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.

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