The first river crossing came early, and it was the deepest we would need to do on the trip.

“Let’s just wait and see what happens to that guy,” I said to my wife and photographer Tomoko, as we watched another truck approach the far side of the ford.

I’d done my share of driving in desert regions, but deep water obstacles were new to me. I had only read about them.

“You know we’re not insured once we enter the river,” Tomoko said.

Icelandic auto insurance is not valid for river crossings, despite the inevitability of submersion in a country as wet as this one. Your car is insured until the moment you drive into a river, and you’re covered again if you come out the other side. But there was no choice.

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Traversing the landscape of Landmannalaugar is like exploring another planet

I dropped the transmission into low-four and felt a soft clunk as the gear took hold, and then we inched forward. The wheels submerged and the water crept halfway up my door. I felt a slight increase in resistance and gave it a bit more gas. The Land Cruiser responded with low grumbling power, gripping the gravel of the riverbed with a firm tread, churning along steadily, making a nice bow wave. I didn’t even feel the push of the current as we crossed mid-stream and powered out the other side.

“I pity anyone attempting that in a low-clearance truck,” I said, as my stomach descended back to its correct anatomical position. “They must be very nervous indeed.”

Those Suzuki “jeeps” or cheap Dacia Dusters are okay if all you want is to drive the gravel roads, like the folks we would see creeping along with white knuckles on the wheel. But the places I had in mind required a full-sized 4WD, and I would quickly come to love these frequent river crossings as an opportunity to test my skills.

In researching Iceland, I soon discovered that everyone writes about the island-encircling paved Ring Road, with its waterfalls and seascapes, but the central highlands remain a blank. In a land where even your existence on the more temperate coastal fringes is tenuous, the uninhabitable interior has always been the realm of those few hardy outlaws who vanished into it: a place where the spirits and elements hold sway. I felt it held the key to understanding the soul of this land.

Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s iconic cathedral

We had turned off the Ring Road earlier that morning to follow the F208 through Landmannalaugar, a region guarded by the deep river crossing I mentioned a moment ago. For the next several hours our world was cast in shades of green, black and grey: bulging lava flows in black volcanic hues were offset by springy green carpets of moss in lime and forest shades, accented by the grey of basaltic rock, and of hills and mountains scoured by glaciers in the last ice age.

I’d read that this route was challenging, with thick fog and steep drops and a lot of rivers to splash through, but it felt like a highway in the tourist high season. The next car would come just as the prior one passed out of sight.

We stopped for a lunch of sweet Icelandic black bread and pickled herring on the crest of a high pass, where the fells were streaked in pastel shades, offset by the white of snow higher up and lush greens lower down. Every five minutes I would hear the straining engine of a car powering up the slope behind us, and then, moments later, the slide of locked tires on gravel as the view from the summit spread out before them. A few even paused long enough to take a photo out the window before moving on. But most were too intent on the preplanned to just get out and sit when the landscape demanded it.

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We finally reached the “highland centre” of Nyídalur by late afternoon.

“This is the last place for fuel before the central highlands,” I said to Tomoko, taking a seat at a long wooden table inside. “I thought it’d be a good place to stop for the night, but…”

It was an exposed public campground—open to the wind—planted right where the paved road ends. And it was far too busy for us.

“Are you tired?” Tomoko asked. “Or can you drive further?”

“Grab the maps,” I said, draining the dregs from my third mug of coffee. “We came here to get away from people, not to shack up with them.”

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And so we pushed on up the legendary Sprengisandur track, the main route into Iceland’s desolate centre. Its name comes from the Icelandic word sprengja: “to exhaust.” During Viking times, it provided a summer corridor between the northern settlements and the Thingvellir parliament, but it was abandoned by the 13th century. Even now it’s only passable for a couple months each summer. Cautious travellers have always preferred to take the much longer coastal route.

