There’s a slithering of a stream like a tongue that spills into a crystal-clear river accumulating with a small tumbling waterfall. The air is crisp and damp, but we don’t care. It leaves a dew on the blackened rocks, glistening under the sun. Wind whistles through the fine blades of grass that pepper the charcoaled landscape. No towering tree to shield its wafts of freedom, and I listen to the great harmony as the wind sings its wild song.
This is where Terry, my husband, and I will stay in a small Icelandic cabin for the next four nights. It’s a journey into a land relentlessly shaped by fire and ice. Our breath held in anticipation as the windows are rolled to a close of our four-wheel drive Suzuki, and Terry kills the engine’s purr.
In the distance, mountains surround the dominating presence of a swollen stratovolcano that’s capped with a halo of clouds. It’s easy to be fooled by the stillness of the picture-perfect scene, and hikers often climb the volcano on a three- or four-hour pilgrimage to its wide caldera. But beneath sits a fiery maelstrom of magma and molten rock that churns and bubbles away.
Hekla (an Icelandic word for a short-hooded cloak, implying a dark omen quality) is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, dubbed by Europeans in the Middle Ages as the “Gateway to Hell.” The biggest eruption was recorded in 1104 AD when without warning the volcano vomited fiery lava, searing ash, and toxic gas. Stories go, screaming birds swooping and diving caught in the explosive grasps were mistaken for the lost souls of witches. Today, a legend still floats that witches flock to Hekla for Easter to practice their black magic.
Even monk Benedict described the volcano in his 12th century voyages as “the eternal prison of Judas Iscariot,” one of the original 12 disciples and a betrayer of Jesus Christ. But in the 19th century, the entrance to eternal hell was dismissed with the rise of scientific thinking.
Believe what you will, Hekla’s overdue pregnancy is just waiting for the right moment to burst from its confines. Hell will soon come. The last time the volcano erupted was in February 2000, and before this date it put on a small show around every 10 years. Hekla is part of a volcanic ridge that spans 40 kilometres. Geologists keep a close watch on this volcano monitoring any changes. Some fear the longer Hekla remains dormant, the more violent the eruption will finally be.
I’m transfixed to Hekla’s blue glow of snow that plasters its cracks, the shape of an upturned vessel. Giant lava bombs coated in bright green moss, with tuffs of fine grass on the top resembling the trolls passed down in Norse mythology, litter the surrounding plains. It’s an otherworldly landscape, like nothing we have seen before. So arid, so remote, I envision it as the end of the world.
We climb into the cabin, an Ikea style of décor that combines grey, white, and black, and watch as evening falls. The sky turns a shade of mercury, stars begin to pop like white snowflakes, and the wind picks up while an orange glow lingers over the volcano.
“The glow of the sun?” I ask Terry, “Or something more sinister?”
Terry keeps his suitcase packed and near the door of the cabin, just in case. But within minutes we fall asleep like the dead, only gently rocked by the occasional thud from a gust on the wooden beam or metal joist that supports the cabin on its rocky foundation.
We wake early in the morning, in motion with the rising sun that peeks in and out of the clouds. The wind is hushed to silence with only the soothing trickle of the stream in the background. There are no clicks of phone notifications or splashes of social media, just the horizon stretched out before us.
It’s a feeling of being completely present. A kind a freedom unlike the fleeting moments found in the tranquility back home. Terry and I are far from the distractions, demands, and expectations of everyday modern society, surrounded only by the open plains and rugged mountains. Only unspoiled nature can create this sense of pure magic.
“We’re exploring the stops on the Ring Road along the south and climbing in Skaftafell today,” I smooth the creases on the map and tap the area of Vatnajökull National Park.
The park is located on the south shore, which contains the largest glacier in Europe and the largest active volcano in Iceland, Öræfajökull. Öræfajökull, 2,110 metres in height, is blanketed by the shrinking and retreating glacier that covers eight percent of the country.
I study the area on the map, and for a moment my heart sinks. I think of all the tourists trudging on the trails like all the other highlights we have seen so far in Iceland, but Terry reminds me that it doesn’t really matter. We’re all navigating through our own uncharted territory. Hiking is our favourite hobby, an opportunity to push past limits and grow.
Water is safe to drink from the faucets in Iceland, so before leaving the cabin we prepare for the day. It’s a 20-minute drive from the cabin to Hella (a name that ironically translates to ‘holy’), the closest town along a dirt road of lava and ash. Hella was originally founded by Irish monks and has a population of around 800 people. Here we purchase our provisions for the journey and fuel up on gas.
There’s a peaceful salmon-run river that funnels through the town. On the outskirts sits farmland, home to the friendly Icelandic horses. These friendly beasts with thick, long hair are the predecessors of the original Viking horses, brought over in the ninth and 10th century from Norway. I transform from traveller to tourist, as we pull over on a quiet lookout to say “Hello” to a herd.
