Landmannalaugar Refugee Camp

One of the main things Mike and I wanted to do in Iceland was the Laugavegurinn trek, a 55 km hike in the interior of Iceland. We found an accommodating AirBnB host in Reykjavik who let us store our bikes and panniers at her house for a few days, and then we rented backpacks and trekking poles. We got up early on Thursday to begin our journey.

Landmannalaugar is the traditional starting point for the Laugavegurinn trek, and we arrived early in the afternoon on Thursday. The bus ride from Reykjavik was a little more than 4 hours, and much of it was on 4WD roads. The buses they have here are rather hardcore. We had to ford one river that normal vehicles do not attempt. When I saw the water coming in through the bus door and flooding the steps, I understood why. The way back from the end of the hike is supposed to be even more treacherous, and there’s a special amphibious bus for that. If we ever make it there, I’ll report more details.

Right now that’s a big IF.

You see, when we arrived at Landmannalaugar it was pouring rain. This rain was not merely clothes-drenching but soul-saturating as well. Though we originally planned to begin our hike more or less immediately upon arrival, the rangers convinced us we ought to stay and camp for the night. They explained that the next hut (the traditional end of Day One if completing Laugavegurinn in 4 days) was at a higher elevation and was far more exposed to the elements.

Thus, we set up our tent in a downpour. With 30 mph winds. And gusts of up to 40 mph. Since the ground is so gravely, we had to use lots of rocks to hold down the stakes. Because our tent is so masterfully designed (thank you Hilleberg) the inside remained dry even though we were soaked to the core. We crawled inside, changed into dry clothes, ate a PB&J sandwich and slipped into our sleeping bags around 4:00 in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, I had to get up at around 8:00 pm to run the 100 yards to the toilets. Mike has no such worries since he freely uses a pee bottle. Gross. Still, i was a bit envious this once. Anyway, I returned and snuggled back into my bag, and neither of us did so much as sit up until 9:00 am on Friday.

Despite the rangers’ predictions that the rain would ease up around midnight, it came down heavy until 10:00 am (at which point it turned into a steadily drenching mist instead). Now the rangers are recommending staying another night before setting off tomorrow. Alternatively, new buses arrive and then return to Reykjavik later today. We haven’t decided what to do yet.

This brings me to several points I would like to make:

1) Mike and I are NOT on a vacation. A vacation can be anywhere from a weekend to two weeks, but it is definitely not six weeks long. A vacation should take you to someplace warm and sunny and maybe beachy NOT to someplace where you are constantly cold and wet. Most importantly, a vacation should almost exclusively consist of type I fun. If you’re unconvinced, let’s just agree to call this an adventure rather than a vacation.

2) Mike and I suffer from Type II Fun Syndrome. This is a mental disorder that deludes sufferers into believing they will enjoy activities such as biking and hiking around cold, rainy countries rather than drinking fruity beverages in warm, tropical countries (like people with the normal Type I Fun gene). The main problem with Type II Fun Syndrome is that it affects the mental processes in such a way that even though sufferers may be miserable while experiencing type II fun, they forget their discomfort all too quickly. Soon their woes turn to good stories and fond memories. Then, like the junkies they are, they come up with a new ridiculous scheme and relapse. Is there a cure? I don’t know. At the moment, I am thinking that a type II fun experience with too much discomfort could push a sufferer into remission, but then again, it’s supposed to be sunny in two days . . .

3) I must expand on the title of this post. We are currently located indefinitely in the Landmannalaugar Refugee Camp. I did not come up with this descriptor, though it’s even more true than I initially suspected. My Lonely Planet Iceland guide says, “Landmannalaugar has a large base with camping and hut facilities that, in the middle of summer, unfortunately looks like a refugee camp with hundreds of tents, several structures inundated with dirty hikers, and drying laundry dangling throughout.” So true.

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The tents are in various stages of succumbing to the elements. There are a few super structures (more like yurts) that must belong to professional outfitters and guided expeditions. These few look sturdy and trustworthy. A step below these elite giants are the tents like ours, which are clearly designed well for extreme elements. Sure, they look a little limp, wet, and wind blown, but they also look like they’re keeping out most of the dampness. They look like they can withstand another few nights of heavy winds if necessary. Next, there are the tents that are still standing . . . barely. They seem distorted, waterlogged, near collapse. I can hear fortifications going on outside right now. I talked to one man who was planning on moving his tent from the middle of a lake that formed overnight to a small grassy patch that seemed to be draining a little at least. Finally, there are the remnants of tents I see evidence of. I saw many people dragging soggy bundles crisscrossed with poles across the open areas. I saw others cramming battered tents into garbage bags. Landmannalaugar has one sleeping hut where you can pay $50 to share a bunk bed with someone, but those beds were sold out months ago.

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This crappy tent is not ours; ours survived just fine.

The dangling laundry that Lonely Planet spoke of is not in the open (since it would merely become wetter); instead, it is covering every indoor surface (of which there are few). Landmannalaugar has one barn-like structure that houses men’s and women’s toilets, shower stalls, and sinks all together. Every time I have ventured in, the space has been crammed with hikers hopelessly attempting to dry things. Clotheslines crisscross the space, but the attempts at drying don’t stop there. Over every bathroom stall, every mirror, every exposed pipe, every radiator, jackets and sleeping bags and tents are draped. The radiators are prime real estate, though they emit only the faintest heat. Still, they have both clothes and people draped over them. Nor is this bathroom barn limited to clothes drying. I’ve seen people cooking and eating in the bathroom, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of people stayed in there overnight; in fact, I’m almost certain some did.

Though the hikers themselves are most certainly dirty, as LP says, most of them here haven’t even started hiking yet. “Wet” is the more accurate descriptor in current circumstances. The hikers themselves are what solidified the refugee comparison for me. I don’t mean to belittle the very real and incredibly horrifying circumstances that face true political refugees, especially since I just finished reading a novel on the subject (Little Bee). We hikers are merely weather refugees. Still, many of the people have hollow, persecuted looks in their eyes. Being plagued by bad weather while stuck in the elements has a certain kind of awfulness to it. Though I’m not claiming the weather here is connected to the issue necessarily, it also makes me wonder about the growing number of climate change refugees we’re likely to see in the coming years.

By the way, the “rangers” I’ve been referring to are actually called “wardens” in Iceland. This seems appropriate given our refugee status.

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The Landmannalaugar Mountain Mall made from an old Army bus. It sells various warm and weather-proof clothing items, snacks, and even a few souvenirs.

So, here we are actually back in civilization (how else would I have Internet access?), yet in this post we are stuck in Landmannalaugar on Friday morning. I’ll write and publish another story or two to tell what happened next, but I’ll keep you in suspense until then.

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