I briefly thought I might call this article Naked People, but then I was afraid that I would get all sorts of complaints from consumer advocates from all around the world, on behalf of people who started reading, and did not find what they were looking for. So I settled for a less provocative title.
Askja is the first active volcano in my lifetime. Icelandic volcano, that is. I will always remember the day I heard of the first eruption that occurred in Iceland after I was born. After the Hekla eruption in 1947 no volcano had erupted until October 26, 1961, Askja burst out. Since then they have become more frequent, 23 eruptions in 49 years.
But back then eruptions were not an everyday phenomenon, especially not for a six year old. Why do I remember the date? I like to say because of my photographic memory, but that would not be strictly true. My younger brother was born on the day of the eruption, so every year he celebrates the anniversary of the volcanic outbreak.
The 1961 eruption was not particularly big or scary. Nothing compared to the 1875 explosion, which spewed so much ash over northern Iceland that thousands fled the country for Canada and North Dakota.
This was almost 49 years ago and I had never been to Askja. It is not really a place you visit on the way somewhere. The place is hidden between Vatnajökull, the biggest glacier in Iceland, and indeed all of Europe, and Herdubreid, Iceland’s most beautiful mountain. To visit it you have to travel first to Mývatn in the north of Iceland, about 500 kilometers from Reykjavík and then about 100 kilometers off the main road towards the glacier. On the way you cross big rivers and sand deserts.
Last year my wife and I went with a group of people to climb Herdubreid, the queen of mountains. The strangely symmetric mountain stands up almost 1,700 meters above sea level. It was thought to be insurmountable until 1908 two people found a path to the top. The steep slopes have claimed lives; in our group one person died from heart attack during the climb, and another broke a rib when a big rock fell down.
The view from the top is fantastic, but we could not see Askja, the small and mighty crater hidden behind a mountain, less than 40 kilometers away.
This winter we decided to let this be the summer that we could tick off Askja from the places you have to visit during your lifetime. The decision was made over drinks with a couple of friends, who promptly forgot all about it. Now they can thank me for not letting them off the hook.
After you get off the main road you see nothing but sand and hills for the longest time. Then a small hut with grass on top appears and if you notice it you should stop. The hut may be 6 square meters or so and it does not tell you how people lived in Iceland in olden times. It was a mountain shelter for shepherds, and you would have to be pretty cold to want to sleep there on a turf bed.
Next stop: Herdubreidarlindir. The beautiful place in the vicinity of the most beautiful mountain of the country. Many hours’ drive from anywhere. We were met by a swarm of flies and a handful of tourists with a net around their head. I don’t know what would be more unpleasant, the flies or walking around with the net.
At Herdubreidarlindir you can set up your tent or stay in a hut. We did neither but visited the hut of Mountain-Eyvindur, an outlaw in the late 18th century. This hut is much smaller than the one we had just left, at most 2 square meters, maybe less. But it does have running water at the side, being situated over a spring. Eyvindur is said to have claimed that this was his worst habitat, although on a beautiful summer day the environment was most pleasant.
Two hours later our SUVs had brought us all the way to Askja. Or as close as you can get by car. We had to walk the last kilometers, maybe a half hour’s walk or so.
When we got there the view was much stranger than I had thought. The lake Öskjuvatn is bigger and more mysterious than my imagination had allowed. Don’t misunderstand me. It is not huge, but large. Before we got to the big lake we did see the bottom of the crater Víti with its light blue water and strangely colored sides. A few dots on the lake drew my attention. They were the heads of swimmers.
Víti is the crater formed in the 1875 eruption. A lake formed at the bottom and even now, one hundred and thirty five years later it is still warm, a comfortable 22 degrees Celsius (about 72 on the Fahrenheit scale). Busloads of tourists come here to swim.
It is not easy to go down to the crater. At onset of the steep and narrow path going down a sign in English and Icelandic reads: “Enter Víti at your own risk.” The sign maker didn’t dare translate the name Víti. It means Hell.
We did enter at our own risk. Had we not seen many old women make the dangerous walk before us, we might have hesitated. But where old women dare, so do middle aged men.
By the time we came down the lake was filled with people. I was surprised that all of them had remembered to take their swimwear when I discovered that most didn’t. They just jumped out of their clothes and into the lake.
(Don’t search for them on the photos; most of the swimmers were Germans in their late seventies, regular beer drinkers and sauerkraut eaters. Revealing pictures would be too much for most of our readers. There was a group of young Spanish women, but those photos are safely stored in my personal archives.)
Being timid people we just stood and stared, at most putting a toe in the water. Somebody said it tasted like nothing. I was not tempted. The sulfur smell was not strong. On my way back up I found the fragrance of a very large Icelandic woman, but that was probably from too much Eau du Cologne.
The big lake Öskuvatn is a magical place. Standing on the edge and viewing the surroundings I couldn’t help feeling small. I thought of what had taken place here a hundred years ago.
On July 10, 1907, two German scientists, Walter von Knebel and Max Rudloff disappeared on the lake while exploring the lake in a small boat. Knebel's fiancée, Ina von Grumbkow, led an expedition in search of them, but no trace of them was ever found. Gerrit Jan Zwier, a Dutch writer, wrote a novel about those events, but it may not have been published in English. I read it in Icelandic and liked it.
The stop at Askja was too short but on the way back we stopped at a canyon by the huts. It is called Dragon's Canyon (Drekagil) because of strange rock formations. At the very end a waterfall made it the perfect adventure canyon of my childhood dreams.
There is more to see. About eight kilometers to the south-east, in the middle of the dessert, a river called Black river (Svartá) comes up from the ground. Truly an oasis.
The day had come to an end. We still had long to drive, to the east to the Kárahnúkar power project area. In the morning we went to the famous Laugarvalladalur, where you can bath in a hot waterfall. This time I was more courageous and actually did bathe and then jump into a cold river. I leave that moment to your imagination.