Almonds, check, water, flask of coffee, liquorice chocolate (weirdly good), camera, boots, hiking poles. Check, check, check, check, check and check.
It’s day 2 of the eruption it’s sunny and there’s a light breeze, perfect conditions for a hike to the new volcano. We join the cars and buses headed for the Meradalir eruption an hour’s drive south of Reykjavik. We pass through the nearest town, Grindavík and follow the rising plume to the car park built last year to handle the crowds visiting the eruption at Fagradalsfjall. We arrived at five pm and parked in the 2nd car park, which is almost full.
This eruption is good 7km hike (one way) and about 45 minutes farther from the car park than last year’s. The ground is uneven, and there are several steep climbs and descents over rough ground. Despite this we passed several people in trainers and even one dude in open toes sandals, and later as we returned we met a woman on crutches. I’m all for spontaneity, and I hate to judge and so on, but as Captain Kirk asked Dr. Spock, ‘Are you out of your Vulcan mind?’
After perhaps 2Km, you take a left and begin a steeper climb. Looking back to your right you’ll notice earth banks that were built last year to prevent the lava flowing toward the road.
To our right the remains of last years Fagradalsfjall crater rise up like a mildewed tree stump from a black and sulphur yellow lava field. When we were there, the path was not as clearly marked as it is now, and we followed the crowd skirting around the edge of the lava field west of the old crater where the steep and uneven rocky slope meets the level lava field. Like a charcoal meringue that’s been dropped from a height, last year’s lava is a honeycomb of burst bubbles, layers and chambers. The lava in these hills has been shattered by literally thousands of earthquakes in the days preceding this eruption and smoke was rising from the field in several places. Despite this, dozens of hikers were taking a shortcut across the field. Walking across fragile lava next to an active volcano following a week of earthquakes is something my mother always warned me against, and we chose to skirt around the rocky edges instead.
The final leg of the hike is across a plateau with the plume is dead ahead. Among the rocks and moss underfoot are small glossy pebbles of pumice, a stone that is light enough to float. These pebbles were ejected into the air, sometimes to a height of thousand feet, and rained down on visitors to last years eruption. Though below the melting point for Gortex they sparked several fires in the surrounding moss, which after weeks of drought smouldered for weeks across miles. In Pliny the younger’s account of the Vesuvius eruption (79 CE) he describes the calamity similar floating rocks caused for those trying to flee Pompei by boat.
The volcano comes into view, a row of three lava fountains, like a demonic las Vegas attraction belching lava and foul vapours into the air. The flow has halved since the beginning of the eruption to an estimated 18 m3 per second, or an Olympic pool every three minutes, but still it’s a multiple of the volume pumped out by last year’s eruption.
The fountains are surrounded on three sides by a slowly expanding black-crusted blob-like lake. To the south, a broad river rushes to a slowly swirling lake bordering last year’s lava field.
We took all this in from the hillside above among a crowd of hundreds. Most people are sitting just out of the wind but still in the sun where you can feel the heat radiating up. It was a perfect spot for a picnic. Unfortunately, Eric left the sandwiches behind. Almonds and liquorice chocolate and coffee sufficed, and there were no recriminations.
After no sandwiches, we descended to the valley for a closer look. A word of caution here. Along with the lava, the volcano belches copious clouds of nasty gases, including sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and carbonic acid and hydrogen sulfide. During our visit, there was a light northerly breeze of 6-7 meters per second, which, provided we remained upwind, kept us out of the gasses. Despite this I had a pretty brutal headache the next day and could feel it in my chest. If you have respiratory issues, it would be wise to bring a proper mask, and everyone should keep an eye on the weather forecast. If there’s no wind, postpone. Check before you head off. Even if there is a wind don’t stick around too long. Last year members of the Björgunarsveitin Þorbjörn, the mountain rescue volunteers, dispersed crowds when toxic gases reached dangerous levels.
There’s a carnival vibe by the lava’s edge, everyone seems excited, maybe they’re high from the gases, but it’s not an everyday thing and the atmosphere is not an everyday atmosphere either. Even the drones aren’t annoying. Doesn’t it seem that whenever you get somewhere, you’ve hiked for hours and your thoughts have given up, so it’s just birdsong, the glaciers / waterfall / babbling brook (possibly all three), and you. And what is this ‘you’ anyway? Beyond a fleeting dance of particles, finally, you understand that… ’Mehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ Enter the drone, and you know there’s some hungover millennial in gortex pants sitting in their rental 4×4, trying to frame the annoying dot (me) out of their awesome Instagram post. Well… ‘Meh’ back at you.
Ok – I feel a bit better now, thanks, better out than in.
Just as the light was fading, it was time for us to go, a shame because, it’s in the darkness that the show really starts. If you like a good bonfire, and who doesn’t, then the volcano in the darkness is next level. On our return we passed a steady trickle of hikers along the way along way. We and got back to the carpark at midnight and stumbled over the mossy lava looking for the car. The car park was by now overflowing. Cars and buses and even bicycles crowded the narrow road.