Three years and two months ago, the European travel industry faced a serious impairment. For days and weeks at a time, air traffic was disrupted by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano with a name nobody could pronounce properly: Eyjafjallajökull. The volcanic ash this mountain had disgorged into the atmosphere made flights over great parts of Europe impossible and seared the name of the volcano deeply into the European conscience. Today, it is a landmark, as famous as the Blue Lagoon or the Geysirs. A visit at Eyjafjallajökull.
It is early in the morning, mist is in the air, and the sun did not show its warm rays yet. Overcast by clouds a huge mountain overlooks a large, lonely farm in the midst of enormous, lush green meadows and fields. The picturesque farm in their middle is called Thorwaldseyri and it is known around the world – for its position at the foot of a volcanic glacier whose eruption shut down European air traffic for weeks from mid-April to May 2010. The top of the mountain overlooking the farm is the top of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull.
In Iceland, the eruption was regarded as a relatively ordinary natural spectacle. To the rest of Europe, however, it meant a terrible catastrophe whose primarily economic aftermath was not predictable. Indeed, several hundred people living around the active volcano had to be evacuated at first. Yet, in the end everything turned out to be less dangerous than the Icelandic administration had assumed.
Even Olafur Eggertson, occupant of the Thorwaldseyri farmsted and next neighbor to the lava hell, kept cool: When the mountain started to jet smoke, the first thing he did in the face of the imminent danger was to get his Nikon camera and snap photographs of what happened at the mountain-top in his backyard. These pictures attracted worldwide attention.
“I have witnessed more than 25 eruptions”, says the 60-year-old father and grandfather whose whole family lives at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, “I was well prepared and being warned in advance. We knew that something would happen.” He does not conceal the fact that of the 25 eruptions the one of 2010 was the worst by far. But still: “Volcanic events are quite normal to Icelanders,” explains Olafur.
Yet, in April 2010, he did not only have to fight against an inconceivable ashfall. The situation was worse…
Olafur was most worried about his animals, more that 200 cows. “We couldn’t evacuate them. So we locked them in the barn, dammed all windows and doors with hay and straw and hoped for the best,” explains the farmer who manages the acreage in third-generation and is deemed to be the richest peasant in Iceland. His cows all survived the volcanic eruption.
Luckily for Olafor and his family, the farm was spared from the body of water flooding down from the melted glacier. The water went down elsewhere, channeling its way to the sea and taking streets and bridges with it. No people were in immediate danger – partly due to the fact that nearly three quarters of the Icelandic population live in or at the borders of the capital, Reykjavik, and settlement is spare elsewhere.
What remained in Thorwaldseyri was masses of ash and privacy that was not privacy any more. “There were journalists and tourists knocking at our doors all the time and requesting to see the farm or take pictures. We didn’t have any time for ourselves even after the cleanup,” reports Olafur. That is, until his daughter had a brainwave: An Eyjafjallajökull museum…
The museum is a small building on Iceland’s encircling highway, just opposite of Thorwaldseyri. It is led by Olafurs wife, Gudny, and is meant to convey the whole story to the visitor. They even show a documentary movie of the eruption and the counter-measurements that were taken by Olafur and his family in a small cinema. They sell genuine Eyjafjallajökull ash in jam jars, or posters explaining how to bake a volcano cake erupting with hot chocolate when served. Long story short: volcano-crazy tourists will get everything they desire.
The museum fits the needs of Iceland enthusiasts fascinated by the country’s rough climate and its incalculability. The museum follows a marketing strategy that could not have worked out any better. More than 20.000 visitors came in the first five months after the opening in 2011 already. Their numbers are steadily increasing. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was a bonanza for the Eggertson family. Additionally to the earnings the museum generates, meadows and mountainside are much more fertile since 2010 – thanks to the volcanic ash.
Eyjafjallajökull and its museum, which is only a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, have become landmarks of their own – standing on a level with the Blue Lagoon or the Great Geysir – notwithstanding that volcanic activity is a rather normal natural spectacle in Iceland.
This post’s featured picture was shot by Jon Söring. See his flickr profile for more fantastic shots of the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull.
My trip to Iceland was supported by Dertour.