We randomly ended up in a town called Zafferana. It rained heavily most of the time we were there, but we hiked a long way up the volcano anyway. We walked to a place with a view over eastern Sicily. The weather cleared up briefly, but only towards the coast. The mountain was still totally hidden. We walked on, but the clouds came in again and it was getting dark. By torchlight, we headed back down to Zafferana.
Long walk in filthy weather
Cable car to Montagnola
We got a cable car from the Rifugio Sapienza to Montagnola, not too far from the summit. It was a clear and beautiful day when we set out, but clouds were coming in and they arrived at Montagnola at the same time as we did. Reaching the craters was going to be impossible. We got the cable car back down and then got a bus back to Catania in an epic downpour.
Four years after we were there, both the Rifugio Sapienza and the Montagnola cable car station were destroyed by lava flows.
Another long walk
On our final night, the weather cleared, and from Zafferana we watched lava fountains spraying high over the summit. We stayed up all night watching the show, trying and failing to take good photos.
We saw the mountain from the plane window as we took off from Catania. We hadn’t made it to the top, but we’d seen it erupting, and we thought that was a pretty good result.
Day four, mission two. Krafla volcano is not really a volcano at all, although there is a hill with that name in the area. What in fact happens at Krafla is that the ground is pulled from both sides by continental drift. Every 200 years or so, it suddenly gives way about 10 times over a decade or two. Each time it does, vast fissures open up, sometimes over 20 miles long, and lava spurts out along the entire length of them. The last lot of eruptions at Krafla occurred between 1975 and 1984, but geologists believe that the eruptive series is not over. The ground has swollen upwards by about half a metre since the last eruption, indicating a very full magma chamber, two miles beneath the surface. Fearlessly, we set off into the heart of it all.
We first walked around the 320m wide explosion crater known as ‘Viti’, meaning Hell. A lake of very blue water fills the bottom, and it would be very tempting to go swimming, if the sides of the crater weren’t so steep and loose. We had fun starting several mini-landslides by kicking a small stone over the edge.
By the side of Viti are several mud pots. Throughout most of Iceland there is seldom a sign or a barrier to warn visitors about any danger, but here there were warning signs to say that getting too close to the mud pots would be a very bad idea because the crumbling ground might give way. We stood close enough to watch them bubbling and glooping. During the eruptions of 1724-8 in the area, they used to spurt up to 10m high, but now 10cm is about the best they do. They still look nice.
From Viti and the mudpots, we walked through the lava flows from 1984. The centrepiece here is the crater Leirhnjúkur, which is full of startlingly blue, awful-smelling water, which bubbles continuously. Brilliantly coloured mineral deposits fringe the pool, and steam rises from various hot points. The smell was unbearable, and sadly it didn’t deter the midges, so Leirhnjúkur was best appreciated in small doses.
From Leirhnjúkur, we walked through the still-hot lava from 1984. Steam was pouring from cracks in the surface, and occasionally the rocks were warm enough to heat the air into disconcerting patches of sweltering heat. From there, it was a short walk back over some cracked earth back to the car park, from where we could have got a bus back to Mývatn. We, however, fancied a walk back in the sunshine.
It was a good three-hour walk back to the campsite, but the weather and scenery were good. The only other people we saw on the way were two German cyclists. It’s a strange thing that almost every German you meet in Iceland is cycling across it, and almost every cyclist you meet is German. As they struggled up a large hill, we detoured via some hot springs at Námafjall. It was warm enough not to need hats and gloves on. Somewhere along the way my hat fell out of my pocket. I hoped that the weather would stay fine for the next three weeks…
On day 5 we went to Askja. It must be said here and now that Askja is fearsomely remote. Deep in the interior of Iceland, temperatures average below freezing for 8 months of the year, and what is laughably called the road (it’s a track scraped into the dust) is passable for only 3 months a year. We caught the penultimate tour of the year down there, and made sure that we had packed all our warm clothes. In fact, though, the weather was quite nice. The sun shone brightly, and when we stopped for lunch near Mt. Herðubreið, we had lunch in the sun on a picnic table outside the mountain hut there. After another stop at the side of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum (the same river which plunges over Dettifoss), we got to Askja at about 2pm.
