Iceland 1999


Sep 17, 1999 in Iceland 1999

And that’s the end of the account. If you’ve read the lot, then very well done to you! We hope we have managed to convey some of the wonder, excitement and awe that we felt during our time in Iceland. The placid beauty of Mývatn, the power of Dettifoss, the magnificent desolation of Askja, the ethereal splendour of the Aurorae, and everything else that we saw and experienced will remain with us for a very long time. Once again, we would like to thank the University of London Convocation Trust, and University College London and the Friends of UCL, without whom this amazing trip would not have been possible.

Since this expedition all three of us have travelled to various other exciting places, including another volcano expedition in Central America, an eclipse expedition to Southern Africa, and a railway journey from China to London. But whatever our subsequent travels, this was our first expedition, and for that it will always be one of the greats.

Homeward bound

Sep 16, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Homeward bound

And that, to all intents and purposes, was the end of our journey. We didn’t do much else of interest, spending our final day in Iceland wandering around Reykjavík. We got the cheapest souvenirs we could find (a pack of cards), bought a newspaper at horrific expense, took a trip up the spire of the Hallgrímskirkja, and went to see the Volcano Show. This is a two-hour film containing footage of all the eruptions in Iceland since 1947, and it was very impressive. We had seen all the volcanoes in the film, so we felt that we had done well in our four weeks here.

The final morning was a sad occasion. I didn’t want to leave and I was consumed by premature nostalgia as we left the youth hostel on an overcast, grey morning, and took a bus to the BSÍ terminal. From there we went to the Blue Lagoon, a pool of effluent from a geothermal power station which you can swim in, and relaxed for three hours. This was a fine way to end our time in Iceland, and we certainly felt that we deserved a rest. It had been a long, at times arduous, but extremely rewarding trip, and we felt very proud that we had seen all that we set out to see.

A quick, but expensive, taxi ride took us to Keflavík International Airport, where we bought some duty-free Brennivín, the Icelandic national drink, and then got on the plane home. On arrival at Heathrow, we bought ourselves a pint of bitter and a cigar each, and then we went our separate ways, into a dark but warm London evening.

Back to the mainland

Sep 15, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Back to the mainland

After the beautiful day we had had for the Surtsey flight, the weather got rapidly worse, and the next day it was violently windy, and rain was moving horizontally across the island. There was nothing to do but pack up our things, and get ready to leave the next day. This we did, although we had to struggle with our packs against violent winds to get to the ferry on time. The journey home promised to live up to its reputation as a vomit run, and as we left the harbour, the boat was rolling and pitching in a big way. However, it calmed down after half an hour, and we all survived intact. Once back on the mainland, we headed back to Reykjavík.

Quite high

Sep 13, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Quite high

Day 23, Monday September 13th, was an amazing day. After recovering from the aurora-watching of the day before, we headed over to the airport to hire a plane over Surtsey.

Surtsey is one of the better known bits of Iceland. It wasn’t there before 1963, but in October of that year, a fishing boat saw plumes of black smoke pouring from the sea. Thinking it was a boat on fire, the crew hurried to the source of the smoke, only to find that it was a new volcano, exploding from beneath the sea. Film crews soon arrived from all over the world, and the birth of the new island was captured on film. It grew rapidly, and soon reached 100m above sea level. During the early months of the eruption, the sea had easy access to the erupting lava, and violent explosion hurled large rock up to five miles from the craters. As the land grew, however, the sea was eventually blocked out, and the eruption became much calmer. Lava flows ran out over the loose piles of volcanic debris, putting a hard cap on the island, and making it a permanent fixture on world maps. The eruption gradually waned during 1965 and 1966, and in 1967, when the island was 1300 metres wide and 174 metres high, the eruption finally ended.

These days, access to Surtsey is restricted to scientists, who are researching how life begins to gain a foothold on new land. To see the island, we had to fly over it, and this we did. We walked back out to the airport, this time entering from the conventional direction, and ordered our plane. Within twenty minutes, we were taking off in a small, 5-seater light plane.

