William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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Online Version erstellt von Dieter Graser


To the north of us rose a cluster of mountains from which great quantities of steam were rising, and hovering above their summits in a huge mushroom-shaped cloud ; to our left and west lay a wide-spreading lava-field, arms of which stretched amongst the neighbouring mountains like the troubled waters of a cindery ocean. Patches of black sand at intervals broke the continuity of this tract of lava, and culminated in a desert still farther to the north- east. Beyond, all the weird forms of fire-wrought mountains formed a fitting back-ground; their rude outlines rendered still more uncouth and grim by the fierce storms of ages. A huge tongue of glaciers at this point swept down to a distance of some ten miles beyond its most northern limit, as represented upon the map published by Olsen in 184-4, from a survey made by Gunnlaugsson, in 1835. I here caught sight of Snęfell; and, upon taking its bearings with the smoking mountains, which were evidently the Dyngjufjall, I found that instead of being at Querkfjall, which was the point I had intended to strike, we were upon the east side of Kistufell, about ten miles too much to the west. What astonished us most was (granted that we were at the east side of Kistufell) that we could see nothing of the Jokulsá-á-fjöllum, which river, upon Olsen's map, rises at the foot of Kistufell; besides, upon his map the Jökull ends at Kistufell, while here a huge glacier extended east and north-east as far as the eye could reach, though exactly, to our north and north-west it terminated abruptly, and only an insignificant river flowed to the north. We here abandoned our sleigh and snow-shoes which had served us so well, and whatever we no longer required, and, making everything into packs, continued our descent over huge piles of moraine, which doubtless covered glacial ice, buttresses and points of which here and there protruded. Having slidden down several steep slopes of snow, which had collected in all the hollows, affording us ready means of descent, we found ourselves at the height of 3,850 feet, in the bed of what evidently had been a large river, though now only an insignificant stream.

Advancing Glacier

To our east and right stretched the immense glaciers before mentioned, completely overrunning the route taken by Gunnlaugsson in 1835, and diverting the source of the Jokulsá, which rises in several arms from the extremity of the glacial tongue before mentioned. Upon our left and west lay the wide-spreading lava-desert of the Ódášhraun.

Our way over the sandy bottom of the grand old watercourse was an easy one to travel, for the sand had absorbed sufficient water to make it firm and compact. Our attention was engaged for some time in watching the fanciful shapes that crowned the dark wall of ice upon our right, on the opposite side of the stream which now lay between us and the glacier; and now and then we could not help stopping to peer into some of the dark chasms which seemed to penetrate into the heart of the icy monster, and to admire the little cataracts of foam which spouted from clefts in the dark green ice, or to wonder at some icy pinnacle or turret, that ever and again tumbled from, perhaps, some few hundred feet above us with a roar and a splash into the river, there to be slowly melted, while the sound of its downfall echoed and re-echoed amongst the cavernous openings in the glacier from which it had fallen! After an hour or so we settled on a low sandy island in the middle of the river, which must have formed formidable rapids when the immense stream that had hollowed out this mighty watercourse had roared over its bed ; but it was shallow enough now, and by judiciously picking our way it scarcely reached up to our knees as we waded to the little island. I here noticed, as I had often done before, an inter- mittent occurrence of waves in certain portions of the stream. These, in large rivers, are rather terrible things, but here they were on so small a scale as to make their examination simply a safe indulgence of harmless curiosity. These waves occur in all the sandy rivers, and they are occasioned by the sand and detritus, which is brought down by the river in large quantities, accumulating against some obstacle until such a time as it forms rapids, which increase in proportion to the durability of this suddenly-formed sandbank. In most cases it readily yields to the action of the water, and is carried away; if, however, the material which is thus piled up should be of a heavier character than usual, it soon accumulates to such an extent as to resist the action of the water altogether, and cause the current to alter its course. This shows how the rivers of Iceland may be diverted and changed from this cause alone, converting shallows into deep water, and deep water into shallows, indeed altering the position and character of the rivers altogether.

