William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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The Ódášahraun

I may here remark that the Ódášahraun is a desert of sand and lava, extending over an area of 1200 square miles, the greater part of which seems to have flowed from Skjalbreiš [1] , so I think it must be one of the oldest lava flows in Iceland, for this volcano has not erupted since 1305. Some of the lava may, however, have flowed from the Dyngjufjöll, or, possibly, from fissures in the plain itself. I could, however, trace no distinct stream from the above-named mountains, nor has any one, I believe, travelled along the west side of them for the purpose of ascertaining. In several places the lava of the Ódášhraun has run up hill. This, I believe, has been occasioned by the crust which flowed upon the surface of the lava stream, constituting a sort of pipe with the ground upon which the stream rested; and the air being thus excluded, the still liquid lava underneath has acted in the same way as water would when enclosed in a pipe, by finding its own level, or approximately so, according to its degree of fluidity. At any rate it took us five hours to cross the Ódášahraun and reach the snow patch I had seen. There we rested, and early next morning, accompanied by Thorlákur, I set off for Skjaldbreiš, leaving Eyólfur, who was very tired, in camp. We next followed an immense lava stream about half-way up the mountain, and during the early part of our walk I several times heard the muffled sound of water running beneath the lava. When about half-way up, we reached deep indurated snow, through which protruded the black hummocks and masses giving Skjaldbreiš such a mottled appearance when I first saw it from the Dyngjufjöll mountains. Skjaldbreiš is, however, nothing but a huge mound of basaltic lava, partially covered with snow, rising by a very gradual slope to about 4000 feet above sea level, and from it has evidently flowed the greater part of the Ódášahraun, though, as all the neighbouring mountains seem to have erupted at some period or another, it is but fair to presume they have also helped to swell this vast wilderness of volcanic dregs; but I have been unable to trace any lava stream in the Ódášahraun to any other source than Skjaldbreiš. The summit of Skjaldbreiš I found was thickly enveloped in clouds, so I stopped when within 300 feet of the top to look at the surrounding country. To our north lay the arid waste of the Ódášahraun, the unearthly desolation of which I have never seen equalled. Truly, it may be said that it extends over but a small area when compared with many of the mighty deserts in other parts of the world, but there is a forbidding, yet fascinating grimness about this which is an especial characteristic of Icelandic scenery, and as this savage region extends as far as the eye can see, it produces none the less vivid impression upon the mind of the beholder, although one can refer to the map and find that it extends over only about 1500 square miles. When first gazing at a dreary Icelandic lava desert the sensations are something akin to those experienced when for the first time one sees a prairie immediately after the fire has swept across it; but although one is conscious that there may be a million instead of a thousand square miles of burnt, black, cindery country around, it does not impress one with its awful magnificence and grandeur of desolation as the Ódášahraun does. To the north and east were the Dyngjufjöll mountains, with their volcanoes smoking away with renewed vigour in the cold morning air. A point further to the east was the long weary route we had just traversed, stretching away bleak and bare to where the grey pumice in the distance gave the country the appearance of lying in bright sunshine. To the south rose the Vatna Jökull, cold and gloomy, with its heights wrapped in fog and mist. Kverkfjall and Kistufell, however, were exceptionally clear; the former was smoking in three places, and a great quantity of sand and lava appeared to have proceeded from it. Between us and the Kverkfjall swept the broad tongue of glacier [2] , reaching two-thirds of the way northward towards the Vašalda hills, and from its extremity I counted five arms of the Jokulsa which issued from it, while the small stream from Kistufell was hidden by the intervening hills. "We next continued our journey to the summit, and then found a small but perfectly formed crater, about 500 yards in circumference, but of no great depth, while in the centre rose a ridge of burnt lava, which gave the mountain the black tufted appearance I had noticed in the distance.

