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Brought up on Tolkien and with a hankering after the legends it might just sound romantic.
In fact it's as romantic as a Scottish bog in August. Myvatn. "Midge Lake" is, apparently, the literal translation. Any guide book worth its mustard will warn you about this place. Here the midges swarm and mate and, when neither swarming nor mating, wander around in smaller insidious groups looking for something to eat. Anything large and warm-blooded will do. Cows. People. They're not fussed. They have been known to kill cattle.
This happens in two ways. The first, and one to which I can attest after my Pig-Pen impersonation at Caerlaverock, is that the poor creature simply tries to outrun the onslaught…and they cannot be outrun. Eventually, the poor beast simply collapses from exhaustion.
The second cause of death is even more unpleasant. Apparently, the midge is attracted to carbon dioxide. I've no idea why, and I'm not sure the knowledge helps us much since "not breathing out" is a fairly short-lived strategy for avoidance of insect bite. It means, however, that when homing in on a beast in the field, the flies will focus around the nose and the mouth, entering the orifices in such numbers as to block the airways causing the animal to suffocate.
Thus you are advised. Strongly advised. Exhorted, even. To cover every visible inch in high-duty-Deet AND wear a head net.
[The Akureyrie sports shops do a grand trade in head-nets. Yes. I acquired one more bit of proper technical kit.]
So now I've put you off the idea altogether, let me try to change your mind.
We were heading out from Akureyrie, about 80km to the west. We were using private transport, but buses run on a daily basis during the summer (albeit on a limited schedule so do plan ahead).
July 2010 might have included the hottest week of the year in the UK, but that particular week in Iceland was unusually wet. "At least it'll keep the midges down" we stoically reminded one another. "Except, if we're lucky and it stops that'll give them the nice warm damp conditions they really love…."
As another rain-drenched morning broke in Akureyrie we were sure we wouldn't need the much vaunted protective kit. Don't you believe it, we were told. Myvatn sits in the rain-shadow of the Vatnajökull icecap and is – according to the stats – the driest place in Iceland. Did we believe that?
Not until the road out ahead showed the pass through the mountain range. The break in the skyline was reflected by the clear change in the sky. Up to the edge of the mountains, dark brooding, rain-shedding grey clumps of misery, beyond a fine line drawn above the mountain tops, bright white barely there cloud shimmer. One of the clearest weather system edges I've seen.
Hopes for the day lifted with a lighter sky.
The Lake Area
Although guides talk about a visit to Myvatn, it isn't really about the lake itself but the whole surrounding area. Straddling, as it does, the Mid Atlantic Ridge, this is an area of diverse landscapes that all have one thing in common: they're the result of violent geological activity of one kind or another which started about 10,000 years ago. A tour of the area is a wander through bizarre and unusual territory, and the most exciting thing is that it's all still happening.
As our driver for the day warned us at one point: if there is a rope, however small, however low down: take the hint and don't cross beyond it. The likelihood is that the ground will not take your weight, and the non-ground beneath is very very hot. It WILL hurt. It can KILL. We looked at him. Trust me, there is at least one idiot every year… usually a German (his words)…who has to put the theory to the test. Any decent guidebook will give you the full list of options of where to go and what to see. How
much of it you take in will depend upon your approach and how much time you have at your disposal. Our grand day out was scheduled as a 'bus trip' with a few short walks of up to an hour, so we covered fewer sites than it's technically feasible to cram into a day, but we did take time out at one or two of them to wander around and think about what we were looking at.
And thanks to driver Christian, we also got a couple of surprise extras.
First Stop – Skútustadagígar
Reason to stop: one of the best sites for investigating the pseudo-craters which are among Myvatn's major claims to fame. The area is dotted with small but perfectly formed volcanic craters. The tiny, utterly symmetrical cone-shaped hillocks with their collapsed innards are the child's drawing version of a volcano. The area is littered with them.
Skútustadagígar gives the ambler rambler a chance to get up close and personal with them. A way-marked route around one of the larger craters, now water-filled and a haven for all manner of water-birds (as well as the midge and black-fly larvae) gives excellent views of the variously sized craters and across the main lake towards the mountains.
