In August 2016 I joined an 11-hour-tour of the highlands of Iceland with Saga Travel to visit Askja caldera and the Víti explosion crater. I had joined this tour exactly 2 years earlier after a big earthquake and landslide in July 2014, which resulted in the water level of Lake Askja rising 2 meters. Just after my visit a volcanic eruption started, which lasted for 6 months! So I was eager to see the newest lava field in Iceland, Holuhraun.
I met up with the guide, Erlendur, at Mývatn very early in the morning as we had a long, exciting day ahead of us. Saga Travel specialises in slow travel with small groups and there were only 2 other passengers with us on this tour.
We headed straight towards the highlands, got off ring-road 1 and onto the mountain road F88. There are several unbridged rivers on the way so a 4x4 is needed for the highlands. From ring-road 1 there is a 100 km distance to Askja.
Our first stop was at Hrossaborg, which is a 10,000 year old crater in the shape of an amphitheatre. Our driver-guide drove straight into the crater, got out and let some air off the tires (33 psi to 15 psi) to give the tires a wider grip. With the deflated tires it is not possible to drive faster than 60-70 km/h or the tires will overheat.
Hrossaborg means Horse Castle as it was used as a natural shelter for horses. The crater is quite extraordinary and the sandstone adds to the mystery of the crater. Scenes from the film Oblivion were shot here and Tom Cruise was flown in on a helicopter to Hrossaborg for the shootings of his scenes.
Our next stop was at a small hut made out of rock with an corrugated iron roof with a birch tree on top. This little hut in the wilderness goes by the name Tumbi (other names Miðfellskofi or Fellnakofi) and was erected by the farmers of the Mývatn area sometimes between 1925-1930 as a shelter for the searchers of sheep in the wilderness. The hut was named after one of the men who erected it, Tómas Sigurtryggvason from Litluvellir in Bárðadalur, but Tumbi was the nickname of Tómas.
One of these searchers of sheep, Benedikt Sigurjónsson, often called Fjalla-Bensi or Bensi of the Mountains, stayed in a "hole" in the ground close to Tumbi back in 1925 during a major storm. Nobody knows exactly where that hole was, but it was most likely in tuff east of Mt. Miðfell.
It was advent when he had to stay alone in the wilderness with the dog Leo and the leader ram Eitill (which was of a special stock of Icelandic sheep, which leads the herd).
Fjalla-Bensi was an experienced searcher of sheep and in 1925 it was his 27th advent search for sheep. And it was for the sake of these sheep that Fjalla-Bensi risked his life at this time of year - he did not want them to freeze to death in the wilderness - and these were not even his own sheep - I would say that there is a great liking here between Fjalla-Bensi and the Good Shepherd himself. These sheep had been left behind after the fall round-up as they had either hid in the wilderness or ran away when the rest of the sheep was rounded up.
A very popular book was written on this incident in 1936, called Aðventa or the Good Shepherd, by the noted Icelandic author Gunnar Gunnarsson. This book was first published in Leipzig and has since been translated into 10 languages - it is a truly interesting read.
We were now ready to drive into the highlands of Iceland. The gravel roads in the highlands are bumpy and there are several rivers to be crossed. We crossed one river and made a stop by a small, but lovely waterfall.
The river is called Grafarlönd and the waterfall is called Gáski, which means Playful :)
We stopped here for ca 10 minutes to admire this small oasis and the waterfall.
It is ever so refreshing to drink water straight from such rivers. Do bring your water bottle and fill up on cold fresh water for the trip into the highlands.
All of a sudden a beautiful oasis opened up, Herðubreiðarlindir streams, which got its name from the Queen of Icelandic mountains, Mt. Herðubreið - our national mountain. We made a stop at Herðubreiðarlindir streams, which has got green and lush vegetation as opposed to the barren landscape of the highlands. My country for sure is a country of great contrasts.
Herðubreiðarlindir streams are on the edge of the Ódáðahraun lava field, the most extensive lava field in Iceland, stretching over 4,440 km2.
In my photo above you will see the majestic Mt. Herðubreið. It is a table mountain, 1682 meters above sea level - and at the top there is a shield volcano crater. This mountain and the surrounding areas, including Herðubreiðarlindir streams, belong to the Herðubreið Nature Reserve, which was declared as a protected area back in 1974.
Our guide, Erlingur, walked with us up to Eyvindarkofi or the Shelter of Fjalla-Eyvindur, which is the remaining reconstructed shelter of one of our best known outlaws, Fjalla-Eyvindur or Eyvindur of the Mountains, who stayed at Herðubreiðalindir streams in 1774-1775. Fjalla-Eyvindur was an outlaw for 20 years and lived in the wilderness with his wife, Halla.
I have visited more of Fjalla-Eyvindur and Halla's hiding places in Iceland and it always surprises me how these outlaws were able to survive through the cold Icelandic winters.
