Descend into the crater of Snaffells Jökull
over which the shadow of Scataris falls,
Before the kalends of July, bold traveller,
And you will reach the centre of the Earth.
I have done this...
It all began, in the dim and distant past, in 1990 when the original idea was born to go to Iceland for a spot of walking & caving. Eventually, after the Iceland Saga of 1992 when I broke my leg, I finally managed to get together another team and set off in July with two Germans - one of whom I'd previously met in Slovenija a couple of years ago.
The plan was to fly to Akureyri in the north and then travel in a clockwise direction around the island, staying in different places for varying lengths of time.
We flew from Glasgow to Keflavík, about 30 miles from Reykjavík on 18 July and from there flew to Akureyri in the north. Looking at my ticket, I noticed that I was in seat 1B. "Hell," I said. "I'm flying the bugger!" We were told to wait in the departure area and the pilot would come to collect us. Sure enough, after a while, a plane pulled up at the door and the pilot came in and announced that he was ready for us! It was like an Airfix model - too low to stand in and the air conditioning system was a series of ventilators in the fuselage! Each seat had a copy of an Akureyri newspaper on it. Flicking through, what did I see but a cartoon of 'Hagar the Horrible' translated into Icelandic!
Iceland is probably the youngest country in the world - indeed it is still forming. It is, for this reason, pretty unique. Nowhere else can you experience the forces of glaciers and volcanoes in one small area. Iceland covers an area of about 103,000 sq. Km and has a population of only 25,000. The majority of these live in Reykjavik, so the country is obviously very sparsely populated.
Icelandic is probably the most original of the Scandinavian languages and has changed little from that of the Vikings. As well as the normal 26 alphabetic characters, Icelandic has two of it's own - Ð or ð (pronounced as in THem) and Þ or þ pronounced as in THing). They have also banned the import of horses over the centuries and the Icelandic horse is pure bred back to the time of settlement, some 1100 years ago. It is believed to be as close to the original Viking horse as possible and is quite strange to look at. It is a very small and muscular animal with a long bushy main.
After an uneventful first night in Akureyri, the intention was to go to Húsavík on the north coast. Unfortunately, after a look at the bus timetable, I realised that the bus went on Monday and Friday - not Monday to Friday as I had previously thought! As today was Wednesday we spent most of the day lounging about in the town outdoor swimming pool. The temperature outside was only 7º but, as all the hot water on Iceland is geothermically heated, the pool was great. As well as the main pool, there were 3 or 4 'Hot Pots' - small pools with constant temperatures ranging from 31º - 43º. They ought to have something like this in Yorkshire!
The first thing we noticed about the camp site the next morning was that the toilet/shower block stank of sulphur. We later found out that all the hot water on Iceland does to some degree (although I'd say that the Mývatn area smelt the strongest - especially when the wind blew from the east).
Our first walk was to Hliðarfjall, a mountain a few miles NE of Reykjahlið. Setting off past the church along the Langahlið track past the airfield (a flat area on the lava) there were good views across the Eldhraun lava fields with patches of Arctic flowers - quite surprising to see. What was also surprising was that there was a good path. I had expected the routes to be across 'bare' country with no paths as such. The weather was cloudy and cold, but at least it was dry, so we thought ourselves lucky and continued towards the mist-shrouded peak of Hliðarfjall. As we reached Hliðarfjall, there were still several snow patches about so, as the clouds were too low to walk up the fell, we set off towards the furthest one we could see, had a look around and then set off back.
We walked back across the Eldá lava flow (literally 'fire river'). This lava was erupted from Leirhnúkur, 10 Km away, in 1729. The eruption lasted for 2 years and sent streams of lava towards Reykjahlið, destroying everything in its path until reaching the church at which point it diverged and flowed on to the lake! The locals, predictably, proclaimed this as a miracle. There are two types of lava on Iceland - Apalhraun and Helluhraun. The former is the type found in this area, sharp & jagged and very difficult to walk on. The second type is level & smooth and hard on the feet. On the way back to Reykjahlið, we passed several short lava caves - none of them all that interesting. Although the camp site was very crowded (mostly with Germans!) the area we were walking in was deserted - in 4-5 hours we only saw 2 other people and that was when we got to within a couple of hundred yards of the village!
That evening saw my introduction to the culinary delights I was to enjoy for the next few days. Firstly, the fuel I'd bought for my Trangia was useless. I know that Iceland has strict alcohol laws and that the only beer easily available is low alcohol swill, but I didn't realise that the same laws applied to Meths. Cooking with 2.25% alcohol is no joke! The Germans offered me a meal with them.
