Hiking in Skaftafell nature reserve, Vatnajökull National Park
The view from the top of Skafatfell hill is magnificent.
To the east is the crest of Öraefajökull, the wasteland glacier, which, at 2110 metres is the highest peak in Iceland. On this splendid summer’s day the ice cap shines out against a cobalt blue background. Huge fingers of ice plunge down the steep sides of the mountain. To the south is the flat, grey alluvial plain of Skeidarsandur, like an African desert. The surface of the Atlantic is shining like an elusive mirage in the distance.
There is light everywhere today. It sums up Iceland, the land where the primordial elements compete with each other and dominate the landscape, where water, earth, air and fire dictate the pace of life and where all life forms, including mankind, doggedly cling onto the rough surface hoping not to be swept away. It is in such extreme conditions that biodiversity shows its strength and capacity of adaptation.
The Sjónarnípa viewpoint, where the Skaftafell glacier seems so close as to be able to touch it, is the destination of a splendid hike in the Skaftafell nature reserve. This has been a protected area since 1967 and in 2008 became part of the Vatnajökull National Park, which covers approximately 14,000 km2, making it Europe’s largest park.
Starting from the visitor centre at the foot of the hill, there is an easy path to climb in the direction of Svartifoss - the Black Waterfall, which crashes noisily into a stunning amphitheatre of basalt columns. Moisture glistens on every surface, accentuating the black of the basalt, the green of the vegetation and the gaudy colours of the hikers’ waterproof jackets.
From here you head north, following the signs for Sjónarnípa. Now climbing along the exposed ridge of the hill, the lush vegetation has given way to sparse plants typical of the Arctic tundra, in which twisted low shrubs of willow and birch, carpets of bilberry laden with fruit and soft mosses prevail.
The inexorable battle against the loss of soil
For more than a thousand years, since the first Scandinavian colonists landed in Iceland with their ravenous animals to exploit the huge and practically virgin pastures, the Icelanders have been battling against the relentless and permanent loss of fertile soil.
The hunger for wood and intensive grazing led first of all to almost complete deforestation and then to consumption of the thin layer of soil that slowly formed after the last glaciation to cover the rock, the soft volcanic ashes as well as the fluvial and glacial deposits. Erosion affects 75% of the surface of the island, the rest is ice and rock while a minimum part has been urbanised. Also the uncontrolled tramping of tourists has a negative impact that must be mitigated.
I observe the barren landscape from the heap of stones, which defines the glacier’s lateral moraine dotted with crusty lichens firmly anchored to the basalt. Few organisms are able to survive up here where they are completely exposed to the severe climatic conditions.
I descend the hill following another, shorter route, with an exceptional view over the underlying valley, which takes me along the steep southern side of Austurbrekkur.
Protected from the cold, dry Arctic winds, which dry out even the hardiest plants, the vegetation in this area is thriving. Birches, willows and rowans even grow to four metres in height, creating the conditions for a true wood to develop. After the tundra-like experience, the impression is one of exploring a primordial tropical forest.
"Arctic River Beauty", Iceland’s most beautiful flower
I reach the black terminal moraines of Skaftafelljokull, where the pioneer plants struggle to colonise the unstable, gravelly surfaces. I can see the end of the glacier full of debris, which plunges into the muddy lagoon from which a river flows to the Atlantic just thirty kilometres away. High above, beyond the peak, the 8000 km2 of Vatnajökull (the Vatna glacier) resolutely resist the implacable melt.
I am about to take the track which leads to the visitor centre when I see it. An unexpected splash of colour, bright fuchsia, nestling behind a strip of gravel, catches my eye. Probably the most beautiful and extraordinary flower of Iceland, the Chamerion latifolium, or Arctic River Beauty, peeps out, frivolous, in a hostile environment. The national plant of Greenland - where it is called niviarsiaq, which means little girl - is extremely important for the Inuit peoples because every part of the plant is edible and it is therefore a fundamental resource in extreme lands. This perennial courageously anchors itself to the gravel and pebbles, exploding in all its beauty during the summer with magnificent flowers that stand out against the dark gravel.
The resources of Biodiversity to withstand environmental change are infinite and go far beyond our knowledge and understanding. Even directly under the Arctic Circle, the tenacity of this splendid patch of fuchsia in the shadow of huge glaciers somehow reminds me that, despite everything, life will always find a way of adapting to change.
Die Mittel der Artenvielfalt, sich gegen Umweltveränderungen zu behaupten, sind unendlich und gehen weit über unser Verständnis und Wissen hinaus. Die Hartnäckigkeit dieser wunderbaren Fuchsie, hier, direkt unterhalb des Polarkreises im Schatten der riesigen Gletscher zu bestehen, beruhigt mich: Das Leben scheint, aller Widrigkeiten zum Trotz, immer einen Weg zu finden.
Andrea Pasqualotto, graduate in natural sciences, is a nature guide and is engaged in environmental education and ecotourism. He organises and guides treks in the Dolomites, working with Kailas – Viaggi e Trekking (www.kailas.it). He has lived in Iceland and has been accompanying tours for the last few years to what he considers his second homeland.
Ariondo Schiocchet, fotografo e viaggiatore, appassionato di natura e montagna. Membro attivo del Club Alpino Italiano.