William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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We Start for the Dyngjufjöll

The next day was spent in completing my preparations, and in the evening, we bade adieu to Paul and our good friends at Grímstašir, after which we again turned our faces towards the mountains. My supplies now consisted of 50 Ibs. of pemmican, 25 Ibs. of bread, 10 Ibs. of butter, two large dried trout from Mżvatn, and about half-a-gallon of corn brandy.

Having crossed the ferry, my attention was arrested by a small crater orgjá (chasm), as the natives called it, which had opened in the plain about two miles to the west; it was an ancient vent, named Hrossaberg, and many similar to it occur in the plain of the Mżvatns Oręfi. The fissures which had erupted in the spring were of a like nature, and the heated lava from them we could just perceive farther to the west, looking like a black bank, while from it little clouds of steam were occasionally rising, and a thinnish, darker vapour overshadowed it; and even at the distance we stood from it pungent exhalations were perceptible. We continued on our way towards Heršubreiš in a southerly direction, over a desert of sand and lava streams which had intersected and flowed over one another, but my foot still greatly inconvenienced me, though I had given it entire rest during my stay at Grímstašir. At five a.m. we stopped for half-an-hour to let the horses refresh themselves at a patch of wild oats which here grew rather abundantly in patches, generally in shape and size rather resembling ordinary haycocks, so that in the distance they often made the plain appear as if it were covered with hay in cocks all ready for carting. The peculiarity of their form is doubtless due to the roots that protect the sand in which they grow, while the sand on the surface of the surrounding plain is being constantly swept away by the wind.

We were now in a line west of the hills of Grímsfjall, which are not marked upon Olsen's map. We pursued our journey with the morning sun, and it is surprising what an effect the sunlight has upon one, to refresh, cheer, and revive one's strength. I have often remarked (and others have told me they have done the same) that, when travelling all night, the sensation of weakness and weariness is most felt between the hours of one and three o'clock in the morning, but as soon as the sun appears there is a consciousness of refreshment almost as though one had slept.

We perceived a small quantity of steam, perhaps from a hot spring or a fissure in the lava, about seven miles to our west, but I could not spare time to inspect it.

The Grafalandá

We next reached the Grafalandá, which is a small river taking its rise north-west of Heršubreiš, and flows north-east into the Jökulsá. This water no doubt comes from patches of snow upon the Dyngjufjöll, the Trölladyngjur mountains and Heršubreiš, and as is generally the case around these mountains, loses itself in the sand and lava at their base to reappear as a stream when it can no longer find a subterranean passage. The banks of this stream were covered with dwarf birch and salix, but the larger wood was dead, and this would seem to show that the woods were more extensive and of a stronger growth in bygone years than at the present time. I have observed this in other parts of Iceland. There was also here an abundance of grass, making it an excellent halting place for anyone desirous of exploring the adjacent mountains. It was in this vicinity, tradition tells us, that the last of the Icelandic outlaws found a shelter, and, as late as a hundred years ago, one man, named Eyvindr, lived here for a considerable time, and a cave in the north of Heršubreiš hill memorialises his handy-work, in the shape of a horse carved upon its roof or walls. He appears, however, to have been by no means of terrible character, and was in great favour with the country people.

We next moved on to the river Lindá, about four miles in advance, and three miles north-east of Heršubreiš. Here there was good grass for the horses, and angelica grew abundantly, and the stems and roots of it were very acceptable and refreshing in a region so void of vegetable life as this. I wonder the inhabitants do not more cultivate it in their gardens, for I believe it would be quite possible for them to acquire a national fondness for it as a staple article of vegetable diet.

Across the Pumice

A short trudge over the lava brought us level with Heršubreiš, and here we soon began to observe signs of the volcano in the Dyngjufjöll in the shape of the peculiar vitreous pumice I have before mentioned.

Weary, weary work for sore feet this pumice-deluged country. Many masses were four or five feet in circumference, but the majority varied from the size of a man's hand to that of a wine cork. In many places it had drifted into huge beds, which was bad enough for us to travel over, but it was still worse for the poor horses, who seemed much fatigued with their journey. In ascending and descending these large cinder heaps, great quantities would often suddenly shift, leaving us deeper than our knees in dust and pumice. We were steering west of the course we had taken from the Vatna Jökull, and the pumice was thicker than we had yet found it; while occasionally we met with round white masses of lava glazed over upon the outside, but when broken they disclosed a highly vesicular nature in their interior. This stony shower must have been appalling, especially when accompanied by darkness, floods of scalding water, and mephitic vapours.

The dust occasioned by our progress was excessively trying to the eyes, and even penetrated our clothes. In many places floods of water had evidently flowed from the direction of the volcano. The pumice was rapidly decomposing under the action of the atmosphere, especially where it was wet, and a great deal of it appeared to have been ejected in a wet state, and had since absorbed a kind of wet earthy matter, which seemed materially to assist its decom- position. These floods of water from volcanoes which are neither glacial nor snow-capped mountains, can only be explained in two ways, either by supposing the water to have accumulated as a subterranean lake in the chimney of the volcano, or that it was previously entangled in the very elements of the matter ejected. We were now leaving the Vašalda hills to the east, and we could see by what a tortuous course we had travelled by keeping so close to the river Jökulsá on our journey to Grímstašir. At two a.m. we rested and gave the horses some hay, for they were very tired, and most of my men had scarcely recovered from their long march. After an hour's rest, we again moved on; the men were suffering much from thirst, for Icelanders drink more water when on a walking expedition than any people I ever met with, which I suppose is because they are accustomed to consume a great quantity of milk when at home.

