Into the Icelandic Wilderness
When I think of the Highland, my mind wanders into a sweeping land of vast plains,
volcanic mountain ranges and unforgiving weather conditions.
Growing up with a camera in hand, I’ve always been drawn to photographing interesting textural landscapes. Combining this with a passion for exploration, the Highland provides an almost unlimited source of opportunity. After countless visits and huge difficulty in tearing myself away, I eventually made a move permanently to Iceland from my home in Australia.
The Icelandic Highland
Sitting higher in altitude from the coastline, the extremities of the interior land are compounded by millions of years of volcanic movements. Spanning all the way to Iceland’s inception, these frequent eruptions have created some of the most sublime natural structures I’ve ever witnessed. From vivid green mountains to bubbling geothermal mud pots and towering explosion craters, you can find it all out there. Locked away under a thick blanket of snow for the winter months, the onset of summer reveals these Highland sights from beneath the ice and grants us a window to explore.
Filled with countless gravel roads and hiking trails, the options for Highland summer exploration are endless. It all starts with a turn off from the Ring Road and into the wilderness. There are two main passages within the interior, the Kjölur Route, and the Sprengisandur Route, both connecting the North and South. Among the many other areas that make up the Highland, these direct routes lead you through a rugged journey between glaciers with many unique sights along the way.
For me, it all began with a visit to what has become my most beloved area, the valley of Þórsmörk: The ice had finally disappeared, nature was flourishing in vibrant bursts of green, and daylight was practically endless. Surrounded by glaciers and volcanoes on three sides, you’ll find yourself engulfed by the natural elements that make the Highland so unique. Glacial rivers flowing down from the mountains, covering the entire valley in a vast network of intertwined streams and an abundance of trailheads—a hike up into the mountainside revealed not only the monstrous scale of the glaciers but also the intense vein-like patterns as the river streams weave together.
What has captivated me most in this valley is how fierce the weather conditions can become with only a split second notice. Sitting at the base of these glaciers, you are at the central point of colliding weather systems, wrapping around the infamous Eyjafjallajökull Volcano and drawn in from the nearby coastline. You really have to be careful in these unpredictable conditions, but it’s these moments I find myself most engaged behind the lens, constantly drawn to the dark and moody clouds. However, regardless of the weather, you may chance to see an elusive arctic fox lurking in the mountains.
Detach from Time
It was the height of summer when my friends and I packed up and drove towards the center of Iceland. Camping under the midnight sun, days were seamlessly fading into one another and all sense of time was lost. We had scrambled every clock in reach, disconnected from our devices and explored solely by sense and a map. Three days had passed before curiosity got the better of us. “Man I feel so defeated; I need to know the time!”
Judging the movements of the sun we had some pretty wild guesses, though we were all completely wrong. It is such a freeing experience, detached from time, existing peacefully in nature with no distractions.
Memorable Stops on Our Timeless Adventure:
The Kjölur Route has been used by Icelanders ever since the first settlements: An extremely harsh and desolate pathway that is notoriously haunted by spirits, it is the vertical route through the country, passing between two glaciers and some rocky desert landscapes.
Sitting deep in the Northeast interior, Askja is a volcanic caldera ring that truly mirrors an interplanetary travel experience. The landscape of Askja remains in constant turmoil and reformation, with its base slowly sinking over time.
An Experience I'll Never Forget
Deep into the Highland, I’d experienced something I’ll never forget. The echo of nature drifted through the air, hitting my ears as I sat in silence within a vast field of lava. With so many unusual natural elements condensed within my immediate surroundings, the endless sounds of the Highland had given so much stimulus to my mind that I was left in awe without even opening my eyes.
It was late on a summers day that I’d first come to realize this, photographing under foggy mountain peaks and the glowing sun. With every movement audible, I could hear the wind blowing in the mountains, birds chirping and steam rising out of the ground. It made me realize that despite the barren and seemingly inhospitable environment of the Highland, there is still so much life out there, flourishing in the summer light. From then on, I always remember to take a minute to sit and listen to my surroundings.
A Quick Note
It should be pointed out that traveling in the Highland landscape must be done carefully, with the right precautions taken at all times to ensure that the fragile nature is not harmed. The landscape of Iceland is extremely delicate, filled with sensitive green moss and volcanic soils that once disturbed have a very slow recovery time. Though the Highland is a mecca for 4x4 vehicles, venturing even slightly from the tracks will scar the landscape and cause irreversible damage. I cannot stress how important this is and must be considered whenever behind the wheel, not just in the Highland but anywhere in Iceland.
Experiencing the Icelandic Highland is something that will stick with you forever. Made up of landscapes unlike anywhere else on the planet, we need to do everything we can to preserve and protect this special place. With each of my photographic workshops, I donate 5% of the profits to the Icelandic nature conservation fund; A Highland National Park is what this country needs to protect the heart of the country—one of the last true wilderness areas in Europe. Here’s how WOW air guests can help this cause by donating directly to Landvernd.
Want to see it for yourself? Find cheap flights to Iceland with WOW air and book an Icelandic Highland tour to make sure you don’t miss out on the hard-to-reach places.
Text and photos: Benjamin Hardman