Next morning we were back on the road (eventually!), heading further into the highlands, with the Askja mountain as our target. The day didn’t start out as nice as we’d been lucky enough to have until that point, it was more like what we expected of Iceland in September I suppose - grey and overcast, misty rain and occasional proper showers. We stopped after a while at a lively looking river with a small waterfall. I decided to stay in the warm and dry in the
cab and Jason went for a little explore.
The road took a fair few twists and turns over a lava field, then over the obligatory corrugations, eventually bringing us to a little huddle of huts at the base of Askja, and about 8km from the mountain itself. The huts are technically a campsite with facilities, but they’re more suited to those who want to share bunk accommodation - there's no electrical hookup for example, for campers. But still, it gave us a good base, there was fresh water as well as a nice Ranger lady on hand to share her knowledge of the surrounding hills and roads.
Seeing as we’d made it there with plenty of daylight left, we decided to follow the road to it's dead end, up the hill towards the hikers starting point for the summit, and walk as far as a natural hot spring called ‘Viti’ (Icelandic for ‘hell’!), which is on the edge of a lake inside a caldera. This final section of road was built in 1962, in the spring following the eruptions in the October of the previous year. Apparently when the engineers and road builders arrived the lava was still warm in places, with pockets of soft rock that needed to be avoided! Mad to think that after 6 months through an Icelandic winter, the lava would still be hot enough for the workers to keep their tea warm while they dug...
It's a crazy road, and you have to wonder why on earth the builders thought one was necessary - the lava fields either side aren’t nice, smooth, flat expanses of rippled rock - it's jagged, rough, crumbly looking stuff, much of it in tubes that have partially collapsed on themselves, others looking like they want to. The road twists and turns through the most unwelcoming looking stuff I’ve ever seen.
But happily there's a car park at the top and it's then a couple of kilometres gentle stroll over to Viti, which is a hot spring lake on the side of a much larger lake inside Askja. Askja is a volcanic crater, and the lake inside it is the deepest of it's kind in Iceland. To get there you walk up and over the side of a massive caldera, and down into the middle. The caldera was formed in 1875 when a huge magma chamber under the mountain erupted, emptied itself all over the surrounding countryside and then it's roof promptly collapsed in on itself. If you think of a typical pointy volcano shape, chop off the top section and scoop out the middle, that's essentially what you walk across to get to the lakes. It's a weird and slightly unsettling sensation too - partly knowing that this is a long way from an extinct or even dormant area - following the massive eruption in 1875, there have since been blow outs in 1921-29 (that was a long one!), as well as the one in 1961. Then there's the surface itself you’re walking on - the terrain is similar to that which the road was built across, so lots of lumps and bumps, crags and gulleys, all overlaid with a layer several meters deep of volcanic crunchy stuff. It's not ash as such, and it's all smaller than pebbles - it's kind of like the multi coloured stuff you get to put in the bottom of a fish tank, apart from the fact it's all black. So little tiny lightweight stones on top of viscously sharp crumbly lava field, riddled with tubes waiting to collapse at any moment - there's a distinct sensation of ‘hollow’ under every step you take! You somehow always expect the ground under your feet to be solid, but this definitely is not...
Happily though we made it across safe and sound, and didn’t crash down through the roof of any decaying lava tubes. We did step quite gingerly across several wetter sections though, knowing how easily such surfaces can be eroded by trickily little streams... Just because there's footprints from walkers yesterday doesn't mean the ground hasn't been chewed away overnight and wasn’t ready to swallow us down into it's depths!
Neither one of us felt comfortable with the sensation of walking on the surface as it was, but we did kind of get used to it enough to walk properly, and eventually made it over to Viti - only to find that the sides were silly steep and slick with mud, and definitely not easy to get to. With the temperature just about hovering above freezing and the wind chill taking things down a notch or two, I was in no hurry to get smothered in muck, potentially slide all the way down to the waters edge and then thrash about for half an hour trying to fight my way back up to firmer ground. I was happy to mooch around on the top edge while Jason naturally couldnt resist the lure of getting dirty tried and his luck at slip-sliding his way to the waters edge. The ground itself was slick as ice but he had better luck stomping down along the course of a steep stream that was feeding into the lake - still too slippery for my liking but Jasons always more of a mountain goat than I am and seems to have unnaturally good balance for these sorts of things sometimes. He was soon down and out of sight, so I occupied myself with having a good worry, thinking about him maybe slipping down and breaking something or not being able to get back up again, or maybe making it as far as the water and having a paddle just in time to coincide with a spike of volcanic activity that instantly raised the temperature of the water and boiled his legs off. You know, good all round wholesome worry-fodder :-)
Obviously I needn’t have worried, Jason is more than capable of taking care of himself and all I had to really worry about was getting a bit bored and cold hanging around waiting for him. He does love a good explore and the next time I saw him he’d scrambled his way back up out of the lake and was heading off in the opposite direction to me, just to have a look and see what was over the next hill. Should have brought myself a stool and a flask of tea or something...
Once he made it to the bottom he was apparently half tempted to have a little swim, but the air temperature was a little too low, although the water was definitely warm. Our guidebook mentioned it was not a good idea to touch to the bottom of the lake as it could be dangerously hot as a result of the volcanic activity going on below it which kept the water bubbling away - Jason was happy to report that on touching the bottom, it was not dangerously hot at that time :-) Good job he was only able to touch the bottom at the edge, who knows where his experimentation will lead him one day!
With the light starting to fade, Jason clambered his way back up to me and we started the walk back to Moglet. We still had 8km to get back to Moglet and streetlights are not really something you see too much of out here.
With the last of the sunlight behind us as we walked, it made me feel really small to think what looked like mountains surrounding us on all sides was actually the edge of the huge caldera. With patchy snow on all the highest points sitting against the blackness of the rocks themselves, it looked like we were surrounded by a massive ring of circling Orcas. At least, that's what I thought anyway - Jason didn’t quite see it that way :-)