Sunday 7th: Reykjanes

I spent the first part of Sunday packing. My stuff had got scattered all over the place and even once I’d packed in the apartment, there was all the stuff that had escaped into the car. First stop was at the N1 at the end of the main road to get rid of as much rubbish as I could – I’ve been living out of the car for a week, eating most meals in the car. I’ve accumulated a lot of bread wrappers, plastic cheese wrappers and juice cartons and I haven’t been stopping religiously at a bin every day to get rid of it bit by bit.

Second stop was at the Geothermal Park in Hveragerði. I only realised yesterday that the hot river above town is a different place from the Geothermal Park which is in the middle of town and while I don’t fancy walking 40 minutes each way to see a hot river – they’re kind of abundant in Iceland – I was willing to drive two minutes up the road to visit the Park.

What’s interesting is that there’s a hot stream flowing through the Park – so hot that they sell eggs at reception for you to boil in the stream. Except not today. The stream is currently only at about 80° and it needs to be at least 90° to boil the eggs. Actually a lot of the Park was a lot cooler than I was expecting. There are two or three hot springs which have produced silica-rich bright blue pools – all totally dried up. All the bubbling mud pools, totally dried up. I did happen to catch one of the boreholes spouting – an actual working geyser! It’s too late at night now to find out how often it erupts, but I didn’t even know it existed so I’m pretty pleased to have seen it. It’s not as high as Strokkur but whereas Strokkur is one violent explosion, this one lasted quite a while and was definitely several smaller eruptions which looked like more steam than water.

The hot river is very decorative but the only things producing much steam or heat in the Park were the boreholes. Here’s the thing about geothermal areas – they move as the hot spot under the ground moves. New hot spots appear, old ones fade. And this one definitely looks like it’s faded.

Onwards. I drove to the airport via Reykjanes because the other option is to go via Reykjavik and that’s not an option. It’s one thing driving a left-hand-drive car on the open road. It’s quite another to try and negotiate a capital city, with lanes and traffic and lights and all that. Besides, I knew from yesterday that it’s one hour and ten minutes to the Blue Lagoon from Hveragerði via Reykjanes plus they always say twenty minutes from the Blue Lagoon to the airport. That’s an hour and a half. Whereas I know it’s forty minutes from Hveragerði to Reykjavik and then it’s an hour from Reykjavik to the airport. And I’m not entirely certain whether I’m counting those from similar points in Reykjavik. Either way, that’s a minimum hour and forty via the capital so my way is ten minutes faster.

Anyway. Off I went along Reykjanes in the sunshine. Stopped at Krýsuvík, where there’s another geothermal area. This one is much better. This one has its own car park and is free and more importantly, the ground boils and bubbles. It’s all red and orange and yellow, streaked with blue and green and white. I suppose it’s very ugly but in a way, it’s very beautiful. So many colours, so much heat, so much steam, so much smell. Blue-grey bubbling mud, orange and white steaming hillside, signs warning of potential steam explosions. If you’re in the south-west of Iceland and want to see something geothermal, Krýsuvík is a much better option than Hveragerði. Of course, if you’re in the north-east, Hverir, just outside Mývatn, is even better.

Off I went again, now heading straight for the airport, or rather in the direction of the airport to see how early I got there and whether it would be possibly to pop to the pool in Keflavik. And then my car pinged and a message appeared on the dashboard: loss of pressure – front left tyre. What was I supposed to do? Stop and check it but this wasn’t a road I could stop on. I slowed down and drove until I found a junction. These roads are rarely used – no one would mind if I made a quick stop in their junction. I hopped out and examined my tyre. It wasn’t flat or obviously damaged. I squeezed it and then went to squeeze the front right tyre for comparison. They felt much the same. I was 14km from Grindavík, the only settlement since Þorlákshöfn, a tiny harbour barely fifteen minutes out of Hveragerði. In other words, the only settlement for an hour. I couldn’t just sit on the side of the road. I had to get to Grindavík.

I drove slowly. I had a vague idea that sudden movements and sharp braking might not be good for my tyre, whatever was wrong with it. I wondered if maybe a bit of speed might be good for it. From what I remember of my physics, if it was warmer, the pressure would increase. Maybe if I could heat it up, it would re-inflate itself. But I decided that wasn’t a good idea and continued driving slowly and steadily. Fortunately it’s a quiet road and there were very few cars following to be annoyed by my lack of speed. I made it to Grindavík in one piece. I knew from yesterday that there was an N1 roadhouse in town and I went straight there. But this wasn’t somewhere I could get help. It’s just a café with a couple of petrol pumps out the front. I got out the car’s manual. It explained the warning light I’d had sitting staring at me for 14km and it said exactly what I knew it would say. If this comes up, stop immediately, do not continue driving. It also, helpfully, had a few things to say on the subject of tyre pressure. That if the pressure is low, the tyre will flex more and if it flexes it will get hot and it will explode. If the pressure is high, it will get hot and it will explode. In short, my tyre was about to explode. And I knew that. I’d driven 14km with two images alternately flashing before me – Richard Hammond’s 2006 Vampire crash and the lady who hit the bridge on my last afternoon at Kimco. If the tyre burst, it could go the way of the Hammond crash and that would be all kinds of bad. Or at best, it could be like the bridge lady and that would be very expensive. I’d ignored both scenarios long enough to get me to Grindavik but I was still 23km from Keflavik. I needed to do something – in a tiny sleepy fishing village on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

The N1 provided the news that three streets down was an OB petrol station with an air pump. I drove down and tried the door of the kiosk. No one in, of course. It’s Sunday and anyway, all fuel stops in Iceland are completely self-service, pay-at-pump jobbies. There probably wouldn’t have been anyone there any other day either. I wandered around and found the air at the side of the building. Ok. There was nothing visibly wrong with the tyre so I would have to assume that it was gradually losing pressure over time, as tyres do, which is why they need reinflating sometimes, and that it had simply dipped below the car’s accepted standard. I would fill it up. I consulted the manual again to find out what pressure it should be. It didn’t tell me. I flicked through several places and eventually discovered that there should be a sticker inside my door. There was but all it showed was a little picture of a meter next to each wheel, with no useful numbers. And by now I had barely an hour to get to the airport and either I was stuck in Grindavik with a non-functioning car or I had to risk an enormous crash. Not that I panicked and overreacted to this ridiculous warning. I eventually found the important sticker on the inside of the fuel flap. Three rows, two columns, three numbers in each box. No clue. And then at that moment, as I stood there with the manual in my hand, the fuel flap open, looking distressed, a car pulled up.

Icelandic men come from two moulds. One is the Norwegeian stereotype. They’re tall and slim and blondish and usually wearing a lópi. The other is the Ólafur Darri Ólafsson type – that’s Iceland’s most famous actor. He was the drunk helicopter pilot in the Ben Stiller Walter Mitty thing that thinks you can predict eruptions and that Eyjafjallajökull is next to Stykkishólmur. He was the policeman in Trapped recently. Apparently he’s in the BFG. Anyway, he represents the second mould of Icelandic Man – largeish, hairy and helpful. This man was the second kind. His other half was driving and he was half-leaning out of the window, which is why I took him to be there to help me. He wasn’t but the moment I asked him to, he did. He found the right number on my sticker, programmed the air machine, attached it to my tyre (I unscrewed the cap – I’m not completely helpless!) and it was done within a second. He also pointed out that my left mudflap was a bit wobbly, which I knew and warned me that when I returned the car, they might try to charge me for it. Immensely relieved to have my tyre fixed, I packed up my manuals and headed off.

The warning was still on but that didn’t surprise me. The manual said it would need to be reset, it wouldn’t just vanish. I didn’t entirely want to reset it in case something went wrong with it but on the other hand, if I reset it and it immediately came back on, then I’d know something was still wrong with the tyre. On the other hand, when I reset it and it didn’t come back on, it just made me worry all the way to Keflavik that I’d forced the car to believe there was no problem when there still was. The drive to Keflavik was every bit as slow and careful as the drive to Grindavík.

