Mývatn was named for the swarms of midges, small flies, which are ever present during the summer months. The lake was formed 2300 years ago by a large eruption and today the lake and its surrounding wetlands are home to countless water birds, especially ducks. The lake is fed by an abundantly nutrient-rich spring and is filled with aquatic insects. The midges can be extremely annoying, but most visitors will agree that they are a small price to pay for the natural beauty of the surroundings.
Just a short distance from the lake is a series of very active geothermal zones, some of which have been harnessed to provide heat and electricity to the homes and businesses of the northeast. A modern thermal spa has just been updated to provide world-class facilities for visitors and locals alike. However, it is the natural formations including bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles and recent lava floes that captivate the hearts and minds of travellers.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We set out for Lake Mývatn right after breakfast and stopped to see yet another waterfall, Godafoss, along the way. Legend has it that around the year 1000 AD, the Lawspeaker Porgeir Ljosvetningagódi, made Christianity the official religion of Iceland. He returned from the Alping (parliament) to throw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall, and ever since the cascade has been known as the ‘Waterfall of the Gods’.
We had read the suggestion in our guidebook that we should park the car near the gas station and walk the kilometre or so to the falls rather than drive to the parking area nearby. In this way, the falls reveal themselves more slowly to you and you end up standing near the lip rather than looking across the river at the plunging water.
It was very good advice, because the weather was fine, the sun was shining and we were able to enjoy the varied vegetation on either side of the narrow path. It’s times like this when I feel our guidebook is worth its weight in gold. I could see other visitors following our progress from the car park, it seemed they were envious of the perspective we were enjoying.
We didn’t linger long as it seemed there was much more to see, and only one day to enjoy it. As we drove eastwards, we encountered a rancher leading a group of horses along a ridge above us. We learned later that farmers and ranchers were delayed by the recent snowfall, and that they were beginning to bring all their livestock back to their farms to shelter the animals from the coming winter weather.
The landscape around Lake Mývatn is surprisingly flat, so if it wasn’t for the sun gleaming on the crystal clear waters we might not have seen it as soon as we did. We circled the northern part of the lake and headed towards the geothermal site just a few kilometers east of the small town of Reykjahlíð. Before we knew it we had arrived at the small pond that is the offshoot of the nearby geothermal plant. The colour of the water is almost indescribable, and we were excited to finally be able to see the Iceland we had long imagined.
I was busy taking photos of the lake when Anil drew my attention to the fact that the steam was just seeping out of the fissures in the rocks nearby. These are called solfatares. There were warning signs to stay near the road, as the escaping steam was very dangerous. We got back in the car and began to drive up and over a pass called Námaskarð, with a ridge that appeared to have been split in two by seismic activity.
We descended the other side and arrived at a zone known as Hverir. The landscape was otherworldly but it was the smell that assailed us as we got out of the car. The smell of sulphur was almost overwhelming, but the appeal of the bubbling mud pots helped me to overcome my initial aversion. We were able to walk around the area which had the most dangerous hot spots cordoned off my ropes.
The wind was blowing from the east and that helped to alleviate the smell somewhat, but our ears were drawn to the roaring sounds emanating from the fumaroles nearby. It’s impossible to describe the setting to give you an idea of what it was like, so I managed to shoot a short video in order to share it with you. It’s too bad I couldn’t capture the smell of Hverir along with the video. Geothermal Iceland.
It was hard to drag ourselves away from this fascinating natural wonder, but we knew there was more to see just up the road. A short distance further we turned off the main highway and headed north towards the Leirhnjúkur lava field. We had read that it is a popular area for hiking, but that there were short walks that could give visitors a pretty good sense of the volcanic activity that has happened there in the past and that continues to threaten the region.
On our way north we came upon a large geothermal plant whose turbines produce electricity for hundreds of kilometres around and whose pumps send scalding hot water to heat homes and businesses as far away as the eastern and northern coasts. We laughed out loud when we saw how the pipes were constructed up and over the road so that traffic was not blocked in any way.
Before setting off on a walk through the Leirhnjúkur lava field, we drove to the extreme edge of the public area in order to view the exquisite Viti Crater Lake. The Mývatnseldar eruptions (the “Mývatn fires”) in 1724 began with a great volcanic explosion, which formed the crater Stóra - Víti. It’s hard to believe that the iridescent blue water in the bottom of the crater is actually quite warm, but we were warned not to attempt to climb down to the shore. It was enough to walk around a portion of the rim and admire how the light seemed to change the colour of the water as I moved.