We headed out towards Surtsey, over Storhöfði, the windy southern peninsula of Heimaey. The turbulence was impressive here, with the plane rocking alarmingly. We flew then over the rest of the Westman islands. Strung out between Heimaey and Surtsey, these small rocky affairs are home only to millions of birds, and the occasional puffin hunter.

Having passed these by, after about 15 minutes we were at Surtsey. The experience was indescribable. We had the most incredible view of the island that it is possible to have, seeing wonderfully the craters and lava flows, and comprehending the unbelievable energy behind the formation of this island. We made several flybys, some high and some low, before heading back up to the mainland via a steep banking turn over Eldfell. When we were landed we all agreed that the flight had been one of the highlights of the trip.

To celebrate our great day, we had another meal out that evening, spending some £55 on a modest pizza. In the mood we were in, we could have a lot more quite easily. On the way home, we took part in another Vestmannaeyjar tradition: every year towards the end of the summer, the baby puffins that nest around the island leave their nests and head out to sea. Some of them, though, are unfortunate enough to accidentally head towards the town. They flap about hopelessly on the roads, at the mercy of cats and cars. The children of Heimaey run around with cardboard boxes, capturing the hapless birds, feeding them and keeping them warm overnight, before casting them into the sea in the morning.

On our way home, we encountered a baby puffin, who was tripping over his wings in his haste to get away. We caught him, took him back to the campsite, and fed him John’s can of tuna, before putting him in a waste paper basket for the night. He seemed quite happy, and after he had eaten another lot of tuna in the morning, we took him to the coast, and cast him into the stormy North Atlantic.

Up above the streets and houses

Sep 12, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Up above the streets and houses

The next day, we went to the airport, two miles out of town, to find out about flying over Surtsey, the famous volcanic island fifteen miles to the south-west of Heimaey. We followed what appeared to be the right road, a rough track leading over a hill, but when we got over to the other side, we found ourselves on the runway. This clearly not being desirable, we went into the terminal through the arrivals door, and found out what we needed to. This done, we went for a walk by the southern end of the 1973 fissure.

The eruption from this part of the fissure stopped after a few days, so there are only some very low lava hills, which we climbed up. Once again, we had the disconcerting knowledge that what we were climbing on was not much older than we were. After a little while spent looking around here, we decided to climb Helgafell. This is an ancient volcano, about 5000 years old, which is very close to Eldfell, and is a virtual twin of it. Its slopes, though, are covered in grass, which makes it a lot easier to climb. We reached the top in about 20 minutes, and appreciated the fine view over the island. It was a sunny day, and the brightly coloured roofs of the town contrasted strikingly with the greenery on the rest of the island. Eldfell steamed calmly nearby, and the string of small islands to the south-west stood black against the glistening sea. After a rapid scramble down the slopes, we went back to the campsite.

And that evening, in perfect clear skies, the aurorae were magnificent. For the first time, they covered the whole of the sky, in shimmering green curtains. They streamed across the sky, rapidly appearing and disappearing, and mingling with the green sweeps were flickering blobs of red. Some of the photographs show purple bits as well. It was quite literally breathtaking, and we were utterly captivated until three in the morning.

Red hill over yonder

Sep 11, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Red hill over yonder

We woke up the next day to the sound of torrential rain and high winds. This put something of a dampener on our plans, which we quickly rethought. We decided to go to the Volcano Show, which is indoors and dry. It showed spectacular footage of the recent eruptions, which made us very keen to explore the area. However, it was far too horrible outside to even think about going for a walk.

Fortunately, the second day on Heimaey was a bit better (though not much). Intermittent drizzle was irritating, but didn’t stop us doing stuff, so we climbed Eldfell. A two-mile walk from the campground took us over much of the lava field to the base of the mountain. Here, the earth still steams with the heat of the lava, and gusts of warm air seem to come from nowhere. A cross stands as a memorial to the one person who died in the eruption. We set off past the cross up the hill.