"We have brought enough food for all but one meal", they said.
No wonder their rucksacks were so heavy! So I settled for a plate of dehydrated food & smash. It wasn't bad, I suppose.
The next morning it was raining, so the Germans stayed in the tent all day. It wasn't raining that hard so I decided to go to find Stóragjá, mentioned in the guide book. Stóragjá is a warm water pool hidden in a rift on the edge of the village. After a bit of searching, I found a set of steps leading down into the rift. The pool was in a cleft and you had to lower yourself in on the end of a fixed chain. The temperature was great! Just then, I was joined by an Icelander, Guðmundur and two Americans. He said they were going to some more caves, Grjótagjá and would I like a lift with them?
Grjótagjá is actually an underground river at about 60º, way too hot to bathe in, but - up to about 10 years ago - it was once used as a communal swimming pool. There were 3 chambers, one for men, one for women and an hidden one in the middle which the attendants kept for themselves. This was a fantastic place - the ground was steaming everywhere. Just to the south, an enormous volcanic crater - Hverfjall - rose from the lava plains. What a sight.
Another really good walk in the Mývatn area was to Námafjall, just to the east of Reykjahlið. The day we did this, the weather had changed completely and we were walking in just T-shirts & shorts. Walking along the road, it was difficult to believe that we were on Iceland's number 1 highway. The road was like a compacted farmer's field! JCBs were everywhere and it looked as though they were trying to turn it into a motor way! We were later told that they're trying to bring it up to European standards - they have a long way to go!
After a mile or so, we reached the Diatomite plant at Bjarnarflag. The Mývatn bed consists of a layer of diatoms several feet thick. These are processed at Bjarnarflag and used as filler in things like toothpaste. It is also a hot temperature area and the natural heat is used to bake the local lava bread, Hverabrauð. It is actually baked in the ground and is akin to malt loaf. Beside the factory is a wonderful green-blue lake with steam rising from it and an awful smell of sulphur. Nearby are some bore-holes drilled to see if it would be feasible to build a geothermal power station in the area. One of these is about 2300 metres deep and emits steam at 200º C!
Back on the road at Námaskarð we set off up the track to Námafjall, passing an area of sulphur beds and boiling mud pools on the right. The name means 'Mine Mountain' and comes from the 17th century sulphur mining in the area. It was unreal - like something from another planet. The view from the top was amazing with excellent views for miles around, including Hliðarfjall - without the clouds.
To the east of Námafjall is an area of mud pots, fumeroles and geysirs - Hverarönd. The route down was extremely steep. Hverarönd is a large open area, pastel brown in colour, with a large number of just about every hot-area feature imaginable. The temperature of these features is about 80º - 100º, not a good place for a mud bath! The place was awash with tourists on the whirlwind bus trips of the area. The most amusing sight had to be their feet - everyone was wearing carrier bags over their shoes to keep them clean!!
Within a few minutes, everyone had gone and we had a chance to have a good look around. The ground around the features is much lighter in colour than the rest of the area - this is because the earth's crust is only a matter of inches thick at these points. The most interesting (?) areas were cordoned off to stop people falling through the ground - OUCH! After a look around, we set off back to the camp site for a spot of sunbathing.
While we were at Mývatn, I started to teach the Germans the words to Ilkla' Moor ba' t'at. They were doing quite well, as well, until the neighbours complained!
Our last walk in this area was to the volcano Hverfjall. Walking past Stóragjá to Grjótagjá, we passed through a wooded area. Before we left for Iceland, everyone told me that the thing I would notice most was the lack of trees. Well, the wood we were in took us about an hour or so to get through, but there aren't, admittedly, all that many areas like this on the island. After leaving the trees, the path crosses a wide stretch of helluhraun lava until reaching Grjótagjá.
Here, once more, there were dozens of tourists - all on busses. Everyone was looking in the men's cave, so I went to photograph the women's which was totally empty. Leaving the caves, we set off across the lava to the imposing mass of Hverfjall (Fire Mountain). At the top, the crater measures a massive 1.2 Km across. It is possible to walk down into the crater, the floor of which is covered with names written in stones. What a view!
We walked along the rim of the crater and down the other side - just a loose slope of volcanic sand - down to Dimmuborgir, an over-rated area of naturally shaped lava. It's a bit like a bigger version of Brimham Rocks. Looking back at Hverfjall, it reminded me of an enormous slag heap - I'd hate to see the pits around here!
