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Translated Jeff Matthews

Yesterday evening, when I arrived at the River Guesthouse of Skulagardur, where I would spend the last days of my visit to Iceland, I noticed the vast valley where the building stood. I wondered why I had ventured so far north and put this site on my itinerary. Maybe I was tired from all the moving about, or maybe I just couldn't keep up with the constant bombardment of everything over the last few days. After a night's rest I had a look at my notes—what had driven me here? There it was; Dettifoss, the great falls of the Jökulsá and Fjöllum rivers.

Indeed, mighty Dettifoss is great and roaring—the most majestic of all waterfalls in Iceland. That is what brought me here. But it wasn't right around the corner. To get there I'd have to make my way over the dirt road I had learned to fear—but which, by all accounts, was worth it! The road, itself, was no worse than many others—a winding road among an immense lava flow. There did not, however, seem to be a single identifiable volcanic structure, a single point that one could identify as the source of this flow. It's as if, at the dawn of time, rock made fluid by enormous heat simply erupted and flowed forth without generating the classic volcanic cone (photo 1).

1. The endless spread of lavic rock

I now proceed with caution along the dirt road while large off-road vehicles pass me at high speed, throwing up clouds of pulverized rock that with an evil ring strike and bounce off my windshield. I back off a bit from the cars in front, imagining the damage from boulder-sized “pebbles” thrown back at me by those heavy-duty tires. The horizon is flat and as I move along I wonder where the mountain might be that would generate these famous falls; there is still nothing on the horizon, but suddenly the spread of lavic rock is broken by an equally vast concentration of brush flowering in intense lilac. Perhaps lupin? (Lupinus micranthus) (photo 2).

2. Lupinus micranthus

All of a sudden, just over a low rise in the road, I see off in the distance what might be mistaken for—if we weren't in the middle of nowhere—a storage parking lot for a car factory. There are hundreds of vehicles parked helter-skelter among the pointed spires of rock and from this mass of machinery there issues forth an endless chain of humans, like ants marching on their way to a food source. I figure I have arrived, but I still don't know where the falls are or where the mountain is. I park, gather up my gear and join the surreal procession. One kilometer later I reach a small rise, an extended bank of column lava, solidified and broken up into geometric patterns of blocks (photo 3). At that point there is a fork in the trail but still no indication of the presence of water. But there are two signs at the fork: go to the right for “Selfoss” and to the left for “Dettifoss”. I know I'm quite near since there is now a strange spray-fog over the left-hand trail accompanied by the loud roar of falling water to herald the great drop.

3. The hill of column lava

A but further along, about one km higher up, I see for the first time the river about to go over the first of three drops: it is Selfoss. Now I understand. There is no mountain that generates the falls. Rather, the river runs along the plain and is swallowed suddenly by a deep fracture in the valley. I will then later read that at some point in the distant past (I'm not sure when) an enormous movement in the earth literally gouged open this wound in the basalt plain on the surface, rerouting the course of the river and swallowing it down three successive waterfalls.

4. Selfoss

After another few hundred meters I'm at the top of the rise. The scene is awe-inspiring. The deafening roar covers the voices of those standing right next to me. The majesty and the power of nature have simply exploded—there I am, standing before the monster, Dettifoss (photo 5). Billions of water droplets fill the air and cover the rock, made slippery by the moss that grows everywhere. I inch up to lean over the abyss and realize how small humans are. I want to take photos but the lens is covered by a veil of water and any attempt to dry it off is useless. I am downwind, as well. Helpless. I'll try to get a few shots, though, just to give an idea of the kind of power I'm talking about.

5. Dettifoss

I'd like to get over to the other side where I see people standing upwind from the drenching spray; they're managing to get right up to edge of the drop just a few meters from the water and take good photos. That, however, is out of the question for me; it's simply too far to walk all the way around to the other side. I let it go. I'm back at the River Guesthouse by late afternoon and am welcomed back by the majestic sculpture of an eagle, the iconic symbol of the establishment (photo 6). I'm tired but satisfied with what I have seen.

6. The Eagle, symbol of the River Guesthouse

Tomorrow morning I leave on the last leg of my journey (the geysers). That area is about 100 km east of Reykjavik. Then I'm homeward bound.

(to be continued...)

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