The latest eruptions, I should imagine, from the contour and disposition of the surrounding lava, have taken more the form of prodigious boilings over than of explosive outbursts, and it seems as if it had continued to burn tranquilly long after its last outburst. From here we descended a short distance upon the north-west side, in order to get below the fog, and obtain a view of the country to the west. The same dreary desolation presented itself—the pure white Jokull, with the black sand and the rugged lava fields were alike cold, silent, motionless, and dead! The mountains were a little different in form, but there was the same grand desolate wilderness, seeming ready to blast every living thing that dared to intrude on its enchanted solitude. We therefore returned to camp, and were not sorry to sit down to a good breakfast of pemmican, bread and butter, and water. The sun shone fiercely at midday, and the heat, radiated by the sand and lava, became so great that we rested till the cool of the evening, when we struck for the south-east end of the Dyngjufjöll, which we reached about midnight, but as a thick fog descended upon us, I steered close along the base of the mountains, preferring a little circuit to wandering about all night in uncertainty upon the plain. Our course from here was over an old lava stream, buried in light volcanic dust, which was very trying to travel over, for we sunk rather deeply into it, and had to stop every now and then to empty our shoes, which were constantly becoming filled with sand. At length we struck upon the pumice, which showed we were nearing the volcano of Öskjugjá; soon after we came to a small stream, and being all very thirsty, the water was highly appreciated. Seeing that the pumice increased, and fearing we should be getting too far to the east, I resolved to follow the course of the next stream, conjecturing that it would bring us down to the pools by which we had made our cache. It was a crooked way, but it brought us right at last; for as the mist dispersed we sighted the pools, and it was not long before we gladly lighted upon our cache. The first thing that came to hand was a box of Fry's chocolate powder, so we all sat down upon our packs and with our broad knife blades began to operate upon the powdery treasure. Eating chocolate powder we found was thirsty work, so having emptied the box, we took a good drink of water, pitched the tent, and turned in.

The Return Journey

We had hitherto been using stones for tent pegs, but here there were none to be had, and as we could not now avail ourselves of little screws of hay, as we had done when last camped upon the same spot, we took off our mocassins and buried them, with a string attached to each, at intervals round the tent; these answered the purpose of pegs very well, and as it is always necessary to bury untanned mocassins while resting, to prevent them from shrinking and becoming too hard to wear, we, by this device, managed to "kill two birds with one stone." After a good sleep, I debated on the possibility of reaching the Kverkfjall, which I particularly wished to examine, but the Jökulsá and a long stretch of country lay between us, and as Thorlákur assured me if we did so we should have soon "to go on our naked meat," it was a matter for grave consideration what was best to do. The lava had already played sad havoc with our foot gear — we had each of us worn out four pairs of mocassins since we left Grímstašir — and those which were doing duty as tent pegs were almost played out, while there were but two pairs remaining in our small stores, which was anything but encouraging. Moreover, we had a long way before us yet; so all things considered, I came to the conclusion that Kverkfjall was impracticable. I determined, therefore, to ascend the Dyngjufjöll again, and from the peak above us take a farewell look around, directing Eyólfur in the mean time to carry all our things to a small stream at the foot of the mountains, about two miles north of our present position, which could be easily done in two shifts. Accordingly, I began my climb accompanied by Thorlákur, but our progress was continually interrupted by deep "gjás," or fissures, many of which were of great depth, probably several hundred feet. In some cases, however, we found bridges of snow and pumice, by which we were able to cross these chasms.

At this time the sun was wending its way westward across the snowy slopes of the Vatna, as we reached the top of this part of the Dyngjufjöll, and really language quite fails me when I attempt to describe the wildness of that view! Behind us was the volcano, from which vast volumes of dark smoke and steam were rising; the various mountains which studded the sterile wastes before us were all clothed in the same dull grey covering; the black sand of the Mżvatns Öręfi was just visible to the north, and as far as the eye could see eastward, there stretched a series of mountains, valleys and wasted plains. During nearly two hours we might almost be said to have slept in the view before us; indeed, I was hardly conscious how the time had gone until the sun seemed to have slipped behind the Hofs Jökulls, giving their snows a golden outline, while my watch reminded me that it was nearly 11 P.M.