Settlers who chose to brave the Sprengisandur on horseback would have carried all their hay with them; there’d be no chance of grazing once they’d begun. They would have had water in abundance, of course, but glacial runoff is milky with sediment, rendering it unfit to drink. Uninhabitability made this a route to be crossed as quickly as possible. Everyone knew that only giants, ghosts, elves and outlaws lived in the highlands. What better place for us to spend our time?

The arctic desert landscape opened before us in all its barren glory, and it was completely unlike the intense greens of the coast. Vast moraines stretched between bare highland mountains, broken from time to time by the twisted forms of lava fields with their tortured animal shapes. And in the distance to both west and east, the dull glare of the immense ice caps whose retreating limbs had shaped this land over millennia of glacial rock crunching. And it went on and on.

Volcanic gasses and bubbling mud at Námafjall

“There should be a small track up here on the right,” I said several hours later, pulling a folded map from the sun-visor and waking Tomoko from a light doze.

I’d been poring over these map sheets for weeks, studying every contour of the areas we would pass thorough, and it was time to put my knowledge to the test.

“Off-roading is illegal in Iceland,” I said. “The land is fragile, and scars last a long time. But if you look closely, you’ll see some faint dotted lines without names. That’s what we’re after. They should be drivable.”

Read Ryan Murdock’s “10 Best Things About Expat Living”

We found our track more or less where I expected it to be, and I knew straight away that my choice had been the right one. The suspension jolted from side to side as we bounced over rocks, and I felt the shimmy of tires on soft volcanic sand.

The gentle northern light would soon fade, so we followed the left fork to the shore of a glacial lake called Hágöngulón, where a fan of soft gravel extended from the foot of a low hill. A corner of the vast Vatnajökull ice sheet—which blankets 8,200 square kilometres and is about 900 metres deep on average—shone white before us, as the bare 1,284-metre flanks of Syóri-Haganga caught the sun’s last rays. It was perfect in its solitude.

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“Put on your rain pants, they’ll cut some of the wind,” I said as I grabbed my gloves from the back seat and started unloading gear.

Two storm systems struggled for dominance in the low sky above

We crouched on the ground behind the truck and cooked a quick meal on my single burner backpacking stove. Tomoko became obsessed with the way the light shifted and changed on the mountain, so I tucked a small plastic flask of Fjallagrass—Icelandic schnapps made from the lichen plant—into my pocket and climbed the slope above our camp, my feet clinking and sliding on scree, until I reached the broad shoulder of a plateau where the backwards slide of each footstep nullified further upward momentum.

I took out my bottle and I raised it to each direction in turn: to the cold grey lake, as still and dark as mercury; to a small patch of runoff lit by iridescent green moss; to the hill beneath my feet; and to the abrupt grey peak that stood like a sentinel off at stage right. I gave thanks to this place for a safe journey and for showing us its wonders, and I poured a small libation on the ground before taking a drink which tasted of the land.

There was only the sound of the wind, and my rasping breath, and this sense of a vast uninhabited desolation all around me. Well, actually, it did feel inhabited—just not in the worldly sense that you and I are accustomed to. You can’t talk about “spirit” in the singular when it comes to Iceland, because the geography is riddled with them.

   

The wind vanished completely during the night, and the silence was so unnerving at first that I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking I heard a car powering along this seldom used track, but it was actually the sound of my own blood coursing through my ears. Nights in the highlands were always like this.

We packed up quickly after breakfast and continued for half a day down that same rough track, crossing the braids of glacial rivers and clinging to rock slopes along the edge of the lake. I knew it didn’t lead anywhere, just further in, but I wanted to see how close we could come to Vatnajökull—which is actually the largest glacier outside of Greenland and Antarctica—before backtracking carefully to the main road.

The Sprengisandur is the one place in Iceland where tourists seek an independent encounter with the highlands, but in truth it’s a perfectly drivable gravel road: potholed and heavily washboarded in spots, and with several unbridged river crossings to negotiate, but presenting no difficulties to those with the right car.

