William Lord Watts
Across the Vatna Jökull
Great Geysir did not favour us with an eruption, as we had wished, so we stirred up Stroker with the usual meal of turf, which caused it to spout, but scarcely to the same height as when I witnessed its performance in 1874. In the evening we left for Thingvellir, but as we did not arrive there till one A.M. we did not awake our friend the priest, who, on rising, found us lying asleep, with the tent covered over us, upon the grass just outside his door. This good gentleman upbraided us for not waking him up, brought out everything of his best, and gave us a hearty breakfast, for we were old friends. Five hours' hard riding later on brought us to Reykjavík, where I again put up at the house of friend Oddr Gislasson, who had two Scotch ladies staying with him. These I found to be Miss Oswald and Miss Menzies, who had been making a prolonged tour in the island — a plucky undertaking, which perhaps may encourage other ladies to seek health and amusement amongst the wild rocks of salubrious Iceland, undeterred by the fear of having no other escort than an Icelander.
Vpon the arrival of the Post ship, I was amused to receive an extract from the "Evening Echo" of August giving a most deplorable account of my health and personal appearance after crossing the Vatna Jökull. Though it amused us all at Reykjavík, I felt sorry to think of the unnecessary distress and anxiety it might cause to my friends at home. If such were the motive of the writer, it may gratify him to learn that he succeeded admirably. However, any one of the Sulphur Company would at once have pronounced the statement to he false.
I rejoiced in the possession of two pairs of Alpine boots, but I preferred wearing Icelandic mocassins, they being easier to walk in. I had also two coats, , but always preferred wearing a'tight knitted jersey and waistcoat, which were much more convenient for movement, while I generally prefer a knitted cap instead of a hat, for a cap draws down about the ears and keep them warm, and is less at the mercy of sudden gusts of wind. It seemed curious how such a worthless little piece of pure imagination could gain access to London newspapers. The simple facts are, I sent a carefully written letter, giving a succinct account of my journey across the Vatna Jökull and my visit to Öskjugjá, the effects of which volcano were creating much discussion in England at the time. This letter Capt. Burton kindly forwarded for me to the "Times," and it was set up in type (as the proof came into my hand on my return), but for some reason or another, best known to the editor, it subsided into the waste paper basket, while a more lengthy letter I afterwards wrote to the same journal, giving an account of the eruption in the Mývatns Öræfi, appeared in full. There are anomalies in the civilized world which confound one even more than the idiosyncracies of nature.
With the Post ship came several tourists who were bent on making a few days' excursion in the island. We therefore made up a party, including Miss Oswald, Miss Menzies, Mr. Young, of Edinburgh, and myself, to pay a visit with Oddr Gíslasson to some solfataras belonging to him at Cape Reykjanes, and a very pleasant trip it was, though the way was extremely monotonous, being as usual over a series of lava streams flowing from the Krisuvík mountains. The part of the S.W. peninsular we were traversing was called the Vatnsleysuströnd, or waterless strand; here there is no fresh water to be obtained except upon the beach where the lava streams terminate. These can often only be reached at low water, and then, as may be imagined, the water is brackish. Two days' journeying brought us to Kirkjuvogr, where Oddr Gíslasson's mother and brothers-in-law lived. It is one of the best homesteads in the south, besides having about the largest piece of grass land on this peninsular. It is also a fishing station of some importance, lying as it does upon the south bank of a little boot-shaped creek named Oscar. We were very kindly received, and the next day rode on to the solfataras of Reykjanes at the extremity of the peninsular. The day was miserable, and we were unable to get a satisfactory view. These solfataras, however, are remarkable, as the acid and heated vapours have here, as in other places, formed extensive pools of calcareo-siliceous mud, hardened in some instances into almost a semiopal, coloured and streaked with blood-red stains from the ferruginous nature of the rocks which have been decomposed, but the sublimations of sulphur were very insignificant.
The most remarkable feature of the locality occurred where the lava was not much decomposed by the erosive action of the vapours, and upon splitting such masses of the partially decomposed rock, scarlet vapours could be seen issuing from crevices beneath, coating any surface that was partially exposed to the air with a film of iron pyrites. Further up the side of the old volcano, at the base of which these curiosities are to be found, are pools and pits of blue, red, and green boiling clay. While in this locality the rain continued and the fog became more dense, and as it would have been anything but pleasant to be caught in a thick fog amongst the lava and solfataras of Reykjanes, we curtailed our visit, and returned with all speed to Kirkjuvogr.
Return to Reykjavík
The next day, wishing to avoid the tedious road over the lava by which we came, we rode to Njarðvík, where we hired a sailing boat, and returned by sea to Reykjavík. Here I found that Captain Cockle and Mr. Slimond had returned by the Postship with the welcome intelligence that the steamer "Queen" would arrive in about a week, and sail almost as soon as the old tub "Diana" This was indeed good news to us all, for we had determined to return by a small sailing ship belonging to a horsetrader, Mr. Ascham, rather than subject ourselves to the floating purgatory of the Diana.
In due time the "Queen" arrived, and I bade Iceland and Icelandic friends farewell, feeling satisfied with my summer's work, and consoling myself with the thought that I had accomplished the little piece of "utter folly" I had thrice undertaken. I resignedly committed myself to the evils of seasickness, from which I had scarcely recovered when we arrived at Edinburgh, two days before the Diana. which had sailed from Reykjavík a day before the Queen. Here I accepted the hospitality of Mr. Slimond, of Leith, and greatly enjoyed British fare and a relapse into civilization.
"Ah!" my reader may say with a smile, "after all the toil and trouble undertaken the wonders seen could not have been worth the toil and privation." My readers, like myself, must by this time have grown somewhat weary of the eternal repetition of lava, pumice, &c., &c., and therefore we will mutually congratulate ourselves upon being able to vary the subject with reference to scenes and subjects more lively and civilized; but I must most respectfully demur to that conclusion, for if the general aspect of nature throughout Iceland be dreary and wild, there is also plenty to reward a man of scientific and athletic inclinations. Indeed the same tiresome pumice and lava and sand, when placed beneath the power of the microscope, is found to possess such wonders and exquisite beauty- of form, that the beholder is struck with admiration and astonishment to find so much perfection treasured up in such rough settings, giving material for many an hour of patient study and enjoyment which has alone fully compensated for the hardships of the journey across the Vatna Jökull.