Volcanic Dip & Haunted Highways: Viti Crater at Askja, Iceland

“Swimming in a volcano?” you ask incredulously! “Haunted highways?” you ask mockingly! “Wow, she’s crazy!”

Uh…..yah….that’s right….I am almost embarrassed to tell the story about the haunted highway, but whatever. I can’t lie about it.

We just got to Askja from eastern Iceland after bouncing down ridiculous roads for four hours, which I have decided is not my favorite pastime. We passed through, and drove over and around and within, the jagged wreckage of countless volcanic eruptions that has formed this oppressive landscape over centuries. I can tell you, the drive to this godforsaken place, deep in the uninhabitable lavafields in Iceland’s formidable highlands, took 10 years off my life, and I still need to get out of here today. That means take 20 years off my life in total….gulp….I don’t have much longer to live, I guess.

That being said, we are going to quickly hike to this supposedly awesome volcanic crater in which we plan to take a dip. We hustle along taking in the sights as best we can as we hike to the Viti Crater. The landscape up on this volcanic Askja caldera here is very barren. I tell you, nothing grows up here…..nothing!

Viti Crater, Askja IcelandViti Crater, Askja Iceland
Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

The sort of trail on the caldera, that isn’t really a trail, leads us to the Viti Crater, and it crosses through a patch of slushy ice. There really isn’t a way to get around it.

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

We have to walk right through it. Lucky for me, my new hiking boots are waterproof. My feet feel cold when I step in the slush, but my socks don’t get wet. 

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Kristoff on the other hand gets a total soaker, and so does Tristan. 

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Jasmine seems to think it is the funniest thing in the world. Of course her new hiking boots are waterproof, too! Worth their weight in gold. Bjorn is pretty unhappy about his cold feet.

Viti Crater, Askja IcelandViti Crater, Askja Iceland

Well now, there it is…..I will tell you a bit of information about this place, just so it makes a little more sense. What you see here is the large Öskjuvatn Lake located in the middle of this ginormous Askja caldera. It fills in a huge crater that resulted from a massive volcanic roof collapse during an eruption in 1875. The water in this lake is frightfully cold, or so I have heard. Not for swimming, they say.

Interestingly, there is a tragic story about a mysterious disappearance of two men during a 1907 expedition at this lake while out in their boat. A third expedition member apparently was off completing another assignment nearby at the time and he survived. Perhaps the men drowned, no one knows. Perhaps they were murdered by the surviving companion, who can say? Some say they saw the men alive two weeks after the disappearance. Some say their ghosts still haunt Askja.

The fiancée of one of the ill-fated men traveled to Askja the following year, unable to accept his death and mysterious disappearance. I admire her resolve and tenacity. She traveled an incredible 1500 km on horseback, crossing hazardous rivers 100 times in her 11 week quest to find traces of her fiancée. May I remind you there is no grass up here for miles upon miles, which complicates horse travel.

The expedition included two Icelandic guides, her fiancée’s friend, and 20 horses loaded with equipment and supplies. Ultimately they were unable to find any more information about the missing men, but built for them a memorial that still stands today. Ultimately she came to accept that her lover would forever be lost in Öskjuvatn Lake, here in the unforgiving highlands of Iceland. Prior to leaving her betrothed forever, the heartbroken woman wrote in her diary:

“Few mortal men are consigned to such a majestic grave as the two who rest in this stately, bright mountain lake. Only kings need to dwell perpetually in their graves, where they are laid to earthly rest. Do those who rest in a golden sarcophagi of the Escarole Palace or the tombs of Egyptian pharaoh enjoy, in the human understanding, more serenity? Here, a peace of the greatest solemnity prevails on bright summer days and in the dark hours of winter – century after century.”

And indeed, the men have spent over a century in human time measures in their watery grave, in a place of great serenity and solemnity and peace. And the woman, no doubt, long since laid to rest in a place unknown, her heart no longer searching for answers.

“We had been searching in vain for material remnants,” she wrote. “But we learned how to feel a touch of eternity.”

And indeed, if there is a place that speaks to you of eternity, it is this place. It’s forever. And ever. I feel very small on the edge of creation, very near to the prolific forces that mold and shape the earth, very near to the earth and sky.

The stench in the air is what brings me back to the moment. I hear the kids gasping for air in an exaggerated manner. The smell that emanates here is akin to rotten eggs, which I guess should not be surprising. The deal is that if we go swimming in this water we will all stink like rotten eggs for the next many hours. Or….we could just take a shower down at the Askja campground…..yeah, maybe that’s what we will do….Jasmine plugs her nose to dull the obnoxious scent.

