Icing on the cake

Apr 12, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Icing on the cake

The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless.

Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that.

Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind began to drop and the lights got brighter.

We reached sea level at about 3am. I was beginning to get a tiny bit worried – my flight was leaving Keflavík at 8am and it was going to take a few more hours yet to reach Reykjavík. But if I missed my flight, then so be it. Right now I was just concerned with feeling awestruck. We stopped at Skógafoss, reinflated the tyres a bit more, and here the lights were stunning, flying overhead like curtains billowing in a colossal breeze.

We drove on, stopping in the middle of nowhere briefly to pick up some people whose car had broken down as they were trying to get to the volcano. The lights seemed brighter than I ever remembered them and at the end of a spectacular day of travelling, this was almost too much to take in. I was having a natural wonder overdose.

We headed on. The small hours grew larger, and I fell fast asleep. I woke as we approached Reykjavík, where we arrived at 5am. I had just enough time to brew a painfully strong coffee before heading back to the airport as the sun was rising. My weekend had been perilously close to turning into an appalling waste of time and money but we’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I could not have been happier as I headed back to the UK. Later it turned out that just a few hours after I’d been there, the Fimmvörðuháls eruption stopped. After a day of calm, a new and much bigger eruption started a few miles away, causing massive disruption to European air travel as a huge ash cloud drifted over the continent. Much as I’d have loved to see that, my timing was pretty good. If I hadn’t left when I did I might still be there now.

Snæfell is still calling me. I’ll be going back to Iceland before too long.

At the volcano

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

At the volcano

From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view.

It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.

I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.

Higher and higher

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Higher and higher

We climbed the road. Before too long there was snow on the ground around us. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before very long we were 700m above sea level. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up.

It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our way up the glacier, eventually reaching 1400m above sea level before heading down into the pass. We’d left Reykjavík at 4pm, and we’d hoped to reach the volcano by 8pm, but the journey continued. By 9pm the daylight was fading fast, and suddenly in the distance there was a vivid orange glow. Our luck was in.

Glacier convoy

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Glacier convoy

We passed Seljalandsfoss, and after a couple of hours we reached Hvolsvöllur. Seven vehicles were attempting the trip, and tiny Hvolsvöllur was briefly overrun by volcano tourists. I bought a coffee and weirdly spotted someone who I’d met in Greenland last year. I didn’t have time to say hello before we were back in the jeep and heading onwards. We reached a turning where a rough dirt track disappeared into the mist. Somewhere up in the clouds were the Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers, and in between the two, a split in the Earth’s crust from which molten rock was spurting. It hardly seemed possible.

We stopped to reduce the tyre pressures and coordinate the convoy, and then we headed uphill. Our route would take us high up onto the Myrdalsjökull, and then down into the pass.

South coast journey

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

South coast journey

Sunday morning dawned wild and rainy. It was beginning to look like my frivolous blowing of several hundred pounds was going to be in vain. My distant glimpse of the volcano from the plane might be my only sighting of it. Still, I hadn’t told anyone I was coming to Iceland as I felt that it might jinx the trip, so I could just not mention it.

I had time to kill. I was waiting for the phone call that would tell me if I could go to the volcano or not, and I stomped anxiously around town. The day seemed to drag on ridiculously, but eventually my phone rang. There was a chance, they told me, that there would be a break in the weather. Just a chance, and no guarantee of anything, but would I like to take the risk? I certainly would, I told them. I headed back to the hostel, and a vehicle appeared at 4.30pm. I met the driver, Árni, and my fellow travellers Diana from Portugal and two Swedes who lived in Algeria. We headed out of Reykjavík.

We stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts, and Árni said that this was our point of no return – if we quit the tour here we’d get our money back; if we went on and saw nothing, a not inconsiderable amount of money would have been wasted. None of us took the quitting option. We headed out of town. Soon we passed Hveragerði, where giant greenhouses with powerful artificial lights make the place look like a serious cannabis factory. Rain battered down. Quitting had never been an option but I was beginning to think I’d be very lucky to see anything.

