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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s