It was much harder going than we expected. The hill is made of loose fragments of rock, and so is much like a slagheap. Two steps up, one step down is the situation as you progress upwards. The scenery was very impressive, though, with huge boulders brightly coloured in yellow and red strewn all about. As we approached the summit, we passed many steaming vents, and the ground was distinctly warm as we sat on the peak. From the top, we had a good view of the southern end of the 1973 fissure, and the ancient volcano Helgafell just to the west. It was clear from up here how threatened and vulnerable the town was.

On our return to ground level, we decided that it was about time we had a meal out. We had originally budgeted for eating out about half the time, but self-catering turned out to be much easier than we had expected, and eating out much more expensive. However, we had been self-catering in shifts on our single stove for 21 days now, so we decided to go for it. We went to a lovely little place, and had the local speciality, Puffin. We also had their cheapest bottle of wine, a modest desert, and a slightly outlandish Drambuie coffee to finish. This came to £100.

After this outrageous profligacy, we rounded off the evening by going to a party. The people in the restaurant had told us that there was a big do in town to celebrate 80 years since the end of a volcanic eruption, although they were unsure as to which one. We decided that our mission should include going to this party, and so off we went. Several different bands were playing Icelandic folk music, and everybody was riotously drunk, and singing along enthusiastically. And I really mean everyone, from ages 15 to 90. We would have joined in, but we couldn’t possibly afford the 400 kroner cans of beer, and we didn’t know the words. So we went home at about 1.30am, and slept very late the next day.

Goin’ down south

Sep 09, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Goin' down south

And so, on day 18, we arrived back in Reykjavík, and our full circle was complete. It was quite a sad moment, and it really felt like the holiday was over. However, we still had the Vestmannaeyjar islands to go to, so after a night at the Reykjavík campground, we took a bus to þorlákshöfn, from where we got a ferry to Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands. It’s a notoriously queasy three hour run to Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited Westman Island, but on the day we went, it was calm, sunny and warm. After a pleasant crossing, we entered the spectacular harbour of Heimaey. Huge cliffs rise on one side of the harbour, while two volcanoes dominate the other side. We headed to the campground, situated impressively inside the crater of an ancient volcano.

The Westman Islands have a fascinating and chequered history. The first people to arrive were some Irish slaves who had murdered their owner on the mainland, and escaped to here. They were soon tracked down, and killed. The islands were named after them (Ireland being west of mainland Scandinavia). The first permanent settlers arrived on Heimaey in the ninth century, and despite droughts, drownings, pirate raids and volcanic eruptions the island has been inhabited since then.

On 23 January 1973 a mile-long fissure opened up across the island, spouting huge lava fountains and spraying ash over the town. Luckily, the fishing fleet was in the harbour that night, and so the town was quickly evacuated. The eruption continued until July of that year, by which time one-third of the village had been covered by lava. The rest was thickly coated in ash. The harbour had almost been closed off, saved only by pumping millions of gallons of water daily onto the advancing lava flows to slow them down. It was uncertain whether anyone would go back.

But people did. The fishing fleet began again to use the harbour, which had actually been improved, and they used the warmth of the cooling lava to heat the town. These days, it’s hard to believe how touch and go the situation was for a while, although the eastern side of town backs right onto the 1973 lava, and the new volcano, now named Eldfell (Fire Mountain), dominates the landscape.

So we set up camp in Herjólfsdalur on the west side of the island, and made plans to explore. We saw the aurorae on our first night there, for the first time since Mývatn, which we were pleased about. We hoped that the skies would stay clear for the next day.

The road to Hella

Sep 08, 1999 in Iceland 1999

The road to Hella

After this brief return to Gullfoss, we headed back to Selfoss, from where we went to Hella. This small town, apart from being the inspiration behind a million bad puns, is also the nearest town to Mt. Hekla, Iceland’s most famous volcano. During the middle ages, it was, in popular legend, the entrance to hell. The skies were supposed to be filled with vultures and ravens, and the wailing souls of the fallen could apparently be heard all around.