A sudden return

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

A sudden return

Eight months ago, I’d stood outside Keflavík airport and seen the snow-capped cone of Snæfell, 70 miles away across Faxaflói. It was a clear sign, telling me that I would certainly return to Iceland. I felt that very strongly but I never expected to come back so soon. While I was in Belgrade I’d heard that a volcano had started erupting in the Fimmvörðuháls pass, close to where I’d been hiking. It was an impressive and easily accessible eruption. I couldn’t believe it had happened so soon after I was there and I felt annoyed that I wouldn’t see it. But then, the thought occurred to me that there was no reason why I shouldn’t go and see it. One Monday morning, with the eruption still going on, I decided to go back. I booked a flight for the Friday, and then spent an agonising four days hoping that the eruption wouldn’t stop, that the weather would be OK, and that I’d be able to see the eruption.

And so for the third time I got a late flight from Heathrow to Keflavík. I saw the northern lights from the plane window, the first time I’d seen them since my first trip to Iceland, and then I got a sudden, breathtaking glimpse of something red and pulsating far below. It could surely only be the volcano. By the time I’d grabbed my camera it had disappeared from view. I became furiously impatient as we slowly descended into Keflavík.

I got the usual bus into town, and felt an extreme sense of deja vu as I walked towards the city hostel. Last summer it had still been light and warm as I walked in to the city at midnight; this time the bus broke down on the way and we had to transfer to another one in a howling gale in the darkness. I got to the hostel and booked myself some transport to the volcano for the next afternoon.

The next day I walked around the city again. It was grim and rainy, and the signs didn’t look good. My trip for the afternoon was uncertain, and I couldn’t even book a trip for the Sunday. The forecast was for severe weather, and no-one was planning on making any trips. Eventually, I found one company who said they would consider doing a trip and I left them my number. I revisited a few of my favourite Reykjavík sights, and then spent the afternoon in a cafe where I ordered so many espressos that eventually they let me make my own. I was properly blazing when I heard the bad news that the trip to the volcano for the afternoon was cancelled. All my hopes were now on Sunday.

Still calling

Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Still calling

I got the bus back to the airport at 5am. I watched the Icelandic scenery in the morning sunshine, not really wanting to leave. At the airport, I checked in, and then walked outside the airport for one last look at the country. The airport car park did not seem likely to provide me with a nostalgic memory, but to my amazement, in the far distance, there again was Snæfell. My totem for this trip had shown itself once again. It was a sign, a clear and unmistakable sign that this would not be my last trip to Iceland. I was looking forward to the next one already.

Last day

Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Last day

As my bus rumbled in through the suburbs of the capital I spotted a sign that said the temperature was 28°C. I spent my last day in the city enjoying the incredible heat wave. I walked out to Seltjarnarnes, the tip of the peninsula that Reykjavík sits on. I wanted to go right to the end, but it’s a nesting place for thousands of very aggressive birds. I suddenly found myself in a Hitchcockian nightmare and had to beat a hasty retreat as terns and gulls started swooping at me.

I could see Snæfell across the bay again. The snowy peak rose from the waters and stood out sharply against the deep blue sky. Once I was out of range of the bird attacks I looked across the bay and wondered when I was going to go there.

There was not much left to do. I went to the Hallgrímskirkja and went up its tower, but it was covered in hoardings and the views were poor. I sat by the Tjörn for a while and looked back on another incredible trip. I watched the sun dip below the horizon at 11.30pm. And in the morning I packed up and left.

Þingvellir

Jul 12, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Þingvellir

I got a bus to Þingvellir. I’d wanted to go here last time but we hadn’t had time. I’d always thought it sounded like a pretty awesome place so I was looking forward to finally seeing it. It was a hot sunny day again, and Iceland was in a fantastic summery mood. We stopped in Laugarvatn and I bought an ice cream.

At Þingvellir the bus normally stops at the Hotel Valhöll, but startlingly the Hotel Valhöll had burned down the previous night. Emergency service cordons blocked the road. We took a detour and stopped at the national park service centre.

I went for a walk. The summery weather had changed a bit, and it was overcast. This was good. I’d always imagined that Þingvellir would be forbidding and atmospheric, and the hot sun didn’t really work for me. Under grey skies I liked the place a lot. I walked down huge chasms, finally reaching the site of the Alþingi. There was a sense of history. Here was where Iceland defined its nationality. Here was where the first settlers met each year to pass laws. And here was where two continents drifting apart were slowly tearing the country into two. Great chasms flanked either side of the sunken plain, across which a river flowed calmly.

