Saturday 30th: Mývatn

Since I have to be at the information centre at Reykjavhlið at 8am on Sunday, it made sense to be in the Mývatn area this weekend – not that Stórutjarnir is “the Mývatn area”. It’s at least a fifty minute drive, although that’s very much under the speed limits. I only picked up my car late last night. I’m still not entirely sure where the edges are and I’m still watching my mirrors closely to make sure I don’t hit anything coming the wrong way or slide off the edge of the road. It’s not even a big car – I have a Polo and I’m still a little bit nervous about it. I’m still hitting the door if I try to change gear without pre-planning it and I keep forgetting to take the handbrake off, presumably because last year, the Golf I had came equipped with an electronic one. Funny how easily you can slip back into a habit you maintained for two weeks a whole year ago.

Anyway. I was in the Mývatn area and what I wanted to do was go and have a proper look at Leirhnjúkur, a great black lava field caused by the Krafla Fires of 1977-1984, which is still steaming. To my knowledge there are only three fresh steaming lava fields in Iceland. Heimaey, which I went to in 2012, erupted in 1972 and is still hot to the touch. Leirhnjúkur, where I was today, and Holuhraun, which is tomorrow’s big outing and big excitement. But I’ll tell you all about Holuhraun tomorrow.

I stopped first at Víti, a flooded crater where the Mývatn Fires started in 1724. It was created in a single explosion, flooded with water so bright blue that my camera just can’t capture it and according to the pack of local information in my room, “the water in the crater was boiling for a century after the explosion”. Nearly three hundred years later, it’s not boiling. At least, it’s not bubbling and there’s no steam but it’s such a steep, deep crater that it would be pretty dangerous to try to get down to the water and I just bet some tourists have done just that in the last week. Víti has a footpath around it so you can look at the blue water from every angle but the path is sticky – it’s thick clay that sticks to your shoes. I opted to wear my sandals and there was more clay than footwear attached to my foot. It was trying to drag the things off, I could feel the straps digging into my feet as they clung on. It’s impossible to scrape the stuff off. There’s nothing to scrape them on and there’s no hope for “oh, I’ll find a stick later and scrape off the clay”. Iceland has next to no trees and thus next to no sticks. What I did find, much later on, was a shower. Just a random shower next to the road, showering hot water for years on end, for I’ve seen this shower before. I have no idea what the purpose of it is. It’s formed quite a deep puddle around it and out of range of the falling water, there’s thick green fluffy algae. If you’ve got good boots on, you can just about reach into the shower and the moving water but it’s not strong enough to wash off clay. A lukewarm puddle – and that’s a novelty in itself – did the job a little better, with the help of a chunk of pumice for scraping.

Once I’d seen all I needed to see of Víti, I headed over to the other car park for my trip to Leirhnjúkur but first, because it was raining a bit, I had my lunch sitting in the car. Nice fresh mini-baguette from the supermarket at Reykjahlið, buttered, with Babybels that I’d brought with me, and very tasty it was too. When I’d eaten and the weather looked marginally better, I put on all the clothes I had with me, because it was still pretty black over Bill’s mother’s, and pretty windy and pretty chilly and off I went.

Leirhnjúkur is endlessly interesting. I already knew the story of the church at Reykjahlið – that lava approached it during an eruption and the village prayed for the church to be saved from the onslaught, and lo, it was saved. Almost every village in Iceland has a story like that. At Reykjahlið it’s come so close to the church walls that it almost looks like the plot was dug out of the lava to build the church but no, it really did divert itself around it. It turns out this lava came from the fissures at Leirhnjúkur, which re-opened in 1977 and created this huge black Therim Pel of a lava field (please just read that book and save me explaining that reference for the hundredth time).

From the car park you walk across a bumpy field of mossy pillow lava, along the bottom of a great bald orange and white steaming hill and across a boardwalk before you find yourself at one end of Leirhnjúkir.The boardwalk is fun – most of it is reasonably well anchored and makes a noise like a boot hitting a plank but some of them have just enough suspension to make a noise like a xylophone, because technically it is an enormous xylophone, so I made a point of walking heavily to try and produce some sort of music as I made my way up.

The first landmark is a great milky-blue lake. It looks amazing, it looks perfect for a swim and if the bubbling mud-puddles around the edge and the steam are anything to go by, it would literally take your skin off. It’s another place where my camera just can’t capture the colours. White-blue water, orange and white streaked hills, sky changing colour from black to blue every thirty seconds. And then you can pick your direction to go and get acquainted with Leirhnjúkur. I like to go straight up, climb over the rubble, look at the little steaming crater and then make my way down to the viewpoint where I took my lovely selfie last year. The rock is beautiful – there’s one particular boulder that’s streaked in red and green and purple and blue and yellow, and it’s all pumice so it crunches under your feet like you’re walking across a bowl of Rice Krispies. From the viewpoint, the lava field stretches out for miles and it’s still steaming. This thing erupted before I was born and it’s still so hot that the ground is steaming. There are marked paths through it – either obvious paths or yellow marker pegs to show the way and those places aren’t hot but step too far off the path and you might find out how hot it really is.