Presumably, less people go to hell these days, as the only sound we could hear from the campsite at Hella was that of the road, and large black birds were conspicuous by their absence. We set up camp in a beautiful location by a river, and thoroughly appreciated the excellent facilities that we had only paid three hundred kroner each for. After cooking dinner in real pots and pans for the first and only time on the trip, we enjoyed a truly magnificent sunset, and a fine night’s sleep.

Early the next morning, we awoke to find a day of pleasant sunshine, and walked a mile or two out of the village to find a good view of mount Hekla. Clouds in that direction did not obscure the summit, as the usually do, and so we could see the entrance to Mediæval hell. It was impressive to look at this volcano which has caused such immense devastation over the centuries. Unbeknown to us, deep beneath the earth Hekla was stirring again. Six months after we were there, it erupted for the first time since 1991, showering ash over much of central Iceland, and sending lava flows down its flanks. A few months after that, the area around Hella was hit by two powerful earthquakes in a week, destroying 20 houses.

It was all quiet when we were there, though, so having seen the volcano, there was little else to do in Hella but pack up and wait for the bus. Sadly, another slight cock-up on the bus timetable front meant that we got to the bus station about a quarter of an hour after the bus left. We were quite keen to get back on the way, and the thought of a completely pointless night in Hella was soul-destroying. We walked to the tourist office, thinking desperately of ways out of here. Our next destination was Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago south of the mainland. We asked about the possibilities of flying there. It was possible, said the woman in the tourist office, but you’d need a car to get to the airstrip. We asked about a taxi to Reykjavík. She said it would cost about 10,000 kroner. We asked, desperately, if there was any way of leaving Hella before the morning. “Yes,” she said, “the þórsmörk bus passes by at five”. Almost weeping with relief, we rushed back to the bus stop, just in time to catch the last bus of the day, which, mysteriously, did not appear on any timetable.

A spring in my step

Sep 06, 1999 in Iceland 1999

A spring in my step

We spent our second day at Geysir exploring the multitude of other mini-geysers and hot springs in the area. Several tiny geysers erupt constantly, throwing hot water about a foot into the air. A lot of springs just bubble impressively. All around, steam rises into the air. Most of the tourists just watch a Strokkur eruption or two before leaving, and so a short walk off the beaten path leaves the crowds far behind. Beyond Strokkur, a large hill rises over the valley, and we climbed this. From here, Strokkur looked very impressive, surrounded by acres of land from which steam was rising.

On the hill, hidden from the path by some bushes, is Haihver, meaning High Spring, which is probably only seen by about 30 people a year. We sat down in the sun by the spring, in a large patch of clover, appreciating the scene. Further on up, a view disc points out all the impressive sights around, including the Langjökull icecap, Iceland’s second largest, and, on a very clear day, Mt. Hekla far off to the south-east.

On our final morning at Geysir, we watched Strokkur again for a while, and then got the bus back up to Gullfoss. We stayed for two hours this time, and were once again impressed. In their favour, the veritable crowd of tourists there on a weekday did give a sense of scale to the falls. This time there was a bit more sun, but still no rainbows, sadly. Despite this, we were suitably inspired by the scene, and had much debate in the ensuing bus journey as to which was better, Dettifoss or Gullfoss.

Dodgy geysers

Sep 05, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Dodgy geysers

At Selfoss, we were harassed into staying at a guest house. We went to ask about the price, ready to compare it with the other place in town, but the owner rather fiercely said that hers was the cheapest, and the best. She dragged us inside. We now discovered that it was, in fact, an incredibly nice place. She showed us to our rooms, made us coffee, did our washing for us, put on the TV, and let us use the cooker to do dinner. After two weeks of camping and isolation, this was almost more than we could take. We relaxed completely for the evening, and slept as well as anyone ever has. The next day, we went to Geysir.

