due to the temperatures at the top keeping the winter snow from melting completely in the summer. It is the youngest volcano of east Iceland, last erupting at the end of the last ice age. In 1925, Sveinn Jónsson, a farmer from Egilsstaðir, peaked the mountain accompanied by his horse. The mountain was too steep to ride a horse to the top, but with a lead he managed to get his horse to the peak, wanting to share the beautiful view with his best friend.
Travel to the north of Iceland, to Dalvík, a municipality of about 1400 inhabitants. From there, a three-hour ferry ride straight north toward the arctic sea will take you to the 3 square mile island of Grímsey. Through this unlikely patch of grass and rock that rises roughly 330 feet out of the sea runs the arctic circle, at 66° north. Walk to the northernmost part of the island and look north. Next destination ahead is the north pole, 1700 miles away. If you cannot find yourself here, you never will. There is an abundance of various bird life here. You will not find a particularly colorful pub scene here, but there is a place to get some coffee before you head back to relative civilization.
My girlfriend likes to describe Iceland like a fat dragon. The capital area rests atop of its leg, the next peninsula to the north sticks out like an arm and then the west fjords are like its head. The most northern part of the head is inaccessible to anyone but those who hike or sail there. Hiking from the nearest road to Straumnesfjall should take a normal person 3-4 days. On top of this lonely place rests the remnants of a military radar station, opened in 1956. It was operated for just under a decade until it was simply abandoned due to the incredibly harsh winter storms, its operation simply taking too much effort. There is a transmitter there that I must service yearly and we are taken there by a coastguard helicopter. There is a lot to explore in the ruins. A cinema, a gym and control room are some of the things you can still barely make out. This is definitely the most inaccessible place on this list and if you ever find the time and willpower to get there, you will feel alone. But you will also get in touch with mother nature as thoroughly as possible. Wild foxes play just tens of feet away from you, oblivious to the threat of humans. This place is pure.
Grímsfjall is a mountain on the rim of the most active volcano in Iceland, located in the middle of the largest glacier, Vatnajökull. Grímsfjall is a part of the mountain ring that forms the caldera of Grímsvötn. Grímsvötn caldera hosts a sub-glacial lake, with 900 feet of ice floating on top of the water. The ice is perpetually being melted due to the warmth of the earth underneath and the lake is under strong pressure from the ice above. When enough water has been melted, the ice cap floats enough to let the water escape and it emerges from underneath the Vatnajökull glacier some hours later. This creates a dramatic drop in pressure on the caldera and sometimes results in an eruption. Grímsvötn has been erupting somewhat regularly, roughly once a decade. On the top of Grímsfjall is a hut, run by the Iceland Glaciological Society, and it is possible to rent it for a night. There will be no humans in any direction for as far as the eye can see. The only thing on the horizon is snow and more snow, so vast that the border between sky and earth becomes hard to see at times. Getting here takes specialized vehicles like snowmobiles or Super-Jeeps. Walking here is understandably not for hiking amateurs. To be honest you, will most likely never visit Grímsfjall.
Melrakkaslétta is the northernmost peninsula on the Icelandic mainland, located in the northeast of the country. It is outside of the “highway” that circles the island, so few bother to visit. It is not hard to access, but it is pretty much as far from the capital as you can get. Beautiful plains stretch for miles and miles, inhabited by rich bird life. There are many beautiful lakes here. On my travels through the area, I have experienced some very special conditions where it was possible to listen to radio stations from all over the world on the AM frequency. There is no interference as there is such a lack of human settlement. The midnight sun is strongest here, you will hardly notice any difference between night and day. Time is irrelevant. If there is magic in this world, certainly it exists in Melrakkaslétta.
** Helfró’s reissue of their 2018 independently released self-titled album is out now on Season Of Mist’s boutique label, Underground Activists. CD, LP, and t-shirt combos are available HERE. Order now before Ragnar commits you to a short life in the Hornstrandir!