The first thing to do was explore the caldera. A caldera is formed when a volcano has a huge eruption, and the magma chamber underneath is emptied. The mountain above then crashes into the ground, leaving a huge crater. Askja did this in 1875, expelling enough volcanic material with enough force for some of it to land in Scotland. The volcano collapsed in on itself, leaving a 50 square kilometre crater. The former flanks of the volcano now form a ring of mountains known as the Dyngjufjoll.
The deepest part of the crater is filled with Iceland’s deepest lake, Öskjuvatn. On the day we went, the placidly shimmering reflections of the snow-capped mountains in the still waters of the lake made it hard to believe the destruction behind the beauty. A swim would be tempting but for the near-freezing temperature of the water, and also the fact that two German researchers once disappeared without a trace while out on the lake in a small boat.
More inviting is the lake inside Viti, an explosion crater formed during the most recent eruptions at Askja, in 1961. Not to be confused with the Viti at Krafla, this Viti contains a hot, opaquely blue lake, apparently ideal for swimming. However, you have to negotiate a steep and slippery slope down into the depths of the crater, and even at the top, the smell of sulphur is overwhelming. Even though there were completely naked Swiss girls in there, we gave it a miss.
The weather stayed nice for the first two days at Askja. This brought out the midges, but the magnificent desolation of the beautiful wastelands more than made up for that. A spectacular canyon cut deep in the mountain just behind where we camped, and a hill nearby afforded a stunning view all the way to the volcano Snæfell 40 miles to the east, and Herðubreið 30 miles to the north. Lava from 1961 snaked across the plains, and several ancient craters could be seen. The land for miles around was covered in light, fluffy pumice stones from the 1875 explosion. I took one large piece as a souvenir but it crumbled into dust long before it got anywhere near leaving Iceland.
We spent two days hiking about in the wild mountains, and the place left a profound impression on us. Here, we were as far from civilization as we had ever been. The nearest town, the nearest shops, the nearest help, were a gruelling 6 hour journey in a 4WD vehicle away. Within fifty miles of us, there were probably no more than a few hundred people. Within fifty miles of London, you’d find perhaps 20 million people.
On the second evening, though, the weather took a turn for the worse. Rain fell as the sun went down, getting heavier as the night went on. By one in the morning, half an inch of water had found its way into one of our two tents. By the time the bus passed by at 4pm on the third day, we were not distraught at the prospect of leaving. We passed by Herðubreið, by now enwreathed in cloud, and thanked the Norse gods for the good weather we’d had.
Onward and upward
And then it was time to leave Mývatn. Unfortunately, a slight misreading of the timetable led to us arriving at the bus stop two hours early. However, this slight mishap aside, the onward journey was trouble-free. More spectacular scenery was seen, as we passed the huge lava fields east of Mývatn, and eventually came to the valley of the glacial river Jökulsá á Dal. Like most Icelandic place-names, it sounded mysterious and evocative to me, but actually means, rather prosaically, the Glacial River with the Valley.
The usual twenty or thirty beautiful waterfalls were seen, before we stopped for lunch at Egilsstaðir, in the far east of the country. From here, the ring road follows the deeply indented coastline, so that you sometimes travel for 20 miles to make half a mile’s headway. We arrived in Höfn, in the south-east, at 8.30pm, and stayed the night there. The mighty Vatnajökull icecap oozes into the sea through several valleys here, and in the evening twilight, it looked magnificent. The cool but calm weather gave the place a very Arctic atmosphere.
The next morning, day 10, we took the bus from Höfn to Skaftafell, from where we would explore the Laki fissure. This stretch of the journey included the magnificent Jökulsárlón, a large lake filled with icebergs carving off a tongue of the Vatnajökull.
We arrived at Skaftafell at 11am in glorious sunshine, again feeling fortunate with the weather. However, sadly, by the time we had set up camp and got ourselves ready to see the sights, the clouds had come in, and it was another grey day. Nonetheless, the wonderful things we had heard about Skaftafell were true.