I paused on the corner at the airport to fill up with fuel and empty my rubbish. Everyone else had the same idea. There are three bins there – all full, plus one big industrial bin. I ended up dumping stuff in there, an armful at a time. I’d only done half of it in Hveragerði in the morning, not wanting to put a week’s worth of rubbish in one petrol station bin. And then on to the Hertz dropoff. The nice man (ODO-style) had a look at my windscreen, wandered around the car checking for obvious damage, checked the mileage and the fuel and that the tyre warning light didn’t come on and then gave me a receipt and sent me away. Not a penny for the mudflap, not a penny for driving too far (as had been in the process of happening to an American as I walked into the office), not a penny for nearly exploding a tyre. However, their shuttle bus had broken down two days ago and I had to walk to the terminal.

By the time I’d walked the 200 yards with all my luggage, I was hot and angry. There were too many tourists in the airport, not enough trolleys, not enough check-in machines and then the machine gave me a middle seat in the middle of the plane. I’m 99% sure I chose my seat when I booked the tickets – window seat in the penultimate row. It also gave me the option to change to the one and only other unoccupied seat in the plane. Middle seat, one of the last three rows. I declined and I wish I hadn’t because I was in the exit row and therefore none of my luggage could go under my seat where I like it. However, because there are now too many planes we were taken by bus most of the way to the cargo terminal where our plane was sitting on the horizon. I managed to get on the first bus and I managed to get to my seat long before most people in the vicinity which meant that for once, I had first pick of the overhead lockers. This is the problem with sitting at the back – by the time you’ve fought your way through, a lot of the lockers are full. Not that I mind sitting with my stuff under my feet.

The screens were a bit defective – on the way out, I’d watched 45 minutes of a film before we even hit the runway but today the screens didn’t even switch on until we were up in the air. The flight tracker mode didn’t work at all – the little plane sat on Keflavik for the entire flight and half the information was missing. But that was ok – I had a book to read and somehow that made the flight pass much quicker than watching a film and a couple of episode of TV that I’m not really interested in.

I found the M25 this year. Last year I somehow missed it and carried on along the M4 until I hit the outskirts of Reading. Everything else, I wasn’t quite sure which side of the M25 it was – is Slough inside or outside? Maidenhead? But I knew Reading was on the outside. This year the M25 was right there. The M3 was right there. And once I’m on the M3 I’m all good. The only thing distressing me now that I’m home is that there is nowhere on the way home from Heathrow on a Sunday night that will sell me a loaf of bread for my breakfast toast tomorrow. It might have to be the remnants of cereal I brought back from Iceland.

Saturday 6th: Reykjanes & swimming

Saturday was the closest thing I’ve had to a day off this week. Since Hveragerði is practically the gateway to the Reykjanes peninsula, I went and had a drive around there in the morning. It’s definitely the quietest place I’ve been in for a week – tourists aren’t interested, Reykjanes is just something to cross to get to Reykjavik but it’s actually very interesting if you’re interested in lava fields and ashy volcanoes. They always say Reykjanes “looks like the surface of the moon”. It doesn’t. I don’t know what the surface of the moon looks like but I imagine it’s a lot less mossy and probably a bit less knobbly – the moon rover couldn’t have driven over the lava field. The astronauts couldn’t have walked over it. You hear a lot about the Eldraun and the Odaðahraun but there’s a perfectly good ʻaʻā lava field right here on Reykjanes. There’s a newish road along the south coast and that takes you straight through the middle of the lava, with the Atlantic a lovely navy blue to your left, cone-shaped mountains to your right and Eyjafjallajökull hazy in the distance behind you. This road goes straight west until it reaches a certain mountain. It’s a lovely mountain but it’s absolutely impossible to put a road on its south side. It looks pretty impossible to put so much as a goat track along its south side so the road takes a sudden turn northward and winds its way uphill to get around this mountain, lifting you up to see the range from the middle rather than from below.

Other than volcanic scenery, there’s very little until you reach Grindavík and from there you can take the lesser-travelled south road to the Blue Lagoon. Which is now operating a pre-booking only policy. They’ve been talking about it for years but they’ve never actually enforced it until now because there are too many tourists. If I can’t walk up to the Blue Lagoon and go straight in, there are too many tourists. I could go into the building, have a look around and use their free wifi. They’re fully booked up until 10pm and although I didn’t investigate further, I bet you now have a getting-out time, which you never had before. They’ve expanded the lagoon since I was last there – unfortunately, all you can see from the building is a bridge where there was no bridge before so I know that some of the extension is beyond that. I can also see that there are at least two new swim-up bars. From what it says on the website, I think they might be facemask bars rather than drink bars. I think they’ve taken away the boxes of white silica that you can help yourself to and I think they’ve replaced that with the option to buy a glob of white silica. But I can’t find that out for sure until I go in there, which isn’t going to be until at least my next trip over. They’re also building a new luxury hotel. The Blue Lagoon already has a hotel but it’s attached to the skin clinic. This looks like an absolutely separate Blue Lagoon Hotel. Go to Mývatn Nature Baths. They haven’t got big enough for any of this yet.

I came back to Hveragerði, had lunch in my apartment – I have not come home during the day at all during this trip – mostly I haven’t had a home to come back to during the day, and then went looking for the pool. My guidebook mentions Hveragerði’s “excellent” pool but could I find it? It wasn’t at the sports centre in town, which may or may not be part of the school. It wasn’t at the sports centre above town. There was a pool at the hospital/health centre but that didn’t appear to be open to the general public and it certainly didn’t look like the photos. I’d already stopped at the tourist office to consult a map and now, getting angry, I came home and googled it. It’s just up the hill from the town sports centre. There is a small car park but mostly people were just parking on the road and then I couldn’t figure out how to get in. And then there were no lockers, so I had to use one of the little postbox lockers upstairs for my wallet & car keys and just leave everything else on a bench in the changing room.

But it’s a good pool. 50m lukewarm pool – it takes a moment to get in but then it feels nice and cool. There’s a deepish hot pot at 39°-41° which is a bit too hot to stay in long or to get in too deep and there’s a shallow hot pot at 37°-39° which is quite pleasant but has too many people and too many children who are not being taught not to climb on or kick strangers. There are a lot of pool toys – small floating things in the coolest hot pot right up to massive float structures in the swimming pool. I got hold of a sort of car thing so solid it could take my weight – if only I could balance it properly. I climbed out of the pool with it, put it down by the edge and scrambled on and stayed upright for all of a second and a half before it rolled over, throwing me into the water. There was also an even bigger, even sturdier Flintstones car-type thing. I managed to sit on the back axle and paddle it around a bit but it rolls like a barrel and eventually I slid into the water again. Icelandic pools are often a good excuse to be ridiculous with pool toys.

And that was about it for the day. I came home and got in the bath, because I hadn’t had enough hot geothermal water for the day.

Friday 5th: Heimaey

My apartment is very nice but as well as humming, the fridge makes breathing noises. At ouch o’clock in the morning, I had to get up and check under my bed to make sure there was no one sleeping under there. It’s also pretty hot in here but when the windows are open 1) the blinds rattle 2) because the fridge has already made me nervous, I worry about people climbing in.

I got up a bit late this morning, did yesterday’s blog, ate breakfast out of an actual bowl sitting on my bed and contemplated what to do today. I know I’d like to roam Reykjanes tomorrow, go riding maybe, but I also had plans to go to the Westman Islands before I leave on Sunday morning. And suddenly I realised that meant it would have to be today. I pulled out the timetable – the 9.45 ferry wasn’t going to happen because it was already getting on for 9.30 but the next one, I could make that. Because the next one wasn’t until 12.30, which is a ridiculous gap between ferries and as it turned out, with a very quick stop at Bónus down the road, I only just made the 12.30 in time. Landeyjahöfn is a good hour and a half away and you need to be there half an hour or so before it goes. But I got there, the second ferry of the day and that’s all that matters.

