Author blog of William A. Young; journeys through the mythology of the northern fringes of Europe
There is in the northeast of Iceland a canyon, that cuts through a landscape of vari-coloured hills and enormous, surreal rock formations. It contains walls of basalt columns, a desert of black sand, and the most powerful waterfall in Europe. A journey along its course will show you some of the most extraordinary scenery the world has to offer. And yet, hardly anyone in the English-speaking world has ever heard of it…
There are many beautiful places that have failed to find fame by reason of their remoteness, dangers, or the awkward vagaries of global politics. None of these factors, however, can properly explain the relative obscurity of this particular region. Iceland is a peaceful, wealthy country, with a well-developed transport infrastructure. Within it, the canyon region is a well-known hiking destination, and images of its most famous landmarks grace the pages of any number of travel guides.
The obstacle that condemns this extraordinary portion of the earth to comparative obscurity- in the Anglophone world, at least- is its name. It goes by the uniquely difficult appellation of Jökulsárgljúfur. To say English-speakers have trouble with this word would be a bit of an understatement. It is far too laden with clusters of consonants, far too rich in unfamiliar diacritics, to ever spread easily among us by word of mouth. I’ve enthused about the place any number of times to friends, and have always subsequently had it described back to me as “that place in Iceland with the funny name”. This hasn’t really helped to spread its fame more widely. Alternative approaches to description have been foiled at the first attempt, by the fact that it lies along the banks of a river called the Jökulsá á Fjöllum. This isn’t really any improvement…
So, lacking any other immediately obvious shortcut, I’ve decided to have a try at boosting its profile under the title “Canyon Country”. It’s a moniker as accurate as any other; and it applies to a place that fully deserves the attention of anyone who likes walking through wild and beautiful places. Iceland itself is now more accessible than ever before, due to the development of Reykjavik as a trans-Atlantic flight-hub, and the high prices previously associated with it have dropped over recent years. There has never been a better time to go…
The river Jökulsá á Fjöllum is formed from the meltwater of the great glacier Vatnajökul. This huge slab of ice sits atop the volcanic mountains of southern Iceland; the river pours directly off its northern slopes, before sliding off northwards across the stony plain of the Icelandic interior. It snakes across the entirety of the island, to eventually enter the sea on the northern coast- by which time it has earned the title of longest river in the country.
However great the Jökulsá may now be, however, it is but a shadow of its former self. Between 5100BC and the birth of Christ, a higher rate of volcanic activity beneath the glacier caused periodic surges of meltwater to burst forth, rolling down the valley of the Jökulsá to the sea. These great floods are called Jökulhlaups, and versions of them still occur in the present day. These prehistoric ones, however, were far more powerful than anything in recorded history; at their peak, they briefly increased the flow of the Jökulsá to the point where it equalled that of the Amazon River. Just think about that for a moment; the largest river on earth, that drains half a continent, equalled in its flow by a torrent of water unleashed from an ice-sheet by an eruption of fire. The impact of this jaw-dropping flood crashing into the northern plains carved out the walls of the Canyon; the modern Jökulsá curls its way through a smaller, secondary gorge that has subsequently eroded its way into the floor of the first. Comparing the two allows the mind to grasp something of the magnitude of the older, proto-Jökulsá.
The journey I made down the Canyon commenced at Dettifoss; a waterfall that is, by virtue of the enormous volumes of meltwater that pulse through it, still the most powerful on the European continent. Although only a bare dirt track leads to its sides, the route is nonetheless plied by a bus for visitors; making it an ideal place to start or finish the route.
Just north of Dettifoss, the path drops over a cliff-face, down which it is necessary to swing using a fixed rope. There is a by-pass path available, but this takes you around a stretch of broken layers of volcanic rock and black sand-dunes that should really not be missed. Walking through them feels like taking a stroll through the land of Mordor…
From here, the path follows close by the side of the river for a little distance, passing by a second great waterfall called Hafragilsfoss. The cliffs along either side are lined with basalt columns, the eroded fragments of which volcanic rock form the black sands of the region.
After a little way, the path begins to clamber up the cliffs at the side of the Canyon. It cuts across a number of defiles, where springs pour out of the slopes. Their waters are charged with nutrients drawn from the volcanic soils, and their banks are lined with lush vegetation. Only a few feet away from the nourishing waters, however, the overwhelming bleakness of the environment reasserts itself, and the plants fade away.
At certain points, minerals can be seen seeping from the rocks into the water, staining them bright, chemical hues.
For the next few miles from here, the path runs through a region called Holmatungur. This stretch is lusher, well-watered by streams; greenery grows thickly around the basalt cliffs.
The conditions are mild enough for thickets of dwarf-birch to form, lining the streams with miniature forests.