Fjalla-Eyvindur and Halla had been apprehended in Sprengisandur and brought to Reykjahlíð at Mývatn, where they were held captive. Fjalla-Eyvindur asked to attend mass and fled into the highlands in a massive fog during mass. Halla hadn't wanted to go to mass with him and thus he had to leave her behind in Mývatn.
According to Fjalla-Eyvindur this year of his hiding was the worst he experienced during his years as an outlaw. Halla wasn't with him, it was dreadfully cold and he didn't have any fire to keep him warm and had to live on raw horse-meat and Angelica roots. But here he had fresh water, as in this oasis clear water comes straight from the lava. Fjalla-Eyvindur had built his hut on a spring and had only to lift one lava rock to reach fresh water.
The shelter is made of rocks by the wall of a rift - only one fathom long and half a fathom wide. The ridge beam was made out of the spine of a horse. What a place for a human being to live in - alone for a whole winter! Fjalla-Eyvindur was able to steal 7-9 horses during this harsh winter, or else he would have starved to death.
There is a hut at Herðubreiðarlindir and toilet facilities. It costs ISK 500 to use the facilities and this price is included in the tour. It is for sure not a given to find toilets in the wilderness of Iceland.
Our next stop was by the small waterfall, Gljúfrasmiður falls, in the glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which is the second longest river in Iceland (206 km).
Jökulsá á Fjöllum means the Glacial River in the Mountains. It is a roaring grey glacial river coming straight from Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe.
Further north the glacial river creates the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss waterfall, plus several other smaller waterfalls. This river is ever so powerful. During my visit to the highlands back in 2014 I took a video of Gljúfrasmiður falls, but on that day it was rain and fog in the highlands. In the video you can hear and see the power of this ice-cold glacial river.
I took a photo of my husband and our guide, Erlingur, both of them wearing lopapeysa, the traditional Icelandic woollen sweater - you can see the Queen of the Icelandic mountains behind them.
Erlingur is such a lovely guide. He lives in Akureyri and drove from his home-town very early in the morning to pick us up at Mývatn. As this tour is a slow tour then we didn't feel rushed in any way during these 11 hours. My husband is a magician, so he was entertaining the other passengers on the tour during the long drive through the highlands of Iceland, giving Erlingur a break to focus on his driving.
And I also chipped in from time to time when I had some knowledge on this part of Iceland, which I wanted to share with the other passengers ;) It felt like we were just friends travelling together in Iceland - and that is what slow travel is all about.
We now drove for some time through the highlands on a winding, bumpy road. After driving through grey and black landscape it all of a sudden changed and turned yellow. We had now entered the part of the highlands called Vikrahraun or the Tephra lava - from a lava flow back in 1961.
The landscape was covered in yellow tephra. And black lava was sticking up from all the tephra, making the landscape quite scenic.
When you pick up the tephra you will feel how light it actually is, it weighs next to nothing!
Askja was chosen in 1965 and 1967 for the training mission and the preparations for the collection of rock samples by the astronauts of Appollo 11 for the Moon landing. And a NASA scientist has said that the barren and lunar like highlands of Iceland were a unique analogue of Mars.
By 1 pm we had reached the mountain huts at Dreki by Drekagil canyon. As it was lunchtime we had a 30 minute lunch at Dreki and then drove to Askja, which is only 8 km away from Drekagil. We left the jeep at the parking lot and hiked to Lake Askja and Víti explosion crater. It is an easy hike, about 30 minutes long each way. There is snow on parts of the trail, so do wear good hiking shoes on this trip and dress warmly.
I can tell you that I am not a fan of snow in summer time, so it was quite surreal seeing this change in the landscape.
After 30 minutes we reached the big explosion crater of Víti with its whitish opaque blue water. Víti is actually the Icelandic word for hell! Seeing Víti open up is a WOW moment for sure. The crater is 150 meters in diameter filled with a 22-26 degrees C geothermal, sulphurous lake, in which one can bathe.
We didn't bathe in it, were allowed to do so if we wanted to, but opted out this time around, even though I had my swimsuit on under my clothes. If the other passengers had wanted to dip in then I would have done so as well, but I didn't want to go down there by myself and keep the group waiting. Hopefully someone will like to join me for a swim on my next trip to Askja.
There were a lot of people sliding down to the geothermal water and some were swimming in it. And what a beautiful setting in which to take a swim. The colours in the crater are so beautiful - here you will find a multitude of geothermal colours and strange lava formations in abundance.
I could see how people were struggling sliding down into the explosion crater and having difficulties climbing up the slope. When it is raining the path down into the crater is very slippery and muddy and one goes down into the crater at one's own risk. Good hiking shoes are necessary here and a walking stick would prove helpful in the slope. Or just an umbrella.
Öskjuvatn or Lake Askja and Víti explosion crater got created in a massive volcanic eruption back in 1875. The volcanic ash fall from the eruption destroyed the farm land of several farms in East-Iceland. After the eruption a great number of Icelanders gave up on living in Iceland and emigrated to Canada.