One of the days, we took a bus to Húsavík, a town on the north coast. What a setting! The air is so clear on Iceland that visibility is fantastic. Grimsey, an island divided by the Arctic Circle, was just visible on the horizon. The town is on the right bank of a fjord. The left bank was lined with snow covered mountains and the right bank could have been lifted straight out of the Dales! We went for a walk to the hill behind the town, Húsavíkurfjall and then took a walk to a lake nearby, Botsvatn. The lake was also in a wonderful setting but we were plagued by flies. It was here that a young Icelandic boy - about 8 years old - turned up on his bike. After a brief paddle in the lake he changed into his trunks, got on his bike and proceeded to ride through the middle of the lake! The water only came half way up his wheels and he was loving every minute of it.
We also booked onto the 'Dettifoss Super Tour' of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, north-east of Mývatn. I was a bit worried about going on a sight-seeing tour, as I'd seen the 50-odd seater coaches carrying the American tourists everywhere. However, our bus turned out to be a 15 seater home made 4 wheel drive off-roader. Our guide was Stefan and our driver was Þikki (or something - think about the pronunciation!)
We set off in the direction of the volcano Krafla and then left the road to head straight across the 'new' lava, with good views of Leirnúkur which is still active. The last eruption here was as recent as 1984. Continuing off road to Gjástikki, we set off on a short walk over the new lava, the site of quite a few caves. This was lunar! Rhyolitic mountains surrounded the area and the idea of a tour with walking added to the appeal. There were some deep shafts and fissures in the lava - when stones were dropped into one of these, no sound of landing could be heard!
We then continued across a long stretch of older lava to Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Iceland. At 44 meters high, the water flows over the falls at a rate of 500 cubic meters per second! The spray is amazing. The river which flows here is the Jökulsá á Fjöllum (glacial river of the mountains) which flows from Kverkfjöll, at the northern edge of the Vatnajökull - the world's third largest glacier.
After a couple of short stops at other waterfalls in the gorge, we went to Hljóðarklettar (Echo Rocks). Here, the river flows through a valley, rather than a gorge and the cliffs are made up of multitudes of hexagonal shaped segments of rock. In the corner was what Steþan called the 'Stairway to Heaven'. The rocks appeared to form a steep and tightly spiralling staircase. Rumour has it that - if your faith is strong enough - you can climb to the top. None of us had that much faith - at least not without a rope!
The last place in Jökulsárgljúfur that we visited on the tour was Ásbyrgi, a gorge much akin to Malham Cove - only much, much bigger. Geologists say that this gorge was formed when the Grímsvötn volcano erupted beneath Vatnajökull and sent an almighty flood pulse along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum, opening up the gorge in a matter of 2 days! The river later changed course and started to flow along its present course, via Dettifoss.
An alternative explanation as to how Ásbyrgi was formed is that Oðinn's six-legged flying horse, Slaettur, accidentally put his foot down one day whilst passing over - so forming the horseshoe-shaped gorge! Sounds feasible.
At this point we decided that we'd spent enough time in the north so, after a night at Egilsstaðir in the east, we set off around the Eastern Fjords to Höfn. As we'd been told, the weather and scenery changed considerably along the coast.. Egilsstaðir had been scorching and now the clouds were getting nearer and much more impressive. The mountains were closing in and the view was remarkably like Scotland.
We then continued to a hill called Sjónarsker which is fitted with a view disk. Most of Skaftafellsheiði (heath) was under cloud, so we just stayed at the lower levels and continued eastwards across some quite boggy ground, past the triple falls of Skaðafoss to Sjónípa. Here we found ourselves on a spit overlooking Skaftafellsjökull, with clouded views of the mountains Hafrafell and Svínafell, along with Svínafellsjökull itself. We also commanded good views across the Sandur to the south and could see the massive glacial rivers Skaftafellsá and Skeiðará. I must admit to being a bit disappointed with this area. I had hoped for good views of Vatnajökull itself, but the only glaciers visible were the valley glaciers, which are very dirty.
The only other walk we did in Skaftafell was to Morsádalur, to the west. Once again, we had to climb up onto Skaftafellsheiði and then head west. As we walked across the moor, there were some cracking views across the Morsá valley. There are two points of interest in Morsádalur. Baerstaðaskógur is a wooded area virtually opposite the point of entry to the dale and Kjós is a valley at the northern end of the dale, near the glacier itself. We'd said that we'd walk to Baerstaðaskógur as the weather looked a bit overcast but as we approached Morsádalur, the sky started to brighten considerably so I suggested that we have a walk to Kjós, as well. The Germans didn't like this idea at all as it meant a change to their strictly rigid 'tour plan'. One of them then decided that he would only talk to me in German and this was probably the point when I decided to go to Kjós anyway, with or without them.