And so we arrived at the midpoint of the route—the campground of Njidalur—to find the parking area packed with vehicles. I’d planned to stop there for a hike, but the wind was howling like an affliction. We refilled our bottles as quickly as possible and got back out on the road. Clouds and mist moved in, and then a rainbow appeared exactly parallel to the arch of the nearest hill as the peak was transformed from deep green to dull grey in less than a minute. I’m not sure if it was frost or snow.

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I thought we’d make camp further on at the cabin of Laugafell where there was a hot spring, but as we crested the last hill I slowed to a halt and took the SUV out of gear.

“It looks pretty crowded,” Tomoko said. There were several vehicles parked next to the cabin, and at least three tents.

“Grab the map,” I said. “I’m sure there’s a trail around here somewhere.”

The Langjökull ice cap, patched in translucent blue

I turned down the continuation of F752—the Skagafjardarleid road—and sure enough, we found a faint track that began just out of sight of the cabin. A challenging stream crossing with a very steep entry and exit point came close to bogging us down, but it also meant that this wasn’t the sort of route anyone would follow, except perhaps to service the weather equipment we saw deeper in.

We were just enjoying a cold end-of-day beer when the weather took a typical turn for the Icelandic. The wind suddenly shifted by 90 degrees, so that it was now hitting my carefully-positioned tent abeam, pushing it in like a giant hand. Rain arrived and we felt the temperature drop as two dark cloud systems met and struggled for dominance in the low sky above.

We took shelter in the car to wait it out, snacking on pieces of locally dried fish that the poet W.H. Auden once described as having the taste and consistency of toenail clippings, or shavings from the soles of one’s feet. Just as we were debating our options, I heard a sharp snap and saw a pole give way. We grabbed the sleeping bags and pads from inside the tent and bundled it all into the back of the truck. I had to grip the heavy rear door with both hands as the wind struggled to tear it off.

The night was already growing dark, and the track we’d followed was barely visible in good clear light, but we found a sheltered spot closer to the Jökuldalur River, where I repaired the damaged tent pole and boiled water for a quick meal of cup noodles. And then we zipped ourselves inside before the rains came again.

The storm system eventually moved east, until the only sound was the distant rush of the river, its stones tumbling and thudding with the stream, matching the rhythmic thud of my heartbeat deep inside my ears.

The next morning we backtracked to Laugafell, an 879-metre mountain, stopping for a soak in an open-air hot spring called Pórunn’s pool. And then, rather than follow the well-trodden Sprengisandur the rest of the way north, I turned up a firm stony track called F821.

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We were making good time across the high plateau, and I was vaguely writing the scene in my head, when it suddenly fell away. Not my head, but the landscape. Someone had replaced it with a scene from a science fiction novel. We found ourselves staring with amazement from the edge of a vast chasm, which we would soon discover was merely the farthest branch of a much larger fjord.

I twisted the Cruiser through a steep winding descent down the rock wall, splashing through cascades of water that streamed off the plateau above. It was the clearest moss-filtered water I’ve ever tasted, so cold it produced an ice cream headache with every frigid handful. As our distance from the harsh central highlands increased, those steep rock walls were clothed with moss and grasses and every possible profusion of green. Sheep appeared in their narrow summer pasture along the growing river—alarmed at first, and then annoyed—and a couple hours later, the fences of farms.

The road straightened and transformed into pavement as the fjord opened up, increasing our speed but hastening our return to the world. We finally emerged on the outskirts of Akureyri—Iceland’s second-largest town—where we were immediately swept into a steady stream of rental cars on the Ring Road’s traffic flow.

   

Another day and a half saw us swatting midges next to Myvatn Lake. The wind soon drove the famous swarms away, but it brought a biting cold that cut through even the heaviest rain pants. And so we continued past the lake, its road fenced with the silhouettes of hitchhiking backpackers, and over the hill to Námafjall, where the insides of the earth singed the insides of our noses with a breath of fire and brimstone.