The next day it was blazing sunshine again. I hiked back down the chasms but it wasn’t quite the same. I scaled a large rock face to get up onto the North American plate, and I looked across to Europe on the other side of the plains. The Öxará river fell into the gap, diverted into the plains by the early Norse to provide water for their assemblies. I relaxed in the sun until it was time to head, for the last time, back to Reykjavík.

Midnight geyser

Jul 11, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Midnight geyser

I stopped a night at Geysir. We’d stayed here ten years ago, and for some reason we’d copped out and stayed in the hotel. Not in proper rooms or anything, a cheapo dorm in the loft where we were allowed to lay our sleeping bags onto wooden boards, but still I’d have preferred to be outside. So this time I camped, and it was good to be here again.

It’s touristy here, very very touristy. Hundreds of people mill around during the day, and I found the sight of name-tagged travellers following guides with little flags very depressing. I amused myself by watching people fail to understand what geysers do. It was a breezy day, and every time Strokkur erupted, masses of hot steaming water would fall back onto the ground nearby, marking out a large wet streak stretching away from the geyser. To me it seemed obvious that standing there would make you get wet. It wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. I watched one guy standing right in the target zone. Strokkur erupted; he took lots of pictures; he realised he was about to get very wet; he turned and ran; he tripped and fell; he lay face down on the ground as tonnes of hot water fell on him.

In my malicious traveller-superiority state of mind, I chuckled inwardly. The guy got up and he was perfectly ok. He walked away, dripping but nonchalant, affecting a “that’s exactly what I expected to happen and I don’t feel stupid at all” attitude. But we all knew that he did.

Later in the evening, the place was empty. I went up to Strokkur at midnight and listened to the subterranean bumps and rumbles and watched some eruptions. I chatted to an Icelander there, who kept on predicting that the next eruption would be huge. “It always does a big one after three small eruptions”, he told me. “Um.. maybe after four small eruptions”, he claimed. The Icelander told me that his father had set up a ski-resort in the Kerlingarfjöll, a group of wild mountains near Hveravellir. We could see them in the distance from here. My guide book from 1997 mentioned the place but it had now closed down due to insufficient snow in the summer.

In the morning I walked up the hill. The views over the countryside seemed different to what I remembered ten years ago, somehow, but it was only when I compared photographs later on that I realised that the plains were now dotted with summer houses. There had not been a single one ten years before. Saplings had grown into trees, the hotel had expanded, paths had been built. I hate the changes that tourism forces on places, hypocritically imagining that somehow I’m not part of the reason for them.

Hveravellir

Jul 09, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Hveravellir

As we drove back to Reykjavík I saw the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast. Red Eldfell and green Helgafell looked familiar and I remembered the great times I’d had on Heimaey. I was tempted to go back but I had new places to go. I spent a night in Reykjavík, limping about with a foot injury that had suddenly flared up, and then I headed out into the interior again.

I got a bus across the Kjölur route to Hveravellir. It was an Icelandic nostalgia trip at first as we passed through Hveragerði and Selfoss, and then stopped at Geysir and Gulfoss. After that, we were into new territory for me. The tarmac stopped and we were in parts of Iceland that are only accessible for three months each year. We rumbled on. It was a sunny day and it was really hot inside the bus. The landscape was desert-like. We stopped a few times on the way at points of vague interest, and every time we did I was slightly shocked to get off the bus and feel cool air.

We got to Hveravellir in the early afternoon. There was not a cloud in the sky. I spoke to the guy in the small shop as I bought a coffee, and he said it had been like this for a week and didn’t look like it would change any time soon. I almost couldn’t believe him. In my Icelandic experience, stable weather for seven hours was almost unheard of, let alone seven days.

But he was right. It stayed awesome the whole time I was at Hveravellir. After the daytime visitors had gone, there were just a handful of campers left. I went to explore the hot springs. In the strangeness of an Arctic midnight, the twilight sky never faded to darkness and the landscape looked surreal. A full moon peeked above the horizon. The geysers here were all constantly bubbling. A mud geyser spurted intermittently, and I spent ages trying to photograph it before I finally caught an eruption.

I kind of fancied doing a long hike from here. I could have spent two or three days hiking to Hvítárvatn. But the strenuous bits of my trip were behind me, I only had a few days left, and I decided to relax a little bit. So I saw what I could at Hveravellir, relaxed in the sunshine of the arctic desert, and then headed back towards Reykjavík.

