Monday, September 12, 2005

North to the ocean, east to the craters

The story so far: This is the story of a journey through Iceland by jeep.  At this point, my fiancée and I have spent one day sightseeing in the capital, Reykjavik, and one day traveling north through the empty sub-arctic deserts of the central highlands.  At the end of the previous day’s journey, we stopped in mountain hut at Hrevavellir.

We awoke in a room full of strangers, in a top-level bunk of a mountain hostel at Hveravellir.  The view from the window was of gently undulating rock and gravel – a little like waking on the surface of the moon.  Just like astronauts on the moon, getting ready to go outside again meant slow and tedious suiting-up with layer after layer of clothing, till we waddled out the door, only eyes and noses still exposed to the wind (which is coming from a southerly direction – over a huge icecap).  During the previous day, we moved quite some distance further north, as well as gaining quite a bit of elevation, and we can certainly feel the difference.  The wind is all the stronger because almost nothing grows here – no trees or shrubs to shelter us.

Not everyone is quite so heavily dressed – two young women are out in their swimsuits, enjoying a small pool heated by some geothermal springs.  So long as they stay in the water, they can stay cosy indefinitely, it seems – some of the springs are so hot that, instead of gushing water, steam rushes out, screaming, before drifting downwind as thick, sulphurous clouds.  

In ancient times, Icelanders punished wrongdoers by sending them into the wilderness for a fixed period – survivors could come home again.  One famous outlaw and his wife lived in this place one.  It is hard to imagine what it must be like to winter here – we are visiting at the end of August, and the place is a barren wilderness – in some parts, a chaos of shattered lava, collapsed domes, in others, empty wastes of gravel where almost nothing can grow.  The only sources of food that I can see are some tiny ground-hugging plants with small black berries and some tiny brown birds.  How could they survive here, without even a proper roof?  Even to rob the nearest farms,
I’m sure they would have had to travel for days.

Eventually, we left Hvervellir behind and continued north for the coast, Miss C driving this time.  Eventually, the other-worldly wilderness fell behind, as the track began the descent to sea level.  After a while, the landscape changed to one of bleak lakes and moorland, with the occasional sheep grazing in the distance.  At one point, a very young arctic fox, with a dark brown coat quite different from what we see at home, ran ahead of us on the track.  It doesn’t seem like such a clever animal to stay in the one place we might harm him.  Eventually, he left the track and hid in the heather – a cute little fluffball, I hope he gets wiser with age.  This was an interesting encounter, because the island has very few land mammals.  Like the pacific islands, it has never been part of a larger landmass, and so until humans came was visited only by birds, seals and polar bears – I wonder who brought this youngster’s ancestors here?  Where there fox-hunting Vikings?

The uplands were, on the whole, flattish.  Nearing the cost, serrated lines of snow-covered peaks rose up along the northern horizon.  We were entering the realm of the north fjords, long valleys with comparatively rich grasslands, overshadowed by jagged peaks, their summits mostly lost in the cloud.  As in the south, the sight of grass meant farms, and farms meant horses – we met one happy bunch milling about in the road.  

Our first sight of salt water came at the top of a pass between two valleys: in the distance, ice-blue waters sat framed by the walls of the fjord.  Further out, we could see an island whose sides seemed all to be vertical cliffs.  Beyond that, nothing – no land between where we stood, and the North Pole.  Gazing out over the Arctic Ocean for the first time, I realised that I was looking towards Asia. The next land must be the far east: Siberia, and beyond that, Japan.

We turned east at the coast, and saw several more fjords, stopping briefly at Akureyri (interesting airport – the runway is a spit running out into the bay).  In this area, we also saw some small forests – nothing remarkable anywhere else, but something of a surprise to us, only 70 miles or so from the Arctic Circle.

Leaving the sea behind, our route took us inland again, traveling now on the main highway, Route 1, which circles Iceland (now boasting two lands and tarmac almost everywhere!).  The route climbed into the hills, although staying below the snowline.  We made a brief stop at Godafoss – not in the best weather, but a fine waterfall.  This is where a major figure in Icelandic history brought the statues of his household gods, after Christianity was adopted at Thingvellir as the national religion.  Having seen the falls, I tell the reader that the statues may have liked the scenery, but the tumble over the lip of the falls would be rather cold and violent.  Interestingly, in modern times a well known kayaker took his boat over the same falls, and didn’t die.  I’ll be posting a picture of this place, to show why this surprised me.

On again, to the end of our day’s journey: Lake Myvatn.  Some come for the ducks: we came for the volcanoes.  There are certainly plenty of craters, most of them termed “pseudo” by scientists.  I won’t argue with the name, but they are certainly the most perfectly round and crate-like craters that I’ve ever seen.  These are mostly tiny and grass covered, many being islands in the lake.  A proper volcanic crate sits just to east of the lake – big and grey-black, made of volcanic gravel and boulders, completely free of vegetation.  To the north, hidden from us by cloud, was the notorious Krafla, just 5 miles or so distant.  Although we could not see the mountain, we could certainly see its work – huge lava flows, with very well-defined lava domes or bubbles (all buckled and cracked) run right up the village where we camped, flanking the local church on three sides – a very near miss!

After a chilly meal in a tent “kitchen” at our campsite, we turned-to in our sleeping bags, feeling we must be slightly crackers to be lying this close to the pole with nothing between our heads and the stars except two layers of nylon.  Of course, we had some worries in the other direction too – a very informative film in Reykjavik had explained how the whole area of Myvatn rests on top of a gigantic lava chamber, and the ground is continuously rising and falling. This huge chamber is what feeds the eruptions at Krafla – which is so close that it provides the hot water at our campsite.

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