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Monday, 23 August 2021

Walking In Iceland 6: Eldgjá and Álftavötn

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Monday 29th August 1977

Another journal extract. Neville and I are now well into our guided walk, trekking in the south of Iceland with ten others. Today we move hut again, but by a roundabout route. Our walk goes from Skaelingar to the top of Gjátindur mountain (3,068 feet, 935m), then down through the Eldgjá canyon to Álftavötn (or Alftavatn). The canyon contains the 130 foot (40m) Ófærufoss waterfall. These features can be seen on the map. The huts are marked kofi (shelter).

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

The first thing we have to do is cross a river. Now this and one crossed yesterday are easy, but soon we come to a larger river which necessitates the rolled-up-trousers, bare-feet-in-boots technique to keep your socks dry. This causes me concern because my soft, canning factory, Wellington-boot steamed heels now carry sticking plaster which soon rubs unstuck when wet. I should have done more walking before coming, but there wasn’t time. My one practice day was not helpful because I wore new boots, so my heels had blisters before I came. I brought my older boots to Iceland, but the damage is done.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

Ascending Gjátindur, we leave the rock pillars and green of Skaelingar behind, and crunch up through gravel to gain height. We see another group in the distance, the first we have encountered so far. Paul, whose job it is to know who else is in the area, says it is a party of Germans. Whilst we, hardened rucksack-carrying explorers, have trekked overland on our own legs to get here, it amuses us to hear they have travelled to within a few miles by bus. Mockingly xenophobic remarks from nineteen-fifties war stories are heard, including the term “schnitzel-eaters”. Paul then admits that Dick Phillips runs a similar trip called the Walkers’ Motor Tour in which participants are able to bring luxuries such as spare socks. This too is scoffed at, the ‘L’ becoming an ‘N’.

From Gjátindur we see distant views of ice caps and volcanic cones, and below, the extraordinary ‘fire canyon’ of Eldgjá, the largest volcanic canyon in the world. Apparently, it just opened up several hundred years ago. It is nearly 900 feet deep (270m), between a quarter and half a mile wide (600m) and 25 miles long (40km). Its first recorded eruption in A.D. 939 is thought to have caused temperature drops of 2oC as far away as Central Asia. The ash cloud made the summer of A.D. 940 the coolest in Europe for 1,500 years. 

Eldgja, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977
Eldgjá from Gjátindur

“Eld” translates as “fire” and “gjá” as “canyon” – hence “fire canyon”. “Tindur” is “peaks, thus  “Gjátindur” is “canyon peaks”. “Skaelingar” might mean “skeletons” which seems to make sense with the rock pillars. Google translates today’s destination, “Álftavötn” or “Alftavatn”, as “Swan Lakes”, which surely can’t be right, but “vötn” or “vatn” does mean water. We seem to be getting somewhere, except with “Sveinstindur”.

Four of us, oddly the four that went on our own road trip on Thursday, are having camera problems, evidenced by the blue lines on the pictures. When I try to rewind the film, it breaks inside the camera. Later, after dark, I open the case inside my sleeping bag, rewind the film by hand and manage to slot it back into the cartridge, but much of it is ruined. For pictures from the floor of the canyon, I again have to turn to the internet.

Eldgja
Gjátindur from Eldgjá

We descend the thousand-foot scree slope to the valley floor and begin to walk its length. It is flat-bottomed with near-vertical sides, just like a geomorphological diagram. After some time we reach the Ófærufoss waterfall which flows in from the side in two steps. Above the lower step the water has eroded a natural bridge around ten feet in diameter and twenty feet long. We climb up to walk across [it collapsed in 1993]. 

Eldgja
Eldgja

Later we stop beside a round mound around thirty feet high. Bridge School Mike climbs up to look and discovers it is hollow. We all climb up to look.

Suddenly we turn down a dark, steep-sided passageway between five and fifteen feet wide and thirty feet deep, perhaps the course of an old river. It is a very strange volcanic landscape.

Because of the indirect route taken, with its ascents and descents, today is the longest walk so far. By now we are stringing out. Paul decides to wait near the top of a hill in a bitterly cold wind for everyone to catch up. He tells us the Álftavötn hut is visible from just over the top and that the front runners have gone on ahead. I am walking quite slowly with blistered heels, but come across Neville waiting about a hundred yards ahead of Paul.

“Watch it, he’s ruthless. He doesn’t care if you go wrong,” Neville reminds me, but I decide to risk it and limp slowly on. About half an hour later I see Paul and the others overtaking me high on a ridge to the right. What he has not told us is that there is a river hidden in a gorge between where he had been waiting and the hut, and that there is a natural bridge about a mile upstream. I double back and eventually catch up with Debbie, Dennis and Ed the translator at the back just before the hut. They are even slower than I am. 

Meanwhile the bridge school “G.T. boys”, as Debbie and Dennis call them (do I detect slight hostility?), have had to wade the river. It is wide, deep, and fast-flowing, and they get wet. Moral – don’t go off in front. That’s the second time I’ve said that.


