We follow in the footsteps of Professor Otto Lidenbrock...
“It’s a good thing you’re going underground,” our bus driver calls out as his windshield wipers work furiously to bat away the rain. I watch the drops race across my window, blurring the moss-covered lava field that surrounds us. We are headed thirty minutes southeast of Reykjavík, with the intent of entering the chamber of a dormant volcano that erupted 4,000 years ago.
In Jules Verne’s fantastical novel, the Snæfellsjökull volcano is an entry point to the centre of the Earth. But in the real Iceland, Þríhnúkagígur is the only volcano where dreams of descent can be realised, and only since the summer of 2012 has it been accessible to the general public—nearly 150 years since Verne first took readers into the abyss of the Icelandic netherworld.
Grandpa At The Helm
Our Virgil is not Professor Otto Lidenbrock but rather a young Icelandic woman who introduces herself as Opa. “I’ve heard it means grandpa in Greek,” she says, as the five of us set off on the 45-minute walk to basecamp, now donning neon yellow raincoats.
It takes me a minute to realise it, but Opa is actually better known as Þorbjörg Helga Dýrfjörð, who starred as young Hera in the 2013 film ‘Málmhaus’ (“Metalhead”), the role for which she won Best Actress at the latest Icelandic Film and Television awards. Chauffeuring people across lava fields and into volcanoes just happens to be her summer job.
Although it is possible to get to basecamp via a helicopter, I can’t help but think—in spite of the sideways-blowing rain—that it would be a shame to miss this walk, which takes us from one continental plate to another via a small bridge over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
In Good Hands
At basecamp—a couple of sheds that had to be brought in by helicopter—we meet our second set of guides, Einar Stefánsson and Óli Þór Júlíusson, who run the tour company with Björn Ólafsson.
Although our ascent is just 40 metres, it’s comforting to know that Einar was amongst the first group of Icelanders to climb Mount Everest. Once we reach the volcano’s peak, he and Óli shepherd us across a narrow bridge to a suspended cable lift, the same kind that routinely carries window cleaners up and down skyscrapers.
I gaze into the abyss, but not long enough for it to gaze back at me. It’s 120 metres down, nearly two times the height of Reykjavík’s landmark Hallgrímskirkja church. It’s deep, and I’m terribly afraid of heights.
Shit, I think. It’s too late to change my mind.
Óli pushes a button and we begin our descent through the volcano’s narrow 4×4 metre opening. “As you can see here on the left-hand side, the magma splattered against the walls, pulsing up in thin layers,” Einar explains as we continue down at an even-keeled pace.
“Then it leaked down a little bit, which is why you have these formations.”
When we reach the bottom, they unhook our harnesses and set us free to explore the 50×70 metre vault, which is room enough for three full-size basketball courts. It’s hard to fathom though, given the piles of rocks that fill the space in an uneven fashion.
The First Man Down
Einar tells me that his brother Árni was the first to venture into the chamber forty years ago. He was exploring caves in the area when he overheard somebody talking about an opening in the mountain. “At the time, people knew the cave existed, but nobody knew exactly what it was,” Einar tells me.
Later that summer, he got his friends to lower him down by hand from the top with a 200 metre long rope. “They didn’t know how deep it was and they didn’t have any radios or lights,” Einar notes.
In 1993, Árni returned with a team including his brother, Óli and Björn, and they managed, over the course of two days, to conduct a survey of the chamber, including the side cave that Árni failed to see on his first trip with his small torch.
The fact that we are standing here, inside this cave, is thanks to a crew from National Geographic. “They came to make a documentary film about Icelandic volcanoes after Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Some geophysicist told them about this chamber, and they asked if we could bring them down here,” Einar says.
Standing In Awe
Since they started offering tours in the summer of 2012, Einar estimates that they’ve taken six or seven thousand people down here, with some travelling to Iceland specifically to take this trip, which doesn’t surprise me given the sheer novelty of the experience.
“Usually when an eruption is over the structure collapses onto itself and you only see a crater on the surface,” he notes. “Geophysicists who have been here tell us that you cannot see this anywhere else in the world.”
I look around and can’t help but think that Mother Nature moonlights as a 20th Century Abstract Expressionist, leaving behind a canvas of deep blues and purples mixed with rich oranges and reds.
I see that it’s still raining up above. I trace the raindrops as they fall 120 metres down to the rocks below, filling the otherwise silent chamber with its pitter patter.
I am in awe.
The volcano is located 37 km from Reykjavík.