“Because it’s Sunday,” says Saga (pronounced Saya), swinging her long blonde plait as the minibus accelerates away from Reykjavik’s Hafnastraeti car park, “I have a treat for you. Candy!”
She holds up a box of chunky-looking chocolate-covered biscuits and beams at us. “These are called ‘hraun,’ Icelandic for lava, because they look like lava. But we’ll have them later. We have things to do first.”
On another Sunday I might find myself positively excited by Saga’s offer; but it’s the things to do first which have engaged my attention and that of the others on board the minibus. As we move through the outskirts of Iceland’s capital and into the hills the sense of excitement mounts. Because we’re into the stuff of Jules Verne, here, about to re-enact Journey to the Center of the Earth. Truly, we are. We’re going down a volcano.
Iceland’s Volcanic Plain
We disembark from the minibus at a forlorn-looking ski station, above which the hills are streaked with what’s left of the winter’s snow (well, it is midsummer) and Saga shepherds us into a building where we leave our bags, don calf-length yellow waterproofs and tighten our bootlaces. Then it’s off into the wild.
For Iceland this isn’t really wild at at all but it looks pretty inhospitable to me. “Three kilometres,” she advises as we file along a half-made path. “Over there.” And she points into the mist.
In Your Bucket Because:
- You’ve mastered the pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull and Thrinukagigur offers you a new challenge
- There’s nowhere else in the world where you can go into the magma chamber of a volcano in an active volcanic zone
- It’s the best trip in the world for geology-loving adrenaline junkies
Iceland is a volcanic island and there’s no way the landscape allows you to forget it. We’re on a lava plain spewed out by one of the Brennisteinsfjöll volcanic system’s craters in around 1341; and if that sounds like a long time ago, it’s still pretty bleak. It takes around a thousand years for soil to develop so what we’re looking at is broken ground, only just beginning to flush with moss.
“You can eat the moss,” announces Saga, plucking a bit and swallowing. “If you must. It doesn’t taste of anything.” She seems to have forgotten about the chocolate.
But that’s because there are other things to talk about as we trek along in single file like a day-glo version of the Lord of the Rings. There are twisted ropes of lava on the ground and tunnels under it, excavated by molten rock which set as it poured out of the Earth and carried on flowing below the floor it had made. And half way through our walk we cross a narrow bridge across a cleft in the lava.
“Here is Europe!” cries Saga and skips across it. “And now we are in America.” And she’s right. Iceland is split by the division between two of the planet’s major tectonic plates, the North American and Eurasian. We’ve just crossed it. Really; it strikes me that Iceland is less a country and more a gigantic geology lab.
And so to our goal — Thrinukagigur, one of the many craters of this still-active system. Forty years ago almost to the day, a couple of cavers decided to see what lay down the unexplored crater. Descending into the darkness they were unimpressed by what they saw. Years later, further exploration revealed a cavern deeper than the Statue of Liberty is high and it wasn’t until in 2012 that the first tourists were allowed to visit.
Fortunately (very fortunately) the volcano has not erupted for around 4,500 years, although the system is still technically active. Even with no eruption imminent it’s still a high-energy, high emotion adventure. After a safety briefing (hard hats and harnesses) we’re split into three groups, each in turn ushered to the top of the crater and safety clipped into what looks like – what is – a window cleaner’s rig before we begin our descent. Those who have to wait get treated to a bowl of soup; ours is promised for our return.
I shake my head as the rig lurches. Never was the advice ‘don’t look down’ more wisely given. But I don’t need to look down – only around. The rig is equipped with powerful lights which show us the first glimpses of the insides of the vent and further down, the magma chamber.
Inside the Volcano
And here’s the thing. It’s like Aladdin’s cave. If you thought the inside of a volcano would be black like the ash and lava which blanket the ground above, you couldn’t be more wrong. In this subterranean art gallery the different mixes of magma paint the walls of the cavern with blues and greens and reds and oranges…like a stained glass window without the light.
The cavern opens above us as we jolt to the bottom and disembark onto huge piles of rough, raw rock. Lights pour glory onto the walls of the chamber and I check to see if they’re coloured but they aren’t; the jewel-like hues are true. We stumble about in an awed silence.
“Lie down,” trills Saga, happy as a bird in heaven, clearly in her element, “and look up!” So I do, stretched clumsily onto the rocky floor. Way, way above the lights of the rig disappear and a sliver of light shows where we began our descent. But time runs out too quickly and our half hour flies. Before we know it we’re back on the rig inching our way up and, far from not looking down, I find myself peering over the edge for once last glimpse. I don’t want to leave, even for the promise of a bowl of lamb soup (which, by the way, was delicious).
Above ground again, the cloud’s lifted a little. We’ve just crossed back into Europe when a cry rises from the back of the line. It’s Saga.
“Guys!” she cries plaintively. “Guys, stop!” And as we obey she comes galloping up, digging in her bag. “I forgot the chocolate!” So we wait in a line as she hands it out; we stand in the wilderness, crunching chocolate biscuits; and then we set off again in our fluorescent raincoats through that centuries-old lava field.
Believe me. Iceland is a truly weird, and truly wonderful place. And Thrinukagigur must surely have a claim to being the weirdest and most wonderful thing in it.
- It’s not an easy trip. The journey is around two miles each way and it’s rough walking, though reasonably flat.
- The easiest way to visit is to take an organised trip from Reykjavik, although if you’re self-drive you can join yup at the ski station. The whole trip takes around five hours
- Facilities are limited, though there are souvenirs on sale at base camp. But with all that soup and chocolate, not to mention the moss, you’ll hardly go hungry
- Iceland is expensive and to do a trip so exceptional, and with such limited capacity, as this, you’ll have to pay. It’s 37,000 IsKr, which works out at about $325. But it’s worth it.