From Iceland — Going Down: The Lava Tunnel and Its Deep Secrets

Going Down: The Lava Tunnel and Its Deep Secrets

Published March 21, 2023

Going Down: The Lava Tunnel and Its Deep Secrets
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Let me take you on a journey back in time — about 5,000 years back, to be precise. We find ourselves in Iceland, not too far from where the modern day city of Reykjavik stands today. But there are no human inhabitants. Only you, the gorgeous nature and calming silence.

Suddenly, the earth begins to shake and a massive fissure opens up in the ground. It spews molten lava in all directions, eventually creating an expansive lava field and beautiful formations the size of the city district of Barcelona. Located only 10 km south of the now dormant volcano, is today’s stunning destination, Raufarhólshellir – better known as the Lava Tunnel. 

At 1360 metres, it’s one of Iceland’s longest caves and it has played a significant role in more than one movie and TV production. But today’s trip is all about Iceland’s geological history.

Ready? Steady? Go!

The journey to Raufarhólshellir was already setting the mood for our trip. Looking out of the window of the vehicle, the only thing I could see was black lava fields, covered by green moss and some smatterings of leftover snow. The clouds were hanging low and we were surrounded by fog. After just a 30-minute drive through Icelandic nature we arrived on site.

Trusty Grapevine photographer Art Bicnick and I were greeted by our guide Jóna, a geology student who equipped us with a helmet with a headlamp and crampons, because there was quite a lot of snow and ice in the cave in February at the time of our visit. Jóna gave us some last-minute safety instructions and warned us not to lick the walls or relieve ourselves in the cave. Apparently that’s something that needs explaining, since it was done by previous visitors. 

Danger and beauty

We descended multiple steps until we reached the cave floor. Continuing our way deeper into the lava tunnel, we could still see well, thanks to one of the three skylights brightening up the cave. Back in the day, these skylights created a danger for travellers, especially those unfamiliar with the lay of the land, seeing as they’re nothing more than huge holes in the ground which could easily swallow an inexperienced traveller. 

Entering the cave, I was surprised by how cold it was, although we’ve had mild temperatures of 10º Celcius outside. Thanks to the magmatic rocks insulating the cold air, beautiful ice stalactites and stalagmites have formed as water drips from the cave ceiling. This particular phenomenon is only seen during wintertime and it’s quite marvellous to behold. The ice glistened in the light of our headlamps like long cylindrical diamonds. 

NASA, Noah and someone’s ashes

The path inside the tunnel had been recently renovated, making the cave more accessible for visitors like us. During renovations they found an old note on the floor, stating that the ashes of a Native American were spread throughout the lava tunnel, fulfilling his last wish. I felt a bit uneasy, to think that we could be walking on someone’s ashes, but that thought gave way to the splendour of what came up ahead.

The last stop of the tour was a huge lava chamber. The walls and ceiling showed stunning geological shapes and colours, created by the lava slowly hardening about 5,200 years ago. One wall was completely coated in grey with a silver shimmer, consisting of volcanic glass. The ceiling portrayed different shades of red caused by the iron composition in the magmatic rock.

There is no record of anyone ever living in the lava tunnel. Even if bats were an indigenous species in Iceland, they couldn’t live inside this cave because there is no echo. The only life form that lives inside Raufarhólshellir is cave-bacteria, which were visible as white speckles on the walls — especially in this chamber. The bacteria is so interesting that NASA paid the lava tunnel a visit, taking samples of the bacteria for research. NASA expects to find similar bacteria on Mars. 

The cave also served as a filming location for the 2014 film “Noah” and the Netflix series “Sense 8”. Besides that, the lava tunnel hosts occasional movie evenings, concerts and even weddings. It’s a popular location for wedding proposals as well. Though if the thought has you feeling romantic, you should know that a fumbled ring was once dropped and lost in the cracks of the cave, never to be found. Nevertheless, the answer to the question was “yes.”

Lights out and home we go

We lingered a while in the massive chamber before calling time on the tour. We had advanced so deep into the lava tunnel that we couldn’t see the light of day and we had to rely on artificial lights brightening up the cave. 

Before venturing toward the light, Jóna asked if we were up for an experiment and prompted us to put our phones and cameras away and turn off our headlamps. She also turned out her powerful flashlight. It was pitch dark in the cave. Nobody dared move or even make a sound. The only thing we could hear were the water droplets, drip, drip, dripping from the ceiling. 

The experience was so unique. I returned to the surface calm and relaxed, ready to go home and relive the beautiful memories of my day underground.

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