In the footsteps of astronauts: The Askja crater

If you decide to go to Iceland and have time enough, it’s worth setting aside a day to visit the Askja crater. A very bumpy ride in a strange alien landscape, giving you a good idea of the forces of a volcanic eruption.

If there is one place on earth that can prepare astronauts for going to the Moon, Iceland is it. The area by the Askja crater was used for the Apollo training programme and there is hardly any place like this on earth.

Just to be sure the water is not too deep for the car, one of us walked across in the cold water.

There are several roads into the crater. We started from the northeast, on a decent gravel road. It soon turned into something much different, winding between large rocks, small rocks, gravel, sand, up and down hills and the occasional river. Not all rivers have a bridge, so we had to test the depth of the water, to see if our vehicle could make it across.

Only 4x4s can drive here and even then one should be aware of the conditions. It’s not just snow, rain and high water level that can put an end to your drive to the crater, but there can be some really strong winds here as well, with a lot of sand being blown up. We met two Frenchmen in a Land Rover, with a sandblasted windscreen, after a jagged drive from the south. Today though, we are very lucky with the weather. Having experienced a lot of wind earlier in the trip, it is all a pale memory today. Now we can enjoy the variety in this strange lava landscape, not to mention the view of what is around it. In the distance we see the Vatnajökull glacier extending beyond. It covers more than eight percent of Iceland and from the glacier, streams and rivers spread out in all directions. Somewhere north of us, the water passes through the impressive waterfalls of Selfoss and Dettifoss.

For a long time we could see the volcanic Herðubreið.

When you think the road is straightforward, it suddenly changes and large stones pop up and you have to manoeuvre around them.

We stop for a break. In the midst of this strange landscape there is a sign with a big P, a small building that contains a toilet and an area for those who want to spend the night in tents. The starry night sky here must be incredible, with the absence of light pollution.

We move on towards the crater. It sure takes time to drive there. When you think the road is straightforward, it suddenly changes and large stones pop up and you have to manoeuvre around them. Or you have to stop to see where the road actually continues, it is not always obvious.

Finally, we are there. We see some buildings where people can stay. They are all locked and closed today; after all we are out of season. We continue around the crater. The car bumps along on a sort of road they have managed to carve through the lava field chaos. Finally we arrive at the parking and another toilet.

We find the trail into the crater. Black turns to red and then black again. Here and there are small white stones strewn across the black.

The outline of the crater is massive. Inside the crater, we find two lakes. The largest lake, Öskjuvatn, is Iceland’s deepest. The other lake, Viti (abbreviation of Helviti – Hell), is heated and contains a sulphuric, misty blue water. You can swim here, but you’ll stink afterwards. Moreover this bathing involves getting down into the crater lake and then back up again. We do not have time to swim today. We check the time. We need to get back to the car, as we’d like to get out of here before it gets dark. You don’t want to tackle these tracks in the dark.

You can swim here, but you’ll stink afterwards.

I pick up a few stones, fascinated by the porous lava. So pitch black, so rusty red. I throw them back to the ground, feeling incredibly small in this giant crater. What an explosion it must have been. What power!

Here and there the ground sounds almost hollow. We tread easily with our feet…. and make our way back out of the crater. There is volcanic activity under ground not that far away.

While getting to the crater seemed like an eternity, the return journey feels shorter (isn’t it always like that?) As we reach the main road, darkness is upon us. The stars fill the night sky. No northern lights tonight though. Just some good memories of this wonderful day. It’s certainly enough.

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