The atmosphere now turned very cold, the frost was already sparkling upon the surrounding rocks, a purple glow stole over the mountains, blending their softened outlines with the tinted sky, and we felt that a little brisk work would sensibly add to our comfort. Our descent afforded us some amusement, sliding down the steep beds of small pumice, which we did at a furious rate. It had taken us more than three hours to ascend the mountain, but less than one to come down it! "We found Eyólfur where I had directed him to wait; making a good meal, we patched up our mocassins as well as we could by moonlight, and by a different route to that by which we came we struck a straight line for Heršubreiš. Ultimately we reached Heršubreiš with the sun, and I was not at all sorry to find myself on my way home; for increased inflammatory symptoms in my great toe showed that a liberal application of blue-stone [3] and rest were absolutely indispensable to its cure. The weather by this time appeared very uncertain, for the heavens were spotted all over with masses of golden nimbus, drifting rapidly before a wind which was blowing above, though the atmosphere beneath was perfectly calm, which are invariably indications of storm in Iceland.

We were now clear of the pumice, and after a hard scramble over some very rough lava, part of which had flowed from an ancient volcano not marked upon the map, about eight miles S.S.E. of Heršubreiš, part, apparently, from the Dyngjufjöll mountains, and some from Trölladżngjur (Troll's bowers). Here we camped by a pool of water.

Heršubreiš, whose trigonometrical height is 5447 feet, is a snow-covered cone, resting upon a perpendicular mass of rock, whose height equals about twice the diameter of the cone. Upon its south-east and west sides are tali of disintegrated and greatly weather-worn rocks, and bulging, misshapen masses of agglomerate. At every point except the S.E. and N.N.W. the sides are perfectly perpendicular, presenting walls of about 2000 feet from the base of the mountain to the commencement of the snow-covered cone; it is surrounded by a dry sandy foss, and choked in places with rounded débris, which had fallen from the agglomerate of which Heršubreiš is principally composed.

Probably the most remarkable feature of this mountain is that no streams of water flow down its sides, while the base of most other Icelandic snow-capped mountains are generally watered with streams, which as we have already seen, often disappear in sandy or cavernous ground; but here all the water which must result from the melting of the frozen accumulation upon the summit of Heršubreiš seemed utterly lost, until it issued in springs such as those which form the source of the Linda, at a considerable distance from the base of the mountain, or collects in pools such as Heršubreišvatn.

The gulleys which had in many places worn the side of Heršubreiš into the fantastic forms so peculiar to this formation (agglomerate), appear to be the result of rain and wind, and the only points from which the mountain is assailable are the S.S.E. and N.W. It was from the latter that Captain Burton attempted it in 1872, and that experienced traveller seems to regard it as the core of a much larger mountain; possibly such may be the case, but its shape is decidedly against its being a volcano of anything but the most ancient order. History tells us, however, that this mountain has erupted upon several occasions. The eccentricity of its form is sufficient to suggest any amount of speculations as to its origin and character, while nothing but a careful investigation of the mountain from the base to the apex could enable anyone to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. The palagonitic agglomerate (which, as I have said, constitutes the greater part of the mountain), is of so friable a nature, and so rapid is the erosive influence of the Icelandic climate, while so disturbed and meta- morphosed has the whole of the island been by volcanic agency, that one ceases to wonder at the eccentric shape and anomalous character of its mountains.

