30th Jun 2012 10:02am | By Jahn Vannisselroy
About an hour’s drive into Thingvellir is the Gjábakkahellir cave. Here, I go from extreme clarity to extreme confusion, losing my sense of direction as my caving party creeps deeper into the lava tube. When lava leaves a volcano, it travels in channels, the tops of which cool down and harden. Inside, the molten rock continues its journey until it has nowhere to go, leaving a giant cylinder perfect for an adventure. However, it’s not as though they’re unexplored; in Iceland’s earlier societies, criminals were made outcasts, banished from villages, and would often seek refuge from the harsh elements inside these winding hollows.
The walls vary from silky smooth to craggily uneven depending on which part we’re in, the lava’s speed as it cooled dictating the surface. Alongside unwrinkled green, red and yellow volcanic stone (the different colours caused by varying temperatures when cooling) grow stalagmites and stalactites. We’re instructed not to touch under any circumstances. Previous parties have contained light-fingered environmental vandals, their thievery a shame as the ancient souvenirs only look like melted iron sitting on a mantelpiece without a sense of perspective. Iceland’s most famous caver, Björn Hróarsson, has mapped hundreds of the country’s lava tubes, and in our cave has replaced the missing tites and mites with replicas, but they remain a sad reminder that nothing beats the real deal.
During this dank, dark descent, we’re crouching for metres of slow-but-steady progress, hunched to avoid the sharp stone of the roof, hardhats earning ever more dents as we clumsily adjust to our alien surrounds. Some spots require advancement on hands and knees and others demand we lie down and roll along the jagged floor in order to continue.
At the deepest point, our guide, Gulli, instructs us to extinguish our headlanterns, to not make a sound. We perch on boulders in the absolute darkness, craning our ears. There’s nothing … and it’s incredibly peaceful. Think of the last time you were awake and saw and heard nothing. In our hectic modern-day lives, it won’t have been too often. An unexpected bonus of enjoying five long minutes in the pitch black is that it makes footing more secure, but after the torches are switched back on, Gulli quickly unsteadies our nerves with his black Icelandic humour: “What would you rather have? One missing member of the group or one extra member?” The way back is spent with more than a few glances over the shoulder.
The following day I’m back above ground, booting along the Reykjanes peninsula on an ATV, 50km from the centre of Reijkavik. It’s no cruise, the surface underneath the fat tyres rapidly changing from solid to loose rock, from sand to clay. Wits have to be kept at all times as we race along the challenging trail, speeding to keep up with our guide, Jakob, who seems to be relishing pushing us.
After a rugged 45 minutes, he leads us down to Selatangar beach. The wind whips violently across the desolate foreshore and we take refuge in an old fishing house built from lavastones. Here, from 1151-1884, this shelter formed part of a village of fishermen and their families. From this spot, dressed in animal skin, they would brave the savage ocean in wooden boats to land the cod that would sustain them. “Viking blood,” Jakob remarks. ”They were tough mothers.” The fishing industry is still alive today; much of the cod landed in Iceland will reach London within 24 hours, served up in our fish-and-chips.
We hoon back along the beach, opening the throttle as we smash headfirst into the stinging wind. Our ATVs are too powerful to be slowed, though, even as the terrain becomes remarkably steep. We roar upwards along thin, rocky trails – it’s probably someone’s land, but as it’s not on a map, Icelandic law dictates it’s free for everyone to use – snaking to the highest point of our journey, the summit of the mountain Hagafell, where we take in a 360 view of the entire peninsula. The famous Blue Lagoon is on one side; the island of Elde, where 16,000 pairs of Northern Gannets spend their days, and the fishing village of Grindavik on the other.
Such a challenging landscape demands closer inspection, so 24 hours later, I take in the peninsula by jeep with the extremely knowledgeable Clint, a non-stop fountain of information about the area and the country itself. His family have been here for generations, farming before the economy collapsed and diversifying into tourism when the global financial crisis hit.
The day is spent in awe of the power of Mother Nature as we explore kilometres of lava fields, walking through rock-strewn landscapes to stand at the precise points of eruption, Clint reassuring another isn’t due for a while yet. Iceland has 30 active volcano systems, 13 of which have exploded since losing my sense of direction as my caving party creeps deeper into the lava tube.
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