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Kjölur Road June 20-21

One thing that's important about the culture of Iceland is that 80% of the country is considered uninhabitable. Of the inhabitable parts, very few are actually used. Over 60% of the population is in Reykjavik or it's suburbs. The next biggest town after Reykjavik and 2 of it's suburbs is Akureyri which is where I'm living now, with only about 15,000 people. Scattered around Iceland are small villages of only a few hundred people with only a handful of towns larger than 1000 people once you get smaller than Akureyri. Almost all of these towns and villages are on the ocean with a few relatively close by or used as tourist stops.

So when I say that I stayed in the middle of nowhere for a night- I really mean it. Absolutely no one lives in the interior of the country other than a VERY small collection of farmers (and even then, they generally do not live there full time- only long enough to bring the sheep in to shear or butcher) and the employees of Kerlingarfjoll (more on that in a bit).

The Kjölur road is a highland dirt road that goes directly up the center of the country through a Nordic desert, in between two glaciers and many mountain ranges. It only opened for travel the day before we took it which is really telling of both the weather in the area and the condition of the road itself. Most of the vehicles we passed in our bus were 4 wheel drive SUVS- a few lifted even (something I never thought I'd see out of the South!).

It took about 4 hours to get from the start of the road to Kerlingarfjoll and it was some of the most stark and desolate landscapes that I have ever seen. There are miles and miles of gravel with no vegetation whatsoever. The air is so clear that you cannot tell just how far away the glaciers in the distance are. Lucky for us, it was a clear day so we had a perfect view of the mountains and glaciers.

Finally, we get to Kerlingarfjoll. Dave, our director, had kept us in the dark as to what this place was, making the approach down an even worse dirt road, fording a creek, fording a river right next to a waterfall, an emergency gravel landing strip, and insane hills and cliffs even more exciting while waiting to see what was to come.

What we finally ended up at was a ragtag collection of buildings that looked like they belonged in the 1930s Swiss Alps. Kerlingarfjoll used to be a small ski resort in the summer. There are a few cabins- several with kitchens, bathhouse facilities for campers, and a lodge with a restaurant and some bunks. However, in the last few years, the glacier has receded and snow has stopped falling in the summer so the ski pulls have shut down and the place has turned into a backpackers haven. I suppose they are making good of the global warming at least.

All 18 of us were to sleep in the loft of the lodge. The A-frame lodge had 3 stories- the first level which had bathroom and laundry facilities as well as staff areas, the 2nd level which housed a small restaurant (no choice as to the meal though, just whatever they have :P), and the 3rd level which was for us- a few couches and bunkbeds for 18. I wish I had taken a picture of stairs to get up to the loft. They were essentially a ladder, except that half of each step was hollowed out in order to allow it to be steeper. So if you missed your footing, there was no step to step on since it had been hollowed out so your feet could pass through the step to the next one. Confusing, but scary as hell for someone like me who is uneasy about any kind of unorthodox stair. :P

(the mountains and glacier behind the lodge... look a lot smaller in the picture than they were in person)

A few people went off hiking, but my ankle still hurt and there wasn't exactly marked trails, so I didn't feel like going off galavanting into the mountains. I helped cook dinner on two teeny tiny, look-like-they're-going-to-blow-up camp burners in this little building set aside from the lodge. Luckily, we had access to a fridge so dinner (and breakfast!) was skyr, pancakes, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then a bunch of us sat around in the "living room" of the loft talking and getting to know each other better.

As it was getting close to bedtime, someone inquired one of the workers as to where the showers are. Turns out, there was no hot water. The water heater was installed incorrectly. And freezing cold glacier water? Not my idea of fun. Since it's so high up in the mountains, the lodge just pumps in water right out of the river for drinking water. Not such a good idea when it comes to bathing though. ;)

The next morning, we all changed into bathing suits and headed further North up the road to Hveravellir (Kve-ra-vet-lir) which is a secluded hot spring with a bathing area. All 18 of us, plus Dave and a random Icelandic guy, got in the pool that was definitely not big enough to hold all of us. It didn't help matters much that it was set far back from anything, so you had to run out in the cold in hiking boots and a towel, and the entire pool crawling with algae. It was relaxing and I felt a bit clean after not having showered at Kerlingarfjoll.

After about an hour of relaxing there, we headed back on the bus up to a hydropower plant. We had to go down this long tunnel in a bus... several people said it reminded them of Indiana Jones. Then, the bus had to BACK OUT of the tunnel which was a good mile long down into the dam. The elevator takes 2 minutes each way and there were too many of us for that to make sense.

From the dam, we drove another 2 hours on the paved ring road (the road that surrounds all of Iceland) to Akureyri to meet our host families and go home with them. But more about that later!



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