Next morning we woke up to snow! Not much, but enough blowing around on the wind to get us both grinning like kids, despite the fiercely biting wind coming down off the mountains.
We’d decided to have a drive south to Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Iceland, covering more than 8% of the entire country. Not only is it a massive
lump of ice, but it's also home to several volcanoes underneath it's surface. Much of the time things are nice and quiet, but as you can imagine when a volcano under the ice decides to wake up, there's quite a bit of water produced, and it doesn't flow off in calm and reserved little trickles. In true Icelandic style, when something under the glacier goes pop, you get a massive explosion of water and ice and rock and mud and everything in between, blasting it's way downhill across the countryside, often reshaping things as it goes. And it's not as if these things are only a matter of conjecture and what might happen - the last one happened in 1996, wiping out a section of Route 1 (the main road around Iceland) with the house-sized boulders that were carried along by the flow.
Seeing as how there's no such thing as an extinct volcano on Iceland, not even a dormant one really, there's always the chance that something might happen. Activity in the glacier has been picking up, with relatively small scale eruptions as recently as May this year, so we were quite excited at the prospect of driving into such a hot spot region, as well as being able to get up close to the glacier itself.
We had a chat with Hrönn the Ranger first though and talked about our plans, checking what she thought and whether the weather forecast was ok for the next day or so, in case we decided to stay the night. The forecast looked ok so we decided to go for it, telling her we’d either see her later on the same day or if not, definitely the next day. There’s nothing she can do for something of Moglets size if we had a problem somewhere, but it was nice to know someone, somewhere knew of our plans. She also mentioned that if ever we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere and wanted things like a report on road conditions ahead or weather forecasts for a particular area we were in, we should call 112 - the emergency phone number in Iceland. It's odd really, I’d never in a million years dream of calling 999 in the UK and asking then what the road conditions are like on a route I planned on taking, but apparently that's common here in Iceland where things like whether the road is clear or if there's a storm blowing towards you can have much more serious repercussions than in the UK. Good to know.
From his photos you can see the snow whirling around, as well as the ice cave that you shouldn’t go into at this time of year - the cave houses a hot spring, and the warm air rising speeds the melting of the glacier and it's apparently far more common that you might think for house-sized lumps to fall off! Best time to go poking around is towards the end of winter when things are much more firmly locked in place. He was also equally impressed by the way that the black ash around the glacier covered the icy surface in places so effectively that you couldnt easily tell where the rock stopped and the ice started - particularly worrisome when you think about the number of hot springs in the area that are bubbling away all the time, eating away at the ice and just waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to some along and tread on a crust and break through, plummeting them down to who knows where!
But first we had to get there - back across the tedious corrugations, via a study wooden bridge constructed from some seriously large metal girders, and then across possibly the most bleakly barren terrain so far. The lava fields are pretty peculiar, but there's life peeking out of all the little nooks and crannies. The drive to the glacier was across an almost moon-like landscape of black ask and sand, through which a track of reddish stone and grit had been laid. No idea why red, or where the stone came from, but it did nothing other than contribute to the other-worldliness of the view, smudging in a bit of Mars along with the lunar views. And the light snowfall along with the wind made little piles of snow build up behind rocks, making the road markers look almost like cats eyes, the white show against the black sand.
All that dusty track naturally contributed to a little bit of build-up of dust on the inside of Moglets cab, which Jason was quick to deal with - it's the only place he does any dusting, but he does enjoy flicking that paintbrush about! I think we have our travels with Wolfgang and Renate in Morocco to thank for that one - Wolfgang uses a shaving brush to keep the sand off the dashboard in their Bremmy, and Jason was very impressed with the idea :-)
Eventually we made it to the glacier, although to be honest by this point the idea of walking through the gale and snow to have a look at a pile of ice was fast losing it's charm for me, so Jason wandered off for an explore on his own while I made some lunch.
Add to that the fact that the engine was sounding a little choppy, we were very much looking forward to parking up for the night, having a bit of dinner and crawling into bed.
Unfortunately, Moglet had other ideas.
Progressing on from sounding a little choppy, while we were driving up a short and shallow incline, the engine started to seriously struggle and then died completely. When the engine goes, so does any kind of steering assistance, so it's as much as Jason could do to keep her in a straight line while he brought her to a stop. Puzzled looks exchanged, we thought maybe the incline had caused her to have a brief break in fuel supply, thinking maybe the pipe that dips into the diesel tank had for a moment or two not been submerged. According to the fuel gauge there shouldn’t have been a problem, but just in case there was some other issue with the tank, Jason swapped over to a different one.
A few pumps of the accelerator and Moglet chugged back into life, coughing and spluttering a little, then she smoothed out and we shrugged in mild confusion and carried on. For a few kilometres anyway, until exactly the same thing happened. Once again, a few pumps on the accelerator, a turn of the key and we were away. And again, only for a couple of kilometres. By this point the snow was starting to settle, the sun had gone down and the light was fading fast. We were only about five kilometres from the camping hut and the Ranger, but even if it had only been 1km there's nothing she could have done to help us.
