*** ICELAND 2017 - WEEKS 5~6 ***
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CAMPING IN ICELAND 2017 - Mřvatn, Hverfell crater and Dimmuborgir, Nßmafjall solfataras, Stˇragjß and Grjˇtagjß fault-fissures, Krafla and Leirhnj˙kur, Sk˙tustair pseudocraters and H÷fđi; west to Gođafoss and Akureyri:
Return to Mřvatn: from Dettifoss we returned westwards along the Ring Road across the wastes of B˙rfellshraun past the Nßmafjall solfataras, and over the Nßmaskar Pass we descended towards Mřvatn and the road junction at ReykjahlÝ (click on Map 1 opposite for details of route).
Vogar Camping: of the 3 camping options for our time at Mřvatn, we chose the family-run Vogar Camping just down the lake from ReykjahlÝ past the lava outcrops, hoping this would be less crowded. All 3 were inevitably expensive given the tourist demand at Mřvatn, but Vogar at an all-inclusive 3,500 kr/night with 4th night free offered better value. The welcome at reception was friendly and obligingly helpful, and facilities, although rather ramshackle and scattered over several huts, were some of the best we had found with a number of WC/showers (geothermally heated), a well-equipped kitchen (including microwave)/wash-up and large common room. We selected a flat, grassy pitch with access to power, and during the evening the campsite filled up with both car/tents and hired campers.
Hverfell tephra crater: the overnight cloud cleared to give a bright sun for our first morning at Vogar Camping (see above left). Mřvatn means Midge Lake, and this morning's fine weather brought out the first of this summer's notorious Mřvatn midges, ferociously bothersome but fortunately non-biting little brutes which swarm around your face and eyes, making midge-nets indispensable when outside; inside the camper, our faithful Bagon Diffuser was an effective deterrent. With the weather looking fine and stable, we decided to begin our time at Mřvatn in style by climbing Hverfell around the tephra crater rim, followed by an exploration of the lava formations at Dimmuborgir.
A short distance further along the lake from Vogar, we turned off onto a lava dust dirt-road which wound across the lava towards the low profile of the Hverfell cone, curving around the tephra crater's foot for some 2 kms to end at a parking area already filled with tourist cars, camping-cars and even a tour-bus (click here for detailed map of route). How different this was from our last visit in 1972 when just a faint track led across the then deserted and scrub-covered lava field. Hverfell is a classic tephra cone of consolidated volcanic ash, cinders and debris with its crater rim varying between 100~180m above the surrounding lava field, and crater the same depth and 1km wide. The low, bulky and imposing outline of the crater dominates the landscape of eastern Mřvatn. Hverfell was formed 2,500 years ago by a massive phreatic eruption at the southern end of the Krafla fissure swarm; the magma came into contact with percolating water, causing a cataclysmic explosion which ripped the magma apart ejecting the pyroclastic debris, ash cloud and scoria to form the Hverfell crater. From the parking area, a slanting path sloped up the side of the crater (Hverfell crater rim footpath), and with the weather fine and most of our kit in day-sacs, we began the climb (see above left) (Photo 1 - Hverfell crater path). From the start, the views across the lava fields extended northwards towards the distant volcanic peak of Hliarfjall, the Nßmaskar Pass and steam rising from the Nßmafjall solfataras (Photo 2 - Hverfell Crater Northward view). To the right of another crater depression in the intervening lava field, a large seeded area with striated tracts of grass extended eastwards, recalled from 1972 (see right). We followed the upward path, fearing that the crater rim, so peacefully deserted in 1972, would today be a Blackpool beach of milling tourists; but on reaching the crater rim, most of the milling hordes had alread snapped their 'selfies' and descended to their tour-bus to be hastened away to the next attraction. We were left in comparative peace to savour the unbelievable panoramic vista looking along the crater rim across the surrounding lava fields and distant Mřvatn lake to the west (see above left). We recalled this same view recorded on our rather grainy 1972 photograph, which is paired as a nostalgic time-lapse with its 2017 equivalent (Photo 3 - Hverfell crater rim). Down within the crater's interior, a distinctive hump of volcanic debris was visible in the centre of the crater floor, formed in the final 'burp' of the explosive eruption which originally created the cone (Photo 4 - Hverfell's crater floor) (see right); again we have paired this with its equivalent photo taken 45 years ago.
We set off to follow the 3km circuit path clockwise around the crater rim (Hverfell crater rim footpath), and a short way up sat on boulders of tephra debris to eat our sandwich lunch; this must be another of the most memorable lunch spots ever, on the rim of a volcanic tephra crater (see above left) (Photo 5 - Hverfell lunch), hopefully long extinct! At the highest point on this side of the undulating crater-rim (the altimeter read 450m), we paused for further photos of the northward panoramic vista towards Hliarfjall and Krafla, SW-wards towards Mřvatn, and across the depths of the grey rubble crater with central hump of volcanic debris. The path of consolidated ash and cinder rubble circled around towards the crater's eastern side. From here the vista extended across a fearful landscape of dismally dark lava fields and sandur towards the distant bulky, snow-streaked outline of B˙rfell (Photo 6 - B˙rfell table-mountain), formed like other table-mountains in the Mřvatn region by eruptions that melted their way up from under the ice sheet during Ice Age glacial period. As we moved upwards along the eastern rim to a further highpoint, the distinctive outline of Ludent became visible, another tephra crater like Hverfell, and running N~S along its foot the lava line of the Ludentarborgir fissure eruption (see left). We continued around to a highpoint on the southern side, which opened up a further vista over the crumpled lava field of Dimmuborgir; from this point, a faint path led down into the crater to its floor. In 1972, we were the sole visitors to the Hverfell crater rim, and had scree-run down to the crater floor, to record on photo moon-walk style footprints in the black volcanic sand (see right). Today however, with greater awareness of the environmental damage if 1000s of tourists descended into the crater, we were rather more restrained! Completing the crater rim's circumference steeply down to our start point, with final glances down into the humped crater floor, we descended the approach path back to the parking area.
Dimmuborgir lava formations: just along the lake road, Route 884 side-lane led to a parking area for the Dimmuborgir lava field (click here for detailed map of route). When we were last here in 1972, this was a wild area of scrubland, but now a series of colour-coded walks led around the maze of Dimmuborgir's contorted lava pillars. This unique array of lava formations was formed some 2,300 years ago by a 10m deep lake of molten lava flowing from a huge eruption at the Ludentarborgir fissure craters to the east. At Dimmuborgir the molten lava pooled above a water-filled, marshy depression, and the surface layer solidified; the water beneath the hot lava boiled and jets of steam and gas burst through the molten mass to the surface forming cooling vents that hardened the surrounding lava to create consolidated lava pillars. As the lava continued to flow to lower ground where Mřvatn now lies, the top crust collapsed leaving the standing, solidified pillars coated with scoria as seen today. The large, hollow cell-like lava structures formed around bursting bubbles of sulphurous vapour, and the dramatically standing lava pillars and formations contorted into a variety of shapes (see left) (Photo 7 - Dimmuborgir lava formations), all remain enclosing a central lower area now filled with birch scrub like an ancient walled fortress, hence the meaning of the name Dimmu-borgir - Dark Citadel.
The approach path, sanitised with tarmaced paths (to prevent tourists' nice shoes from being dirtied by black lava dust!) led down into the area of bizarre formations. A side-path led up to a lava arch through which the outline of Hverfell could be seen in the distance (see right). We continued around the now rougher paths network, largely free from tourist intrusion (they stray no more than 200m from their buses and cars!). The path wove among the contorted lava formations leading eventually to the huge bubble formed lava-tube portal known as Kirkja since it resembled an Gothic arched church (Photo 8 - Kirkja lava-tube cave); attached is another time-lapse 1972 equivalent photo from Dimmuborgir. Here the rock surface of side-walls was conspicuous with cellular, bubble-like hollows. We scrambled up and through the large cave to the far portal, trying to figure out the process which had formed this mystical structure. The wild flora growing around the cave was as impressive as the fascinating volcanology: Bearberry in full flower, Bilberry and Bog-bilberry. The ongoing path led across the central hollowed area of Dimmuborgir and back through the fortress rim-wall amid contorted formations, lava pillars of varying size, and surface areas of lava-crust cracked as the cooling lava had solidified. We returned to Vogar Camping for a further night.
Nßmafjall solfataras and fumaroles at Hverir: the following day was grey and overcast, and with little prospect for weather improvement our plan was to visit the Nßmafjall solfatara with its boiling mud pools and fumaroles (click here for detailed map of route). Out along Route 1 from ReykjahlÝ, we paused at the lookout point part way up the Nßmaskar Pass to walk back down the Ring Road to where we had stopped in 1972, to photograph the gaping fissure gashed northwards across the ochre ridge line of Dalfjall, marking the line of the Mřvatn Rift where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge tectonic plates are separating (see right) (Photo 9 - Mřvatn Rift). Again we have paired our 2017 photo with its time-lapse equivalent photo taken 45 years ago, which shows the then rough gravelled state of the Ring Road over the Nßmaskar Pass compared with the tarmaced highway of today. From this vantage point, we could look down over the western slopes of Nßmafjall and Dalfjall to the active geothermal zone where the landscape was marred by the shimmering turquoise toxic effluent pond from earlier industrial exploitation here. Today distinctive plumes of 200║C steam emerged from bore-hole well-heads harnessed by the Bjarnarflag geothermal power plant, and steam gushed from the pipelines feeding the 1960s power station.
