Land of Fire and Ice

We set off today from Egilsstaðir with the cunning plan of heading towards northern Iceland across the mountains. On the way, we were going to stop at Dettifoss waterfalls, the geo-thermal craters of Kraftla and some other bits and bobs on the way to the volcanic lake, Mývatn and the Mývatn Nature Baths. (Hot springs! Huzzah!)  However, today turned out to be a story about how the best-laid plans of mice and men are aft gang aglae… We managed to do most of what we wanted today, but it felt like a shit fight every step of the way to do anything at all.

Look how gorgeous it was when we were barely 15 minutes out of Egilsstaðir… yeah, that shit didn’t last very long. Beautiful! Snowy pristine vistas with visibility for miles in any direction – what more could you ask for?Another half an hour down the Route 1 though, and the weather had rolled in, or it was already here we driven into it, or the gods were bored and decided to fuck with those two hapless tourists getting about in the little Jeep Renegade, because we went from blissfully beautiful snowy peaks to, ‘Wtf, why can’t we see more than 40m ahead of us?’, and,  ‘OMG, that snow literally fucking horizontal!?’
So we jumped onto safeiceland.is to see if there was anything about road conditions in the area and found this: A snowstorm with cyclonic winds!  Argh! So that’s what happened to my snowy pristine vistas with visibility for miles in any direction. They disappeared in a maelstrom of furious winds and ice pelting the car as we slowed to a crawl for the next hour or so while we suddenly became hyper-vigilant about black ice, and paid heed to the somewhat redundant hazard warnings on the dashboard about ‘icy roads’ and ‘snowy conditions’. My imagined plans of a beautiful clear day exploring waterfalls and lava fields likewise vanished.  :'(

And then suddenly we rounded a ridge and it was just gone.  Clear skies, visibity returned and rainbows.  Seriously?  I was looking sideways for unicorns.  What good fortune that we passed through it unscathed and relatively quickly.
Look at that… I mean, just look at that! Georgeous, georgeous.  Just fabulous. Alas, no matter how remote, we are always reminded… people are selfish useless creatures.

Anyway, we are tootling along happily enjoying the blue skies and fabulous conditions when we came to a sign saying that the 864 east access Dettifoss waterfall road was closed.  It felt a bit like one of those Brisbane flood days when all the rain has stopped, but we are sitting around on a brilliant summer day waiting for the flood waters to rise as they come down the valleys… it was clear and lovely and they are telling us we can’t go in?  Huh? Well, we thought we had better do as we are told – having run into people who were doing their lap of the country clockwise that had seen cars upside down and rolled off roads in these areas and basically their opinion was: when the Icelanders close a road, they aren’t mucking about. Disappointed again.

A little further down the road though and we found the 862 west access road to Dettifoss was still open.  Hurrah!  It turns out the east 864 is usually passable in summer only, but we were going to be able to go check it out which was the important bit.

As we neared the Dettifoss parking lot though, the weather seemed to be catching up with us a bit. A little bit of snow, a little bit of wind.  We double checked the walk to the falls – about 700m each way and not particularly onerous and thought we’d hazard it.

FUCKING STUPID MOVE THAT WAS!

What we thought was light flurries of some soft and happy bits of snow floating about turned rapidly into the aforementioned maelstrom of furious winds and ice pelting our bodies as we mountain goated our way through the boggiest wet path I’ve seen since hiking Hartz Mountain in Tasmania in 1985. Mud and slush and scouting ahead on where its safe to put your feet and not land ankle deep in freezing cold muddy waters.  The path was trashed from visitors going off the path looking for better purchase – I have not seen a place so desperately in need of a boardwalk in an age.

By the time we got to the falls, I was seriously lamenting the fact that I did not bring my Antartic gear – I have the fabulous Quark Artic expedition jacket, I have waterproof pants, I have a good merino buff, I have the Black Diamond snow gloves… and all of them are back home in Brisbane!  You see the weather for this time of year is supposed to be cold.  Extremely cold but usually clear and dry and cold in October.  Seems Iceland has had a long summer this year and the wet period they experience in September has extended well into October.  So I had packed for the cold, but not to be waterproof… which meant I arrived at the falls with my thermals and my jeans sopping wet, my jacket was likewise actually dripping wet (it’s good for snow or a shower, but not for the sideways sludgy shit) and my gloves were so saturated I could wring them out.  Goddammit.   The falls were beautiful – though it’s hard to think it was worth it.

