A photo of Mt. Etna erupting on the front page of the paper was the cue for this trip. I saw the photo in the morning, and by the afternoon I’d booked my flight to Catania, at the foot of the mountain and persuaded two friends to come with me. We were young and naive and it’s amazing we even got to the airport given our extreme lack of planning. We didn’t even have a guidebook, but somehow this didn’t deter us at all. We started the trip with a flight to Catania via Milan which took us over the Alps.
Journey to Zafferana
Long walk in filthy weather
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.