Nßmaskar Pass crossed the brown-ochre volcanic mud-sand fell scape ridge-line of Dalfjall to the north and Nßmafjall to the south, and ahead to the east the modern Ring Road cut a straight course across the B˙rfellshraun lava fields. At the eastern foot of the pass below the scoria slopes of Nßmafjall, the solfatara fields and steam-gushing fumaroles of Hverir lay spread out across the valley floor (see left). We have paired our 2017 photo with its time-lapse equivalent taken 45 years ago (Photo 10 - Nßmafjall solfataras); in comparing the 2 photos, you will notice the marked absence of tourists in 1972 compared with 2017. Today the parking area, brimming full of tourist cars and buses, showed that we should not enjoy this curious phenomenon of volcanism in peace as we had done in 1972. Although the impact of mass tourism inevitably meant an increase in safety-roped walkways, to prevent silly souls sinking into the still scalding-hot, soft ground and corrosive volcanic mud, the formality was not as restrictive as feared, and with indifferent contempt for the tourist hordes we began our explorations.
This area of late-stage volcanism, the last vestiges of more violent fissure activity which had produced the hyaloclastite ridges of Nßmafjall from sub-glacial eruptions, now reveals itself as a moon-scape solfatara of yellow surface sulphur deposits (see above left), plopping pools of boiling blue-grey liquid mud (see above right), and gushing steam fumaroles (see left). These phenomena are caused by ground water percolating downwards into the earth's crust to the levels of magma intrusions, to be superheated and mixed with sulphurous vapours then forced under pressure back to the surface still at temperatures up to 200║C, to exit as pools of boiling, belching corrosive mud or steam-vent fumaroles. Sulphur leached from the earth coats the ground surface with white-yellow deposits, and around the vents and boiling mud pools the air reeks of hydrogen-sulphide.
A viewing platform gave an overview of the solfataras and mud pools, and trails marked by safety ropes led among these wondrous features. In 1972 we had named one of the mud pools Old Flop-flop from the distinctive sound of its regular plopping bubbles bursting to the surface of the boiling pool within a surround of accumulated encrusted grey sticky mud thrown up from the well (Photo 11 - Boiling mud pools). We wandered among the boiling pools taking many photos (Photo 12 - Boiling mud bubble) (see left and right), then crossed to the area of fumaroles where pressured, scalding steam gushed from vents in mounds of rock, filling the air with its roaring sound (see above right) (Photo 13 - Steam-gushing fumarole); note that the only distant vehicle on the 1972 photo is our hired grey VW Beetle. Despite our fears about the intrusive presence now of hordes of tourists, their generally incurious lack of any wonderment at such astonishing phenomena, and brief span of attention meant that, having satisfied their vanity by taking 'selfies', they passed quickly by with little interest, leaving us uninterrupted to examine the fumaroles.
Click here to watch our video of Nßmafjall solfataras and fumaroles
Climbing the Nßmafjall ridge: we followed a path across the brown-ochre fell-side from the solfataras hoping this would lead up onto the Nßmafjall ridge at its southern end. Initially this sloped steadily upwards across the barren, hardened, crumbled scoria-clay loose surface, but soon the gradient steepened to a severe 50║ slope. Where the path was consolidated by the passage of feet, the crumbled clay was hardened into a smooth surface; in wet weather, this would have been a treacherously insecure path. Even in dry conditions, the severity of the slope simply made this a foolhardy route, and with some difficulty we retreated to more secure ground, to try the northern approach to the Nßmafjall ridge. The path passed around the lower slopes of Nßmafjall above the Hverir solfataras (Photo 14 - Nßmafjall lower slopes), leading around the brown-ochre sandy-clay fell-side towards the road leading up the Nßmaskar Pass, and gained height below the Ring Road embankment. Here it turned southwards on a more promising line up the Nßmafjall ridge, and although the steepening gradient looked a real grind, at least the route was clear with no evidently severe exposure as on the earlier attempt at the southern approach to the ridge. We made surprisingly rapid progress up the ridge-line, with expansive views eastward over the Hverir solfataras and across the distant lava fields to the murky silhouette of B˙rfell on the horizon (see above left) (Photo 15 - North ridge of Nßmafjall). Higher still, the ridge was marked by steaming patches of surface sulphur. The path passed securely around a rocky outcrop and flattened along the 500m long summit ridge to its crowning outcrop. This involved a tricky scramble up to the trig point (Photo 16 - Nßmafjall summit outcrop) (see right), but the rewarding 360║ panorama was simply out of this world: eastwards across bleak lava fields towards B˙rfell (see below left), southwards towards distant Ludent and Hverfell where we were yesterday, westwards over the Hrossaborg solfataras towards distant Mřvatn (see below right), and northwards back along the ridge-line we had just ascended towards HlÝarfjall, Dalfjall and mighty Krafla (Photo 17 - Nßmafjall north ridge). What a crowning glory of volcanic fell-scape wonderland!
We dropped down from the summit outcrop and made our way back northwards along the ridge-line to descend towards the road at the head of Nßmaskar Pass and back down to the Hverir solfataras for further photographs of the boiling mud pools (Photo 18 - Boiling volcanic mud). But on returning to the parking area, our concern was that the hot ground edging the mud pools had melted our boots' vibram soles. Closer examination showed that, to our relief, they were in fact just coated with the filthy, glutinous grey volcanic mud which may well be corrosive! Returning over the Nßmaskar Pass, we again paused to photograph the view looking across the domes of the geothermal power plant's steaming well heads against the backdrop of Hverfell crater (see right); in today's gloomy light, this all made for moody, monotone photos. Back to ReykjahlÝ to book in for a further night at Vogar Camping, we were horrified to discover the arrival of a convoy of 17 French camping-cars, and hurried to secure our pitch and power supply at the far end. What, we speculated, was the collective noun for such a rabble of French camping-cars? A plague, a scourge, a menace? We pitched facing well away from this pollutant eyesore, as the camping-cars piled in with all the inevitable brouhaha that only French can make, as they squabbled intemperately over the limited power supplies and rushed to hoist their satellite dishes to avoid missing their next soap opera episode. We collapsed at such comic relief, amused that limited intelligence or simply sheer bad taste prevented such folk from showing any awareness of the magnificent natural surroundings in which they were parked (note the choice of verb!).
Wild flora and birdlife along the Stˇragjß fault-cleft and lava field: today was Iceland's National Day (17 June, the birthday of Jˇn Sigursson, leader of the 19th century independence movement) and we should spend the day exploring the Stˇragjß and Grjˇtagjß fault-clefts and surrounding lava fields. The path began just by the Route 1 junction at ReykjahlÝ (click here for detailed map of route), and as a prelude to the plethora of beautiful wild flora we were to encounter today, large wild pansies of varying shades from creamy-yellow to deep purple grew in profusion alongside the path. This led to the start of the 30m deep fissure-cleft of the Stˇragjß fault, opened up by the moving apart of the America and European tectonic plates (see left). This fearsomely deep cleft-gash stretched across the rough scrub for some distance, with intervening rocky ridges between the fissures where the ground had been ripped apart (Photo 19 - Stˇragjß fissure-cleft). With some uncertainty we descended a metal step ladder down into the depths of the fissure-chasm; sunlight brightened the gloom of the 30m high rock walls towering above and the luxuriant vegetation growing in the moist floor of the cleft (see right). Equally uncertainly, we clambered along the cleft floor, passing a 2m wide side-fissure filled with naturally heated water. Once at mid-30║C, this was a popular bathing hole until the water cooled to 25║C in the 1990s; a rope still gave access to the dark, confined space of the pool which is now infected with harmful bacteria. It looked singularly uninviting! Threading a way over boulders along the length of the fissure floor, we clambered out at the far end, to stand on the brink of the linear rim and photograph the length and depth of this extraordinary fissure-cleft (Stˇragjß in Icelandic means Great Fissure).
The ongoing way-marked path continued across the lava field, zigzagging every-which-way through a labyrinth of lava outcrops and fissures, up and down through a rough terrain of lava rocks and hillocks. The path dropped into deep hollows all swathed with dense thickets of birch woodland that once covered Iceland. The volcanism that created this fantastic lava landscape was unimaginable, but equally impressive was the paradise garden of wild flora that flourished in this undulating woodland: in addition to Crowberry, the ground was covered with vast carpets of Bearberry, and Bog Bilberry laden with fully open flowers. We saw Stitchwort, pink and white Alpine Fleabane, large clumps of Bartsia, Mountain Avens, Juniper low scrub, tiny insectivorous Butterworts, Stone Bramble with its white flowers, the pink pom-poms of Alpine Catchfly, and Moss Campion. The indistinct path, thankfully way-marked, meandered in every direction, up and down, through this birch wood covered lava wonderland. Down in the hollows, you had no idea where the path would turn next; up onto highpoints, landmark peaks such as the evident HlÝarfjall to the NW would appear along a different point of the horizon (see above left). At one crucial point, the path petered out at the brink of a scrub-covered lava precipice. Maps-Me, which we had been using as a GPS position locator through this labyrinth, showed we had unwittingly strayed off course following a false trail. We back-tracked to find a way-mark, picking up the secure line of the onward path. At this point, we spotted a different flower which on closer examination proved to be an Icelandic Frog Orchid (Photo 20 - Frog Orchid), and nearby specimens of Northern Small White Orchid (see right), many still in tight bud, both characteristic of the Icelandic nutrient-rich lava soils. Having retrieved the line of the trail, we reached a rise and watched a friendly Redwing, with the distinctive red smudge under its wing, flitting from tree to tree close by, and singing happily (see left) (Photo 21 - Redwing). This was joined by a pair of Redpolls with their distinctive ruddy cap, another bird typical of Icelandic birch woods. We continued across the woodland lava labyrinth, clambering up and down over the outcrops of jagged, sharp lava, the serpentine route zigzagging every-which-way but broadly maintaining a south-easterly direction, eventually to emerge at a junction with the path over to Grjˇtagjß.