Nearing Þórsmörk

Jul 07, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Nearing Þórsmörk

I didn’t go back for it. On the other side of the river was something strange and astonishing, an Icelandic forest. I’d never seen one of these before and I felt like I was in a different country as I walked through the woods. An hour or so later I reached a sign saying Þórsmörk and I was nearly done.

I walked to Langidalur. My guide book said there was a shop here. There was but it was closed, and the place was more or less deserted. A vehicle had got stuck in one of the massive glacial rivers here and was being pulled out by a tractor, but otherwise nothing much was happening. I walked to Húsadalur, home valley, and it turned out this was where everything happens at Þórsmörk. I pitched my tent and rested my weary feet. I was done.

Landmannalaugar’s hot pool is one of my favourite places on the planet, and my guide book said there was a geothermal hot pool here as well. I’d been looking forward to it. In the end, it was massively disappointing – it was hardly warm at all and far from spending hours in there recovering, I spent about five minutes in there shivering before I could take no more.

Instead, I went for a walk. In the late evening, when all was quiet, I walked to the Krossá. I sat and watched the raging glacial torrent carving its way through the Icelandic landscape. It was cloudy and gloomy and atmospheric. I’d finally made it to Þórsmörk. I’d considered pushing on over the Fimmvörðuháls pass to Skógar, another day or two’s walking, but my time was not unlimited and there were other places I wanted to see. I decided my hike was over, and in the morning I headed back to Reykjavík.

On the trail

Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

On the trail

I left Emstrur early. I had just a few hours to go to finish the job I’d started ten years before, and I was in a good mood. The trail started with a steep descent, so steep that it required a little bit of abseiling, using a handily-placed rope. A bridge crossed the Ytri-Emstruá river, and then the trail reached the point where that and the Markarfljót joined. One was dark grey and the other was light grey, and the different shades flowed side by side.

I followed the course of the Markarfljót. The trail was flat, it was warm and sunny, and I made fast progress. Then the trail turned steeply upwards for a while, and the views got more and more amazing the higher I got. I reached a ridge, and far below I could see what looked like a modest river. The path dropped down towards it, and the closer I got, the more I could see how much I’d underestimated it. By the time I got to its banks I could see it was not going to be easy.

I was glad to meet a couple of Dutch hikers who had just crossed. If I fell and was swept away to a grim death, at least someone would know. They had found a decent place to cross, and they shouted back across the raging torrent to direct me. They also threw me a pair of flip-flops – until now I’d just crossed all the rivers barefoot. I tied everything to my pack and ploughed into the waters.

The rivers until now had been ankle-deep at worst but this one was over my knees straight away. In the middle it was up to my hips and the current was pushing me downstream. A slip would have been disastrous but luckily I made it across. I thanked the Dutch couple and gave them back their flip-flops. Then I realised I’d left one of my socks on the other side of the river.

Wild parts

Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Wild parts

When I got up the next morning it was raining hard. I spoke to the warden at the hut, and he reckoned it would start to clear in a couple of hours. So I waited before setting off. I tried to write my journal but my hands were too cold, so I wandered along the lake as the drizzle eased off.

The warden was right. After a couple of hours it was no longer raining, so I set off. The going was much easier than yesterday, and I set a furious pace again. Having started late, I found there were quite a few people on the trail in front of me. After a steep climb down to a bridge over a wild river, I found a huge dusty expanse in front of me, with five or six groups of hikers strung out across it. I like targets when I’m doing things like this, and I chased them down during the day.

The trail crossed a few more rivers. They were all brutally cold but not too difficult to cross. They were quite welcome, amid the desert-like scenery. Grey dust blew about, and there was hardly any vegetation or colour to be seen. The skies matched the ground, a uniform slate grey as far as I could see.

Later on it got less forbidding. A vivid green mountain came into view, looking to me like it could be the crazy home of some Norse god. On this part of the trek I could easily see why Icelandic folk tales have it that every other rock in the highlands is home to a spirit or goblin of some sort.

Eventually I crested a rise and found the Emstrur hut beneath me. I was two thirds of the way to the end.

Over the pass

Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Over the pass

I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out.

Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk.

Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.

Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.

Better already

Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Better already

Early the next morning I got up and left. The word yesterday had been the the wardens would try to stop anyone setting off who didn’t have a GPS system, the weather was that bad. I didn’t have a GPS; I just had a map, a compass, three days of supplies and a wild desire to trek. So I looked shiftily about, saw no wardens, and hurried onto the trail.