Poking around the tanks under Moglet, Jason had a look at the fuel filter and noticed there was a lot more air in there than there should have been - it's supposed to stop any water in the fuel getting to the engine, but air where there should be liquid is not a good thing. It looked like the main bolt that went up through the filter to secure it to Moglet was a bit loose, possibly causing Moglet to suck in air when she tried to suck diesel, so causing the spluttering and dying of the engine every time we went up a hill or Jason had to give things a bit of welly to get through some soft sand. Having identified a possible cause, Jason took the filter off to refill it with fuel siphoned out from the tank with a hand pump, then screwed it back into place whilst trying not to spill any diesel out of it, and ideally without any of the blowing snow getting in there either. Easier said than done when by this point he was working with a head torch, numb fingers and a Force who knows what blowing at him from behind.
But eventually Jason prevailed and the filled up, air free fuel filter was back in place, screwed on tight and Jason was back in the cab, blowing on his chilly hands to get them to warm up enough to drive. Tantalizingly close to the camp huts, we kept our fingers crossed as Jason turned the engine over...and she fired into life first time! Big grins of tentative relief all round, we wasted no time in getting rolling and closing the distance to dinner and bed. By this time it was pitch black, the show was blowing horizontally and if anything, the gusts seemed to be getting stronger. The only illumination came from our headlights as we inched our way along the track, or as close to it as we hoped we could be, as some of it was disappearing under drifting snow. Looking on the bright side though, the snow was smoothing out the corrugations, and Moglet was running smoother that she’d been running all day!
About 2km from the huts there was a small incline on a narrow section of track. Already chatting away about what to have for dinner, we both cut off our jabbering mid-sentence when the engine coughed, spluttered, coughed a bit more and then died. Right in the middle of the road. In the pitch black. And the howling gale with the snow. And this time, no amount of pedal pumping got the engine started.
With a small sigh, Jason put his waterproof jacket back on, fished out the head torch and clambered out into the storm. A minute or two later my cab door opened and Jason asked me if I could come out and help. I took a couple of minutes to get dressed up - putting enough layers on to stay warm takes a little while, but going out without doing it just end up with you being cold, wet and miserable.
Outside, it became clear that the fuel filter was once again holding way too much air :-(
Despite it being cold and dark and freezing cold outside, Jason was determined to have one last go at fixing whatever was wrong with the fuel feed. Further inspection of the filter showed him that not only had the main bolt through the casing been a bit loose, but so were the inlet and outlet pipes - seems like the vibrations from the corrugations are more troublesome than merely making for an uncomfortable ride.
With the jubilee clips tightened as much as they’d go, Jason clambered onto the front bumper, leant halfway inside the engine bay and then contorted his arm and hand to get at the fuel pump to manually move diesel throughout the system, whilst bleeding the air out. With me watching the fuel jiggle about in the filter as a result of his pumping efforts, it was quickly apparent that a lot of effort had to go into moving a very small volume of fuel, but he’s nothing if not determined once he gets going. Plus there was the added incentive that Moglets engine and batteries were still relatively warm at this point - if he couldn’t get her going soon we would have to stay where we were for the night and try again in the daylight the next day, when everything would have sat in the freezing cold all night and would maybe be a little bit more tricky to start as a result.
To add into the mix, I decided to take the Rangers advice and call 112 - partly to ask them to tell the Ranger not to expect us tonight and not to worry if she got reports from anyone else about a truck apparently stuck in the middle of the road a couple of kilometres from her hut. Also partly to ask their advice on weather - if we were going to wake up to horrendous conditions in the morning then we may as well carry on for as long as we could. But if it was looking more promising then maybe the best thing to do would be to call it a night and get into bed before either one of us got hypothermia.
Happily Jason didn’t fall through any crusts and resisted the urge to go inside the ice cave so didn’t get squashed like a Wicked Witch by any house-sized lumps, and once he was back to Moglet we had some food and started our way back to Askja for the night. The sky was looking a little ominous and as we got closer to the camping huts the snow started to fall again, with the strength of the wind making things blow pretty much horizontally, and creating some strange effects more like sand blowing on a beach.
Moglet was taking the full force of the wind broadside for much of the journey too, so we were rocking around like a little boat on the sea.
Despite what the Ranger had said, I was still a little bit nervous about making the call - it's drummed into you from an early age that the emergency phone lines are for exactly that, and not for anything else. I felt like I was calling 999 and making a Directory Enquiry or something. But as soon as I connected and explained the situation to the nice lady on the other end, she was more than happy to help. To paraphrase her words, they’d much rather help avoid an emergency than have to deal with one. And best of all, she said that the weather for the next day was looking to be much more settled, so feeling frustrated but too tired to do much more we decided to give Moglet one last chance at starting but to no avail, so we got into the back of Moglet and tried to get warm. Jasons hands and feet were like ice blocks despite all the thermal layers, and he didn’t stop shivering for ages but eventually, full of tea and hot soup we got into bed (fully clothed!) and waited for sleep. The wind was amazingly loud and persisted in shoving Moglet around for what seemed like hours, but eventually tiredness overcame us and we drifted off, wondering what would happen in the morning...