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Wild Iceland: situation normal… well almost!

Sunday, 13th July 2014

Destination Specialist

iceland west snaefellsjokull autumn rth

This report was sent direct from Iceland during the volcanic eruptions by our Product Assistant, Emma Putnam. Dated Friday 16 April 2010.

Adventures ahead!

On April 12th 2010, I set off from Heathrow with my parents for a holiday to Iceland which would prove unforgettable for so many reasons… Quite apart from the natural highlights that Iceland has to offer; namely Geysir and Gullfoss and the beautiful rugged coastline of Snaefellsnes.

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is in so many ways a microcosm of the entire island, and was to be a great introduction to Iceland for my parents! My aim was to squeeze as many highlights as possible into a three night stay at Snaefellsnes. If you don´t have the time to visit the whole island then this is my ‘top tip’ place to visit.

Aside from the scenery, the outstanding cuisine centered on freshly caught fish and spring lamb; delicious! However our visit to Snaefellsnes was just the start of our adventure; we would be on the island during one of the most extensive eruptions in recent times.

Hearing the news

Our first indicator that something had happened came on 14 April, when I left my parents having breakfast and popped down to reception to check on our car hire arrangements. The kindly receptionist informed me that I would be going nowhere this morning!

I looked at him bemused, he showed me a couple of early images on an Icelandic news website, and told me that there had been another eruption, this time under the Eyjafallajokull glacier. This had been accompanied by a number of earth tremors through the night, although I hasten to add that we didn’t feel them. All tours and travel to the south of Iceland had been suspended, flights out of Keflavik too. I explained that we were heading to Snaefellsnes on the West Coast and he said we would probably be OK.

At this stage we had no idea of the scale or extent of the disruption which would follow. We duly completed our car hire paperwork at the Europcar outlet in Reykjavik, explained to a very helpful chap what we were planning to do, and headed off for our first stop, the mighty Gullfoss waterfalls.

En route we stopped briefly at Kerid, a huge volcanic crater, with a pool of water at the bottom; a glimpse of the magnitude of volcanic activity on this fascinating island. On arrival at Gulfoss, the sun peered in and out from the clouds and we were treated to a momentary rainbow display in front of the waterfall (something Mum had been wishing for, having read in our guide book that if we were lucky this might happen).

Next stop was Geysir where we saw Strokkur, which seemed particularly frisky, shooting water high into the sky far more frequently than the usual 4-6 minutes. Perhaps this was a side effect of the subterranean rumblings on this island of fire and ice?

The power of the planet

Upon visiting these two remarkable sights we agreed that it illustrated just how powerful the earth really is; quite a humbling thought to realise that we were surrounded by active volcanic systems on all sides. We left this area and headed towards the second stage of our holiday, a three night stay on the north side of Snaefellsnes peninsula. How fortuitous that when making our holiday plans we had decided upon Snaefellsnes instead of the South Coast; our story could have been so very different otherwise.

We had even thought about taking a super jeep safari to Fimmsvorhudals (the first eruption fissure) on our second night in Iceland, which would have meant we may have been close by at the very time of the eruption. Isn’t it strange how it seems everything happens for a reason! That might have been just a little too close for comfort even for an adventurous family like us!

Reaching Snaefellsnes

So back to our story, we drove through an underwater tunnel, across a bridge and along two causeways in order to reach our destination. We were blown away by some superb views of the Snaefellsjokull glacier as we made our way to the northern coast of the peninsula. In fact our frequent photo stops meant that on arrival at Hotel Framnes, our hosts, Shelagh and Gistli were a little concerned that we had encountered a problem en route as we had taken longer than they had anticipated!

Over a mouth watering dinner of gravadlax, monkfish tails and fresh homemade ice cream we learnt a little more about the effects of the eruption nearly 24hrs before; there was concern growing about the cloud of ash which had been forced out of the glacier during the eruption. We watched the news and although it was in Icelandic, a little deciphering of photos and my understanding of a few words meant that we could follow the events unfolding.

Considering the potential gravity of the situation, all the people interviewed who were on the front line (the police, fire service and evacuees) were incredibly calm and matter-of-fact about the whole event. The eruption had started, they were prepared, and they had measures in place to deal with the consequences, one of the main ones being the risk of flooding.

We had been told earlier that the large Markafljot river had increased in depth by nearly 2 metres, also that they were sacrificing the road (Route 1) by making holes in it in order to divert the jokulhaups (glacial flooding) away from the bridges. We heard that pieces of ice the size of small houses were breaking off and being carried away from the glacier. This was, literally speaking, just the tip of the iceberg!

Exploring Iceland – ‘situation normal’

After a great night’s sleep we set off reasonably early the next morning as there is so much to see on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. We had talked through the highlights and where we might like to visit with Nicola from Hotel Framnes, so after breakfast we set off armed with with our annotated map. What would happen today, what would we see? Suffice to say that we saw plenty even though the weather was a little disappointing.

I learnt last year during my time as a camping guide in Iceland that there is never bad weather, just bad clothing. Luckily I had instilled this ethos into my parents before we had even left the UK, and we were able to enjoy what Snaefellsnes offered despite the lack of sunshine.

In fact for me personally, the wild side of Iceland is truly exposed in these conditions; the view of the dramatic and stark basalt cliffs with the sea lashing at the base, the breakers in the distance and the wind whistling around my ears is an experience which will stay with me forever.

At one point, I looked back across the path we’d walked in the North West corner of the peninsula, and saw our hire car, parked next to the lighthouse with the rocky lava terrain through which we had walked stretching out on all sides. My first thought was that surely this would be a great car advert and a marketing team’s dream!

News reaches us even in the remotest landscape

So we come to the time when I think we all realised just what a global effect the recent events in Iceland were having. We had just eaten lunch after our hike and thought for the first time we would try and see if we could tune into a radio station in the car. We suddenly tuned into something in English and looking at the frequency realised it was BBC World Service! As dad drove through the lava field, we felt we were in complete isolation in the Icelandic nature.

Through the patchy reception the voice suddenly became clear… we immediately stopped the car to listen to the world news headlines at 2 o’clock: “an ash cloud caused by a major volcanic eruption in southern iceland has caused all UK and Northern European airports to close and all flights using this airspace have been temporarily suspended, causing misery for thousands of travellers.”

We all looked at each other and then there was the realisation of just what an event we were experiencing. The offer of some temporary work if we became stuck in Iceland, that Gisli the Hotel Manager had made in jest this morning, was seeming more of a reality!

Note Emma, her parents, and a group of our passengers travelled back to Glasgow airport on 20 April 2010.