The Westman Islands are “geological babies at only 12,000 years old”. That sounds old. Really old. But the ground under my house is somewhere between 45 and 200 million years old. Iceland didn’t even exist when the dinosaurs were around. They’re 10km or so off the south coast and it takes 35 minutes by ferry. Oddly, in bad weather they use the old harbour. If there was a storm, would you go to the port 35 mins away or the one three hours away? I don’t understand the logic. Fortunately, it was good weather today, although the old port is much closer to Hveragerði and would save me a drive.

I hadn’t been able to go to the Westman Islands yesterday because they couldn’t take my car today but as I wasn’t staying overnight, I didn’t need much stuff. I went as a foot passenger. I was hoping I could find a bus that would drop me off at the volcano but the only buses on the island are scheduled tours and I didn’t want another round of “five minutes to look at the puffins, five minutes to look at the view, five minutes to look at the volcano”. I wanted to see the volcano up close.

During the night of January 23rd 1973, a fissure unexpectedly tore open on the east side of Heimaey and a volcanic eruption started that lasted until July. Locals were later asked “why did you live under a volcano?” and the answer is simply that there was no volcano. The ground tore open and during the course of the eruption, a volcano built up. I love this story. I told you it when I wrote my blog when I visited here in 2012 but let’s go over it again.

So there’s this volcano erupting violently over the town. Several hundred houses were buried, the entire population of the island was evacuated overnight, the town was eaten by the lava, a volcano appeared and then the lava started to threaten the harbour. Heimaey’s economy is based entirely on fishing. If the lava blocked the harbour, they were done for. There would be nothing to live for on Heimaey. So the locals said “not today!” and they fought the volcano. They used heavy machinery to try to divert it, they sprayed seawater on it to try to cool it and stop it spreading, they fought the eruption for months and they won. They took on a volcano and they won, a few hundred fishing people on a small island off the south coast of Iceland. It was unprecedented. It was amazing. They saved the harbour – not only that, but they improved it because the comma of new lava-land on its southern edge curved around, creating a natural sea wall to protect it from the weather.

Today the excavation is still ongoing. Some of the town was dug out of the lava, plenty remains underneath. They spread seeds over the new volcano to stabilise the slopes and today it looks just like the ancient dormant volcano next door. It’s red scoria on top, bright green grass and blue lupins around the bottom. In 2012 I crossed the bottom part of it and was very excited to get so close to the volcano. Today I climbed to the summit.

OK, it’s only two hundred and something metres high. My guidebook says 205m but my town map says 221m. But I climbed every inch of that from sea level, having first climbed up the lava field to get to the foot of the volcano itself. It’s still hot at the top, which I knew but I experienced it today. I scratched at the gravel and steam came out. Further on, I found an English family who come up here regularly and take temperature readings in the holes and cracks. A few years ago they were 400°. Now they’re about 180°. This is in holes shallow enough to put your hand in. Dig down a metre or two and it must still be unimaginably hot and this is from an eruption that lasted the first half of 1973. This is volcanic heat still hot 43 years later. They were making toast in the holes – don’t know if they were planning to eat it, since they were placing it directly on the gravel, and then they melted chocolate on top of the toast. I found myself a spot to take a timer-selfie, found a little arch of rock that looked perfect, put the camera down and realised this was another of those heater vents. Far too hot to put my camera on. I waved my hand in front of the hole – heat came out like a heater turned up too high. Even more heat came out of a tiny hole to the left, so hot it hurt just putting my hand in front of it. I knew it was hot up here still but experiencing it for myself was still astonishing.

I climbed back down the wrong way. I got lost. There’s one path that leads up and somehow I failed to find where it goes back down. I found a different path. I knew it was the wrong one because it looked too steep and too tephra-covered but I couldn’t find any alternatives. How can you get lost on the ridge of a volcano? But I did. I made my way so slowly down that bad path. The gravel is ok but the loose tephra is terrifying. I was so glad to get back to where the bad path joined the good path. Then a bit further down to the road and then I had to get back across the lava field. When it’s so difficult on foot you can understand why lava fields are such major obstacles for vehicles or horses. I got lost, again, I got annoyed and eventually I emerged on the edge of the field. There were steps leading back to town, I just had to find them.

Back in town, I cooled down at Eymundsson, the bookshop, which is more of a café with a few books attached in Heimaey, whereas it’s more of a bookshop with a little café attached everywhere else. I sat outside and read my map and drank chocolate milk and then wandered back down to the ferry terminal. I was an hour early but what else is there to do in Heimaey? The volcano exhibition is right at the top of town and I’d done enough walking. The stave church is either over a steep bit of road with roadworks on it or up a path that may or may not have been an industrial one belonging to the harbour. I settled for going to a café and ordering a hot chocolate just to kill time. Not a very nice hot chocolate either. I scraped the squirty cream off it and discovered that it tastes… it sort of tastes like food. I don’t know how to explain it but I knew I didn’t really want to drink it. I managed about half the cup before giving up. By then, my ferry was in and the queue was around the entire building. But it’s fine. The ferry is reasonably big and most people stay inside where it’s warm. I like to be on deck where I can see everything but it was chilly. It was cold at lunchtime. Now it was cold enough that even I wanted to go inside.

An hour and a half’s drive later and I was home.

Thursday 5th: Skaftafell to Hveragerdi

I was freezing again on Wednesday night and woke up on Thursday to brilliant sunshine. This is one of the good things about a yellow tent – it will transform the greyest day into tropical weather, until you open the tent. But even then, it wasn’t bad weather. It was a little overcast but otherwise bright enough. I took what I could back to the car and then sat in my tent and ate breakfast under an excruciatingly bright sun. It had rained in the night but it hadn’t leaked through to the inner of my tent much so I put my mat outside in the sun for a few minutes, unhooked the tent’s insides and left that upside down and it was soon all dry enough to throw in the car. The front of the tent was bone dry but the back was soaked. I got partway through taking it down to dry in the car when I realised that I wanted to go and visit Skaftafellsjökull before I left so I unhooked the tent from its moorings, turned it round and pegged out some of the front so it could dry while I was out.

On my way down to the glacier I stopped at the visitor centre to borrow their wifi and plan what to do tomorrow. I thought it might be nice to stop at Vík overnight, maybe Skogar but I was already, after just two nights, getting tired of being cold in the tent. However, it’s high season in Iceland and tourists outnumber locals. There was nowhere to stay and between my phone being temperamental and their wifi being even more temperamental, I gave up. I went down to the glacier.

Skaftafell is surrounded by three glaciers – my guidebook doesn’t tell me what the other two are but one of them is Skaftafellsjökull. And in fact, these are merely little tongues descending from the sea of ice that covers an actual measurable percentage of Iceland’s surface area. Vatnajökull is the biggest glacier in Europe and as far as I know, the third biggest in the world. There is an unfathomable amount of ice above Skaftafell and little Skaftafellsjökull is just where a little bit of it tumbles down the mountain. It’s not the most attractive glacial tongue – it’s covered in ash and filth and it descends into a gravelly basin. But it’s a glacier and it built that basin itself. It used to cover the area where I was standing, it’s left terminal moraines a little bit further up. And it doesn’t look impressive until you watch the little stream of people walking down to get up a bit closer to it. The snout isn’t quite so small when there are people standing next to it.

It had been very hot and sunny but as I walked back to the campsite, heavy black clouds were gathering. I’d planned to stop at the visitor centre again and pick up leaflets and postcards but I began to feel very strongly that I needed to get the tent into the car before it rained. I made it with probably little more than five minutes to spare. Didn’t fold it, didn’t pack it, just shoved it into its bag. It’ll need to come back out at some point and be packed properly, along with the inner which is still sitting in the boot of the car but for now, it’s clean and dry and that’s all that matters.

