Pitch Black: Caving In A Lava Tube

Pitch Black: Caving In A Lava Tube

Jenna Mohammed
Words by
Photos by
Art Bicnick

The Raufarhólshellir lava tube, located in south Iceland, has colourful pitted walls and is rich with jagged, iridescent, glimmering rocks. One of the largest lava caves in Iceland, Raufarhólshellir is the among the most popular caves to visit, mainly due to its accessibility—it’s just a thirty minute drive from Reykjavík.

Taking the Ring Road to Raufarhólshellir is very therapeutic. I stare at the moss-covered land and mountains. The landscape feels surreal. You can get lost in the natural beauty along the way, even wishing the drive were a little longer. By comparison, Raufarhólshellir initially doesn’t look like much, upon arrival. Currently, the entrance is reminiscent of a rest stop under construction: just a parking lot and a store where you can purchase food, merch, and last-minute supplies for the tour.

The cave you crave

Looks can be deceiving, and the real excitement begins behind the big wooden door. 1360 metres long and 10 metres high, the lava tunnel is immediately astonishing. To make the journey more tourist-friendly, the cave is traversed mostly via footbridge, so you don’t have to stress about how you’ve skipped the gym all year. The standard tour lasts around an hour as well. The other option is the extreme lava tunnel tour that is a four hour trek and it’s more intense than the former.

“To make the journey more tourist-friendly, the cave is traversed mostly on a footbridge, so you don’t have to stress about how you’ve skipped the gym all year.”

As we trek into the wet and dimly-lit cave, I wonder how this massive tunnel came to be. Our knowledgeable and experienced guide, Kaśka Paluch, is there to answer all of our questions. The eruption that created the lava flow and formed the cave occurred over 4,000 years ago. Molten lava flowed along a passage, collecting along all sides of the channel, before cooling, expanding and eventually hardening to create the cave roof. When the lava flow stopped, it left behind this concave tube, creating Raufarhólshellir. Oxidized elements from the eruption created the vivid maroon shades that characterise the tunnel, frozen in a dripping candle-wax effect.


The blackness

After observing the colourful, textured lava formations, we come to a wider and lower area of the tunnel. We’re told to turn off the lights on our fashionable climbing helmets, and as the lights in the cave are turned off as well, we’re immersed in total darkness. Kaśka informs us that you can spend weeks or even months in this type of darkness and your eyes will never adjust to it. In fact, it can damage your eyes if you’re down there too long with no light. I was surprised that this was my favourite part of the tour, as I’m terrified of the dark and still sleep with a nightlight. So, for those who fear darkness, you’ll be so enthralled by the cave that you’ll forget all about your fear of the boogieman.

Raufarhólshellir is a great day tour for both tourists and locals; it’s the perfect place to go when you don’t want to wander far away from Reykjavík but still want to see stunning nature. You’ll lava this cave a lot.

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