Absolutely spectacular! Whale watching near Hjalteyri

“It smells like an onsen,” Tomoko said, sitting up in anticipation of a Japanese hot spring.

“It smells like a toilet exploded,” I said, pressing the button that rolled up my window.

The hillside was slashed with sulphur and ochre, and mud pots bubbled next to stacks of rocks that roared out jets of high pressure steam. I crunched along the path, dodging selfie sticks and the glares of those whose photo I had unintentionally stepped into, but the wind was so cold it was impossible to stay out for more than a few minutes.

In such weather, there’s only one place to be: up to your neck in volcanically-heated water. Fortunately, the Myvatn Nature Baths were just beyond the next hill. We paid the surprisingly steep entry fee and made our way to the locker rooms, where we’d been instructed to strip naked and shower thoroughly, paying special attention to our nether regions. This was stressed several times because there are no chemicals in the water to kill the microbes you bring with you.

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As I was scrubbing myself diligently, an American tourist with two kids—all wearing oversized swim trunks—poked into the shower, and I heard him say, “Just wet yourself bud, you just have to wet yourself and then we’ll go in.”

The temperature outside was subzero with the wind, and the water steamed, but the pool was only lukewarm at best. Tourists stood together in tightly clustered groups. Two Chinese women waded in fully clothed as groups of Europeans stared in shock and laughed. A boisterous trio of Americans in the corner were holding plastic cups of beer. The only peaceful place was the sauna; that was entirely empty. Despite the high price, we stayed half an hour and left.

I spoke to a local friend about it a few days later.

“That used to be a wastewater pond for the geothermal plant,” he said. “We bathed there when we were kids. But Icelanders don’t go there anymore. Who would pay so much when you can go to any public swimming pool and soak in the same hot spring water?”

We blazed west back down the Ring Road, stopping for coffee at the petrol station near Godafoss, where I was able to access the Icelandic Meteorological Office’s website.

“We’re in luck,” I said, temporarily distracting Tomoko from yet another fresh pastry. “This terrible weather is trapped over Myvatn. But the area I have in mind is just off the edge of that line.” I switched off my phone. “Let’s fuel up and go.”

I’d set my sights on a track called F839 that ran all the way down a lonely fjord, where the only marks on the map showed the remains of abandoned farms.

“I’m not sure if you realize, but this place is seriously remote,” I said, as we crawled up a steep hill and rounded hairpin bends in low gear. “Nothing but sheep living quiet lives alone in their summer pastures. In fact, you and I might just be the only people in here.”

And then we rounded a curve and I had to swerve to avoid a novice horseback riding group. To her credit, Tomoko didn’t say a word. We continued down the narrow track for another hour, until we reached the end of the line: a grey shingle beach backed by a small lagoon where the wind was blowing straight in from the sea, transforming our fjord into a sort of funnel.

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I stood at the edge of the surf and numbed my hand in the grey waves.

“There’s nothing out there but the small island of Grimsey,” I said. “And beyond it, the North Pole?”

Tomoko came up behind me and said, “What’s that?” Something was moving at the far end of the beach. Several somethings.

“That can’t be right,” I said, and had to squint before I could bring them into focus. 

“We go to such trouble to find an isolated beach, and you’d think we’d have it all to ourselves—but the bloody sheep have taken it over!”

They were spread across the stones in a straggling line, nibbling at seaweed and licking salt off the rocks. We watched them approach until they spotted our SUV and froze in their tracks. The ram paused to assess the situation while the others shifted from hoof to hoof behind him. He was sniffing the air with the raised head of suspicion when Tomoko stepped forward to take his photo.

This did not go over well. Our horned patriarch squared up to face the intruder, glared with all the spite he could muster, and baaa-ed at my wife quite viciously. Tomoko staggered back a step beneath this telling off, and then he led his flock a few paces further, paused to baaa sternly at the SUV and walked on with his head held high in contempt.

