William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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The two days following I rested, as the weather was so unfavourable. I also paid off all my men excepting Paul and Olgi, and sent them home to the south. Mr. Cole in the meantime left, so I proceeded to investigate the sulphur mines for myself. These I found to be situated in the Námufjall [1] , upon the eastern side of the Lake of Mżvatn, and these collectively are designated the Hlišar-Námur; they consist of a series of solfataras, which occur not only upon the Námufjall itself, but extend a considerable distance upon either base of the mountains. The Námufjall is composed of palagonitic agglomerate and lava, the solfataras being simply pools of calcareosilceous mud, formed by the decomposition of the lava and agglomerate. Upon the surface of these pools the sulphur sublimates in crusts varying from half-an-inch to several feet in thickness. The phenomena of solfataras are so well known that it is needless for me to dilate upon them in the abstract. However, I first examined the west side of the Námufjall, where I found both active and latent fumeroles, the former spluttering and fizzing, and tranquilly steaming, the latter in the form of cold accumulations of sulphur, siliceous clay and gypseous earth. I was able to follow the tracks of the sulphur exploring party, who had preceded me. They had dug into the sulphur crust upon the surface of the solfataras, and in some places had excavated the calcareo-siliceous clay, which hardens into a species of sinter. This clay likewise contains a per centage of sulphur; at all events the specimens I obtained varied from 5 to 40 per cent. In many places I found crusts of sulphur covered over with light debris, which a little digging showed to extend for a considerable distance. Roughly estimating it by stepping the length and breadth of the various conspicuous sulphur patches, and lumping the smaller ones together, gave about twenty sulphur-covered spots of twenty square yards, upon which the crust of pure sulphur averaged probably half a foot in thickness. On ascending the Námufjall by a deep gulley worn by the rain in the side of the mountain, we found this gulley to be cut through several feet of a friable arenaceous agglomerate, formed by atmospheric action on the disintegrated constituents of the rocks composing the Námufjall. Passing various patches of steaming sulphur, we reached the summit, where we found several solfataras which bear perhaps the thickest deposits of sulphur, though, in the aggregate I should hardly think they extend over so large an area as those upon the western side of the mountain. This mountain is capped by several castellated masses of basaltic lava, much weather-worn and decomposed by the acid vapours evolved from the surrounding solfataras, which upon eastern slope are decidedly the most extensive to be met with, and I imagine they contain more pure sulphur than either the summit or the western side. Of course when speaking of the relative amount of sulphur, I allude to the exposed crusts, and there must be a great deal more sulphur than appears upon the surface.

Upon the east base were circular pools of bluish boiling slush, which emitted a foetid smell somewhat resembling the effluvia which so disgusted us at the Oskjugja. These pools boil with great but intermittent violence, sometimes splashing the scalding mud to the distance of four or five feet. They have surrounded themselves with walls of hardened mud a few feet in height, and from a breach in two of these walls I should imagine that these springs were occasionally subject to paroxysms of extraordinary violence. While approaching the most northern of these slush cauldrons, the earth on which I was walking gave way, and I slipped into a fissure up to my armpits; a violent burst of steam from beneath me was the immediate result, and I was glad to be extricated from this unenviable position by my companion Olgi. It was indeed fortunate the fissure was not filled with boiling shish, or I might have been scalded even more severely than was my travelling companion, the Rev. J. W---, in 1874, in the solfataras of Krisuvík, in the south of Iceland. This fissure had probably been formed by the earthquakes in the Spring, and had at one time been filled with slush, which had hardened on the surface, and afterwards flowed away through some other channel, leaving a treacherous pitfall for any unlucky tourist who, like myself, should have a fancy to closely examine these slush pools.


On returning to the west side of the mountain, and on my way to Reykjahliš, I took the liberty of scraping off all the sulphur from a small solfatara, which I piled in a heap by the side of it; for the grand question for the Sulphur Company to consider, to my mind, appears to be—how long does this sulphur take to accumulate? I trust Mr. Locke, the owner of these mines, will forgive me the trespass; but in a year's time he will be able to form some idea of the rate of accumulation. I shall feel curious to know how soon the sulphur will again accumulate. We next returned to Reykjahliš and supped with the bóndi Pétur Jónsson, his son-in-law, Thorlákur, and Paul. The former seemed a little aggrieved at the sulphur business generally, and from what I could gather, it had from time immemorial been a sore point as to whether the sulphur mines belonged to his family or to the Danish Government. There could not be the slightest doubt about the matter, but I could scarcely wonder at the existence of such a feeling; for a family who had owned the neighbouring country for 600 years might naturally think the intervening mountains were their own fee simple. This feeling quite accounts for any brusquerie the Sulphur Prospecting Expedition may have met with. I can only bear testimony, that during my stay at Reykjahliš I received the kindest attention, that I had the best of everything there was in the place, and that the charges were moderate. Old Pétur informed me that he was building a stone church in place of the old turf and wooden structure, which required repair. He had plenty of stone, but his chief difficulty was the want of lime; in fact, he had been obliged to import all he had hitherto used from Denmark, which of course was very expensive to him; so I advised him to try and burn the gypsum from the solfataras, and instructed him how to set about it, which piece of information seemed to re- joice his heart exceedingly.

