William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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After a few days' rest I left Húsavík to visit the remarkable cliffs of Ásberg [1] , which Herra Gušmundson had informed me were equal to those of Thingvalla : his sister and nephew joined me, so that, with Paul, we made up quite a pleasant little party. Unfortunately, however, none of the other visitors were able to go with us, for they were afraid the steam ship might arrive, and not be able to wait their return. The road we took to Ásberg lay across a monotonous stretch of country (the Reykjahliš [2] ), which for the greater part of the way was undulating high ground covered with ancient lava, partly grown over with dwarf straggling birch and herbage. The track which leads across it is called Bláskógavegr, or the way of the Blue forest. Bláberrie bushes are apparently the largest trees one meets with here; they, however, were rather abundant, and in some instances grew almost to the height of the long straggling apologies for birch brush which were occasionally to be met with. If it had not been that we were a merry party, I should have felt the journey decidedly dull; but it was not, and ultimately we arrived at the small farm of As about midnight, a short distance to the west of the river Jökulsa, where we took coffee, bought a lamb, and, accompanied by the farmer, proceeded at sunrise to the cliffs of Ásberg. We found Ásberg to consist of a V-shaped valley some 300 feet deep, surrounded by perpendicular walls of basaltic lava to the east and west, while it opened out towards the north, insoculating an elongated cliff of basaltic lava, like a rocky island, towards the northern and widest part of the valley. This glen is a little more than a Danish mile in circumference, occurring towards the termination of an ancient lava stream, supposed by Capt. Burton and the geologist who accompanied his expedition to have been the work of pre-historic oceans, and that the walls of the valley are old sea cliffs — probably they are right.

The valley contains the finest wood I have seen in the island, consisting of a thick growth of birch and willow, in many places attaining to the height of thirty or forty feet.

Our guides informed us that in the spring time large streams flowed over the cliffs at the south end of the valley, forming magnificent cascades ; and we noticed that in three places they had worn water- courses for themselves, over which there now trickled only a feeble stream. There were also two deep pits filled with water, that appeared to have been hollowed out by the waterfalls which in the spring empty themselves into them. It was a beautiful day, and the fragrant birch reminded me of many a glorious ramble in North West America. Here we bivouacked, and cooked our lamb to a turn, under the supervision of our lady friend, and after enjoying the meal we shouted ourselves almost hoarse in awakening the echoes which probably had slumbered for years in the old grey cliffs, so it was not until ten in the evening that we started on our homeward journey. Eight well and bravely did our lady ride, in spite of the fatigue which she had undergone, over rough ground and smooth.

We stayed at a small farm called Geitar Stašir (goats' farm) for coffee and a drink of goat's milk, and arrived at Húsavík at 6 A.M. The exploring party we found, with the exception of Mr. Tennant and Mr. Baldwin, were about to start for the Dettifoss, intending to take Ásberg in the way; so I passed a convivial evening with my host, but was not sorry to turn in rather early. I was, however, soon awakened abruptly by two voices which seemed familiar enough, calling me to get up again. My early visitors proved to be Mr. Slimond and Mr. Wight, of Leith, whose acquaintance I had the pleasure of making in the previous spring, giving me warning that the steamer Buda had arrived and was lying in Húsavík bay. On hearing that, I hastily dressed, and having given orders to Paul to take the best horses and start forthwith, bearing a note to Capt. Burton and his party, with the letters which had arrived for them, I proceeded with all haste to the Buda, to ask my newly-arrived friends to breakfast with me.


