No proper tour of the Icelandic Highlands is complete without a visit to Askja Caldera, where the highlight of the trip is taking a swim in a giant volcanic bath tub. Admittedly, getting to the crater is a mission; hours spent crossing desolate volcanic deserts and lava fields where your chances of finding a petrol station en route are slim to non existent. But if you have the right vehicle and the right guide, like those from Fjalladryd, it’s a classic, educational and quite other worldly Icelandic experience…
Playing volcanic catch
Matthew and I are playing volcanic catch with a slab of pumice. It’s the size of a loaf but weighs as much as a bread roll. Hannah is making a castle out of black sand while Cameron is closely examining the pinky-purple petals of the Arctic Riverbeauty; a delicate flower that only shows its face for three weeks every year. But we can’t hang around for long. There’s work to do. The gates of a bridge across a glacially fed river need opening to let the car through. Perhaps some of the spray will wash the dust from the Land Rover so we can see the track.
Let’s go swim in a volcano
Today we are off to swim in a volcanic crater. As you do in Iceland. But first we have to cross the wild open plains of the Eastern Highlands. And that’s not as easy as it sounds. The Icelandic interior is a wild, untamed beast. While back home, the Scottish Highlands are all grass, sheep, haggis and hillock, here there’s only miles and miles of barren rock. Veteran rock, baby rock, and rock that in the big scale of things has only just been born. Everywhere you look; sprawling jagged mountain, gnarled and twisted lava field and Malteser like pumice that grinds to dust under your feet. The monochromatic grey black makes it all feel like a desert. But now and then you turn a corner and the the iron streaked vista makes you feel like you’ve landed on Mars.
Through the lava fields
We turn a corner quite often on our two and a half hour drive to Askja, essentially winding around a 5000 square metre lava flow; swinging our way along asphalt highway, rubble covered F road (mountain roads that can only permit a 4×4 vehicle) and sand strewn track to nowhere. But although it looks as though no human could possibly make friends with this charred and forbidding landscape, Elisabet Kristjansdottir; our guide and driver, is very comfortable here. This rocky world has been her playground, workplace and home for the last decade. She began her career here as a warden in two of the national parks and together with her husband she now runs Mödrudalur; the highest inhabited farm in Iceland and founded the Fjalladryd Travel Service there. We veer off the track at high speed. “Let’s take the shepherds road,” says Elisabet grinning. She hands out chocolate ‘lava’ biscuits and points out where her sheep graze on patches of vegetation they manage to find in miles of barren looking volcanic landscape. “They are very clever animals, you know,” she explains, “very good at finding food. The grass here is strong, full of nutrients. It has to be to survive.” As we bounce along a rock strewn ridge it feels like we are going over the back of a whale; our wheels carving out a path between the boulders scattered around us. And then we are back on track, apparently.
“How do you know where the road is?” asks Stuart. “I feel it under the wheels,” Elisabet replies. I wasn’t aware there was a road under our wheels any more, it all looks like one big rocky beach to me. “You should try and find the road at the beginning of the season when the snow is still here,” Elisabet laughs. “Even the poles are covered.”
Not just a journey, an education
On our journey to the crater, Elisabet provides a lively education on geology, geography and volcanology, explaining how the Askja central volcano is in the Dyngjufjöll mountains, a range created by repeated eruptions under Ice Age glaciation. It seems there is nothing she doesn’t know about this area. We learn to spot different types of lava and how it is formed; into smooth twisted ropes, gentle flows, pillows or jagged weapons that tell the tales of where it came from and how quickly it cooled after being blasted from the centre of the earth in nature’s latest fit of rage.“You can see the black lava tongue over there,” says Elisabet, as we draw closer to our destination. “This comes from the opening of Askja in the eruption of 1961, and it is the newest lava field around here.”
A crater within a crater
When we finally ditch the 4×4 for two feet, the hike into the crater takes almost an hour. Viti Crater is essentially a crater within a caldera within a caldera. With me? No? Well, to give you a brief geology lesson:
Askja is essentially a massive 50 sq kilometre circular depression formed at the end of the last glaciation when a magma chamber collapsed beneath the Dyngjufjöll mountains. The sudden loss of magma led to what’s known as a roof collapse, basically the top of the volcano falling in on itself, and this is what caused the massive, deep, circular depression in the landscape, called a caldera in many languages and an askja in Icelandic. See, that’s where the place gets its name from.