I much regretted being compelled to pass by Heršubreiš without attempting to ascend it, but our foot gear was in tatters and my sore toe required immediate attention, so we camped in a large gulley of sand and lava, which extended a mile or more, gradually rising to the level of the plain towards the south. Here, while we were lying with the tent spread over us all, blanket fashion, and had just dropped off to sleep, we were suddenly awakened by such a blast of wind, and a deluge of the finest sand and pumice, that for the moment I did'nt know what it was. At first we started to our feet, only to get our eyes full of finely-powdered pumice, and as I tried to speak I got my mouth full. We saw all the smaller articles of our packs making the most speedy tracks for the more settled portions of the country. I tried to save my hat, but in so doing kicked my bad toe against a lava block, tangled my feet up in the tent rope, and fell down, the latter being about the most sensible thing I could do, for in a few moments the gust was past and I could look up.

Blind with the sand, and wild with the agony it was occasioning us, we all rushed for the water, and opened our eyes in it. While so doing there came another gust, which compelled us to wait upon our knees, keeping our heads in the shallow water until it was over; and then, soaked with sand and water, we made our way back to where our things had been. I say had been, for all were not there then; my broad-brimmed Danish hat, and half my small etceteras were gone, and, worst of all, my map and case, where were they ? Four white spots upon a lava field a quarter of a mile away caused me to run—yes, run—bad toe and all! However, my painful and spasmodic effort was amply repaid by the recovery of Olsen's map, which had been nicely mounted and packed up in a case by the bookbinder at Reykjavík; now, even the bookbinder would scarcely have recognised it. Its journey across the Vatna Jökull had not improved its "personnel," but the short cut it had made through the neighbouring pool had in some places rendered it illegible. Fortunately the Vatna Jökull and its surroundings, with my various markings, were mira- culously preserved, but its case I never saw again.

To return to camp. Everything that had been buried in the sand had been dug out, and just as we were about to start again another gust came sweep- ing down the gulley, half smothering us. We buried our faces in our mackintosh coats until it was past, when my companion Thorlákur remarked, "This is not fine;" to which I assented in the most emphatic language my stock of Icelandic would command. We now made very fair progress I over the lava field, where, under an overhanging lava block, we bathed our eyes with sulphate of zinc and rose water, which had often been a great relief during my Icelandic journeys, and I advise all travellers who may follow in my wake by no means to omit taking so essential a medicament. We soon reached the grass at the source of the Linda, which river rises from a single spring about two miles N.N.E. of Heršubreiš. Here we took the rest we had been unable to obtain at our last halting-place, and by evening we reached the remainder of our party at the Grafalandá, where I was rejoiced to find our horses and a good supply of provisions, which had been sent with a kind note from the good people of Grímstašir, who had sent us some pancakes, flat bread, coffee and milk, and the latter, though sour, was very acceptable. From Vopnafjörd I also had ordered some schnapps and chocolate; so that we made what seemed to us a right royal feed, and after a good wash, I enjoyed a night of sound rest in the sleeping bag, which had previously sheltered my men who had been waiting for us upon the banks of the Grafalandá.

At 5 A.M. the next morning we were on horseback, and away over the sand and the lava of Mżvatns Öręfi, leaving the Vatna Jokull and the land of the outlaws behind us, enveloped in clouds of light grey dust which were blown up from the pumice by a S.E. wind. This dust, I must explain, was of the most irritating nature, resembling finely-powdered glass; our clothes got saturated with it, and I was already beginning to feel its effect in the severe abrasion of skin it was inflicting upon me. By 12 A.M. we were level with Grímstašir, only much more to the west, and here we stopped to allow the horses to graze off the wild oats, for the heat of the sun was intense. After lunch we must all have taken a nap, for suddenly looking up, I found it was one o'clock, and the horses were nowhere in sight, and more than an hour elapsed before we recovered them. Having secured the vagrant animals, we made for the new lava, which was produced by the eruptions of last spring in the Mżvatns Öręfi. Sulphurous and acid vapours had long announced its proximity, although the wind was unfavourable for their reaching so far. This lava stream, which is about fifteen miles long, and varies from one to three broad, has flowed almost entirely over ancient lava streams, most of which have flowed from an old crater situated in the vicinity, called Sveinagjá. The new lava extended to about an English mile to the north of the old road from Reykjahlíš to Grímstašir.

