It is still pitch dark outside at nine in the morning when my photographer and I meet up with our guides from Arctic Rafting outside the Cintamani Centre on Laugavegur, heading for the Þingvellir National Park, about an hour outside Reykjavík, to explore the lava cave Gjábakkahellir in the lava field Gjábakkahraun, formed in volcanic eruptions from a nearby shield volcano south of Mount Hrafnabjörg thousands of years ago.
Gjábakkahellir, considered 15,000 years old, was discovered during the construction of the nearby Kóngsvegur (King’s Road), built for the visit of Fredrik VIII, King of Denmark (and Iceland) in 1907. At the time, there were about 30 caves of this kind known around the country. Today, there are about 500 known lava caves around Iceland. The caves have formed in previous volcanic eruptions, when the top layer of the flowing lava cools down, creating a hard crust near the surface, while underneath, conduits form where a stream of low-viscosity lava continues to flow. When the lava eventually stops flowing, small tubes, or tunnels, are left as the lava drains through, leaving cave-like channels like this one.
On location, we were joined by 14 tourists from France and Italy, eager to find out what lurked beneath the surface of the mysterious lava formations around Þingvellir. First order of business was to fit the two-inch ice-spikes on my size 12 boots and to fit the helmet and the headlamp on my considerable cranium. The light is obviously of vital importance, but the spikes are equally necessary when exploring deep caves in the Icelandic wintertime. Rainwater seeps through the layers of lava, taking a good 20 years to travel from the surface to the floor of the cave, 18-20 metres below. Once there it forms thick chunks of ice on the floor, making it nearly impossible to travel across without the spikes to dig in.
Cold and Dark Places
About 20 metres into the cave, all trace of daylight had vanished and we were reduced to using the small headlamps attached to our helmets. In order to make the transition smoother, we sat down for about two minutes, allowing our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Sitting in the dark, nearly blind, the other senses were brought to the forefront. The distinctive smell of soil and mould that is present in most caves became very obvious and the sound from the constantly dripping water became twice as loud. And even though this was a relatively warm January day, the outside temperature around 5°C, there was no mistaking the cold in the cave at -2°C.
Once our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, we began to see the peculiar shapes of the cave. The awe-inspiring and rugged scenery creates a subliminal feeling in the viewer. The roof is filled with both long icicles, formed as the dripping water hardens in the cold, as well as lava stalactites, formed when the melting hot low-viscosity lava drips from the ceiling while it cools down and hardens. The surface, or the cave’s “floor” on the other hand, is littered with rocks that have come loose from the ceiling and walls.
It is safe to enter the cave during the winter months, while the frost holds everything together. There is a two to three week period during June/July when the frost thaws from the soil and big rocks from the cave’s ceiling come loose and fall to the ground, the cave is not recommended as a travel destination during that period.
The most important thing to remember during cave exploration is to keep your eyes glued to the ground, every single step of the way. First-timers tend to forget this and start walking while gazing at the cave’s incredible roof, often resulting in nasty spills and badly sprained ankles on the uneven surface. Travelling through the cave can be quite a challenge. Apart from the stony and jagged floor, the slippery ice and the darkness, I soon found out that it is absolutely impossible to move gracefully wearing spikes. My foot-eye coordination was severely hampered by the two extra inches strapped to my soles and it took a few minor bumps to figure that my legs were a bit longer than I was used to. On top of that, the spikes kept getting tangled up in my trouser legs, and I nearly tripped over a few times.
After one hour, light finally started to appear in front of us as we reached the other end. After climbing up through a relatively small hole, up towards the roof, we were back in the sunlight, again waiting for our eyes to adjust to the light.
“How long do think the cave is?”
Our guide was asking participants to guess how far we had travelled in one hour. I will not reveal the right answer, in case you should ever find yourself on a guided tour through Gjábakkahellir, but indicative of just how deceptive you senses can be in this sort of environment, guesses ranged from 300 metres to three kilometres.
Trip provided by Arctic Rafting
Laugavegur 11, Tel.: 562 7000
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