I set a blazing pace. The early part of the trail was extremely familiar and I felt like I remembered every footstep as I crossed an old lava flow, to a heavenly meadow on the other side where I remembered thinking it would be awesome to camp. In 40 minutes, I was at the ignominious spot. I passed the spirits of three defeated youths, reluctantly picking up their too-heavy packs to trudge back to the hut. I gave a thought to my younger self and pushed on into unknown parts.

The trail climbed. Soon I had incredible views over ancient lava fields and hills coloured red and green and all sorts of colours that rocks normally aren’t. I passed Stórihver, a hole in the rocks which belched out jets of steaming water, and soon reached places where snow lay on the ground. Higher and higher the trail went, and eventually I reached the clouds. Cairns marked the route but occasionally I had to wait for a few minutes for a break in the thick fog to show me the way ahead. I slogged across what seemed like a huge snowy plateau, cairn by cairn, and the cloud was so thick that I almost walked into the Hrafntinnusker hut before I saw it.

Unfinished business

Jul 04, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Unfinished business

I’d been here before. Ten years ago, we planned to hike the legendary Laugavegur, a three day crossing of some of Iceland’s wildest scenery. We’d given up after a matter of a couple of hours, not through any desire of mine but because my two travelling companions didn’t fancy it. In retrospect I could see we would have had a miserable time if we’d carried on but still I left with a powerful sense of unfinished business. If there was one thing I wanted to do on this trip, it was to finish the job.

So I got an early morning bus to Landmannalaugar. Even if the hike had been a failure, Landmannalaugar had been one of my favourite places in Iceland. The weather was unremittingly foul and bleak and that only made me like it more. The sombre mountains just seemed so atmospheric and wild to me then. Wallowing in nostalgia, I listened to 7:30 by the Frank and Walters as we rumbled along the Fjallabak road to the back of beyond.

It was almost like I’d just rewound ten years. Rain was battering down on Landmannalaugar, which looked as familiar as if I’d been there yesterday. I really, really didn’t fancy camping – our night here on the gravelly campground had been horrible. So I went to see if I could get into the warm dry hut. By great good fortune I happened to reach the warden’s hut at the same time as some people who had one more reservation than they needed. I gladly took it off their hands. And then I made straight for the most heavenly location on Earth, the hot pool. Bathing in hot volcanic waters in the remote hinterlands of Iceland while it rains steadily is just too awesome to describe.

Back in Reykjavík

Jul 03, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Back in Reykjavík

I got up the next morning to find thick fog enshrouding Kulusuk. As I packed up my tent, I heard the plane from Reykjavík approaching, but I couldn’t see it. Then suddenly it passed breathtakingly low over my campsite. I saw the dark shape and heard a huge roar, but not long afterwards, I heard it again much higher.

I packed up and walked across the tundra to the airport. The fog was still thick, the plane had still not landed, and there was an air of slight tension. It had been circling for more than an hour by the time it landed, and there was relief in the airport as it finally pulled up at the terminal. The most relieved people were a huge group of Greenlandic children, who were clearly going on a big trip to Iceland. We all boarded, the Greenlanders were waved off by their families and I looked back at the snowy landscape and bade farewell to this incredible place.

Barely two hours later, we were back in Reykjavík. Coming from London, Iceland feels pretty remote. Coming from Greenland, I had the sense that I’d crossed an enormous but invisible boundary, leaving behind a place where humans lived on the brink, where there were no towns or villages, really, but just houses on a landscape, and returning to somewhere safe, serene and blessed. Greenland is closer to Iceland than London is, in terms of distance, but on a scale of human experience, Iceland is far, far closer to London than it is to Greenland.

In the evening it was sunny and warm. I walked by the harbour. Ten years ago we’d been slapped about by a violent sea wind walking along here, but today it was calm, and people cycled, ran and walked along the bayside path. As I walked, I noticed a dim grey triangle on the horizon to the north where the sun was getting low in the sky. It could only be Snæfell, 75 miles away across the bay. Seeing it from this far away seemed to me to be a good omen for the next part of my trip: to hike the Laugavegur.

Epilogue

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.

A spot of intense rigour

Sep 03, 1999 in Iceland 1999

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.

Blowing hot and cold

Sep 02, 1999 in Iceland 1999

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.

