So yesterday when the weather was clear and spring-like, S and I skipped out of the office early to see what we could see. At Hvolsvöllur we turned on to route 216, following a string of Jeeps making their way into the river valley. Blithely ignoring the several "road closed" signs, we followed the road through two river crossings and through increasingly bumpy and muddy terrain until we found friends J & D who'd come earlier to hike.
On the way in, our first indication of excitement ahead was a massive plume of smoke drifting gently seawards. The closer we got, the more clearly we could see the individual belches of smoke that dissolved as the expanded skyward and floated over the glacier. Even closer, the lava spurts became clearly visible, the tongues leaping high in the air from the left side of the newly-forming mountain.
We'd hoped to cross the mighty Markarfljót but in its springtime fury and with a rather light vehicle that might have floated in the fast water, we stayed on the far side and just walked across the tundra until we reached the river's edge. We settled on a bluff above the river, about 7km away from the explosion's center, and unpacked the goodies. J & D, experienced and efficient nature travellers, had come with crispbread, cream cheese, avocado, and tabasco, so we layered up some sandwiches and picnicked as we watched.
The location is already known for being tremendously beautiful, a long river valley edged by mountains and topped with glaciers, opening south-westward towards the sea and the setting sun. With only a gentle breeze and the full sun on our sides, the addition of these fireworks was almost too much to handle. We passed the binoculars along our line, watching the lava as it shot skyward, then solidified and tumbled down to the newly forming mountain. We watched the dozens of small planes, the helicopters as they circled. We inspected the tires and size of the vehicles that did make it across the river, and counted the people who'd hiked to the top of a nearer mountain for a close view. We tried to describe the effect of the lava- was it more like a blow torch, a snowgun at a mountain resort shooting off something quite the opposite temperature?
Mostly we just stared and tried to take at least some photos that would capture how remarkable the sight was, grateful to be here to bear witness to such a phenomenon. As dusk began to fall and the sunset lit up the smoke plume pinkly, we decided we simply had to stay long enough to experience the colours in the dark, so we waited and watched, observing that the plumes of lava seemed to be spreading. When we first arrived, only the left side had been visibly active, but in the dark the whole ridge was alight, burning above us like a Lord of the Rings signal fire.
Finally, just before total darkness, we trekked back across the jumbled landscape and to the cars again, wary of crossing rivers in total darkness. We shouldn't have worried though- the entire route back was well illuminated by the hundreds of people who'd come out to see the scene. The crowds and vehicles were reminiscent of some fourth of july fireworks spectacle, except in puffy coats and hats instead of light summer dresses. After we crossed back over the first river crossing, the crowds became even deeper- tour busses with little footstools set out for the comfort of the tourists, dozens of cars not river-worthy, and hordes of people marching through the tundra. Mania of such a proportion I have never witnessed in such a relatively remote area.
And then, the 2 hour drive back in the dark, during which I kept looking back to see just how long the eruption would be visible. Past Hella, I could still see back for kilometers, the bright orange plume rising high above the low, flat lights of the few farms we passed. At Selfoss it was finally swallowed by the dark night and all seemed finished. But then, as we passed through the snow-striped heath at Hellisheiði, a pale arc of northern lights swept through the sky. Perfectly ended.