Iceland has been quite prominent in the world media these last months because of an eruption in the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, the ash emitted from the volcano causing immense flight delays in Europe. Although the volcano caused a lot of damage for the farmers in the area because of floods and ash fallout, life goes on in the region while the volcano continues to be active. Eyjafjallajökull is located in the district of East Rangárþing, which has a great number of natural treasures. These days the most interesting place to visit in Iceland is undoubtedly Rangárþing as you are able to see a volcano in action and also experience all the other treasures of the region.
Eventful weeks after the eruption
East Rangárþing is a vast district in the South of Iceland, which ranges from the highlands to the sea. It has a great number of geological wonders, a fact which has pushed the district, according to Þuríður Halldóra Aradóttir, the district’s representative for public relations, to seek to become a member of the European Geopark Network along with two other districts; Mýrdalshreppur and Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Hvolsvöllur is the region’s biggest town and all operations relating to the eruption have been organized from there. The main industries in the area are agriculture and tourism and Hvolsvöllur is in fact the only town in Iceland which has not been established by the sea or a river, but entirely as a center of service for the area.
“We Icelanders have,
of course, grown up living in a volcanically active country so one could say it was in our blood to deal with this strong force and therefore we have a great civil defense operation for that purpose,” says Þuríður. “As soon as a lot of earthquakes began to be detected around the volcano, an operation was set into motion to monitor Eyjafjallajökull and prepare to the utmost for a possible eruption. “The most dangerous issue concerning an eruption like this is perhaps in relation to the floods. Fortunately, our levees have been proven to be efficient. It has actually been said that they could hold four times more water than originally was believed. In fact, we are celebrating the levees’ centennial, as it’s a hundred years ago this year since the farmers started to load the original part of those we have today, using only wheelbarrows to transfer the gravel,” says Þuríður.
According to Þuríður, people in the areas closest to the volcano were well informed about the clearance procedure. Because of the good cooperation between the inhabitants, rescue teams and local authorities, everything has been going according to plan. Right now, there is a great magnitude of water in the river Markarfljót which runs from under the glacier, although it is mainly caused by the yearly spring thaw.
The eruption and the tremendous ash fall in the first days was of course a horrible experience, especially for the farmers. But right now, the ash has become more or less harmless. Most of the farmers will be able to make hay this summer, but those who live next to the volcano will need to till their fields next summer and make use of the ash as a fertilizer. Right now, we are working on finding enough hay and fields for those farmers, so they can continue their farming successfully,” says Þuríður.
Most of the animals remained in the area, although some horses, which were grazing near the volcano, were moved away. “We still had some horses outdoors when the ash fall was at its maximum, but it has not caused them any damage. The vets are amazed by how well they are holding out,” says Hildur.
Many volunteers have been helping with the cleansing of the farms that were hit worst by the ash fall. “We’ve been getting more than enough help from people from all over the country. The houses and the roofs need to be cleaned as well as the surrounding area. The cleaning is still ongoing, but right now it’s at a temporary standstill as we’ve just been hit with a new wave of ashfall.”Misguiding media coverage
It seems that people outside of Iceland have been receiving a rather misguiding image of what is actually going on as the coverage has been rather dramatic on the whole, suggesting that it is actually dangerous to be anywhere in Iceland. That is not the case as Þuríður explains: “The surreal thing about all this is the fact that the damage caused was much more in Europe than here, because of all the flight delays. The only restricted area or danger area right now is the Eyjafjallajökull glacier itself. Mýrdalsjökull, which is just east of Eyjafjallajökull, is open and people are going there on jeep excursions.
“I think, in fac
t, that this eruption created more possibilities than hindrances for those wanting to experience Iceland. It is a very special opportunity to get to experience a volcanic eruption and yet be completely safe at the same time.” People have also been concerned that Katla, the volcano situated in Mýrdalsjökull, would follow this eruption. “They have been speculating about an eruption in Katla since I was a little girl, but you can’t stop living because of mere speculations,” says Þuríður. According to scientists, this eruption in Eyjafjallajökull is like an average eruption in Katla. Furthermore, there is nothing that suggests Katla is going to erupt any time soon, with no earthquakes under the glacier.
Travelers always need to be careful when they travel around Iceland, though, especially in the higlands. A big information center has been opened in Hvolsvöllur, where tourists can get all the necessary information about the volcano, where in the highlands it is safe to go and where it is not, both concerning hiking and driving and where to get the service needed. The information center is right by the highway when entering the town from the direction of Reykjavík.Various opportunities
The volcano is nevertheless not the only sight to see in East Rangárþing. The district contains many natural treasures as well as being the scene of one of the renowned Icelandic Sagas, the Saga of the burning of Njáll.
Some of the more famous places are for example Skógar, with its amazingly picturesque Skógarfoss waterfall; Seljalandsfoss waterfall, behind which it is possible to walk; and the Þórsmörk, which is a beautiful and fertile mountain ridge north of Eyjafjallajökull with various trekking routes in the area and so is very popular among hikers. “Then we also have less known natural wonders, like an abundance of caves, some of which have been made into outhouses with man-made extensions. We also have this great ring of mountains and if you drive around it you will find plenty of waterfalls,” Þuríður explains.
A new harbour will be taken into use this summer called Landeyjarhöfn, in a distance of only 30 minutes from Hvolsvöllur. There you will get to the Westmanna Islands in half an hour, which is a new and quicker way to reach the islands. “You can also go see the vast, black coast there, it is quite amazing,” says Þuríður.
There are plenty of options for accommodation in the area, ranging from camp-sites and hostels to high budget possibilities and then you will also find plenty of farmhouse accommodation in the area. “ says Þuríður.
The people of East Rangárþing have gone through a lot lately, the ash fallout and floods causing a lot of extra work to be done as well as general uncertainties. Despite everything, daily life goes on and at this moment the people in the district are learning to live with the plume of ash hovering above them, being constantly a part of the horizon. In all other ways, people continue doing whatever they were doing before. But to witness the geological wonders as well as hearing people’s stories about the eruption, ash and floods, is a treasure for anyone yearning to take in new experiences, culture and nature.