Raufarhólshellir, the third largest lava tunnel in Iceland, is easily accessible from Reykjavík: after a 35km drive, it’s simple to enter and explore the almost 1.4km long cave on your own. Soon, though, this is set to change. A project to build facilities around the lava tunnel has been approved, and construction is due to begin this autumn. Hallgrímur Kristinsson is the one leading the project, and a few minutes into our chat, I get the impression the project couldn’t be in better hands.
Improve or close
The cave’s proximity to the capital, combined with its astonishing beauty, makes it a popular site to visit. “It’s the most popular cave in Iceland,” says Halli. “No any other cave gets as many visitors as Raufarhólshellir.” But as the number of foreign adventurers in Iceland increases every year, the cave faces consequences.
When I visit the site, climbing over rocks and watching my step, the overall picture is not encouraging: I see broken glass, toilet paper, leftovers from a fire and cigarette butts. Halli notices my surprise. “Building infrastructure is something that needs to be done,” he says, “otherwise the landowners would close the cave, because of all the garbage and harm.”
He particularly stresses the importance of the project’s outcome being in a harmony with nature. “We want to emphasise the beauty, instead of messing things up,” he continues. “I honestly believe that by creating infrastructure, we both protect the cave, and make it possible for everyone to go there.”
Lost in the dark
He has a point—there are plenty of stories about rescue teams being called to rescue tourists from the beasts lurking in the darkness of the cave’s underworld tunnels. I hear about some climbers who arrived fully equipped with professional caving equipment: an iPhone flashlight, which, of course, ran out of battery during their descent. With experience or hindsight, of course, nobody would ever end up in such a situation. Halli cites such instances as another reason why the changes are in fact necessary.
“We’re taking our first steps now,” he says, radiating enthusiasm to protect the tunnel from further damage, whether deliberate or unconscious. Apart from setting a date for a voluntary cave cleaning day, the project’s organisers have carefully planned out the most nature-friendly methods to execute their plans.
Whilst the depths of the tunnel are unaffected by weather, the entrance area does see some seasonal differences.”In winter time, there are big snow piles coming into the ceiling openings, as well as astounding icicles,” Halli explains. Whatever the weather, Raufarhólshellir will remain a popular site—some tours are due to start very soon, with the improvements scheduled to be finished in 2017.
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