Viti, Askja 

  
  - darkometer rating:  4 -
 
Viti means 'hell' in Icelandic – and even though the trip there isn't quite so hellish as the name implies, it's still extreme: Viti is an explosion crater about 150 yards wide within the gigantic Askja caldera in central Iceland, one of the country's many active volcanic areas (see also Heimaey). And you can go swimming in its greenish-bluish sulphurous crater lake! One of the most extreme highlights of a trip to this extreme country, for sure! 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

 
More background info: Askja is a large volcano in the Dynggjufjöll mountains in the heart of the Icelandic highlands. The most recent eruption at Askja occurred in 1961, although the Viti explosion crater was blown out earlier, in the late 19th century, as part of a series of many violent cataclysms of the time (see also Iceland in general) – when several cubic kilometres of material were blown into the atmosphere. Tephra from these eruptions was blown as far as Sweden.
 
Since this major eruption, the huge Askja caldera has filled with water. This over 700 feet (220m) deep lake called Öskjavatn (Iceland's deepest inland body of water) is normally covered with ice throughout much of the year except in summer, thanks to the high elevation of over 400 feet (1300m). However, in March 2012 it was discovered that the lake was already largely ice-free – amidst the otherwise completely snow-covered highlands. This triggered concerns about the possibility of increased geothermal activity under the caldera, which may be an early sign of an upcoming new eruption in the making. Given all the other recent volcanic activity in Iceland it wouldn't be a great surprise. We'll see …
 
The smaller, shallower, lake that has formed at the bottom of the Viti explosion crater next to Öskjavatn has long been warm all year round, and definitely through constant (and stable) geothermal heating. The sulphur deposits at hot spots along the lake's shores are a telltale sign. In fact the water temperature is ideal swimming-pool level at ca. 25-30 degrees Celsius. Thus it has become a routine attraction for visitors to go for a dip in this lake.
 
Bathing in these sulphurous, bluish-greenish waters in a crater in the middle of nowhere is also the usual highlight of any organized trip to Askja and indeed has to rank as a highlight of any comprehensive Iceland experience as a whole. In fact, I think it's one of the very coolest things in the world that one can do as a tourist! (And this is coming from someone who is otherwise not keen on swimming and who hates beaches!) It's certainly one of my personal lifetime's best travel experiences ever … just too good not to mention here – although I have to admit that the 'dark' connection is perhaps somewhat tenuous. But it isn't non-existent: come on, who can deny that saying you're going for a swim in 'hell' hasn't got at least a dark ring to it?!
  
Furthermore, there's also a more real connection to tragedy in the area: in 1907 two German researchers disappeared without a trace when they were rowing a boat across the Öskjavatn caldera lake. It is assumed that they must have drowned, but it's still a mystery why nothing at all, no bodies, no remains of the boat, no nothing was ever found of them. In superstitious, mystery-loving Iceland that fact alone adds another layer of dark aura. Today there are two small memorials commemorating the disappearance making the place qualify as a dark tourism destination too.  
 
Travel in this harsh environment is not without its risks these days either, so adequate precautions must be taken. Going it alone is rather dicey, verging on the irresponsibly foolish – visiting travellers should at least be in convoy of a minimum of two vehicles. Much safer is trusting the experience of professional tour operators … see below for more details.
 
I did however see one lone car that wasn't even a 4x4 coming back from Askja as our bus was approaching it (requiring an awkward passing manoeuvre). We couldn't believe it but it was a small French car with low clearance, but somehow its driver must have made it through this terrain and – more astonishingly – through the fords of the rivers.
 
Do not follow that example, though. It's positively reckless – people have died in Iceland's river fords. Do not underestimate them. As if to serve as stark warnings you can occasionally even see the wrecks of cars that got stuck in river fords and had to be abandoned – hopefully with the occupants not suffering the same fate.  
 
 
What there is to see: The long "road" leading to Viti and Askja is mostly a very rough track cutting through a kind of wilderness that tourists are unlikely to encounter anywhere else. As the track branches off the main ring road (A1 – circling the entire island) the scenery gets increasingly bleak. At first there are still green parts and clear mountain streams exude picturesque serenity. But then it gets increasingly rocky.  
 
