William Lord Watts
Across the Vatna Jökull
concerning which nothing has hitherto been known, I have ventured to publish the few following pages,
giving an account of my journey across the Vatna
Jökull, and my visit to the volcanoes in the North
ICELAND again! Reykjavík again! Here I am upon the same errand as in 1871 and 1874-foolhardiness and folly as it is denounced by some at home. I fancy I can see some of my worthy countrymen at ten o'clock in the morning, clad in dressing-gown and slippers, breakfast half finished, and a copy of some journal that has condescended to take notice of my little expedition in his hand. Umph! he says, 5,000 square miles of uninhabited country, a howling Wilderness, nothing but volcanoes, ice, and snow a man must be a fool to want to go there; no one ever has crossed this cold, desolate region, why, in the name of everything that is worth pounds, shillings, and pence, should any one be mad enough to want to do so now? It would be in vain to refer him to that element in the Anglo-Saxon, which especially longs to associate itself with the unknown; he scouts the idea of possible scientific results ; no pulse would quicken in his frame because he stood where no mortal had planted his foot before. He sees it costs money, time, and labour. He thinks of the hard cash going out that might be advantageously invested (and rightly so, too, if he enjoys the felicity of being a paterfamilias) ; he magnifies the risk a thousandfold, and stamps the whole concern as "utter folly." Well! well! let our worthy friend shop at home ; it is his element. Only it would be as well if he did not go out of his way to anathematise an expedition which costs him not a farthing, which occupies not one moment of his time, and risks not a hair of his head. Everyone, it is said, is mad upon some point or another. Our worthy friend's mania may be, that he thinks he is specially called upon to spend his energies in breeding a superior race of poultry; mine may be to wander amongst unknown or unfrequented corners of the earth , but so long as I leave his chicken-house unmolested, I think he should leave off sneering at my wild peregrinations. But a truce to critical stay-at-homes, for we are again upon our travels.
We have endured the unstable liveliness of the old steam-ship " Diana," and have reached the little capital of Iceland again, to find most of our friends alive and well, and Paul Paulsen (whom the readers of " Snioland" will recognise as my head man upon the Yatna Jökull last year), who greets us with the cheering intelligence that our horses have been all provided, that our complement of men has been already hired, and that as soon as I have paid a few complimentary visits to my friends in Reykjavík, he is ready to raise the shout of, " Forward to the snows of Vatna Jökull!"
Departure from Reykjavík
Twelve hours are sufficient to effect my friendly purposes, and the evening after that upon which we landed a small boat full of boxes, saddles, and the necessary equipments for our long journey was lying alongside one of the little wooden landing-stages in front of the town. It was 8 P.M. before we made our appearance, escorted by a numerous party of Icelandic friends. As many as could do so, without inconvenience to the rowers, squeezed themselves into the little boat, and we departed amid the cheers of our friends and; I believe, the good wishes of all the inhabitants. Clear of the shore, we hoisted our sail and glided along at no inconsiderable pace towards the little farm of Laugarnes, at the east end of the bay, where our horses were awaiting us, while we enlivened our brief voyage by a Norse song or two, accompanied by an intermittent fantasia by friend Oddr Gíslason upon the French horn. We found our horses in as fair a condition as was possible for the time of year; but it saves an immense deal of trouble and some money if one knows of any person to be relied on, who can be entrusted with a commission to purchase horses previous to one's arrival, for we thus avoid not merely the harassing delay incidental to procuring these important necessaries for Icelandic travel, but the payment of a long price for the sorry animals which generally fall to the lot of the tourist, who must purchase a stud as soon as he has landed in the island. My horses had been procured from the south of Iceland; they coat from fifty to ninety dollars each, and were, upon the whole, I think, the finest set of horses. I had ever seen in the country.