Lake Askja is situated in the crater of Askja volcano and is the second deepest lake in Iceland (220 m).
During our visit the weather was so calm and the surroundings were so serene. This area must have looked quite differently during the earthquakes back in 2014! Seeing that there is so much tranquillity here drones are not allowed.
I love roaming around in this area and walked out on the rim of the explosion crater (see my photo below). I love this photo as I look like I am alone in the world - surrounded by this breathtaking landscape.
We stayed at this amazing spot in the Icelandic highlands for two hours and then headed back to the jeep. This area will for sure leave no man untouched.
We stopped again at Drekagil - Dragon Canyon by Dyngjufjöll mountains as we wanted to hike up to the waterfall in the canyon. The canyon gets its name from two dragons in the canyon - they watch over the canyon - do look out for them!
The hike into the canyon is only 10 minutes long. It is a bit rocky and narrow, but the waterfall at the end of the canyon is so beautiful and the surroundings are what I can only describe as ruggedly beautiful. The waterfall at the end of the canyon is called Drekafoss - the Waterfall of the Dragons. It is 30 meters high and plummets into the canyon in such majestic settings.
When I visited this area back in 2014 there was too much water in the river for us to hike into the canyon, and I was so eager to see Drekafoss waterfall this time around that I almost ran on the trail to the end of the canyon ;)
After hiking in Drekagil canyon we went on our way to Iceland's newest lava field, Holuhraun. This lava field is located ca 15 km away from the Askja caldera. We left the gravel road and drove unto a trail in the vast sands of this area. Here it came in handy to have deflated tires as the jeep kind of floated on the sand.
There was a volcanic fissure eruption here from the 29th of August 2014 until February 27th 2015! The lava from the fissure eruption covered more than 85 km2 of land making it the largest since the Laki eruption back in 1783-1784.
There is an older lava field by Holuhraun since an eruption in 1797. So here you can see old lava and brand new lava side by side. The Holuhraun lava is new and therefore prickly and very unstable and fragile. So stay on the marked trails and take care if you pick up a piece of lava. Use gloves or it will scratch your hands. This sharp lava made a big scratch in the leather of my brand-new hiking shoes.
If you look into the rifts of the lava you will see a multitude of colours, but the aa-lava or block lava as it is called, is mainly black in colour.
You can see Jökulsá á Fjöllum running next to Holuhraun and during the eruption Jökulsá á Fjöllum changed its course when the lava flowed into the river. The first year after the eruption there was a hot pool by the end of the lava where people would dip in and have a bath by the lava.
On our way to and from Holuhraun we could see steam coming from the hot lava in some parts. My photo below is shot through the windows of a moving car while driving on sand, but I add it here so you can see what the new this lava field looks like.
We didn't spend a long time at Holuhraun but the little time we spent there was precious to me as it is not every day that I get to walk on the newest lava in the highlands of my country!
After visiting Holuhraun we drove to a beautiful waterfall in the vicinity, Skínandi waterfall in the spring river Svartá.
We hiked to the waterfall through a lava field and sand (an easy hike) for 1,7 km back and forth. By Skínandi waterfall is one of the oases in the highlands, with lush vegetation which complemented the black surroundings. I had never seen this waterfall before so I was very happy, as I have been in love with waterfalls since I was a little girl, so seeing and greeting "new" waterfalls in my country makes my heart soar :)
There was danger of this beautiful waterfall disappearing or being damaged by the lava flow at Holuhraun, but fortunately it didn't happen. Svartá river appears suddenly from the sand plain not so far from Skínandi waterfall - I always find it amazing to see water appear from the ground like this.
On our way back to Dreki and back home we saw a police jeep on the road and a police man was standing on top of the roof of the police jeep! What was going on? I prayed that an accident hadn't taken place in the highlands. It turned out to be the mountain police, who was helping another tour company, as one wheel of their jeep had fallen off.
We were thinking of driving around them as they were blocking the road, but didn't dare to do so as that would be off-road driving, which is illegal in Iceland - and the mountain police is really strict on people driving off-road. Driving off-road will result in a high fine and you will be ordered to repair the damages, so better stick to the roads!
Instead our Saga Travel guide, Erlingur, offered to help the other tour company transporting their passengers back to Mývatn. This is what I like about Saga Travel, they specialise in slow travel, but they are also so helpful - even with helping out their rivals. Kudos to them!
The drive back was so much fun with these 6 additional travellers - 2 couples in the group were newly-weds, who were on their honeymoon in Iceland :)
This 11-hour tour is amazing and highly recommended. Here you will experience the highlands of Iceland, see vast lava fields, some of which are still steaming, see lovely waterfalls and a roaring glacial river, get to know the characters of the highlands and visit, and maybe bathe in, an explosion crater named Hell! I can't wait to visit this area again next summer!