William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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Homeward Bound

We left Stóruvellir amid a heavy gale and were accompanied by the farmer as far as Halldórstağir [2] , where the priest, who spoke a little English, would not hear of our leaving without partaking of coffee, chocolate, or schnapps. We took leave here of the bondi of Stóruvellir, who had treated us hospitably - and had charged very moderately.

Leaving here we next made our way to Mıri [2] , where lived an old man whose father was the first [3] to cross the Sprengisandr , in 1810, as the south of Iceland previously had been always reached by crossing the Stórisandr [4] . This old man was pleased to see me, and gladly gave me an account of the road, written by his father, to guide future travellers, and my informant I found was eighty-three years of age. Before leaving my new acquaintance I purchased a spoon of him said to be fifty years old. This was quite an ingenious novelty, for when unscrewed it divided into fifteen different pieces ; I also bought a wooden roller which used to serve the purpose of a mangle a few centuries back, and a rude representation of the crucifixion in needlework upon green wadmal [5] (Icelandic homespun cloth), which the old man told me had been worked by the nuns of an Icelandic convent long, long ago,— he could not say how long, but he knew that the banner was "eld gamalt" (very old). He also informed me that when he first went to Reykjavik for stock-fish no ships came to the north of Iceland, and that in Reykjavik coffee and sugar cost five marks (about 1 s. lO 1/2 d.) per pound, while they could only obtain fifteen skillings (3 1/2 d.) per pound for their wool. The present price of these commodities, I may remark, is—coffee, three marks (1 s. l 1/2 d.), sugar, thirty-two to thirty-four skillings (Gel. to 80?.) per pound — while they are now able to sell their wool at 1 s. 1 1/2 d. per pound.

I sent Paul and Olgi on with the baggage while I, accompanied by the old man's son, went a little out of the way to visit the waterfall of Alderjufoss, where the river Skjálfandifljót pours into a rift in an ancient lava stream, about forty-five feet deep. This sight is well worth going out of the way to see, as it is a much finer fall than the Godafoss.

The most remarkable feature about these falls, however, is the wall of rock over which they descend, the bottom of the wall beingcomposed of perpendicular basaltic columns, overlaid by a compact basaltic lava of a very crystalline nature, while the columns themselves are of a compact stony basaltic lava, but in neither of the specimens I broke off could I find a single crystal. I am, however, inclined to think that both lavas are of identical composition, and of contemporaneous production.


Having satisfied my curiosity here I left the Alderjufoss behind, and rode quickly after Paul and Olgi, overtaking them not far from the lake of Ísholtsvatn, from whence a short ride brought us to the farm of Ísholt [6] , which was inhabited by a bachelor brother and his three sisters. Here we enjoyed a good supper of char and potatoes (for the latter were now of an edible size), and a good night's rest, preparatory to our journey across the Sprengisandr. Although there are no fish in the Skjálfandifljót, there are plenty in Ísholtsvatn and the Fiskiá, which flows out of it into the Skjálfandifljót. I suppose this is on account of the turbid nature of the water in the latter, which is purely a glacial stream.

After resting a while here I left Ísholt in company with the farmer, and commenced our journey southwards, there being at the time a severe storm of wind from the N.W., bearing with it clouds of sand. On our way we paid a visit to the brother of the old man of Mıri, from whom I obtained some more curiosities in the shape of ancient spoons, one of which, like the other, could be separated into fifteen different pieces, and an old Prayer-book, printed at Hólar in 1742. This man lived at the farm of Mjófidalr [7] (narrow valley) and had the reputation of being a good herb doctor. I found him pleased to see us, and before we left he treated us to a compound of schnapps and angelica root which was very refresh- ing. A fierce gale was blowing at the time from the S.W., and the sand was intolerable, even penetrating through the gauze of our snow spectacles, and almost blinding us; while at times the sand storm was so heavy that we were unable to see one another even when within touching distance. Our poor horses felt it very much, the eyes of some being completely closed up, so that when we reached to the grass hills to the north of Kiğgil, we were compelled to halt and bathe their eyes with water. As the road here lay over a series of stony hills grown over in many places with moss and scanty grass, the dust became less troublesome, and therefore we were glad to alight in the evening at the song-famed Kiğagil (goats' valley). The last grass to be found upon the north side of the Sprengisandr is in this valley, and it takes several hours' hard riding before the next grass is reached.


This valley is fertilized by the river Kiğagilsá which runs through it, and empties itself into the Skjálfandifljót at this spot. The weather cleared beautifully in the evening, so I climbed to the summit of Kiğgilshnúkur, which commands an extensive view towards the snowy heights of Arnarfells, the Tungufells, and the white slopes of the Vatna Jökull, with their black cones and buttresses protruding through the snow. To the N.E. stretched the country to the north of the Vatna Jökull, with the well-remembered mountains which I had traversed with so much interest, and the desert plains over which I had trudged for many a weary hour sore-footed and tired. The wind had sunk to rest with the sun, and the serrated outline of the Dyngjufjöll grew darker and darker, beneath the heavy canopy of smoke which still hovered over them, while the neighbouring mountains grew more indistinct and shadowy as the light faded from the west.