Svartifoss, a striking waterfall, entranced for a couple of hours. Sjonársker, a large hill, provided a superb view over the flood plains south of the icecap. It was here in 1996 that a volcanic eruption deep under the icecap released a torrent of water as great as the Amazon. Finally, an hour’s walk took us to the edge of the Vatnajökull, the world’s third largest icecap (it’s about one-hundredth the size of the Greenland icecap in second place, and the Antarctic cap is seven times as big as Greenland, but it’s third nonetheless).
In the fading half-light and increasing rain, it was a very eerie place. Powerful rivers rushed out from underneath, and we were surprised to find that it was very solid. It took several heavy blows from a large rock to break any off. We had brought along our whisky in the hope of having a wee dram with a few chunks of glacial ice in it, but in fact glacial ice is rather filthy. So we knocked back some bad whisky straight, appreciated the gloomy scene around us, and headed back to the campsite.
Mad Viking berserker bus driver
Early the next morning, we left for Laki, a 25km long fissure, which in 1783 unleashed the largest and most devastating lava flow known to man. Over 10 months, it covered 200 square miles of land, completely filling 2 river valleys. The huge amount of volcanic gas releases poisoned the land and the sea all over the south of Iceland. Three-quarters of the livestock perished, and in the ensuing famine, a quarter of the Icelanders died. There was talk of evacuating them all to Denmark, but they resisted.
We were getting the last bus of the season, up another road shortly to be closed for the winter. Strangely, the bus driver laughed heartily when we asked for a discount with our Circle Passes, said no, and then charged us half of what we had been expecting anyway. Once on the way, we passed by the usual spectacular scenery, this time an amazing canyon, and a beautiful waterfall, Fagrifoss (which actually means Beautiful Falls).
On arrival at the fissure, the first thing to do was climb Mt. Laki itself. At 818m high, it affords a magnificent view of the fissure stretching away into the distance front and back, and the mind-boggling expanses of lava fields. The weather was a little unpredictable, with very sombre skies giving way to bright sunshine every half hour or so. Brightly lit land beneath ominous clouds lent the place the air of menace that it deserved.
Once we were down from the mountain, we had time to quickly look inside the largest crater of the fissure, before the bus took us twenty minutes down the road to look at some other craters. This time, the driver, who couldn’t speak much English, drew some diagrams in the sand to indicate that we should follow the marked trail while he drove the bus around to another crater to meet us. And so the seven of us on the tour strode off into the wilderness.
The landscape here was incredible. Inside the first crater was a beautiful lake, very placid and calm. Everything was covered in squidgy moss, which made it feel like you were walking on air and made it look a bit like the set of the Teletubbies. The surreal rock formations all around lent it an other-worldly air.
We walked over hills and through valleys, wondering if we would ever be seen again when the path went underground, but eventually we met up with the driver again. He led us onward into a small clearing, hesitated, and then said, or gave the impression that he had said, be means of exaggerated confused facial expressions and repeated shrugs, “But where is the bus?”. Fortunately, this was merely Icelandic humour, and after just half an hour of panic, he led us around the hill to where he had parked. We headed back to Skaftafell.
Blowing hot and cold
We left the next morning for Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We hadn’t planned to go there originally, but we had heard great things about a place called Landmannalaugar from a Dutch guy at Mývatn, who said that he had been watching the Aurorae Borealis from geothermal hot pools. Also from Landmannalaugar, you can do a three day walk to þórsmörk through some of the most incredible scenery in Iceland. The whole area is volcanically active, and so we decided that we would give it a go.
So from Skaftafell, we went to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, to provision ourselves. Landmannalaugar is, like Askja, well beyond the reach of civilization. A warden lives in the mountain hut there from May to September, but it is otherwise uninhabited. We spent a terrifying amount of money on 5 days’ food, and then spent the rest of the day at Kirkjubæjarklaustur relaxing, and preparing for the approaching ordeal.
