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Autumn in the highlands - Sprengisandur - Laugafell - Varmahlíð - Day 1

Pictures are at the bottom...

16-18 September, 2011

This trip was originally attempt number 2 at driving Gæsavatnaleið, a somewhat notorious highland jeep track, recommended to not attempt with only one jeep, and something Bjöggi had wanted to do for years. This year, we had two jeeps, we had 10 people lined up, we'd bought a few bits of extra equipment (air compressor and proper tow rope) so it all looked pretty good.

We were shooting for late in the year, which meant that the rivers would all be a lot smaller, though our calendar was actually fixed by Bjöggi's work schedule in Greenland. Mid september is actually really starting to push it into the coming winter.

And snow it did. Early snow buried the route, with even the regular route through the area being closed, and we later heard of three rescue group call outs during the week. There was some hope that the snow would melt off by the coming weekend, but then Bjöggi's jeep broke down and the whole plan started to look completely unrealistic.

By the time we left town, friday afternoon, we were down to just three, Bjöggi, Viðar and myself. The new plan was to drive Sprengisandur as far as Nýidalur, then break north westward towards Laugafell, a mountain hut with a hot pot, then continue down NW to Varmahlíð. None of us had been that way at all, and the roads authority listed that area as still being passable.

Seeing as the weekend didn't require as much driving anymore, we felt that perhaps there was no need to push as far as Nýidalur for friday night, so we headed for Versalir instead, a good 1.5-2hrs less driving, hoping to see a bit more of southern sprengisandur on Saturday. Arriving at Versalir, we found the place overrun with farmers on the annual sheep muster. They were in good spirits but suggested Ölduver for us instead. We'd never heard of Ölduver, it's not on any maps, but they gave us directions, and we drove off, another 20 minutes or so up the road.

Ölduver is a tiny mountain cabin, apparently installed by staff of Landsvirkjun, the national power company some years ago when they were building one of the older hydro plants on Þjórsá. Of course, it was occupied by some fishermen when we arrived, so we just set up tents outside. We'd planned on camping the whole trip anyway. At this time of year, the huts are all closed or closing. We got the tents set up and realxed for a bit after the drive, but then to bed, waking up to a spectacular sunny day in the highlands. Ölduver is in the middle of the sands, on the banks of a small stream leading down to Þjórsá, and the fishermen were here to try their luck in the various streams in the area. It was an idyllic place for breakfast, though I imagine a bit sandy if it had been windy.

We headed north, taking in a few side roads and admiring the view from some of the highpoints in the area. It was nice not to have any sort of time constraints. If we'd been doing Gæsavatnaleið, we would have needed to be well across it by lunchtime. There's a part at the far end that it is highly recommended to onyl try and cross before lunch. Indeed, it's not recommended to even stop the car once you've started across. And the last time I was on this road, we were almost out of petrol, and had no time to stop for anything.

We pulled into Nýidalur, which was completely still, and had a bit to eat before continuing. We were amazed at how low the rivers were. Some of the rivers that often require at least some care, were just small streams now.

We were also amazed at the complete lack of snow. The roads authorities later declared it all passable again, though by the time of writing, we've had more rain and snow and it's now properly closed, probably impassable until we get enough snow to start driving on top of it.

The drive over towards Laugafell was nice, completely desolate and easy driving. One long flat sandy stretch along the way to test 4WD land speed records, but almost nothing in the way of life. Good views of Hofsjökull as we approached, and then in and out of a twisty glacial creek/river.

Then we were at Laugafell, a rather large place, about the same size as Nýidalur. The camping facilities aren't as nice, grass wise, but the rest of the place is far superior. Heated toilet seats. Let me say that again. Heated toilet seats. Because of the size of the hot spring here, the entire water system in the toilet block/changing room runs on hot water. So the entire porcelain chunk of toilet is warm. This was rather luxurious.

We took the short walk up to visit Þórunnarlaug, a pool cut out in the 15th century. The story goes that Þórunn, (there's even debate about which farm she came from) moved her whole farm up here into the highlands to avoid the plauge. (Debated as to whether this was ~1402, or ~1490) They have found enough old ruins and artifacts to prove that someone was here though. It's very nice, but only big enough for one person at a time. Allegedly it has some healing powers.

Not long after we arrived, people started arriving en masse. Turned out the snowmobilers from the north were starting to prepare things for winter, setting up fuel dumps, and they had a key for one hut. In the other hut, a group of 6 jeeps from phototours.is arrived for a big dinner and party. This was about 1000% more people than we'd seen all day, but made for a fun night.

We spent many hours in the pool, before retiring to bed.

Continued on Day 2...

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