We backtracked to the small parking lot where we could leave the car while we walked through the lava field. In the years following the 1724 explosion, a series of earthquakes and eruptions occurred in the vicinity of Mt. Krafla. The greatest eruption took place in 1729, when lava flowed from Leirhnjúkur down to Mývatn Lake. Eldhraun, the lava field we were walking on, formed during at this time.
A new series of eruptions began at Krafla in 1975, after an intermission of about 250 years. In the following nine years, nine eruptions occurred. We followed a well-worn trail over the ancient lava, and I had come to realize that this lava, covered with lichens had lain in this place for almost three hundred years. Up ahead, the newer, dark black lava, stretched off into the distance, sitting atop the rounded eroded lava with spikes and spires in wicked shaped.
It was tough going after we climbed onto the relatively fresh lava field, and we weren’t walking in hiking boots that would have protected our feet and kept us from a possible twisted ankle. It didn’t appear that the landscape would change any time soon, so we turned back, feeling that we had acquired a good sense of the immensity of the lava field.
Besides, the lure of the thermal baths was paramount in our minds. We loved the idea of relaxing in the hot silky water under a clear blue sky. We didn’t expect to find such a fine facility, with so few other bathers that afternoon. We had read about the famous Blue Lagoon, but also learned that it has become very commercialized, and we had held out hopes for a more natural experience here in the northern part of Iceland. We were in for a treat.
We spend the next couple of hours lounging in the thermal waters, marveling at how slippery the water made our skin feel. It was so slippery that I found it impossible to get a grip at the sloped edge of the pool and I kept sliding back into the deeper water. It was clear that the locals had it all figured out, because a number of them sat near the edge of the pool passing the afternoon with friendly conversation.
I had read that it was necessary to bring along a large bottle of conditioner because the sulphur in the water wreaks havoc with people’s hair. What I had read, and forgotten to heed, was the advice to remove my jewellery, otherwise it would be heavily tarnished by the chemicals in the water.
As we were leaving the spa, I started chatting with the receptionist, and she noted the state of my silver bracelets and my ring. Before I knew it, she brought out a jar of silver cleaner and helped me to polish my jewellery. I walked out with it shining like it’s never shone before.
We were so relaxed that it was hard to think of doing anything more than driving back to our hotel and climbing into our comfy beds, but I had one more place I wanted to visit before we left Mývatn. I had read about a unique café where guests can sip their cappuccinos while they watch dairy cows being milked on the other side of large glass windows.
A farming family came up with this clever idea and remodeled the dairy shed so that the cows eat on one side of the barn, while visitors eat on the other. The café is one of the most modern and up to date bistros I’ve ever seen, and the same can be said of the dairy portion of the barn.
We arrived feeling very hungry and in need of a caffeine pick-me-up and after ordering our lattés, I asked when the cows were due for milking. I was told that they are brought into the barn at 6:00pm, so we had only a half hour to wait.
I strolled around the farm and noticed that the cows were all standing by the gate, there was no need to herd them into the dairy, they were more than ready for their evening meal and to be relieved of the heavy load in their udders. While we were waiting, we both noticed a young woman in deep conversation with a very elderly gentleman.
When they eventually got up to leave, I smiled at her and asked if he happened to be her grandfather. She seemed very pleased at our interest and told us that it was her grandfather that had started the dairy many years ago, and that she was spending some time with him to give him some fresh air and a bit of an outing. We had always heard that Icelandic families are very close, but here was living proof of the strong ties between the generations.
The cows weren’t the only ones eager to get the milking underway, we wanted to see how the process was managed, and Anil was delighted to see how mechanical milking was done. It was getting late and we wanted to be back at our hotel before dark; we still had at least an hour’s drive ahead of us. It would take longer in most likelihood, because I was sure to slow things down by asking to stop here and there to take more photos.
We set off to compete our circumnavigation of Lake Mývatn, and the light could not have been more spectacular. The lake looked magical in the warmth of the setting sun and the sheep grazed on the open fields between the highway and the water. One of the last photos I took that day was of the sky reflected in the water, so perfectly that the distant shore appeared to be an arch in the sky that we could look through, instead of land beyond the still water in the foreground.
I knew we had found our perfect Icelandic paradise, and wasn’t at all disappointed at the thought that our route back to Reykjavik would take us over landscapes we had already seen before. Lake Mývatn will linger long in our mind’s eye.