Exciting Eyjafjallajökull in a Super-Jeep!

On the first part of the journey, I was looking at all the mountains and valleys

Just when you’d dismissed me as some boring English major who thinks shuffling through museums represents the apotheosis of a good time, I joined five other intrepid thrill-seekers on a super-jeep excursion up to the unpronounceable volcano that spawned an awful lot of irritation, delay, and cancelled airline trips back in 2010.

First things first, straight from the mouths of Icelanders: It’s pronounced AyA-Fee-yala-yoh-KUll. It’s easier when you break it down into syllables, said the English teacher. 

Looking up above the fissure, surrounded by misty mountain peaks. Peter Jackson scoped out Iceland prior to filming “The Lord of the Rings,” but chose his home country of New Zealand instead.

I purchased two trips from Reykjavik Excursions. The Northern Lights trip was cancelled due to heavy fog (sigh), but the next day, inspired by watching far too many back-to-back episodes of Top Gear, I was able to go see the “aftermath” of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption in the somewhat claustrophobic backseat of a “heavily-modified” super-jeep, driven by a Swede, oddly, considering we were in Iceland.

“Heavily-modified” seems to mean that, like a Humvee, the tires inflate and deflate according to what kind of terrain you find yourself traversing. (It also means that the back windows only open via hydraulic controls at the discretion of the driver, not the back seat passenger with claustrophobia and incipient car sickness.)

‘Is’ is Icelandic for ice. Now you know.

Our driver’s driving was very uncharacteristic for the Swedes, since most driving in Sweden makes your grandmother look like a Formula One racing pro, but maybe he was inspired by the fact that the south part of the island’s ring road, Route 1, is sometimes destroyed by sudden massive floods caused by geothermal heat and volcano eruptions melting ice under Iceland’s inland icecaps.

So we’re already excited, even before we get to the volcano, because we’re speeding on roads that could dissolve underneath us any minute, just like in a disaster movie.

Glaciers are all part of the drama of Eyjafjallajokull

The view out my expansive back window primarily consisted of extremes in topography. Volcanic lowlands very quickly became volcanic peaks. I very much wanted to be able to stop and get out at this point in the journey to photograph the Icelandic horses, grazing on oddly compressed grasslands with the consistency of moss and the color of wheat, but I doubted the Swede would allow detours. He’d been a little snarky about my request to use the toilet before the trip began. “Okay, but only if you’re quick,” he’d said, repressively.

We were allowed to descend from our Humvee-wannabe at Selfoss, a wide spot in the road with a gas station and fast food restaurant that sells my new favorite food, Skyr.

In lieu of breakfast and lunch, since the Swede frowned on the need for sustenance, I gobbled down an entire container of the thick, creamy yogurt-like substance, vaguely aware that creamy goo and bumpy back roads leading to volcanoes don’t really go together all that well.

This thought began to haunt me as soon as we made the sharp turnoff after Selfoss, where we left civilization, the asphalt ended, and the amusement park ride began. From this point on, we headed inland toward the “aftermath of the volcano,” as the tour brochure so dramatically put it. The “aftermath” of the volcano created gravel, dirt, thick black sand, and uneven tracks the driver was careful to follow.

Close-up of the glacier, looking very much like blue-green marble

I remained in the jeep while one of the passengers took the following video. As I said to the driver, who worked very hard to give us an exciting day, I wouldn’t miss this trip for the world. If you think it looks exciting from the outside, it’s a hell of a lot of fun inside the vehicle, trust me. It’s like going on a roller coaster ride, except better, since this isn’t Disneyland, it’s Iceland, where the special effects are all supplied by nature.

http://youtu.be/euOPuFUafTQ

At no point were we actually in any danger, as far as I know, but the cool thing about this “ride,” as we came to think of it, is that you feel as though danger is imminent. I’m pretty sure the Swede encouraged us to think this, as he inflated or deflated tires, plowing through deep and deeper rivers formed by melting snow and ice, taking us closer and closer to the volcano’s original point of eruption.

This fissure, where the volcano spewed forth its pyroclastic flow, was much narrower prior to the eruption.

He’d stop the jeep at various points, so that we could get out and take our photographs. We paused to appreciate the green-blue glow of the glacier, and the gash in the side of the mountain that widened during the eruption, and to get a sense of how vast and barren the surrounding windswept plain really is.

Prior to the eruption, this was a lake, if you can believe it

Just when we thought we were as close to the volcano’s source as we could possibly get, we descended further, crawling carefully over black rock and boulder-strewn terrain on what we all said was an impossible journey, yet down we continued, to the floor of the volcanic basin. Our driver said he got us as close as he dared.

Skógafoss, one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland.

Even though we didn’t see any living magma or anything bright red and molten, it was a thrilling day, easily the most exciting I’ve had since I went class four white water rafting some years ago.

It is fairly exhausting to be jostled for six hours in the back of a jeep, yet it was great fun, creating memories we’ll have for a lifetime. On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at a glorious waterfall, and had the good fortune of sun shining at just the right angle to create misty rainbows.

Since Iceland is, technically, splitting apart (the widening North American and Eurasian tectonic plates bisect Iceland, a land of extremes where your life is constantly in danger, it seems) if you’re on the fence about visiting, I’d suggest you go soon.

In May, the United Kingdom’s energy minister is due in Iceland to discuss sale of electricity produced with geothermal energy to the UK via high-voltage cables across the ocean floor. Visit now before the tectonic plates tear the country apart, or it becomes so rich from international geothermal energy deals it turns into the Saudi Arabia of the far north and becomes entirely unaffordable.

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