Staying in the shadow of an active stratovolcano

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 delicate blades of grass that pepper the charcoaled landscape. There are no towering trees to shield its wafts of freedom, and I listen to the exceptional harmony as the wind sings its wild song.

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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.

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Hekla (an Icelandic word for a short-hooded cloak, implying a dark omen quality) is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, called by Europeans in the Middle Ages, “the gateway to hell.” The most significant 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, this ‘entrance to 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 may 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 kilometers, and geologists keep a close watch, monitoring any changes.

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 tufts of beautiful 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.

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We climb into the cabin, an Ikea style of décor that combines grey, white, and black, and we watch as the 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 of 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, and I believe, 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 while Terry sips a peppermint tea half listening.

The park is located on the south shore, which contains the largest glacier in Europe and the largest active volcano in Iceland, Öræfajökull. Öræfajökull, at 2,110 meters in height, is blanketed by the retreating glacier that covers eight percent of the country. I study the area on the map, and for a moment, my heart sinks.

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I think of the overwhelming number of 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 matter. Hiking is an opportunity to push past limits and grow.

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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 initially 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 centuries from Norway. We pull over on a quiet lookout to say “Hello” to a herd.

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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 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 on the horizon.

Highway 1 is the only highway in Iceland, which forms the Ring Road, and passes multiple waterfalls and places of interest. We briefly stop at 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 rumble of thunder into a ribbon of water below.

Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland, by Desiree Anstey

Nearby is the lesser-known Reykjadalur hot springs, which is used by the locals and is found at the end of a 10-minute hike along a river. And a short drive from the hot springs is the more significant and louder Skógafoss waterfall, and so the inspiring sights continue with our journey to the park.

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’).

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There are unrelenting gusts of wind here that catch tourists off guard, like a boxer being dealt with unexpected blows. Threatening black rollers crash into towering black cliffs. 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.

By the time we reach the park, our destination, it’s mid-afternoon. We traverse our way past two waterfalls, one of interest called Svartifoss (black fall) that tumbles over 20 meters of defined black basalt columns.

The trail continues through a colorful 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 me are the only ones on this trail. We walk in synchronization while listening to the babbling brook, the wind rustling through the grass, and the low-lying shrubs.

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Hiking is very much about perseverance, resilience, and optimism. It’s normal to feel emotions more when muscles burn, our minds begin to wonder, and the beauty of nature pushes our willpower to its limits. I wonder if this is the reason for our isolation on this trail, but 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.

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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 anxious. 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 along the waterfall over the field that passes the Visitor Centre before leaving the park in our car.

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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 almost over. We are left with a residue of slush and rain as we pass this stretch of Highway 1.

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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 dense, cloudy black night, but there’s no change in color. We breathe a sigh of relief. It was probably just the glow of the sun, I dismiss. The wind is back up to its 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 in October 2019, 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.

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