“He menaced me,” she said, slightly shaken. “Did you see that?”

“He’s clearly had enough of tourists,” I replied. “You shouldn’t have photographed his family on the beach.”

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And then a seal popped up from the surf, laughed once, and vanished beneath the waves.

We salvaged our dignity, pausing to examine the upheaved stone foundations of a farmhouse overgrown with a century of sedge grass, before backtracking up the fjord to one of the wind-sheltered spots I’d noted earlier, where we pitched the tent close against the lee side of a hill. Dark skies hovered above, but they held to the edges of our steep Nordic world.

Later that evening we climbed the side of the fjord to investigate the waterfall that gave life to the stream beside us. It gashed a long cleft in the wall beyond a forest of Icelandic birch, a tangled growth no higher than mid-shin. There are so many famous waterfalls along the Ring Road, but the most memorable were always the ones we discovered on our own. They felt like a gift of the land, something deeply personal, and they never had a name.

   

Making camp on the slopes of Lake Hágöngulón, below Syóri-Haganga

A visit to the north of Iceland typically involves whales. While there are many established operators in the main towns, we had a rendezvous in a small fishing village called Hjalteyri, where the writer Lawrence Millman had introduced me to Lene.

Lene is a skilled artisan who works with furs, and she has a genius for deciphering traditional methods from old books and oral tradition. Her neighbours operate an old oak fishing boat which, after a lifetime of providing food for the islanders on the grey seas, now provides a living (via tourism and whale watching) for Captain Jón and his first mate Matti. They were preparing to leave when we pulled in, and so we zipped ourselves into bright red flotation suits and waddled out to the pier.

We had just gotten under way when Matti opened a binder to a large illustration.

“OK, so we’re looking for this one here,” he said. “The humpback whale is 12 to 16 metres long, and he has this distinctive knobbly head.”

“You mean like that over there?” someone said, and the entire small group rushed to the side.

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Matti just sighed and put his book away. “My whale lecture gets shorter and shorter each time.”

The captain invited me and Tomoko up to the narrow flying bridge, from where we could see the whales breaching and arcing through translucent water before extending their pectoral fins to the sides like wings, exhaling hard, and hunching for a dive.

“How long do they normally stay down?” I asked.

“Six minutes,” Captain Jón replied. “But they can go longer.”

Our captain had an instinct for anticipating the movements of these great beasts. He never harassed them like the small red speedboats from Akureyri. He simply watched them dive, checked the minute hand on his watch, and then turned the boat to an empty stretch of sea where a whale was sure to surface.

“Do you see that one with the white marks on his fluke?” he said. “He’s been here all week.” Each man had a particular favourite that he liked to follow. “There are 10 or 15 of them here at the moment, feeding individually or in pairs. They mostly eat krill and small fish.”

I don’t know how much time passed before I finally noticed that I was cold. I climbed down to the main deck in search of coffee and found Matti standing by the rail.

“It always amazes me how graceful they are,” he finally said in a quiet voice. “We’ll be following one, and he’ll come straight at the boat like he might nudge us, but then he twists and turns on a dime.”

Back on shore, Captain Jón went home and we shared beers with Matti and Lene, before digging into a fish soup she had prepared, along with homemade bread.

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“I do have to warn you,” she said, “the soup contains mutaaq.” Matti threw down his spoon in disgust. “Oh, you can pick them out!” She turned back to us. “I brought it from Greenland. It’s blackened bits of narwhal skin and blubber. I thought you might like to try it. But if you ever eat it raw, be sure to slice it very thin. Otherwise you’ll just chew and chew and chew.”

“Ja,” Matti said around a mouthful of bread. “Like eating old tires.”

The food was delicious, and it was such a nice treat after a week of meals taken standing at the back of the truck.

