William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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We reached Reykjahliđ at five A.M., and I turned in for a short sleep, till breakfast at seven o'clock, and then we made our start for Krafla. Over the Námufjall again, by the Námu-skarđ, a gill of solfataras, we passed the parti-coloured heaps, slopes, and accumulations, which reminded me of the refuse from some huge dye-works, and turned to the north along the east base of the Dalfjall, skirting a lava stream upon our right hand. Hereabout the aspect was much improved by (for Iceland) a luxuriant overgrowth of dwarf birch and salix. Crossing hence to the base of Sandbalnafjöll, we drew up for a minute at the little hut of Skarđsel for a draught of sheep's milk. Pursuing our way over a lava field covered with alluvium, we hastened on towards Krafla. We hobbled our horses at the base of the high ground between Krafla and Leirhnúkur, and forthwith commenced the ascent, passing several solfataras of no great importance, their chief characteristic being the production of abominable smells. Soon after we reached comparatively level ground, which extended for some distance at the S.S.W. base of Krafla proper. Cheered by the sight of our horses making tracks for home, in spite of their hobbles; we now continued along the south-west margin of a crater-lake, which probably was more than two miles in circumference, its length equalling about twice its breadth, being surrounded by steep slopes of clay, disintegrated rock and fragmentary debris. There was a similar crater further to the W.N.W., of more circular form. Following along a neck of land between the two, we commenced the ascent of Krafla proper, which is a sub-conical mass of agglomerate, pierced to the summit and in many other places with intruded lava. The sides we found to be everywhere strewed with all kinds of volcanic debris, amongst which were numerous trachitic masses, some of which contained atoms of iron pyrites, and although these occurred very frequently in loose fragments and masses, I was unable to find any in situ. Half-an-hour's hard climbing next brought us to the summit, which my aneroid shewed to be scarcely 3000 feet above Reykjahliđ, or a little under 4000 feet above sea level. On looking around we found upon the high ground to the west several pools of clear water, probably small crater lakes, as doubtless were the two depressions immediately beneath us to the south-west. My guide informed me that it was from the most northern of these that the last eruption of Krafla proceeded, and that the water in it used to be hot; he also told me a fact which was afterwards corroborated by his father, that Krafla had never been known to erupt lava, having cast out only ashes, pumice, sand and water; indeed, the aspect of these pit craters would lead one so to imagine it. I was also much surprised at not finding any obsidian, for I had heard so much of the obsidian of Krafla; but on further inquiry I ascertained that it is only found on the portion of the mountain known as the Hrafntinnuhryggr (the obsidian back), and there it only occurs in fragments—indeed, the only obsidian I have met with in situ in Iceland is at Mount Paul, in the middle of the Vatna Jökull.

View from Krafla

The summit of Krafla commands a most extensive view. Looking south-west, over the hills beneath, with their dirty splotches of whitish yellow sulphur, the country looked wintry indeed after the snow storm of the previous day, while the eye as it wandered southward caught a fine view-range over the Hliđarfjall and Dalfjall, as well as over the straggling lake of Mývatn, where the scenery widened out over the Mývatnsveit towards the snowcapped Seljalandsfjall [1] , standing out like an island in the commencement of the dark stony sea of the Ódáđahraun. In another direction, between the snow-covered hills upon the east side of the Skjálfandifljot and the smoking Dyngjufjöll, the view extended over the pitiless waste of the Ódáđahraun to the snowy mound of Skjaldbreiđ, while the broad white expanse of the Vatna seemed to join the sky, till, almost wearied with the strain upon the visual power, it seemed quite a relief to turn to the nearer and happier-looking spots of green which the volcano and the glaciers have spared to Iceland.