Grjˇtagjß fault-line fissure and lava-cave pools: the onward path SE-wards was clearer, passing through more open birch scrub land to emerge onto the open desolation of the Vogahraun lava field, a wasteland of black sandy desert dotted with lava outcrops where even in these barren conditions, clumps of Bearberry managed to survive (see below left). Making faster progress now, we crossed 2 stiles to an area of more continuous sheet lava, much showing Pahoe-hoe ropey patterning, then suddenly descended to another gaping fissure-cleft which stretched linearly across the landscape and dropped to unknown, fearsomely dark depths. This was the Grjˇtagjß fault-line, created by the 2 separating tectonic plates whose junction lies SW~NE across the width of Iceland, and is responsible for much of its volcanism (see right).
Stepping gingerly across the fissure-gulf, we dropped down the 5m high sloping lava ridge to explore the gaping entrances into the Grjˇtagjß fissure cave, flooded with percolated ground-water which in the early 1970s was geothermally heated to a comfortable 40║C temperature, forming bathing caves. In the tourist-free days of 1972, we had bathed here in the underground steaming hot pools within the low-ceiling caves, one pool for women and the other for men. But in the mid-late 1970s, following the Krafla eruptions and resultant earthquakes, the ground-water came into closer contact with the underlying magma chamber, suddenly raising the pools' temperature to a scalding 60║C. The water has since cooled to 45║C, still uncomfortably hot, and with today's impact of mass tourism, the Vogar farm land-owners have now prohibited public bathing. Despite the inherent risk of roof falls, access to the cave is still possible, and we scrambled down into the narrow cave entrance through the surface crack in the lava ridge for a nostalgic re-visit (see right), and to photograph the steaming hot pool of crystal clear blue water, reflecting day light filtering down from the surface (Photo 22 - Grjˇtagjß lava-cave pool). Back up to the surface, we took our photos of Grˇtagjß's gaping fissure stretching across the Vogahraun lava-scape against the distant backdrop of HlÝarfjall (Photo 23 - Grjˇtagjß fault-line fissure); this rift was an even more classic illustration of the impact of tectonic plate movement on new landscape than we should later see at Ůingvellir.
Returning across the Vogahraun lava desert and sandur, we took more photos of this classic Icelandic lava-scape with its outcrops (see left), including a 2017 photo of Sheila botanising the lava desert to pair with its 1972 equivalent (Photo 24 - Botanising Vogahraun lava desert). Back into the birch scrub land, we followed another transverse path across the lava labyrinth, finding more beautiful specimens of classic Icelandic flora: further Alpine Fleabane (only seen before in Lapland), more open specimens of both Frog and Northern Small White Orchids, and some pearly pink Common Wintergreen still in bud. The path led back across the lava fields to ReykjahlÝ, but what a day this had been, to rank with all the memorable days of wild flora discoveries in Scandinavia, and our 1972 explorations of these wonderful lava fields and fissures. Rather than returning directly to camp at Vogar, we drove back up the Nßmaskar Pass to re-photograph the Mřvatn rift across Dalfjall in today's brighter light, and took a partially tarmaced back route across the Vogahraun past Grjˇtagjß to emerge at the farm road by the campsite. With today's warmer weather, the Mřvatn midges were out in force; we had needed to wear our midge-nets all day, and this evening the midges swarmed into the camper, try as we would to keep the doors closed, needing the Bagon to kill them off.
Bird watching around Mřvatn: the following morning was grey and drizzly, and we set off for a day of bird watching around the NW corner of Mřvatn. After a provisions shop at the ReykjahlÝ supermarket, we continued up past the contorted, crusty 1784 Eldhraun lava flow which extended down the hill side just north of the village, to the Route 87 junction and turned off onto the Ring Road around the western side of the lake (click here for detailed map of route). A gravelled side-turn around the inner bay of Nestlandavik led to Sigurdeir's Bird Museum, founded originally in 1985 at Ytri-Nesl÷nd farm by Sigurgeir Stefansson. After his death in a boating accident on Mřvatn in 1999, the museum was expanded by his family in a purpose-built exhibition building to house his unique collection of over 300 bird displays which includes a specimen of almost all Icelandic birds, all clearly labelled. Having spent time examining the displays, from the approach roadway alongside the enclosed bay of Mřvatn we photographed the bird-life swimming by the lake shore, including Tufted Ducks (see above left) and Red-necked Phalerope (see below left). Ashore on the heathland, a male Redshank drew our attention, clearly trying to divert us from its mate nesting in the heath by flying around with its alarm call and standing prominently on a rock (Photo 25 - Redshank). It paraded along the roadway in front of us, a remarkable display of self-sacrifice on the male bird's part in the face of would-be predators.
We drove around the western shore of the lake where, in the still waters of the shallows a number of birds could be seen, but a lack of firm parking areas prevented us from stopping. Further along at the parking area by Vangbrekka Farm, where the path for the Vindbelgjarfjall climb began, we again tried unsuccessfully to find access points with views of the lake birds. We did however get distant shots of Snipe performing their buzzing aerial courtship displays (listen to the Snipe's courtship buzzing sound) (see right) and Tufted Duck, Scaup and Barrow's Golden Eye on the lake. On the return drive to camp at Vogar past the Eldhraun lava flow near to ReykjahlÝ, a Short-Eared Owl, another of Mřvatn's characteristic birds was spotted. The afternoon had been a worthwhile introduction to Mřvatn's bird-life.
Krafla geothermal power plant: after drizzly rain during the night, the following day planned for a visit to the Krafla volcanic area and geothermal power plant was still chill and heavily overcast. We turned off onto Route 1 past the Bjarnarflag geothermal generating plant on the way up the Nßmaskar Pass. Over the pass and beyond the Hverir solfataras, we turned off onto the tarmaced Route 863, gaining height steadily up the length of HlÝardalur (click here for detailed map of route). The morning was still heavily overcast with low cloud obscuring the surrounding peaks. Higher into the upper HlÝardalur valley, we began to pass the industrial installations and steam pipelines of Kr÷flustod geothermal power station; each of the bore-hole well-heads was covered with a geodesic dome to protect the control gear, and connected by insulated pipelines delivering the high pressure geothermal steam to the generating plant (see left). We reached the power station complex with its squat cooling towers, and turned off to the Visitor Centre to find out more about the Krafla volcanic system, development and workings of geothermal energy production, and construction of the Kr÷flustod geothermal power station built at the time of Krafla's most recent eruptions in the 1970~80s.
Krafla volcano is one of Iceland's largest hotspots, sitting as it does astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the earth's crust is thin and magma chamber closer to the surface (see above right). The Krafla fissure swarm extends N~S for 100kms and 14km wide, where the magma has periodically burst through in volcanic eruptions over 1000s of years; the region is still a highly active volcanic zone. The Ring Road crosses one of the fissures at Nßmaskar, visible as the Mřvatn Rift gashed across the scoria ridge-line. In 1784, during a series of major eruptions known as the Mřvatn Fires, an initial explosion on the west side of Krafla blasted out the Viti crater, and many fissure vents opened up releasing vast quantities of lava from Leirhnj˙kur which flowed all the way down to ReykjahlÝ on the northern shore of Mřvatn almost destroying the village; this is still visible today as the Eldhraun lava field. In 1974~75, seismic activity again opened up fissure vents during the period of the so-called Krafla Fires, causing magma movement and the eruption of new lava; this series of eruptions lasted until 1984. This was right at the time when the first trial bore-holes were being sunk in the Krafla area high in HlÝardalur and construction work started for the new Kr÷flustod geothermal power station. The beginnings of severe seismic activity, as a prelude to eruptions in the Krafla region just 2kms up the valley, threatened the whole project. But sinking of production wells and construction of the power plant continued despite the threat, and the first 30MW generator became operational in 1977~78 (see above left). With the decline in seismic activity and volcanic eruptions in the mid-1980s, further bore-holes were sunk and the second steam turbine~generator installed in 1996, becoming operational in 1997 to enable the station's full load of 60MW.
This 20 year period of development in an active volcanic area produced improvements in both drilling technology and geothermal steam gathering and purification, made necessary as magma intrusions and eruptions caused increase in corrosive volcanic gases in the steam harvested in the bore-holes. Ground water around Krafla percolates down to the level of hot bed-rock above the magma chamber producing reservoirs of high pressure geothermal steam. In all there are 33 production bore-holes each with its well-head protective geodesic dome, scattered across the landscape at Krafla. These are drilled down some 2,000m to tap the steam, which is fed via insulated pipelines to the central steam separation station to extract water, clay and corrosive gases and deliver dry, pressured steam to the power plant for driving the turbine~generators (see above right). Waste steam from the turbines is condensed and cooled in cooling towers for return to ground level streams, or used at the Nßmaskar Nature Baths where tourists pay prohibitive sums of kroner for the dubious pleasure of wallowing in the effluent of Krafla power plant! (Workings of Krafla geothermal power plant). Iceland prides itself on generating its total electricity demand for both domestic and industrial usage by renewable means, 30% by geothermal production and 70% by hydro-generation.