The journey from Hella to Skaftafell, a natural reserve, is three-hours in total. We’re dressed for every season. It’s to be expected in the short-lived autumn that can bring flurries, sunshine to downpour – all within one day. With only a map as our guide, we leave Hella with a trail of dust, music cranked to a mix of Euro tunes, and Hekla in the horizon.
Highway 1 is the only highway in Iceland, which forms the Ring Road, and passes multiple waterfalls and places of interest. A path curves behind Seljalandsfoss (‘foss’ an Icelandic term for waterfall) and we feel the cool kiss on our skin as the cascade of water empties, from a great height, with a thunder into a ribbon of water below. Nearby is the lesser-known Reykjadalur hot springs, used by the locals, and a 10-minute hike along a river. Around the corner is the bigger and louder Skógafoss, and so the inspiring sights continue.
We pass craters, lava fields, mountains carved by eruptions, steaming valleys, a glacier, and giant lava balls wrapped in moss that roll out towards the Atlantic Ocean. Terry and I pause before the final leg of our journey, to stretch our legs at the black sand beach that runs along enormous basalt cliffs near the village of Vik (translated as ‘bay’).
There are unrelenting gusts of wind here that catch tourists off guard, like a boxer being dealt unexpected blows. Threatening black rollers crash into towering black cliffs, and despite the warning signs that mark the entrance to Reynisfjara beach, two tourists posing for pictures are almost taken out by the unexpected surge of the ‘sneaker’ waves.
Terry and I are amazed at the raging waves on Reynisfjara beach and soak in its many scenes before continuing our journey to Skaftafell, reaching the park by mid-afternoon. There’s not much time to spend exploring the park but we traverse our way past two waterfalls, one called Svartifoss (black fall) that tumbles over 20 metres of defined black basalt columns.
Our hike continues through a colourful orange, red, and yellow valley that scales the slopes. In this incredible scenery I find to my surprise – while the lower sections of the park crawl with tourists – Terry and I are the only ones on this trail. We walk in sync while listening to the babbling brook, the wind rustling through the grass and the low-lying shrubs.
Hiking is very much about perseverance, resilience and optimism. It’s normal to feel emotions more when muscles burn, minds begin to wonder, and the beauty of nature pushes our willpower and resolve to its limits. I wonder if this, along with the lateness, length, and uphill climb are all factors that contribute to our isolation on this trail. Whatever the reason, I am happy to be alone with just Terry in the wilderness.
An abandoned farm is embedded on one side of the slope, overlooking a desert of black sand and ash. Öræfajökull caused cataclysmic damage when it erupted. Those living in the foothills were forced to abandon their homes or suffer starvation from the thick ash deposited during the eruption. There’s an emergency evacuation plan if the volcano wakes from its slumber. The Icelandic Civil Protection Agency estimates a 20-minute warning. Volcanoes are – for the most part –unpredictable.
The trail crosses the stream and emerges out of the thick vegetation onto an exposed slope that leads to the summit. I can see white clouds moving in fast, so I quicken my steps. Terry, at this point, is already ahead of me on the summit and soaking in the panoramic views.
I manage to get to the summit before the clouds coat us. At the top is a rock formation, created from previous climbers as a statue or mark of navigation. I add a nearby rock to the top and it slips into place like a piece from a jigsaw. I look down at the valley below, the rugged and rocky brown, red, and yellow mountains that are either extinct, dormant or active volcanoes. I fumble for a sip of water as the wind shifts and before we know it, we are in an icy cloud of white.
It’s the first time I feel a pang of panic. I fear the clouds thickening and developing into a dangerous storm. And while we are both sweaty and tired, there’s no time to rest. Terry suggests we go back down the way we came. It’s frustrating to get so far only to turn around and retrace our steps, but Iceland can pack a punch. Weather can change instantly, and the elements are to be taken very seriously. It’s not uncommon for tourists to be rescued – or even worse lose their life – by dismissing Mother Nature’s warning signs.
We quicken our stride as we descend the trail and out of the white that smothers the summit. Terry and I clear the valley, hop over the bridge, and within a couple of hours are back with the other tourists. We weave our way along the waterfall and over the field that passes the Visitor Centre, before leaving the park in our car.
It’s a long drive back to the cabin and along the route we are hit by a snowstorm that darkens and grows with intensity as it rips into the ocean. Luckily, it’s already over and left its residue of slush and rain as we pass this stretch of Highway 1. By the time we reach the dirt road that leads to the cabin its nightfall.
Terry and I look out the windshield as we approach the cabin for the orange glow that we noticed the previous nights lingering above the volcano. It’s a heavy, cloudy black night, and there’s no change in colour. We breathe a sigh of relief. It was probably just the glow of the sun. The wind is back up to it’s roar and we’re careful opening and closing the doors of the vehicle, a storm is coming. We make our way up the rubble path and into the safety of our shelter.
At the end of our stay and at the time of writing this article, the Icelandic Met Office alerted both the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, as well as Keflavik International Airport of a noticeable increase in seismic activity around Hekla. While the tremors were small (measuring 1 or 1.5. on the Richter scale), they raised enough concern of the fiery forces that lurk below.