At this particular point it is bordered by a rather fertile stretch of ground, where a few sheep managed to sustain a miserable existence on cinders and salix, though further to the north and east there are excellent pastures. The lava stream was basaltic, and presented the usual chaos of black crags, waves, and fanciful shapes, blisters, and heaps of clinker. It was intensely black, and still hot; thin, pungent choking fumes being emitted in all directions, while from various places puffs of steam were constantly bursting out. This stream, or rather, these two streams, which have since joined one another, I find have flowed from a long fissure in the plain, the course of which was marked by a line of conical mounds thrown up by the eruptions in the late spring; of these a fuller description will be found upon another page, and an account of the previous erup- tion in the Appendix.

We climbed a few hundred yards over the lava stream, but could not reach the mounds from which the lava had flowed, on account of the deleterious fumes exhaled from them. The fissures were lined with various sublimations, to the thickness in some places of half-an-inch. Amongst them chloride of ammonia was very prominent, but this was in a state of rapid deliquescence. It might have paid to collect it, for the quantity was considerable.

We next turned more than a mile out of our course, to a part where Thorlákur expected to find some water, for we were all very thirsty. Our road, however, was over old and viscous lava for some distance, and we came upon some coarse hillocky grass land, in a line north of the lava stream. Here we encountered a variety of fissures which had been formed by the earthquake, several of which, Thorlákur informed me, had cast out sand, stones, and a little lava. We found only dry pits at the place where Thorlákur had expected water, so nothing remained but to strike westward for Reykjahlíš. No doubt the various cracks and fissures so recently formed in the plain accounted for the absence of water

. The new lava obliges a traveller from Grímstašir to Reykjahliš to go three miles out of his way. We here crossed a depression of about thirty feet, extending over several square miles, caused by the late volcanic disturbances. In the vicinity of this depression the ground was upheaved and much fissured. Thorlákur informed me that the depression was formed shortly after the first eruption in the Mżvatn Öręfi in the preceding spring. We were, however, soon amongst the hills of Mżvatn, where we obtained some water, and before long ascended the Námufjall, whose dirty yellow, red and brown sides, had in some places the appearance of washed-out posters. Here the smell was filthy. In this locality the treasures of the Northern Sulphur Mining Company are situated, but as I was thinking more about my supper than the hidden wealth of the hills over which we were riding, I will say more about them presently.

A wady near the summit which divides the Námufjall upon the south from the Dalfjall upon the west, brought us to the western side of the sulphur hills, where we first caught sight of the Lake of Mżvatn, or Midge-water, upon the north end of which Reykjahliš is situated. Lake Mżvatn is seen to the best advantage at a distance, but it cannot lay claim to great beauty of appearance, although certainly both remarkable and interesting. Surrounded as it is with volcanic mountains, and rugged lava streams stretching along its shores, studded with misshapen little islands, it presents an eccentric and striking aspect. A short ride past spluttering and steaming solfataras brought us to the farm of Reykjahliš, where we were hospitably received by the bondi Pétur Jónsson, who was expecting our arrival.

Reykjahliš is of the average better class of byre. The farm is a good one, and has been in the possession of the same family for 600 years. I was glad to find Paul and the rest of my belongings awaiting us, and anything but displeased to receive the information that an Englishman occupied the guest chamber. My compatriot I found to be Mr. G. Fitzroy Cole, who was making a survey of the neighbourhood for the Company purposing to work these northern sulphur mines. I also heard that a sulphur prospecting party, under the guidance of the well-known Captain Burton, had only just left for Húsavík, upon the sea coast. The guest chamber being thus occupied, I shared another room with Paul and Thorlákur, and in the morning I had the pleasure of making Mr. Cole's acquaintance, sharing the guest room with him, and likewise a magnificent salmon.

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[1] "Skaldbreiš" = Trölladynja. back
[2] Dyngjujökull. back
[3] "blue-stone" = cupric sulfate. back


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