Getting in a lava . . . .

I had to have a word. It really wasn’t good enough. The brute had caused a whole lot of people a whole load of disruption and inconvenience, and not inconsiderable expense. And all because he had overheated and over-reacted without warning, and without, frankly, any good reason to do so. One moment all was calm, next he was spluttering and spitting and making a load of noise and having the mother of all tantrums. It was days before he calmed down and longer before all the mess and destruction he had caused in his uncontrolled eruption of anger could be sorted out and cleaned up.

Such behaviour cannot just be ignored, or it will happen again and again. Bad attitude needs to be confronted, exposed and dealt with – in an adult way, face to face.

So – 2 months after I was deserted in Budapest by the random eruption of a volcano in Iceland *, it was time to pay him a visit and have that tough conversation. Apparently he had calmed down considerably, was much more placid, quiet, approachable and was unlikely to go off on one. Although, he remained unpredictable, and no doubt could blow a fuse at a moment’s notice. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to pussyfoot around or tread on eggshells; things had to be said, and with someone as big and stubborn and intransigent as he was – they would have to be spelled out very loud and very clear.

Of course, he had it within his power to prevent me coming over at all. With nothing less than a small letting off of steam, he could chuck some ash up in the air and stop planes arriving on his island. But he either didn’t know I was coming, or decided to let me land and deal with me on his own patch. I must say I hadn’t announced my arrival particularly, coming on a regular low-cost airline rather than anything more ostentatious. Maybe he thought that nobody in their right minds would attempt to fly so close just a few months after having been stranded thousands of miles away by his splutterings.

After a few days of preparation and lava-landscape acclimatisation, I hired a car, stocked up with food and trundled off in his direction for the big conversation. Ironically on TV that week they had shown the episode of Top Gear where James May’s attempted to drive right to the top of the volcano in a converted 4×4 with a water cooling system on its tyres. I had decided to me more subtle – I wasn’t going to be quite so much in its face, and besides I didn’t want to smell its breath. And, hey, I had a Toyota Yaris with limited power, grip, traction and credibility. I did feel a little like David to his goliath, Jack to the Giant, without a bean stalk. But I had to be bold, and I had to act big. I had to keep my nerve.

The day was bright as I left Reykjavik – and as I drove east I could see him in the distance. He looked calm, quiet and benign, almost attractive. I began to soften a little. Maybe he just had behavioural problems. Maybe his mother hadn’t loved him, or his father had been too strict with him. Maybe a few rounds of psychotherapy had helped him face up to his inner turmoil and deal with that hot temper. Or maybe he had been on a course on anger management; counting to 10 before blowing his top. Although I wouldn’t have fancied being in his therapy group.

As I continued to approach, the cloud base began to drop. Visibility diminished. And it became evident that this big brute was trying to hide. He was either shy, or he was afraid, or he was simply embarrassed, and wanted to make himself scarce. Maybe he was like a child who after shouting and yelling wildly, realises he has just made a big fool of himself and runs away to be on his own. And for such a huge beast, with limited mobility, he could hardly sneak away. All he could do was stay in his bed and pull the cloud sheets over himself and hope that nobody would notice.

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A couple of hours out of Reykjavik and I was there, staring at his considerable feet, but, looking up, unable to see anything but mist above his knees. I parked up. All around lay the evidence of his previous outburst. Expanses of eerie black ash lay everywhere – covering the beach, so it looked like some lunar landscape stretching to the sea. And after the eruption had come the tears. After he had overheated he had melted, and water had flooded down the mountains in great torrents. The bridge across one of the rivers had been totally destroyed. I had just driven along the patched up road – which was no more than a soil track on a mound of earth. Engaging 2nd gear and keeping up a good speed made it passable, although it felt that every nut and bolt on the Yaris was working free as we rattled across defiantly to the other side.

Somewhere up there, hiding under its bedclothes, he was still quietly weeping. Dramatic waterfalls of tears rolled down his sides. I visited three of them that day. One I walked behind, one I walked up to, one I climbed above. But it was hard to establish his real mood. So much water – but was this true remorse, or just more attention seeking? Was he just a big cry-baby?