“Well, I’m going to take my nightly bath,” Matti said, pushing away his plate and getting up with a groan. “Would you all care to join me?”

This statement is not as shocking as it might sound. Where Italian towns have the piazza and the UK has its pubs, every town in Iceland has its own pool, and the little cluster of huts at Hjateyri was no exception. Someone had salvaged a large tub from the old fish farm and set it up on the dock, where geothermal water was piped in from a nearby spring. Unlike the other springs we’d experienced, this was properly hot.

Many Icelanders will tell you that hot spring soaks and the written word are the keys to surviving their long northern winters. In fact, we had heard that Iceland publishes and translates more books per capita than any other country.

“Is it true that Icelanders give books for Christmas?” Tomoko asked him, hoping to confirm this rumour.

“Your Christmas is ruined if you don’t get a book,” he said with great seriousness. “Every decent Icelandic author releases a new book for Christmas.”

I was quickly coming to see this country as a paradise. I thought about this as we sat in the hot spring passing a bottle, watching whales spout in the fjord.

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We lingered over coffee the next morning at a long wooden table in the sun, but it was time to move on. We stopped to bid farewell to Matti before leaving.

“What’s next for you?” I asked.

“I’m going hunting for reindeer in the highlands this winter,” he said.

“Well, if you happen to see one with a glowing red nose, please leave him alone,” I replied. “Or I won’t get any presents this year.”

“Oh, we don’t have to worry about that,” he said, walking towards the boat. “We have 13 Santa Clauses.”

And with that, we drove back out to the Ring Road and followed it west for several hours. I turned off at a paved road through the Eggjar Valley that soon turned to gravel and ran past farms which grew increasingly far apart.

“I found a 4×4 track on the map,” I said to Tomoko. “It runs along a high plateau, all the way to the Hofsjökull Glacier. We’ll just drive in as far as we can before dark and make camp. We should meet a track tomorrow that runs west and connects to the main cross-highland route.”

The going was good at first, but several areas of stony ground slowed our progress to a crawl. The farther in we went, the more remote it began to feel. After a couple hours of driving with great concentration, I decided to get out and stretch. That’s when I caught sight of the river off to our left, raging through a narrow canyon, churning up mist and foam.

“That doesn’t look good,” I said. “If it’s like that at the ford, there’s no way we’ll be able to cross it.”

We continued further into uncertainty, angling toward a small cabin marked on my map. As we crested the final rise in low gear, we were very surprised to see a truck in the distance.

“He’s stopped in the centre of that stream,” I said.

“He’s got something in his hands,” Tomoko said. “It looks like a bucket, and something long. I wonder if he’s stuck?”

I released the brake and started down the hill.

“If he needs help, then he’ll be very happy to see us.”

But as we got closer, I could see that he was washing his car. I switched off the engine and grabbed my map from the sun-visor. He set down his brush and walked over, extending a hand.

“Hello! Where are you trying to get to?” I told him. “Well, you can’t go that way,” he said, indicating the way we’d been following. “The river is like that back there. I crossed it yesterday, and I have big tires. It was halfway up my car.” His enormous machine dwarfed my full-sized one. “Yours is too small.”

He pointed to another track on the far side of the stream—the one I’d marked as my Plan B.

“You could take that one,” he said. “It leads the same way. But once you get down to where it meets the west-east track, you can’t go either way. The rivers are too high.” He folded the map and handed it back. “Your best bet is to go back the same way and try another track further west.”

I turned to leave, and then turned back. “You know,” I said, “when I first came over the hill, I thought you were stuck. And then I saw you were washing your car.” I paused. “Icelanders are very strange people.”

He just smiled and shrugged. “There’s nothing else to do out here!”