I crossed the upper field and made my way down into the bit I missed last year, where it spreads across the heath. It’s very interesting. Lots of cones, lots of large boulders, lots of collapsed bubbles, a large conical crater with one side missing, chunks of it very obviously on the ground next to it. Rock so hot it had melted was flowing out of there thirty-two years ago. Fountains of fire were shooting up into the air, scattering pieces of pumice all over the place. And at the same time, someone had the bright idea of opening a geothermal power station. To be fair, the idea came before the eruption but the construction happened more or less simultaneously. In fact, one of the boreholes exploded somewhere on the mountainside and made a new crater which they named “Homemade Hell” (Víti, a popular crater name, means hell. I saw Krafla’s Víti today and I’m going to see Askja’s Víti tomorrow.) Due to the ongoing eruption there were some hiccups with the building of the power station but these days it’s up and running very nicely, looking quite space-age with all the red domes and silver tubes running around the mountainside.

I enjoyed Leirhnjúkur very much and was quite disappointed when my path led me back to that boiling little lake at the top of the boardwalk. My guidebook describes Leirhnjúkur as “compellingly grotesque” and I totally disagree. It looks a bit eerie if you look across it, a sea of black molten rock, but once you’re in the middle of it, it’s a spectacular and fresh lava field. It’s beautiful, for a given definition of beautiful. I might have to go to the Westman Islands sometime this week and drool over the Eldfell lava field, and the fact that half the island just wasn’t there forty-five years ago.

The weather had been very Icelandic as I wandered. A big black cloud would come over, sprinkle us with rain and then vanish, leaving bright hot sunshine and all the while, there was a cold wind. With five layers on my top half, I was alternately reasonably warm and far too hot but my legs were frozen. Fortunately, I already knew where I was going after Leirhnjúkur.

If you’re not as interested in lava fields as I am, then Mývatn’s big draw is probably going to be the Nature Baths. These are no more natural than the Blue Lagoon, its big sister in the south. The geothermal power plant next door creates a lot of waste hot water which is then piped across the road and put in a big hole for tourists to wallow in. It’s utterly impossible not to compare the Nature Baths and the Blue Lagoon and I’ve already done it half a dozen times but I think I’m inclined to prefer the Nature Baths because of their view. The Blue Lagoon’s black lava mountainlets are very nice but from the Nature Baths, you can see an orange live volcano on one side – indeed, the Baths are on its slopes – and on the other side, there are craters and lava all the way down to the lake and then views across the lake to the plains and mountains on the other side. You’re raised above the view rather than sunken beneath it. It’s not as busy as the Blue Lagoon but on the other hand, it’s a lot smaller so it feels full more easily. There’s no swim-up bar but you can buy a “beer bracelet” on the way in and the staff will deliver beer to you on request. There are no private shower cubicles for the Obligatory Naked Shower and today, there was a lady attempting to enforce that while also trying to keep the floors clear of the black sandy gunge that gets brought inside on people’s feet. I only heard her enforcing it in English. Surprise, surprise. Europeans are more used to that sort of thing. The British pretend they don’t understand and sneak out without washing properly.

The weather was still very Icelandic – rain, sun, wind, in an endless circle. I tried to keep underneath the warm water but I’ve still come out with bright pink shoulders. I didn’t visit the steam rooms because they’re just too hot but I did make a visit to the hot pot – by which I mean “concrete hot trough”. Nature Baths, you’re the premier hot water thing within six hours, get a better hot pot! Everywhere else has proper round tubs, usually at least two of them, in assorted temperatures. It’s time you grew out of a trough.

Presently, I began to feel too hot. These sort of things are especially good on cold days; on a hot day, it’s just too hot, and I was getting hungry. I climbed out, considered buying some postcards for my scrapbook, decided I was not joining the queue, which had grown from non-existent when I arrived to out of the door, and went home.

Well, I stopped at the supermarket in Reykjahlið to see if they had any more baguettes (they didn’t) and at Goðafoss (I’d stopped there on the way, and I’ve stopped there every time I’ve passed between Mývatn and Akureyri, so I’ve seen it more times than I’ve seen Gulfoss on the Golden Circle and yet I always stop again) and decided it was too cold to do more than wave at it, so I had a look in the shop/café by the petrol pumps and then came home. Food, and then it was time to hop in the hotel pool.

I keep saying “hotel” and I keep feeling like it’s inaccurate. The Edda chain are boarding schools and colleges, mostly in the countryside although Akureyri and Egilsstaðir are cities by Icelandic standards. Fifty-five years ago, they were dormitories but now they’re twin rooms with shared bathrooms, lived in by school children and students during the rest of the year. It’s student accommodation and at Stórutjarnir, not only are there views down the valley, past the lake (tjarn is a lake or pond – it’s the same root as the Scottish tarn) and across to Goðafoss. You can’t actually see the falls because they’ve cut a canyon but you can generally see a cloud of spray rising up to show you exactly where they are. This particular school also has its own swimming pool and hot pot. The hot pot is 38-40° and the swimming pool is the coldest I’ve ever encountered in Iceland. It’s open until 10pm and it’s usually pretty quiet. If you’re lucky you get it to yourself; if you’re not, there’s usually only one other group in there, usually with a small child or two. Today there was a French family with a smallish baby and later, a Polish family with a daughter of three or four who was utterly incapable of not falling into two feet of water and nearly drowning. She did it twice in under two minutes, had to be rescued twice and eventually had armbands put on her and was put in the swimming pool. A child who can’t not drown in a shallow hot pot should not be trusted in a swimming pool, even a shallowish one. How hard is it to just not fall under the water? Can you be trusted with a bowl of soup?

With every towel soaked, I now have to hope that everything is nice and dry for the morning. If I need to be departing Reykjahlið at 8am, I’m going to need to be out of here just before seven. That is a horrifyingly early morning on your birthday.

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