William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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Online Version erstellt von Dieter Graser


View towards the Vatna

The Vašalda hills, although of no great height, command an extensive view towards the Vatna Jökull, and upon reaching their summit I glanced back over the plain. It was one broad wilderness of black sand and lava, girt about with ridges of volcanic mountains, whose numerous cones and chasms have vomited the immense amount of ash, sand and lava with which the surrounding country is covered. In the centre of the plain rose the little volcanoes by which we had encamped the previous night, grimly and perkily protruding, as if they aped their monster brethren around them. Beyond all was the wide, white expanse of the Vatna Jökull, from which a huge tongue of glacier extended more than half way across the plain; from its extremity commenced the river we had been following (the Jökulsá-á-fjöllum), which stretched through the black bare plain sometimes in many arms, enclosing little islands of black sand and pebbles in its sinuous embrace, then surging along through a single deep channel it had worn for itself in the sand, where the unstable banks, even while we gazed on them, were crumbling and falling in, patch after patch of sand rendering still more murky its already discoloured waters.

From here I obtained the first good view of the Querkfjall, which appeared to be a cluster of conical mountains, one huge crater being on the northern side of the Vatna Jökull. This large crater, though partially filled with snow, was smoking at three points, but presented no other signs of activity. Having advanced about a mile upon the Vašalda, we were soon upon the pumice which was ejected last year from the Öskjugjá [1] , or chasm of oval casket, in the Dyngjufjall mountains. It has fallen in a line of about twenty-five miles in breadth from the centre of the Vašalda to the south of Heršubreiš, in a band of continually extending ladia eastward towards the sea shore, destroying in its course six farms in the Jökul-dalr [2] , and injuring others in the immediate vicinity. This shows that the prevalent winds during the eruption of Öskjugjá must have been south-west.

This pumice [3] is of a remarkably vitreous nature and vesicular in structure, often assuming very beautiful forms, such as sponge, honeycomb, coral or grained wood. As far as the eye could see, the often to the depth of several feet; while in places it had been swept up into huge banks of many feet in thickness by the wind, sometimes burying whole lava fields, the more elevated crags of which protruded, as if struggling to get free, and proclaim the existence of the lava stream underneath. We descended into a valley in which everything, like the surrounding country, was covered with the same white greyish pumice, except where the darkly-flowing river wound silently along, deep, black and foul, bearing upon its surface floating islands of pumice.

Forced Marches

The pumice had evidently fallen upon the winter's snow [3] , for a thick layer lay underneath, protected by the cinders from the influences of the summer tem- perature. Ever and again this substratum gave way, and we sank deeply into a mixture of snow and ashes. It was trying work, but we were well warmed, and pushed on at a good pace. We again climbed to the crest of the hills, and another valley opened to our view, running S.S.E., and another river not marked upon Olsen's map helped to swell the waters of the Jökulsá, while the river at our feet poured through a rocky chasm it had worn for itself; further on was a jam of floating pumice which blocked up a portion of the river, causing it in some places to look precisely similar to the adjacent ground. Presently, a wide plain opened before us, from which rose a lofty mountain, shaped like a huge pork-pie, crusted over with ice and snow upon its flattened summit, which rose gradually to a fantastic, ornamental apex in the centre. This was Heršubreiš, and it was at once recognised by Paul, who had been in the north of Iceland before. Beyond Heršubreiš the country was of a darker hue, no doubt caused by the absence of the pumice, which had not fallen upon the sand and lava desert of the Mżvatns Öręfi. We now halted to determine our exact position. We found we were about forty-five miles from Grímstašir, and upon the north end of the Vašalda, and as it would be necessary to hit the exact spot where the boat was kept, Grímstašir being upon the east side of the river and we upon the west, we agreed to follow the course of the Jökulsá. This river, in the map, appeared to flow pretty nearly straight, but in reality does no such thing. As food was getting short we took a light meal off our pipes, and reviewed our supplies. We had a half-pound pot of chocolate and cream, about a pound of hard tack, half a pound of butter, and three square inches of "gravy soup" — rather short commons for six men, with forty-five miles, at the very least computation, of the very roughest country possible before them, and which, as we intended to follow the course of the river the greater part of the way, would be sure to develope into considerably more.

There was a lovely yellow sunset as we descended the northern slope of the Vašalda; the sun was waning towards the north, and the ashen covering of the surrounding mountains reflected an unearthly light, which added a ghastly grandeur to the chaotic desolation through which we were passing, while we ourselves, dirty, brown, and wayworn, as we travelled almost noiselessly in our mocassins over the ash-strewn ground, seemed fitting representatives of the outlaws and evil spirits with which tradition had peopled this wild region. A very suitable abode it seemed for all of evil omen, but even such must have had a hard time of it if the country were in their day such as it is now, which probably was not the case.


