Journey underground: Inside Vatnshellir Cave in West Iceland

1. March, 2017

It was the moment we stood in total darkness inside a lava tube 35 metres underground that I remember best. The feeling was so unfamiliar to this lifelong city dweller that I savoured every moment. Even with my eyes open the surroundings looked like the blackest ink, and the only sound I could hear was a faint drip-drop of condensation from some rock nearby. My stop at Vatnshellir Cave under the Snæfellsjökull glacier was unplanned. My boyfriend and I were driving around West Iceland’s Snæfellsnes National Park, when we noticed a sign for this 8,000-year-old subterranean wonder and pulled up in its small car park.

The timing was perfect – the tour was about to start. We were kitted out in protective helmets, given flashlights, a cave overview and some stern instructions that amounted to not touching anything inside the cave and watching our step. The tour inside the earth began through a door marked “undirheimar”, the Icelandic for “underworld”. This could not be more appropriate – due to frequent volcanic activity, Iceland is full of caves. In the past, they provided cover for people and animals; even today some are still being used as sheep shelters.

Vatnshellir Cave (translated as Water Cave) is a lava tube created by volcanic eruption from a nearby crater. At first the lava flowed down but when it cooled, a crust was formed on the surface. As the eruption stopped, all the lava from underneath the crust continued to flow out eventually leaving an empty tube.

 

Once inside, we walked down a set of stairs to the first out of three accessible chambers. The lights of our torches revealed stalactites, stalagmites and lava formations (with more colours than you could imagine in this underground kingdom). After a short talk from our guide and a look around (there were plenty of opportunities to take photos), we shuffled down a set of spiral stairs into a second chamber. Legend has it, we were told, that in the 9th century a half troll named Bárður Snæfellsáss lived inside the cave. You could not help but wonder whether trolls still inhabit these cold, dark chambers and come out to play when the tourists left.

French novelist Jules Verne mentioned the cave in his 1864 science fiction novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth about German mineralogy professor Otto Lidenbrock who believed there were volcanic tubes going toward the centre of the Earth.

 

The 45-minute tours are offered all year round.  You need to be reasonably fit, and it is a good activity for the whole family as kids from 3 years of age are permitted to take the tour.

As the time inside the cave is so short, be sure to make other stops while you explore the magnificent Snæfellsnes peninsula. So why not continue to Djúpalónssandur, a black-pebble beach with dramatic views across the sea, followed by a drive to the north side of the peninsula. There, a stop at Kirkjufell mountain (translated to Church mountain) towering at 463m above sea level is a must. One of the most photographed landmarks in Iceland, it lies near the village of Grundarfjörður. Naturally, this small fishing settlement has a communal hot pool that is a logical stop after your short trek to a small waterfall – and possibly the best vantage point for your photographs of the “Church mountain.” Back on the road to Reykjavik, do not forget to pass by Gerðuberg, where huge hexagonal basalt columns reach for the sky and present numerous opportunities for photos and climbing. But why are they hexagonal, you might ask? That’s the story for another blog post some day.

 

 

 

 

By Svetlana Graudt

Svetlana was born in Moscow, where as many as nine million people use the metro every day. After 12 years in London she moved to Reykjavik for love. Svetlana loves cities and reading long articles in The New Yorker.