My tent had been pitched in the valley below, the autumn nights had now commenced, and the fitful gleam of the aurora told me my summer work was almost ended. On looking around upon those old familiar scenes—it might be for the last time — my emotion was so great that my tongue, in its endeavours to give audible expression to the sentiments that filled my breast, exclaimed with all the enthusiasm my nature was capable of, "Farewell, farewell, dear old Northernland ! I came to your rugged and barren shores an enthusiastic traveller, anxious and resolved to seek out the wonderful things hidden in your frozen casket; and having enjoyed your simple and honest hospitalities and gratified my ambitious curiosity, I must now bid you adieu, bearing with me an affectionate remembrance of your craters and geysers, your mountains of eternal snow, and, above all, of the kind and faithful services rendered me by your hardy and generous sons and daughters."

Having relieved my emotion by this crude expression of my feelings, I took one more fond look and then turned in to rest for the night, feeling amid my regret at leaving old Iceland, something akin to an inward pride, to think that although so humble a member of the Alpine Club, I had been enabled to accomplish so much, and that, too, not-withstanding the doubts of my friends, and the opinion of Mr. Forbes, who seems to have formed very erroneous notions as to the Vatna Jökull, or of the determination and endurance a member of the Alpine Club is capable of if once he sets his mind upon exploring a mountain.


To return to my narrative. Soon after day-break my men and I were again astir and in our saddles; but I was sorry to perceive that the weather had changed for the worst, which was a serious thing for us, seeing that we had a long, bad road before us, as well as a tiring, journey to perform under various difficulties, enough to daunt the sturdiest of us. To add to our misery the clouds above were black as ravens' wings, and a fierce wind blew in such piercing gushes that we could scarcely stand against them, as they came bursting on straight into our very teeth. As I shuddered beneath the blast, I consoled myself with the thought that such a parting with Iceland was, after all, quite characteristic; and soon one poetic notion after another took such possession of me that by the time I had got thoroughly awake I began to find myself growing quite warm with excitement, and of course less sensible to the real severities of the storm. True to his kindly nature, and well sustaining the character of his countrymen, my old friend the bondi of Ísholt resolved to see me part of the way on my journey; and although unwilling to trouble him, I must certainly acknowledge the extreme pleasure this trifling act of courtesy and kindness afforded me. And when at last the hour arrived for us to separate, we shook each other heartily by the hand, and cheered ourselves in a parting cup which drained the last of my schnapps. "God speed " having been expressed on both sides, I resolutely turned my back upon the fascination of the distant mountains, and faced the driving storm of wind and sand to thread my way south- ward.

Our route at first lay over a series of low terraced hills, and presently a wet tedious ride brought us to a cluster of small stone cairns, round which were collected a number of horses' bones, not a very cheering sight to our own animals, and they seemed rather shy of the ghastly remains of their ill-fated brethren.

While looking on this sad sight, Paul told me it was often the custom to write a verse, and leave it in a bone upon such a mound as this for the next traveller, and, accordingly, I wished to do so too, but could not find one suitable, and so we felt ourselves relieved from the responsibility of keeping up the "old custom." It would have been all the same, however, if we had desired to do so, for the cheerless prospect of fog and rain, with the apparently boundless Sprengisandr around us, varied only by an occasional glimpse of some snowy Jökull, would have been sufficient to freeze the most gushing of poetical ideas.

Wishing to quit this spot without delay, we determined upon taking the route known as the Arnarfellsvegr upon the west bank of the Thjórsá rather than follow the track upon the east, as by doing so we should be able to cross the numerous smaller rivers whose confluent waters form the Thjórsá, one by one, instead of having to wait perhaps a day or so, until the waters of the Thjórsá should be sufficiently low to enable us to ford them.

In the course of our journey we passed between Arnarfells Jökull and Tungufells Jökull, and thence bearing to the west, we got as close to the former as possible in order that we might cross these smaller arms at their source. Some of these arms, I imagine, must be very difficult in warm weather, for even upon this cold and stormy day they were in many places over our horses' girths.

Arnarfell, upon the N.E., rises from a band of glaciers, from which steep slopes of snow sweep up to the black peaks of Arnarfell-hiğ-Mikla, which must be of considerable altitude, a little more than a Danish mile away from the termination of the glacier. The nature of the ground we were traversing precluded the possibility of quick riding, hence it took us five hours more to reach Arnarfell-hiğ-Mikla, which was to be our destination for the night. This elevation is a cluster of eminences formed of agglomerate, which has been weathered into peaks of considerable height, and these are traversed by several dykes and intruded masses of basaltic lava. Here we found a good patch of grass and angelica, extending along the sides of Arnarfell-hiğ-Mikla, as well as along the banks of the river washing its eastern base.

Our arrival at this part disturbed a bevy of swans, which at this season of the year (August) lose the feathers of their wings, of course preventing their flight. Taking advantage of this, chase was immediately given, and four of their number very soon captured.

