Adventures in Iceland

Chapter 4 - Fire

Iceland is a relatively new island which was formed due to volcanic activity. Actually the island is growing steadily with time. Generally speaking, the Icelanders attitude toward geothermal activity is something between indifference and hostility. This surprises us. More than 90% of water heating in Iceland is done by geothermal heating plants. This means that hot water is in practice for free. That explains for instance the fact that almost all heated swimming pools in Iceland are indoors, but set in the open air. Some farmers have in their backyard a private geyser which they use as a geothermal dynamo for the fabrication of electricity. So for these farmers also the electricity is for free... The only drawback we find in the hot water system in Iceland is that because of the geothermal heating the water smells of sulfur. As the water tap for hot and cold water is the same, if you want to drink cold water after using hot water, you need to leave the cold water running for 10 seconds, in order to wash away the remnants of sulfur...

A church inside a crater of a dormant volcano.

What causes the Icelanders to dislike geothermal activity is the damage involved with the frequent volcanic eruptions. To give you a perspective of how often the volcanoes erupt, I quote from the program of the Villi Knudsens's Reykjaviks "Volcano show" which we saw on our first day in Iceland: "You will see scenes from the spectacular 1996 Vatnajokull Glacier eruption and flooding. You will witness the dramatic Mt. Hekla eruptions of 1947-8, 1970, 1980, 1981 & 1991 - the Askja eruption of 1961 - the lake Myvatn eruptions of 1975-84. You will also see many exciting places around Iceland as well as film updates on all new earthquake and volcanic activity". In the second part there are scenes from the dramatic 1973 Heimey eruption and evacuation of the small fishing village.

Taking pictures of Eldfell (left) and Elgafell (right) volcanoes.

Two days later we are on a flight to the small island of Heimey. The island is very small, with a radius of less than 2 Km. We walk to town from the airport, get rid of our rucksacks in the youth hostel, and as the weather is good, rush to explore the island. We climb on the ash cone Eldfell, from which the 1973 eruption occurred. 26 years after the eruption it's still steaming...

Eldfell in 1973.

Eldfell in 1999.

We go back to town and as the good weather persists, decide to climb the nearby cliff. The path is steep, narrow, and in places washed away. Instead of fixing it, the Icelanders put ropes with which you need to pull yourself up. We see children make rock climbing in order to steal eggs of the arctic parrots - the puffins. These puffins are one of the symbols of Iceland. Every summer they build nests on the rocks where they lay eggs and feed their chicks. As the chicks don't want to leave the cozy nest in order to seek food, their parents desert them in early autumn. The chicks, driven by hunger, jump from the nest, and try to fly to the sea. In the daytime they reach the sea safely, but in the night they are misled by the lights in the town, and instead of flying to the sea, land in the streets.

The puffin, 10 seconds before it drowned...

Because of that one can see a very peculiar phenomenon. Every day, at around 23:00 at night, just when it starts to be dark (remember - we're in Iceland where dusk is late in autumn), many children can be seen walking in the streets with cardboard boxes in their hands. The children look for the puffins, catch them (the chicks hardly can fly because of lack of experience and hunger) and put them in the boxes overnight. In the morning they free them to the sea. This is done in order to save the chicks from being run over by the cars. All of that we see in a movie in the local "Volcano show" theatre. We decide to join the children for one night. We wait till 23:00 and then give up our cozy room in favor of the rain and the 4C of the outside. It's a unique experience. Tens of children are walking in the cold and wet streets of the village and look for the poor birds. Until 01:00 in the morning we succeed to catch 3 chicks. During all that night (or morning, I should say ?), in our room, we hear "our" chicks moving in the box. In the morning we go to the sea shore and throw the first chick into the air, exactly as we saw in the movie. The chick, frightened from our move, does not succeed to fly and falls into the sea like a stone. Obviously he hasn't seen the movie... The next chick we put carefully on the rocky beach, but he falls between the rocks and is drawn by a small wave. We feel very bad about him. We go to a sandy part of the beach and put the last chick on the sand, 2-3 meters away from the sea. The chick, feeling the strong wind coming from the sea, opens his wings and gets into the water, in which he swims like a duck. At least we saved him. Back in the village we ask the locals what they do with the chicks and understand that they put the chicks in the (polluted but sheltered) fishing port. What a pity the movie wasn't accurate... Two weeks later we find a chick of a seagull on the road. We take him inside our car and drive to the sea shore, where we free it into a shallow lagoon.

