Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hofn – An Adventure on a Glacier - Skaftafell

The story so far: This following post, part of a continuing story, covers a single day of a journey around Iceland in a jeep with my fiancée. By this point, we have driven from the Reykjavik north across the desert highlands, east across the volcanic north of the country and south through a region of fjords. Here, the story is taken up again as we begin to movel west, back towards Reykjavik. First, the icecap beckons…

We awoke just a few metres from the north Atlantic, on this morning uncharacteristically blue and placid. Below our window, a harbour full of colourful fishing boats, and on the horizon, a wall of blinding whiteness: at last, Vatnojokull, the great icecap! A quick trip to the tourist information centre secured us two seats on a glacier excursion for the afternoon.

We spent the morning working our way east along the coast towards the pick-up point for our tour. The scenery here is extremely striking – glacier after glacier comes down almost to the sea, huge broad snouts dropping their “teeth” in vast gravelly heaps (terminal moraines) as they retreat towards the cool of the heights. The snouts are very weathered, the sun having rotted their surfaces into fantastic shape, and their surfaces are often blackened by falling scree or ash. The melt weeps from them into lakes, from which flow many short (cold!) rivers, meandering towards the nearby ocean across the vast flatness of the littoral sandurs.

Lunch was hasty mouthfuls of edam and bread, snatched in the minutes before pick-up time. When it came, transport turned out to be in the form of a monstrous 4x4, complete with automatically extending boarding steps and several rows of seats. It seemed somehow appropriate that the driver was a big man, a Viking straight from central casting with suitably strong and brutal features. He matched character to physiognomy when he eyed Miss C in just such a way as his ancestors might have used when sizing up potential slave girls on their raids (his ancestors carried off quite a few of her ancestor’s fellow country men and women).

The Viking took us up a road that threatened instant translation to Valhalla on every hair-pin bend, the rough gravel surface unbounded by even a fence, let alone a crash barrier. The drop was anything up to 700 or so feet (well over 200M), and we found that the way to happiness and serenity was not to dwell on this. An eternity of beer-quaffing and banqueting in the company of the souls of larcenous Norsemen isn’t my idea of a proper paradise.

We were delivered to a wooden chalet, high on the mountainside beside a large glacier. Here, we exchanged our own outwear for one-piece overalls and crash helmets, before boarding a smaller jeep to be taken to our snowmobiles. This was the roughest route of the entire holiday, and no mistake, bumping across the pitted and rutted surface of a melting glacier, at that point almost snow-free. The bare ice revealed many crevasses, most reassuringly small. The large ones had been stuffed at crucial points with gravel and straw to make crude bridges. We bounced around like rag dolls as the driver took us higher into the cloud that had settled on the mountains.

Eventually, the violence stopped, and we found ourselves standing on the ice itself in a couple of inches of fresh snow – with more coming down by the second. Ahead of us was a neat line of snowmobiles, seeming slightly incongruous in the empty whiteness. No buildings or people in sight except us, not even a tree or a rock: nothing, in fact, except frozen water above (snow) and below (snow and ice, for a feet hundred feet or so).

Our instructions were very clear: stray not an inch from the tracks of the snowmobile ahead, stay close – but not too close. Miss C and I shared a machine, her arms tight around my waist as we moved off, the last machine of three. I followed the fresh tracks ahead as if our lives depended on it – actually, they did. We crossed some crevasses (these were either too narrow to swallow us, or had snow bridges) and tracked steadily up the glacier to a place where an exposed ridge rises out of the ice – effectively, an island in the ice (properly called a nunatuk, I think). Here, we should have had an amazing view, but on this particular day the view was limited to the insides of the cloud all round us.

Time to switch roles: Miss C began to drive, and I began to appreciate the importance of keeping a firm grip on the driver as our route took us on a narrow (at most twice the width of our machine) path bounded by large crevasses on either side. One slip, and a yawning gap could engulf machine and riders alike. Trust is very important in a relationship, isn’t it? It was only afterwards that I found out she was driving half-blind, due to the heavy snowfall – wet and sticky flakes – plastering itself across her visor…

And so it continued, a strange and modestly perilous journey through an alien world entirely without colour and almost without contrast: only the darker shade of the cloud, the ash showing in our leader’s tracks and the dark mouths of the crevasses themselves provided contrast with the snowfields of the ice sheet.

Returning to our super jeep to leave the glacier, we were snowmelt-sodden but elated – the view was a complete washout, but the experience was thrillingly intense. We got one last taste of adventure when our jeep spent a couple of minutes trapped and listing heavily in a large hole, wheels spinning uselessly on slick ice, clinometer needles pointing at alarmingly large numbers. Our driver coaxed and talking to his machine, and eventually the three wheels still remaining on the surface scrabbled their way out.

Having descended to the coast, we took our Jimny eastward, heading now for Skaftafell. There was, however, one “must see” en route: Jokulsarlon. Literally “glacier lagoon”, this body of water about 5km wide carries tens of thousands of tons of icebergs from the glacier snout seaward – when sufficiently melted, they eventually pass beneath a suspension bridge that is part of Route 1 itself.

We didn’t arrive in ideal conditions – now at sea level, snowfall had been replaced by freezing rain, and our clothes were damp and cold – but we couldn’t help being taken with the beauty of the place, subtle blues of ancient ice, clinking of bergs as they collided in the current. Following the flow of the water, we walked under the bridge and down to the beach. This place is extraordinary: black sands receive glittering prices from the sea, clear ice rotted into fantastic “chandeliers”, glitteringly fabulously even on a murky day. Further out, boulder-size chunks of whiter ice rocked in heavy surf.

Back on the road, frozen but faintly stunned by the beauty and strangeness, we carried on across the flats to Skaftafell, where we found bunks at Bolti, on the hill. We had a small wooden hut to ourselves: from our window, we could see vast distances across the black sands below – incredibly flat and dark. To the east of our ridge lay the great white bulk of the Skaftafell glacier. Dinner we cooked in a turf-insulated kitchen hut – from the exterior, a design that hasn’t changed in centuries – and so, to bed.

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