Holuhraun Eruption – A trip of a lifetime
When we planned our trip to Iceland in 2014 the main considerations were to squeeze it into our wedding season. Somehow we also tried to make sure that there were still some remainders of summer and we could explore the island by car. This lead to our trip being scheduled from early September until October. But then suddenly mid of August came news of magma flowing through a dyke within the Bardarbunga volcanic system accompanied by swarms of earthquakes.
Memories of 2010 came back, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and Europes air travel came to a halt. This was the time when I started two things. First of all I worked on plan B, which consisted of taking a ferry from Denmark via Faeroer islands to Iceland. The second thing was to monitor en.vedur.is on a daily basis to get the latest updates. This page has proven to be an invaluable source of information about weather, volcanic activity or northern lights.
Then, on August 29th, just a few days before our flight to Iceland was due I read this
“An eruption started in Holuhraun north of Dyngjujökull at around 00:02.”
I was alerted. Little did I know about volcanoes, or the nature of this eruption. But day by day i was hoping not to have our flight cancelled due to airspace closures. Thankfully on September 8th, a rainy monday, we set foot on Iceland. In downtown Reyjkavik some tour agencies already offered flights to the eruption site. As a photographer however I was not convinced that taking a regular plane would work for me. Too difficult to get rid of reflections in windows within a shaky airplane.
At first the eruption was no priority. We were off to shoot a wedding around Vik. And then travelled to the geothermal area of Landmannalaugar and to the ice worlds in the south east. But then suddenly, by a stroke of luck, the eruption came back to our focus.
On September 14th, another really rainy day, we were en route from Jökulsarlon all the way up to Egilsstaðir. Luckily, when we arrived the weather had cleared up. I decided to drive around check my luck on getting some sunset shots. I ended up at a shipwreck near the lake and decided to shoot a timelapse. When I was already almost finished an older lady showed up and asked whether I would mind letting her take some pictures (without myself as obstacle).
We started talking and when I mentioned that I would like to see the eruption, she told me that she had a helicopter flight to the site and loved it. She gave me the number of the pilot “Matthias” and the name of the place where the helicopter is located – “Möðrudalur”.
I got excited – and it paid off that we did not have a fixed travel plan. So we took our rental car and drove the ring road direction Akureyri until we reached the crossing of the road number 923 towards Möðrudalur. It was an amazing sight. Like a moonscape. What the picture does not show is the extreme wind that we faced. It was almost impossible to open the car doors.
We had already Möðrudalur in sight, when we saw that the F-road 907 was going south. This was towards the eruption site. We tried our luck to get as close as possible (and maybe to get to see something). But only after a few hundret meters we arrived at a sign that was clearly stating that we cannot go further.
So we continued our drive towards Möðrudalur. We had not expected much, but it looked absolutely beautiful. In fact there is not too much there, a church, some houses, a petrol station and a bar. Inside we asked the waitress about the flights to the eruption site. She pointed at a man sitting on one of the tables. It turned out to be Marco Nescher a photographer and book author from Liechtenstein. He told me that Matthias, the helicopter pilot was not here at the moment. Because of the storm he had to put the helicopter into a hangar in Myvatn. But we should just wait for him to come back.
Meanwhile we arranged a sleeping place. A room with a few beds and a shared bathroom was perfectly enough. We were not here for a luxury vacation. But for a luxury view on a rare event.
So we sat there and enjoyed the best meat soup I probably had in my life, enjoyed the view and relaxed. While doing so, someone a few tables away was asking “Interested to see the volcano?”. I said “yes” and we started a little conversation. He introduced himself as Erez Marom a photographer and photography workshop guide from Israel. He was showing me some amazing footage of the eruption he shot when he traveled there by land. He had what I hadn’t – a media permit. I was thrilled. But for the time being a helicopter was the only way. Without a permit, no driving to the eruption and without driving, no steady videoshots from a tripod. Nevertheless he was also interested to take a helicopter and we decided that we could share one. When Matthias arrived we arranged for a flight the following day for sunset with some extra 30 minutes spent over the lava.
When night fell in Möðrudalur I could get a first glance at the eruption glowing from 60km away.
The next day was beautiful. Clear skies, almost no wind. So we took the chance in the morning to visit the famous Dettifoss waterfall. But I made sure to be back in Möðrudalur in time to not miss my helicopter flight. When time came I double and triple checked my gear. I carefully chose my lenses. I took two bodies, one with a wide angle zoom lens, and another one with my beloved 70-200 2.8. On top of that I attached my GoPro using my head mount. We briefly took time for a group picture, then Matthias started the engine, and we headed south. Luckily for us photographers, the side doors of the helicopter were removed, so we had an unobstructed view without reflections.