Upon nearing the ship, Mr. Slimond called out that they were just off to Boršeyri, and asked if I would join them. The steps were just about to be hauled up the ship's side, but I accepted his offer, and in five minutes we were steaming out of the Bay of Skjalfandi and sitting down to a genuine English breakfast. After rounding the island of Flatey, which lies at the mouth of the Skjálfandi, we obtained a beautiful view of the mountainous coast of the north of the island. The weather was delightful, and the pleasant society of old acquaintances, with the interesting occupation of looking through the latest news from England, made- the twenty-four hours pass with amazing rapidity; so in fact I felt quite sorry when the next morning found us steaming up the Húnafloi, upon the S.W. extremity of which Brošeyri is situated. Here Capt. Cockle, whose acquaintance I had previously made, had been waiting a whole fortnight with some 300 Icelandic ponies [3] , the delay having been occasioned by the break-down of the engine of the Fifeshire, which Mr. Slimond had first chartered for his Icelandic trip. Mr. Slimond, I must explain, entirely commands the Icelandic horse trade, and has done more towards developing that branch of commerce in Iceland than any other man. During the time he has been in connexion with it, it is stated that he has spent over £50,000 in the country. This amount has wonderfully helped many of the Icelanders to improve their dwellings, and it cannot fail to have exercised a very beneficial influence in stimulating Icelandic trade as well as assisting the development of other branches of industry.

The horses were at last all penned into a karal, and by the time the Buda was fairly anchored in the Húnaflói, the obstreperous cargo was ready for shipment — a rather difficult matter, for the horses had to be conveyed to the ship in small boats, and as their respective ages varied from two to five years, as may be expected, the trouble of getting them all conveyed to the ship, hoisted on board, and stowed away can scarcely be described. While the process of loading was going on I took a walk on shore, in the company of Mrs. Slimond, her sister, and Mr. Wight, and I must say we neither of us received a very favourable impression either of the place or the people.

Boršeyri itself is uninteresting in the extreme, as most of the more fertile parts of Iceland are ; it is neither barren enough to exhibit the desolate grandeur of many other portions of the island through which I had travelled during the two previous months, nor fettile enough to be pleasant to the eye. By dint of great labour on the part of Mr. Slimond, Captain Cockle, and some of the ship's crew, together with the tardy assistance of some of the inhabitants of the place, the animals were at length stowed away, the Buda steamed out of the Húnaflói, and we arrived at Húsavík the following moming. Here the Sulphur Company came on board with all their belongings; Mr. Locke [4] , however, remained, as he had some further business to transact at Húsavík and Reykjavik; so I took leave of Mr. Slimond and his party with many thanks for his hospitality, and, having shaken hands with the other members of the company, we parted with mutual good wishes for our respective journeys.


Accompanied by Mr. Locke, I climbed into the little boat that was waiting for us, and returned to our kind host, Herra Gušmundson, while the good ship Buda sped on her way to Scotland. Mr. Locke, Herra Gušmundson, and his sister were bound for Reykjavík, but I intended to cross the Sprengisndr, and pay a visit to the Skaptar Jökull. We therefore agreed to journey part of the way together, and I was easily persuaded to accompany them as far as Akreyri, as I wished to see the place—town it can scarcely be called—of second importance in Iceland. The next day, therefore, Mr. Locke, Herra Gušmundson, his wife, his sister, his little son, and a servant, Paul, Olgi, and myself, all set out first for Mżvatn, where I inspected the solfatara I had cleared of its sulphur about three weeks before, and found it had quite a yellow tinge, although there was no appreciable fresh deposit of sulphur. From Mżvatn we advanced towards Akreyri, and crossing the river Skjálfandifljót (quivering flood), we turned to the N.W., to view the waterfall of Godafoss. This waterfall is but a tame affair after Dettifoss, and the fall is about thirty-five feet; but the Skjálfandi is a much smaller river than the Jokulsá. There is, however, a finer waterfall higher up, upon the Skjálfandifljót, a distance of about a day-and-a-half's journey. We halted at the farm of Ljósavatn, and next day took the road past the Lake of Ljósavatn (Lake of Light) for Akureyri, but at the lake Mrs. Gušmundson, her son, and servant left us, and we rode briskly on, up the pass of Ljósavatnskarš. In clear weather this must be a beautiful pass, but the clouds were hanging so low upon the hills they obscured the view, and deprived us of what otherwise would, no doubt, have been a grand prospect. We soon reached the church and parsonage of Háls, and thence descended into a valley, Fnjóskádalr, in which there is the finest growth of birch, next to that in the valley of Ásberg, which had as yet come under my notice. We next crossed the river of Fnjóská, and forthwith commenced to ascend the heights of Vašlaheiši, a mountainous ridge upon the opposite side of the Eyjafjörš to Akureyri. The summit of these heights was so enveloped in mist that all hope of benefitting by the view which such an altitude, viz. 2,118 feet, must of necessity command, was quite out of the question, we therefore descended straight away to Akreyri, which we reached by fording the mouth of the Eyjafjaršará, which can only be done at low tide. Here we put up at the inn, where several friends soon made their appearance, and a jolly time we had of it.


