The best way to see a country is to walk across it with your own two feet.
I realize this as I sit on a peak overlooking the glacial valley of Ðorsmork in south Iceland. It took me 55 kilometres to get here; my feet ache and my pack is heavy, but I’ve never been more in love with a country.
Iceland is a dream. Filled with volcanoes, glaciers and beautifully barren tundra, the country of 330,000 people and 475,000 sheep is – geologically speaking – one
of the most active on earth. It sits atop a hotspot along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge; it is ever-changing, always grumbling.
Ben and I arrive in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, at the end of July. We pitch our tent at the only campsite in town and when my sister Jenn meets us, we rent bikes and cruise the narrow streets of the art-enveloped city.
We cycle past multi-coloured houses, eat fish and chips, visit Iceland’s highest church, Hallgrimskirkja, and prepare for two weeks on the road.
Before we leave we meet Pastor Patrick from Wisconsin who, clad in sandals and socks, tells us the story of how he lost his boots.
“It was on the Laugavegur trek,” he says. He tucked his hiking boots into the top of his backpack to ford a muddy, glacial river, but as he crossed the water snatched his boots from him—they floated downstream and disappeared. A woman gave Patrick her sandals and he hiked to the trail’s end.
We say our goodbyes to Reykjavík and begin a clockwise tour of Iceland along the Ring Road. We explore Glymur, Iceland’s second-highest waterfall, and the Snaefellsness Peninsula with Kirkjufell mountain. We camp in a lava field and head for the Westfjords - Iceland’s best kept secret.
Sky-high fjords tower above the highway before we arrive in quaint Isafjörður, a town surrounded by sheer cliffs and swooping seabirds. A ferry takes us from here to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve for our first overnight hike. We tent in sand dunes and follow Arctic Fox footprints on the beach.
When we dock back in Isafjörður we eat at the best restaurant in the Westfjords, Tjoruhusid; a buffet of sizzling halibut and cod amongst incredible side dishes. I eat a potato and learn it is a juicy grape.
We head east to the Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery, stand above the thundering waterfall Dettifoss and soak in the mineral-rich Myvatn Nature Baths. Our noses burn from the putrid stink of sulphur at Hverir, where the earth bubbles and steams. We mountain bike in Seyðisfjorður.
Then we find a quiet campsite in the southeast below Vatnanjökull Glacier. We ford a stream and, as foxes bark at us from the rocks, we reach the turquoise and black glacial toe. No one is around but us – it is nothing short of magic.
The next day we are met with ghostly pillars of jagged ice along the highway. The tide carries icebergs that float in Jökulsárlón lagoon out to sea.
On Jenn’s second-last night she finds us a hidden campsite along a black sand beach near Vík. We hike to a lookout over the vast coastline at sunset. A friendly Icelandic chef finds us beers to celebrate two weeks on the road, and then we drop Jenn at the airport.
After our first trip together in a long time, I realize we are the sisters we’ve always been - silly and adventurous.
Ben and I drive to Hvergerði, home of the hot river valley, and soak in the hot spring river before returning to Reykjavík. I buy a traditional vintage wooly sweater and then we catch a bus to Landmannalaugar - we are going on the Laugavegur Trek.
For four days we hike amongst glittering fields of obsidian and glowing Rhyolite peaks, then through mossy volcanoes and lava-bombed tundra. We meet Kyle and Megan from Chicago and become fast friends. We hike from Mordor to Middle Earth, then through the Shire and back again.
When we reach the deepest river crossing I think of Patrick and his lost boots and smile.
Fifty-five kilometres later we arrive in Ðorsmork. After dinner, beers and a hot shower I crawl into my sleeping bag, my heart full of love for Iceland.
We’ve spent the last 23 days in a tent, driven 3,100 kilometres by car and walked nearly 100 kilometres on foot. There are so many ways to see a country but this is, by far, the best.