Further to the east are the Bláfjall, where the Fremri-Námur [2] deposits of sulphur are situated, and the fire-scorched hills of Trölladyngjur, whose position on the map Captain Burton has corrected, and the lordly Herđubreiđ, whose snowy cap looked all the purer for the recent snow storm. To the east and north-east stretched the plain of the Mývatns Örćfi, with its black patch of new lava enshrouded in a dim mist. Bearing N.N.E. was a tall column, apparently of steam, upon which the sun was shining; it was the spray from the Dettifoss, varying in shape as the wind acted on it, and reflecting rainbow colours in the sunlight. To the north the prospect was between the Hágaunguhnúkur (high-going hills) and Jónstindr, over a level country to the hills of Theistareykjafjall, where a third large deposit of sulphur occurs. It was seven P.M. before we returned to Reykjahliđ, and in a few hours we bade adieu to old Pétur and started along the eastern side of Lake Mývatn, accompanied by Paul and Amgrimur, for the little lake of Grćnavatn. The road was a bad one, over a continuation of lava streams which had flowed into the Lake of Mývatn, forming the curious little islands that spotted its sedgy waters. We put to flight several of the duck tribe, which were enjoying themselves after the manner of ducks upon the margin of the lake, and reached Graenavatn at three A.M. ; this was very slow work, but the nature of the ground prevented our travelling at anything beyond a walking pace for the greater part of the way. One of the principal features of this ride was the numerous gates which had to be opened and shut; these marked the termination of the various holdings, and also prevented the sheep belonging to the different homesteads upon the side of the lake from straying; for very often, where the gates were situated, the lava prevented the passage even of sheep by any other way.

The occupants of the farm at Grćnavatn may be described as "a happy family." The two sons of Pétur of Reykjahliđ, Jón and Arngrimur, had married the two sisters of my previous guide, Thorlákur, and he, by way of returning the compliment, had married one of their sisters. They were all living under the same roof with Thorlákur's father, and together managed their thriving homestead.

Fremri Námur

About midday we started for the sulphur, mines of Fremri-Námur, on the east and west slopes of the Bláfjall and Hvannfell. Proceeding in a S.S.E. direction we crossed the lava which occupies the entire eastern side of the valley of Mývatn, and began to ascend the hills at the base of the Bláfjall. We here inspected two small but perfectly- formed craters, both of which had discharged lava streams into the valley beneath. A little further up the hill to the north of the Bláfjall we came upon the tracks of the Sulphur Exploring Expedition, under the conduct of Capt. Burton, who had passed that way a few days previously. From this point the hills commanded a striking view of Mývatn, Krafla, and the neighbouring mountains, with a glimpse to the south-west of Arnarfells Jökull [3] in the far distance. This we found was a difficult route for the horses, and it did not improve as we reached the lava which had flowed from the Fremri-Námur at the the time of its latest eruption. This lava stream had flowed into a valley between the Bláfjall and the Hvannfell [4] , destroying all herbage except a little "island of green," which it almost encircled; this small patch of verdure is called Heilag (holy valley). Here, choosing a spot where there was the most grass, we rested and lunched. The grass, however, was not plentiful, the greater part being what is called kinder-grass (sheep's grass) [5] , or a mixture of straggling birch and salix intermixed with coarse grass and herbage. The sheep eat this with avidity, but horses must be very hungry before they will feed upon it. As we were about to depart a heavy snowstorm burst upon us. My guide had no waterproof, but I had a large oilskin that Mr. Kent, one of the sulphur explorers, had given to Paul; we therefore took shelter under the lee of a crag in the ancient lava stream underlying the grass-land, and improvised a roof with the oilskin and our whips. We were imprisoned for more than an hour; so violent was the storm that it was impossible to see many yards around us. Eventually it cleared up ; we had almost succeeded in keeping ourselves dry, and I think our drenched and shivering horses were only too glad to resume their journey.

