Nobody in the travel trade will forget April 2010 when flights came to a standstill as Eyjafjallajokull spewed ash into European airspace. Six years on, the farm at the foot of the volcano is a tourist attraction – many are cruise passengers
April 14, 2010: Olafur and Gudny Eggertsson thought they had lost everything. Generations of their family had lived at the foot of the Eyjafjallajokull but as the volcano fired 500 tons of ash a second into the atmosphere they fled, leaving their home and animals in sheds, hoping for a miracle.
For the first time since the Second World War, European airspace was closed for almost a week as Eyjafjallajokull cancelled flights across the globe as the fine abrasive particles of ash threated to erode metal and clog aircraft fuel and cooling systems.
Now, under clear blue skies, Gestastofan Farm is surrounded by green fields and Eyjafjallajokull sleeps. Set in 600 acres, the farmhouse and barns with red roofs, big blue tractors and cows grazing in the lush fields has more a look of toy farm set than a disaster area.
Olafur, 63, and Gundy, 62, now have a new addition to their farm – the Thorvaldeyri visitor centre and shop built in an old machine room on the farm. The inside walls are painted black, grey and red and the centre of the floor is made from volcanic ash.
Here visitors can watch a 20-minute film, Eyjafjallajokull Erupts; the drama of April 2010 unfolding, the eruption and the aftermath, as well as buying souvenirs – from bottles of the ash to candles and soap that’s full of soothing minerals.
The Eggertssons also sell rapeseed oil now the crop grows so well in the newly vitalised fields while lumps of volcanic lava, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs fly off the shelves.
More than 60,000 tourists a year, including thousands of cruise passengers who dock at Reykjavik, for the Golden Circle tour, come to see the now sleeping giant Eyjafjallajokull.
The business was born when tourists began to bring bags and ask to take some ash home. Gudny said: “For sometime, when the wind blew we received another lay of ash on our fields and we just had to clear it away. Tourists would stop to look and ask if they could take the ash as a souvenir.
“We said: ‘Take as much as you like! Take carrier bags-full’.”
Cash from ash has surprised the Eggertssons. They were lucky to survive in this remote region of southwest Iceland but their resourcefulness has paid off and visitors are astonished by their resilience. Gudny said: “We knew the glacier above us was an active volcano and we had kept a good watch on tremor activity since January 2010. “I always had a bag packed in case we had to leave in a hurry.
“There was a small eruption and activity from mid-March to mid-April 2010 and many sightseers came to see this wonder of nature.
“When it died down I didn’t unpack my bag, although we carried on as normal with our children and grandchildren coming to visit. It was a strange thing – I felt there was something more to come. I always knew, I saw it in my head.”
The couple were originally more worried about flooding – so when Eyjafjallajokull started to erupt there was a danger of massive flooding when the meltwater began to cascade.
Olafur said: “The nearby river swelled to 100 times its size, a raging torrent. The authorities brought in diggers to cut away the road and save the bridges. “A small crater opened up on the south side of volcano and we lost our electricity and hot water supply. “We did not want to leave our animals but we had to go when the warning came that the ash was blowing our way.”
The crater was now spewing 500 tons of ash a second which was carried huge distances through the upper atmosphere. The couple left their 200 cattle in sheds with four days’ feed. “We were completely stressed,” said Olafur. “The sheep were lambing so we had already sent them away but we could not take the cows.”
By midday on April 14, the ash was so dense that it was dark as a winter night. The couple were given help to transport their horses to the west of the island and with the wind at gale force the police and rescue teams ordered them to leave. The film shown in the visitors’ centre shows the full horror of that day.
Olaf said: “We wondered if this was the end of the farm and whether we would recover from this disaster.” When the couple returned, the farm was covered in black ash, up to 70cm deep in places and 5cm across the whole of the fields, but the cattle survived as the gas from the volcanic was not toxic.
Gudny said: “When we came back it was so eerie and silent. There were no birds but so much dust we could not breathe normally. “Everything was black. I cannot describe it. “It was make or break. First, we had to get the hot water fixed which is piped from underground and we began washing ash off the roofs. We removed 400 tons from the buildings alone.
“As well as the ash, the mudslide covered a large area of land. Friends and volunteers helped us clear it with diggers, tractors and spades. It was a long, long job but people here continued to help us. Their sympathy was incredible and a great source of strength.” Olafur said: “It was amazing ‘our glacier’ had left millions of plane passengers stuck all over the world. We could not believe that the airspace was closed while we were dealing with it at another level.”
But nature was kind and the grass began to grow again, better than before, benefiting from minerals in the ash. The reservoir and rivers were cleared of sludge and new flood defences were put in as the river levels had risen several metres through the ash. Gundy said: “It was wonderful to see the grass growing and to sow corn again. The rapeseed is now so good we use it for cooking and running the farm machinery.” She said: “I never lost hope. It was terrible but we now have another side to our business through tourism and we hope our glacier has got it out of its system and we can live in peace in years to come.”