As I intended to travel as fast as I could to the seat of our summer's work, I had a change of horses for riding and for the pack-boxes. This is absolutely necessary where anything like hard riding is contemplated, but it is by no means essential where time is not an object. After some delay incidental to reducing the baggage to a portable shape and proportion, which is always a matter of some difficulty at the commencement of either an equestrian or pedestrian journey, we took leave of the remainder of our friends, and accompanied by Paul and another Icelander, we pursued our way eastward, over the roughest path imaginable, towards Eyrarbakki, amid the gathering gloom of what turned out to be a wet and miserable day. It is always necessary to take an extra man to help during the first day's journey, for the horses are always more unruly and obstinate the first day or two. This is especially the case where the route is a rough one, like that towards Eyrarbakki. The first part of our course lay over a series of ancient lava streams, upon which the scant herbage was being cropped by a few miserable sheep which had escaped the hand of the shearer; their dirty, ragged coats had been partly torn from their backs by the crags among which they had scrambled, giving them a deplorable appearance quite in keeping with the forbidding aspect of the country and the miserable day. About midday we reached the wretched little farm of Lękjarbotn  . It boasted nothing but squalor, stock-fish, and dirty children. I do not know why it is, but most of the farms in the immediate neighbourhood of Reykjavík are of the poorest and most wretched description. It is true their pastures in most cases are poorer than those of other parts of the country, but there is a great difference in the people also. No one can help noticing a settled look of contented despair in their countenance, scarcely to be wondered at considering their surroundings, which, in this particular instance, seemed as much like hopeless wretchedness as anything I had ever seen. Ah, well! our horses are rested, we have waded through the slush pools and the mire which front that heterogeneous mound of lava blocks, turf, and timber, which we can scarcely conceive anyone, by any stretch of sentimental imagination, calling home. Our horses struggled down the steep mound of slippery mud which by no means assists travellers either to arrive at or depart from Laekjarbotn. Leaving this little patch of stagnant misery behind us, we come upon the desolate lava, the dank mists from the adjacent mountains wrap- ping themselves around us, a driving ram beating into our faces, and a nipping wind exaggerating our discomfort, and assisting the rain to find out the weak places in our mackintosh armour.
We next ascended the hills of Hengilsfjall  . This volcano (Hengill) and its neighbours have given vent to numerous pre-historic eruptions, from which vast streams of lava have issued in various directions, not only having poured from the craters of the mountains themselves, but having welled up at various places in huge mamelonic forms. Near the summit of the mountains is a boiling spring, the medicinal properties of which are thought very highly of by the well-known Dr. Hjaltalín, of Reykjavík. In fine weather this part of the country must be very interesting, and even Lękjarbotn itself might not have looked so extra melancholy. In journeying through these centres of volcanic activity we cannot but be struck with the general lowness of the volcanoes in Iceland. This is doubtless owing to the number of vents which exist in close proximity to one another, so that the volcanic force, having piled up a certain amount of superincumbent matter, finds readier exit by bursting through the superficial overlying rocks in adjacent localities, which offered less resistance than the accumulated volcanic products which they themselves had previously erupted, or by availing themselves of some pre-existing point of disturbance which afforded them a readier escape. The evening found us at the small farm of Hraun  , which impressed me more favourably than Lękjarbotn, although it was kept by a poor widow whose means were excessively limited.
Not having burdened myself with more provisions than I required for the Vatna Jökull alone, we were here again dependent upon the resources of the country, and although this is the worst time of year to travel without provisions in Iceland, still we fared not amiss, obtaining a sufficiency of rye cake, milk, and smoked mutton, which, without being very palatable, answered all the purpose of affording us a meal. Although we had employed a lad to watch our horses during the night, some of them were found astray in the morning. When travelling in this country, especially in the earlier part of the journey, it is by far the best to hire some one to watch the horses, rather than to hobble them while grazing, for, in the first plaoe, even when hobbled, horses will stray a long way, and, very often, the only effect of hobbling is to prevent their picking out the best of the pasture, and one finds in the morning they have decamped just the same as if they had been turned out loose.
Having again got under weigh, we were soon upon the sandy shores of the Ölfusá. This river is formed by the confluent waters of the Hvítá and the Sog, which unite, some twenty English miles from the point where they flow into the sea, forming a very large body of water. Here several seals were basking in the sun, and lying like pieces of rock within a hundred yards of our track, but upon our nearer approach they scrambled into the water with considerable agility. Eyrarbakki  really means sandy bank; it is situated upon the east side of the Ölfusá, at the point where that river empties itself into the sea. Upon both sides of the Ölfusá, and on the west side in particular, are great stretches of black sand, while upon the west side these are grown over with wild oats, and the more one looks on the vast accumulation on the west of the river, the more one is struck with its magnitude. Its cause, however, is apparent. At this point, huge lava streams, flowing down from the volcanoes upon the west side of the river, have obstructed the mud and sand brought down by the waters of that stream ; where an immense bed of sand was formed, which diverted the course of the river, causing it to empty itself further to the east, leaving these huge accumulations of sand high and dry on the western side.
