Iceland 2011: Lava caving in Leiðarendi

I wrote this once and the stupid machine ate it. I am not pleased at having to write it again.

Day three and I finally made it down to breakfast – bread rolls and apple juice.

I didn’t do anything this morning – vague plans to go into town were scuppered by darkness and then snow – a rarer thing than you might expect in Iceland, or so I’m told.

At 12.30 I was picked up by a kind of armoured minibus and we went through the routine of driving to the IE offices, collecting tickets and collecting other passengers who’d decided to start from the town centre. There were seven of us in total.

Reykjavik not being abundant in caves, we went out on the Reykjanes peninsula, to the mountains behind Hafnarfyorthur. I stick by my initial assessment of Iceland as a frozen white wilderness. The trip was worth it just to see the white nothingness in the mountains. It was stunning. Reykjanes is usually black lava fields that looks like the moon but this week it’s the Arctic.

We parked our bus on the road and changed into day-glow orange overalls and were given helmets and lights and “mittens”, which were of course gloves. Then we jumped out into the road and took photos of each other before following our guide onto the white nothing.

The cave was easy to find, two holes in the ground ten yards apart, all surrounded by fencing so you couldn’t fall in. We were going in the left one and coming out the right one. But our guide looked down the exit hole and decided it looked too narrow with all the ice and snow and that we’d actually come out of the same hole.

The entrance involved sliding down the snow. Inside, the rock was a little bit darker than I’m used to, being basalt instead of limestone and it was decorated with hundreds of stalactites made of crystal clear ice. That was stunning. But other than the colour of the rock and the “icelets”, it felt a lot like the area around the top of OFD. The lava cave is fairly young, only 4000 years old but that’s enough time for water to begin to shape it. There were small calcite formations, fallen and shattered rock, low ceilings. It was cleaner and drier than a UK cave, no mud, no water. There are no rivers on Reykjanes because of the porous rock and any underground streams sit a lot deeper so our guide couldn’t imagine any circumstances under which the caves might flood.

My main problem in the cave was with the peak of the helmet which blotted out a useful chunk of vision. I have never before walked into or broken a stalactite but I took out a few icelets today, as did everyone in our group and as have most people, judging by the broken chunks of crystal clear, otherwise intact and unmelted icelet scattered all over the floor.

We ran into a group of Icelandic “outlaws”, wearing their lopapeysas, the traditional ring-neck jumpers, having a quiet little party with hot coffee made on a Trangia.

Once we were past them, we settled down on the floor to have a story – about real outlaws who’d lived in lava caves throughout the country and about night trolls. I answered correctly that what happens to trolls when they are in daylight is that they turn to stone although first I said that they burn.

That was the end of the first cave. We went back where we’d come from and went into the “second” cave. Actually, it was just one cave where the main entrance was right in the middle. The second half of the cave was a little bit lower than the first and had a few more calcite formations, including a chimney shaped circle of curtains and a lot of patches of “troll teeth” – hundreds of small sharp stalactites.

At this end, we sat down again and turned all our lights off. Old habits dying hard, I’d switched mine off every time we’d stopped anyway (which had bewildered the guide. I think he thought I wanted to do the whole trip in the dark)

The way in had involved sliding down the snow. Now we had to scramble up it. It wasn’t too hard but the last bit, the bit where we emerged into open air, there wasn’t much to get hold of to pull myself up so I went for the much more fun option of launching myself face first into the deep snow outside. Fun.

We posed for more photos then we followed the guide back, wading and jumping through knee deep snow, making fresh footprints in untouched snow, taking more photos of each other and generally acting like five-year-olds. And I ate my traditional caving Mars bar in the bus. Another difference between UK caves and Iceland ones. In a UK cave, my Mars bar is perfectly soft and squashed by the time I eat it. Here it had got cold and was rock hard.

I was dropped off in the city centre this time. I did a tiny bit of shopping, found a Christmas market with Santa and lots of kids dancing around a Christmas tree, went to find the new Althingi – I say new. The Althingi, if you remember, is the Icelandic parliament which was held at Thingvellir since 930AD. It moved to a building in Reykjavik in around 1880 so it’s comparitively very new. Then I realised my ears and the inside of my head were very very cold because I hadn’t bothered to bring my hat caving (I did take two headtorches. Three sources of light and all that. The fact that the guide is carrying a small torch is not good enough) so I came home, via the main shopping street, which is after all the direct route. Most of it was closed to traffic today which meant a traffic jam on the part that was open. There was a little band playing loud but quite good music from the back of a lorry – the poor bass player seemed to be getting frostbite in his fingers. It’s been snowing on and off today and it’s now at the stage where the pavements are snowy and the roads are slush.

I’m in my hotel now. In a nearby room a baby is screaming and in the room above me, someone is scraping chairs around. Both of these have been going on for days. Fortunately the baby shuts up at night but the chair scraping goes on constantly until about midnight. It actually infuriates me even more than the baby. What are you doing to those chairs?!

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