I am glad to say the next morning showed us a more cheery prospect, for a stiff breeze blew from the N.W., and although the clouds hung upon the mountains, the sun occasionally broke through, encouraging us to put some of our wet things out to dry. While this was being done I ascended the Arnarfell-hiğ-Mikla, and was well repaid for my trouble, for the clouds were lifting from the adjacent mountains, which gave me a peep at the Vatna Jökull, as well as the more western hills, over the broad plain lying between it and the Arnarfells Jökull. The Sprengisandr is here cut up by a network of rivers and streams, which upon our side of the Sprengisandr all flowed into the Thjórsá. We now pursued our way with a bright sun shining upon us; the ground was in most places covered with swampy moss, which was much better travelling than the stones of the preceding day. Many streams with quicksands had to be crossed, whose waters were all the deeper for the fine weather we were enjoying. Turning thence directly southwards we struck the main stream of the Thjórsá. Tra- vellers to the south who take the eastern route generally cross this stream at this point [8] , but they are sometimes detained for days in consequence of freshets, which may occur at any season of the year; therefore the west side of the Thjórsá, though a little longer, is found to be much the surer road. Here we saw a number of sheep grazing upon the opposite bank, belonging to farmers in the south ; and as may be well imagined, we hailed their appearance as the first sign of the "Suğurland" we were approaching.

After a short enjoyable halt here, we continued our wurney to a point between the rivers Kisá and Miklilækr, where we encamped. On continuing our journey, an uninteresting ride over an undulating and gradually descending moor, which in fine weather commands a good view of Hecla, brought'us to an ancient lava stream which had flowed -from the Rauğu Kambar, an old volcano lying to the west of the road, and here again we found ourselves amongst lava, pumice and black sand.


I will not weary my readers any longer by continuing a description of the monotonous dreary scenery met with at this stage of my journey, and in fact as I trudged along dreamily, recalling to mind the many incidents that had crowded themselves upon me since I had been on the island, my eyes had been as it were blind to the surroundings to such an extent that more than once I was only recalled to them by the stumbling of my faithful horse, the rolling of a boulder, or an extra fierce gust of blinding wind; and then, once more reminded of the fact that I was still a traveller, I gazed around like a wanderer amongst the sepulchres of a past race, awe-struck with the lifeless condition of the place, while my mind wandered back from the silent scene to the one or two living giants (Öskjugjá, &c.) that still existed, lonely examples of the activity and power of an age so far removed from the world's history as to be lost in antiquity, and yet still so vigorous as to fulfil the important and wonderful mission of connecting the present with the most primitive ages of the world.

Well, after trudging along several miles in this dreamy mood we at last arrived at the Skriğufell farm, but here, I regret to say, we found no welcome, for the farmer was a noted churl, and instead of offering us the same generous hospitality as all others had, he positively refused the smallest assistance, even going so far as to object to let us put our horses under the old roof of an outhouse. My companions pleaded in his behalf that he could not help it, as he had had the misfortune to be crossed in love! which I was very sorry to hear, and sincerely trust no similar calamity might happen to spoil the other inhabitants.

However, being compelled to push on again by this unpleasant contretemps, we made as much haste as we could, and were soon pleased to find ourselves in front of a poor little homestead, where we were glad to find a generous welcome, plenty of good milk and other necessaries, of which we availed ourselves, being made truly welcome. After this brief halt we again pushed on to the Hagafell along the banks of the Hagafjall, with Hekla full in sight, its summit being, as usual, enveloped in clouds. Here we obtained a good night's rest, and wishing to obtain some specimens from the Great Geysir, I decided to reach Reykjavík via Geysir and Thingvellir, although it was the longest route, and accordingly in the morning we made our way towards Hruni, upon the banks of the Kálfá. I next turned a little out of my way to examine a white buttress of rock protruding from a grassy hill upon our right hand. This proved to be a ridge of intruded trachytic lava, extending a considerable distance ; I mention this as it was the only instance of purely trachytic lava which I had met with, excepting in a pumiceous form. Here we were most cordially and hospitably received by the priest of Hruni, who would not allow us to depart without bringing out a bottle of his best port wine, and hearing an account of our experience. It was late in the night before we arrived at Great Geysir. One of the principal objects of my visit to this part was to seek a box of minerals I had entrusted to the care of the farmer of Haukadalr to take to Reykjavik in the previous year, but which had never come to hand, though he protested that he had delivered them according to my directions, however, I set about collecting, fresh specimens, which was no very serious trouble.

[1] "Halldórstağir" = Halldórstağur, far 6 km S of Stóruvellir. back
[2] Mıri is nowadays the most southern or 'last' farm in Bárğardalur. Coming from Sprengisandur it is the first inhabibited place the traveller reaches after the crossing of the desert. Everyone having done this by horse, by bycicle or on his own feet will be aware of the meaning of this place. back
[3] He was surly not the first, but probably the first since long time.back
[4] "Stórisandur" = Kjalvegur. back
[5] "wadmal" = vağmál (Dt.: Loden). back
[6] "Ísholt" = Íshóll; the farm was abadoned 1896. back
[7] "Mjófidalur" = Mjóidalur; the farm was abandoned 1894. back
[8] The ford is called Sóleyjarhöfğavağ. back

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