Driving the chick to the sea. Look at the cloudy, but normal in Icelandic standards, sky...

Jokulsa canyon at Asbyrgi

Back in the mainland, about two weeks later, we are driving to Jokulsargljufur national park. We are in the highlands. It's a plain with an average height of 1,000 meters, made of bare volcanic rock. The weather here is very extreme - very cold (because of the height) and very windy (there is no high vegetation to break the wind). As a matter of precaution the Icelandic government has constructed emergency huts along the dirt road, 20 Km apart. These huts are well insulated and are stocked with food. Obviously they remain unlocked, ready for instant use. Being here we can understand why. If your car is stuck, or if there is a storm, staying in the car is not secure enough - you must go and hide in such a hut. The volcanic desert around us has a kind of a lunar atmosphere. No wonder NASA has sent here astronauts to practice before landing on the moon.

Jokulsargljufur national park - Lava formations.

The Jokulsargljufur national park is like a giant volcanic park. All of it is made of dark volcanic rock. There is the Yokulsa river passing in a narrow canyon, the second biggest waterfall in Iceland which is also the most powerful waterfall in Europe - Dettifoss falls, and many lava formations. We spend here a two days awesome trek...

Jokulsargljufur national park - The church (see Tali for scale).

Dettifoss falls.

Our next big stop is Lake Myvatn. This lake is situated in a very active geothermal area which is scarcely populated. Actually in a radius of 20 Km there is one gasoline station with an attached eatery and 2 more restaurants. Needless to say that we try all three of them... We go to explore the various kinds of geothermal activities. The colorful mud pools at Namaskard are very interesting. I lay my knees on the yellow ground in order to get a better angle for the photo, and when up, I dust away the yellow powder from my trousers.

The colorful mud pools at Namaskard are very interesting.

Then we go to the steam geysers of Hverarond. I discover that I have small holes (~1 cm) in my trousers, at the height of my knees. I assume that I thorn them while laying on the ground and ignore it. We go to see the lava fields and colorful acid pools of Krafla volcano.

The steam geysers of Hverarond.

Then we go to see Viti Crater Lake. Viti in Icelandic means hell. The lake is situated inside a crater of a volcano, its water is warm, and is considered to be dangerous for swimming. Next we try to find the site where the famous local geothermal bread is baked, without success. People told us about it in the village. The dough of this traditionally made bread is put in steal containers and is buried in underground holes. The holes are naturally heated and serve as low heat ovens. Usually the bread is ready after 20 hours in the "oven". We decide to ask for more directions in order to find it tomorrow. Our last activity of the day is to swim in a naturally heated 38 degrees lagoon. We dare to enter inside it only where some local people do it. It's a bit scary - the bottom of this lagoon is very muddy and bubbles go up from the bottom. Still, it is a nice "warm up" before going to sleep in our (literally) freezing tent.

Viti in Icelandic means hell...

Next day I wake up to discover that my trousers are no longer usable. During the night the holes became huge. Only now I understand what happened. The yellow "dust" on trousers was not dust but actually a powder of sulfur acid. This acid gradually "ate" the cotton of the trousers. Luckily my skin wasn't damaged... This day we slowly encircle lake Myvatn. Among the stops we have are - climbing the crater of Hverfell and the summit of Vindbelgjarfjall and visiting Dimmuborgir volcanic park. We also explore some pseudo-craters and find at last the site where the geothermal bread is baked...

We find at last the site where the geothermal bread is baked...

We hope to be lucky enough to see an eruption while in Iceland. The chances to see an eruption here in Iceland are statistically not low, as there are several eruptions per decade in Iceland. Nowadays the chances are even higher as a volcano buried underneath the Myrdalsjokull glacier is predicted to erupt. Already now the glacier starts to melt because of limited volcanic activity beneath it. This glacier is located not far from Hekla volcano and Landmannalaugar trek which is going to be our next walk . In 1996 the volcano beneath the Vatnajokul glacier has erupted, causing parts of the glacier to melt. The melting water created a huge river (it was temporarily the biggest river on earth in volume) which washed away bridges and big parts of the ring road. The villages in the area became isolated from traffic for several months till the ring road was fixed. This year the authorities are afraid that a similar thing will happen with Myrdalsjokull glacier. Hence they decided to keep open during the winter a highland road which bypasses the glacier from the other side than of the ring road.

Will we be lucky to see the eruption ?

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Last modified: Wed May 30th 17:05:00 IST 2001