Tuesday, September 13, 2005

To Hell, and back again

We awoke a few metres from the waters of Myvatn, to a rather unpromising day – very overcast.  After a late start, we set off to ascend Hverfjall, the large cone we had seen in the distance when we arrived.  This was not a very difficult climb – a well-marked path leads to the top – but very windy, especially on the rim.  Looking inside the crater from the top of the rim, we saw that hundreds of previous visitors had descended into the crater and used the larger stones to leave messages in gigantic letters.  Some people left their own names, others left the name of their country or a short message – a kind of gigantic open-air bulletin board.

It was about this point that Catherine discovered that the dark clouds didn’t mean rain.  They meant snow.  It started off lightly enough, but soon the gale was plastering us with big wet flakes.  We carried on around the rim anyhow, and returned to the jeep covered in a mix of volcanic ash and snow.  Above us, the crater rim had already turned white.

What with the gale and the snow, we decided to go somewhere warm – nearby “solfataric” springs.  These were located on the side of a hill that would have fit right into a sci-fi film – red-orange soil, with patches of yellow or white where stem was coming out.  We didn’t even leave the jeep – the weather was miserable, and apparently it is very easy to leave the path and sink into scalding mud.  Not our idea of fun.

After our first two stops, we felt things could only improve – so we took the highway again, turning off to see “Viti” – hell.  This crater is very close to Krafla.  The road leads past what I think was a geothermal power station.  This time, the road took us right to the crater lip.  Inside, this crater has a good-sized lake.  We didn’t stop long here, because the wind was blowing as strongly as ever, and the snow was falling thick and fast, the ground and our jeep whitening noticeably after only a brief stop.  Getting back down from the crater, on a road with a steep and unprotected drop-off, driving on fresh snow (the wet and slippery kind), we switched to four-wheel drive, low range, for the first time in the trip.  Hell is an interesting place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to stay there too long.

Having been to Viti and back, we decided the weather wasn’t going to stop us seeing Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe – it drains the melt from a large portion of Iceland’s largest icecap.    To get there, we drove first along Route 1, now covered with a thin layer of snow, and then nearly 30km down a track that deserves a special mention: the worst driving surface of the trip.  Although not actually dangerous (the land was flat all around, if you discount the boulders), this was an amazingly uncomfortable road, so scarred, potholed and rutted that there was more hole than actual road surface.  In fact, I think it was the surviving bits of surface that jarred us so badly – once the last bits have worn off, the track will be one long hole, and probably quite a nice smooth trip, by comparison.

Dettifoss is where the river has cut a deep canyon into a plain of bare and blasted basalt.  The mist that drifts up from the falls is probably an agent of freeze-thaw action – all the rock around the canyon (basalt) is cracked and shattered, and bare of vegetation.  It actually looks like a vast quarry whose entire surface has been drilled and blasted, without anyone bothering to take the spoil away – the power of frost.  Dettifoss is not pretty, but the power of it is awe-inspiring.

Back to Route 1, and back to Myvatn, we drove through a vast plain of lava domes, the largest of our trip.  Pure wilderness – no sign of human habitation, and no wonder – this land looks completely unfarmable.  Very little grows, and simply walking the land would be difficult – forget about tractors.  White snow on black rock deepens the contrast of the fissures as we pass through an entirely monochromatic landscape.

At the lake, the weather had improved – the wind slackened, the snowing stopped – so we used the last of the evening light to stroll through the weirdness that is the Dimmuborgir – a maze of fantastically contorted lava formations that even Dali might concede “look a bit odd”.  We used the cave “Kirkja” as a frame to photograph Hverfjall.  Even on a bad day, this place is worth seeing for its sheer strangeness.    

After a very chilly day, we gave on camping and cooking.  Instead, we had dinner in restaurant (arctic char, delicious) and moved indoors to our own room.  Ah, the luxury of radiators to dry the snows of August from our clothes…

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