(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

22 comments:

  1. Sounds like one of those holidays where everyone starts out as friends but does not end up so.

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    1. I think the irritations started to emerge in the first hut where we had to stay in for a day because of awful weather, and as indicated later in the diary, they worsened, but nothing too serious. It makes me wonder whether more serious hostilities have emerged in other groups and how walk leaders manage them. Fortunately, I seem to have inherited my mother's gift of being able to get on with most people.

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  2. Now that really does sound like a trek. Only for the young and fit.

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  3. I can't imagine taking such a trek. Rather disturbing about the rock bridge over the falls collapsing.

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    1. You've now given me an image of it collapsing with people on it. The collapse probably happened during the winter when the area is inaccessible, even on foot.

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  4. What an amazing adventure this was for you. I love the pictures and the map helps me to understand the layout of it all. The volcanic canyon is quite a view. Isn't it wonderful that we had our youth to be able to enjoy such adventures!

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    1. The canyon is beyond belief - that it just opened up and caused such disruption. The Oskarsson photograph shows it best (I hope it's OK to use it).

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  5. I commend you for attempting to learn Icelandic. If it’s not Olafsson or Eriksdotter it’s all Greek to me!

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    1. "Dottir", surely. Does Icelandic have Greek roots? Discuss.

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  6. Joseph Conrad wrote "The Heart of Darkness" but it seems to me that you and your party were heading there in the heart of Iceland. Wearing comfortable boots when walking big distances is so important. I guess that walking on that gravelly volcanic surface must have been energy sapping - especially when climbing to 3068 feet.

    I have seen it before but there was a programme on the BBC on Sunday night showing Julia Bradbury trekking up to Eyjafjallajökull. I guess that you have seen it too? Breathtaking stuff.

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    1. I watched the programme last night, and remember when it was first shown around 2010/11. Whereas we went West to East, she went North to South. I realised last night that when she had to miss a section and go by 4x4 because of awful weather, it would have been the Eldgjá section because they were taken to "Swan Lakes" which is indeed Álftavötn. What a luxurious place now! I felt so superior when they showed the showers and comfortable bunks, and astonished when the warden of the later cabin said they could accommodate 60 and if more turned up they found space on floors. Warden! 60! Like a Wallace Arnold bus trip. Not the same at all.

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    2. Did they show Julia Bradbury having a shower?

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  7. we continue to be spellbound - this is becoming like 1001 nights - as for blisters (and you have my sympathy) I used to spend my working life in the NZ 'bush', up hill and down dale, and all it needed to bring on blisters despite the boots being old well worn-in every day footwear, was a change of terrain.

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    1. I know what you mean. I suffered a lot with blisters until I worked out the right boot-sock combination for the different conditions, and now hardly get them at all. Before going to Iceland I'd had wet feet every night for nearly 3 months, despite wearing (and wearing out) several pairs of wellington boots, and it took its toll. I also had a tendency to go over on my ankles, which could make walking painful.

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  8. Neville was right. Paul was a crafty guy.

    In contrast to crossing a snow covered glacier and trying to avoid crevasses, the volcanic landscape you traversed meant watching out for deep crevices. Hard on the feet and ankles.

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    1. The ground wasn't particularly uneven where we were, but Paul certainly knew all the tricks. Both him and Dick Phillips were said to hide spare pairs of socks along the route so they always had dry ones, while we had to try to dry them by taking them to bed in our sleeping bags.

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    2. This is after the manner of 1001 Nights as Tigger said except I cannot remember Scheherazade ever crossing a volcanic canyon.

      Paul and Dick hiding their dry socks hits the right note.
      If you can't have a baddie in the story have two sneaky guys.

      When I was seven I received Patrick Moore's novel Mission To Mars as a school prize.
      It gave me a taste for space exploration, the numinous, and the journey as a quest for hidden knowledge.
      The hero is saved by a Martian creature resembling a bat and with the empathy and intelligence of a moral being.
      The bad guy is another spaceman and reminds me of Paul.
      Haggerty

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    3. I didn't know you were a space explorer. We need to see a blog of your adventures. Paul wasn't a bad guy at all. Just doing his job. No point telling people not to go off in front. They have to learn through personal experience.

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  9. I have discovered the way to enjoy catching up is to read an episode whilst having a coffee - the one time of day I relax sufficiently (usually with a crossword). I makes me hark back to my parents (much simple of course) tales of hiking in the English Lakes and Scotland back in the 20s. I have pictures of Dad rock climbing in hobnail boots. I had climbing boots too. My son wears something like vibram slippers. You really did it the hard way. And I bet you appreciated the achievement all the more.

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    1. Graham, thank you for being so persistent in catching up. I appreciate it. I only ever went rock climbing once, through a local authority evening class (remember those) on a climbing wall in a sports centre, culminating in a weekend at Borrowdale. I tried to do it in vibram-soled walking boots and was useless. Never again. The really keen ones bought something called PA climbing shoes (Pierre Allain).

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