21 Sep 2014

Volcano-chasing in Iceland

I usually visit Iceland in March. Occasionally there's a rumble and talk of some possible volcanic activity and I get a little excited that I might be there to actually witness en eruption, but then I go home without any action. So when I read about the grumblings of Barðarbunga and the subsequent eruption of Holuhraun a couple of weeks ago I felt annoyed that I wasn't there. I mentioned this to my friend in Rekyjavik and she said "just hop on a plane, it's supposed to last a bit." This comment - together with photos taken from a small plane over the eruption site in a UK newspaper - got me thinking; it hadn't actually crossed my mind to go until then. I casually mentioned to my husband that evening that I ought to go over and see it (and spend a little extra time there to make the trip worthwhile, of course) and that was that, decision made. I spent the next couple of days booking everything, with a couple of sightseeing flights over the volcano organised too, and left a few days later.

So off I went on a last-minute trip to my favourite country - volcano-chasing the perfect excuse to go back there. I flew into Keflavik in a light drizzle and got the bus along the strange, characterless road across the endless lava fields that lead to Reykjavik, got dropped off at domestic airport, and from there I then flew up to Akureyri, arriving during the golden hour, the sun shining beautifully to greet me. It was a lovely welcome back to this beloved country. I picked up a one-way rental car and headed off to Goðafoss for my first night (see my waterfall blog). The woman at the guesthouse told me that it was possible to see the glow from the lava a few kilometers away, so I had a quick look - indeed the horizon shone with the reflection of the lava on the clouds of smoke and gas it was pouring out. It set my excitement levels higher for what I was hoping to see the following day!

After an early rise to catch sunrise over the falls I headed to Lake Myvatn, hoping to get my first sightseeing flight at 8.30am. As I drove around the lake I could see a sandstorm to the south, and the weather-forecast was for strong winds both in Myvatn and over Holuhraun (I'd been checking manically for the previous few days), so I didn't have high hopes of the flight actually leaving. As expected, all the Myflug flights were cancelled that day, but rearranged for the following morning. I didn't feel too disappointed, as I still had plenty of opportunity to see it, and there's lots to see in the area. I spent the day pottering around a bit at the mud pools at Hverir, driving up to Dettifoss, wandering between the lava formations at Dimmuborgir and finally exploring the pseudo-craters near my hotel (the Sel Myvatn) during the golden hour. After dinner I headed back to Dimmuborgir where I witnessed the most spectacular northern lights show (see my northern lights blog).

The next day the winds were forecast to be really strong until about 2pm, but my flight was at midday, so I was worried that it might be postponed again. I didn't receive a cancellation call, so drove to the airport and arrived to be told that it was all on. Half an hour later I was sitting in the front passenger seat of a 6-seater Cessna, the controls in front of me, heading south across a massive barren lava field towards the smoke trail on the horizon, beside a pilot who was probably just over half my age! It was an overcast day, which was perfect for viewing the lava, although made the sights along the way a little dull. We flew over the enormous Askja crater lake (and nearby Viti), before arriving at the magnificent eruption site at Holuhraun. We spent about 15 minutes circling the incredible spectacle so all of us on the plane got a good view. Huge amounts of red hot lava were forced out of the black craters every few seconds, with the smoke and gases, lava trail and mountains just visible behind. It was over too quickly, and off we headed back to Myvatn airstrip - all with massive grins on our faces, and memory cards full of photos.

Although it wasn't very bumpy, I felt quite airsick on the way back. I'd over-dressed and totally over-heated and was very glad to arrive back on firm ground and strip off a few layers. As a result of feeling quite rough, I wasn't too bothered whether the flight was on the following day or not, given that I'd seen what I'd come to see. I went back to the hotel and caught up on a few hours of sleep.

After another small northern lights show and a bit of a lie-in I returned to the airport for 10am the next day and it turned out that the winds were light enough to fly - so off I went again, also in the Cessna, with a different pilot (also half my age!). I sat on the right-hand side again, but in the middle, behind the passenger seat. The view was still good, although I couldn't see the volcano as we approached. It was slightly more bumpy, although not bad, but we couldn't fly over the Askja crater this time. Instead we saw some beautiful isolated hillocks on the desolate lava plain below, lit by patchy sunlight. The air to the east was thick with red gas and smoke from the volcano. The wind-direction had changed slightly and was now blowing towards the north/north-west, so we were able to fly a little south of the eruption site over the lava flow. The pilot flew higher than the previous day, so the view was different, looking down on the eruption sites and the glowing lava trail as it wove its way down to the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river. The volcano seemed even more active than the previous day, with one massive eruption and three smaller ones. We only did a couple of sweeps past the lava, as we went further along the trail, but still got great views, before heading back to base. I wish I could've stayed there longer, circling around, looking down at the bubbling molten rock - serious geology in action!



