Thin Air Guides takes us far from the tourist trails to explore some of Iceland's most remote landscapes and empty trails.
Here is the account of their most recent journey.
The paint peeled off Brúnavik hut in orange curls, revealing its corrugated skeleton beneath. Perhaps once, freshly painted, it had looked cheery, gaudy even. A squat, bright beacon in an otherwise desolate landscape. But now, blunted and buffeted by the salt and spray gusting off Brúnavik’s inlet, its appearance was rather more morose.
Sliding open the door’s rusted bolt did little to quell the feeling of unease. The hut, lit only by the light of one small window, contained a pair of bunk beds, each with a scratchy wool blanket, a simple table and bench and, against one corner, a stove that was now all-but rusted through. It felt eerie. Abandoned. A terrestrial Mary Celeste, where the last inhabitants had vanished one night into the howling wind.
It was, then, a fitting waypoint for my hike on the Víknaslóðir - “the trail of the Abandoned Inlets” in Iceland’s East Fjords region. Rather than a prescribed A-to-B trail, the Víknaslóðir is more a ‘hiking area’, where day routes of various lengths can be joined together to take intrepid hikers from inlets fringed with black volcanic sands to sharp, colourful mountains.
It wasn’t just the inlets that are abandoned, I mused as I set off that morning, but the Trail itself too. The East Fjords lie as far from Iceland’s tourist capital of Reykjavík as it is possible to go. Here the coastline is ruffled and pleated, journeys take time, and once you’re off the famous Ring Road, the roads become gravelled and slow. In contrast to Iceland’s famous and well-tramelled Laugavegur Trek in the country’s south, here there was solitude and silence.
Well, not quite silence. While there were no fellow hikers to keep me company, the slopes were alive with bird calls. As I shouldered by rucksack and began the climb into the Brúnavikurskard pass, I heard the chattering siren of the whimbrel, its long curved beak delicately at odds in an otherwise blunt landscape, and the piercing warning cry of the Arctic Tern. The pass’s slopes were scrubby and shaded in faded greens, with occasional bursts of coloured flowers and mosses, splashes of paint on the landscape. Looking back, across Borgarfjörður stood the unmistakable outline of Dyrfjoll, Iceland’s ‘Door Mountain’, and it felt like we’d opened the door to some of Europe’s wildest hiking.
Passing between the peaks of Geitfell and Gránipa, the path began its descent towards the inlet. A waterfall spluttered away to my left, its course a rusted red scar on the landscape. Below lay the crescent-shaped inlet and, little more than a speck, the Brúnavik hut. The hut is one of Iceland’s emergency shelters, a small collection of distinctively orange buildings scattered across the country’s wildest corners. Typically built in the early 20th-century, their purpose was, and remains, as last-resort shelters for stranded and stricken hikers. In fact, sleeping in them in a non-emergency situation is illegal. I shuddered slightly at the thought of a night spent there.
For less stricken hikers, there are other huts along the Víknaslóðir and it was to the most northerly, Breiðavík, that I was heading next. The most popular hike, and that’s a comparative term, in this area is a three-night from Seyðisfjörður, where passengers can arrive by ferry, upto Borgarfjörður Eyestri that I’d left in the morning. Hiking northwards, Breiðavík would be the third and final hut visited.
As I climbed the path from Brúnavik, my pace picked up. I was having my own emergency. A persistent Arctic Tern, known locally as kría after their blood-curdling call, was swooping at my head. Famously aggressive and defensive of their territory, terns are well-known for their attacks and I was lucky to have a cap on to keep the claws at bay. I’ve never skipped up the contours so quickly.
Once away from its territory, my gait eased into that aimable uphill hiking pace. The clouds were drawing in now, blanketing the landscape and reinforcing the solitude. After a couple of hundred metres of ascent, the path all but disappeared as it snaked across a plateau. Here, even in July, were patches of snow and small lakes crusted over with a layer of blue ice. At this altitude, even the birds had abandoned me. There was only the wind and the steady sound of my footsteps.
After an hour or so, and a little careful route finding, the path began to descend again and the view opened up. Ahead was another curved bay and to its right a rhyolite mountain, its colours shifting from orange to brown to grey as the clouds wafted across the weak sun above. Between the two, stood Breiðavík hut. Painted green and an A-frame shape, even from a distance it looked cheerier than Brúnavik. As I got closer I saw a small stream running in front of it, with a young family fishing. They were, I discovered, the family of the hut guardian who was bravely sat in the drizzle eating her lunch. “There’s a lottery about which hut you get assigned to.” she explained, as I stopped to chat. “Most want to get a hut on the Laugavegur, as they’re the busiest.” She continued rather enigmatically. Maybe she felt abandoned, out here in the East. Or, like me, as I scanned the people-less horizon, she felt lucky.
How to do it:
For hikers looking to get off-the-beaten track in East Iceland, we recommend staying at the fantastic Blábjörg Guesthouse in Borgarfjörður Eystri. The guesthouse has simple rooms that look over the fjord, a kitchen for self-catering, a fantastic restaurant serving local food and a spa with hot tubs on the fjord-front. From Borgarfjörður Eystri there are over 27 day hikes in the local area, from glacier-topped mountains to remote coastal paths.
Make sure to check out Thin Air Guides website for more adventure inspiration!