Krafla volcanic area and Viti crater: we had learned much at the Kr÷flustod Visitor Centre both about the workings of the geothermal power plant and its construction in a highly active volcanic area at Krafla. By the time we left, cloud levels had lowered even further with misty rain blowing up the valley. The road continued up HlÝardalur, leading under an arch of the steam pipeline from the separator plant to the power station (see above left), steeply uphill past more of the domed well-heads, to a view point at 565m. From here a bird's eye view opened up of the lower valley, dotted with well-head domes, and pipelines snaking across the landscape feeding steam to the separator plant and on to the power station turbine~generators (Photo 26 - Upper HlÝardalur with geothermal power plant). But by now a vicious, vehicle-slamming wind hurtled up HlÝardalur, and driving mist obscured the higher slopes and caldera of Krafla, soaking camera lens and making photography almost impossible. With some difficulty in these adverse conditions, we struggled further uphill to the parking area at road's end at 580m under the Viti crater. The tarmaced access road encouraged both tourists in hire cars and even tour-buses to drive up here, all competing for the limited parking space with comically aggressive driving standards and dangerous disregard for the hazardous ground. By now soaking, misty cloud driven by vicious mountain wind was right down to deck-level, with minimal visibility. This was no weather for walking in active volcanic wild country. An access pathway led just 100m up to the rim of Viti crater, continuing around the sloping crater rim; ill-clad and ill-shod tourists plodded up the muddy path, churning this to a filthy slurry, to snap their 'selfies' and hurry back to the shelter of their tour-buses. We waited hoping the cloud would lift and conditions improve, before donning boots and waterproofs to visit Viti's crater rim. With mist swirling around the caldera, the far side of the crater was almost invisible, giving Viti an even more mystically hellish appearance (Viti in Icelandic means Hell). The inner crater slopes dropped steeply 100m down to the aquamarine-blue lake of volcanically heated water which now filled the caldera, and the track circling the rim looked treacherously muddy in the misty-wet conditions (see above left). After a further 45 minutes' wait, the weather did show signs of lifting, and the distant view across the bleak lava-scape towards the Leirhnj˙kur solfatara became clearer. We seized the opportunity for another trip up to Viti crater rim with the far side now visible. To our delight, a Snow Bunting hopped around on the lava rubble, close enough for photos (see above right). While it was tempting to walk the crater rim's circuit, we had lost time already waiting for conditions to clear, leaving less for walking the Leirhnj˙kur lava field.
Leirhnj˙kshraun lava field and steaming fissures: we drove across the upper valley from Viti to the parking area to walk the circuit of paths through the Leirhnj˙kur lava desolation created by the 1970~80s Krafla Fires eruptions. The approach path to the Leirhnj˙kur solfatara passed across the old lava field from the 1784 Mřvatn Fires eruptions, the lava now grey-brown with the passage of time and covered with moss; even in this sterile environment, Cassiope plants grew among the lava outcrops. The eastern slopes of Leirhnj˙kur caldera were bare ochre scoria with an area of grey-yellow sulphur deposits and solfatara, the hot ground still steaming. A board-walk sloped up below the steaming, sulphurous smelling solfatara, with channels of water running down through the scoria. The board-walk led up to a viewing platform overlooking the steaming sulphurous slope which drained down into boiling pools of steaming mud and evil-looking blue-grey fluid (see above right). The vista from here extended across of mossy green 'old' lava fields from 1784, and the contrasting black 'new' lava from the 1970s Krafla Fires eruptions, to an eastern horizon dominated by the vast caldera of Krafla itself with the relatively tiny crater of Viti grafted onto its near flanks (see above right).
The onward path continued northwards across the more recent black lava, the ground here still evidently hot even 30 years after the eruptions which ejected this lava (see above left), with steam rising up from the lava surface. Much of the surface showed obvious ropey texture of Pahoe-hoe lava flows (see above left). The route advanced across the lava flow, weaving a way between steaming surfaces and crossing deep fissures, heading towards the scoria crater of Hˇfur which had spewed out the 1980s lava (see above right). The path circled around the base of the open-sided crater, which was formed of crumbly, clinker-like magmatic scoria (see left). From here the return path passed along a clear fissure where the ground surface was still tangibly hot (Photo 27 - Steaming hot Leirhnj˙kshraun lava field), the line of steaming lava filling the air with clouds of wafting, sulphurous vapours (see right) (Photo 28 - Wafting volcanic vapours). This was truly a hellish landscape, fearsome but fascinating, walking along the bed of lava from the 30 year old recent eruptions (see below left) (Photo 29 - Leirhnj˙kshraun lava field). Despite the ground being evidently hot and sulphurous, plant-life had already managed to colonise this alien terrain: mosses and lichen, and even isolated plants of Alpine Catchfly and Saxifrage. We followed the steaming fissure across the lava field, climbing up onto a crest which gave extensive views westward showing how lava flows from both the 1784 Mřvatn Fires and more recent 1970~80s Krafla Fires eruptions had spread vastly along the upper HlÝardalur valleys towards Mřvatn.
The route led back eventually towards the summit crater of Leirhnj˙kur, the main source of the 1980s eruptions, and from here a magnificent vista opened up northwards along the line of the fissure and lava fields we had just crossed to the now distant and fragmented crater of Hˇfur (Photo 30 - Leirhnj˙kshraun lava field and fissures). How do you find words adequately to describe such a monstrous landscape! Around the western side of Leirhnj˙kur, a side-path led up onto the sandy scoria summit, curiously crowned with outcrops of sandstone (see below right); the origins of such apparently incongruous sedimentary rock amid these igneous wastes defied explanation. From this highpoint, we could look down onto the solfatara and boiling mud pool on the crater's NW slopes, and across the intervening lava field eastwards to the crowning glory of Krafla's own caldera (818m) (Photo 31 - Krafla caldera). The distinguishing colours of grey-green and black differentiated the old and new lava outflows. The ongoing path led around the southern end of Leirhnj˙kur crater, immediately alongside the southern terminal flow of the 1984 eruption lava field, which ended just 2kms from where the geothermal power plant was then being constructed and bore-holes dug (see below left). As we walked past the now solidified lava flow, one could imagine the sides of the advancing molten, viscous lava crumbling at the edges and spilling over onto the turf. Back along the approach trackway to the parking area, we returned down the steep roadway, pausing to examine one of the domed well-heads, then along past the power station back to the Ring Road. Before returning over Nßmaskar Pass for a further night's camp at Vogar, we turned by the small crater of Dalborg for a photo of the eastward view along the northern stretch of the now tarmac highway Ring Road across B˙rfellshraun to contrast with that taken at a similar spot in 1972 showing this major route was in those days nothing more than a rough gravel track (Photo 32 - Ring Road across B˙rfellshraun).
Pseudo-craters at Sk˙tustair at southern end of Mřvatn: a heavily overcast morning with little wind, and the midges were out in force for our day exploring the pseudo-craters at the southern end of Mřvatn (click here for detailed map of route). Down the eastern side of the lake, we reached Sk˙tustair village which was even more infested with tour buses and the very worst kind of transient tourists who swarmed in droves over the nearest of the pseudo-craters. They processed around the pseudo-craters rim for the briefest of 2 minutes that their limited span of attention and hurried tour-bus schedule would allow.
During the post-glacial period, this area was covered by a large, shallow lake formed by a lava dam, a precursor of the present day Mřvatn. In subsequent eruptions, glowing red hot molten lava flowed down into the marshy lake shallows, trapping waterlogged lake sediment beneath it. The water boiled and vaporised creating violent steam explosions beneath the solidified lava crust, which blasted the lava scoria debris into the air to re-settle as a giant blister-heap on the lava surface. They resemble mini volcanic cones, but were never the actual source of eruptive volcanic material, not being connected to the underlying magma chamber, hence the term pseudo-crater. By such repeated sub-lava explosions, clusters of these pseudo-craters built up around the SE corner of what is now Mřvatn close to the modern village of Sk˙tustair (see right) and formed islands in the lake. We kitted up and followed the path over to the further group of pseudo-craters, to climb to the rim of one of the larger cones, but the murky, overcast light made photography almost impossible. Leaving the tourists behind, and thankful for our midge-nets to keep off the bothersome midges, we continued around the enclosed lake of Stakhˇltj÷rn (tj÷rn cognate with English word tarn for small mountain lake), under the shadow of the pseudo-craters, to photograph the bird-life on the lake: Red-necked Phaleropes in the shallows, Arctic Terns skimming over the lake dipping into the water to feed, Long-tailed Ducks (see below left), Tufted Ducks (see above left) and Scaup swimming in the lake, and a mother Gadwall duck leading her troop of fluffy ducklings across the path into the water. The path led behind another pseudo-crater and across a turf-covered isthmus enclosing the tarn, and by the shore-side of Mřvatn lake, a pair of Phaleropes were making a very public display of their mating habits! (see right). This scrub-covered moorland was a paradise garden of wild flora: Lady's Smock, Water Avens, Lady's Mantle, Mountain Avens, Bartsia, Butterworts and Wild Pansies. The path eventually brought us back to the main road at Sk˙tustair.
