Playing with fire in Iceland, Part II: This way to hell

Smoke rising from Eyjfafjallajokull

Smoke rising from behind snow covered mountains in southern Iceland (Photo by Stefan Wege)

Part 1 of this post covered the one-year anniversary of the eruption of, and my visit to, Eyjafjallajökull.

Gateway to hell

West of Eyjafjallajökull, the “gateway to hell” sits beneath a misty shroud. It is Hekla – Iceland’s most famous volcano (at least it was, until Eyjafjallajökull sprang to life) – and it has had a violent existence. Records of Hekla’s eruptions date back to 1104, with eruptions lasting weeks, months, or even years. In the 16th century, it was declared the gateway to hell when people claimed they could hear the cries of the damned coming from deep within it.

Unlike most volcanoes, Hekla remains stubbornly silent, and therein lies its danger. Most volcanoes regularly emit tremors that increase in frequency and strength in the days or weeks leading up to an eruption. Hekla, on the other hand, rarely gives off a whimper, and when it does finally shake to life, there are only a few short hours – or minutes – before an explosion. Amazingly, a hiking trail leads to the top of this unpredictable monster, and hikers must be aware that Hekla doesn’t give much warning. Eruptions have been known to begin just 30 minutes after the first tremor – hardly enough time to make it back to the bottom if you’re hiking near the summit.

If hiking a live, unpredictable volcano is a bit too anxiety inducing, the Hekla information centre offers an educational—and safely distant—insight into Iceland’s volcanology. The day after our visit to Eyjafjallajökull, Erling takes Stefan and I there. It’s off-season and we’re the only visitors around for miles, which makes the volcano down the road feel even more ominous. We tour the museum, watching grainy, black and white film footage of splattering lava (and the crazy souls who dared to stand terrifyingly close to these lava rivers, filming and posing for others’ films) and were mesmerized by the modern colour photos of red fire against black skies and burning lava fields that stretch seemingly into infinity.

The information centre is small and cozy, and after touring the media centre, we settle into the museum’s dining hall with cups of coffee and slices of cake. We sit and stare in awe out the large bay windows that look out towards the cloud-covered peak of Hekla.

Lava fountains and power plants

My trip to Eyjafjallajökull was actually my second time in Iceland. The previous year, Stefan and I had visited one of Iceland’s other notorious volcanos, located on the north side of the island: Krafla.

Krafla Geothermal Station

Today, Krafla is mostly known as the home of the powerful Landsvirkjun Geothermal Station

Krafla is part of a volcanic region famous for the “Krafla fires” of the 1970s and 1980s, when a series of volcanic fissures ripped open and fountains of lava spouted from the ground. The area is still considered active, and signs warn visitors to stay on marked paths, as a wrong step could send your foot through the dirt and into the searing hot temperatures below.

Across from Krafla, the Hverir geothermal field is an ugly, steaming desert of boiling mud pots and slick, smoking rocks. The land hisses and bubbles, gurgles and pops, and the stench assaults me like a punch to the gut, leaving me gasping for a breath of fresh air that my lungs just can’t seem to find. I wrap my scarf around my face like a balaclava, partially to block the bitter arctic wind, and partially to ward off the smell. But even with my nose pressed to the wool, the burning reek swims over me, making me gag. It is wretched, lonely and grotesque. And yet somehow oddly stunning.

Steaming lava field at Krafla

The still steaming lava fields of Krafla

This contrast of beauty and bleakness, of lovely mountain ranges that harbour violent eruptions, is what sticks with you when you visit Iceland.

Just us and the volcano chaser

Back in Reykjavik after visiting Eyjafjallajökull and Hekla, we embarked on our final volcano tour, but this time from the comfort of a small theatre.

Hidden on a quiet residential street in the downtown, the Red Rock Theatre is where Icelandic filmmaker and volcano chaser Villi Knudsen shows documentaries of his adventures. The night we visit, we’re the only people in the theatre, and Knudsen—a friendly, soft-spoken man—charms us with his gentle pace and dry wit, his demeanour a far cry from the violent eruptions he films. He dims the lights and we watch for two hours as footage of some of Iceland’s most notorious volcanoes pours across the screen. We see the Surtsey eruption that occurred in 1963, when an entire island was created from lava bubbling up from under the sea. This is followed by scenes of the devastating eruption and rescue efforts at Heimaey on the Vestmannaeyjar islands where, in 1973, an eruption on the island buried the town under 30 million tonnes of lava, like a modern-day version of Pompeii.

There is a lot of danger and instability in Iceland’s past, and no doubt, there will be more in the future – possibly the very near future. Hekla is expected to erupt within the next few years, and the Grimsvötn volcano, beneath the Vatnajökull glacier, showed increased tremors last year. There’s been much discussion about a possible eruption from Katla – one of Iceland’s most dangerous volcanoes, which has always erupted shortly after Eyjafjallajökull. And yet, this is just how it is here, in a place where fire and ice explode in beauty and power.

To witness these sites in person, to hear the roars of the magma inside the chambers, to smell the burning sulphur wafting up from the ground, and to feel the tremors beneath your feet, is to experience the raw power of the earth.

I wrote about the Eyjafjallajökull eruption for both the news and travel sections of the Toronto Star newspaper.

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One thought on “Playing with fire in Iceland, Part II: This way to hell

  1. Pingback: Playing with fire in Iceland, Part 1: Happy Anniversary, Eyjafjallajökull « AnywhereAndHere

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