If you’re an Icelandic person right now, here’s how you spend your Saturday; get the whole family dressed in hiking gear topped with wool Icelandic sweaters, and head up a mountain to look at the volcano.
When we got here, everyone we met said “When are you going to see the volcano?” and at first I though it was kind of a tourist trap. But duh, it’s a volcano, not a torture museum or a theme park. And anyway, the people asking were all Icelandic, and they were excited. I guess they get an active volcano every five years or so, but this one is quite accessible to Reykjavik and not off in some remote place where you can’t bring grandpa and the kids for a weekend outing.
The families with their wool sweaters drive to see the volcano—we took a bus. Those buses and cars don’t take you to the volcano, though, for that you have to walk four hours up and down a mountain.
No problem at at. We’re great at walking. See? Nice and easy.
Okay so maybe the walk started to get a little steep. No big deal.
And then a bit steeper.
And then…I put the camera in my backpack and concentrated on not falling.
I fell three times, and that was just on the way up. This wasn’t hiking: this was rock climbing.
A local lady I talked to afterwards said “Oh you got it easy—a week earlier and you would have needed ropes to get up there.” I would have preferred ropes, at least I wouldn’t have been in a continual panic of my feet slipping on all the loose gravel, with nothing to hold on to.
The incline finally leveled off for a minute and HOB pointed up to an impossibly high ridge and then I noticed the outlines of people on the ledge, backed by black smoke. “We’ll stop here” I said to him “no need to go any farther.”
We kept going, up to the ridge.
The smell. Like a chemistry experiment gone wrong and indisputably toxic. There were signs warning us not to bring dogs, as the gases are bad for them, but then how could those same gasses not be poisonous for us?
The sound. A boiling thunderous rushing sound.
The heat. We were on a ridge, with lava creeping down on each side. In the distance on the right, a molten orange water fall of lava.
The fascination and fear. No video will capture the smell, the sound, the heat and the horror of looking into an active volcano. I get a lot of credit for being adventurous, but I’m not—the truth is my fearlessness is limited to culture. With everything else, I’m risk adverse. A high wind picked up and flare of lava sparks erupted from the volcano fissure. All I could think about was escape and HOB wasn’t far behind.
But first, a picnic.
We moved lower from the ridge and ate our sandwiches with a view of the crusty lava river. We’d lost our appetites because of the chemical stench but were hoping that a bit of nourishment would give our rubbery legs enough strength to climb down. Some fools were walking right down into the valley to get eye level with the lava. Yeah, hard pass on that.
The descent was even harder. I lost track of how many times I fell and truthfully considered the possibility of sliding down. HOB fared slightly better, but all I can say is one of us had to wash their underwear when we finally made it back to our apartment.
The most embarrassing part was watching the effortless way the Icelandic people navigated the terrain. I swear there were kids as young as four and seniors in the 80’s, nimbly trotting down the hill while we stumbled. Even a heavily pregnant lady sashayed on down while talking on a cell phone.
Four porta-johns and a Red Cross hut selling hot dogs awaited the successful volcano-viewers at the bottom of the mountain.
We waited for our volcano bus and watched the nonchalant families, Icelandic sweater-clad and apparently unwinded by their climb, walk down the path, line up for hot dogs, and head back to their cars while munching away. Just another wholesome afternoon outing.
I would have a hard time doing this again, but after 14 months of hiding from Covid, I’ll say honestly it was at least a relief to trade one type of fear for another. And who knows the next time we’ll have a chance to eat a picnic at a lava waterfall.
How we got to Reykjavik: flight from Chicago.
Where we slept: Baldursbrá Apartment Laugarvegur. Price: €111 for a double (including food). Recommended: yes.