The H÷fi lava formations: back up the lake-side road to the farm driveway leading out to the Kßlftastr÷nd peninsula, we followed a path which shelved above a narrow and secluded inlet of Mřvatn, giving a perfect photographic view of the birds swimming there: Long-tailed Ducks, Tufted Ducks and our first close sighting of Barrow's Goldeneye, H˙s÷nd (House Duck) in Icelandic, a native of North America whose only European breeding ground is Iceland, particularly around Mřvatn (Photo 33 - Barrow's Goldeneye). As we moved further along, a croaking, burping bird-call announced the presence of a Ptarmigan, who perched on a mound among the foliage allowing himself to be photographed; this one was almost fully in his summer plumage (see right). The impressive flora along this path included Bog Bilberry, a lovely clump of Butterworts, Common Wintergreen, and Small Northern White Orchids. The path led out to the tip of the peninsula directly overlooking the H÷fi assembly of lava pillars (see left). As at Dimmuborgir, these at H÷fi were formed by lava flowing over shallow water, with the escaping steam leaving pillars of solidifying lava standing in the lake margins. We returned over the heath-land from where in the distance a characteristic flock of Barrow's Goldeneye could be seen swimming in one of the bays of Mřvatn. Back at the road, we parked at H÷fi to walk the circuit of the forested headland. A high-point gave panoramic views along the lava pillars of Mřvatn's misty shore-line and a horizon of snow-fringed table-mountains to east and south. The path led down to the lava stacks which we had see earlier from the far side of Kßlftastr÷nd peninsula; a lone Barrow's Golden Eye swam among the lava pillars.
Bird-watching by the Laxß river at SE corner of Mřvatn: Vogar Camping had served us well for our stay at Mřvatn, and after our 8th and final night there, we paused on the way up to ReykjahlÝ at a group of sheep pens enclosed by lava dry-stone walls, identified as the place we had wild-camped in 1972. These pens had been the only shelter we could find from the vicious northerly wind, and after a night's camp, we had only been able to extricate our hired Beetle car by demolishing parts of the wall and re-building it after we had driven out. An information panel informed us that HliarrÚtt sheep fold, built in 1880, was used in the autumn gatherings when the sheep are brought down from the high fells for sorting by owner (see right); it was now protected by Iceland's cultural heritage laws and we felt duly penitent for damaging parts of the lava walls in 1972, hoping the Icelandic statute of limitations extended for 45 years! Having done our final food shop at the exorbitantly priced ReykjahlÝ supermarket, we stopped again at the northern edge of the village for photographs of the fissured Eldhraun lava flow from the 1784 Mřvatn Fires eruption of Krafla (see left), and the wild-flora growing unbelievably, yet classically for Iceland, on the barren lava, including Tufted Saxifrage, Alpine Mouse-ear, and Wild Thyme. Heading down the lake's western shore to park where the Laxß river drains from Mřvatn (click here for detailed map of route), our hope was to photograph both Barrow's Goldeneyes and brightly coloured and aptly named Harlequin Ducks, another of the North American birds whose only European breeding site is here at Mřvatn. This was said to be one of the best spots for seeing both birds which nest in numbers on the grassy islands in the fast-flowing Laxß river.
We parked by the Ring Road bridge over the Laxß, and kitted up fully against the keen wind to follow an evident path some 500m upstream where the fast-flowing river surged over rapids; to our disappointment there was no sign of either the Barrow's Goldeneyes or Harlequin Ducks. But on a long pool enclosed by a lava fissure, we photographed a wealth of entertaining bird-life: a cute little fluffy duckling, Mr and Mrs Long-Tailed Duck out for an afternoon paddle, a female Barrow's Goldeneye (see right), and at last a lone female Harlequin Duck (Photo 34 - Harlequin Duck), regrettably the only one we managed to see. Back to the road, we crossed to the far side of the river. There were no water birds, but we did disturb a male Whimbrel who paraded before us in some agitation as he attempted to distract us from his mate nesting with its chick in the rough grass along the river bank (Photo 35 - Whimbrel with chick). A male Golden Plover also perched on a mound close by, so well camouflaged among the heath-land vegetation (see below right). We had inadvertently caused enough disturbance to the nesting birds and withdrew quietly as the Whimbrel continued to stalk us (see left). We tried further along the Laxß, but to our disappointment, there was no sign of the distinctively colourful male Harlequin Ducks. With end of June approaching however, the males may well now have left the breeding areas to moult their colourful plumage. It was now finally time for us also to leave Mřvatn, and killing the last of the Mřvatn midges to bother us, we headed west on the busy Ring Road.
Over Mřvatnsheii to Laugar and Goafoss: leaving behind the Laxßrdalur valley, the road rose steeply over the bleak, hilly fell-land of Mřvatnsheii passing the smaller lake of Mßsvatn, so close to the larger Mřvatn, yet such different terrain - sweeping fells with not a trace of lava nor volcanic crater in sight (click here for detailed map of route). Descending into the broad, green valley of upper Reykjadalur, we reached the village of Laugar where one of tonight's campsite options was located. Dalakofinn Camping's reception was at the store-cum-cafÚ-cum-filling-station on the main road, and we called in to check on the campsite's whereabouts since nothing was immediately evident. We were directed down into the village and found the small campsite by the village sports field; it certainly looked amenable, but misguidedly we decided to move on the further 12kms to Goafoss and stay at nearby Fosshˇl Guest-house/Camping, imaging this would be more acceptable; hindsight is such a wonderful thing!
Fosshˇl Guest-house/Camping, pretentious, over-priced, and with antiquated facilities: Route 1 continued along Reykjadalur past the junction with Route 845 which branched off northward to H˙savik, and turned steeply uphill over high fell-land (click here for detailed map of route). On the far side it descended equally steeply into Bßrardalur, the valley down which the mighty glacial river Skjßlfandafljˇt flowed from its highland source at Vatnaj÷kull, on the way dropping over the Goafoss waterfalls as it carved its course across the Bßrardalur lava fields. Just before the river crossing, we turned into the parking area at Fosshˇl Guest-house/Camping. Their web site gave the impression of this being a long-established and prestigious place, raising our expectations of a well-appointed even though expensive attached campsite. As always, when the reality belies expectations, the disappointment is the greater, especially when we had left a pleasant looking campsite just 12kms back over the fells at Laugar. The camping area sloped every-which-way, looking suspiciously boggy at the centre, with just one continental electrical socket (the only one seen in Iceland) like something out of the ark on the side of a derelict barn. The only facilities were in a converted cargo container, open to the elements with no door; that was it! No kitchen/wash-up, and the alleged wi-fi in the guest-house failed to reach the camping area. It all looked singularly uninviting on a chill, and miserably wet evening, and for this they were charging 3,500kr!
We took stock and telephoned Dalakofinn Camping; the response was unassumingly welcoming, the price just 2,900kr, and their facilities were well-provided including a washing machine and wi-fi. Just to clinch our decision to reject Fosshˇl as a pretentious, over-priced and unworthy place, we went over to the guest-house. Yes, that was it, replied the surly woman with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude; no, there was no seniors' discount. Realising however that she was loosing both the argument and 2 customers, she volunteered a price of 2,500kr. Well .... we were tired, it was now raining, and Fosshˇl was right next to Goafoss waterfalls, so we relented. But when it came to find a viable pitch, we tried every angle to defy gravity on the ubiquitously sloping, sodden ground. And the facilities were worse than imagined. Not only was rain driving in through the non-existent door, but the shower leaked leaving the floor covered further with water! We eventually settled in, hoping we could drive off the wet ground tomorrow. The only thing in Fosshˇl's favour was the birdlife nesting in the nearby fell-land scrub, that frequented the muddy lawns digging for worms: Oystercatchers, Whimbrel, Golden Plovers, Redshank and Redwings galore. But not even this could save this pretentious, over-priced place with its disgustingly antiquated facilities from a negative rating! If you pass this way, avoid the temptation of Fosshˇl's proximity to Goafoss, and camp at the far more worthy Dalakofinn Camping over at Laugar.
Goafoss waterfalls on Skjßlfandafljˇt river: the following morning the weather was bright at 7-30am, but we missed the opportunity to visit Goafoss waterfalls early before the untold hordes of tourists began pouring in; instead we spent the morning photographing the local bird-life as they pecked around the campsite (see above left and right). All morning we had watched the tourist cars and tour-buses queuing at the Goafoss parking areas on both sides of the Skjßlfandafljˇt gorge, spilling out their hordes to pollute the area of the falls. In the far gone days of 1972, we had enjoyed the privilege of this magnificent wild setting virtually to ourselves as our photos show; today it was rich pickings to line the pockets of the mass tourism industry.
