In the morning, still dark and drizzly, we drove just a few miles from Hof (just off the bottom right of this map) to reach the access road for the Skaftafell wilderness in the Vatnajokull National Park. From the road, we could see the Skaftafellsjokull glacier lying in its valley beneath the giant glacial cap, across the sands and tundra:
The parking lot was full, and tour buses bound for glacier walks were loading, but not too many people were actually around. We went into the visitors' center to look at the trail maps, and get the lay of the land. It was pretty cold and raw, but some native Icelanders in their Lopi sweaters seemed to barely feel it. The Japanese, on the other hand were bundled up in parkas and high-tech rainsuits from top to toe.
Concerned about the weather, we decided to climb up to the Svartifoss waterfall first, and if we had time later, to take the flat trail that ends very close to the Skaftafellsjokull glacier. As it turned out, we only did the first hike, but were very glad we'd made that choice. So we headed out in the opposite direction of the people above, to the north and west, up the mountain.
The mountains are split with gorges, each of which seemed to contain numerous waterfalls, cascading off precipitous cliffs skirted by the trail, mostly without ropes or rails, only an occasional warning:
Once we'd gained some height, we could begin to really appreciate the extent of the glacial outwash plain below, so large that we couldn't really see the sea beyond.
Finally we got our first glimpse of Svartifoss, the Black Falls:
We drew closer.
From the bluff on the right near the falls, a trail led down to its base.
These astonishing rock forms are columnar basalt, which results when an unusually thick basaltic lava flow cools and cracks. It's such an iconic feature of Icelandic landscapes that national poets have written about it, painters have painted it, and architects have emulated the five-and-six-sided columnar forms in their buildings. But before I saw Svartifoss, one of the most famous and dramatic examples of columnar basalt in the world, I hadn't recognized what I was seeing in less-dramatic places. In fact, one of the drawings I had done a couple of years before was of columnar basalt, but I didn't even know it. (Devil's Tower in Wyoming, and the Giant's Causeway in Ireland are other examples of the same geologic structure.)
From Svartifoss we continued to the left, up the mountain, on steps formed from sections of the basalt, which looked just like ancient ruins.
I found out something interesting when looking for references to the Icelandic Stuðlaberg which is their much more beautiful name for columnar basalt. The word Stuðlar means pillar-stone or basaltic pillar and stafr, which means approximately the same thing. The Old Norse alphabet, or Runic Alphabet, contained straight lines also called pillars or staves. Studul is a characteristic of old Norse song, referring to its rock-fast form that allowed it to be committed to memory. I should ask Language Hat for more about these word origins, in which the early words for these basalt pillars seem to have become terms for unchangeable, steady forms that gave structure to oral Norse poetry and in music. And guess what? Even Icelandic knitting patterns draw their inspiration and name from studlaberg; it's part of the bedrock of Icelandic consciousness. Once I had made the connection, through Svartifoss, I saw it everywhere.