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

The stench is not coming from the crater lake, but rather from the Viti Crater, which is a secondary crater right next to the lake. This crater has filled with geothermal mineral rich water high in sulphuric content. This otherworldly crater is aptly named “Viti”, which in Icelandic means “hell”. Perhaps it’s a well suited name for a preternatural abyss that was created in a single colossal explosion in the year 1875 just after the initial explosion that created the lake.  This eruption sent debris blowing as far away as Denmark. In due course after the massive explosion, this secondary crater filled with water that is warmed by sulphurous vents, a sharp contrast to the lake with its icy waters.

Kristoff and I are the first to arrive. We marvel at the opaque water. I can’t wait to soothe my aching bones in the incredible crater!

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

The water in the Viti Crater is a milky blue. It’s actually quite beautiful in a surreal way. I don’t know if there are many places in this world where there is a crater within a crater, but here it is! And it’s a geothermal one at that!

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Dude…..I see someone swimming down there! I don’t think he has any clothes on!

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

There is a steep decline to the edge of the crater.

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

And then an even steeper decline into the crater itself. A sign warns people to stay in the wash, as walking on the outer edges can cause rock slides to occur. 

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Wow….that is steep! Is that guy dressed yet?

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Okay, I guess it is safe to come down now. Eek, Bjorn, don’t set that big round boulder rolling!

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

You can see some teenie tiny people up on the top edge of the crater.

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Well, what do you read in these expressions? We are here. Four hours of driving down crazy roads. One hour of hiking with icy wet shoes….and what do we have here? A smelly pool of milky water that we are supposed to go swimming in!?

“Don’t worry,” I tell them….”the water is warm! This is going to be fun!”  I have read it is supposed to be 25-30 degrees celsius.

I don’t think they are buying it. “Come on guys, look lively!”

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Kristoff tests the water…..”I am sorry, guys, this water is not very warm!”

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

What? I can’t believe it. I touch the water, too, and sure enough it is only lukewarm at best. And the temperature of the air is not that warm either, making for a bad combination for swimming.

Well, over my dead body will I not go swimming after all it took to get here! I inform everyone that it is imperative that they swim, one way or another. I will throw them in if I need to. And with that everyone covers with little scraps of towel and change into their swim wear.

So how is it to swim in a volcano? Honestly, I had been led to believe that the water is warmer than what we find it to be. It’s actually surprisingly cool when I dip in my toes. Ick…..it’s slimy on the bottom…..lucky I have my shoes on! I have an aversion to slimy!

With each step a cloud of brownish water takes over the milky blue, and sends ripples of brown towards the middle of the crater. We see steam rising in the distance from sulphurous vents, so we make our way over there, hoping that the water will be warmer. It’s very freaky not to be able to see where you are stepping. The water is far too cloudy to see through. It’s thick, too, almost like half & half cream, if you know what I mean.

I sit down close to the edge of the crater. When I submerge myself I feel like a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon of milky substance. I can hear little popping noises. Tiny bubbles of water pop and spit at me. The sulphuric vents upon which I rest my weary bones release welcomed random spurts of hot water. Little bubbles of hot water burn my skin intermittently, making me yelp or laugh, depending upon the intensity of the heat.

I look across the water and I can see little bubbles rising to the surface all over the crater. It reminds me of popcorn in a popcorn making machine….pop…..pop…..pop…..pop….. there must be sulphuric vents lining the whole crater. That in and of itself is quite freaky….I guess we are swimming in a very live volcano!

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

I know….you can’t go to a place like this without geeky family photos…..
Viti Crater, Askja IcelandViti Crater, Askja Iceland

While we are swimming some hikers come down to test the water. They decide they aren’t going swimming. Too bad for them. This is actually pretty cool. I mean, who swims in a volcano, much less a milky volcano?

Now that I am done embarrassing the kids with my geeky family photos it is time to leave. When we get out of the lukewarm pool we are inundated by the cool air. Brrrrrr….

It’s hard to keep your feet clean enough to get shoes and socks back on. Wait…..what does that sign say? No people in the water? Great! Why didn’t I notice it earlier?
Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

If you look at this picture you can see the little bubbles popping on the surface of the water.

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Kristoff’s shoes are floating on top of the smelly water. Good one, Kristoff, now your shoes will smell like rotten eggs for the rest of the trip!