Around at the nearer parking area, we set off along the now tarmaced pathway over to the eastern side of the gorge. The vast volume of ice-blue water draining down the wild Skjßlfandafljˇt glacial river from the Vatnaj÷kull ice-cap in the distant highlands drops 12m over a 30m wide horseshoe lip of lava at Goafoss, and below the falls has carved out a deep, winding canyon through the Bßrardalur lava fields with a second smaller set of falls 500m downstream at Geitafoss. The canyon walls are lined with both vertical and twisted columnar basalt, making both the Goafoss falls and its canyon a most powerful spectacle. Trying with difficulty to remain indifferent to the mindless hordes spilling from the tour-buses, we made our way across the moorland to the eastern brink of the gorge for distant photos of the curving breadth of Goafoss with its wafting clouds of spray hovering above the cascades. A faint sun only occasionally managed to pierce the broken cloud, and the light generally was poor. We followed the trackway up to a viewing point above the eastern brim of the falls with an unimpeded vista of the falls' full curving width with rocky outcrops dividing the cascade into several subsidiary sections across its 30m breadth (Photo 36 - Goafoss waterfalls). From this viewpoint, we took our photo of this monumental natural spectacle set in such a magical wonderland of lava surrounds, and edged a way up to the very brink of the precipice to the level of the broadly spreading upper river as it dropped over the falls' threshold. Spray wafted over soaking our camera lens as we tried for further photos; a momentary burst of sunlight lit the arching width of Goafoss enabling the best pictures of the afternoon.
Goafoss falls takes its name from a momentous event in Icelandic history following the early Settlement. By 1,000 AD, the clan chieftains gathering at the Althing, the parliament of the Icelandic Commonwealth, were divided into 2 fiercely opposing factions: the traditionalists still supported the old Norse religion worshipping the pagan Ăsir gods, while the modernists who had converted to Christianity urged the new religion as the way forward for Iceland. This heatedly tense situation was put to the Althing Lawspeaker Thorgeir Thorkelsson from Ljˇsavatn for resolution; both factions agreed to abide by the decision of the elected Lawspeaker. Thorgeir, himself a pagan, retired to his tent for a day and a night to consider his verdict, and emerged the following morning to announce his compromise proposal: Iceland must have one law and one religion, otherwise there would never be peace; Christianity should be the way of the future but pagans should be allowed to practise their rites in private. To set an example, Thorgeir was baptised there and then, and on returning home to Ljˇsavatn, he threw his statues of the Ăsir gods into the falls on the Skjßlfandafljˇt river, which henceforth were named Goafoss, the falls of the gods.
Rocky steps led down from the canyon top into the floor of the gorge, but looking up at high waterfalls rarely does justice, particularly in dull light. Down here at the level of the surging ice-blue river however, there was a perfect view of the magnificent natural architecture of the twisted basalt columns lining the canyon walls. A footbridge, newly built since we were here in 1972, spanned the canyon just upstream from the route 1 road bridge, giving clear views of the gorge, and we followed turf paths along the western brink of the gorge above the lower falls of Geitafoss. Our particular wish was to find the rock on which Sheila had sat for the treasured photograph from 1972 and, despite the now gloomy light, we secured another 2017~1972 time-lapse pairing of photos from exactly the same spot overlooking the Goafoss falls (see left) (Photo 37 - Sheila at Goafoss). As we approached the viewpoint on the western brink of Goafoss, another busload of gormless tourists swarmed in. The lava rocks on the brink of the falls were worm smooth by the 1000s of ill-shod, ill-clothed tourists who daily stumble across the gorge top lava, risking life and limb for their narcissistically posed 'selfies' on the brink of the falls, seemingly so self-obsessed as to be utterly oblivious to the majestic natural spectacle before them. Their limited span of attention however meant just a brief wait for them to move on so that we could take our photos without the intrusive presence of tourists. The dull light made for moody, monochrome photos looking across the brink of the falls along the length of the upper river where the Skjßlfandafljˇt dropped over the Goafoss falls amid plumes of spray (Photo 38 - Upper Skjßlfandafljˇt river) (see below right for photo taken at this same spot in 1972).
Back across to George at the eastern parking area, we set a course for Systragil Camping 36kms to the west. Our return visit to Goafoss evoked mixed feelings: the majestic natural splendour of the falls, the savage beauty of the gorge's basalt architecture, and the wild setting remained magnificent as ever, untouched and timeless; but the ravages of mass tourism threatened, as elsewhere at such major sites in Iceland, to undermine the dignity and to sully the beauty of this natural environment by the daily incursion of such overwhelming numbers conveyed here so effortlessly. What struck us as even more contemptuous was the casual indifference and utter lack of respect with which the bulk of tourists treated this natural beauty: one brief glance, one self-obsessed 'selfie' was sufficient to satisfy their incurious superficiality, before they hurried on effortlessly to the next 'attraction'. This casual indifference to the wonders created by natural forces was one thing; but the other equally contemptuous feature was the indifferent behaviour and lack of any awareness shown to others. The number of times we have had to object as tourists wandered blithely in front of our cameras as we took photos; such sickening lack of manners and casual absence of any concern or awareness of the presence of others typifies the modern age. With sadness in our hearts we departed Goafoss; doubtless this feeling was a foretaste of worse to come at other places such as Geysir, Gullfoss or sites immediately close to the Ring Road.
Systragil Camping in Fnjˇskadalur: crossing the Skjßlfandafljˇt glacial river and its mighty canyon, and passing the start of the F26 highland road (Sprengisandslei) which crosses the highland interior via the notorious Sprengisandur wilderness, we headed west across the Bßrardalur valley (click here for detailed map of route). The roadsides were covered with the ubiquitous blue Alaskan Lupins, planted during the early~mid 20th century to prevent soil erosion and now spreading uncontrollably, to the detriment of native plant species (see left). The Ring Road passed alongside Ljˇsavatn lake and along the broad, green valley of Ljˇsavatnsskar; one of the number of isolated farms on the far side of the valley may well have been the site of Lawspeaker Thorgeir Thorkelsson's farmstead. At the point where Route 1 crossed the Fnjˇskß river, we turned off onto Route 833 along Fnjˇskadalur. Systragil Camping was located at Hrˇarsstair farm 5 kms along; this delightful valley was lined on both sides with 700m high mountainous ridges whose green flanks were tree-covered with spruce on the lower slopes and birch up to 400m on the upper reaches. The valley road was tarmaced beyond Systragil, but after 2kms we met a short gravelled diversion to bypass road works and excavations, all concerned with a major road construction project and new tunnel cutting through the mountain spur dividing Fnjˇskadalur and Eyjafj÷rur. Beyond the road works, we turned into Systragil Camping with its 3 levels terraced up the valley side. The upper section screened by trees was reserved for statics, the lower section for tents, and the middle section for visiting campers; we pitched here with an open view looking up Fnjˇskadalur across to the natural birch forest of Vaglaskˇgur which lined the lower slopes of 730m high Vaglafjall on the far side of the valley; this green and pleasant valley was most un-Icelandic in the lushness of its vegetation and forests (see above left). The campsite was run by the couple who farmed at Hrˇarsstair, and she called round later for payment, a reasonable 2,900kr/night plus 100kr each for showers. Facilities were limited to shower/WCs and wash-up sinks, but the standard was first class and spotlessly clean. The place was clearly well-used by Icelanders from Akureyri; this was the first site we had come across not monopolised by tourists in hired campers.
Over the mountains to Eyjafj÷rur and Akureyri: we woke to a dreary, wet morning, and over breakfast Paul tried telephoning firms in Akureyri to source a replacement for George's failed internal fluorescent light fitting. We were given details of a lighting specialist company, Eco Ljˇs, but could get no response. On a now chill and gloomily wet morning, we set off from Systragil, and turned westwards onto the Ring Road, initially following the Fnjˇskß river along its lower valley, to begin the long, grinding climb over the intervening mountain ridge (click here for detailed map of route). Eventually reaching the summit at Vikurskar Pass, an equally steep descent brought us down to the shore of Eyjafj÷rur way below. At the fjord-side junction, the road north turned off towards Grenivik; we turned south along the fjord-shore towards Akureyri which only came into view in the murky distance on the far side of the fjord after several kms, such was the unbelievable length of Eyjafj÷rur. The snow-streaked mountains lining the fjord's western side were buried in gloomy rain cloud belying their full height, as we drove along the length of Eyjafj÷rur through the fjord-side village of Svalbarseyri, passing farms with fields already stacked with bales of winter silage. Just opposite the city of Akureyri, on the eastern fjord-shore we passed substantial excavations, the western end of construction work for the new trans-ridge road and tunnel whose eastern end we had seen in Fnjˇskadalur. Across the murky fjord, the inevitable cruise-ship was docked at Akureyri, contaminating the city with its mindless hordes.
A memorable experience in Akureyri, in miserably wet weather: the road swung across a causeway bridge over the fjord's inner end, and hesitantly we turned towards Akureyri's southern suburbs, to park in the city centre by the circular drum-shaped Hof Cultural Centre which housed Akureyri's TIC. It was now pouring with rain, and low misty-murky cloud denied all sight of the walls of snow-capped mountains enclosing both sides of the fjord. Akureyri's TIC was typical of tourist cities, staffed by indifferent youngsters incapable even of handing out leaflets, let alone having the knowledge, patience or interest to answer our detailed and searching questions. Though looking at the embarrassingly arrogant and ignorant American tourists they had to deal with, the TIC staffs' general air of indifference was unsurprising! Such foul weather was only suited to practical matters like trying to find a source of replacement light fitting. Our sat-nav guided us around by the docks to a decidedly non-tourist, industrial quarter of the city, where in a back street we found the small shop of Eco Ljˇs. It was well and truly closed; a notice on the door roughly translated announced they were in process of moving to bigger premises, giving the phone numbers for the owners Írn and Gumundur. We tried, initially without success to telephone, and eventually received a response from Gumundur; they were indeed moving location, but he volunteered to drive over and guide us to their new premises. 5 minutes later, in the still pouring rain, he arrived and in spite of his lack of English, we showed him the light fitting we were trying to replace. Over at the closed shop, he and Írn rummaged among packed boxes of stock without success. They escorted us to their new premises in an even more industrial district, where they again rummaged among packed boxes light fittings desperately trying to help us, but without success; all their stock was modern LED fittings. With boundless patience they tried to help, even offering to make up an LED fitting for us; if Eco Ljˇs could not help, no one in Iceland could, and our camper's old style 12v fluorescent fitting would have to await our return to UK for replacement. We gratefully thanked them, and trying to avoid giving offence, we took our leave; it had been a surrealistically memorable experience, and if ever Írn and Gumundur of Eco Ljˇs were to see our travelogue, we record our sincere thanks for their efforts in the midst of their premises move.