Although Akreyri is not so extensive a settlement as Reykjavik, it possesses a much better harbour, being shut in upon the east by the Vašaherši, and upon the west by the hills of Súlur and the out- lying mountains of the Vindheima Jökull, which rise in some places to the height of 3000 feet. The town is situated at the south end of the Eyjafjörš (island firth), taking its name from the little island of Hrisey which lies in its mouth. The trade of this small place does not equal that of its sister settlement, owing, perhaps, to the numerous stores situated in various fjords in the north of Iceland, whereas Reykjavik and Eyrarbakki command the trade of the greater part of the south, in consequence of the iron-bound nature of its coast. Akureyri is composed of two streets of wooden framehouses, one of which runs so close to the sea shore as to be occasionally flooded, and it has a renown of its own, from the largest trees in the whole island growing there. These however, are merely two or three mountain-ash trees, about 25 to 30 feet in height, flourishing in front of a house facing the fjord, belonging to one of the principal store keepers!

The luxuriance of their growth is the more remarkable, as all the attempts which have hitherto been made to grow trees in Reykjavik have failed, although its mean temperature is much higher than that of Akureyri. The explanation of this probably is that Akureyri is one of the most sheltered spots in the island, while Reykjavík is exposed to the full fury of the east and west winds.

A short distance to the north of the town we found a cluster of black sheds, the filthy smell from which informed us at once of the odoriferous business carried on there, which was at full swing. I had often smelt from afar this same disgusting effluvium, and found it to arise from the profitable but revolting work of extracting oil from sharks' livers. Accompanied by Paul, I determined to inspect this manufacture so, passing through an avenue of vats full of sharks' putrid livers, reeking and sweltering in the sun, we thrust our pocket-handkerchiefs into our mouths and plunged into the boiling-house. Here about half-a-dozen cauldrons of sharks' livers were simmering, and slowly "frying out" the filthy but valuable shark-oil, exhaling the foulest stench imaginable. Three grimy oleaginous men and a boy, who seemed to thrive amid their abominable surroundings, were engaged in stoking the fires, stirring up the stewing livers and baling out the oil, as it accumulated, into a long trough, which discharged itself into a large iron tank outside, whence it was drawn off again into barrels ready for shipment to the various parts of the world where there is a demand for such a very unpleasant lubricator. The men seemed quite surprised that we found anything disagreeable in the smell of the oil, and seemed quite to enjoy giving the cauldrons an extra stir on our account, which was a pleasure we could have dispensed with.

In the evening we paid a visit to the apothecary, whose house seemed to be the rendezvous of all the captains whose ships were lying in the harbour, and there we arranged to depart the next day.

Here I may as well observe there are two ways from the north to the south of Iceland, the shortest being, however, the most difficult road, which lies across the Sprengisandr, and the longest, but easiest, across the Stórisandr [5] . Mr. Locke, with Herra Gušmundson and his sister, had resolved to go by the Stórisandr to Reykjavík, and I wished to go by the Sprengisandr to the east, so that I might visit the Skaptar Jökull. Although I intended to have left early, it was night before we got away from Akreyri, for leave-taking always occupies an indefinite time in inverse proportion to the size of the place.

[1] "Ásberg" = Ásbyrgi back
[2] "Reykjahlíš" = should be Reykjaheiši, SE of Húsavík. back
[3] The ponies were dedicated to be used in the cole mines.back
[4] "Mr Locke"; the mountain Lokatindur N of Jónsskarš in the Askja was named after him.back
[5] "Stórisandur" = Kjalvegur. In fact the only its less common used variant "Skagfiršingavegur" leads through the Stórisandur which lies N of Langjökull. back

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