What do the French Revolution, national bard of Scotland Robert Burns, and Iceland all have in common? The answer is Laki—a volcanic fissure in the south of Iceland that was responsible for an eight-month long eruption that began in June 1783 and ultimately, the deaths of thousands of people worldwide. In other words, the perfect location for a lovely countryside jaunt.
Early start (again…)
Laki, which is actually a mountain bisected by the Lakagígar volcanic fissure, is located in the Highlands and is therefore only accessible during the summer and only by 4WD. One of the best, and more relaxing ways to see the area—if you don’t fancy stressful river navigations in your rental car— is to book a super jeep tour. Also, then you can tell all your friends you’ve been in a super jeep.
Our tour set off from Kirkjubæjarklaustur at 8:45am, which unfortunately for us meant leaving Reykjavík at 5am. I think my editors are under the impression that I don’t require sleep (see also: my article on climbing Hvannadalshnúkur), which I would like to make clear is decidedly not the case. Luckily, the meeting point was the gas station, meaning we could load up on more than enough caffeine and pylsur to satisfy even the hangriest of journalists, and pick up a packed lunch for the long day ahead.
The drive from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to the base of Laki takes just over an hour, during which our knowledgeable driver pointed out local sites and explained the history of what was one of the largest eruptions on record. During the eruption, 14 km3 of basalt lava was produced, which, if you’re not great at visualising these things, is a fucking lot. In addition to this, a bunch of very unpleasant gasses were released into the atmosphere, creating a mist known as the ‘Laki Haze’ which floated over Europe causing widespread disease, crop failure and famine. It is this effect that is credited with instigating the French Revolution and, more weirdly, Robert Burns’ poetic output. But some impacts of the disaster were far more obvious. An estimated 25% of Iceland’s human population and 75% of animals were wiped out in the aftermath of the eruption.
Driving through the lava fields, it is easy to get a sense of the scale of the catastrophe. It’s also easy to see how life returns to an area once devastated by lava flow, as the bumpy plains are covered with soft, pale green moss, lending the landscape Iceland’s characteristic other-worldly feel.
At the base of Laki mountain we were greeted by a friendly ranger. The area in which the fissure is located now forms part of the huge Vatnajökull National Park, so guides are on hand at various points to provide visitors with information and to make sure the rules are adhered to. These are, predominantly, stick to the goddamn trails. I’m looking at you, Justin Bieber.
The first hike of the day was to the top of Laki. The path was at times steep and slippery but well maintained, with crude stone steps placed along some of the more challenging stretches. Hiking boots are essential, but the trail is suitable for less experienced walkers. The view from the top takes in both Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers, as well as the 25km long chain of craters that make up the eruption site. The weather in the Highlands can be quite erratic, but although the wind was punishing, the sky was clear and we were blessed with excellent visibility.
From Laki we made our way through the Highlands towards the south, stopping at various points for short hikes and photo opportunities. My favourite walk was around the water-filled Tjarnargígur crater. The bright blue lake against the surrounding dark volcanic rock and pale moss looked incredible.
But the final stop of the day was by far the most famous, and that’s thanks to a completely different type of natural disaster. The beautiful Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon has become one of the most photographed places in Iceland in recent years, and all because of one particular man-child and his penchant for traipsing through rivers in his underwear. That’s right, Justin Bieber, I’m still looking at you. After the Biebs’ famous video for ‘I’ll show you’, tourists flocked to the valley to check out the celebrity spot. As a result, much of the surrounding landscape has been damaged by the sudden rise in foot traffic and park authorities had to rush to build proper trails and fences. Fjaðrárgljúfur is the only place in Iceland where I have seen barbed wire, which is pretty sad. Some things are just not worth a selfie, kids.
The drive back to Kirkjubæjarklaustur was a short one, during which our guide, seemingly having run out of volcano facts, regaled us with tales of celebrities he had ferried about in the jeep. Even more of an incentive to take the tour, if you particularly want to have the opportunity to have sat in the same vehicle as Anne Hathaway.
We finished off the day with a well-deserved pizza in Systrakaffi, because it is a well-known rule that all volcanic adventures should end with pizza. And besides, as I have made abundantly clear, nobody likes a hangry journalist.
Distance from Reykjavík: 226 km
How to get there: Take route 1 south, turn onto route 26 and then routes 208 and 235
Tour provided by: secreticeland.com/
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