“Do not step on the moss,” we were repeatedly told when we visited Laki volcanic fissure area in South Iceland over the recent Merchant Holiday Weekend. By the time we began walking up Laki mountain, we had been warned of the moss’ extreme fragility and the importance of sticking to the trail at least four times by the audio guide, then by our bus driver, and finally, by one of the park rangers on arrival to the site. Moss areas are particularly sensitive and damage caused by footprints and tire marks can take a very long time to heal.
The view from Laki mountain. Photos: Zoë Robert.
Laki is a volcanic fissure which lies between Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers. The system erupted over an eight-month period between 1783 and 1784. Today, the area is a popular hiking destination.
On the way to Laki.
While chatting to the park ranger the next day, I expressed my shock at the recent incident at Þingvellir National Park where several campers ripped up large amounts of moss in order to insulate their tents, causing many open scars in the land. While the ranger too indicated her dissatisfaction, she pointed out that large moss areas, like those which exist in Iceland, are rare in other countries and that some people may not realize their true value. This I understand, but I still find it difficult to accept that people can willingly uproot large areas of vegetation, especially in or near a national park, and think that is admissible.
The Laki area is largely covered by moss.
During our walk up the mountain, people had mostly kept to the track as they had been instructed to, but like Eygló, I’m upset with some people’s ideas of wild camping, doing their business in nature, ignoring warning signs (sometimes these signs are intended to help protect the environment, other times the visitor) or cordoned off areas or walking off trails, and (illegal) off-road driving (including a recent incident where the driver spun the car’s wheels in circles, causing more damage).
People ignoring a warning sign at Sólheimajökull, South Iceland.
As for Laki, the staff at Vatnajökull National Park, in which the area lies, is considering limiting the number of visitors, such as by allowing organized tours only, as the area cannot withstand much more traffic, Morgunblaðið recently reported.
Tourists at Laki crater.
Yes, there needs to be more information and awareness-raising at all levels here in Iceland—airlines, car rental companies and hotels can do more—and there needs to be better infrastructure to handle the increase in numbers. I think many Icelanders accept that the negative effects of the tourism boom are not (in most cases) to be blamed on visitors. In fact, in a MMR poll published Monday, 80 percent of Icelanders reported being positive about foreign tourists in Iceland.
But we—locals and visitors alike—can all be reminded of the old tourists’ ‘no trace’ mantra of taking only photos and leaving only footprints (… in this case, just not on the moss).
Zoë Robert - zoe(at)icelandreview.com