The pumice became finer and less deep as we advanced, and remembering it had fallen in the winter, I dug through it to reach the snow, which greatly relieved our thirst. We were now between the Vašalda and the Dyngjufjöll mountains, and from the top of a lava field, almost buried beneath the pumice, we beheld the broad sand plain we had crossed upon our journey from the Vatna. I here noticed some rounded masses of lava, which were just the reverse of the bombs I had seen before, being harder and more compact in the centre than upon the exterior. The pumice now grew less and less, and a gentle slope brought us to the sand plain; so, having deposited our loads about one mile south-east of the Askja, and two west of the southern extremity of the Vašalda, I despatched two men with the horses to seek the remainder of the belongings we had left a week before upon the sand, about four miles away to the S.S.E.

We then pitched by the side of three or four large shallow pools of water [1] , formed by several small streams which here run from the Dyngjufjöll and lose themselves in the sand, reappearing, as I have before described, as the Svartá, a few miles to the S.S.E.

A Sleeep upon the Sand

The sand was very trying, for a westerly wind filled the air with clouds of a most irritating dust. It was some time before the men returned, when they informed me they had seen several sheep, looking plump and well, and had found some grass near the source of the Svartá, where they had given the horses a rest. Having taken a good meal, I sent three of my men on their return journey, for we had not sufficient hay to keep the horses any longer. I was now left with only Thorlákur and Eyólfur, so we pitched our tent in order that we might take a good sleep before setting out for the Dyngjufjöll. The wind had died away upon the plain, the sand no longer troubled us, the sun was shining warmly, so after our long journey we were rewarded by a most refreshing sleep. Seven p.m., how- ever, saw us again on our legs. I had determined that the volcanoes of Öskjugjá must be north-west of our present position, and therefore decided to take a northern course along the E.S.E. face of the moun- tains, and take the first gill which should anyway lead in a westerly direction. I also arranged for five days' provision to be taken with us, and the remainder to be cached upon the sand. Our whisky was now reduced to two small bottles full, for I had been compelled to be rather liberal with it the pre- vious night. I therefore directed that a pint or more of water should be placed in the keg, and this we left in the cache to await our return.

Having crossed a few small streams to the north, which flowed into the pools by which we had encamped, the road became tolerably good, being formed of very fine pumice, sand, and mud that had evidently been cast up by the volcano in question. This, in all probability, had been showered down towards the termination of the eruption, when the pumice had been many times ejected and swallowed again by the volcano, thus reducing it to very small pieces, lapilli and mud, — while at the same time the eruption itself was waxing feeble. Our good road terminated after about three hours' walking, and then we trod again upon a series of heaps of large and most execrable pumice. All night we continued our difficult progress, but no gill presented itself, up which we might turn towards the object of our search.

Morning in the Dyngjafjöll

My position may be imagined by the reader supposing himself toiling over vast piles of rotten cinders, with 20 Ibs. weight on his back, in wet skin socks, with villanously sore feet. The cireumtances demanded a halt, for the sun was beginning to show itself in an arc of misty, crimson light, which grew broader and broader and more vivid with approaching day. To our left there arose crags to the height of over 1000 feet above us, their sides being draped with slopes of lava and shifting pumice. Around us were misshapen rocks and conical eminences, carrying our thoughts back to eruptions in bygone ages of the volcanic fires beneath. Here was a chasm, yawning widely where it had not been filled up with pumice, while many others cut deeply into the flanks of the surrounding mountains. These were probably the result of the earthquakes which had preceded the recent eruptions; while in the north of the volcano we were now ascending they were very numerous, but I did not observe any to the south of it. The wind was blowing from the east, and hitherto the volcano had not troubled us with its noisome smell; but as the heavy midnight clouds began to roll down the mountain sides, a pungent sulphurous odour reminded us that the dread power which had created the wilderness around was still alive, though somewhat feeble, in the heart of the mountains which seemed to scowl upon their nocturnal intruders. The snowy turban of Heršubreiš, however, was glowing in the sunlight, and the bright face of the luminary broke through the eastern mists, showering beautifully upon the cinder-strewn country around us the heavenly gift of morning sunlight. "Já blessuš sólin," exclaimed both my companions. "Aye, the blessed sun! " and we all for some minutes silently watched the approach of the tutelar spirit of Icelandic travellers. "Who can wonder at the uneducated or the uncivilized worshipping the sun? crude nature always regards what it cannot understand with superstitious fear, and sometimes with love and worship, and if we did not recognise in all a great Primeval Cause, we might worthily deify the sun; but it was useless to lay dreaming and it was too cold to lie still, and lying still would not get us up the mountain, for up the mountain we were fain to go. We had already gone too far to the north, and as there was no gill, we must needs climb straight up, and steer for the thickest steam and the foulest smell; in short, when our eyes failed, to follow our noses.

[1] Dyngjuvatn. back

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