You pass lava fields of various ages and types, including the charred young lava of more recent eruptions as well as endless fields of pumice – deposited from the massive Viti explosion, which spewed out two and a half cubic kilometres of material and poisoned a large area of land.
 
At its most extreme it is the most barren moonscape imaginable – in fact, so moonscape-like is it that NASA sent astronauts to train here for the Apollo landings on the real moon!
 
There are several stops en route (yes, also including toilet stops) – at waterfalls, at a former outlaw hideout, and eventually at Dreki, which means 'dragon' – named after a dragon-shaped rock formation – where a steep gorge is worth exploring too. Here you could even stay overnight in one of the few huts in the area.
 
The car park from where the hike begins lies a few miles west of Dreki. Here vehicles have to be parked, and the rest of the way to Viti has to be done on foot. It's about half an hour each way. The scenery is as grand as it is barren – crusty lava, black and red coloration (from minerals and iron) provide a totally otherworldly prelude of what is to come next.  
 
As you descend from a ridge you see the steely waters of Öskjavatn lake that fills the Askja caldera, and then you see Viti: a steep-sided crater some 150 feet (40-50m) deep with an eerie greenish-bluish lake of milky water at the bottom.
 
Now the moment has come to decide whether or not you are prepared to clamber down, strip off and go for a "bath" in that lake. Some in my group opted out, but I was not deterred. I can't say what deterred them, the climb down or the prospect of having to climb back up afterwards? Or perhaps the thought of the sulphurous stink from the geothermal vents .. or maybe the fact that you have to go "Viking-style", as our guide put it. That is to say: naked.
 
The reason for that is that the sulphur in the water would ruin any bathing suits (or jewellery – so remember to take any rings, necklaces, etc. off too before venturing in!). That may deter some prudish people. Obviously, there are also no changing room facilities either, so you have to strip off in the open. But if that's not too much of a problem for you, then it's a must-do! A couple of people in my group took a "compromise" approach and did go in wearing swim suits (so they had to throw them away afterwards … if that's the price for prudishness, then so be it).
 
First, though, you have to make it from the crater rim down to the lake – and it is quite steep, and can be very muddy, i.e. slippery. So take good care. What you cannot avoid is that you will get dirty. Come dressed accordingly.
 
Once you've clambered down to the lake and stripped off (it can be a bit chilly, so be quick), the water is a warm and pleasant reward – though you have to overcome the rotten-egg-like stink of the sulphur … after a while you don't notice it so much. The banks are quite shallow so it's easy to walk in, but in the middle of the lake the water is several metres deep so from some point on you have to keep swimming.
 
In the shallower parts you can do what Icelanders love doing, namely smear yourself with the white deposits from the lake's bed. These come from micro-organisms living in the water – elsewhere on Iceland they are even mined commercially, as they are a prized material for various purposes including in paint and toothpaste. The Icelanders also swear by their health-strengthening effects ... though I do not know whether there is any scientific grounding in this.
 
When not swimming, take note too of the steam vents and sulphur deposits on the banks of the crater lake. They tell you where that warmth heating the water is coming from and are a reminder that you are right in the middle of an area of active volcanism! Don't worry too much about that bit, though. Iceland's volcanoes are well monitored and if there was any risk of imminent eruptions, the authorities would certainly not allow access to Askja.
 
To the north-west of Viti can be found a stone monument that was erected in memory of the two German scientists who disappeared without trace in 1907 while researching the Öskjavatn caldera lake (by the memorial there's even a guest book). Another monument in their memory can be found at the spot where the two are believed to have set off on their fateful last boat trip on Öskjavatn's icy waters (this one was erected in 1950 by a team of scientists from Austria): this other monument, however, is three to four hours' hike away from Viti, so impossible to do when on an organized tour.
 
