It’s 7:15 on a cold December morning, a horrific time to be out of the house whichever way you swing it. But there is good reason; intrepid Grapevine photographer Alísa Kalyanova and I are embarking on a tour of the Lake Mývatn area and its many delights. After an uneventful forty-minute flight from Reykjavík to Akureyri, the capital of the north, we meet our guide for the day, Þórður Björn Steinke or Björn for short. He guides us to the van that would protect us from the cold for most of the trip.
We make our way through three mountain passes to our first stop at a farm, where we head swiftly into the warmth of a workshop and then a high-tech cow milking facility. After watching the milking, petting some newborn calves and meeting some rad dogs, we head back to the van. It is 11:00 and the sun is only just making an appearance.
Next up is Goðafoss (“Waterfall of the Gods”), which Björn told us was so named because lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði Þorkelsson hurled statues of Norse gods into it upon converting Iceland to Christianity in 1000 AD. We trudge through knee-deep snow to get a closer look at the waterfall—half of it is frozen whilst the other half is a crushing mass of water, howling as it plunges towards Skjálfandafljót river below.
At this point the screen of my phone decides that it will freeze in solidarity with my surroundings and I feel a bit under-dressed. We rush back to the van before the cold takes hold properly and advance into the overwhelming white expanse, which is occasionally punctuated by farms and houses. Few people seem willing to venture outdoors on a day like today.
Stopping at a vantage point overlooking Mývatn (“Midge Lake”) so named due to the fly’s prevalence during the summer, the wind rages and tears at the skin. Time to put on my gloves! Björn informs us that the temperature is -18 C and my fingers on my left hand inform me that I should have put gloves on sooner. It takes them a good thirty minutes to feel normal again.
The snow covers much of what makes Mývatn impressive and as it stands it’s just a lake surrounded by snow… and lava pillars and pseudo craters. So not exactly shabby! As the journey continues along the now barely visible road, Mývatn on one side and lava pillars and walls on the other, I begin to cheer up. My fingers are regaining feeling, and our next stop will be at Dimmuborgir (“Dark Cities”) followed by food at a nearby café.
Walking down a slope, surrounded by bushes that look like over-sized snowflakes, we make the first footprints in the snow. At the bottom we enter Dimmuborgir, so called because the lava pillars and walls resemble the wreck of an old city. It is an incredible sight. The solidified lava reaches towards the sky, about ten metres high—evidence of a churning, popping, burning creation of land some 2000 odd years ago. Back in the café it is easier to see how gigantic the lava flow that created Dimmuborgir and the surrounding landscape must have been.
Fully fed and fuelled with two jólabjór (Iceland’s special Christmas beer), we set off; ten minutes down the road I need a toilet. It will be a good two hours before I can find relief.
Time to look at a crack. Ok, technically it’s a rift—the point at which two tectonic plates are being pulled apart—so it’s a pretty impressive ‘crack’. It seems to stretch into infinity in both directions. Were it not so snowy I would probably have been that idiot who jumps back and forth over it shouting “look, I’m in America…now I’m in Europe” ad infinitum ad reductio ad absurdum.
Our penultimate stop, the bubbling pools, is the coldest part of our trip. The wind is ravaging now, blustering up snow into our faces, tearing at the seams of our clothes, anxious to attack our skin. I think how it must have been for those settling Iceland. They didn’t exactly have access to modern clothing technology. They must have been brutes. We on the other hand are kinda pathetic—afraid of the elements, molly-codled, a phobic lump.
The Final Hurdle
As we head towards our final destination, Björn shows us geothermal plants used to harness Iceland’s natural resources, a ski-slope down the side of a volcano and an art installation, which is a shower next to a toilet. By now my bladder is screaming. The shower works, the toilet does not. Just my luck.
The last stop is a nature pool. They have a toilet! After my dash to the toilet we are told that we can go in the pool. Appropriate attire can be borrowed. A fellow traveller accepts. Happy sharing, buddy. Alísa and I are told how lava bread is made, eat Christmas skyr and enjoy the view. Jólabjór is also for sale. I am tempted, but my bladder shouts at me to learn from my mistake and sensibly I heed its advice. There is always jólabjór back in Reykjavík.
Lake Mývatn daytour was provided by Air Iceland. You can book the tour at www.airiceland.is or call +354-5703000