I made my trip to the visitor centre and then ran back to the car in the rain. It rained all the way along the sandur to Klauster – the sort of heavy rain that makes you wish your windscreen wipers had an even faster setting, the sort that feels like it could smash through the car. The sandur is dismal in a terrifying way on a good day. Today it was just a rainstorm and there were fluddles.

It had more or less stopped by Klauster. I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop until halfway to Vík when I realised I was driving through the Eldhraun and Mýrdalsjökull was gleaming behind it. I was definitely stopping for a picture of lime-green mossy lava field and gleaming white glacier. And while I was stopped, a coach came to stop at the same picnic spot, only they’re not as manoeuvrable as my Polo. I sat in the car waiting for it to come down, holding my breath as it made the sharp turn onto the steep bit of gravel, just waiting for it to lose its balance and roll over. It made it.

At Vík I got fuel and then found the supermarket hidden down the back streets. The roadhouses are good for burgers and hot dogs and the sort of snack food you want while driving but the supermarket has bread and cheese and juice. Having stocked up yet again, I drove round the mountain to eat my picnic at Reynisfjara, where I hadn’t bothered stopping yesterday. It’s sprung a proper car park and a Black Beach Restaurant since the last time I was there. I ate in the car because I don’t enjoy getting sand, even black sand, in my food, and then I wandered down to the beach. It’s very nice, despite all the tourists. There are the stacks to your left and Dyrhólaey to your right and now I wasn’t on top of it, I could see the holes in the cliff. I could also see Eyjafjallajökull looming over everything. I went back to the car and attempted to borrow the free wifi from the Grayline coaches to find out the ferry timetable for the Westman Islands. I intended to go over tonight and come back tomorrow, having enjoyed their newish lava field but the wifi wasn’t cooperating, which I suppose is fair enough when I wasn’t actually a customer.

As I drove towards the port, I passed Þorvaldseyri, the farm which bore the brunt of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010. I paused to take photos of it from the end of the drive and then decided I would stop in the visitor centre across the road. I sat and watched a short film about the eruption – very much narrated by its soundtrack. It plays ominous music to make sure you understand that being buried in muddy ash is a bad thing and then happy tinkling music to tell you “but the farming family were good and happy and they washed everything and it was all good!” and then there’s more Oh No the Dam is Ashed Up and the Generator Doesn’t Work music and then tinkly But the Carrots Grew Really Well Because the Ash is Good for the Soil music. I know that all films do this but I’ve never heard it so blatant before. I read the displays out in the open area, read the timeline of events in Iceland and then went to my car to fetch my notebook to write down some of them. They put major eruptions of assorted volcanoes on there – I think they’ve missed a few Katla eruptions. They listed ~920, 938, 1612, 1821-23 and 1918 but I think Katla goes about once a century, so there are quite a few missing. Eyjafjalljökull erupts about every two hundred years, so we shouldn’t hear any more from her in our lifetimes, and I think they only listed major Hekla eruptions because that’s about every decade and they’ve only listed 1104, 1947, 1991 and 2000.

The port for the ferry to Heimaey isn’t too far from Vík. Skogarfoss is sixteen miles, then it’s only another fifteen minutes to Seljalandfoss, neither of which I stopped at, and then it’s about half a mile to the turning. However, when I got there I ran up against an obstacle I hadn’t been expecting. Yes, I could go across to the islands. But the car couldn’t come back tomorrow. There wasn’t space on the ferry for a car until Saturday. The Westman Islands are interesting but not that interesting. I couldn’t spend two days there. I considered leaving the car behind and going as a foot passenger but there was just too much stuff I needed to take. And what if the Puffin Capsule Hostel didn’t have any rooms after all? I’d need the tent as backup and I couldn’t carry that. So I abandoned the idea altogether.

I carried on along the Ringroad to the roadhouse at Hvolsvöllur where I knew there would be wifi. Where could I stay? Where was close enough but not too expensive? And then I found it – a single-occupancy apartment in Hveragerði. That would do very nicely. It was only about three quarters of an hour to Hveragerði and the difficult bit was finding the apartment. 53 Heiðsmörk looked like someone’s house but it turns out the garage – absolutely enormous garage – has been converted into two apartments. Really hipster upcycled apartments but cosy, with a small kitchen and a bath. I put my juice in the fridge – it had been keeping surprisingly cold in the back of the car but it would be better in the fridge, wrote two days of blogs and then got in the bath with my book until midnight.

Wednesday 3rd: Selfoss to Jokulsarlon

I was freezing in my tent. I conclude it’s partly because I didn’t bother bringing my groundsheet and I should because the tent’s built-in groundsheet is not really waterproof, and partly because you can’t buy a four season down sleeping bag from Millets in a sale and expect it to actually be as warm as a four season down sleeping bag. Job for the next year: invest in a good sleeping bag.

Because I was so cold, I was awake for a good chunk of the night and I didn’t hear any rain but when I dragged myself out of the tent, it was soaked. Either it had rained heavily and recently, or someone had thrown several buckets of water over it. It was so wet that when I sat up and bumped my head on the top – easy to do in a tent barely three feet high – the water came through the outer and the inner and made my hair so wet it was as if I’d just come out of a pool again.

I packed up my stuff, brushed my teeth, ambled around and eventually decided I just didn’t have the time to leave the tent to dry. It was going to have to go in the car wet. So it did.

I was heading for Skaftafell, which is a long way. You can do the return journey with two entertainments in a day trip from Reykjavik but equally, if you do the “Iceland On Your Own” thing, which means buying a bus passport and travelling by scheduled tour bus, like I did in 2013, it takes eight hours. I was already nearly an hour out of Reykjavik and I decided to do the tourist thing.

I wasn’t far outside Selfoss when I saw a police car sitting beside the road. “Hello Lögreglan”, I said as I drove past. And the moment I was past, it put on its blue lights and sirens and screeched out onto the road and I immediately had a heart attack. I definitely wasn’t speeding, I had my lights on and both hands on the steering wheel. What illegal thing had I inadvertently done?!

I had done nothing. It wasn’t after me. It was after the 4×4 that had overtaken me five minutes back at an obscene speed. At least, I assume that’s what it was. It went past so fast I didn’t get a chance to see anything except that it was a 4×4 and I found the police car had pulled over a white Dacia Duster, so I assume that was the culprit. The police are pretty busy in Iceland at the moment, what with this and stopping us in the Highlands on Sunday.

My first stop was at Seljalandsfoss, where I was witness to a lady who had fallen over and hurt her foot and was being attended to by the police, who seem to sit at the waterfall waiting for trouble. They had bandaged her and radioed for an ambulance and by the time I’d walked up behind the falls and taken a few photos from the front, the ambulance had arrived. It did not stay in the car park – it drove down the footpath and you wouldn’t believe how many tourists will not get out of the way for an ambulance. Considering it took about twenty minutes to arrive, I just can’t think where it might have been sitting. There’s no town of any size for at least forty minutes.

Next: Skogarfoss, where it rained. I had my waterproof on because of the spray from a 60m high waterfall and I got as close as I could – I could actually see the edge of the splash pool, which is a lot closer than most people. And then I got back from it, took advantage of my sandals and waded into the river to take a picture from an angle that no one else was getting. The water was cold and it hurt my feet a lot but I think it was a nice photo. Waterfall and river and no heads in the way.

Next: Dyrhólaey. That was an accident. I meant to go to Reynisfjara but took the wrong turning. Dyrhólaey is a cliff just outside Vík with a big hole in it, like Durdle Door. And of course, you can’t see the hole when you’re standing on top of it. I had lunch in the car, out of the wind, at Dyrhólaey and then set off for Vík to run down to the black sand beach and take photos of the sea stacks, Reynisdrangar.