However, some really brave participants have ventured to go for a swim even in those icy waters of Öskjavatn after the balmy soak in Viti's crater lake. Be warned, though: at a water temperature that even in summer is normally just marginally above freezing this is only for the really tough. I happily declined …
 
After the hike back to the car park and the usual stop at the mountain huts at Dreki (with toilet facilities) it is then time for the long, long drive back to the starting point, i.e. hours of rickety trundling along rough tracks and fording rivers. More stopovers may include one at a spot where you can go for a short hike to the banks of the fast-flowing Jökulsa a Fjöllum. This is the river that takes large volumes of glacial meltwater from the Vatnajökull icecap towards the sea via several waterfalls en route (the largest of them Dettifoss several miles further downstream – see 'combinations' below).
 
All in all, it cannot be overstated what a fantastic and exhilarating experience such a trip is. Absolutely worth the effort, time and money! For me, it was easily the top highlight of my trip to Iceland (which was so full of so many highlights anyway).
 
 
Location: almost as remote as it can get in the whole of remote Iceland: right in the heart of the uninhabited highlands, some 45 miles (70 km) from the ring road and Myvatn (as the crow flies – you have to drive in a substantially more roundabout way and on very slow tracks!)
 
Google maps locator: [65.047,-16.726]
  
 
Access and costs: very remote, reachable only after a long drive through difficult terrain, best done on a tour; free for individual visitors, but tours are costly (though adequately so).
 
Details: To get to Viti it's really best to join a tour – the most established group tours by bus, run by Myvatn Tours, depart from Reykjahlid near Myvatn and last a whole long day (10-12 hours). Private tours of similar length or even longer are also offered by some tour operators. In any case, make no mistake: Viti is really remote. Very remote.
 
The only alternative way of getting there is to drive the gruelling route yourself, which can only be done by sturdy 4x4 and involves fording several rivers and endless miles of slow, rickety rough "tracks". It's an adventure not without its risks (best done in convoy) – but if you feel up for it: the car park for the hike to Askja/Viti is at the end of the F88 inland route beyond the intersection with the F910 (which continues to the even more difficult Sprengisandur route all the way to the south). Do observe the rules: actually going off road is strictly forbidden and can result in hefty fines. This is a measure to protect Iceland's delicate soil: tyre marks could be there for decades if not centuries to come! So you have to stay on the marked tracks, no matter how rough they get compared to the invitingly smooth-looking land around …
 
The guided coach tours, on special buses adapted for the rough terrain, are the much more comfortable option – even though it means you have to share the experience with a group. I didn't mind that so much – and the guide was great fun.
 
Whatever your means of transport, though, you have to come with provisions (no shops or cafes en route) and equipped with appropriate clothing and hiking boots. Even in summer there can be blizzards and the slopes of Viti can be very muddy, so waterproof trousers and jackets are advised.
 
Costs: The price tag may appear high, at currently (in 2012) 120 EUR per person – but you have to take into account what a long day you get for this. Private tours (from two persons) can set you back even more, in the region of 180-250 EUR per head, but are of course more exclusive, so it may be worth the extra costs. If you have your own vehicle, access to Viti and Askja is free – but the still substantial rental costs for the necessary 4x4 has to be factored in all the same!
  
Note that access to Askja (and the entire highlands) is limited to the short summer period – which is the main holiday season for Iceland anyway. Inland roads through the uninhabited moonscape interior of Iceland are usually open for about eight weeks or so in July and August (sometimes later). Even then, it's not uncommon to encounter snow here: as I was getting out of the water at Viti a blizzard started!
 
One more word about swimming in Viti: you really should go naked … because the sulphur in the water would ruin any swimwear (as it would jewellery, esp. silver – so you really have to go naked-naked!). And you'll stink of sulphur (rotten eggs) until you've had a proper shower once you get back to civilization. But then again, everybody in the group who dared to take the dip will stink the same, so at least you won't stand out … Oh, and of course if you do intend to go swimming in Viti, do not forget to take towels too.
 
Finally, you have to be reasonably fit for this "adventure", first it's a hike across the lava from the end of the "track" to the crater rim, and to get to the water level at Viti, you need to scramble down (and back up!) the crater wall, which is steep and can be very slippery, but it's manageable. Of course you'll get dirty too, not just stinky. But it is so worth it. So exhilarating.        
 