The next day, the weather was Miserable. The north Atlantic was blowing horizontally across Iceland, and, for once, the temperature had dropped below its usual 10° . We got the bus at 9am, and hoped for better in the interior. This was laughably optimistic. We stopped for an hour on the way at the volcanic fissure Eldgjá, which means fire chasm. About 20 minutes walk away from the road at Eldgjá is Ofærufoss, an impressive waterfall, which we walked to. We were all absolutely soaked, in spite of waterproofs, by the time we got back.
Another two hour’s drive took us to Landmannalaugar, where, briefly, sun had broken out. We were to learn over the next two days that the weather taunts you viciously at Landmannalaugar, by being sunny when you wake up, and in five minute spurts during the day, but raining as soon as you decide to do anything. We walked to the mountain hut, saw that the weather was going to get worse, and decided that camping was all well and good, but a mountain hut would be heavenly. So we booked in, sorted ourselves out, and then set off to find the geothermal pool.
Just behind the hut at Landmannalaugar is a huge lava flow from an eruption a few hundred years ago. It’s still pretty hot inside, as shown by the hot streams which flow out from underneath. They mix with a cold stream in a natural pool about 200m from the hut, forming the most perfect hot bath imaginable. On a day like the day we went, with weather precluding much else, everyone who’s staying at the hut goes to the pool. We took our bottles of whisky and some chocolate, and stayed in for about 4 hours. We would certainly have stayed in for a lot longer, if we didn’t know that the later we got out, the more horrific it would be. Finally, as night fell and our supplies of whisky and chocolate ran low, we braved the icy air and got out.
We spent a pleasant evening in the kitchen of the hut, swapping anecdotes with the other travellers there, and being amused by the warden, who was quite a character. We suspected that he’d been sipping the Svartidauð* when he began singing Icelandic folk tunes to us.
The next day was to be the day we set off into the real wilderness. We spent the morning getting advice from various people. About 20 people had set off on the hike the previous day, and about half had turned back. One of them was telling us that it would be very difficult without crampons and hiking poles, while other people were telling us it was easy, and we should go right away. The warden said that he thought it would be OK, but to expect some bad weather up high (on the first day, the walk takes you over a pass at 1200m). With a little trepidation, we set off.
* Svartidauð – Nickname for Brennivín, the Icelandic spirit. Brennivín means ‘Burning Wine’, while Svartidauð means ‘Black Death’. It’s an acquired taste.
A spot of intense rigour
The first thing to do is cross the lava flow behind the hut. This took about an hour, and led us to the foot of Brenninsteinsalda, an active volcano with many steaming craters on its slopes. One in particular, right next to the path, looked very dramatic, with brightly coloured minerals occasionally visible through the steam. We stopped to take stock of the situation, and it began to hail. We decided to walk on for half an hour, during which time sleety rain began to fall.
We were feeling somewhat dubious now, because we were some 500m below the highest point on the first day. The snowline wasn’t too far above us, and the cloud layer was coming down rapidly. We sadly decided that it would be at best very unpleasant, and at worst dangerous to continue. We sat dejectedly by the crater for a few minutes, and then picked up our packs and went back to the hut.
We were sat in the kitchen, feeling a bit disappointed, when the warden came in. “Oh, hi guys! What are you still doing here?”. We told him the story, and he nodded sympathetically. “So where are you going to stay tonight?” he asked. Here, we said, a little uncertainly. “Sorry, guys, the hut is totally booked out tonight. You’ll have to camp.” The hut was completely empty at this point. He was smiling, and so we replied in jest. He insisted, less jovially, but it was only when he had taken our money and ushered us firmly out of the door that we began to think he was serious. “And I don’t sing for campers!”, he shouted, slamming the door.
This was not good. Waves of lashing rain were now arriving every 10 minutes or so, and it was very cold. We set up our tents, and ran back to the hot pool. After about five hours, we had to face reality and admit that we couldn’t stay in there all night, and went to camp.
Fearsome wind and rain during the night had left some of us slightly damp. After a morning spent back in the hut, warming up and cursing the group of Swedes who had booked it, we decided to leave this place, and get on with the holiday. We took the bus out at 1.30pm, and went to Selfoss.