I made a few mistakes with my GPS tracker – I forgot to switch it on until we’d been going quite a long way and I forgot to switch it off until I got back to my room. The trip begins and ends at the yellow marker and it goes down to the pink ones.
The Icelandic Highlands are a desolate region of vast lava fields, glacial desert & gravel plains, crossed by gravel tracks or non-existent paths marked only by wooden stakes, swept by some of the strongest winds in the country, prone to flooding & blocked by deep snow for up to ten months of the year.
Between August 2014 and February 2015, a fissure eruption blazed away in the eastern Highlands, covering desert and floodplain alike with lava; at 86km2, it’s the third biggest lava field formed in human history. The gold and silver medallists, Eldhraun and Lakahraun, are both in the southern Highlands.
From the moment a volcano began shuddering under Iceland’s – and Europe’s – biggest glacier, Vatnajökull, I was captivated by the eruption and less than two years after it got started, I was venturing into the Highlands in a sixteen-seater customised Hummer H1 to get up close and personal with the fresh lava, and as a bonus, on my birthday.
It takes a tough vehicle to cross that kind of terrain, to ford some fairly deep and fast rivers, and some skill and experience to drive it. Enter Anton, my driver, and Ferdinand, the superjeep. If there was any doubt in either of them, it was quickly dispelled by a routine police inspection in the middle of a pumice desert several hours from civilisation. Both Anton & Ferdinand’s documents were perfect and we were allowed to go on our way.
Holuhraun, the new lava field, is still hot, red-hot in places and undoubtedly several hundred degrees mere feet below the surface, if Eldfell, which erupted in 1973, is anything to judge by. As we drove across soft black sand to the little pen where Ferdinand would wait for us, we could see the lava on the horizon, sending up columns of steam – an area avoided by all by geology professionals for risk of steam explosions.
The area we explored is relatively flat and cool, although wisps of steam drift from cracks and holes and you stumble across the occasional blast of heat like an open oven door.This lava, drawn from the bottom of the magma chamber, is rich in heavy metals, it’s rubbly and its surface is very rough. By Anton’s calculations, there’s enough lava for every person to take home over 740kg as a souvenir. I took a piece the size of a large marble and put it in my pocket. Even a piece that size can graze your hand painfully if you put it in your pocket and forget the lava rock is in there.
I was disappointed that we couldn’t swim in the glacial river that was heated by the lava to a lovely bathing temperature but allegedly, it has cooled too much. Nonetheless, it was the fulfilment of two years’ dream to stand on Holuhraun – and wearing my Holuhraun t-shirt as a signal that I understood and was genuinely interested in what I was visiting.
I’d eaten most of my lunch on the road but we broke our day at Drekki, the little community that’s sprung up at the foot of one of Iceland’s more notorious volcanoes. Drekki is home, in the summer, to tourists, backpackers, photographers, geologists, researchers, National Park rangers, mountain rescue teams and now the police. I sat at the mouth of Drekagil, the Dragon’s Canyon, and made notes on what I’d seen and done that morning. The afternoon’s part of the journey was to drive up the north-east flank of the mountain, leave Ferdinand in the small car park and hike into Askja’s caldera, a vast circular crater caused by the collapse of the magma chamber after the 1875 eruption which covered the entire north-east of Iceland in acidic yellow pumice. The caldera is half flooded, forming a great navy-blue lake fathoms deep with a presumed habit of sucking down unwary boats. This is a lake you admire from a distance. Less threatening is Víti, a small steep-sided crater on the lake edge, thought to be responsible for the 1875 pumice eruption. It’s also flooded, but with milky-blue water at approximately the temperature of a municipal swimming pool and it’s only seventy metres deep. If you could see that, no one would go in but luckily, the water is totally opaque. The two seen together make quite the spectacular scene. I swam in Víti – on my birthday again – three years earlier but the caldera was in a cloud that day so this was the first time I’d seen the crater lake and the ring of mountains around the edge of the caldera. Today I hadn’t realised we were going to have time to swim, so I’d left my stuff in the jeep but I could take photos of the view for hours.
We’d made various short stops on the way to Holuhraun but we drove back both without stopping and without a word from Anton, who had talked non-stop from 8am and had presumably either run out of anything else to say about the Highlands, Iceland, volcanoes, sheep and Ferdinand or had just run out of the energy to speak English any longer.
Our last stop was at Hrossaborg, a partly-collapsed crater next to the Ring Road, where Anton produced a bottle of Brennivin, Iceland’s national spirit, known to foreigners as “Black Death”.With the sun starting to set – although even in the dead of night, it would barely peek below the horizon before rising again – we shared shots of Brennivin to celebrate a very good day out.