From Vík, it’s just two hours to Skaftafell and there’s nothing in between except a tiny settlement called Kirkjubærklauster, known locally as just Klauster. You stop there because if you don’t, it’s a straight two hour drive. There’s plenty to see – the Katla and Grimsvötn floodplains, where at any second, a tidal wave of volcanic flashflood could come down and wash the road away. They’ve done it in the past, which is why you drive over a huge expanse of flat black gravel with meandering rivers across it. There’s the Eldhraun, a huge moss-covered lava field. I can’t remember whether it came from Laki in 1782 or Eldgjá a thousand years ago but it’s pretty spectacular. It’s also evidence that you can build a good tarmac road across a lava field. I understand why they don’t do it in the Highlands but it can in fact be done. There’s the pseudocraters just outside Klauster – where hot lava ran over marshland and the marsh boiled and blew bubbles in the lava, making lots of rounded hills. There are more famous ones at Mývatn, which I passed at the weekend, but those ones have collapsed at the top, so they actually look like craters. There’s the expanse of just plain nothing. There’s farmland. There’s more gravel plains. There’s a lot to see if you like apocalyptic desolate scenery. Lots of einbreið brus – one-way bridges, some of them on blindheiðs – humps in the road where you can’t see what’s coming the other way, so you approach the einbreið bru with no idea whether a coach is coming towards you.

Just outside Skaftafell is a piece of bridge, left as a monument, where the road was swept away by the glacial flood from the 1996 Grimsvötn eruption. Of course, the Ringroad barely existed in 1996, which is to Iceland as the Victorian times are to us, but it would still be severely damaged in another flood. Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption took out parts of the road and that flood was relatively small.

I pitched my tent at Skaftafell and then went on another forty minutes to Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon. I’d originally planned to do it in the morning but I’d arrived before 5pm, it was a nice sunny afternoon and it would save me time in the morning.

I’m so glad I did. It was quieter than it would be during the day, the sun came down on the icebergs in a beautiful way and I hopped on the last amphibious boat of the day. These things drive up to the jetty, on dry land, you board and then they drive away through the morains and down into the water. They take you on a tour of the lagoon for half an hour or so, giving you a good view of icebergs and glacier and seals, someone in a safety boat fishes out a piece of crystal-clear thousand-year-old-plus glacial ice and the guide smashes it into pieces so everyone can eat a piece.

The glacial lagoon, by the way, is a lagoon formed at the very end of one of the glacial tongues, where icebergs break off and float around in bright blue water before making their way out to sea. It’s 250m deep at the glacier end but “only” 30 or 40 by the time you reach the point where the cars and the amphi-boats are. Some of the icebergs are so big that they ground themselves right here and sit looking pretty until they melt or break up enough to start floating again and depart. It’s very beautiful, especially on a bright evening. Remember in Die Another Day where they had the two cars spinning around on the ice? That was here. They blocked it off at the sea so that salt didn’t leak in and that meant it froze with icebergs trapped in the frozen water and then they filmed the scene there before opening it up again and letting it melt back to a lagoon. It’s indescribably beautiful. Blue and white icebergs, some streaked with black from eruptions – and not Eyjafjalljökull’s 2010 one, older ones, hundreds of years ago.

It was nearly 9pm by the time I got home. I’d learnt my lesson – get in the tent while you’re still warm. I’d also learnt that books left on the tent floor will get damp so I packed anything I wanted to take into a drybag.

Tuesday 2nd: Borgarnes to Selfoss

On Tuesday I woke up a bit later than I would have liked but a but earlier than I needed, with the intention of going swimming. I’ve forgotten how far I got on Monday because it’s now Thursday night and I’ve had no internet for three days, but let’s say I’d arrived at South Rock.

Someone else did indeed walk in off the street and take my spare room – I found myself sharing my house with an American couple who didn’t come in until 10.20pm, so late that I’d concluded they’d just popped in to have a look at the house on their way through town. I’d been up to the pool on Monday night to see if it was open. On weekdays it’s open until 10pm but Monday was a national holiday. I suspected that meant weekend house, ie closing at 6pm, and I was right. So up first thing on Monday to go for a swim, since that was mostly the entire reason I’d gone anticlockwise around the Ringroad instead of clockwise.

I was in that pool a good couple of hours. It was quiet at first but it filled up pretty quickly and soon you couldn’t really get in the 37° hot pot. The 39° one was a bit hot for my taste, for staying in longer than a couple of minutes and the 42° one was so hot that no one was in it. My experience is that the hottest hot pot in a pool is always and exclusively inhabited by men. I have lots of theories as to why this is.

I swam a bit in the actual pool – a little bit chilly if you come straight from the hot pots but ok after that. I went on a couple of the slides, since they weren’t overrun by children. I tried out the steam bath but that gets far too hot far too quickly, so I went back to the beach pool and the steps of the 37° hot pot.

At last I had to get out. I had places to be. First stop, after going through the Hvalfjörd tunnel rather than around the fjord, was Þingvellir which has changed a lot since I first went there only four and a half years ago. The top car park doubles in size every time I go there and is now pay and display. The Silfra car park is now for diving companies only. The bottom car park is for coaches only. The picnic car park is pay and display. The car park where the buses used to pick you up after you’d walked across the rifts is now abandoned. There is a new car park next to the bottom one for cars and if you park ten minutes further down, there’s somewhere you can actually park for free. Downside: it’s over a kilometre up to the viewpoint, which is quite a long way to scurry back if you get caught in the rain. I did, a little bit. I’d walked up to the viewpoint, looked at the view, seen the raincloud coming in and taken shelter in the visitor centre. I sat outside under the shelter of the sticking-out roof and ate an ice cream and once the worst was over, I walked back to the car, a kilometre away.

Next stop: Laugarvatn Fontana, the newest spa – for now. There’s a new one under construction just east of Borgarnes, so that’s on my list for next year. Fontana is just across the mountain from Þingvellir and I’ve only been there in daylight once before. It’s on a few Golden Circle tours but they squish it into an already overcrowded day, which doesn’t give you a lot of time there. I’ve been there a couple of times on Northern Lights tours and that’s very nice. However, you can’t see across the lake and the mountains in the dark and it’s a very pleasant view. Fontana has three shallow pools of varying temperatures, a miniature swimming pool, steam baths built directly over the hot springs on the lakeside and you can also borrow a pair of neoprene shoes and go out into the lake, dodging the hot water vents, where the earth squirts boiling water in the lake, while also trying not to freeze in the bits where it’s “lake in Iceland” temperature. I found it a bit chilly for my taste.

At last I had to leave. I was planning to camp but at 9pm, I still had to make the decision where. Laugarvatn’s campsite is uninspiring. Go up to Geysir? Down to Selfoss? I consulted a little brochure of accommodation & things to do. Selfoss’s campsite looked very nice, so I stocked up on drinks and chocolate and headed south.

The campsite is very nice but the ground was unaccountably wet. Also, you get a random discount if you can provide the receptionist with coins. I scattered a handful of brass and silver on the desk, trying to work out if it was enough – it wasn’t – but he collected up some of it, saying “it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s good, I’ve got coins” and off I went with a sticker for my tent, which I put up in the tent field next to the main road. No, not the main road. The Ringroad runs straight through Selfoss but this was sort of the main road set back from the Ringroad, running parallel to it. I put up my washing line so my swimming stuff could dry overnight and settled down in my little tent.

1st August – Storutjarnir to Borgarnes

This was another long day. One of the troubles with Iceland is that it’s very difficult to tell what time it is in the morning. 2am, 6am and 9am all look very similar and I’d stopped being sleepy by the time I woke up at 6.30 so I wrote yesterday’s blog, which took two hours. I tried putting the photos on Facebook but the Laptop of Very Little Brain crashed, tried to install updates, failed, and tried to revert while I packed up around it and then, realising this could take hours, unplugged it and sat it in the back seat of my car to fix itself while I drove.

