Beneath the surface
Most people know about the Iceland's volcanoes and glaciers, hot springs and geysers. But they may not know about another world that exists beneath the surface.
I have been living in Iceland for 16 years and only just discovered that this hidden world exists, and as little as 30 minutes from the doorstep of my home in Reykjavík. I was taken there by the founding father of the Icelandic Speleological Society (established in 1989), geologist and tour guide operator; Björn Hróarsson. Björn was brought up in the Icelandic countryside, loves nature and has a passion for caving. “I entered my first lava tube cave when I was 17 years old. At that time, in 1979, there were only 20 known caves. Today there are 520“. The additional 500 were discovered by Björn and the members of the Speleological Society.
On the inside
According to Björn, there are several different types of caves on earth: Volcanic, glacial, crevice, erosion and solution–and naturally they are formed in different ways. After a volcanic eruption, lava flows and as the surface area of the flow cools, it hardens and forms a roof while the hot lava below continues to flow and eventually leaves a space. In case you‘re wondering what it‘s like down there… Well first of all, it‘s dark so you‘ll need a flashlight. Second, there were a lot of rocks in certain areas along the flooring of the cave that Björn took me to, so I needed to step carefully. The cave was damp and cool, according to Björn the temperature all year round is about 2°C. Plus 2 is actually not so cold when there's no breeze and you're moving, so a sweater and a light jacket should be enough to keep warm.
The cave we were in was formed about 2000 years ago, ca. 800 years before Iceland's first settlers. There may have been times when travelers crossing the lava fields, particularly during harsh winter weather, needed a safe place to spend the night. Björn says, “Based on scientifically dated evidence we‘ve found, there‘s reason to believe our Viking ancestors occasionally used some of these caves for refuge“.
The unlucky visitors
The caves might have been real lifesavers for people needing a shelter from the weather, but such was not always the case for other warm blooded creatures. In the cave we explored, there was the skeleton of a sheep with all the bones exactly where you would expect them to be once the flesh decomposed. Björn gives his assessment: “During the eruption 1200 years ago, this sheep might have gotten scared and rushed into the cave, far enough from the big booms and the heat to calm its fears but too far to find its way back. In other caves we‘ve found other remains of sheep and fox.”
Along the route we traveled, there are roped off areas. The reason for this is that Björn and his fellow speleological members want everyone, now and in the future, to enjoy the ‘roses' and other delicate configurations we saw along the way. “These ‘flowers' formed as a result of lava dripping on a particular spot,” he says. “For the next best thing to the flower itself, photographers can always bring pictures of these little wonders back to their friends and family”. Besides the floral arrangements, there are rock color combinations and wall art. With the help of an experienced lava caver, you can understand how they might have formed.
The cave I visited with Björn was close to my home but there are others ‘far off the beaten track' and if you take the proper protection, it is possible to spend the night in it. “There are a lot of cracks in the roof and the moisture from the surface drips into the cave. I've stayed the night but made sure that whatever I was in or under was waterproof,” Björn explains. You may wonder: Why stay all night? But isn't that like asking: Why go to the moon? True, not everybody wants to go to the moon, but some of us crazy ones, or shall I say, more adventurous ones, are willing.
Our home is the world
Our body is made up of all the elements found in nature, and as a microcosm of the physical universe we are related to all things. Hence communing with nature, even underground–or for that matter on the moon–should in a way enable us to find yet one more way to complete ourselves and make us feel more whole. Perhaps this is one reason why people like to travel so much.
If you'd like to try caving in Iceland with experienced cavers, Björn and his team at www.extremeiceland.is are ready to go overboard—underground that is–to give you a wonderful experience and for cheap flights to Iceland you can rely on WOW air.
Text by Paul Michael Hermann
Photos: Extreme Iceland