Published June 11, 2012
Just as Reykjavík began to fade out of view, we turned off the highway into an area known as the Leitarhraun lava field. There we were handed a helmet and a flashlight as we admired the view of Hekla, Þorlákshöfn, and Vestmannaeyjar. The flashlights, as it turned out, would be our only source of light for the next three hours.
I had assumed the helmet was just tourist fodder, serving the dual purposes of protecting me from falling rocks and making me look ridiculous. Little did I know that I would come to consider that helmet my best friend, as I repeatedly crashed my head into rocks of varying degrees of sharpness.
Before entering the cave, one of our guides, Kári, told us the story of how the cave was discovered. Removing the tons of rocks, which blocked the entry into the cave, was a joint effort between Kárí’s father, Björn and his friend Guðmundur. Using only their hands and axes, they managed to open the cave in 2005, christening it Búri. Fewer than 1000 people have set foot in Búri and it has not been altered for tourists in any way.
Down the rabbit hole
I was the first to shimmy down a hole so small it had me wishing I had stuck to my diet. After a minute or two my eyes adjusted to the darkness and an expansive space opened up before me, with strange ice sculptures growing out of the ground. Each face lit up with a mixture of surprise and terror as the rest of our group squeezed through the hole. I couldn’t help but think of the cavern discovered by the Professor and his nephew in Jules Verne’s ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.’ How could something hidden from view be so alive?
The guides showed us to a small crack in the wall where we would enter the main chamber. Making it the few metres over to that first crack was quite a challenge, as the floor of the cave is completely covered with icy boulders. The walls of the cave are layered, clearly showing the progression of time, and stones of every colour and texture imaginable litter the floor. The path of the lava river that formed this cave 2000 years ago is marked by a stripe of silver magma running the entire length of the cave, ending in a 17-metre deep lava pit.
Are we there yet?
The journey through Búri is 1,000 metres in length, which doesn’t sound like much until you realise each step must be carefully planned and cautiously executed due to the unstable and icy terrain. Drenched in sweat, most of us lost our coats pretty quickly and some of us started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. “How much longer?” echoed through the darkness more than once. At one point I was truly scared—shaking, heart-pounding, pee-in-my-pants, terrified— as I hung onto an icy boulder for dear life.
When we reached the end, we sat down to eat what we had brought along for lunch and to catch our breath. It is amazing just how good a sub-par gas-station sandwich can taste when it is washed down with a big gulp of self-respect.
No man left behind
The trek back out of the cave was a much different experience. The guides fell back and allowed us to take the lead. I took off first, as I wanted to pretend I was an explorer and had fun turning off my flashlight and experiencing pitch black. With the lights out and alone, the cave came to life in a chorus of drips and crackles.
Witnessing the glow of the group approaching around the bend was like a scene straight out of a horror movie. Scrambling up and over wobbly rocks covered with ice was a difficult challenge and it was interesting how complete strangers bonded and worked as a team to find their way out of the cave.
The Búri cave at Leitarhraun is a strange and alien environment. It’s a must-see for anyone who is up for the challenge. As I write this I admire my black and blue legs with pride and will treasure the memory of emerging out of a tiny hole into the daylight with all the triumph of a Chilean miner, long after the bruises have faded.
The Adventure Tour to Búri Cave was provided by Extreme Iceland. You can book a tour at www.extremeiceland.is or by calling (354) 588-1300