The trail is spotted with small groups of hikers, the rainbow colours of their outdoor jackets look alien against the Icelandic landscape which, now the snow has melted is a patchwork of greys, browns and pale greens. The path is wide and muddy from people and cyclists and runners going off trail to pass the slower walkers.
High, broken clouds allow rivers of sun through, spotlighting hills that look soft in their distance; in reality they’re as steep and rocky as the one I’m climbing. With so many people on the trail there is an inevitable bottleneck here, but it gives me a chance to examine those hiking around me. I had expected the range in ages, from children, to those in their 80s.
Most are prepared for the conditions with good shoes and warm clothes, others seem to have come thinking a hike in Iceland would be no different to walking around the trails of a manmade park; poor quality sneakers and plastic shopping bags. Prepared or not, the anticipation is universal.
On the last step of the climb what we’ve all come for is revealed. In the crease of a valley the lava field and first cone sit, its dull black and cracked surface remind me of a cookie left in the oven until it becomes charcoal, but under that burnt cookie shell is liquid fire, rolling and pushing outwards with incomprehensible power.
The scent of gas drifts over us. Heavier than air it lingers in hollowed out areas and unlike sulfur, which carries a smell of boiled eggs, this gas, released from the pits of the earth, is a taste hitting the back of the throat and lingering long after the gas itself has been blown away.
After this first taste, the trail takes me around a mountain and I lose sight of the volcano. It is a tease getting the first glimpse then having to walk away, but it makes the reappearance of this splitting in the earth even more powerful.
The final climb has no trail really; just loose rocks and dirt washed down in streaks by recently melted snow. The sky glows red and the spit and roar of the eruption proper starts to compete against the wind, it is not as loud as I thought it would be, more a spitting hissing kitten, than the guttural growls of a pride of lions.
And then, between one step and another, there it is stretched in front of me, a mountain range being created, a valley being filled, the earth of old being covered by earth so new it will not support life until centuries after I am dead.How many other valleys and mountains are under my feet that have been formed in the same way, over the past millions of years? How do I begin to comprehend that kind of time?
The night is growing heavier and the charcoal black that’s filling the valley begins to glow with lines of phoenix red. From above I watch people, closer to the flow, and think how oblivious they are to the power in front of them, how at risk. Then I realise how close I am, at eye level with a crater spitting molten lava meters into the air, fizzing like firecrackers but a millions times more beautiful. This is the most dangerous thing I will be near and yet, I feel safe. A false safety created by what I’m seeing being more power than I can understand. In the twelve hours after I leave, 4 new craters will appear, pulsing fire out of the ground where people had so recently been BBQing in the lava on the edge of the flow.
I look at the reactions of those around me, some weep at the primal wildness, others act foolish; as if it is too much to accept their smallness when compared to the world itself.
For me, I am overwhelmed by its beauty; the earth splitting and bringing forth rivers of liquid rock that flow as fast as rapids, the colours of the sun bubbling from the ground beneath my feet. This is the true definition of awe.
Text: Emanda Percival