Destinations

Iceland volcano site a tourist drawcard

Julia Waeschenbach - DPA

It’s arguably the most famous volcano of the past five years with arguably the most unpronounceable name.

But Eyjafjallajokull is now a major tourism attraction, drawing masses of visitors to its slopes every year.

The volcano erupted in 2010, sending untold volumes of black ash thousands of metres into the skies.

Winds carried the huge cloud to northern Europe, affecting the weather and seriously disrupting aviation. More than 100,000 flights were cancelled and millions of passengers left stranded.

Today, at the scene of where it all started, it’s clear nothing is the same as it was before the eruption.

Among other things, the volcano is now a magnet for tens of thousands of tourists.

With patches of snow here and there and looking ever so peaceful, the volcanic mountain in the south of Iceland rises from a landscape of greenish-yellow farmland.

Five years ago, that same landscape was covered in a coat of grey ash.

“During what normally should have been broad daylight, it was as dark as in winter,” recalls Olafur Eggertsson, 62, a farmer whose homestead named Thorvaldseyri lies on the southern side of Eyjafjallajokull.

During the eruptions, his family was forced to flee three times. They always kept packed suitcases ready.

Now tourists are streaming to the volcano to take photos.

Many curious travellers would ring the doorbell of the Eggertsson’s home and after a while, the family decided to set up a small museum across the road.

In 2014, they counted 74,000 visitors.

“This volcanic eruption affected so many people,” Olafur’s wife Gudny Valberg, 61, says.

“They come here and want to share their experiences with us.”

Information panels illustrate the events of five years ago.

The eruption began on March 20 in a pass located between two other snow-covered volcanoes.

The museum also shows a 20-minute documentary with pictures showing how, three weeks later, the mountain began spewing ash.

In the museum, small bottles containing the ashes are on sale.

In April 2010, Eyjafjallajokull spewed forth such huge amounts of ash Eggertsson’s farm was completely buried.

The cover was only removed after months of work with the help of friends and neighbours.

But the family counts itself lucky. Miraculously, their house was spared.

“Things could have been a whole lot worse,” Gudny Valberg says.

The farm and visitors centre are located directly on the Golden Circle route favoured by many travellers.

The route is very popular with short term visitors. In just a few hours, travellers in rental cars leaving from the capital Reykjavik can see geysers, waterfalls and Thingvellir National Park – and, of course, Eyjafjallajokull.

But there is another way of reaching it, through the magical Porsmork Valley with its dreamlike landscape.

Deep-green moss covers the cold lava boulders between which crowberries – a hearty evergreen and one of the few plants able to survive in the forbidding climate – spring up. Mountains tower above both sides of the valley.

This route is more exciting but only by travelling in all-terrain vehicles modified to handle the rough ride atop snow-covered rock fragments and raging rivers.

It’s advisable to go with a guide.

“You never know where the dangers are lurking,” says one, Ingi Thorbjornsson.

In winter visitors need to be extremely vigilant. You’ll only find out the depth of the water beneath the thick layer of snow when it’s too late.

In the summer it’s easier for hikers to reach the glacier but make sure you take a good map.

“Otherwise you might wind up facing an impassable gorge,” Thorbjornsson says.

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