“Did anyone go whale watching yesterday? If you had seen me at the swimming pool, you would have thought you were whale watching” says Gisli into the microphone, a cheeky grin plastered on his face. He leans back in driver’s seat, holding the steering wheel with one hand while churning out jokes and information about his hometown, Akureyri . “The population of the whole fjord is about 25,000. It has grown more from 1920 to now than from when it was first settled to 1920, mostly thanks to the ice cream and this make out spot here” he jokes as he pulls into a lookout point offering a stellar view over Akureyri, perched prettily on the water’s edge across the fjord.
It’s the funny beginnings to a day trip around the Lake Mývatn region in northern Iceland. At about an hour’s drive from Akureyri, the glittering lake and its surrounds are an easy day trip from the capital of the north, much like the Golden Circle is from Reykjavík in the south. As we look out over Akureyri,
But before we get there, a stop off at Goðafoss is on the cards. As we step out of the van we’re confronted with a freezing wind blowing down from the highlands, marked by the white mountains in the far-off distance. I do my best to ignore it as I carefully tread across the compacted snow, slick with ice, right up to the waterfall.
Under its winter guise, it’s spectacularly pretty – the cobalt blues of the water churn into white froth that match the snowy landscapes surrounding us, the low rumble carrying down through the twisting canyon as it makes its way towards the north coast. The name means ‘waterfall of the Gods’ and comes from when Iceland converted to Christianity around the year 1000; legend tells that the Icelandic lawmaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði threw his statues of the Norse Gods into the falls, signifying the change.
But that hasn’t stopped the Icelanders from celebrating their Viking roots. “Some of you eat potato chips for a snack. I eat rotten shark like a real Viking!” says Gisli, chuckling out loud at the horrified reactions he gets from the bus.
“What does it taste like?” Someone pipes up from the back of the bus. As if he was waiting for this question, Gisli launches into a gut-wrenching description about the intricacies of its flavours.
“Well sharks have no kidneys, so their urine soaks into their skin. Imagine if you had to do that for a week without changing, what would you do to those pants? Throw them out. But sharks can’t do that, and they live for a lot longer than we do – the oldest shark caught in Iceland was 507 years old. So, this rich ammonia flavour comes in as a strong aftertaste” he says. After trying shark, it’s an apt description.
While Gisli has been entertaining us with fun stories, the landscape has slowly been changing. Rivers rich with trout and salmon run by the side of the road, and small icy lakes are beginning to appear next to the lonely farmhouses. Suddenly we’re in the middle of a gnarled lava field which marks the beginning of Lake Mývatn. Formed 2300 years ago by a large eruption of basalt lava, Mývatn is Iceland’s 4th largest lake. Surrounding it is a veritable hoard of volcanic relics, from lava fields and craters to large volcanic mountains.
Our first stop on the lake is at Skútustaðagígar, a collection of pseudo craters right on the water. The craters were formed when lava flowed over the wetlands, putting an immense amount of pressure onto the ground and pressing it down. The pressure was too much though, and in response there were large explosions of gas which burst up through the lava.
The result is a collection of large craters jutting up above the ground. We follow the path up and down the small rises and around the rims. From the looping path we’re afforded with outstanding views out over the lake, only semi-frozen thanks to unusually mild weather. Although smaller than other volcanic craters in Iceland, there’s no understating the power of nature that was at work here.
Continuing around the south side of the lake, more lava fields await us at Dimmuborgir, or The Dark Citadel. “This is the home of the Icelandic Yule Lads, the Icelandic Santa Clauses” says Gisli as we pull up into the parking lot. This mischievous bunch of 13 lads will either leave you rotten potatoes or gifts in your shoes, depending on how you’ve behaved the day before. Their mother was a murderous troll who lives within the 2000-year-old lava field as well, but there’s no sign of either her or the Yule Lads as we look out across the dark pillars of lava. They jut up into the air, chaotic and twisting into towers and tubes of black, stretching for miles towards a large volcanic crater in the distance.
An icy path leads down towards the bottom level, at least 15 meters below the car park. Once there, the pillars of lava tower over everything – it’s’ a labyrinth of epic proportions, and completely unlike any other lava formations in Iceland or the world. The dark lava is partially concealed by snow, but it’s still an ominous place.
The Grjótagjá Hot Pool. Photo: Wikipedia
“Does anyone watch Game of Thrones?” asks Gisli back on the bus. “If you do, then you’ll love this next stop – tourists call it the love cave. Although us locals have been calling it that for hundreds of years” he says. Of course the cave he’s talking about is Grjótagjá, a small cave underneath a fissure filled with hot water, made famous by the scene with Jon Snow and Ygritte in Game of Thrones. Slippery rocks lead below into a darkness before opening out into a surprisingly large area full of blue water, almost luminescent in the gloom. People perch on rocks around the water, which after dipping a finger in seems just a little bit too hot for swimming; it’s now prohibited anyway thanks to caves newfound fame.
What really makes it impressive though is the fissure that the cave lies below; the site of two tectonic plates slowly tearing apart at a rate of 2.5cm per year. Stretching to the horizon in either direction, there are points where I can stand on both sides of the plates; one leg in Europe, the other in America. “Maybe those people in Reykjavík will finally get their wish and float away to Europe where they belong” jokes Gisli. At least, I think it’s a joke.
Another change in the landscape happens on the way to our next stop – a large geothermal power plant next to a pool of turquoise water, steam rising to slowly waft across the road and the now orange soil. Over the mountain pass and the destination is revealed to us; a smoking mess of mud pools and orange-red soil called Hverir. “Now is the time to let go if you’ve been having any stomach problems – you can blame it on the Sulphur!” says Gisli as he pulls in and lets us out and we’re engulfed in the smell of sulphur. A mud pot lies right in front of us, slowly bubbling away.
Spiralling out from it is a variety of grey and blue hues where the volcanic chemicals in the ground have reacted with the minerals. To our left a large mound spews forth an immense amount of sulphurous steam, catching in the wind to drift over to us and engulf us in its smell. Just across the other side of the road the landscape returns to its regular state – mossy rocks covered with snow. But here on the other side, is a completely different world.
The final stop of the day is one of the greatest benefits of that geothermal power; taking a dip in the Mývatn Nature Baths. It’s the north’s version of the Blue Lagoon, a collection of pools embedded in lava rock. We spend two hours floating around in the azure water, and thanks to its elevation above the lake the views out over the landscapes are stunning; a fiery sunset slowly sinks below the distant mountains, lighting up the horizon and the steam rising off the volcanic formations below.
“If you want to look like me when you’re old, you just have to visit the nature baths every day” says Gisli. If only I could.
I travelled on this Lake Myvatn tour courtesy of Saga Travel. However, this article is entirely based on my own thoughts and impressions.
All photos taken with a camera and lenses from Rent-A-Lens.