 
Time required: The organized tours from Myvatn take 10-12 hours; you have to be there early for registration. And unless you're lucky enough to be staying in Reykjahlid itself, you have to factor in evening driving time to your place of accommodation, so do not plan anything else for the day!
 
If you're going independently in a suitable 4x4 you may be able to make it to Viti and back in much less time, especially if you also make fewer stops en route. But it will still take the better part of a day all the same – and rushing it would not do the whole operation justice.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: The area from where the guided tours start, by Myvatn lake ('mosquito-lake' – named very appropriately: there are billions of them by the water!), is also full of other volcanic sights/sites – esp. the hike around the more recent lava fields of Krafla, still steaming away from the warm ground amidst smaller cinder cones, is a particular highlight. In this area there's also another crater called Viti – not to be confused with the one at Askja, and less dramatic, but also worth a look (and much easier to access).
 
The most moon-like crater of them all is Hverfjall, south of the road leading east from Myvatn. South of this is a an old lava field of Dimmuborgir, where some odd shapes can be marvelled at. With a bit of imagination you can see trolls and witches' heads and the like – all this apparently inspired a well-known black metal band from Norway to take its name from this site).
 
Iceland's best geothermal field at Namafjall with its spectacular fumaroles and bubbling mud ponds is nearby too.
 
From Myvatn you can also go on various scenic flights in small aircraft, the best of which include flying over Askja and Viti, as well as parts of the massive Vatnajökull icecap. An aerial view gives you an even better impression of just how desolate this part of the world is – these flights are of course very expensive, but worth it (ca. 200 EUR per person for ca. 90 minutes).
 
If Askja wasn't remote and adventurous enough for you, you can even go on tours venturing deeper into the middle of nowhere, especially to Kverkfjöll further south, where the Icelandic slogan "the land of ice and fire" is really justified. Here another field of geothermal activity literally meets the ice on the edge of the mighty Vatnajökull icecap and has melted deep ice caves into it. Going in has to be approached with extreme caution, though.
 
To the west of the icecap the demanding Sprengisandur route (F26) traverses the highland all the way to the south – connected to Askja by the F910 – the western part of which is the very remotest of all the highland routes in Iceland. Here, driving requires appropriately sturdy 4x4s and you should only go in convoy, never alone.
 
Other relevant sites in Iceland can better be reached from the capital Reykjavik on the other side of the island, in particular Heimaey, which requires a short scheduled flight.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The trip to Askja and Viti is in itself not entirely dark, but rather one of the extra-special scenic highlights of all those many splendours Iceland has to offer in this respect. And much more of this can be found within feasible driving distances from Reykjahlid , which is the starting point of the Askja tours. Not least there are the glorious Asbyrgi and Jökulsargljufur canyons with Dettifoss, Europe's most powerful waterfall as the most dramatic element of it all.
 
Husavik, on the coast north of Myvatn, is Iceland's foremost centre for whale-watching boat tours. However, I had much more luck on the tour from Olafsvik on the Sneafellsnes peninsula in western Iceland, but that may not have been representative.  
 
Finally, much nearer Myvatn there is also an alternative to the famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik's airport. The Myvatn version is more prosaically called Myvatn Nature Baths but more or less offers exactly the same thing. It's also less crowded and less expensive, though at 2800 ISK/18 EUR still not cheap … nothing in Iceland is.
 
 
 
  • Viti 1 - with people bathingViti 1 - with people bathing
  • Viti 2 - and Oskjuvatn in the backgroundViti 2 - and Oskjuvatn in the background
  • Viti 3 - warm water and blizzardViti 3 - warm water and blizzard
  • Viti 4 - dark volcanic wasteland and snowy mountainsViti 4 - dark volcanic wasteland and snowy mountains
  • Viti 5 - lava field in the fogViti 5 - lava field in the fog
  • Viti 6 - yours truly in the central Icelandic desert of AskjaViti 6 - yours truly in the central Icelandic desert of Askja
  • Viti 7 - indeed an isolated spotViti 7 - indeed an isolated spot
 
 

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