I had vague plans to go to Borganes. Possibly beyond. I dimly remembered it being about 4 hours from Borgarnes to Akureyri from doing it two years ago and Stórutjarnir is another 35 minutes from that. I thought perhaps Borgarnes wasn’t far enough and I’d push further south towards Þingvellir.

Turns out Borgarnes is a long way. I drove straight through Akureyri, which is the Icelandic equivalent of Manchester or Birmingham, only a fraction of the size, with only a few minor issues, of getting in the wrong lane rather than going the wrong way. The Ring Road runs straight through the city, no navigation required. From there I drove on to Varmahlið, where there’s a supermarket. Today is a national holiday in Iceland and everything in Akureyri was shut. Not out in the countryside it isn’t. The little supermarket at Varmahlið was open and I stocked up there and had a picnic on the benches up on the hills above, overlooking the valley with the fjord in the distance to my left.

Next stop was at Blönduós, where there’s an N1 roadhouse and a nice view. I drove down the back streets to see the sea. Blönduós is a little more than a third of the way, which I didn’t realise. Seems that a late night last night and an early start can creep up on you – I spent the next third of the journey trying not to fall asleep. I couldn’t stop, not in the middle of the countryside, there’s nowhere to stay, not even campsites. I have to get to Borgarnes and yet I didn’t think I had anything left in me to get there. I stopped at the next N1 roadhouse, at the bottom of Hrútafjord, wandered around, wondering if an ice cream would make me feel more awake and then remembered I still had half a 2-litre bottle of coke left in the car. That did the trick, more or less. Another hour and a half to Borgarnes, more or less fully awake. A lot of it following a campervan which didn’t know whether it wanted to drive at 65kph or 90. While it’s doing 90, it’s legally impossible to overtake, while it’s doing 65, I’ve lost too much speed to get past it. And Italians might have the stereotype of being impatient drivers who overtake and shove into small spaces but they are nothing compared to Icelanders. I would imagine every other car in the entire country overtook us during the 45 minutes I followed that thing, many of them not leaving enough space to get past me, the car in front of me and the campervan in front of the two of us, shoving in in front of me and forcing me to slam on my brakes. So many times! Many of those who did manage to overtake everything came far too close to cars coming the other way. So many near misses today. It finally turned off ten miles or so out of Borgarnes, which meant I inherited the tailback but they weren’t overtaking in the masses they had been and by the time we got to the outskirts of Borgarnes, there were only two cars left behind me, and they were not in such a hurry.

I stopped at the Borgarnes roadhouse. I’d been debating hotel or camping the entire drive down, when I wasn’t contemplating falling asleep and getting killed, and as I approached, I decided the campsite at Fossatún on the other side of the fjord seemed to be experiencing heavy rain. So at the roadhouse, I borrowed their free wifi to find out where would be a good place to stay. Egil’s Guesthouse seemed to be the answer. It wouldn’t give me Google Maps to find out exactly where it was but I suspected Brákabraut was in the old town, near the Hotel Borgarnes. It was – it’s on the rocks raised up above it, two doors down from the Settlement Museum. They had a room available – not in the guesthouse but in the annexe. That is, in the little house behind the building. There are two rooms, with a shared kitchen and bathroom and the other room, as of me moving in, was vacant, although it was possible someone might walk in off the street and book it as I had just done. But I thought that was unlikely. I moved my stuff in, plugged in my little laptop to see if it had recovered from whatever it had tried to do in the morning and got out a plate and some bread and cheese. I was only just eating that when in walked one of the girls from the guesthouse with a man, who looked at the other room, pronounced it “very nice” and departed. But that was a while ago now and he hasn’t returned so I’m hoping, really hoping, that he’s just having a nose and isn’t actually going to stay there. I’m enjoying having the little house to myself. There’s a table and chairs, a fridge and dishwasher and oven and hob, plates and cups and pots and a toaster, wifi, it’s all very sweet and I was looking forward to having my own little house for the night. In a minute I’m going to see whether the swimming pool regards national holidays as weekends and therefore whether it closes at 6 or 10 and I really hope he’s not here when I get back.

July 31st – Asjka & Holuhraun

Today was a really long day.

My alarm went off at 6.15am, which is obscenely early on my birthday but I needed to pack a lot of stuff and then drive nearly an hour to the meeting point back at Mývatn so we could depart for our epic adventure at 8am.

The superjeep was… well, it’s not really a jeep. I have no idea what it is. Icelanders tend to default to “car” even the vehicle is clearly not a car but I couldn’t come up with any better word for the monster. It was a Hummer once upon a time, which was brought to Iceland in 1997 where it was transformed into some kind of enormous vehicle which can seat sixteen, bounce along Highland roads and cross rivers as if they just weren’t there. Anton, our guide, had named it Ferdinand after a children’s story none of us had heard of about a big strong bull who didn’t want to fight but smell the flowers.

We headed west out of Reykjahlið, along the Ring Road to the F88 turning at Hrossaborg where all the other superjeeps were stopping to let air out of their tyres – this makes them bigger and squidgier and better able to absorb rocks and bumps but Ferdinand has some magic switches that enables Anton to make constant pressure adjustments while driving, so we had no need to stop. Ferdinand’s tyres, which are half as tall as me, are at 30PSI while driving on proper tarmac roads but are reduced to low 20s on Highland roads and can go as low as 12 if necessary.

Our first stop was at a nice little waterfall on the other side of our first stream crossing. Ferdinand treated it like a puddle and we stopped just in time to leap out and watch the two coaches behind us tackle it. Because Ferdinand is big and tough, we’d ploughed straight across but the coaches took the shallower route to the left. There is an agreement that tougher vehicles take the deeper crossings because when you drive across it, you plough it just that bit deeper but you can throw pebbles around and us crossing where we did would throw some pebbles onto the shallowereroute, making it shallower still. The Mývatn Tours coach, which is even higher than Ferdinand, waded through with no trouble and the more conventional-looking Tyrfingsson coach drove through as if it was a race and then didn’t even bother stopping to look at the view, which suited us fine. The other side is lush and green, an oasis in the black and grey and brown Interior desert. There are plants and flowers and also, this is where we got stuck three years ago in the other superjeep when someone accidentally pressed the door lock thing as they climbed out, when we had to break in with a broom to unlock it.

Off we went again, trying to put on some speed and keep ahead of the Mývatn Tours coach. Iceland’s interior is vast and wild and lawless but there aren’t that many roads crossing it and if you get somewhere popular, like Askja, you tend to get quite a few vehicles all heading to the same place using the same road, leaving at about the same time and this huge empty desert begins to feel quite busy. The coach stopped at Glúfrasmiður, some rapids in the river that are carving out another colossal canyon like Dettifoss, although it’s not quite there yet, but we opted to continue – partly to escape the coach and partly because Glúfrasmiður will look better later on in the day when the warmth of the sun will have melted a little more of the glacier that feeds it and make the water levels a little higher.

We continued to Herðubreiðarlindir, something of a settlement in this vast nothing. There’s a warden’s hut which can sleep quite a few, a school of some kind that Anton was a bit vague about, and a campsite. The toilets are the main reason tour groups stop here really but it’s also home to a little stone shelter built by the famous outlaw Eyvindur, who escaped custody in Mývatn, stole a horse and spent a very cold winter hiding in a hole in the ground in the Highlands. There was a spring coming into the corner of the shelter, he killed the horse and used its skin to make a roof and its bones to support the walls and he lived off the meat all winter, along with angelica root. He couldn’t build a fire, he just stayed in his hole. Eyvindur was one of the few – indeed, possibly the only, outlaw to survive the twenty years in the Highlands that were required to be pardoned, although I don’t know enough of his story to know if he was. We don’t have anything like the Iceland Highlands in the UK or mainland Europe, I can’t describe how wild and empty and cold they are, just mile after mile – sorry, kilometre after kilometre – of black sand, or grey boulders, or nigh-uncrossable lava fields of all kinds. This particular part we were in is the Odaðahraun, which Anton and Olafur, one of the passengers, who happened to also be Icelandic, struggled to translate. The Very Disliked Lava Field? The Lava Field of Bad Deeds? I prefer the translation in my guide book – The Desert of Misdeeds which sounds like something straight out of Tolkien.

