Asbyrgi and Dettifoss

When I was a couple of weeks old my parents moved from Kolkata to Hyderabad. Our first house was in a neighborhood called Domalguda. “Doma” in Telugu is mosquito, so the name of the neighborhood roughly translates to the mosquito place. Which isn’t surprising. A few decades before my arrival in Hyderabad, Ronald Ross, an English army doctor, had discovered the malaria parasite while he was posted in Hyderabad. In 1902 he got the Nobel prize for this and later they named a street after him in my hometown, not far from Domalguda.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Mývatn in northern Iceland is “the midge (or sandfly) lake”. For the next two days Jo has planned an exploration of the region around this midge lake.

We set off from our cabin in Svartaborg across a broad valley and up though a lava flow to the lovely little town of Húsavík. The town is on the eastern side of a bay and directly to the west across the bay is a snow covered range of mountains. Overlooking the harbor is a hundred year old wooden church that is quite different from the churches we have seen everywhere in Iceland. Next to the church we found the Lókal Bistro, and settled down for a breakfast of crepes. It’s another lovely summer day in northern Iceland.

After breakfast we drive to Asbyrgi canyon about 60 km away. The canyon is approximately 3.5 km long and 1 km wide with towering walls of geometric basalt. A small creek runs through the middle. At the far end there is a tiny lake and a lovely woodland which is unusual in Iceland. The canyon ends rather abruptly in a horseshoe shape and you are surrounded by walls of rock and a tiny waterfall. Legend has it that Odin’s eight-footed horse stepped here during his travels to middle earth and made this canyon. The truth is scarier. To our south is the mighty Vatnajökull glacier which covers 8% of Iceland’s landmass. The ice of Vatnajökull so vast and deep that if it was spread evenly over Iceland it would smother the land under a 90-story thick slab of ice. But under the ice is fire. About 8000 years ago, and then again about 3000 years ago, a volcano under Vatnajökull erupted and melted a chunk of ice. That resulting melt-water gushed out to sea along the shortest straightest path and carved out the Asbyrgi canyon out of ballast rock in a catastrophic short and sweet flooding event. Even today, flooding caused by volcanoes remain Iceland’s greatest geological threat. People live along the coast at sea level. Towering above them are huge chunks on ice under which lay smoldering volcanoes.

From Asbyyrgi we drive south along the river valley. It looks like a desert on one side with undulating heaps of brown sand and grey ash and occasional enormous rocks, weathered into strange forms, and rolling green plains on the other. In the distance we can see the snows of Vatnajökull but the huge Icelandic desert highlands separate us – with no habitation at all in between. We pull up at a scenic spot where the kids and I are pummeled by wind when we step out to take a look. Occasionally we see an F road branch off into the distance, with pictorial and written warnings that only 4-wheel cars with high clearance should be driven on these roads. Normal rental cars are not permitted. There is a big sticker across the passenger side dash in our rental car with the same message.

We soon arrive at the west side of Dettifoss, “Europe’s most powerful waterfall”. A mile long hike over a desolate field of geometric basalt rocks (I tried to photobomb Vivian’s picture but only got an eye in there) brings us to the almost chocolate colored Jökulsá á Fjöllum river which flows out from under Vatnajökull’s ice fields carrying millions on tonnes of crushed rocks. At Dettifoss, the river plunges about 45 m, sending a roaring torrent of water downwards and a cloud of mist upwards that can be seen for miles. Even from a distance you can sense its power. In the second photo you can see some people including the person in white pants standing close to the near edge of the falls while we are still a bit further away. If you look carefully you can see people on the other bank too, almost directly above White Pants. Vivian’s next picture was taken from approximately where White Pants is standing.

And here’s a photo of the top of Evan’s face at Dettifoss that I exported from Vivian’s camera. Worth saving : – )

After Dettifoss, we drive back towards Húsavík with a quick stop at a view point above a cliff overlooking the sweeping Öxarfjörður bay. The cliff directly below me is full of nesting puffins and periodically a few fly up in front of my face. Puffins look like tiny flying penguins and to my untrained eye they appear to put a lot of effort into flying.

Remember that southwest to northeast continental rift that cleaves Iceland which we met on our first day at Þingvellir National Park? This is where it comes out on the other side. In 1975 there was a swarm of earthquakes in this bay and the ground subsided by about 6 feet. This area was filled with water to form Skjálftavatn, or “earthquake lake”, which you can see in the background towards the right end of the photo below (which I share from the internet, but as much as I have tried, I can’t find the original again to link to it or credit the author).

We finish the day with a lovely sit-down dinner at Naustið, a restaurant in Húsavík that reminds me of East Side Cafe, that restaurant-in-a-house in Austin that no longer exists. We head back to Svartaborg and a soak in the outdoor hot tub before retiring for the day.

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