In July 2010 Alastair Humphreys and Christopher Herwig traversed Iceland north to south, on foot and by river, through its forbidding interior. Despite snow in summer, ice-cold rapids, and 14 straight days of rain, Alastair says “I’m completely in love with Iceland.”
Carrying 40 kg packs stuffed with camping equipment, cameras, packrafts, clean underwear, and enough boil-in-the-bag food to last them 25 days, Alastair and Chris traversed the country north to south, beginning on foot near Akureyri, crossing the Hofsjökull glacier, and finishing by navigating two rivers all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
This isn’t a trip one reads about in tourist brochures. How and where did you get the idea?
I’ve always been the sort of person who likes looking at a map and determining how I can find a route from here to there. Something about Iceland captured my imagination. The initial idea was to cross the country coast to coast, and then I discovered the packraft. This seemed to be great for a challenge that wasn’t a silly gimmick. So then I fine-tuned the idea of walking inland from the coast, crossing a glacier, then paddling down to the other coast.
You’ve written books about cycling solo around the world. Why not choose that mode of transport for Iceland?
I spent four years on the bike. To do any more bike trips is going to repeat the same experience in different ways. So I try and use other means of transport for expeditions now.
What did you know about the country before the trip?
I think my preconception of Iceland—which turned out to be quite true—was of wild emptiness and rugged land and big waterfalls and rivers.
Did you get along well with travel partner Chris?
All I’d done with Chris in the past was spend three weeks in his flat in Kazakhstan overstaying my welcome, but we got on very well. Importantly for a travel partner, he was very relaxed with a good sense of humour. By the end we were slightly tired and fed up, but that’s normal. …
The big problem for Chris was that he’s used to sitting for a day or two until the sun shines correctly, or if it’s boring he jumps somewhere else and just keeps going. On this trip he was stuck, so walking through the highlands where it rained for a week and he didn’t get one good photo, he found that stressful. Similarly, it would have been great to sit some places for a week, but we didn’t have enough food so we had to keep going.
Was the lack of food a problem?
It was one of the biggest difficulties. To carry food for 25 days was quite difficult, plus camera, rafts, camping gear, so we could just fill our packs until we could just about lift them and divided the food there by 25 and accepted that was our lot. We were on 2000 calories a day. We got quite hungry; we had to ban conversations about food.
Did you have your iPod with you?
I don’t take music on trips. It’s lovely to have, but I like the experience of not having it. We have so little silence in our normal lives.
Anything you wish you’d packed?
Just more food. Everything else was as minimal as possible. When it started snowing, we wore every stitch of clothing we had. When you’re wearing all your clothes and you’re just about warm enough, then you’ve packed right.
What were the highlights?
The massive variety is what really struck me. We started north by Akureyri so immediately heading up that valley was green and pretty, and then the highlands were so grim and empty, but I found them quite wonderful. Then we were on a glacier and on the river. We did the Laugavegurinn hike. So the highlight was the emptiness and the variety. Coming in to Reykjavík, it struck me how safe and friendly and civilized Iceland was, so that was a nice bonus too.
Did you ever feel dangerously isolated?
Isolation is always nice until something goes wrong. A strange thing is that our mobile phones worked the whole way. But I think the thing that worried us is that on the river, if something goes wrong, even if you call the police it’s too late. We had police numbers, but you don’t want to have to rely on that. It’s best to assume that no one can rescue you and that you’re responsible for your own actions and the consequences of those actions. That applies to any river anywhere in the world. You don’t want to mess around with water too much.
What’s the next challenge?
I haven’t decided yet. It’s time to dig out the atlas and start browsing again. … I’m trying to emphasize that anyone can have adventures; you just have to go and do it.
Alastair Humphreys spoke with Eliza Reid on 1 December 2010. Read all about Alastair’s and Chris’s adventure on Alastair’s website.
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