Sunday, 29 September 2013

The day I plunged into an Icelandic volcano

Volcanoes. At their gentlest, they're grumbling, ash-puffing menaces. At their worst, they can rain fiery destruction and bury cities. And yet when I heard you could descend right into the belly of a volcano in Iceland, I couldn't slap on a helmet quickly enough.

Trekking over the rocky plains at Bláfjöll to the volcano. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Ok, I admit it. This was no daredevil feat. Thrihnukagigur volcano is dormant and has been for thousands of years. The highest risk factor is probably the humiliation of trying to pronounce 'Thrihnukagigur' (which sounds so much softer, and more sarcastic, when uttered by an Icelander).

Descending into a magma chamber would usually be impossible as hardened lava closes off the chamber to the surface. But with Thrihnukagigur the magma drained away into the bowels of the Earth, allowing travellers to explore its interior.

Amazing lava-rippled rock formations in Bláfjöll. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Tours leave directly out of Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, carrying foolhardy volcano fans to Bláfjöll lava fields, about 30km south of the city. About 50 minutes of boot-shredding hiking leads up to a temporary lodge, the departure point of the descent. Guides told me the lodge is helicoptered in, piece by piece, for the summer volcano tour season, and dissembled at the end of August.
Kitting us out with helmets at lamps at the volcano lodge. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Despite all assertions about the safety of the descent, it was hard not to feel a flutter of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. Wow, it's a volcano, marvelled my inner child. Yes, it's an effing volcano, replied my inner claustrophobe. Imagine the obituary, wondered my inner pessimist.

But there was little time for my life to flash before my eyes. The first small group of explorers was gathering for the final climb to the top of the volcano, where a creaky platform leading across to an open cable lift was waiting.

Don't look down... travellers gingerly step across to the open lift. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
We were each strapped with carabiners to the metal railings as we made our way across the gently trembling platform to the open lift. Once we were hooked onto the lift, with a steep drop yawning beneath us, the technician activated the lift into its shuddering descent. The contours of the mouth of the volcano meant the lift slid beneath the lip of the cave and plunged us quickly into darkness, with droplets raining down on us from the damp walls.

Travellers' headlamps illuminate the stunning interior of the volcano. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
When we finally came to a stop, more than 120m down (twice the height of Reykjavik's famous Hallgrímskirkja), our surroundings looked otherworldly. Far from being a dark pit hidden from light, the walls danced with different colours: every shade of ochre and red, flashes of blue-black where rock had chipped away from the walls, and tinges of yellow and gold. I had expected journeying to the centre of the Earth to be thought-provoking and awe-inspiring, but I didn't realise it would be this beautiful.

Surprisingly rich colours in the magma chamber's interior. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
We carefully scrambled around the volcano, steering clear of the areas cordoned off (something about a 100m drop straight down? I won't be wandering far). The opening of the volcano, that we'd stood above minutes earlier, was a tiny pin-prick of light far above us. It belonged to another world. When it was finally time for the lift to crank us back up to the surface, the chatter in our little group had hushed. We'd seen something too mind-blowing to make small-talk as we rose slowly towards the daylight.

Well-deserved Icelandic lamb broth. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Back at the lodge, steaming bowlfuls of soup awaited us. We slurped them down eagerly while chatting about what we'd seen. Back under glaring daylight, our subterranean experience felt dreamlike and unreal. Trekking back to our drop-off point, and climbing aboard the bus back to Reykjavik, felt numbingly mundane after exploring an underground kingdom.

But as was so often the case during my Iceland travels, magic and mishap came hand in hand: I snapped quickly out of my reverie when our bus skidded to a halt and broke down on the gravelly road. With the wait that followed, I had plenty of time for dreamy reverie...

Read more about my travels in Iceland in my article for Lonely Planet, 'Fire and ice: adventures in Iceland'