It was getting on towards night; the wind was blowing from the north-west, making our soaked saddles anything but pleasant, for so suddenly had the storm come on that we had not time to unsaddle our horses. We next followed the lava stream for some distance until we sighted the yellow depression which marked the commencment of the sulphur mines. As we decided that it would be more pleasant to travel on foot, and that by doing so we could make better progress, we fastened our horses each with his head tied to the tail of his companion, and steered for the light yellow patches, from which a few wreaths of steam were curling. A short climb brought us to the most regularly formed crater I have seen in Iceland. This was an oval depression, with a circumference of about half-a-mile and nearly 150 feet deep, called the "Great Kettle;" [6] it was formed of a scoriaceous basaltic lava No lava stream had actually flowed from this crater but it seemed as if it had been tapped by a fissure some distance westward, whence a great quantity of lava had flowed, although all traces of such fissure or opening were now obscured by lava. The principal sulphur mines are upon the north and east side of the mountain, extending upon the latter right away up to the edge of the crater, and breaking out even within the crater itself upon its eastern side I followed in the track of the exploring party, as I had done at Hlíđar-Námur, and dug into several parts of the solfataras. The sulphur here, as at the above-named place, rests upon a bed of calcareosiliceous clay, and is strewed in many places with pieces of gypsum and fragments of lava coated with various sublimations; in some parts I found the pure sulphur to be upwards of two feet in thickness, the average thickness being, perhaps, half-a-foot. These deposits are much more extensive than those of Reykjahliđ, and I believe I did not inspect the whole of them. Returning to the summit, the extensive view was anything but a cheering one. To the east lay the Mývatns Örćfi, with its black patches of new lava, the thin vapour which was rising from it making it dim and indistinct; further to the south we looked across the Trölladyngjur to Herđubreiđ, whose snowy cone was alone brightened by the sunlight, which had long forsaken the dark, shadowy waste of the Ódáđahraun ; due south were the Dyngjufjall mountains, and upon them the night clouds were brooding heavily. A strong wind was raising great clouds of dust upon the plain which lay to the east between us and the Jökulsá. A fresh storm was rapidly shutting out the twilight in the west, and an ominous gloom had settled upon the rocks around us. A hunt after our horses in a blinding storm would have been anything but pleasant in such an inhospitable region, so we returned with all haste to our poor trembling steeds. Then with our clothes stiffly frozen, and our saddles covered with ice, all night long we rode in the face of a blinding storm, at a snail's pace, on account of the darkness.

By two A.M. we arrived at the foot of Bláfjall. The snow had turned into rain, and amid a thick woolly fog we made our way over the lava stream which lay between us and Grćnavatn. Our pace was of necessity very slow, and it was not until four A.M. that we reached the farm. Here we found materials for a hearty meal spread out for us by the good folks, who had long since retired to bed. After doing justice to the catering of our unconscious hosts, I posted up niy diary and turned in. On awaking again next morning I took a swim in the lake, and breakfast preparatory to my departure with Paul for Húsavík, where I hoped to have the pleasure of falling in with the exploring party. Passing to the south of the Lake of Mývatn, we crossed the Laxá (salmon river), which takes its name from the abundance of salmon found in the more northerly portion of its waters, and considerable time was here taken up in drinking coffee with an old friend.

We leave Mývatn

The river Laxá, I may here remark, rises in the west end of the lake, and after flowing out a short distance is joined by the Kráká. From Mývatn Lake to Grenjađastađur (which may be called the upper portion of the river) its waters abound with trout and char, but at that point a waterfall (the Brúarfoss) prevents the salmon ascending the river any further. From the Brúarfoss to the sea there is, however, some of the finest salmon and trout fishing in Iceland, as many an English sportsman can testify. The Laxá, I found, emptied itself into the sea at the Skjálfandifjörđ, not very far from the store at Húsavík.

Crossing the Mývatns Sandr, the road lies through an undulating grazing country, and upon the high ground to the south of the little Lake of Laugarvatn we caught sight simultaneously of the steam from the hot springs of Reykir, to the north-east the Arctic ocean, which washes the northern shore of Iceland, and the mountains of Theistar-reykir, where a third series of sulphur mines is located.