Once in the valley bottom, we stopped at the river bridge for a spot of lunch and then set off across the sandur (glacial outwash plains) for Baerstaðaskógur. The Icelandic air is so clear it's unreal. Visibility was so good that distances were often being underestimated. The river bed at this point must have been at least 1 - 1½ miles across. Walking first across the sandur and then into an area of lush vegetation, it was very strange to experience the diversity of scenery on this island. We reached Baerstaðaskógur and set off southwards, across a couple of becks, to Vestragil where the stream flowed through one of the best settings I've seen anywhere. We followed Vestragil upstream with Jökulfell on the left and Stóri-Bláhnúkur towering in front of us and to the right the stream was flanked by woods.
After an hour or so here, the Germans returned from their walk and decided that, as the weather was so nice now, we should maybe follow the valley north to Kjós? So we set off up the dale in a seemingly endless journey to Kjós. We could see the start of the valley, at the head of the dale, but we never seemed to get any closer. We eventually reached it after about 1¼ walk from Baerstaðaskógur.
The valley floor at this point was composed of white pebbles with the occasional piece of coloured stone. Many rivulets had to be crossed as we entered the Kjós valley. The colourful mountains loomed over us, now swathed in a layer of cloud. Reaching a double waterfall on the right, we stopped for a bite to eat and then decided to set off back as the weather was starting to close in a bit. We arrived back at the campsite just before it started to rain. What timing! This had been a great day's walking - despite the forcasted rain and gale force winds. We'd been walking for about 8-9 hours and I decided that I needed a shower. What a shock I got when I found out that it was about £1.80 for 5 minutes of hot water! This was about 3½ times the price of other campsites we'd been to - I suppose this is what happens when you stay in a national park.
Arriving at the Landmannalaugar camp site, I realised that this was the Iceland that I'd really come to see. Set in a wide basin, the site was surrounded by multicoloured rhyolite mountains. Steam rose from the hot stream in the corner of the campsite and the situation was about as idyllic as you could possibly get. The ground was mostly solid rock with the odd patch of spaghnum moss, adding sparse greenery. I chose a solid piece of ground too hard to place the tent pegs, so instead I simply weighted the tent down with rocks placed around for this purpose. The Germans, on the other hand, found a softer area of 'grass'. The next morning, they asked me, "Is your tent wet inside, as well?" Laugh... Some would call it poetic!
But hell, this place was cold! There was a strong wind bringing the temperatures plummeting to near zero. I was wearing my Helly top, T shirt, shirt, woolly jersey, fleece and my kag - and I was still cold!
Two streams flow into Landmannalaugar - one hot and one cold. Where they join is perfect. A natural flower-banked beck with a small cascade of warm water, backed by a cliff of lava and surrounded by rhyolitic formations was steaming, so I couldn't resist the temptation to go in for long. The Icelandic Touring and Camping Club have built a platform on the side of the bank with some rails to hang your clothes on and several people were already in the water. It wasn't very deep - perhaps about a foot or so - but the temperature was amazing and the water was crystal clear. Disturbing the bed, bubbles of warm water rose to massage you - it was an excellent bidet! There were more people watching than were in the water - I never thought of bathing as being a spectator sport!
Unlike the other places we'd visited on our journey, Landmannalaugar hasn't been developed in any way other than the building of the campsite. There were no paths as such, so the way here was just to say "Let's walk to that mountain today". Our first such walk was up the valley of Stóra Brandsgil behind the campsite
Brandsgil starts as a wide valley beneath the towering mountain of Blahnúkur. The stream was once more formed of several rivulets which had to be continuously crossed. Much rock-hopping was undertaken on the journey up stream. We passed Litla Brandsgil on the left and continued through a natural doorway into a narrower, faster-flowing section of the ravine. Several snow plugs had to be negotiated, where the stream had worn a cave through the ice. The colours in the mountains are magnificent in this area, formed through volcanic compression of the rock which has resulted in the structure of the rock being altered. Bands of red, blue, orange, yellow and purple can be seen in the mountainside. At the head of the gorge, the two Germans decided to climb a precarious-looking scree slope so I went to take a look at Litla Brandsgil - much the same as the main stream, but smaller.