The old church in question is the veritable build- ing, with some additions and improvements, con- cerning the escape of which from destruction during the eruption of some craters to the S.W. of Krafla, in 1720, so much has been said and written. Suffice it to say, that the lava could not have reached the church unless it had previously filled up the Lake of Mżvatn. My day's work ended with making preparations for a visit to Dettifoss.

The morrow brought very unsatisfactory weather; it had snowed heavily in the night, and the moun- tains and ground were white, a piercing north-west wind was blowing, and it seemed as if we had sud- denly jumped into mid-winter; however, by nine o'clock we were on horseback. As we journeyed on we were much amused and surprised to see haymaking going on in the middle of a snow storm; but still it was the fact that the good people of Reykjahliš were busily engaged in the tún (home field) mowing grass, and piling that which had been cut a day or so previously into cocks, that it might receive as little injury as possible. Leaving Reykjahliš behind, we crossed the rugged lava at the west base of the Námufjall, and ascended the winding path of the Námu-skarš, which divides the Námufjall from the Dalfjall, and turning to the north pursued our way by the side of an ancient lava stream, covered with verdure, and thence bending sharply to the north-east we reached the little bothy of Skaršsel, a poor dilapidated hut of turf and lava blocks, which sheltered some of the servants from Reykjahliš, who during the summer months tend the sheep in the neighbouring grass land. Here we took a good draught of milk, and leaving behind us a large piece of Mr. Cole's salmon, some hard tack, chocolate and schnapps, to refresh us upon our return, we crossed the Sandbalnafjöll [2] by means of a sandy pass [3] , and reached the plain of the Mżvatns Öręfi amid a blinding storm. Our route lay again over lava, covered with sand, which I was informed had been ejected by Krafla. On, on, N.N.E., the storm utterly defying our tattered mackintoshes. A little herbage had begun to make its appearance, and presently we were galloping over excellent sheep pastures, varied occasionally by barren stretches of sand and pebbles. Several times, however, we were stopped by fissures which had been very recently formed in the plain, probably by the volcanic action of the previous spring, but very insignificant in comparison with those we had previously met with in the Mżvatns Öręfi.


At last, after about six hours' riding, we sighted the column of spray arising from the Dettifoss, and soon after we descended into what appeared to have been the bed of a large river, most likely an ancient bed of the Jökulsá, which may. have been diverted to its present channel by an earthquake; while upon ascending its eastern bank, the dull roar of the Dettifoss reached us. Climbing over crags of basalt we rode to the edge of the river, where we dismounted upon a patch of excellent grass, and thence obtained a good view of the cataract, which is very imposing. The Jökulsá is here about 250 yards across, and roars along in a series of rapids, till its broken and foaming waters pour down a perpendicular wall of basalt at least 200 feet in height, into a chasm some hundred yards wide, seething and boiling in pent-up wrath, forming a "riotous confluence of water-courses, blanching and bellowing in the hollow of it," until, released from this confinement, it softens, a few hundred yards further down, into a broad swift-flowing stream of milky water. The Dettifoss is by far the largest waterfall in Iceland, and, I believe, in Europe, being about the size of the Canadian Niagara Fall. The only view obtainable, however, is not calculated to impress the beholder with an adequate idea of its height, for one has to look down upon it, which is always 9, disadvantage: still, although the Dettifoss lacks the beauty of Niagara, it does not convey the impression of the thinness of the body of water, as does the Transatlantic cataract; for the grace and beauty of the latter are greatly enhanced by its surroundings of richly-wooded heights and the clearness of the water. Although Dettifoss is much smaller than the Falls of Niagara in their entirety, nevertheless, it is a grand and terrible spectacle, and is all the more striking on account of the diablerie of the wild scenery by which it is environed. There is an upper cascade, but of no great height, and it is scarcely worth naming beside Dettifoss; for one waterfall is so much like another, that, after having seen several of the largest, one rather tires of the similarity, unless there be some distinguishing peculiarity to enliven the interest.

A wet Ride

When satiated with admiring the scenery at this part, we took a light meal, and commenced our return journey amid pouring rain. It was past midnight before we reached the weat side of Mżvatns Öręfi; and as the mist had somewhat lifted from the hills, I turned my horse's head towards Krafla. Upon reaching the height of a few hundred feet the mist again beat down upon us; besides which the snow lay so thick in many places that it became very dan- gerous for the horses in the half-light and fog. We therefore abandoned Krafla for the moment, and taking the first gill which ran in a southerly direction, we descended to the little hut [4] where we had left our salmon and reserve supply of provisions. The good folks were in bed, but one of the women immediately got up to assist us, and the other produced, first the bottle of schnapps, and then, one by one, the biscuits and the chocolate, from what appeared to be the only cupboard in the place, viz., from underneath the bedclothes. As the bed had three occupants, I was in terror lest my salmon had been stored in the same undesirable repository, but fortunately it had been put up outside. The biscuits and chocolate might have been none the worse for their safe storage, but they were unpleasantly warm, and I preferred to wait for the salmon, which with some good coffee, sheep's milk, and schnappa, was not to be despised by a hungry traveller who had been exposed to the storm for nearly a score of hours.

[1]"Námufjall" = Námafjall, W of Mżvatn. back
[2] "Sandbalnafjöll" = Sandabotnarfjall. back
[3] "a sandy pass" = Sandbotnaskarš. back
[4] "little hut" = probably the now deserted Skaršsel in Hlíšardalur. back

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