Dettifoss is known as ‘the most powerful waterfall in Europe’.  It’s on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, which originates at the Vatnajökull glacier, and the falls are 100m wide and have a 44m drop into the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon.  It is the largest waterfall in Iceland with an average water flow of 193 cubic meters per second.  There is a waterfall in Norway that has a slightly greater water volume going over it – but it is only half the height, so Icelanders tend to hang onto the ‘the most powerful waterfall in Europe’ thing because Norway’s is so small.  🙂

Beautiful… but there we are soaked to the bone and wondering, ‘Whose stupid idea was this?’

We made our way back to the car, rock hopping and sidestepping the not insignificant puddles, the whole 750m track. Got back to the car and yale (wisely or not… jury is still out) cranks up the heater and strips down to his shirt and underwear to get the cold things off his body.  I take the other approach – wipe as much water off my jacket as I can and lay it out on the back seat, put my gloves and beanie over the heater vents on the dash and cover my legs to see if I can get my thermals and jeans to dry out a bit from body heat.

We had a bit of a drive to the west and hopefully back into the clearer weather again, to get to the Krafla volcanic craters, so I was hoping we would dry out a bit before needing to get back out of the car.  Though it seems I was destined to be wrong again.

The drive to the Kraftla lava fields was getting darker and more ‘snowstormy’ the closer we got to the area.  We got as far as the Krafta geothermal power station before realising the road should be closed – serious incline, easily 4 inches deep in snow and it hadn’t been graded.  We made the sensible decision to turn back and head for a different geo-thermal field instead.
Looking right out of something in the middle of communist Siberia, the Krafla geothermal power plant is Iceland’s largest power station with 33 boreholes, and its ability to produce 500 GWh of electricity per annum… is that a lot?  It sounds like a lot, but I have zero knowledge of such things.  I think it was right about here somewhere that I warned yale ‘I’m going to wind down the window and take a photo’… a courtesy seeing that it meant it was going to let freezing cyclonic winds temporarily whip through the car and bring with it plenty of snow and rain… little did I realise though, that the car A/C had been on recycle that whole time and outside at the biggest geothermal power plant in Iceland was the most godawful rotten egg stench of pure vomit-inducing sulphurous gas which now filled our car in 5 seconds or less, leaving us reeling and gagging from the shock of it.  Well, one of us was… I was laughing like a maniac.  It was that or you know, cry.  So fucking ridiculous.  Of course, it was going to be positively foul outside a geothermal power plant!

We drove off as quickly as was safe, to try and get away so we could flush the stench out of the car and ended up stopping near this odd carpark near the plant which had a weird shower coming straight out of the ground, and a handbasin nearby too.  I dared yale to go jump under and have a shower (he still hadn’t found dry clothes, but it was seriously still blowing 100kmph and the snow was hitting the car like little ice bullets.

So we didn’t actually get to see the famous Krafla crater, which is aptly named ‘Víti’ meaning ‘hell’.  Instead, we head a bit south to the foot of the Námafjall volcano to see Hverir, another geothermal area not far from Lake Mývatn known for it’s boiling mud pools and steaming fumaroles.

Here, we actually thought twice about getting out of the car – I mean, I was still sitting in my cold wet jeans and thermals and not looking forward to getting out into the wind.  It wasn’t snowing too bad – when we arrived :/ – and the track through the mud and fumaroles started less than 20m walk from the car park.  We had already decided that sight seeing in this weather is just plain stupid, but we figured we wouldn’t be out too long and what the hell, it is right there.

