Around Iceland by bus and boat
Saturday, August 21st 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Friday, September 17th 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.