Onwards we went. The desert became lava field, the road became really terrible – and it had been little more than a gravel track before. Now it was a gravel track trying to force its way through the lava – hairpin twists and turns, up and downhill, rocks and ruts, and once we escaped that, the road smoothed out again, or at least became flat and straight again, although it was still a rutted track, and the scenery began to change. We’d come round Herðubreið and now the landscape was yellow. I remembered what it was from my last trip here – this was pumice, scattered from Asjka in one explosion in 1875, enough pumice to bury the lava several metres deep and Askja was still only just on the horizon. In the long term, this would be good for the alkaline soil but in the short term, it poisoned the land, the gases from the eruption turned to acid in the water and a quarter of the population in this part of Iceland fled.

This was the point at which we were pulled over by the police.

I’ve tried and tried to explain how wild and deserted this part of Iceland is. We’re a good two hours from civilisation – by which I mean the village of 200 souls back at Reykjahlið and for all I’ve mentioned how many people are up there, we’re talking half a dozen superjeeps and maybe three coaches, which feels like a lot when there is nothing on the horizon in any direction except desert and lava field. Therefore, to be stopped by the police is unimaginable.

We weren’t doing anything wrong but the rescue teams have been asking them for years to come up into the Highlands and make sure anyone driving in these conditions has the training and the vehicle and the insurance to do so and for the first time, they’ve been patrolling this summer, mostly looking out for idiot tourists in unsuitable vehicles and sending them home before they drown themselves trying to cross a river or making sure people aren’t killing the landscape by driving offroad. Anton had to produce his driving licence and a packet of papers from the glovebox and an important bit of paper left at home had to be scanned and emailed to the policeman who happened to work for the same company as Anton when he’s not being a policeman. Finally, with all our paperwork in order, we were set free.

Five minutes on, we stopped to look at the pumice and the formations on the mountain and talk about the Apollo astronauts. I knew they’d come out here to train because it was reasonably close to the surface of the moon but I assumed they’d been training in things like survival and camping and how to exist in a barren landscape. They weren’t – of course they weren’t. Those things are irrelevant when there’s no atmosphere. They’d come here to practice things like how to take rock samples – you have an hour, you have a box this size, bring samples that represent this entire landscape, things like that.

We made a very quick toilet stop at Drekki, the big settlement at the foot of Askja. And by big, I mean it has a bunkhouse, it’s currently accommodating the geologists researching Holuhraun, rescue teams live there for a week at a time and the police are based there at the moment, as well as the rangers, because Asjka now comes under the balloon of the mighty Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður, the Vatnajökull National Park, which now covers all things national park and nature area in the entire east of Iceland, stretching as far west as Landmannalaugar. We were not going straight to Askja for two reasons. One, it looked like it was raining up there and two, that’s where all the tour coaches and superjeeps were going. We would go first to Holuhraun.

This was the bit I was really excited about. Holuhraun is Iceland’s most recent eruption and newest lava field, the second largest in human history – the first being Laki, on the west side of Vatnajökull. The road from Askja lurched across lava field and then turned into soft black sand and ash. This wasn’t a road, this was a few sets of tyres tracks following the route marked by yellow markers and it would all be washed away in the next sandstorm, which can be violent enough to strip the paint off any vehicles foolish or unfortunate enough to be caught in it. This has always been a road, such as it is, but in the last two years, it’s had an unprecedented amount of traffic on it. The wooden stakes which used to mark it have been upgraded to the same yellow posts that mark real roads and there is now something of a car park partway down it.

The Holuhraun eruption started on August 29th 2014, after a couple of months of rumbling in the north of the glacier, which started off as hundreds of tiny earthquakes in a matter of hours in Bárðarbungar, a subglacial volcano. I watched this for every minute of those couple of months. At first it looked like Bárðarbungar was going to erupt and that was a little bit terrifying – no one knew what it would be like, whether it would be an ash explosion like Eyjafjallajökull but on a colossal scale, whether there would be glacial flash floods wiping out half the south of the country, whether that would trigger anything else. And then the earthquakes started moving as the magma began to push its way through the dike and head north. Now would Askja erupt? The 1875 eruption had been devastating, and I didn’t like the thought that I might not get another look at it, not in its current state. The earthquakes continued, so many that the seismographs were able to create a detailed 3D map of the underground dike network that no one could actually get to. And then rather than erupting in the traditional way through a central vent in a central crater, the magma escaped through the fissures. For a perfect six months – for it continued until February 28th 2015 – the lava poured out in a great river of fire twice the size and power of Dettifoss, with fire fountains shooting 150 metres up into the sky and half of Iceland tried to come and watch it. Over those six months, 1.6 cubic kilometres of magma poured out, 4.8 billion tonnes by Anton’s calculations. It covers an area 86 km2. For comparison, Mývatn is about 30 km2 and the new lava field covers an area roughly the size of Manhattan. The lava rivers flowed at a rate of 350 cubic metres per second at first – that’s 1000 tones of lava per second pouring and fountaining, rock so hot it’s melted and during those six months, poured out more sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide than the entire US and UK combined would in a year. And still that’s a lot better than it would have been if it had erupted under the glacier in Bárðarbungar like it threatened. All this was still happening seventeen months ago.

As we drove down our road of sand, we could see this great black lava field just lying there and to our left it was steaming – clouds of steam like the cooling towers at a power station, great columns of steam. Anton was staying well away from them – where there’s steam, there’s hot lava and water, and where there’s hot lava and water, there are explosions and you don’t want to be hit by a chunk of flying rock, especially not when there’s a chance of it being the size of a car. Even as we watched, a new column of steam rose up, presumably from the glacial river hitting the lava. I was disappointed that we couldn’t swim. The lava field had blocked the glacial river but it had found a way around or through and it was hot – or at least, it was hot last year. Half the population of north-east Iceland promptly came to swim in it before they could be told it was too dangerous or too hot or too acidic but sadly, it has now cooled too much to be worth swimming in.

At the little car park, there’s a trail marked by posts across the lava field, where it’s reasonably safe, where it’s not still burning hot, where it seems that all the collapsing has finished – because the lava on top cools quicker than underneath, lava rivers flow under that crust and create lava tubes and then the ceilings collapse. There are still plenty of tubes in this colossal field waiting to collapse and you don’t want to be standing on them when they do. Before we climbed up on the field, Anton made us all feel the lava. It’s very rough and spiky, a bit like evil Velcro, like a black cactus of death. This lava came up from the bottom of the magma chamber. Magma separates in the chamber – the lighter stuff, rhyolite and pumice and whatnot floats to the top and the magma at the bottom is heavy and full of heavy metals like iron and magnesium, which is why this lava is so black. I brought a tiny piece back – by Anton’s calculations, there’s enough for every person on earth to take 740kg but I only picked up a pebble and even that, I managed to scratch my hand on when I put it in my pocket. It’s partly molten rock and partly molten iron and partly all sorts of things. We were to take the walk slowly and carefully – you do not want to fall over on this stuff.

Up we went. The climb up was a little bit awkward, the step down in order to get up onto the top was worse and then there we were, on top of a fresh lava field. It was steaming gently in some of the many cracks and if you stood in front of some of them, heat just came out like you were standing near a bonfire. We gathered round and Anton showed us just how hot it is barely inches beneath the surface by the simple method of tipping two bottles of water down there – an immediate steam explosion. Well, small explosion. A litre of water isn’t enough to blow the lava field apart but it makes a very impressive steam cloud.