Having crossed the stream by means of a ferry, we found that the irons of all our pack-boxes required alteration, and we could not halt at a better place than Eyrarbakki to have them attended to. These irons, which attach the pack-box to the pack-saddle, are the nightmare of Icelandic travel; and travellers cannot be too particular in having them of the most careful construction, also of the best material possible; again, if anything be amiss with them, they should be always attended to at the earliest opportunity, or a breakdown is sure to occur in Some inconvenient or outlandish place ; and, but for the Icelanders' remarkable faculty for improvising ways and means, such occasions would cause a serious delay in a day's march. Eyrarbakki is one of the principal trading stations in the south of Iceland. It is situated upon a dreary sandbank, the view from which is most monotonous and depressing, while the wailing roar of the formidable breakers, which here extend a long distance out to sea, is melancholy in the extreme.
All along this portion of the shore, ancient lava streams have run out into the sea; but upon the land they are indiscernible, owing to the alluvium with which they are covered. The whole of the south coast, from Eyrarbakki to Papós, is rendered inaccessible to ships by shoals, sand-banks, and sunken rocks, and there is not an inlet during all that distance of some 200 miles which a ship could enter. Having ridden within a few miles of the River Thjórsá, although it was the middle of the night, we stopped at a farm to purchase another horse, and, having roused the inmates from their beds, we completed our purchase, took "schnapps," and rode away to the Thjórsá. It was past 1 A.M., and the ferryman had gone to bed on the opposite side of the river; it was raining, sleeting, and blowing hard ; again and again we shouted, but the storm and the roaring of the water proved too much even for our united lungs, which were none of the weakest. Fortunately, Paul remembered there was a farmer who owned a boat a mile or so further up the side of the river we were on, he therefore roused him while I looked after the horses. This was scarcely an easy task, for, in spite of the driving storm, they strayed away to graze in every direction. Bve-and- bye the farmer and his wife made their appearance. They seemed quite happy at being disturbed from their warm beds in the middle of a cold, stormy night, to earn a dollar-and-a-half by paddling about in the icy cold water of the Thjórsá and ferrying over their nocturnal visitors with their goods and chattels. In fact, our worthy charon seemed to look upon it as a piece of good fortune. At this time of the year, it is light all night.
We reach Heiši
The weather cleared about 8 P.M. and we had a good view of Mount Hekla as we forded the West Rángá  . We stopped between the rivers East and West Rángá, where we had to pay for one of the horses we were riding, for Paul had only brought it with him to Reykjavík on sale or return. Here we took coffee, and next proceeded to Breiša-bólstašr  , where, as usual, we were received with great kindness and hospitality. After taking two hours' sleep, we pushed on to Holt  , which we reached about 1 A.M. The day was half spent before we were again on our way; so we rode briskly to Skógarfoss, one of the largest and most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, where there is a very good farm, and the people are extremely thrifty. I suppose they had never been able to procure any of the legendary gold beneath the falls of Skógarfoss, but they evidently manage to screw a tolerable amount out of travellers who come to admire its beauties.
On, on; past the ice cliffs of Eyjafjalla Jökull to Heiši  , where we were so kindly entertained last year. It was 10 P.M. when eight horses, which showed as though they wanted to graze, and two men, who looked as if they wanted to go to bed, drew up in front of this hospitable dwelling.
The farm is a poor one, though the good folks make the best of it. Their lives, like that of all the poorer Icelanders, must be one continuous struggle against poverty, inclement weather, and a fruitless soil. Yet they have a few sheep and cows upon the hillside; plenty of fish in the lake; and withal are contented. But their contentment is evidently of a very different kind to that which we noticed at Lękjarbotn; it manifestly results from a hope that their circumstances may be improved by domestic thrift, and good fortune with their flocks. Hopeful contentment differs from the contentment of despair in this respect, the one is cheerful and open to improvement, the other is sullen and so sunken in the slough of despondency as to have given up all hope of a change for the better, and thus to be incapable of availing itself of any propitious opportunity, if such should occur. One day's rest at Heiši, and we mount again, directing our course eastward ; riding swiftly over the arid waste of Myrdals Sandr, we reached the banks of the river Kúša-fljót. "We find that this river, which we forded with considerable difficulty last year, could now only be crossed in boats. This shows how the unstable beds of Icelandic rivers shift and change about, transforming shallows into deep water, and creating sand-banks amid the deepest river channels.
