Taking a bath in a volcanic crater was never on my bucket list. Not because it doesn’t sound attractive. But because I had no idea it was possible. Now I know it is perfectly possible. You can do it in a day trip in the wild Eastern Highlands of Iceland. We just did. But there are easier places to get to.
Our day begins at Mödrudalar; the highest inhabited farm in Iceland, where we meet ‘the black stud.’ Not a man, or even an Icelandic horse, but a Land Rover with pit bull tyres. Ironically it’s not black but blue, following an accident and a respray. But then, it isn’t unusual for a vehicle to take a bashing out here. The road is nothing short of unreal.
Did I say road? Well sometimes there’s a road. But our guide for the day, Elisabet Kristjansdottir, who runs the Fjalladryd Travel Service, regularly takes a short cut or two when she’s transporting tourists from her home to the remote Askja Caldera. It shaves precious minutes off the two and a half hour drive so people like us can have extra time playing volcanic catch with pumice stone, making black castles in the sand, or bathing in the geothermal Viti Crater.
There’s no chance of getting lost; the family sheep graze here, and she used to roam it herself in her day job as park warden. But while this is just a drive in the back yard for Elisabet, we start to feel like we are pushing over the unchartered hump of a whale. And further on we could have world’s biggest pedicure with all the pumice that surrounds us, spewed with some force from the Askja eruption in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Tom Cruise got dumped by his wife recently while filming Oblivion near here, and there is an end of the world feel about the place, with its barren rock face and bleached colour. The Queen of the Mountains Herdubreid presides over the area, with her ethereal crown of cloud. Elisabet says it’s partly this Icelandic favourite that makes the drive so special, “There’s always a different light and different weather surrounding her.” But apart from this birthday cake shaped mountain, only the subtle pinks of the Arctic Riverbeauty flower brighten up miles of volcanic litter. And that only dares show its face here for three weeks of the year.
There is a camp at Dreki, with a range of white tents making it resemble an Arctic field hospital. And later on, a car park, where we dump the Land Rover for a forty five minute walk across black desert, and then a slip slide down a steep muddy bank into Viti’s bright heart. The pale, aqua blue hue is contrasted only by the man in a bright green Borat style swimming costume splashing about in the water.
But it’s not the kind of pool you mess about in. It’s more of a float on your back kind of experience while contemplating the clouds as the sun beats down from the sky, or (more commonly) the winds howl around you. Viti is an oasis of warmth in an often hostile environment, and was born, like much of Iceland, from the earth’s fire and fury. The surrounding 50 km square Askja Caldera came first in the last glaciations. Then a further eruption and magma chamber collapse helped create a caldera within the caldera which became the sapphire coloured lake below the rim. (The deepest lake in Iceland.) The same year the Viti explosion crater was formed, and subsequently filled with geothermal water. And that’s the one to swim in.
And what does taking a bath in a volcanic crater feel like? A slightly muddy, murky heaven. Warm and cold, vast and small, bubbly and light to your fingertips yet dense underneath. It feels like nothing I’ve ever done before. And probably like nothing I’ll ever do again. It feels accessible and yet unearthly, all at the same time.
And for me, that lies at the root of what Iceland is about. It makes otherworldly landscapes accessible, and even normal. Want a trip to Mars? Then hire a 4 x 4 and take off into the Highlands and watch the landscape change as the rock becomes laden with iron. Or feel like being in the Arctic? Grab a guide and some crampons and stomp up the whiter than white Vatnajökull. In Iceland you can take the family for a bath in a volcano. You can wreck the tyres of the Chelsea Tractor on a lava field. You can walk behind waterfalls with the little ones or swim down into a rift with the teenagers. There are many things here that won’t be on your bucket list either. Until you come.
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