Two years I’ve been watching this eruption and now I’m standing on it. Right here where colossal rivers of lava were flowing less than two years ago and I’m standing on it. There’s a piece of it in my pocket. We’re in the middle of nowhere – we’ve travelled so far south from Mývatn that we’re now closer to the south coast than the north and it’s the 100 km of huge glacier that’s stopping tourism coming up here from the south. Glacier all along the southern horizon, Interior all along the north. White glacier, black lava, grey sand. It’s my birthday and I’m standing on my own lava field.

We went back to Drekki for lunch, where the weather was nice enough to sit and look at Drekagil and write down a few of the things Anton had said. I’d eaten most of my lunch in the car on the way down, so I wasn’t really hungry by then.

The next stop, the big one of the day for everyone else, was the Askja caldera. It’s about 9km from Drekki, you park in a big car park in the prehistoric caldera and then you walk a good long way into and across the current caldera. I sort of knew what a caldera was but now I properly know. It’s a collapsed magma chamber. In Askja’s case, it had this big caldera, where you stand in the middle of the volcano and there’s a ring of mountains around you, miles away, and then in the 1875 eruption, half of that caldera collapsed and was flooded and there’s now a huge dark blue lake. On the shore is a smaller crater, Víti, flooded with milky blue water. The heat in the volcano keeps that water warm enough to swim in, as I did on my birthday three years ago but on that day, the entire caldera was filled with cloud and you couldn’t see anything. I enjoyed my swim hugely but there was snow in the crater and climbing down it was incredibly difficult and muddy and scary, and the walk to and from the car was cold and wet and exhausting and I fell further and further behind every time we encountered a snow field on the walk.

This time, it was a beautiful day. We ambled across the caldera, stopping to look at rocks and talk about eruptions. Anton showed us a board explaining how the calderas formed and about the lake and as we ambled onwards, Olafur said “So the water level is decreasing?” “No,” said Anton, “why would you think that?” “The sign said so, because of rock falls and landslides and gravel and things falling in.” Anton agreed, reluctantly, that this was so although when I’d had time to think properly about it, it occurred to me that surely that should raise the water levels. That’s Archimedes in his bath, surely? But it roused something in the corner of my brain.

“Wasn’t there a big landslide in there recently?” I asked and Anton just looked at me.

“You have done your history properly,” he said and proceeded to explain that yes, at 2am on July 23rd 2014, a landslide equal to a third of the mountain around the lake had fallen in, causing a tsunami, with waves 45 metre high which had forever altered the shape of the lake. And I was pretty pleased that he was impressed, although it was only something I half-remembered, something that had happened while I was watching Bárðarbungar, which hadn’t been as interesting as the impending eruption but which had nonetheless stuck a tiny memory in my mind.

Soon we were almost at the far side of the caldera and Anton suddenly ordered us all to look at our feet. Keep walking but don’t look up and I will tell you when to stop and look up. I knew what he wanted us to see and I was excited – remember, last time I was here I could barely see the person walking in front of me. I stopped when ordered and looked up.

And there it was – steep Víti, right in front of me, the navy-blue Öskuvatn behind it and multi-coloured mountains ringing the whole thing. This was the view I’d seen on so many postcards, this was the view I hadn’t been able to see for myself before and it was magnificent. It was so beautiful. And beyond those mountains is the great grey Desert of Misdeeds.

We had an hour or so to enjoy the caldera. Some people who’d brought towels descended Víti and went for a swim. Having not realised we would have the time, I’d left mine in the bus but I ambled Víti’s rim, taking in the view. The lake is terrifying – 217m deep and it’ll suck you down. Two scientists went out on it in a boat once and vanished. I thought that was during the 60s but Anton said it was around 1907. The scientists had an apprentice who was investigating the mountains on the north of the caldera and came back to find his colleagues and the boat missing. There were no roads in that day, no communications. He stayed in the caldera on his own for two weeks before rescue teams turned up and to this day, there’s no signs of the two men in a boat. They did wonder if anything would be washed ashore during the tsunami two years ago but nothing. Of course, there are other explanations than “the lake dragged them under” but I don’t think anyone’s brave enough to go and test that. Stay away from the big scary lake.

It started to rain as we started to walk back across the caldera. I had my waterproof jacket on but it had so much camera stuff in the pockets that it wouldn’t do up. I’d left my waterproof trousers at home because I forgot about them at 6.30 in the morning and soon my legs were so cold that they were numb. Well, there’s only one thing you can do – walk faster and hope the blood flow brings back the feeling.

It was a good walk – I was impressed at the pace I kept up over that distance, across snow, up hill, soaking wet, blind because my glasses are useless in the rain, and keeping well ahead of Anton and half the group, back to the car to take off all the wet layers and warm up. Of course, sixteen damp people in a vehicle warm up pretty quickly and we had to open windows to keep the windscreen clear enough to get down the mountain.

We didn’t stop on the way home. Anton made the most of having a huge vehicle with a V8 and wheels the size of – well, massive wheels – and we just flew over that desert. Even so, we had to stop for two maniacs in Dusters. Anton pulled over to let them pass, muttering “crazy… crazy… You know the story of the turtle and the hare? We’ll meet them at the river…” and then we met them less than ten minutes later, with one of their people out of the car guiding the driver to pass a jeep coming the other way. Anton and the driver of the other jeep exchanged “aren’t they useless?” looks as we passed them without anyone having to get out and wave, and then he said to the bus in general “Told you”. However, we didn’t see them again. Maybe they went off towards Mordor. We didn’t. We carried on through the pumice, round Herðubreið and finally stopped at the rapids, as promised. They’re very impressive rapids, carving a narrow canyon that’s going to be a big deep ravine one day and I managed to be impressed by them even though I was warm and sleepy from sitting in the car for so long.

The main road seemed such a long way away. We crossed rivers, we crossed that horrible lava field, we crossed at the oasis, we bounced along the desert, along the foot of the mountains in the part of the Odaðahraun that now seemed so tame and yet we didn’t seem to be getting close to the Ring Road. I had started thinking that until the first stream crossing, this road was actually much better than the east road to Dettifoss that I drove down two years ago. This is an F road, which conventional cars are legally not allowed on – until the ford, how is this road any worse than that other road, which merely doesn’t have an F in front of it? But we weren’t at the end of it. Sand turned to lava, to sand, to boulders, to lava, to sand – every kind of Interior landscape was represented between that ford and Hrossaborg, which was where we made our final stop of the day. I’ve wanted to get a closer look at Hrossaborg for a little while – it’s the big distinctive-looking crater that stars in Oblivion along with Tom Cruise but the car park off the Ring Road which is the closest I’m legally allowed to get to it, is at the wrong angle and you can’t see its shape. But we were driving up to it, and then we were driving through a river (“There’s a secret road, which I don’t think those other jeeps know about. It’s a road!”) and into the crater. It is indeed a road – there’s a car park at the end. Inside the crater itself, it’s flooded. Not flooded like the Askja caldera, more like the sort of marsh you don’t want to go in without very tall wellies. We gathered in a circle in the car park and celebrated our day in the Interior with Brennivin, Iceland’s national spirit. It’s traditionally drunk in one of three ways. 1) Ice cold as a shot with cubes of rotten shark 2) Put a coin in a cup, pour in coffee until you can’t see the coin and then pour in Brennivin until you can 3) With coke.

Another half an hour took us back to Mývatn. It was 9.30. We’d been out for thirteen and a half hours and by the time I’d stocked up on food – Monday is a national holiday and I don’t know exactly what that means for shopping – and driven home, it was 10.30. Not that 10.30pm looks much different from a summer afternoon at home.