Trail building in Þórsmörk, Iceland
Thanks for bearing with me, I've been off having the adventure of a lifetime. I'm home this week, after spending August living and working in the beautiful Þórsmörk nature reserve, in southern Iceland.
Image 1: The cracking view from the top of Valahnúkur, with a tiny me enjoying the view
This incredible opportunity came via Trail Team, who host teams of 3- and 6-week volunteers to maintain and work on the hiking trails that cross the region, supported by the Icelandic Forestry Service. They've been feeding us, teaching us the skills to widen, maintain and build routes through the region, then putting us to work in this breathtaking landscape.
Image 2: Home! Langidalur campsite, just visible on the left of the river valley
Sleeping in tents and living and working communally, we've pushed our bodies to the limits, laughed till we cried (admittedly, sometimes thanks to a touch of hysteria brought on by exhaustion), and fallen utterly in love with Iceland and its stunning landscape.
Image 3: Heading off to work, resplendent in the grey in our orange work overalls.
A typical day involved hiking (usually around 10km, often directly upwards) to our work site, carrying all the tools and equipment we'd need. The sledgehammer, spade, mattock and crow bar quickly became our new friends and allies, which were lugged uphill each day along with trail markers and materials to construct steps, drains and other features to improve the trails and protect the fragile ecosystem. Fuelled by coffee, 'army strength' orange squash, Mars bars and Nutella sandwiches, we'd spend the day building, digging and contouring the landscape, seeking to leave no trace of our activity - like a small army of footpath wombles.
Image 4: A typical start to a day's work, hiking trail building materials up a mountain, ready to build drains and steps in the afternoon
Personally, I've learned a huge amount, and suspect will continue to process this experience for a long time to come. I've been amazed at what my body can do - asked a hike a mountain one day, then do it the next day carrying fence posts, then again three times the following day with buckets of seedlings, it's been a real lesson in gritting my teeth, laughing when it's hard, and achieving more than I would have imagined possible.
Image 5: Drilling steps out of the rock to ease navigation on a tricky part of the trail
I learned endless amounts from the other volunteers too, who came from around the world and from a huge range of backgrounds. From them, I learnt to embrace the different skills that we all bring to a task, to live happily and with kindness amongst a bunch of strangers, and to find the humour in almost anything. I've also learned that almost anything goes in a sandwich if you squash it hard enough, and that - with enough layers and enough exhaustion - you can nap happily literally anywhere.
Image 6: A solid 20 minute nap, in waterproofs, in the rain, on the floor. No probs.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had this experience. It's been a valuable reminder of why I became freelance in the first place - to take advantage of the freedom to work flexibly, to live to the fullest, and to explore as many as possible of the adventures I can find. I'm leaving part of my heart behind in Thórsmörk, but am leaving far richer (and with significantly better muscles) than when I arrived.
What an adventure. What a life.
Image 7: Our last night exploring Reykjavik with the Trail Team crew.