Mad Viking berserker bus driver

Aug 31, 1999 in Iceland 1999

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.

Onward and upward

Aug 30, 1999 in Iceland 1999

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.

Back at the lake

Aug 29, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Back at the lake

We returned to Mývatn for a day, filling our time with a walk around the east side of the lake. We passed the eerie fissure Grjotagjá, which is filled with very hot water. It’s in an underground cavern, and thin shafts of sunlight from above show the steam rising from the surface of the pool. It used to be a good temperature for swimming, but soon after the most recent eruptions at Krafla began, it heated up to over 60° C.

From Grjotagjá, we walked to Hverfjall, another big crater, this one made entirely of loose gravely rock. It takes a good amount of exertion to climb up the slope as it gives way beneath you. It certainly brings home the meaning of ‘one step up, two steps down’. The crater has no lake inside, instead exhibiting a large central mound. Although you are prohibited from walking down into the crater, the mound in the middle is covered in ridiculous graffiti, of the “Colchester boys woz ere, 5/4/95″ variety.

After the exertion of climbing this slagheap of a crater, and facing fearsome winds at the top, this was something of a letdown. But not to be deterred, we walked round the rim and down the other side, and on through Dimmuborgir, an amazing lava formation. Several thousand years ago, a huge lava lake formed here. After cooling down for some time, and partially solidifying, an ancient lava flow that had been damming it gave way, allowing the liquid left to pour out. Left behind were many hundreds of towers of contorted lava. Natural arches and caves abound, and many fascinating trails can be followed.

We wandered through Dimmuborgir for a while, then walked back to our campsite by the lake shore. Here we saw a quite fabulous sunset, which bathed the hills and houses in a gorgeous orange glow. The sun sank beneath the opposite shore of the lake leaving behind a burning sky, which was mirrored in the rippling waters of Mývatn. However, the feelings of deep humanity this inspired in us were quickly dispersed by the arrival of the midges, and we repaired to the tents in a hurry, ready for an early rise the next day.

Where?

Aug 28, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Where?

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.

Krafla

Aug 24, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Krafla

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…

Midges…

Aug 23, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Midges...

Mývatn means ‘Midge Lake’, and it’s not wrong. We arrived on a calm day, not too long after sunset, and as soon as we got off the bus, we were engulfed. During the half-mile walk between the bus stop and our campsite, we were nearly driven insane by the things. We dived into a petrol station half way there, and were horrified to see dead midges inch-thick on the window ledges. Flapping wildly, we rushed for the campsite.

We soon made the happy discovery that they don’t stay out at night. With some relief, we set up camp in the cool fresh air of northern Iceland. The sky never got completely dark at Mývatn, with a sort of late twilight glow hanging over the northern horizon throughout the night. At around midnight, as I looked at the stars overhead, I saw what I thought was a high cloud still lit by the Sun. But as I watched it changed shape rapidly, and I realised that it was the northern lights. As we watched, the lights drifted around overhead, shapeless and eerie. We were very happy to have seen the aurorae on our first clear night, and we hoped that we’d get more clear nights and see them again.

We woke up on day 3 to the sound of waves lapping on the shores of Mývatn, and what sounded like rain. We looked out of the tents, and found that it was a sunny day. The noise was in fact the noise of a thousand midge/canvas collisions. Despite this threat to our skin and sanity, we set off for our first real destination – Dettifoss.

Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The bus dropped us off about a mile from the falls, and almost as soon as we got out, we could see the spray. About half a mile from it, we heard the roar. The first sight of it is awesome. A raging torrent of meltwater from the Vatnajökull icecap, far off to the south, plunges over a 44m precipice into a canyon below. All around are huge columns of rock, formed when lava cools very slowly, and almost everything – water, rock, and due to dust and wind, us as well – is grey. It felt like another planet.

We were fortunate that the sun was shining again, because when it does, a permanent double rainbow hangs in the spray above the canyon. We burned film at a considerable rate while we were there. All too soon, though, it was time to return to the bus, and once again endure the ridiculously bumpy journey through intermittent dust storms to what passes for civilization in the north of Iceland, a region where individual houses show up on a map of the entire country.