The walk is a leisurely one-hour stroll and is reckoned to be a birder's paradise. This is obviously where the Deet and the mesh face coverings come in. Usually. In our case, it was where the wind came in. A violently blustery day churned up the waters, and kept all flying biting things securely grounded. Sadly it did the same for the waterfowl. Other than a few snipe there was very little avian activity to be seen. Not so much rambling activity either, as many took refuge from the gusts in the nearby café. Three of us however were determined to complete the round. Determined? A 60 minute amble for goodness sake… and we're supposed to be walkers. The route starts with a short clamber to a crater top, but is mostly on the flat at the waterside. It is wet underfoot in places and does include a proper plodge across one small inlet where the duckboard has submerged and what looks like volcanic ash is precisely that (i.e. not strong enough to take any weight) – but that's only a few steps and, as with firewalking, in wet-walking speed is usually the secret. Just go for it and don't allow yourself time to sink.
Personally, I like being out in the wind, but I can see why the twitchers were disappointed. "If it's a choice between this, and the midges… I'll take this" elicited the response "If it's a choice between this and the birds, I'll take the birds… and one person in the group without a headnet!" I'm sure he was joking.
Pseudo-craters did I say? Yes. The fifty or so islands across the lake and similar formations around the southern shores are not actual volcanoes. They were formed when trapped subsurface water boiled and gained pressure below a thin lava crust eventually bursting out in a steam explosion leaving the scoria cones behind. No lava ever flowed from these craters, just one sudden burst of vapour laden air.
From one series of not-quite-volcanoes to another. Dimmuborgir means 'dark castle' and it refers to the ease with which the lava outcrops can be translated in the mind into the ruins of castle walls. Towers and columns and even a ruined cathedral arch are evoked by purely nature growths of basalt.
The formation of the outcrops is subject to speculation but the official theory currently runs something like this: Lava from the Threngslaborgir and Ludentarborgir flowed over a water-filled depression or area of marshland to form a lava lake. The surface layer of magma cools quickly trapping a layer of still molten magma above the water. The magma heats the subsurface water, and the resultant steam forces vents through the surface layer. As the steam forces its way upwards it carries lava with it, which then cools in the atmosphere and builds up around the vents. Over time, the movements cause stresses in the surface layer which breaks up allowing the molten lava to breach and flow away, leaving the raised hardened structures standing proud in the landscape.
These then become weathered by wind and rain, and teased by the human imagination into mythical shapes and stories.
In the natural order of things the site would have disappeared by now, reclaimed by the planet and reburied. Windblown sand was silting up the field until in the 1940s the local farmers who owned the site handed it over to the Soil Conservation Trust. They erected stone barriers against drift and planted lyme grass. The measures have proved effective and birch trees have re-colonised the area stabilising the ground further.
There are a number of colour-coded walking routes around the site, none of them of any great length or difficulty. Ignore the word "challenging" on the red route – it has a couple of uphill sections, and a tiny little scramble, but wouldn't be a challenge to the average 4 year old (or 74 year old for that matter). Do stick to the routes though, as with everywhere else in the area, parts of the ground are known to still be unstable. If you lose track of your way-marks (the red route inexplicably dissolves into the yellow route half-way round) don't worry about that either. It's a very small site and sooner or later you will end up back at the car park.
As tourist attractions go, it's a weird one. To me it's the sort of place that I'd be thrilled to have delighted upon out in the wilds, unknown and unloved, where it would have been weird and wonderful. Tamed and fenced in as it has been, turns it into something of a disappointment.
Did Christian sense our lack of awe, I wonder? As we re-boarded the skylark, he wondered whether he should 'take the standard route, or…' We didn't actually wait for what the 'or' might be before chorusing 'yes, please'. It didn't matter. If it wasn't on the standard itinerary we wanted in. "OK, then. I take you to see the crack".
We were already watching the crack in the windscreen of the minibus grow as the day went on and we bumped along at near-limit speeds over the rougher roads. It was to gain a companion as C now took the vehicle off-piste to show us a few holes in the ground.
For me this was the highlight of the day. A small cleft in the ground to the side of the road, grew as we bumped along a dirt track into a genuine rift. Not so wide as to be majestic, but severe and obvious. This is where the plates meet. This is where the earth is tearing itself apart as the North American plate and the European plate pull away from each other.
This was exciting.