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

This little monkey, she is always game for some adventure!

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Bjorn is giggling about something! Maybe he is just so happy to have some clothes on after being so cold. Or maybe swimming in a volcano has been a magical experience for him.

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

There really is not such a great place to stand when dressing, because the edges of the crater are steep.

That’s it, kids, let’s get out of here. We scramble back up the steep cliff.

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Oh, to be young again! Kristoff makes it look easy as he hops from one rock to another.

Viti Crater, Askja IcelandViti Crater, Askja Iceland

Mr. Handsome got his pants dirty somewhere along the way. Worse than the kids, I swear, says every mother…..

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Father and son stand together in a reflective moment gazing upon the pristine waters….

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

And there they stand, essentially upon the edge of creation itself! How powerful is this moment in time? How is it that we have been given this incredible moment in this otherworldly place? There are no words.

Viti Crater, Askja IcelandViti Crater, Askja Iceland

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

That’s it. We are heading back to the car. Yeah, we stink like rotten eggs,  but no one stinks more than anyone else….we are all equally offensive.

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Annika crosses the slush in sandals….. brrrrr……

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

Tristan decides to take his shoes off completely.

Viti Crater, Askja IcelandViti Crater, Askja Iceland

Finally we are back at the parking lot. From this viewpoint the area looks pretty impressive! I don’t know why I was being so negative earlier! Clearly this place has its own beauty, intense and intimidating, dark and depressing, in a surreal way.

It is already 8 pm, and that’s a big problem. We definitely are not going to stay here for the night, and it takes 3 hours to get out of here. There is no time for showers at the campground, no matter how smelly we are! We stuff our wet gear in the back of the trailer, and grab some food from the cooler to eat on the road. And we are off….

Viti Crater, Askja Iceland

As David drives we make some of the most delicious sandwiches upon the face of this earth…..smoked Icelandic lamb and cheese…..on Rúgbrauð bread that is a sweet rye bread baked in hotsprings …..yeah, the smoked lamb is hideously expensive, but it is so delicious it is worth every single penny! If ever you get to Iceland, make sure to have smoked lamb!
Smoked Icelandic Lamb

And for dessert? You won’t believe it! Pulla, imported from Finland. The grocery stores here carry some random Finnish food items. I mean, I guess you could argue that this is Swedish, but you’re wrong….it’s definitely Finnish! We found these in the freezer section at Bonus. I turn the heat on full blast blowing on the windshield, chuck the bag on top of a vent, and rotate the bag every now and again to warm up the buns…… mmmmm….. yeah, it worked! Ooey gooey Finnish pulla buns……

With the heat on full blast the car gets a little steamy…..and we all smell like rotten eggs…..

Ack…..the sun is setting. The crazy thing about the black landscape in the highlands here is that any sunlight gets absorbed into the earth, and the darkness becomes intensified. If I thought the landscape was gloomy during the day, it is 10x more gloomy now. We drive along and see no one on the road. Not even a soul. On the way here there had been plenty of traffic, but now we see not a single vehicle.

The river crossings which were terrifying before are now almost  too much to bear. What if we get stuck? There is no one here to help.

Now I have read that Icelandic people don’t drive up in these parts of the highlands during the night, because they fear that it is haunted here. I chuckle to myself, and wonder how they could come up with such silly notions.

The Road to Askja IcelandThe Road to Askja IcelandThe Road to Askja Iceland

I snap a few photos of the sunset as we drive along, and after about an hour of driving we come across one of the bridges that we had crossed earlier. But, you won’t believe it! There is a gate across the bridge blocking access! You have got to be kidding me!

There is absolutely no way on God’s green earth that we are turning back. I refuse, most adamantly, to drive an hour back to that dismal campground, and I refuse even more adamantly to camp here in this spooky pile of volcanic dust and rubble.

“Check the gate,” I order my husband. “Yes, you heard….I am NOT going back to Askja and we are NOT staying here!”

The Road to Askja Iceland

The gate is closed!

Obediently he obliges me. And the gate…..it swings wide open with no resistance. Now, we don’t know the rules hereabouts. Are these roads really closed at night? Why do they have a gate closed? There are no animals out here so the gates can’t be for animal containment. I told you, nothing lives out here, not even flies at the outhouse. Are there other gates? Are they locked? Are we breaking the law?