By two a.m. we rested, purposing to take a couple of hours' sleep. I scooped out a place for myself in the cinders, and lying down under the lee of a large stone, covered myself over with my mackintosh coat. Unfortunately my men could not sleep as they were so cold, so we soon resumed our journey. At five a.m. we were due east of Heršubreiš, where we took a slight meal, the most prominent feature of which was water from the Jökulsá. We were travelling over an old lava stream nearly covered with pumice, and the river had assumed formidable proportions, having been joined by a third arm upon the east side [5] , which roared over the lava in its bed. The sun was shining brightly, the clouds were beginning to melt away from the summit of Heršubreiš, leaving a cloudless sky; a slight frost was glistening upon everything and stiffening our beards, the pumice was getting thinner and thinner, and presently altogether disappeared. Before us lay a broad waste of sand and lava, and in the far distance loomed the mountains of Mżvatn, which Paul recognised as old friends, as some years of his life had been spent in the Mżvatn sveit. For the first few miles my foot troubled me a good deal, but as soon as I got warm the pain ceased, and as the day promised to be hot, we made the most of these early hours.

Following the course of the river, we found ourselves upon a plain of sand and pebbles, and as we advanced, a little scanty herbage began to make its appearance, while occasional sheep tracks showed that sheep in this quarter were, as usual, wont to stray from richer and more plentiful pastures to those which afforded but a poor and meagre supply. By 8.30 we reached the little river Grafalandá, which here flows into the Jökulsá; and here there was plenty of grass. The sun now shone warmly, and as we were not more than twenty-seven miles from Grímstašir in a straight line, we lay down and slept for two hours. Upon rising we still followed the river, which, as before remarked, is by no means a straight one. Our road now lay through a considerable quantity of thick herbage, principally galix and coarse grass. Some hills here interrupted our progress, the base of which was washed by the river, and since no way was possible between the river and the over-hanging cliffs, for the river here took a great turn eastward, we decided to ascend the hills. The summits of these, as is often the case in Iceland, were formed of stones imbedded in sand and decomposed rock, after the fashion of a loosely macadamized road. This is doubtless caused by the heavy covering of the winter's snow, which presses down the stones, and then as it melts converts the material in which they are embodied into slush, into which the fragments of rock, &c., readily sink, so that when the water has drained off and the fine weather comes, it is found transformed into a kind of cement, for the decomposed fellspathic lavas especially set very firmly under such circumstances. By three p.m. we reached a delightful little mountain stream brawling over the rocks and lava, fertilizing the parts of the mountain through which it ran, and calling into birth green borders of galix and grass, forming a beautiful little cascade directly in our path. Here we halted; the sun was intensely hot, but it felt rather comfortable than otherwise. Here we found an abundant growth of angelica, which we ate with the remainder of our provisions. We then washed our socks and laid down to sleep, lulled by the bubble of the stream and the sweet fresh smell of the herbage around us, which our long absence from everything that could produce so agreeable an aroma rendered all the more welcome.

We Sight Grímstašir

Evening came before we again started, and our road was through a deep loose sand, which was very trying and heavy to our feet, for beneath this was a layer of pure white ash of the consistency of flour - probably decomposed pumice. When this was mixed with sand, it seemed to be a good fertilizer, for wherever it occurred a patch of wild oats was the invariable result. Before we again reached the river, we found it cut directly through a clus- ter of low mountains, striking a field of very dark and almost vitreous lava. By midnight we sighted Grímstašir to the S.E., upon the opposite side of the river, although at some considerable distance, and the ferry was beyond the farm, to the north of it. We followed closely down the bank of the river that we might not miss it, for there was no track to guide one across the Mżvatns-Öręfi, and it was a good three hours before we found the boat, which was a leaky concern, but by dint of baleing and rowing we eventually reached the opposite side. Five a.m. saw us arrived at Grímstašir, much to the surprise of the occupants, who had not at all expected the intrusion of six men on foot at such an hour, and from such a quarter.

Grímstašir [6]

The bóndi having been roused, the whole establishment turned out to have a look at us. Grímstašir was decidedly the best and most extensive farm I had seen in the island, except, perhaps, Breišarbólstaš in Rangárvallasżsla. The bóndi was a good type of the genuine old-fashioned Icelander, and everything in the place was cleanly and comfortable. He had passed all his life in the north of the island, and had not ever journeyed to Reykjavík.

There was a good-sized windmill in front of the farm, to grind the rye and wheat sold by the storekeepers; and this was a very great improvement upon the old stone handmill so generally used in other parts of the country, especially in the south. Windmills seem to be rather a characteristic of the north of Iceland. My first object was to procure coffee and a good meal; this having been secured, I proceeded to purchase four sheep, and give instructions for their death and disposal. One was destined for immediate use, the other three to be made into pemmican, their skins being dried for carriage to England.

