On the morning of my 28th birthday, following a very long day crossing the Sprengisandur, I woke up in my one man tent on the campsite at the southern end of Reykjahlíð and walked in a great hurry to the campsite at the northern end of Reykjahlíð because I was an idiot and arranged to be picked up in the wrong place, got into the front seat of the biggest superjeep I’ve ever seen and headed out in the wilds for the most exciting trip I’ve ever done.
As the weather was pretty terrible, some of the photos are mine but any pretty ones are from Saga Travel’s website – the company I went with.
We were bound for Askja, an active volcano in the east of Iceland. Askja is made up of a series of half a dozen nested calderas and the smallest, in the middle, is flooded, forming a vast sapphire blue volcanic lake – really, really vast and two hundred and twenty metres deep. The sort of lake where two scientists in a boat could vanish without trace and their disappearance could still be a total mystery 108 years later. That actually happened. No one knows what became of them.
Askja last erupted in 1961, showering most of the east of Iceland in yellow pumice which is fine up close but not terribly good for the land when it’s coming in the volumes it did. Askja herself is interesting and exciting enough but our real destination was a small crater on the north shore of her lake.
Askja is some seventy or eighty miles from the main road, accessible only by four-by-four road. Our massive superjeep was actually a converted Transit van and to cope with the terrain, it was on monster suspension, it had a 7.3 litre engine and 46 inch wheels. Compare that to my car – 1.2 litre engine, 13 inch wheels. It was a monster and because I was the only person there travelling solo, I got to sit in the front seat. The road to Askja is across the Ódáðahraun, the “Desert of Misdeeds”, a huge lava field that more or less covers the entire area between the northern edge of Vatnajökull and the north coast. It’s criss-crossed by Jökulsá á Fjöllum, Iceland’s second longest river and surely its fiercest. If you’ve spent any time in the Icelandic Highlands it may say something that most of the times we crossed this river, it was by bridge rather than ford. With our massive tyres deflated to 12 PSI, we floated along this rough road much more comfortably than the folks on the rickety coach from the rival tour company.
I’d read about our expedition before we went but somehow I was unprepared for the 2.4km hike across Askja from the car park. It was foggy – the fog half lifted long enough to get a glimpse of red-brown mountain and then dropped again and we had to cross patches of permasnow. Jonas demonstrated that in places, if you scuff the reddish earth away, there’s also snow hiding underneath – the remains of a glacier that was buried in the eruption in the 60s. Maybe snow and fog aren’t exactly otherwordly but it didn’t feel like Planet Earth.
Our destination was the above-mentioned smaller crater. Víti, which literally translates as “hell”, is an explosion crater which is flooded with milky blue warm water – not spa-warm but warm enough to swim happily in. Incredibly, we met at least two other tour groups who’d made this pilgrimage across the Desert of Misdeeds and the hike across the snow and rock… to see absolutely nothing in the fog. Well, we were doing it properly. We were going to descend into Víti and go for a swim.
Something else I was unprepared for was how steep Víti is. Jonas cut steps in the snow in the top half of the crater and we all tottered down, certain we’d miss our footing and fall headfirst into the crater, and when we were past the snowline we clung to a muddy stream until we reached the so-called beach.
Jonas told us that Víti is seventy metres deep in the middle and to be careful if we wanted to swim across it, as it gets quite choppy in there and it’s surprisingly hard to swim that distance and there’s a lot of water beneath us. Personally, I find it very uncomfortable to swim in a pool five metres deep so I’d been able to see the bottom of Víti, I don’t know if I’d have gone in but it’s absolutely opaque. We stayed near the edges, where we could reach the bottom – a bottom that felt horribly fragile, as if one heavy foot could smash through it and create a plughole, sucking us and the water down into the centre of the Earth. The water was warm and milky and it was the most exotic place I’ve ever swum, and the most exotic place I ever expect to swim and rather memorable, as birthdays go. Alright, it’s not warm like the Blue Lagoon, it’s warm like a municipal swimming pool but that feels very warm when you’re on top of a volcano in that kind of weather. I fished out a few small pieces of pumice and can absolutely confirm that the stuff does float in water.
Getting changed afterwards is a uniquely hellish experience. I’d had the sense to put my underlayers in a drybag, since it was damp and drizzly by then, but getting changed on a muddy volcanic beach, in what was rapidly becoming a storm, in the freezing cold and wind is not an experience I’d care to repeat and climbing out of the crater was even harder than getting in in the first place. Jonas hurried back to the truck with those of our group who hadn’t gone in – there were nine or ten of us, I think, and only three plus Jonas actually went in the water – who were probably getting very cold and bored standing on the beach or on the crater rim waiting. In climbing out of the crater, I got mud in every crevice my camera possessed, which really didn’t help the photo-taking difficulties but it turned out I had plenty of time not much later in which to pick it all out.
Our final adventure of the day was when the truck broke down in the middle of the Desert of Misdeeds. We sat beside the Jökulsá á Fjöllum for hours, already damp from the rain and the swim, getting hypothermic, getting concerned. A passer-by took a few of our number and delivered them to “Mordor” – Möðrudalur, a teeny-tiny village on the way back to the Ring Road before a man called Odin – our rescuer was called Odin, that’s just what Iceland is like – arrived with some special oil that could get us moving for five or ten minutes at a time before we had to admit defeat and let Odin tow us the rest of the way. But even his truck ran out of steam a couple of hundred yards from the village and we nearly got out and proceeded to the cafe on foot before Odin got it going again and I finally – after hours of trying to shoehorn it in – got my opportunity to announce that “one does not simply walk into Mordor”.