The little chartered plane made a steep ascending bank from Reykjavik airport and set course for the southwest, to the island of Heyma-øj, recently the scene of a fierce volcanic outburst, which had covered half of the island with soot, pumice and ash.
Our four children, then aged four to 13, sat in the back of the plane, rehearsing the Icelandic names the pilot had assigned to them: Sigurd Sigurdssøn, Thordis Sigurdsdottir, and so on.
I was Sigurd, and clutched a precious press card, issued by a quality newspaper in the Netherlands. We were among the first to be granted access to Heyma-øj, Icelandic citizen with press accreditation only, and were to witness and photograph the still fire-belching volcano, which even the National Geographic people had not been able to visit yet.
How did it come about?
It was the summer (August) of 1973, our family of six was going to spend an 8-month sabbatical in the US, and had decided, for both budgetary and tourist reasons, to fly by way of Iceland with Loftleidir, the only airline which was allowed budget rates by the then all-powerful IATA, by way of a mid-Atlantic stop in Iceland. We chose to stay there for a week, had rented a large Bronco jeep, and were going to reconnoiter the empty northeastern part of Iceland, with the stunning Askja Mountains, where the American astronauts had trained for their lunar expeditions.
On the day of our scheduled departure from Copenhagen we learned about the volcanic eruption in Heyma-øj. A good acquaintance of mine, then editor-in-chief of Holland's leading quality newspaper, had gotten the use of our Amsterdam apartment to iron over an upcoming divorce. I called him and explained the need for a press card. Backed up by our generosity to let him have the apartment for free (there was a tiny bit of arm twisting there) and upon the solemn promise only to use this press card on Iceland, a courier managed to get the card to us in time.
Upon our arrival in Iceland, it was still impossible to reach Heyma-øj. A constant blizzard of pumice blew on the island, covering the land surface with debris, whereas a 20 feet wall of red-hot lava crept on the little harbourtown, entombing boats, buildings and roads.
We set out on our Northeastern tour. It was an experience hard to forget. Iceland is the youngest volcanic creation known to the world - about a quarter of a million years old - and is dominated by a huge glacier of eternal snow and ice, the size of New Hampshire.
On our way to Dettifoss falls - the second largest falls in the world - we traversed 60 miles of infernal landscapes, spouting geysers, yellow-bubbling sulfur fields, and occasional blue underground lakes where we could swim in pleasantly heated water (segregated on this God-forsaken place for the sexes in "his" and "her" signs), without meeting a single human car or other sign of life.
The Dettifoss falls were majestic. We were utterly alone there. We spent the night in a lodge, then the next day made our way to the Askja Mountains (no moon-hopping there, earth's gravity kept us firmly to the ground) and finally Akureiri, the lone little northern port where the world seems to end.
Back in Reykjavik some days later, we obtained our papers for a visit to Heyma-øj. I could travel on my Dutch passport, thanks to my press card, but my wife and kids had to be Icelandic, hence their temporary Icelandic names, which they rehearsed with concentrated energy while our little plane ploughed its way to Heyma-øj.
The sight of the volcano, still belching steam and volcanic debris, and pouring red-hot lava down its slopes, was unbelievable.
We landed on a small airstrip cleared on top of the recent sediment, and made our way on foot to the village and port through steep black walls of hardened lava.
I distinctly remember a modern fish-processing factory. One half impeccable and untouched under its protective roof, the other half was a looming black wall, 10 feet high, of volcanic sediment, brought there by the lava stream.
We left the island with a last banking circle around the belching volcano, photographing till the little meter on our camera told us the last picture had been spent.
Before landing in Reykjavik, I wanted to take out the film from the camera, as I was not too sure about the standing of our little expeditionary group upon return, under the scrutiny of customs. I opened the camera, and found the film holder was empty. Forgotten to load it.
So much for pride, if you want to do better than the National Geographic. Islander