The group consisted of seven tourists, unacquainted with going underground except for the occasional ride on the tube, and one Icelandic guide and driver, who, it would turn out later, was in fact a huge fan of underground trains.
Our first target was a small cave in the Bláfjall mountains on the Reykjanes peninsula, an area that boasts as many as 400 mapped caves, not to speak of the ones that are still waiting to be explored. While the black tabletop mountains in the interior were flattened into their current shape by passing glaciers, the caves are a remainder of past volcanic eruptions. After all, the peninsula is also known as the extraterrestrial continuation of the Middle Atlantic Ridge.
A Cave You Can Drive a Train Through
Back on the bus we drove towards Þórlákshöfn, the port for the ferry to the Westmann Islands. A few hundred metres from the sea, the Raufarholtshellir cave opens up. This cave is 1350 metres long and the first one hundred metres resemble a collapsed church rather than a cave: The ceiling is so high “that you could drive a train right through it,” as our guide pointed out for the third time that day. Apart from that, several parts of the ceiling have collapsed to expose the sunny sky outside and light our way.
Further in, the headlights had to be switched on. We were now proceeding much slower, as the ground of the cave consists of rocks of different sizes. Though we were moving horizontally, we were climbing rather than walking.
On our way back out of the cave, we were automatically slowing down. Although we had not even seen a third of the cave, our legs were so jammy everyone immediately dropped in the soft moss as soon as we reached the entrance. The blue- and crowberries were a welcome excuse. Only our guide remained standing, talking to a group of Icelanders about to enter the cave. After four hours, half of which were probably spent in the bus, I got home at five in the afternoon – and had to force myself to stay awake for another four hours—I was exhausted, and my mind was running.
Many centuries ago, the whole area was woodland, until one fateful day in the tenth century, when an eruption covered 26 square kilometres of fertile land in ash and lava. A few hundred years later, around 1226, an even bigger eruption would swallow almost all remaining life on Reykjanes.
During such an eruption, the top layer of the flowing lava would cool down first, thanks to the chilly Icelandic winds (all evil has a good side, too). The lavaflow underneath would continue until the volcanic activity in the centre died down. Then, shrinking in volume because of the drop in temperature, the second lavaflow would at some point collapse to form so-called “lava-tombs,” caves that lead horizontally through the earth.
Before we embarked, our guide made safety arrangements: he let his colleagues in Reykjavík know when we would be back at the bus, showed us where he hid the key and how his phone worked, in case he went down and we escaped – a rather unlikely scenario, as he pointed out with a smirk. However exaggerated these precautions seemed to us ignorant tourists, the fact that we would be underground in an area that suffers many earthquakes a day, however minor, was at least worth the helmets our guide equipped us with.
In a moss-covered plain spotted with yellow and red blueberry and crowberry plants, a ditch opened in front of us, with two black gaping holes on either side. After our keenest tourist had taken a couple of pictures of the opposite hole, our guide announced that the entrance to the cave was in fact the hole right below us.
The Remains of the Sheep
Climbing down over some scattered rocks and turning on our headlights, a carpet of crimson iron oxide led our way further into the cave. Though we were walking on a pretty even path, we had to watch where we were going. Besides the occasional rock in the middle of the path, black stalactites and stalagmites were hanging down from the rough ceiling or growing out of the ground. Spotted by our headlights, the stalactites looked like liquid chocolate dropping down, the stalagmites like burnt minced meat piling up.
Further in the cave, after we had crept through a narrow part that allowed only one person to pass at a time, the guide noticed that our keen tourist had quieted significantly – she had gotten the creeps. Trying to reassure her, he pointed out that we had taken all the security measures possible.
However, he refused to tell her everything would be all right: “I can’t. With several earthquakes a day, the caves we are using for guided tours change all the time. As soon as we see a change that might cause danger, we stop using that cave. But that is no guarantee that nothing is going to happen while we are down here.”
A few metres further in, I myself fell to a case of the creeps. In the bus the guide had told us: “If you hear something in the cave, it is another human being. In Iceland, we don’t have snakes or poisonous animals.”
While he might have been right about the snakes, he definitely lied about the human beings. A skeleton in the corner of what could now righteously be called a lava tomb suggested that if you hear a noise in the cave, it might as well be a sheep.
But instead of pity, the remains of the sheep sneered and laughed. How on earth could any living being be so stupid as to climb more than a hundred metres into a cave that has no vegetation at all? Horror followed the mockery when our guide asked us to turn our headlights off and reach up to our nose. Darkness has never been so fatal. And inspiring. Thoughts ran through my head almost at the speed of light: What if all our batteries died at the same time on our way back and we couldn’t find the entrance? More importantly: How could I get the guide to say “turn your lights back on” without raising suspicion and being called a coward?
When the words of salvation were finally pronounced, our little expedition was ready to get back to daylight. On our way out, the battery of my headlight died.