“Let’s try to make some distance before dark,” I said to Tomoko, as we turned back up the track. We crested two more hills, and the man disappeared behind us. And then I stepped on the brakes.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Our encounter reminded me of an Icelandic film called Cold Fever. A Japanese man’s car breaks down on an isolated winter road, and just when his chances of survival hit their lowest point, he’s helped by a girl who starts his car with a shriek, and then vanishes the moment he looks away.

“Did we really see that guy…?”

Running into a stranger in such an unlikely place had saved us from making a long and potentially hazardous excursion to the foot of a glacier that, in his words, “swallows cars.” Odd things happen in the highlands, where the land itself is a living, ancestral thing. But we were attuned to it because we approached this place with respect.

It took some searching, but we found a low rise which just worked as a shelter if I angled the SUV against it. We quickly made camp and enjoyed an excellent dinner of meaty smoked fish, before setting out on a long digestive walk: over the hills with their great spongy clods of moss and rock covered in black lichen. The highlands were so quiet that the air seemed to hiss, as though I could hear the planet itself hurtling through space.

   

The next morning, we found an easy track that cut through hilly pastures and long empty flats to Blöndulón Lake, one of Iceland’s largest at 57 square kilometres. A day of hiking above the valley of Þjófadalir—with views of the Langjökull ice cap patched in translucent blue—was interrupted by driving rain that completely obscured the compact rhyolite mountain area of Kerlingarfjöll in the near distance. It soon reached the strength of an icy gale, with a trickster wind that came from every direction at once, making for a very precarious night under nylon.

This streak of foul weather drove us from the highlands the next day. We emerged at the bottom of the F35, near the waterfall of Gullfoss—meaning Golden Falls, it’s one of Iceland’s top tourist spots—and a vast lot packed with shiny rental cars and tour buses.

The doors of the SUV had been making such a satisfying puff of dust each time we slammed them shut, but the rains of the highlands had ruined this effect. They didn’t clean the car, however; they only moistened it and caused it to set. The rear window was completely crusted over, and the reverse camera’s display had been transformed into a work of abstract art. I felt like a conquering hero driving into the parking lot in that thing—and so completely emasculated when, in Reykjavik, I would finally have to hose it off.

I had intended at this point to continue back into civilization by way of some historically important tourist sites, but I just didn’t have it in me. I felt like an Icelandic outlaw with my two-week beard and filthy camping clothes: hunted, conspicuous, and longing for the anonymity of the highlands.

I was scrolling through the latest meteorological reports when the solution appeared.

“Check this out,” I said to Tomoko. “The weather might be clearing on the western side of the highlands.”

A quick study of the map revealed a ruler-straight but seldom-used telegraph maintenance track that skirted the south side of the glacier. A deep double river crossing at the beginning would be enough to discourage anyone in a low-clearance car. Right at that moment, a babble of voices filled our café, as an entire tour bus group burst in. We looked at each other, grabbed our things and bolted for the exit without having to say a word.

Our route passed through cracked lava fields that looked like massive boils on the face of the Earth which had hardened and burst. And then a heavy mist descended, obscuring our horizons and giving us the feeling that we had fallen into mythological time. About an hour later, or maybe two, we passed a smaller track leading up a hill. It was marked on my map but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere.

“I wonder why someone would make a track up there?” I said. We stopped and turned back.

I scrambled up a steep peak to survey the land, while Tomoko photographed below. And then we set out to investigate a crater-shaped depression which still held ice and traces of snow. There was a mysterious stone at its centre.

The jagged terrain seemed to shift and change behind the mist, and something compelled me to walk toward this stone, and to place my hands against its coarse volcanic side. Could it be the home of one of Iceland’s ancestral spirits? I leaned in close and mumbled some words. Maybe I heard something back, or maybe it was just the wind. But that belongs to the land, and I’m not going to tell you what was said.

  • Read Ryan Murdock’s “Adrift on the Continent” stories in Outpost magazine, and his tips and advice for expat living here. Though often adrift on any given continent, Ryan and photographer Tomoko Goto currently and happily call Berlin home.

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