Clambering down to the water inside a rift cave, despite the faint smell of sulphur, with the filtered light and the rising steam, it was understandable why the locals would have chosen to bathe here until thirty or so years ago when a nearby eruption raised the temperature to about 45degrees. It is again cooling slowly and they will no doubt be back. It was also impossible to avoid the thought "what happens if there's a sudden shift while you're down here?" No end of sci-fi B-movies flashed through my mind.
It isn't possible to describe the sense of awe.
Anything which reminds me that WE are NOT in charge of the planet is a cause for celebration, hope, and utter amazement. And this is as tangible as it gets. This is the living planet… not as Attenborough had it in the plants and animals that just happen to be alive here, but the planet itself, growing and changing.
This is just a crack in the earth. There are no interpretation boards. We observed that in the UK there'd be a fence, and an entrance fee, and a visitor centre. It's all the more special for just being there. Waiting. Un-tended.
Pictures of Myvatn Lake, Iceland
"the Dark Castle" Dimmuborgir
what about some bread? Christian's next treat was to take us further across country through the gateway of a sulphur extraction plant and round the back of the factory to look at some more holes in the ground. This time they were man-made. Bread ovens. A roughly cylindrical hole is dug, into which is placed the drum from an old washing machine to act as oven wall and stop the land from collapsing back over your loaf. Bread dough is then placed inside a container, with a lid, a lump of lava set on the top to keep the lid from lifting under pressure, a loose metal cover goes over the whole thing, held down with a few redundant lumps of concrete and left for about 24 hours. Result: ground baked bread. A bit heavy for my taste, but much the thing hereabouts.And you have to love the fact that modern technology finds its way back into the ancient ways of doing things.
Just a few minutes ride further on we disembark again for a stroll around Njamafjall, a high-temperature geothermal area of fumaroles and mud-pots. At a depth of 1000m the temperature is over 200 degrees centigrade, we're told. At the surface it's still high enough for mud to boil and vents to steam hydrogen sulphide in huge plumes.
The trails of 'safe' ground are marked and we were well advised not to stray beyond them. The ground around sweated and bubbled and steamed. The whole place stank of that typical rotten egg smell.
It's an other-worldly landscape. If NASA wanted to fake the moon landings they couldn't have picked a better place. If the local community isn't making a killing out of the sci-fi film industry, I'd sack every location scout on the planet. Shades of grey and blue litter the sandstone earth, steam rises, strange figures in the distance peer into pits and holes, nothing grows. The air is damp and rancid. The onset of drizzle feels like a blessing.
From Njamafjall we continued northwards, through the steaming valleys criss-crossed by pipelines capturing the steam to drive turbines down at the electricity generating plant, to be disembarked at a fairly innocuous looking crater. So far, so blasé. Volcanic activity was becoming the norm.
Ah, but we were expected to climb to the top and walk the rim, so off we dutifully set.
The true blue of the water in the basin is indeed a surprise, one that on a sunlit day would no doubt have held us enthralled. Today, we were more intent on trying to stay on our feet. As we started the anti-clockwise circumambulation, the gales returned with a vengeance. Love the wind as I do, there is a point at which I will concede defeat. That point is where the feet have trouble maintaining contact with the ground.
My only thought was that this has a touch of humour here, but do I want to be on that side of the crater, where it is blowing me towards the edge rather than away from it. No. When simply staying upright is hard work, walking is no fun, and I'm from the school of rambling that says when it stops being fun, stop.
A couple of brave souls ploughed on, but eventually they too turned back. We'd seen the spectacle; we didn't actually need to walk a full circle to appreciate it.
Our last stop of the day took us back towards the lake into some un-named lava field, where we set to wandering. Lichen covered lava pillows stretched over a plain towards the hills. A short climb took us up into more ochre-bare, sulphur spitting, lunar landscape valleys and beyond as a sandy track picked its way over the basalt sponges of (relatively) recent lave floes. Mist lay in the valleys, steam venting from the earth's core, tracks and hills, patches of green, but acres of dark grey. Bleak takes on a whole new meaning, when this is what you find less than 15 minutes walk from a main road. There's a lake in the distance. Snow still lies in the hollows between the lichen-softened pillows; elsewhere sheep huddle in the clefts seeking shelter from the rain.
After the lush greenery of Glerardalur and Godafoss, the Myvatn area gave us the Iceland of imagination. Weird. A world apart. Awesome and stark.