Unbeknown to us, the bus timetables had radically changed in early September, and we arrived at the bus station to find that we were three hours early. It was a Sunday, and so all there was to do was sit and play cards until the bus came. Just before we all went completely insane, the bus arrived, and we left for Geysir and Gullfoss.

We were going to stop off at Geysir, and go to Gullfoss later, but the friendly bus driver took us to Gullfoss free of charge. Gullfoss, the Golden Falls, are a hugely impressive double waterfall only 10 minutes down the road from Geysir, which makes this small corner of Iceland a tourist haven. Indeed, this was the busiest place we had yet been to. At least 40 people were wandering about at the falls. Golden Falls seems a bit of a misnomer, given that the water is a mucky brown from all the glacial silt it carries, but it actually refers to the rainbows that can be seen in the spray on a sunny day. Unfortunately, the day we went was not sunny enough, but it was impressive nonetheless. It lacked the utter isolation of Dettifoss, but was every bit as noisy and wet (see the curtains of spray in the photo). After an hour at Gullfoss, we went back to Geysir.

Geysir is the original geyser, of course. Earlier this century, it used to throw boiling water up to 60m in the air, but only every three or four days. Impatient tourists would customarily throw a rock or two in there to try and encourage it, but sadly, by 1916, this had altered the plumbing deep down to such an extent that it stopped erupting entirely. The local tourist industry, such as it was in those days, didn’t like this state of affairs, and so they drilled holes in the ground to artificially lower the water level. This set it off again for a few years, but it soon began to slow down again as the holes filled with mineral deposits. Unwilling to damage the delicate underground structures any further, people began instead to throw soap flakes into the water. This lowered the surface tension enough to cause an eruption. Eventually, though, even this was deemed environmentally unsound, and after a final Independence Day eruption party in 1996, Geysir was left alone.

Fortunately, there is another active geyser nearby. Strokkur (the churn) erupts every 10 minutes or so to heights of up to 20m. This keeps the nearby hotel in business, although clearly they are not so popular that they can bleed the tourists dry, because we managed to get a bed there for only £7. We booked in for two nights, and then went up to the action. It didn’t take long to find. As we walked up the path to Strokkur, a sudden rush of water burst from the ground, dwarfing the tourists standing around. “Gee WHIZZ! DID you see that? That was suure something!” shouted one of them. Yes, this was tourist country all right.

Nonetheless, snobbish traveller attitudes were quickly forgotten when we saw an eruption from close up. What you see at Strokkur is basically a pool of water with the top of a deep hole visible in the middle. The water in the hole is constantly moving and churning about as, deep down, it begins to boil. For what seems like an age between eruptions, the surface undulates eerily, and if it’s quiet, mysterious bumps and belches can be heard from beneath the ground.

Eventually, suddenly, one of the undulations will grow rapidly into a huge dome of water, which bursts, lofting the boiling water high into the air. After the water falls down again, it rushes back down the now empty hole, ready for another eruption.

Occasionally, another eruption will happen within a few seconds of the first. Very occasionally, more will happen after this. We were very lucky, while we were there, to witness one memorable thirty seconds during which six large eruptions occurred. Not even the tourist hordes could detract from that.

Much later in the day, when all the tourists had gone, I went back up to Strokkur. It was long after the sunset, and a heavy rain shower had left the sky looking moody. In the quiet and near-darkness, Strokkur took on a much more spectacular appearance. The muffled thumps from below seemed much louder now, and when an eruption occurred, it was much less expected, and much more breathtaking. Part of the reason I went up was to get rid of the vague feeling that it was all put on for the tourists. Happily, it proved not to be, and I was left much more impressed.

Later still, when it was completely dark, I went up again, and found that it really was still going, and now, when I could only see it by the light of my torch, it was truly awe-inspiring. The sudden mighty rush of boiling water and spray was breathtaking. It seemed all the more unique and amazing to realise that almost no-one ever sees this side of Strokkur. I went up three times after dark while we were there, and didn’t see anyone else.