We purchased of our ferryman some birds (skümur) which were considered very good to eat. We stopped for the night at the farm of Króki . The farmer, who had been previously hired to form one of my expedition across the Vatna Jökull, regaled us with swan's flesh, which much resembled tough beef; and, although eating it was rather hard work, it was certainly nutritious and palatable. The farmer, Olgi by name, had taken up shooting as his special hobby, and, in spite of his inefficient tools, a very profitable use he appeared to make of it, if we might judge from the numerous swan-skins which were drying outside his house, and the amount of swan's flesh that was being salted. The swans of Iceland are valuable on account of their down; the outer feathers are seldom of any good, for they are never pure white; the value of a swan skin is about one six dollar, Danish. After a ramble amongst the lava which had flowed from the Skaptar Jökull during the remarkable eruption of 1783, we resumed our journey; the day was very hotas much so as any July day in England. Passing the beautiful waterfall of Seljalandsfoss , which appeared in the bright sunlight like curtains of silvery foam upon the face of the dark basaltic cliffs, which here are about 200 feet in height, we arrived at the farm of Hörgsdalr . Here dwelt another of our "Jökull men" (as Paul called those he had hired for my expedition) named Eyólfr; he was one of the toughest, blithest-hearted, and most good-natured fellows I had ever come across.
The bóndi (as the Icelandic farmer is called) was a relation of the farmer at Nupstaš, whose farm, where I had received such kindly welcome in 1871 and 1874, was only half-a-day's journey eastward.
I found the farmer of Hörgsdalr, like his relative, extremely hospitable ; taking a great interest in my expedition, and willing to give every assistance in his power.
The next day we ascended the Kaldbakkr , a moun- tain 2279 feet in height, in order to get a good look at the south side of the Vatna Jökull, which was directly to the north of it. Kaldbakkr is situated a few miles to the north of Hörgsdalr.
Accompanied by the farmer, we rode to the last patch of grass that was nearest the mountain, and, after a smart scramble, reached the summit. The Jökull looked decidedly whiter than I had ever seen it, but there was the same expanse of snow losing itself in the northern distance; pure, silent, dazzling, beautiful, and spotless, save where a few black peaks and uncouth masses of dark rock protruded through the frozen covering. These were scattered at long intervals across the unsullied snow-slopes, and clustered together in the south-west, where lies that portion of the Vatna known as the Skaptar Jökull. Harmless and guileless they looked in the morning sunshine; but they had vomited the lava which had desolated the plain below, and had given vent to the fiery force which from time to time had shaken Iceland to its very foundations! One peak to the north-west especially attracted my attention, on account of its height and its perfectly conical form, and my guide informed me that it had erupted on several occasions, and that the last outburst occurred about thirty years ago.
It was with no small satisfaction I arrived at the now familiar homestead of Nupstaš, and received the usual glad welcome from the bóndi Ayólver, who had been expecting us. I again took up my quarters in the disused little church, which makes such a good storehouse for my friend Ayólver, and such an excellent resting-place for chance travellers like myself. It seemed quite home-like as I tumbled into the little bed which had been improvised upon the boxes in the corner, and I experienced the comfortable feeling of being in my old place again as I ate my breakfast off and posted up my diary upon the antiquated communion table. Do not be shocked, good reader! all sanctity had long ago departed from this useful piece of furniture, and if we were to peep into the inside, we should find neither sacred utensils nor vestments; but simply the serviceable homespun garments of the bóndi's wife.
The farm and the rocks behind it were but little altered since I first saw them four years ago. One year in Núpstaš is much like its predecessor, and things go on, year after year, in just the same routine, except where the inevitable changes of life and death intervene. The people had altered the most, for of course they had grown older, and one or two faces were missing! Well, I have grown older, tooit is no good to stand dreaming. There is a bullock to be bought, butchered, and salted, preparatory to making it into "kęfar," as the Icelanders call the kind of pemmican I make for my Jökull expeditions. Skin-bags and mocassins have to be procured; butter, bread, and stock-fish have to be sought after ; in fact, the greater part of three weeks' provisions for six men must be collected from the neighbouring farms. We made the necessary arrangements, and settled that these various articles are to be ready for us in a week's time; we then deputed Paul's father to attend to the levying of our requisitions, and the payment for them. The ox was next slain, dissected, and salted, and we were again ready to start on our travels.