Akureyrarkirkja, the Church of Akureyri, and its stained glass windows: the afternoon was ticking on, and we wanted to use the wet day to see the inside of Akureyri's modernistic church which was perched imposingly on the brow of a hill in the heart of the city. This closed at 4-00pm and would be closed over the weekend and on Monday. We therefore headed back through the city and turned steeply up KaupvangsstrŠti towards the twin steeples of the church at the hill-top, passing the classical view looking up the floral-lined steps to the modernistic church at the brow. Akureyrarkirkja was designed in the late 1930s by the Icelandic State Architect, Gujˇn Sam˙elsson, who intended it to represent a uniquely Icelandic departure from his usual Art Deco style, with repeated square forms on the imposing fašade when viewed up the flight of steps leading up from the city. Our particular reason for wanting to see the church's inside was for the east end chancel stained glass window which, by a curious twist of fate, originated from the old Coventry Cathedral destroyed by German bombing in 1940. The coincidence is made even more remarkable since Coventry Cathedral was bombed on 14 November 1940, just 3 days before the newly built church in Akureyri was consecrated.
In 1939, out of concern about German air raids, the stained glass windows were removed from Coventry Cathedral and placed in safe storage on a Warwickshire farm. The historic Cathedral was bombed to destruction in November 1940. Three of the 200 year old pieces of stained glass found their way to an antique shop in London, where they were seen by a window-shopping Icelandic visitor who happened to be an antiques dealer in ReykjavÝk; he bought all 3 windows and shipped them back to Iceland. Meanwhile a member of Akureyri city council who happened to be in ReykjavÝk on business, heard about the windows; since Akureyri was looking for decorative windows for its new church then under construction, dimensions were checked and by good chance, one of the windows fitted exactly. The window was bought to be fitted in the apse of Akureyri church in summer 1943. Of the other 2 Coventry windows, one was fitted in a ReykjavÝk church and the other in a private house.
The Coventry window, which now forms the centrepiece of the east end apse behind the altar at Akureyri church, is flanked on each side by 2 other stained glass windows made to match the 200 year old Coventry window by J Wippel and Co from Exeter, forming a unified ensemble of 5 windows within the apse (Photo 39 - Coventry window) (see above right). The Coventry window portrays Simeon blessing the infant Christ with the words of the Nunc Dimittis Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace (St Luke 2, 25~34); the surrounding windows show the Annunciation, Nativity, Christ in the Temple and Baptism (see above left). Although the Coventry glass fitted widthways, it was shorter than needed, and modern stained glass was used to add length showing the Lamb and English St George's Cross. No one in Iceland admitted to Knowing that the window originated from Coventry; this only came to light when an English visitor recognised the window glass. The only remaining unsolved part of this remarkable mystery is how the glasswork found its way from a Warwickshire farm to a antique dealers in wartime London; perhaps the farmer was trying to make a sly bob or two once the cathedral had been bombed!
Other stained glass windows along each side of the nave portrayed famous figures from Iceland's ecclesiastical history, beginning with the conversion to Christianity in 1000 AD, and Thorgeir Thorkelsson throwing his pagan idols into Goafoss (see above right). Other figures included the last Catholic bishop Jˇn Arason who was beheaded by the Danes for resisting the enforced Reformation (see above left), and Gubrandur Ůorlßksson, Bishop of Hˇlar who printed the first Bible in Icelandic, both of whom we should learn more about later at Hˇlar and Skßlholt (see above right).
Lˇnsß Guest-house-Camping at Akureyri: with rain still pouring, the air depressingly chill, and gloomy cloud covering the surrounding mountains, we now turned our attention back to practical matters, and headed back through the city to find the shopping centre for a provisions re-stock at Netto and for Paul to replace his watch battery. By now it was gone 4-30pm, and on such a wretchedly miserable afternoon, we made our way to the northern outskirts to find Lˇnsß Guest-house-Camping (click here for detailed map of route). On the way through the city, we had noticed Akureyri's heart-shaped red traffic lights, a hangover from the dark days of the 2008 financial crisis when a campaign in Akureyri tried to alleviate the general air of gloom affecting the country with the slogan Smile with your Heart (Brostu Me Hjartanu). Many of the red hearts are still in evidence, including the heart-shaped red traffic lights (see above left). The economic mood in the city is brighter 9 years later, and Akureyri certainly has a more optimistic and prosperous feel, even on a gloomy wet day!
When we reached Lˇnsß Guest-house-Camping however, this had a depressing air in this miserable weather: the rough grassy camping field with limited power supplies was already filled with a number of caravans and camping-cars; facilities were basic and limited to WCs/shower and an outside wash-up with an electric ring and kettle that passed for a kitchen. But it was cheap at 2,500kr (showers extra at 400kr), and preferable to the overcrowded and over-priced city campsite which we had rejected even in 1972! We booked in for 2 nights, planning to take a badly needed rest day here, and found a space. It was a depressingly gloomy and wet evening, and we were glad of the heater for warmth with the air so bitterly cold. The following day the weather remained heavily overcast and wind chill for our day in camp; this weekend was Akureyri's Midsummer festivities, but the gloomily wet, chill day felt far removed from summer! We caught up with jobs and both felt rested and refreshed by our day in camp, and during the evening the cloud base began to clear the mountains for the first time since our arrival in Akureyri
The northern city of Akureyri: we woke to a bright morning at last, and for the first time we could see parts of the snow-covered mountain ridges that line both sides of Eyjafj÷rur (see above right). The sky gradually cleared, and by the time we were ready to depart, a warm sun was shining for our day in Akureyri. Vikings ventured into the depths of Eyjafj÷rur soon after the first settlement of Iceland, although little is known about this early period. The first mention of Akureyri was in 1602 when a trading post was established here at the head of Eyjafj÷rur by Danish merchants under the Danish trade monopoly. As the town began to grow, it was granted its municipal status in 1786 along with ReykjavÝk. The population was however still small and trade remained in Danish hands. During the 19th century, the Oddeyri district around the port developed as the town's commercial quarter, separate from the residential area. Later in the 1800s, local farmers established Iceland's first cooperative movement, KEA (KaupfÚlag Eyfiringa Akureyri) which went on to play a key part in the town's economic growth. As the town's population and economy grew during the early~mid 20th century, Akureyri developed also as a cultural centre. Following British occupation during WW2, the airport was built on reclaimed land along the head of the fjord, following Icelandair's foundation in 1937, with the first scheduled flights operating from Akureyri's airport. During the 1960s, the city's port developed as the base of the country's largest fishing fleet, and along with tourism, fishing remains central to the local economy. Akureyri now has a population of just 18,000, the country's 4th largest city after the cities of the ReykjavÝk conurbation.
Akureyri Botanical Gardens: on a bright sunny Sunday morning, we drove back down through the quiet city, which we had quickly got to know, and turned up KaupvangsstrŠti past the Church around to the Botanical Gardens up on the hillside above the town and port. The Akureyri Lystigarur (Botanic Gardens) had been founded in 1912 as a public park, and its excellent web site proved an invaluable source of Icelandic plant identification. Formally laid out with flower gardens and trees, the Botanic Gardens is a haven of peace and tranquillity, overlooking the fjord. We parked by the city hospital and walked over into the beautifully laid our parkland-gardens. Local families walked with their children on a sunny Sunday morning among the beds of brightly coloured flowers. In the lower corner, we found the area of beds devoted to the flora of Iceland, said to contain specimens of every plant growing in the country, and spent over an hour examining the plants (see above right) (Photo 40 - Akureyri Botanical Gardens). From this Sheila was able to identify most of the flora she had queries about, and we found examples of the 3 native Icelandic species of orchid, Frog Orchid (see above left), Small Northern White, and Northern Green (Photo 41 -Northern Green Orchid ), the latter 2 of which we had found in the wild around the Stˇragjß lava field. Both the setting on the hillside looking out over the port and fjord, and the beautiful floral surroundings, were magnificent, and on such a gloriously warm and sunny morning we sat on a bench to eat our sandwich lunch; a couple of days ago, temperatures had been down virtually to zero. Wind direction made such a difference close to the Arctic.