From above the landscapes we were flying over looked like a piece of art. Rivers making their way through the icelandic landscape. And very soon we could see smoke rising from the far distance. The light was beautiful, sun was about to set. A photographers dream. We approached the eruption site from where the lava meets the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum. Steam was rising from the lava field.
But then our focus changed to the main eruption site. A sight I will never forget. Boiling rocks in the lava lake, just like water in a pot. Lava fountains shooting 100m into the sky. A lava river flowing out of the lake. Sometimes I stopped shooting for a few seconds just to watch. The main activity was at one of the craters that was named Baugur which translates to “Ring” in icelandic.
We circled around the lava field back and forth to capture all possible angles. Too soon Matthias reminded us that we just a a few minutes left. We wrapped up the shooting and were flying back. Overly excited of what just had seen. Without the side doors and exposed to the wind it got a bit cold inside, but we didn’t care. We were like kids who just received a big christmas present.
Back in the Möðrudalur we were sitting in the bar with our laptops, taking a first look at our images and footage. This was until Katharina rushed in and told us that another show was going on outside. A beautiful band of aurora was spanning over the sky. I just rushed outside with my camera and tripod to shoot additional images. What a crazy day.
Still the videographer within me wanted more. Putting the tripod in front of the volcano was something I just had to do. Knowing that media companies might get permit to visit the eruption site, I sent a mail to the icelandic department of civil protection stating that we were working on our Iceland film and need additional footage for our film. Knowing that there was a possibility to pick up that permit in Husavik, we drove there. The terms of the permit were, that we need an icelandic driver, and cannot go there on our own. Luckily we managed to get in touch with GeoTravel who provided us with the necessary data, so we could file our application for the permit.
The next morning, shortly after breakfast I got the confirmation that the permit was ready to be picked up at the police station. We rushed there and with this valuable piece of paper drove down to Myvatn where we met Bergþóra and her husband Sæmundur from the GeoTravel team. Shortly after noon Sæmundur, Katharina and myself left Myvatn and were en route to the eruption site. Weather was rather rainy. We passed by Möðrudalur and had our first stop at the sign that 3 days before was stopping us. It felt good to be legally able to open the gate.
What followed was a long drive. After around 3 hours we arrived at the check point. Ielandic police was guarding the area to ensure no unauthorized persons were entering the closed area. There were the possibilities of floods caused by a potential eruption under the glacier. On top the volcano had huge gas emissions. All that lead to these precautions. After checking our papers we were good to go.
Unfortunately the weather worsened. Fog and rain was reducing the visibility. When we arrived at the outskirts of the lava field, we could just see some steam rising. But no visibility at all of the main eruption site and the lava fountains. We stopped close to the place where the river meets the lava. Then turned back to the car in order to drive to where the lava action is.
At first we had some doubts on whether maybe suddenly the eruption has come to a halt. As there was absolutely nothing to see. But soon we could see it. The fog cleared and we realized, we made it.
Coming closer, we saw the main crater “Baugur” spitting lava. I had seen the place from the helicopter. But standing a few hundret meters away is a different story. You feel much more vulnerable. But I was already in my working mode. Sæmundur gave me a gas mask. But I just put it around my neck and focused on shooting the images (mainly video) I came here for. I had to use my rain cover as it was still heavily raining.
In the distance Sæmundur had the car engine running, and ready to take us out of any potential danger zone if needed. It was thrilling, scary and exciting.
We waited for the night, when the lava was glowing in the dark. For the first time in my life I heard the sound of a volcano. The sound of the lava lake – like a gigantic washing machine. I just kept the camera rolling and shot minute after minute of eruption footage.
Knowing that we had a long drive back after a few hours on site (in fact it felt like minutes) we had to leave. In the mirror of the Superjeep I could still see the lava glowing as we drove away.
Again, like when flying back 2 days before with the helicopter. We couldn’t believe what we had seen. The conversations in the car were still about how amazing the scenery had been.
However one thing did not work out that day. We had hoped of being able to get one last portion of that legendary meat soup in the bar in Mödrudalur. But when we arrived there, it had already closed.
The result of the video shoot is compiled into this film. Enjoy and share it.
Whether there will be any eruption like this, I do not know. This was the biggest eruption in Iceland for 200 years. But I know that within me something started that day, the desire to see more of this.
Daniel Haußmann is a photographer and videographer at Lumen Art Studio. Based in Frankfurt, Germany he is specialized in all kinds of aerial imaging, image films and documentaries. Together with his wife Katharina, he is offering high class wedding films (www.lumen-art-studio.de).
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