What is it really like to watch a live volcano erupt? I know - I just saw one. Here's a guide to finding out how to do it safely, and what it feels like to see it taking place
I'm one of the lucky ones - I was out in Iceland two weeks before the volcanic ash stopped all flights to and from the UK and managed to get back safely. But not only that, I have a story that's going to last me a lifetime - I actually saw a live volcano erupt and lived to tell the tale.
I'm a genuine Icelandophile and have been going out to the country for nearly ten years now, after a stint in my early twenties when I worked in Reykjavik as a writer. In those days, the city was booming, the clubs and bars were buzzing and nobody talked about volcanoes, currency crashes or joining the EU. Today, the country seems only to hit the headlines for bad news: its currency crash and the disintegration of its banks means that it's had to throw itself on the mercy of the IMF, the UK and Holland, and that pesky volcano on Eyjafjallajokull glacier that has spoilt travel plans for people all across Europe.
Standing, shivering in a moss-covered lava field at -9C at dusk, I had no idea of the chaos this volcano would cause. Not that it looked benign, but the thought that it could cause headlines around Europe for over a week seemed inconceivable. Staying at the delightfully quirky Hotel Ranga in south Iceland (this is a hotel where you're greeted by a stuffed polar bear and served smoked puffin for dinner), Kristinn from the hotel told me he wanted to head up to see the volcano erupting under ten miles away at dusk and would I like to join him? How could you say no? Within an hour I was wrapped up in the back of a 4x4, driving at hectic speeds across an otherworldly environment where there were no perceptible roads. Off roading in Iceland is illegal because they need to protect the unique environment and Kristinn assured me that this was a road, even if it was punctuated at various points by glacial rivers of uncertain depths.
We weren't the only ones to take this trip - at times, the route looked like a monster truck convention, with hundreds of huge 4x4s with overinflated wheels taking to the field and helicopters buzzing around our heads like flies. When we got as far as we could go, about two miles from the volcano, we stopped and stood and stared.
The land stopped abruptly ahead of us and turned into a glacier, much of which was now a dirty grey colour thanks to the falling ash, rather than its typical pure white. And in the midst of it all, red-hot magma was thrown up into the air, we estimated around 500m high, and two thin streams of lava made their way down the edge, like an overflowing coffee cup with some very hot contents. At this point, estimates suggested that the volcano would go on in this mild fashion for three to six months and the possibility that it would ignite Katla, another nearby volcanic zone, was still on the cards.
All I knew was that this glowing red mass in front of me sent a shiver down my spine. I’ve visited volcanoes before – in Italy and elsewhere in Iceland – but never seen one actually erupt. Calling it nature’s fireworks seems so trite – it was more than that, it was a show of the earth’s might and power and as mesmerising a sight as any I’ve seen. For once, it's put us all in our place - the natural world is really powerful and Iceland, with its barren nature and extreme environments, is just the place to go to experience it. We missed some of the most spectacular sights however - the lightening running through the volcanic cloud, which you can see now, and the northern lights above the caldera. If it's a clear night and you're lucky, you might see the view of a lifetime.
Our drive back took forever as the narrow road through the lava fields was by now full of Land Rovers and the like, and the country’s volunteer outdoor rescue service were out in force, winching cars from rivers that were deeper than imagined.
For all the chill to my cheeks and bumpy ride across terrain not made for tyres like ours, it was more than worth it. And every time I see it on the news, I think, slightly smugly, to myself: I was there. And I got back OK.
Booking the trip
Hotel Ranga was running 4X4 trips and helicopter tours to the volcano and, if that all seems like too much trouble, you can even relax in their outdoor hot tub and see the eruption from there. Alternatively, if you prefer to stay in Reykjavik, you can take a tour from the city with Iceland Excursions (Reykjavik; 00 354 540 1313; www.icelandexcursions.is) to the volcanic zone to see it for yourself – the volcano is within an easy drive of the city, around an hour away.