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I had to get closer – try to get under its covers, beneath its skin. Leaving the last remnant of tarmac road and heading inland, I picked my way through the temporary roadways, put back quickly after the devastation. I felt like a father picking though the damage caused by an errant child throwing its toys around the room. I had a map of sorts, although it was unclear which roads were passable and which were still there. I took a photo of the map on the board near the first waterfall, but it was impossible to follow. Clearly this was a dynamically changing landscape. I drove along a reasonably firm single track between him and the main river estuary which was capturing so much of his waterworks and dumping it out to sea.

As the track divided, I stopped the car. I wasn’t sure if the Japanese had ever envisaged their little car dealing with such terrain. The road was covered in soft black ash. I took a sample and packed it in the car. Forensic evidence, in case this thing ever came to court. And cheaper than buying it for 1,000 Krona a bottle in Reykjavik.

I turned left along a bank, water now on both sides, and ever decreasing traction. I felt the tyres sinking into the soft ash. It was unclear where the road went – visibility was poor. I wanted to carry on, to defy the odds and climb up the monster’s sides, visit the land of the giant, confront him eyeball to eyeball. But he had me beat. He had pretty much destroyed access. Pulled up his drawbridge. The road would only narrow further and deteriorate. There was no sign of civilisation – and I was several miles off the road. And whilst the car hire small print had said nothing about climbing volcanoes, I am sure they would find some way of blaming me if the Yaris was to sink up to its waist in ash. It would have to be towed out, or abandoned forever as a fossil to the 21st century small and inadequate car.

I had to let reason negotiate with my bravado and my drive for adventure and closure. Risks are rarely negotiated by sheer defiance I guess. And although it felt like I could make it, sense said I should turn round. And this is where the little Yaris came into its own. Anything longer would have been stuck, and I would have been faced with a long reverse down this tightrope of a road with no grip. But being so short, I was able to carefully turn it around in the road using forward and reverse gears and a sufficient judgement not to tip off the road and into the water. He wasn’t going to get me that easily.

I drove back to the previous junction. The only other possible route up was over a very narrow bridge, which traversed the main part of the river. This was the flooded river which had burst its banks after his big blubber, and removed the bridge downstream. It was still a fast torrent. The bridge was made of brick, and a series of arches, with low walls on either side. Again the smallness of the car made it more easily passable. Although it was unclear what was at the other side. To the naked eye it was just miles of black sand and water across the floodplain – no vegetation, no buildings, no signs of life. It occurred to me I was at his mercy – like a toy car on the floor of his bedroom. One spit from his mouth or flick of his finger, and he could dispose of me as a minor irritation. I really should have picked on someone my own size.

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It was a long bridge – with an uneven surface to say the least – and it took a good 5 minutes to get to the far end. There was a sort of track in front continuing into a formless lunar landscape. There was a chain across this end of the bridge. I stopped the car. There was a notice hanging off the chain. My Icelandic isn’t my strong point, but I knew it a “keep out – danger” sort of message when I saw one. Big red writing is normally a good clue. So my only option was to turn back and return over the “keep out danger” sort of bridge. The turning space was tight but my little wonder car managed it, and I retreated again.

I was pretty much defeated. There seemed no way of ascending or getting closer to the brute. Above me was now only a few hundred feet and then the low cloud. He had withdrawn, hidden in his bed, and all I could do was meander and skid across his floor. So maybe he had learned his lesson. Too frightened to talk, scared of confrontation, uncomfortable with dealing with his emotions, out of touch with his feminine side.

As for me – I had no great satisfaction. Who was to say on one unsuspecting trip somewhere in the world, he would not exact his revenge and ground me in some forsaken city and maybe this time with no option of driving home? Or maybe, just maybe, he has seen sense, thought about it and cooled down. I had no closure either way. But no hard feelings big fella. It’s been an adventure and I conceded defeat gracefully. But next time, pick on someone your own size.

Was that the wind or a soft chuckle echoing down from the clouds?

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