On, on we sped, as fast as our horses could carry us, as the English steamer, for anything we knew, might be on the point of starting. The Mýrarkvísl, however, was reached in good time, and as I had stopped behind to give my horse a drink, leaving Paul to go on before me, upon crossing the river I was pleased to find him in conversation with Mr. Kent, who had been fishing. Great was my joy, too, on finding that the steamer had not gone, and that the exploring party was still at Húsavík. Soon after we proceeded to the farm of Laxamýri, which was the best farm I had seen in the country, and must have cost a great sum for an Icelander, as it was built by Danish workmen, with a wooden carving of a salmon and an eider duck over the front door to indicate the sources of the owner's wealth. Here I made a good meal, and after half-an-hour's nap we were off again, in company with Mr. Kent, for Húsavík, where I met with a most hospitable reception from the members of the Sulphur Prospecting Expedition, and Herra Guđmundson, the mer- chant.

The sulphur party, I found, were submitting to an enforced stay, for their steamer was a week behind the time she was expected to arrive. They were all lodged in. the house of the sheriff, which happened to be vacant, and a merry time they were having, especially the sporting portion of their community, who, I have no doubt, for a long time will sing the praises of Laxá.

Besides the veteran traveller Capt. Burton, there was another member of the party known to fame, Mr. Baldwin, a companion of the late Dr. Livingstone in his travels in Central Africa, whose " Twelve Years of Sporting Experience in South Africa" presents a series of vivid pictures of sporting travel.

Húsavík is pleasantly situated at the foot of Húsavíkurfjall, upon the eastern side of the bay of Skjálfandi, and has a good harbour except when the wind is blowing from the north. The mountains of Víkna-fjöll upon the western side of the bay form a great addition to the scenery; they were covered with snow even at this season of the year.

Having so long followed in the wake of the exploring party, it was impossible for me not to speculate upon the prospects of "the North Iceland Sulphur Company," and my lucubrations ran in the following strains: — There is certainly no lack of sulphur both at Hlíđar-Námur and at Fremri-Námur, and the report of the prospectors on the smaller solfataras of Theistareykir-Námur [7] is a good one. The road between the sulphur mines and the sea is not of such an impracticable nature but that it would be quite possible to construct a road, or to sledge the sulphur down in the winter. If the company set about their work in the right way and keep their undertaking in the hands of some half-dozen capitalists, they will probably not only enrich themselves, but also add another valuable export to needy Iceland. If, however, the shares are sent into the Stock Exchange, the chances are the undertaking will be weighted with too much capital, and thus be at the mercy of cliques of speculators belonging to that body.

After spending a night with the travellers, whose hospitality and agreeable society added greatly to the pleasure of my stay at Húsavík, the merchant, Herra Guđmundson, invited me to stay with him, and, as I needed rest, I accepted his kind invitation.

Nothing could exceed the kindness of my host, and I do not know how the sulphur expedition would have fared had it not been for his kindness and assistance. I was beyond measure sorry, on my return to England, to see a long article in a Scotch newspaper, from one member or some members of the party, disparaging almost everything at Húsavík, and making invidious remarks about the wine which Herra Guđmundson had supplied us with from his own cellar, and which we had all partaken of with him at his house. Several members of the expedition whom I have since had the pleasure of meeting agree with me that it is a matter to be thoroughly ashamed of.

[1] "Seljalandsfjall" = Sellandafjall, S of Mývatn. back
[2] "Fremri-Námur" = Fremrinámar, at Ketildyngja, 10 km E of Bláfjall.back
[3] "Arnarfells Jökull" = Hofsjökull as seen from the E - the Sprengiandur side. back
[4] "Hvannfell" = Hvammfjöll. back
[5] "kinder-grass (sheep's grass)" = (a nice typo) ought to be written: "kindagras", however the botanic of Iceland lists only "Lambagras" (Silene acuulis, Dt. Stegnelloses Leimkraut). back
[6] "Great Kettl" = Ketill, cartet at Ketildyngja.back
[7] "Theistareykir-Námur" = obviously near Ţeistareykijabunga.back

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