Akureyri city centre: we drove along and parked by the church to photograph the city spread out below around the port (see left and above right), then walked down the florally lined Kirkjutr÷ppurnar steps to the junction of KaupvangsstrŠti and HafnarstrŠtiand (see above left), for the classic view of the Church's twin towers at the head of Kirkjutr÷ppurnar steps (see above right) (Photo 42 - Kirkjutr÷ppurnar steps). Along with local residents, we ambled along HafnarstrŠti the main shopping street past the brightly coloured wooden coffee shops (see above left) (Photo 43 - HafnarstrŠti shops), to the city's central square of Rßdh˙storg, the focus of Akureyri's daily life, where several main streets converged (Photo 44 - Akureyri's central square) (see right). Back up the steps to collect George, we drove out along the fjord past the old wooden houses of the early residential district around InnbŠrinn (Inner Town) along AalstrŠti (Main Street). The fact that this is now distant from the modern city centre recalls Akureyri's early development as a settlement separate from its trading centre. Continuing along the fjord, with the enclosing hills now clear in today's bright sunshine, past the Ring Road turning off across the fjord causeway where we had arrived on Friday, we drove on towards the airport to find the Aviation Museum.
Akureyri Airport and Aviation Museum: Akureyri Aviation Museum next to the fjord-side Airport documents Iceland's aviation history and establishment of Icelandair at Akureyri, the state airline which enabled rapid communications opening up remote areas of the country. Set in an aircraft hangar, the museum displays include examples of the aircraft that have played a part in Iceland's aviation history during the second half of the 20th century and had given early service for Icelandair (see right). Take-off and landing at Akureyri Airport was down the length of Eyjafj÷rur or up into the ring of mountains surrounding the head of the fjord (see left), and outside by the airport runway stood a Douglas (C47) DC-3 flown by Icelandair immediately post-war (see below left). But central to the exhibition was a Fokker F27 Friendship, the turbo-prop post-war airliner which had seen sterling service for Icelandair for 30 years during the 1960s~80s and which we had flown in between ReykjavÝk and Akureyri in 1972. The Fokker F27 Friendship displayed at the museum had been operated by the Icelandic Coast Guard and had probably played a part in fisheries protection during the Cod Wars. Sheila was photographed standing alongside (Photo 45 - Fokker F27 Friendship), to match the 1972 photo at ReykjavÝk City Airport of her standing by the equivalent aircraft while this was still in operational service. Although only a small and modest collection of aircraft, Akureyri Aviation Museum had brought some nostalgic recollections of our 1972 trip to Iceland.
Akureyri's famous Brynja ice cream at AalstrŠti, and modern fishing port: back along the fjord to find AalstrŠti 3, the home of Akureyri's famous Brynja ice cream; we sat on their sunny terrace to enjoy tubs of their delicious light ice cream with a generous topping of Lakrits (liquorice) bits (see right). Local people arrived in droves to buy their Sunday afternoon ice creams. We walked along the length of AalstrŠti beyond its junction with HafnarstrŠti past a number of attractively restored historic wooden town houses (Photo 46 - AalstrŠti's wooden houses) which included the old hospital at number 14 built in 1835 and later donated as the town's hospital by the merchant Fririk Gumann. Back into the modern city, we turned off around Strandgata to find Akureyri's modern fishing port. Along Hjalteyrargata past Viking Brewery (home of insipidly uninspiring beers!), and opposite Tryggvabraut where in pouring rain just 2 days ago we had found Eco Ljˇs' old shop, we turned into the modern fishing port (Photo 47 - Akureyri's fishing port); several large factory ships were moored there. After a full day of visits in the city in lovely sunny weather, and shopping at the Bonus supermarket, we returned to Lˇnsß Guest-house-Camping. Tonight there was more space and we found a pitch on the rough, uneven camping area by the brook looking out to the Hliarfjall valley and the snow-covered peaks and corrie of shapely Kerling (see left).
A re-visit to Glerßrdalur and Hliarfjall: early low cloud soon lifted and, for only the second time this trip, we were able to sit out for breakfast in bright, warm morning sunshine (Photo 48 - Lˇnsß Guest-house-Camping). Today we planned to re-visit the Hliarfjall mountains in upper Glerßrdalur above Akureyri, where we had camped and climbed in 1972. We had photos from that time showing us on Vindheimaj÷kull glacier and our camp on a grassy shoulder in upper Glerßrdalur with the fjord way down in the valley. A tarmaced road now led up from the city to a ski resort which had been built in Glerßrdalur in the intervening years. Down into the city, we turned up Hliarbraut around the northern outskirts, passing apartment blocks which we had seen being constructed in 1972. The road gained height above the city, climbing steeply to its end at the deserted Hliarfjall ski resort, with its panoramic views over Akureyri and Eyjafj÷rur. Bright morning sun lit the majestically sculpted conical peak of S˙lur (1,213m) and the massive Lambardalsj÷kull glacier and rock wall on the northern face of Mount Kerling (1,538m) on the far side of the deep Glerßrdalur glacial valley (see right). Parking George by a ski-lift base station, we attempted to reconcile our map with recollections from 1972 in order to locate the start of our 1972 route and site of our 1972 mountain camp. The first track led only to a small reservoir with no evident onward route towards Vindheimaj÷kull; the only rewards were the magnificent views across to the Kerling range with its glacier adorned north face (Photo 49 - North face of Kerling), and closer at hand the flora growing on the gravel embankments. We tried another rough trackway up from the ski-station, and found a flat area likely to have been the site of our 1972 mountain camp as the base for our walk up to Vindheimaj÷kull (see left). We took our photos from this same spot as another time-lapse pairing (Photo 50 - Site of our 1972 Glerßrdalur high camp), and sat on the fell-side to eat our sandwiches gazing at the glorious vista of Kerling and the S˙lur ridge. Although we had failed to locate the start of our 1972 route amid the confusion of ski-lifts, none of which existed on our first visit to these mountains, this had been a wonderfully nostalgic return to Upper Glerßrdalur, 45 years after our first visit.
Krossanesborgir Nature Reserve, northern Akureyri: back down into Akureyri, we headed out to the northern outskirts to find Krossanesborgir Nature Reserve, an area of heathland overlooking Eyjafj÷rur, with marshy lakes and whaleback outcrops of basalt bed-rock classically scoured by glacial striation and dotted with erratic boulders. A 3km circuit of footpaths around the moorland gave the promise of first class bird-watching potential including Snipe, Whimbrel and Black-tailed Godwits, as well as a profusion of wild flora. We set off around the first of the ponds where a colony of Black Headed Gulls soared around, and were soon finding much flora: Mountains Avens (their flowering season would soon be over in Iceland's brief summer), Bartsia, Wild Thyme in full flower, Water Avens and Lady's Smock growing in the moist ground, Marsh Cinqefoil not yet in flower, and Alpine Fleabane. But most impressive of all, the 3 species of Icelandic Orchids were growing in profusion: Frog Orchids, Northern Green Orchids and Northern Small White Orchids; flowering side by side, the Northern Green and Northern White Orchids were easily distinguishable by their differing flower shapes (Photo 51 - Northern Small White and Northern Green Orchids).
Taking the clockwise circuit, we reached the higher ground of basalt bed-rock outcrops which gave perfect views across the moorland, and a Whimbrel perched nearby demanding to be photographed. With frequent stops for more flora photographs, we followed the northward path across the moorland heading towards the distant tarn of Djßknatj÷rn with its bird-hide. Here we chatted with a welcoming Nature Reserve warden who gave us much information about the bird-life and flora to be seen at Krossanesborgir. The hide was well-appointed but too distance from the tarn it overlooked for photos of the Black Headed Gull colony. But the distant views northwards along Eyjafj÷rur backed by snow-capped mountains more than made up for this.
It was by now almost 5-00pm, and with more than 2kms of paths still to walk to complete the circuit, we stepped it out across the moorland which sloped down towards the reserve's northern fjord-side boundary. Turning back southward along the return path, we found this trip's first specimens of Grass of Parnassus (see left) and many more of the Icelandic Orchids. The path gained height past the rocky outcrop of Litlimelur, with Golden Plovers parading alongside the pathway to distract us from their nest sites in the rough moorland grass (see above left). Similarly we unwittingly disturbed a mother Ptarmigan with her chick; the mother bird flustered in sheer panic, fanning out her tail feathers and feigning injury to distract us, although in the rough moorland scrub she was well-camouflaged with her summer plumage (see above right). We hastened on leaving the poor bird with her chick. From a high point the magnificent view opened out northwards towards Glerßrdalur with its backdrop of S˙lur and the snow-lined cirque of Kerling (see right). The path circled back through birch scrubland, and on the final stretch back to the parking area we at last saw a Black-tailed Godwit in flight with its distinctive elongated body profile and Snipe-like tail feather projections. Krossanesborgir had been a superb walk, so close to the city's northern industrial outskirts, yet so peaceful and with such a wealth of flora and bird-life.
We returned to a now crowded Lˇnsß Guest-house-Camping for a fourth and final night, and found a space tucked into the corner near the facilities hut. The advantage here was the clear line of sight up to Kerling and Glerßrdalur where we had been earlier (see below right), and despite the chilly evening we cooked a barbecue supper (Photo 52 - Barbecue on a chilly evening). Tomorrow we should move on for the next phase of the trip around the western shore of Eyjafj÷rur towards DalvÝk, Ëlafsfj÷rđur and Siglufj÷rđur, and on around the northern seaboard to Hofsˇs, Sauđarkrˇkur, Varmahliđ, Bl÷nduˇs, Ůingeyrar, and Hvammstangi. So join us again shortly for our next episode.
Next edition to be published quite soon