We wake up to a partly cloudy sky, much better than the rain yesterday! After a good breakfast in the Fjallakaffi (with a delicious homemade bread alas too dense for Ryo’s liking, but he loved the porridge!) we are on the track by 10. The terrain becomes gradually more mineral and very austere with more and more snow patches replacing the moss and flowers. The track is rough; Skye shoves in some earplugs because the washboard noise is making his ears ring. We skirt brown mountains and cross lava fields and rocky riverbeds. We have two fair-sized fords to cross as well as some bridges: one has a gate, and it is not clear why as there are absolutely no cattle nor sheep in this barren land.
After two hours of driving we reach the Dreki huts at the foot of the Askja volcano. We roll into the parking lot, and as we get out of the car, Ryo tells us that he hears the front tire hissing. Skye says “no son, that must be the cooling system” but Ryo says “why can I feel air blowing out of the tire?” and sure enough there is a tear in the sidewall slowing deflating the tire. We can only assume we scraped a rock during our last river crossing, as we don’t recall hitting anything.
We check in and are assigned to one of the 6-person bedrooms, with common kitchen and detached sanitary block. Compared to our past accommodations it’s not luxurious, but it’s much better than camping!
While Skye is on his back under the van changing the tire, Sandra and Ryo have claimed the lower bunks in the dormitory room and prepare lunch on one of the picnic tables next to our hut. Once the spare tire is installed we eat our rice salad, and are joined at the table by the driver of a bus of Israelis who have just arrived and are settling into another hut. We call Europcar to ask if we can pick up a spare tire tomorrow in Egilsstadir when we make it back to civilization, hopefully without another flat en route!
We then follow a short walk up the gorge behind the refuge to a waterfall. It’s a fun trail, with gargoyle shaped rocks on top of the cliff. Ryo enjoys himself, frolicking on the boulders like a little goat and throwing stones at snow arches to try to break them. Challenged by Skye, he even manages to throw a nice spiral with a big rock, thanks to his training with the American football he received for his birthday.
Back at the camp, our driver friend kindly asks around for a manometer to measure the pressure in the spare tire and finds a monster truck driver who has a compressor onboard. Our big van needs 56psi and the spare is only at 43psi. We manage to pump a bit of extra air in the tire but give up after 10 minutes when we only manage 46psi. Our friend explains that we should have cargo-rated tires for this van, not standard ones: they are too thin and not rated for this pressure. The first rock you hit they pop. Alas we have to make do with what we have, so we head off to our next stop, the Viti crater walk.
It’s an easy promenade that takes us across a lava field and snow patches to an astounding site: the gigantic lake in the Askja crater and an adjacent sinkhole containing a smaller lake infused with silica, sulfur and warmed by steam escaping in little bubbles from the lava underneath the crater… it’s surreal! We creep down the narrow muddy and steep ravine down to the pool and change into bathing suits: Ryo wonders why there are no changing rooms. The water is a balmy 25 C, and there are warmer spots with water bubbles created by hot gas seeping from underground, or where a stream of hot sulfurous water flows into the lake. It’s an extraordinary experience to bathe here. Emerging and getting dressed again is less enjoyable, but we are soon ready to climb back up with the pretty rays of sun poking through. There is a rainstorm rolling in on the horizon, and while walking back to the car we get a few drops, but nothing much.
Back at base camp, we bring in the apéro and food. We are happy to discover that we have a bag of pretzels left to go with our beer. There are two large tour groups sharing our hut tonight: Italians and French. It’s fun to watch their preparations for dinner. The Italian group’s guide and cook has started working early on an elaborate supper: a minestrone soup followed by sautéed potatoes and tomato stew with pan-seared lamb. The cook has set a nice table with the hut’s dishes. Shortly afterwards the French tourists come in and start peeling potatoes. It’s pretty cool out (under 10C) but their guide explains that last year at the same time it was between 0 and 2C and that this year we are having a real summer at last! Indeed 10 to 16 C and partly sunny is much, much better!!!
After that, the French group tries to set the table for 17 people: it’s fun to watch and Sandra has a hard time concentrating on her blog post, preferring to follow the musical chairs game the guys are going through trying to evenly distribute a prime number of people around a table. Meanwhile Jean-Michel, their guide, is cooking a potato and meat stew outside. The Italians have started tucking into their minestrone and seem pleased with the cooks’ job. The poor man had to put up with the peanut gallery poking in their noses, telling him to put more rosemary and thyme and this and that: those Italians take their food seriously!
Both groups ogle our white wine bottle with envious eyes. It reminds us of our trip in Oman, where we were the ones who didn’t know to stock up on booze before starting the trip. We explain to a French lady that we followed the Lonely Planet advice and picked up cheap drinks at the duty free on arrival, hence our splurging now!
Our dinner is much more low key: pasta, ready-made sauce and a bit of crumbled peppery cheese: easy peasy. Aside from the two groups, there is only another couple of unidentified but probably Nordic nationality (they don’t speak much, and anyways, is it possible for a Nordic to be heard over a latin crowd?). They’ve grilled some meat outside and are enjoying a pleasant meal.
We finish our bottle of wine while catching up (offline) on our blogs. Every 5 minutes someone asks us if we have wifi since we’re working on our computers. Hey guys: we are in the middle of nowhere, there is no wifi! Also there seems to be no more electricity at all: the lights don’t switch on any more, and we’re thankful for the Icelandic absence of true night in this season. Electricity is at a premium and there are no sockets anywhere, so forget about recharging any kind of batteries or devices. This is Askja, in the Icelandic highlands, lost in the lava fields, at the end of a long and tough track: it’s already very civilized to be sitting in a toasty hut next to a gas stove! Outside the campers must be a tad less comfy. We are off for the night: tomorrow we have to cross this no mans’ land without damaging any of our tires, we’ve used our last joker!