Beyond the greenery of Holmatungur, commences the region known as Vesturdalur (Western Valley). Here the slopes become rockier once again; and this time, strange outcroppings start to appear. The land becomes contorted, with surreal pinnacles of distorted basalt climbing toward the sky, the relic of some highly irregular tectonic processes of the past. They represent the legacy of the frenzied interaction of lava and water, as the cold flow of the enormous proto-Jokulsa hammered into minor eruptions as they bubbled up from the earth.
Unusual colours start to appear on the fringes of the valley; bright reds and deep blacks, evidence again of unusual mineral intrusions. The two pillars are, according to legend, the petrified bodies of two trolls caught by the dawn whilst waiting to cross the Jökulsá.
At this point the path draws close to the campsite of Vesturdalur; a spot accessible by road, which allows tourists to visit the most bizarre of the rock formations in the canyon. This section is known as Hljóðaklettar; the ‘Echoing Rocks’. Hurling a shout into this strange environment quickly reveals the origin of the name, as the warped stone of the walls catches it, twists it, and sends it spinning back to you as a peculiarly transformed version of its former self. Sound multiplies here, eerily.
Viewed close up, the strange bubbles and pulses of lava can almost be picked out in the rocks. Layers of basalt columns have tried to form, but they grow in unusual directions, in circles and curves. Certain points are visible where the lava cooled around a bubble of gas, which subsequently burst and left behind an empty spheroid of stone. To the earliest settlers, it must have appeared the work of a mad god.
I stopped for the night in the Vesturdalur campsite. Wild-camping is, tragically, prohibited in Iceland’s National Parks. I thought long and hard about breaking this rule, but decided in the end that I should respect the laws; it would have felt wrong to break the laws of such a welcoming nation. Still, it was frustrating to have to pitch my tent on a grassy field, surrounded by other people, when there was so much spectacular nature so close by. Had I the option of spending the night anywhere in the vicinity, I suspect I would have chosen here…
The next morning, I climbed up on to what was to prove one of the most remarkable stretches of the whole route. Passing through this environment, it seemed that god was not simply an artist, but a surrealist one. Some unimaginable geological process had left a vertical wall of thin rock, soaring up before the brightly-coloured summit known as Raudholar (the “Red Hill”). So smooth were its sides and so uniform its thickness, it seemed more a relic of archaeology than nature- until closer inspection revealed it was formed of a single sheet of fused stone far beyond the technical abilities of any race, ancient or modern, to shape. It must at some point have formed the exterior of an enormous bubble of lava- the impact of the bursting of which must have been felt across the whole region. Its remnants, now entangled by dwarf-forest, are one of the more bizarre natural sights I have seen.
The Red Hill itself was no less unworldly. It is a mound of volcanic scoria, half-red, half-black, that sits perched atop the cliff-wall of the canyon. Gazing down into the depths, jagged columns of volcanic extrusions can be seen jutting out of the rising mass; evidence of tectonic forces still actively at work.
North from Raudholar, the path describes a long northward arc, following the canyon wall. The drop-off is steeper here than in most of the earlier stages, allowing broader vistas to open out.
The height of the cliffs is a constant reminder of the tremendous volumes of water they once contained…
The final portion of my route took me away from the main body of the canyon, to a subsidiary formation that lies just to the west. This is a great, horse-shoe shaped arc walled by cliffs, that was carved out by one of the major Jökulhlaups of the past. Subsequent changes in the land caused the stream of the river to shift further to the east, and this broad canyon was left largely dry. In time, it filled with trees; and today, one of northern Iceland’s few major native forests still lies here, sheltered from the inclement weather by the high surrounding walls. This is the place called Ásbyrgi; one of northern Iceland’s most famous sights, easily accessible by road. Arriving at it from the south, on foot, does however provide a more dramatic introductory view…
The Vikings who first settled Ásbyrgi explained away its shape by alleging that the foot of the steed of their supreme god, Odin, hit the earth here as he galloped across the skies, leaving an enormous print behind. The walls of the cliffs are where the outer edge of his hoof bit the rock; the interior plateau, the gap in the in-step. There is infrastructure for visitors here now, nestling in the mythic landscape; an explanatory centre, campsite and restaurant. The trails around it are still well-worth exploring, for all that they attract a greater footfall than the canyon further south- it is the striking nature of the landscape that draws the visitors in.
Now; to conclude… This may be a slightly cliched way to close a post on Iceland, but the landscape of Ásbyrgi is showcased to great effect in the following video. The music, for all that it may have been rather over-played, does still remain beautiful. This is from the live DVD ‘Heima’, by Sigur Rós, and shows a concert played in the summer in the heart of the canyon. It should finish proceedings in a slicker way than my amateurish photography can manage. This is how northeastern Iceland looks at the height of the summer; in my experience, it is also how it feels as well. Enjoy…
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