A trip to see the Eyjafallajökull eruption
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.
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.
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.
We climbed the road. Árni's GPS told us how high we were going, and before too long we were 700m above sea level, and there was snow on the ground around us. 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.
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.
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.