We stepped out of the car and the biting wind reminded me just how cold and wet my jeans were.  Thankfully the inside of my jacket was still totally dry and it was only my bum and my legs which were going numb with cold.  We walked through Hverir, assaulted yet again by the overwhelming stench of sulphur – though this time a little more prepared for it!The colours on the ground were incredible.  Lava fields and environments like these often get described as ‘moonscapes’, perhaps simply because they are treeless – but I don’t think the description is very fitting at all.  It’s more like you expect ‘hell’ to be (should it exist).
New Zealand has nothing on this place for boiling mud… it’s not just lazily bubbling to the surface, it’s full on bubble and plopping all over the place. By the time we had had a say, 20 minute look around, the wind had picked up even more to the point where it was hard to walk against (OMG – how is that was even possible?!) and was just cutting through my wet clothing, and the snow was stinging into my hands and face like sand at the beach on a windy day.  I was trying to walk back to the car park but couldn’t open my eyes properly – I had to squint against being hit in the eyeballs by tiny sharp flying pieces of ice.  I copped a few in my eyes, and god that fucking hurts.  Thankfully yale had his glasses on and while he couldn’t see great because of the water and fog, he saw well enough to stop me from wandering off the safe paths twice!  In this area, it’s ‘Please stay on the roped paths because if you do not, your boots may melt.’  I ended up hiding behind him to slipstream my way back to the car.  When I got to the car, my jeans were even more drenched, my skin was freezing cold, my fingertips were so sore I couldn’t touch them and my face was red and burning from the cold wind with its deadly ice projectiles. This was rapidly turning into Not My Idea Of Fun… but you can’t come all this way and let the weather stop you.  Can you? 

From the Hverir geothermal field we thought we’d go past the Grjótagjá cave.  The cave is a small lava cave with a thermal spring inside.  People used to bathe here quite regularly, until the 1970s when nearby eruptions caused the water temperature to rise to well over 50°C.  Since then the water temps have slowly been coming back down to around 39°C so it’s becoming popular again… no doubt helped along by the Game of Thrones episode that was filmed in here.  You know the one, where Jon Snow hooks up with the wildling girl. Yep, that was filmed in this cave.

After out traumatic experiences ‘outside the vehicle’ already today, we had planned to pull up and see how far the walk was to get to the cave.  The pic above was taken from the car windscreen while we braved ourselves to get our wet things on – again – and go back outside.  It was only 10m away, we said.  We will only be out a few minutes, we said. It will be warmer underground, we said. .. The cave was really quite pretty and probably the only thing we did today that was kinda worth leaving the car for in a payoff vs pain equation!   We were so cold and it was so inviting, it would have been lovely to jump right in.  But with no way to get dry and an uncertain distance left to cover this evening, and with heaps of other tourists popping their head in for a sticky beak – perhaps not. This was the side of the car after being parked for less than about 15 mintues… seriously that horizontal snow is a killer.  I’m over it already and it’s been one day.  We saw one guy out here in high vis waterproof overalls, helping some tourists change a tyre on their rental car – when I saw him, I said, ‘That guy deserves a fucking medal, out here changing tyres for tourists!’ by the time we were ready to leave the area, I was thinking, ‘That guy desrves a medal, some champagne, diamonds and a trip to bloody Tahiti!’  What a shit job in the worst weather conditions imaginable. After this we quite sensibly and perhaps some would say, belatedly decided to give up on touristing for the day.  We were heading for a local supermarket to buy some dodgy ravioli and pasta sauce or something to cook for dinner when we happened to see a “Pizza Open” sign that attracted our attention.  Now, bearing in mind, I am still wearing soaked pants (but feeling very lucky really that my upper body was warm and dry) we decided to go in and have an early dinner.

The sign was directing us off the highway to Daddi’s Pizza to what appeared to be a dodgy shack in the misty snowy shadows down an ungraded road going to goodness knows where.  ‘Daddi’s Rape Dungeon Pizza more like it,’ was yale’s comment (yes, it was turning into *that* sort of unfiltered day.  Still, it was so cold and we were quite hungry we googled up some reviews before getting out of the car and it all looked good so in we went.
The place was clean and tidy and even though I have been careful not to photograph any other customers – there were about ten other diners in there at 4:30pm in the off season. Menu was extensive and it all looked good.  We ordered a large (ambitious if you asked me) Lúdent pizza, which came topped with a tomato base, local lamb, garlic butter mushrooms, Bernaise sauce, black pepper and we added blue cheese for good measure.  Check out the prices on xe.com if you want a heart attack… But then the pizza arrived and all seemed well with the world. The pizza was amazing – even if it was AUD$63.00.  We ate the whole thing (and by that I had three sizes and yale finished it off) before making another sensible decision to high tail it to our accommodation for the night so I cou,d FINALLY get out of my wet clothes!

We got here, checked in and I swear it has take me nearly three full hours to warm up.  I’m exhausted.  Bed time soon me thinks.

One thought on “Land of Fire and Ice

  1. Love the details of your freezing day!❄😨 I can feel the cold, smell the sulphur and taste that wickedly expensive pizza all the way from Yeppoon in Queensland…

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