Vatnajökull National Park is jam-packed with natural wonders carved by geothermal and volcanic activity, rivers and glacial ice.
Like lots of other Icelandic places, Vatnajökull doesn’t quite roll off the tip of the tongue. If you love extreme nature, though, you’ll be drawn here regardless of how well you can pronounce the name.
The star of the national park is Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. Covering a span of 8,100 km2, the glacier hides mountains, valleys and plateaus and even active volcanoes under the ice.
One day, I’m going to climb it. Hopefully soon, as Europe’s largest glacier is retreating rapidly at 100 metres a year, explained our guide Alex from Glacier Guides.
For this trip, my friend and I were content to visit the National Park and go for an easy hike on the tongue of Vatnajökull glacier.
Our tour started in Reykjavík, so there was serious mileage to cover. The Vatnajökull Voyager is for those people who don’t have much time, but still want to experience an easy glacier hike on Vatnajökull, and a boat ride on the famous glacier lagoon Jokulsarlon.
We started our trip bright and early at 7am in a very comfortable van, and then drove 4 hours towards the east.
Try and stay awake while driving to the glacier.
Iceland’s nature turns from lumpy volcanic land to lush fields of purple alien lupins. We also drove through the southerly town of Vik, famous for its black beaches and puffins.
We arrived at Skaftafell, and had a light meal of lamb soup and bread with a view at the visitors centre. Not a bad place for lunch, hey?
After that Alex our guide helped to gear us up with crampons (spikes for shoes) and axes. It was an unusually hot day, so a thin woollen top, and hiking pants sufficed. I brought along a waterproof jacket too, just in case but it wasn’t needed.
Alex explained that where we were now used to BE the glacier last year. Now, it was just dumps of water, dead ice and dirt, and we would have to walk another 60 metres to get to the ice edge.
We were also introduced to the Great Skua. The big bird on the block, the Great Skua is a clawless bird with a vicious beak. It preys upon smaller birds breeding in the region, attacking it periodically until its prey is weak enough to eat alive. We saw nature happen right in front of our very eyes, when this Great Skua attacked an unaware little seabird.
Special features of a glacier:
This below is a moulin.
“The pressure of water melting from the glacier drills holes into the ice, which can create tunnels, caverns or lakes. Caverns underneath the surface of the glacier can be as big as cathedrals. This little moulin is a baby, but would grow fast”, said Alex.
When I asked him how he knew all of this, I found out just how extreme our guide was. A serious glacier / mountain nut, Alex had guided before in the Himalayas, and had also previously climbed down huge moulins to trek around and camp inside the glacier.
A slightly deeper moulin.
It’s hard to imagine that these piles of dirt used to be at the BOTTOM of a moulin and glacier. Now that the ice has melted away, all that is left is the dead ice and dirt leaving craters and mounds across the landscape.
Scientists from Newcastle come to conduct research on the glacier every year. They placed poles into the ice to measure the melting speed. At the time of writing, the ice had melted 2.2 metres in the space of 1.5 months. The glacier melts at an average of 7cm a day.
The meltwater weaves its way to the ground from the top, always in S-like formations.
It had alot of volcanic ash on the surface, due to the proximity of a few volcanoes. You can also see the layers through the icebergs.
These are the only living things on the glacier: glacier mice. Or, mossy rocks. =) Just as cute!
We also learnt how to drink water from a glacier – and it involves an axe! To do this you must hack the axe into the ice, and then use it as support. We could lie over an ice crack and sip the water! It felt a bit like push-ups =)
All in all, we spent just under 2 hours walking around the glacier. It was a breathtaking walk in the sunshine, and very interesting to learn about the special aspects of this unique nature.
Then it was time to say our goodbyes to Alex, our guide. The next part of the adventure was a sail at Jokulsarlon the glacier lagoon. Pictures of that coming soon!
Thanks to Glacier Guides for a great experience!
Information about the Vatnajökull Voyager tour: Awesome! We departed at 7am and returned at midnight. An intense day but totally worth it, especially if you’re not living in another icy place. The actual hike was very easy and educational, and the staff were professional and with interesting stories to tell. Leave the next day free for recovery!
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