As the ferry Herjólfur enters the narrow opening into the harbour of Heimaey at night, the sight of Ystiklettur and Heimaklettur cliffs leave you awe-struck. They were formed by volcanic eruptions during the last ice age, around ten to twelve thousand years ago. The moment you step out of the small ferry house, the island greets you with an intense smell of fish. Luckily, it only pervades the harbour.
Vestmannaeyjar (“Westman Islands”) were born out of subaquatic volcanic eruptions along a 30 km long fissure. They were named after the Irish slaves that were brought to Iceland by the first settlers who believed Ireland to be the westernmost island before discovering Iceland. The slaves fled mainland Iceland to Vestmannaeyjar, about seven kilometres off the south shore of Iceland, after killing their owner, Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson, brother-in-law of Iceland’s first settler Ingólfur Arnarson. Heimaey, which is seven by four kilometres, is the largest island of Vestmannaeyjar. Home to about 4.200 people, it’s also the only one of the Westman Islands that is inhabited.
Warming up on an active volcano
Our guide suggests a hike up Eldfell, a volcano that erupted in January 1973 and forced the entire population of Heimaey to evacuate the island. During the five-month eruption, Heimaey grew by 2,2 square kilometres and buried large parts of the town under four metres of lava and ash. To save the harbour, tonnes and tonnes of seawater were pumped on the moving hot lava.
Now, the east part of the island is covered in black lava. Signs point out which street lies 16 metres beneath you and whose house is buried there. Currently, some houses are being excavated; this archaeological site is referred to as ‘the Pompeii of the North.’ As we walk across the lava field, I keep thinking that I am walking on buried houses and streets that were once full of life.
The hike up Eldfell is not too steep and all the way up we stop for the amazing view; it’s a clear day and even the Reynisdrangar sea stacks off the coast of Vík are visible. At the top, beautiful lava rock formations amaze us all over. And again, the geological forces underneath us are just inconceivable. We dig into the lava stones, and just a few centimetres underground we are already able to warm up our fingers. One metre beneath us, the volcano still has a temperature of 470°C.
During the summer, Ruth Zohlen, who runs the lovely Hreiðrið Guesthouse, likes to bake bread in the volcano; it only takes 20 minutes she tells us. She even prepared bread for Hillary Clinton once, and you can read her thank you letter in her kitchen. A visit to Ruth and her lovely pet puffin will be worth your while.
Winds at 29 m/s will bring you down
The next recommended stop is a lava cave south of Eldfell. During our lunch break, the sky darkened and a strong wind picked up to 29 m/s. We have a hard time finding the place, and as soon as we step on some ice patches, the wind knocks us to the ground. All in all it is a pretty adventurous hike that leads us around the crater of the sleeping Helgafell volcano.
We try going to the cave again the next day when the snow has melted and the sun is out. It’s a dark grey lava tube one can walk through with a very thin rooftop that has a hole in it. The porous lava doesn’t look too stable, but what is life without taking risks?
Before Eldfell and after Eldfell
While most of Iceland seems to label recent years as “Before Crash” and “After Crash,” the people on Heimaey still mostly speak about “Before Eldfell” and “After Eldfell.” The eruption has changed the lives of many islanders, as 1700 inhabitants never returned after the horrifying events of the night of January 23.
If you enter the gates to the cemetery, you can find a 2,5 metre tall statuette of a white angel standing atop the grave of Theódóra Þ. Jónsdóttir. Imagine this beautiful sculpture being buried in ash up to its hands, and you will realise how much the islanders had to work to make their home homely again.