On the way back to camp, I decided to have a walk up Blahnúkur, the mountain which hovers above the camp site. The route up was steep and pretty loose so, arriving at 'the top' - only to find that I was actually on a ridge leading up to the summit proper - I slid my way back down after a short stop to admire the view across the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. There were excellent views across the lava field to the west of the camp site, of the campsite area with the river flowing through and up the valleys of Jökulgil and Brandsgil. Beyond the camp site, there was the pure blue lake of Frostastaðavatn with the clear sunny weather giving excellent views for miles across the interior.
That night the wind picked up...and it rained...and the wind got stronger. By the time morning came, the wind had died down but all the tops were under cloud, so we decided to walk along the road to Frostastaðavatn. We went on a short detour up a nearby volcano as the weather started to lift. After a look at the map, we set off across Norðurnámur towards Tjorvafell with very good views across the volcanic crater of Ljótipollen. The only route down to the valley bottom was down a very steep and loose slope of gravel and volcanic clinker. Traversing the gravel was fine - your feet sank in. The lava was another matter altogether. It was so hard and loose that it was like walking on ball bearings!
We followed the valley bottom around the edge of a lava field and across a boggy area until we reached the road we'd just been on and then dropped down to the river below and followed that to the campsite. The plains of Ljótipollen are enormous. This caldera must be many miles across.
Once in Reykjavik, I was no longer restricted to staying with the Germans because of combined bus tickets, etc. So when they went to the swimming baths for the day, I took a walk to the botanical gardens and the park land behind the camp site. The gardens are pretty good and are a nice change after 3 weeks away from everything. They contain a reconstruction of The Springs, where the Reykjavik women used to do all their washing , with some interesting boards explaining the use of the naturally-heated water through the years. This was possibly one of the best afternoons of all. I was actually on my own for once. No singing, no whistling, no spitting at the ducks... Sheer bliss!
The rest of our time in Reykjavik was spent looking at buildings - mostly closed, as we'd arrived on the Vestmannaeyjar bank holiday weekend when most people were getting extremely drunk on the Westman Islands, south of Reykjavik.
Well, it certainly took a long time to get there, with a full 5 years of planning, but I made it. Over a period of 3 weeks there, we only had a couple of bad days. Indeed, most of the time I wore only T-shirt and shorts - I actually came back with a better tan than I've ever had in the Mediterranean countries!
Iceland is a very expensive place to visit - prices are generally about 3 times those in England. However, considering the price of supermarket food, restaurant prices are not bad - so long as alcohol is given a very wide birth. The only stuff available in supermarkets is 2.25% swill jokingly called 'Pilsner'! If you go into a restaurant, there are two domestic strong beers at over 5% - but these will cost anything from £3 to £5 for a 33cl bottle! Ouch! The local spirit is Brennivín, a schnapps flavoured with caraway which is very nice.
I planned on a budget of about £1000 and I would say that this was pretty accurate. This included everything, from tent hire to all food and spending. I ate out about 5 times during the holiday and, apart from lashings of German suicide stew, most of my own cooking consisted of fish of one type or another.
I really enjoyed this holiday - despite the numerous attempts by the Germans to shatter the piece. It was by no means the 'perfect' group gathered for the '92 trip, but I actually enjoyed being pretty much on my own, this time. Iceland is a place of it's own. If I can ever save up another grand, I'll definitely return, but to other areas.
Probably the best advice given to me was by Dave Holder back in 1990. He said that no matter how many photos you see of Iceland, not one of them does it any justice. But if anyone wants to see the photos, give me a ring!
It certainly took a lot of planning, with information being gathered from as far afield as Bristol and Holland. I don't suppose I could end an article on such an epic holiday without acknowledging the help given over the last five years. Firstly to Dave Holder and Jan Paul van der Pas for the tons of info sent backwards and forwards through the post. Also to Trevor Tordoff for all the help with the tons of gear purchased & hired and to Dick Phillips for all the transport arrangements.
Finally, I suppose I'd better thank Jules Verne
and Rick Wakeman for giving me the inspiration to open this article!
To view a political map of the region, CLICK HERE...
There are an infinate number of links on the WWWeb about travel in Iceland; Lonely Planet being the publishers of the guide used on our trip.
Arctic Experience offer excellent independent packages to Iceland & other areas in the region.
Dick Phillips [+44 (0)1434 381 440] in the UK has been offering specialist travel arrangements to Iceland for nearly 40 years and was responsible (!) for the arrangements on this trip.
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