What a glorious institution is a bed! What a happy thought it was of the man who first conceived the idea of taking off his clothes before turning into it! What luxury! a tub, hot water, soap, a sponge, a towel, clean sheets, an eiderdown quilt, a little tallow for my poor sore nose, and sleep ! What sub- limity of comfort! Well, I slept as only a well-worn traveller could sleep, till I was roused by the novel sound of a knock at the door of my room. "What's the matter? Who's there?" My watch said twelve o'clock.

It was the bóndi's daughter, with coffee and a plate full of delicate little pancakes, each carefully rolled up with a few raisins inside, and nicely powdered over with white sugar. Forgive the weakness, good reader, but that little tray ! Can I ever forget it or its contents, to say nothing of its comely bearer? Will I have any more ? Oh yes, by all means. My mid-day meal became an interesting speculation, to say nothing of the comely bearer of it, through whom I ordered sheep's fry, and ere long was greeted with its savoury smell.

Paul had gone to Reikjahliš to try and hire a man and some horses to enable us to go to Öskjugjá (the volcano we had seen smoking), for my own horses had not yet arrived, but I learnt that it was almost impossible to obtain either horses or men, as all were engaged in gathering in the hay harvest.

In the afternoon two students arrived from the college at Reykjavík to spend their vacation in the north, and a merry evening we had of it with my men, who were in high spirits at having fairly reached the Noršurland by a route which had never before been trodden by the foot of man, since their island first rose above the waters of the North Atlantic — a feat that would immortalise their names in local Icelandic history!

We had then travelled from Núpstaš in the south of the island to Grímstašir in the north, a distance of about 270 miles, in sixteen days, twelve of which had been passed amongst the regions of perpetual snow. I must here remark that the pluck, per- severance, and obedience of the Icelanders who accom- panied me are deserving of all praise; for without them I could never have crossed the Vatna Jökull. The next day was Sunday, and at breakfast I was informed that the bóndi would read a service in the bašstofa, an apartment for general use. This room was filled with little truck bedsteads, and somewhat reminded me of a hospital. All the household were gathered about, neat and orderly, sitting on the bedsteads, and the service consisted of singing, reading, and prayer.

One cannot help noticing the softening and harmonising influences of all forms of civilized religion when not clouded by fanaticism, more especially among those whose lives are spent in close contact with the ruder elements of the world.

The beautiful clear sunny weather continued, enabling us on the following day to obtain a good view of the distant hills of the Mżvatn, across the arid waste of the Mżvatns Öręfi, where occasional puffs of wind were raising small clouds of the light volcanic sand, carrying them high into the air. Sometimes, too, circular currents raised screw-shaped columns of sand, which now and then increased to rather formidable dimensions, and even crossed the Jökulsá, blinding the chance traveller, and scaring any stray sheep that might be cropping the tufts of scant herbage sprinkled at long intervals over the plain.

The volcano in the Dyngjufjöll was smoking away with greater ferocity than ever, and the dark columns which formed the centre of the great mushroom of vapour which still hung over these remarkable mountains showed that something heavier than steam was being ejected.

Paul returned in the evening with a man from Gręnavatn [7] , named Thorlákur, who was to accompany me to the Ódášahraun and the Dyngjufjöll, but my difficulty lay in not having sufficient horses, as Paul had found it impossible either to buy or hire more than two, and they belonged to Thorlákur; and as I could not afford to wait for my own, I was compelled to modify my plan of operations. Requiring a fresh supply of necessaries, I first despatched Paul to the stores at Vopnfjöršr, and then, with the rest of my men and Thorlákur, set out' for the Ódášhraun on foot, one horse carrying hay and the other provisions. Our first stage was to be the Grafalandá, where there was plenty of grass, and our next some point between the Dyngjufjöll mountains and the river Svartá, within easy reach of the baggage I had left behind. From here I determined to start with Thorlákur and Eyolfur, while the rest returned to the Grafalanda with everything we did not absolutely need, directing them in the meantime to fetch more provisions from Grímstašir, and a sufficient number of my own horses (which doubtless by that time would have arrived) to carry us and our belongings from the Grafalandá to Mżvatn.

In the evening two of the farm servants, who were refugees from some of the devastated farms in. the Jökuldalr, recounted their experiences during the eruptions of last spring, which, however, by no means damped the ardour of my men.

[1] "Öskjugá" = Askja. The name "Öskjugá" was introduced by Watts. After the eruptions declined the "gjá" was filled with water and built the Öskjuvatn. back
[2] "Jökul-dalr" = Jökuldalur, valley of the Jökulsá á Brú. back
[3] "pumice" = Isl: víkur; Dt.: Bimsstein back
[4] The eruption happened in March 1875, the year before Watt's travel. back
[5] "third arm upon the east side" = the river Kreppa. back
[6] "Grímstašir" = Grímstunga near the later built bridge over the Jökulsá á Fjöllum. back
[7] Gręnavatn is a farm at the southern end of Mżvatn. back

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