As I stand on the edge of the volcano these words echo in my mind – “to descend into the interior of a canon … when perhaps it is loaded, and will go off at the least shock, is the act of a madman.” So begins the ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ described in Jules Vernes 1864 novel, and so too begins my own. I am about to do something truly extraordinary. I am about to go inside a volcano.
Thirty minutes outside of Reykjavik, in Iceland’s Blue Mountains – and not far away from the setting of that classic tale – a geological rarity has been transformed into one of the most audacious tourism projects ever conceived. While most volcanoes seal up after eruption, Thrihnukagigur has remained open, leaving a more then 100,000 cubic metre abyss where once, 4,000 years ago, red-hot lava flowed. It is the deepest of only a handful of such open volcanic chambers known on Earth and the only one the general public has ever been allowed inside.
The tour begins with a 40-minute hike across a lava field of crunchy black sand and beds of spongy moss and wild flowers. Keeping me company is Arni Stefansson, the bordering on fanatical visionary behind the project and original discoverer of Thrihnukagigur’s chamber. As we walk he animates the formation of the landscape around us pointing out jagged fissures, raw sweeps of molten rock and holes ripped into the Earth by the shifting of colossal underground weights. “The world is always forming,” he smiles. “But in Iceland it’s happening a little faster.” He also fills me in on how this madness we were about to embark on came to be.
Arni’s passion is caves – he has been exploring and protecting them all his life – and in 1973, after hearing rumours of a supposed bottomless pit, he couldn’t resist investigating further. Arriving at Thrihnukagigur he dropped a stone inside, counting 4.5 seconds for a sound to come back – “this is deep” he tells me, eyes still lighting up with the memory. He descended that midsummer evening and became, he claims, the first person ever inside the magma chamber of a volcano – “It’s like a beautiful museum,” he says, “created by the almighty, but if we do nothing people will just trample it down. It has to have some guardian.” Now the form of that guardian is finally taking shape. Arni believes that by opening up Thrihnukagigur’s chamber for tourists, in a controlled and sustainable way, he will help preserve the space inside for future generations.
After strapping on a climbing harness and helmet we hike up from the project base camp to the entrance of the volcano. A narrow metal gangplank and open sided cable lift hangs from a steel girder, secured above a 12-foot diameter black hole. I walk the plank and absolutely nothing – no sound, or colour, or light – rises up from the 400ft of darkness beneath me. As we climb into the open-sided metal basket and slowly descend into the abyss, watching the eye of white surface light contract, my grip white-knuckling the rim of the cage, floodlights gradually illuminate the walls of our passage and the base of the volcano floor. A tapestry of jagged burgundy lava scars, terracotta bubbles of frozen stone and waves of sunset yellow and orange are revealed around us. The full chromatic spectrum of fire, perfectly preserved in the deep Earth. “It’s like going inside a piece of art,” Arni says.
Once on the volcano floor I am let free to explore the base of the chamber, an enormous cavern big enough to hold three full-size basketball courts and more then one Statue of Liberty. The immense heat (as much as 1100C at its peak) has long since evaporated leaving only freezing shadows and hollow silence, broken by the intermittent patter of rain drops seeping from the porous ground above. I touch the walls and volcanic ash, coarse and jet-black, crumbles and sticks to the tips of my fingers. Later, I lie down on the stone floor and look up at the needle of light now no bigger then a solitary star. I have the impression of being swallowed, of being in the bowels of some giant stomach, or about to be born. But it is peaceful too. “For me its beauty is in it’s hugeness,” Arni says, “how small you feel in it.” But its beauty is also surreal. I watch the lift rise and fall like one might watch a lunar landing or an extraterrestrial visit – where we are simply cannot be the same Earth I come from. Except of course it is. And perhaps that’s also the point: like peering behind the scenes of a play, or learning the secrets of a magician’s trick, the world feels a little more remarkable having seen the inside of it’s machinery. The act of a madman perhaps, but a worthy journey all the same.
In order to preserve the space inside, Thrihnukagigur is only open to the public for a couple of months each summer. Current plans (Feb 2013) are to drill a walkway into the middle of the volcanic chamber sometime in 2014/2015. Although this may sound like a violent approach Arni assures me that less then 1% of the interior will be affected … allowing the rest to be perfectly preserved.
I travelled with Discover The World as part of a 3-day trip that incorporated the Inside the Volcano tour as well as a bunch of other Icelandic adventures … coming soon to this blog! They’re volcano and Iceland specialists, so they will serve you well.
If you want to book independently then do so through the Inside The Volcano local tour operator. The company has been set up, and is run by, the people who discovered Thrihnukagigur so you can trust them to do a good job – by you, and the volcano. Allow a half day for the trip … Thrihnukagigur is only 30minutes outside of Reykjavik in the Blue Mountains, a beautiful spot. Make sure you do some hiking while you’re there!