Forced Marches

As we laid down, the volcanoes in the Dyngjufjall were smoking away with increased violence. My frost-bitten toe would not allow me to sleep much, so after a doze of two hours we started on our way; we had but two days' full rations left, and as Grímstašir was the nearest farm, a series of forced marches was necessary. Before us to the N.E. was a cluster of hills, which stretched from the southern extremity of the Dyngjufjall in a S.E. direction towards the Jokulsá, upon the east and west sides of which valleys appeared to open northwards. Wishing, however, to get a good view of the country before us, as neither of us had been here before, and it was a matter of paramount importance that we should make no mistake as to the direction, I decided to steer for the centre of the hills, and to cross them. For a short distance we skirted the tongue of the Jökull, past a line of moraine which shewed that the glacier had ebbed as well as flowed, then bearing more to the north, after a hard walk of three hours we reached the hills before us. They were composed of the usual confusion of agglomerate, sand and lava, which had issued from it—it was impossible to say where; but they were evidently of a very ancient date, and many of the harder rocks were glaciated, while the softer ones were simply ruinous heaps. After an arduous scramble, we crossed these hills and reached the little desert of black volcanic sand we had seen from the northern edge of the Vatna Jokull. This sand plain lay between the Dyngjufjall and a chain of mountains upon the opposite side of the Jokulsá-á-fjöllum. It was now raining somewhat heavily, but there was no fog; the burdens of my men were heavy, and I was carrying all I could manage with my bad foot. Tinder these conditions we were obliged often to rest, which much hindered in our progress. We sighted some low, black, misshapen volcanoes, about half way across the plain, and near these we determined to camp for the night. Two hours brought us to a field of lava which had flowed from and surrounded those eccentric little volcanoes which rose in four ghastly eminences in the centre of the plain, in no part more than 100 feet high. Tired as I was, and greatly inconvenienced by my foot, I could not refrain from examining them. They were situated upon a crack from which the lava had welled up in four mamelonic shapes, which in two instances showed irregular breached craters, nearly filled with sand, which had been drifted thither by the wind. The lava was basaltic, and of a remarkably scoriaceous nature, though in the immediate neighbourhood of the volcanoes no cinders were visible around them, so their eruptions must have been attended with but little of explosive character.

The worst feature of our night's lodging was the absence of water, so I ordered the waterproof coats to be spread out to catch rain for our use in the morning.

The Vašalda [1]

It was 1.30 a.m. before we all turned in for the night. Sand is warm to camp upon, but it gets into everything, and when one is wet it sticks to clothes, &c., in a most objectionable manner. By six a.m. we were all awake, sufficient water had collected for immediate use, and we were soon all under weigh over the lava, which in most places flowed very evenly, and being of a more compact character than that which was close to the volcanoes we had just left, had allowed little pools of rain water to collect upon the surface. We marched for four hours, and then struck a large river upon our east. This was the Jokulsá-á-fjöllum. After following its course for some time, we decided to "cache" everything but the remainder of our provisions, our maps, and my diary, for it was my intention to return with horses to the Dyngjufjall mountains which now lay to our N.W., when I could recover them without much difficulty. Having carefully made our "cache," we planted a flag-pole upon an adjacent sandbank, and having carefully taken its bearings, struck for the Vašalda hills, which were not very far distant. These hills run for some nine miles parallel with the course of the Jokulsá; their base being washed by the Svartá, or Black river, which rises in the Dyngjufjall, but is soon lost in the sand, re-appearing on the Svartá at the commencement of the Vašalda. Upon the opposite side of this river we found a root of angelica (Icelandic, hvönn), the stem and root of which we shared and ate with great relish; we also saw two white sheep, but how they manage to eke out an existence must have puzzled their sheeps' heads not a little. Though, proverbially, two heads are better than one, I doubt if the proverb would hold good in their case, but there may be some grass in glens which I have not seen in the Ódášahraun, where enough herbage may grow to feed Icelandic sheep, as they are not very dainty, and are accustomed to short commons.

[1] Vašalda, a hight SE of Askja. back

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