It’s a long way to Akureyri

Aug 22, 1999 in Iceland 1999

It's a long way to Akureyri

We arrived in Iceland at about 1.30am. It’s not a very convenient time to arrive in a country, really, but our flight had been late taking off because of storms in Reykjavík. There were no signs of any storms when we arrived, though, and we were off the plane, out of the airport and on our way into the city centre within half an hour.

And so we found ourselves in Iceland’s famously hedonistic capital at 2.30am on a Friday night. We appeared to be the only sober people in the whole city, and as we wandered around with our backpacks trying to find a place to stay, a car load of fabulously beautiful Icelandic women kerb-crawled us, screamed unintelligibly and then drove off. Eventually we found our way to a campsite, set up our tents with daylight beginning to appear, and grabbed a few hours of sleep.

We got up early the next day, and paid BSÍ, the Icelandic bus service, a call to buy our ‘hringmiði’ bus tickets with which we could travel around the outside of the country. The bus ticket seemed like good value, but then we went to a supermarket, to encounter for the first time the abject horror of having to pay £2 for a loaf of bread. Fresh fruit turned out to be considerably beyond our means, although caviare, bizarrely, was not. So after a frankly ludicrous dinner of caviare on toast, we went to bed, ready to be on our way at 6am the next day.

The weather on our day in Reykjavík had been nothing less than utterly miserable. Imagine the grimmest of grim British winter days, and it was a bit worse than that. We were very relieved that within half an hour of our bus leaving Reykjavík on day 2, the clouds were breaking up, and blue sky was visible for the first time. By the time we were an hour out of Reykjavík, it was a cool but sunny day.

The scenery on the road to Akureyri was amazing, and we took many photos as we passed at least 30 dramatic waterfalls, jagged mountains, and the Arctic coast of Iceland. By the time we reached Akureyri, six hours from Reykjavík, it was a pleasant and sunny 22°C.

We whiled away the five and a half hours before our onward connection came by basking in the pleasant sunshine and throwing stones into the Arctic Ocean. We’d temporarily left Iceland’s grim climate behind: the north and east of the country suffer from the worst winters, but they are often sunny in summer. So although we were only 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle, we slapped on the sun block and enjoyed it while it lasted.

Our bus from Akureyri to Reykjahlíð took us past some more great scenery, and an amazing sunset made it all the more memorable. We were all in really great moods by the time we got to Mývatn. They didn’t last…

Iceland Expedition

Aug 21, 1999 in Iceland 1999

On August 21st, 1999, three intrepid young explorers began a journey that would take them through some of Europe’s wildest and remotest areas. Aided generously by the University of London Convocation Trust, University College London and the Friends of UCL, they spent a month exploring and photographing the volcanoes, geysers and waterfalls of Iceland. Here you can find a detailed account of the expedition, and a few of the many photographs taken by the expedition members.

About the trip

The participants

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Roger

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George

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John

Roger Wesson

The leader of the group: he took charge of the planning, the grant applications, the day-to-day movements on the trip, the post-trip reports, and this remarkable website. Only slightly egotistical. He won the Explorer’s Beard contest by a considerable margin.

George Payne

George tried hard to usurp Wesson’s expeditional throne, claiming that he was the better mapreader. The sight of George wandering the streets of Heimaey with a map of Landmannalaugar in his map pocket did not inspire confidence in this claim. George came a distant second in the Explorer’s Beard contest.

John Carter

John was, on numerous occasions, the pacifying voice in the fearsome arguments that occurred regularly throughout the trip. Thanks to, or perhaps in spite of, John’s interventions, no blows were exchanged. John’s most admirable act of the trip was to donate by proxy a can of tuna to a baby puffin. He dropped out on day 3 of the Explorer’s Beard Contest.

Acknowledgements

First and foremost, we would like to thank the University of London Convocation Trust, University College London and the Friends of UCL. Without their very generous support, this expedition could not have taken place. The expedition members remain extremely grateful.

We are also grateful to those who helped us in the planning of the trip: the Lonely Planet Guide, the Icelandic Tourist Board, STA Travel, BSÍ, Icelandair, Omega Travel, and many many others.

Finally, all the friendly people we met along the way: everyone who sold us hot dogs, which kept morale up during some trying times; the folk at BSÍ for providing a shelter from some nasty weather; the warden at Landmannalaugar, for throwing us out of his mountain hut with a sense of humour; Anthony the baby puffin, for eating John’s tuna; and our cheap plastic bottles of bad whiskey – great friends in times of great hardship.