Before we can figure out whether we should go ahead or not, two cars pull in behind us appearing from nowhere in this vast wilderness. Remember, I said we have seen no cars for an hour! The drivers are in a hurry, and we get the feeling from them that we need to rush through that open gate. David steps on the gas and we emerge on the other side. I don’t know if the other drivers bother to shut the gate behind them or not.

Soon the two cars zip past us and leave us in the dust. The road is relatively smooth in this section, but David remains cautious, as is his nature. We haven’t gone a mile when we come upon the second of the two vehicles. Two passengers are outside of the car examining the undercarriage, which seems to have ripped off their vehicle. Clearly they had hit these big rocks on the road at too high a speed, and bottomed out their car really bad. We stop to ask them if they need help, but they wave us off impatiently. The first car has already turned back to help their friend.

And so it is that we continue our journey. The gate at the second bridge is closed as well, and this time David gets out to check it without my encouragement. He knows, just as I know, that we aren’t staying here the night.

He pushes on the gate. He pulls on the gate. He shakes the gate. He lifts up the gate. He pushes down on the gate. It doesn’t budge.

I open the car window and yell, “Stop playing games! Open the gate!”

Of course the gate swings wide open effortlessly. David returns to the car with a big grin on his face, super happy to have pulled a little trick on me, his highly anxious wife. I smile in spite of myself, thinking that perhaps some day I also will think this was funny.
The Road to Askja Iceland
The Road to Askja Iceland

At great long last (2 1/2 hours) we are done retracing our earlier drive, and we turn onto F905 heading north. The road here is in considerably better shape and we are making much better time. My anxiety abates a little, but I still have no idea what to expect on the road ahead. I allow myself to relax a little, breathing a deep sigh of relief that I was able to escape from behind those gates.

The kids are dozing in the back, perhaps lulled to sleep by the incessant bouncing and jostling, or perhaps intoxicated by the fumes of the Viti Crater as we lounged in her opaque mineral rich waters. It’s just the two of us awake in the front seat, intent on getting back to civilization.

In the gathering gloom I notice something peculiar on the road ahead of us. Up ahead a ways there are two people walking in the middle of the road.

“David, do you see that? Those people?” I ask.

David nods in agreement. We both see two people walking, which is the strangest thing ever. We have seen no cars for  over 2.5 hours other than the two of which I related. Why would these people be walking out here in this eerie place? They could be backpackers, but they don’t seem to have backpacks on.

David slows down. I keep a sharp eye on the people as we get closer, for surely we would not want to accidentally run into them.

Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared.

Surely my eyes are playing tricks on me. Well, on both of us. I see a water puddle on the road about where the people may have appeared to be walking. “Must have been that puddle,” I tell David. Again he nods in agreement, an uneasiness settling upon us simultaneously, an ominous feeling permeating the very air that we breathe.

We drive in silence for some time.

And again. There is something on the road ahead of us. I blink heavily, with great exaggeration as though to clear my vision. Two horses this time, with riders. They trot along for a moment. Then the riders seem to turn to look at us. And then, they too quietly disappear. Nothing but darkness. Black rocks and black sands, and low heavy clouds lingering above, blotting out any possible moonlight.

Now I know! Now I know why the people of this great nation of Iceland are superstitious about the highlands here….how they have been known to say that spirits roam upon the highlands, that men have supernatural visions here.

Perhaps there are explanations for the things we have seen, I don’t know. Perhaps it was just shadows in the hazy light moving upon the roadway in eerie formations, perhaps it was mist catching the beam of our headlights, or puddles on the road reflecting the light in odd patterns which our brains interpreted in their own ways. Or maybe…..maybe it is the two men who drowned in the lake….roaming here for eternity…..

I don’t know. I will never know. No one will ever know. We press onward in silence.

Reaching Highway 1 is almost an anticlimactic experience. We have about 30 km to our destination, and the smooth road under our tires feels incredible. When we finally pull into a campground it is almost midnight. Now you may remember, there was soda over everything in our trailer earlier today from the extreme bouncing. Our air mattresses were also coated with a fine volcanic dust, because the trailer has proven not to be airtight.

When we stop to set up camp we discover that a liter cranberry juice canister has burst and there is juice over all our cooking supplies. We are beyond caring. We don’t care that we still smell like rotten eggs from the crater. We don’t care that our mattresses are dirty. We just brush our teeth, set up our tents, brush the dust off as best we can, and crawl into bed for our fourth night of camping in Iceland.

Tomorrow, in the morning…..I have to wash everything….clean everything….

I fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.