From then on the trip was a little more normal. I drove slowly back to Reykjavik over a few days, stopping along the way in the northern fjords and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the west, seeing more beautiful waterfalls and some striking stacks, before the last highlight of my trip - actually going inside a dormant volcano chamber! I'd read about the Inside the Volcano trip a couple of years earlier, and was disappointed not to be able to go in March (it only operates during summer months). When I booked this trip it was an added bonus to be able to do this excursion. When I arrived at the starting point at the Bláfjöll ski field in a misty drizzle I realised why they only run it in summer - it's up on a high desolate plateau that suffers from strong winds and lots of fog and rain.

After kitting myself out in thermals and rain/windproof layers, the group of us set off across the lava, passing a few lava tube caves, before arriving at the basecamp for the journey into the volcano. In May each year they helicopter in a couple of portaloos and containers that serve as the storage unit and shelter for people before and after the trip (they take all of the equipment out again at the end of September). We were split into three groups and given harnesses and hard hats to wear, before climbing the last few metres up to the entrance of the volcano. There we were attached by a line to a bridge across the narrow opening of the volcano, and then reattached to a line inside the lift carriage (the lift is like one of those on the side of a skyscraper for window-cleaning and is attached to a crane). When we were all in we were hoisted down about 120 metres into the volcano below. On the floor of the cave they've set up a series of flood-lights to light up the walls of the massive chamber. The colours on the walls are quite incredible - mainly yellow from the sulphur and red from the iron, with a few others thrown in. Standing at the bottom and looking up to the tiny slit of light made me realise just how enormous volcanoes can be, and I thought of it full of bubbling and erupting lava, like the one I'd flown above at Holuhraun. This was what would be left at Holuhraun in a thousand years, perhaps!

It was challenging photographically, as the light was still very limited, and the ground was uneven with rocks from old eruptions, but I managed one shot I was very pleased with of a local man taking his own photos (he stood still enough for my long exposure to catch him!). It was also impossible to capture the whole of the cave with my widest angle on the new 16-35mm lens, or to get a sense of the scale of the place. If I return, I'll have to rent an 8mm fish-eye, or something of that ilk.

Like the flights it was over too quickly and our group was called to return to the surface; I could've stayed down there for hours. As we ascended the remaining people down below became the little dots of their white helmets before soon disappearing. We climbed out along the platform and then wandered back down to basecamp where a big pot of hot lamb stew awaited us. After two bowls of the delicious soup we headed back across the lava, a fine drizzle still dampening the walk. We stopped in a couple of lava tubes, the lovely guide excitedly pointing out that the walls were almost smooth from the lava that had flown through them over a thousand years before.

I drove back to Reykjavik, without getting lost for a change (don't know what it is about that geography and roads in that city - it just confuses the hell out of me!) and headed to the Welcome Apartments, where I always stay. I had a bite to eat at Café Solon, where I always eat, washed down by a couple of wonderful porters made by Borg (one of the country's micro-breweries), before a long last Icelandic sleep (it was drizzly, so no northern light spotting or sunrise to worry about). In the morning I wandered around the town and photographed some of the artistic graffiti, stopped in a café where I was greeted by a panoramic array of bright apples - everyone was on their Macs, before a last look inside Harpa and my beloved Solfar (sun viking) sculpture.

It was a fantastic trip, full of wild vulcanism, intense aurora, crazy colours and majestic waterfalls; well worth the impulsive last-minute decision to go and see the volcano and also experience a part of the country I didn't know, at a different time of year. I did feel strange (and quite sad) not to be visiting Jökulsárlón beach or the south coast, but I can't go there every time! And who knows, the volcano may still be erupting in March, and maybe by then it'll be possible to visit it at ground-level and see it in all its glory, up close and personal...

Other images from the trip can be found on my website within the Iceland Sept 2014 gallery

Please contact me for details on licensing/usage of the volcano images at sophiecarrphotography@hotmail.co.uk

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