Over the years lava from later eruptions at the edge of the caldera gradually filled bits of it in. In 1875, (yesterday in geological terms) another powerful eruption at the southeast corner of Askja threw out 2.5 cubic km of light coloured ash (known as tephra) in just a few hours, and it’s this material that characterises the look and feel of the area today. This eruption ended with another roof collapse creating another smaller, very deep caldera within the main caldera. This then filled up with water to creating the deep blue lake Öskjuvatn. At 220m deep, it’s Iceland’s deepest, but it’s not a lake you’d want to swim in. Way too cold.
No, if you want to swim in a caldera you want the Viti crater, a smaller explosion crater also formed in the 1875 eruption but filled with geothermally heated water.
So essentially, you walk into one giant caldera, which conceals a smaller caldera filled with a massive sapphire blue lake, (which you wouldn’t want to bathe in unless you are iron man) beside which the smaller still Viti crater which you do want to bathe in; -especially if you are a kid. Still with me?
Of course the story isn’t finished. There have been minor eruptions here since, in the 1920′s and more recently at Vikraborgir in 1961. So who knows, there’s a chance you could get a tephra shower while you’re having a bath, which all adds to the sense of excitement.
It’s a hike to Viti through the Askja caldera, across black sand dunes. And then, out of nowhere there it is; empty, vast, pale blue and breathtaking. A coach party has also spilled out across the sands and now it’s a race to the water. Then, an Olympian sprint down the steep muddy side of the giant crater, slip-sliding all the way in the afternoon heat. At the bottom of the slope, the Scandinavian half of the tourists strip off and wade in. The rest of us hide behind rocks to put on bathing suits, before plunging into the pale blue volcanic hot pool.
Swimming in a volcano
So what’s it like to swim in a volcanic caldera? It’s both hot and cool depending on what you are standing on. It’s slimy underfoot, and completely intoxicating. It’s floating in a warm cloud, watching life happen from a distance. Tiny bubbles of water pop and spit in my ears, and I feel cocooned and small and insignificant, in this crater inside a crater, that burst onto this planet only a hundred or so years ago.
On the way back, the landscape is parted by the protected nature reserve Herdubreidarlindir; an oasis in the dunes and ‘home’ for one winter to the famous Icelandic outlaw Fjalla- Eyvindur. “He said it was the hardest winter of his life living here alone,” explains Elisabet as she tells something of his story. But today in the sunshine it looks like an English garden, rare, clean spring water bursting forth from a hole in the lava to bring life to plants like Sea Thrift and Angelica. Proof that there is life in the wild, barren Highlands. Proof that things can grow and flourish here, if and where nature dictates.
Life in the desert
As we wind back to Modrudalar, curving around Herdubreid -Iceland’s beloved ‘Queen of Mountains’, we take in our final slices of this extraordinary landscape. Elizabet points out one last rock in the distance. “That’s where Oblivion was filmed a few months ago. Tom Cruise was flown in by helicopter every day, but the crew stayed with us at the farm and the surrounding area of Myvatn lake.” she tells us. Stuart suggests she should do tours of the film set for tourists, to cash in on the Hollywood glamour. “Like New Zealand did with Lord of The Rings once Peter Jackson had finished using it for a film set.” We are all silent for a moment as we think about that, gazing around this giant Icelandic sci-fi set, which allows you to visit an alien place, and feel part of another world.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 visiting Northern Europe, Iceland and The Faroes, exploring the wilder parts of these adventure islands, reporting on attractions and activities on offer to adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to DFDS Seaways and Smyril Line for their support in getting us to Europe, Iceland and The Faroes. And to Berghaus and Thule who have helped equip us for the journey.
Thanks especially to Elisabet at Fjalladrýd in Mödrudalur for her jeep, driving and expert guiding which enabled us to bring you this story.
You can follow our progress on The Family Adventure Project Punkt and get some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of our journey.