There are some places that are impossible to find without a little help from a local. In Iceland, one such place is the Strompahraun lava field, located a half hour drive from Reykjavik and just west of the Blafjoll mountains. Actually, one might find the lava field, as the Blafjoll mountain range is the main ski resort area for inhabitants of Reykjavik during the winter months. But now, in June, the snow is largely gone, and we were heading to the lava fields not for winter sports, but to explore a couple of caves, or what are otherwise known as lava tubes.
Our host in Iceland, Halla, piled us into the car, and off we set on our adventure. Driving up into the mountainous region is, for someone like me who had never before been to Iceland, a treat. First, the petrified lava fields look a little like the moon. Second, there wasn’t another car in sight. Coming straight from New York, one of the most congested cities in the world, being in the middle of nowhere is thrilling.
Eventually, we pulled off the road onto a volcanic ash drive, and finally, we parked. Off we set across the lava fields. We walked over the lava and also over moss, which was soft and spongy. In a place like this, it’s possible to start believing in the ‘Little People’ of Iceland. Indeed, a large percentage of Icelanders believe in these small creatures, which they hold responsible for the luck or downfall of the human inhabitants of the land.
We walk, and walk, and hike. We leap from rock to rock, frolicking over the land. I’m trying to look upward towards the mountains all around us so that I don’t fall into one of the many holes or cracks broken through the lava, a result, I’m pretty sure, of the earthquakes that regularly rumble from the depths of Iceland. Finally, we stop short. “We’re here!” Halla calls.
All of a sudden, the fact that we’re many, many kilometers away from any other person makes me feel a little apprehensive. Langiheller is over 660 meters long, with smooth formations that show the path of the lava that once flowed through it. Halla hands is helmets and gives us a couple of rules: “Stay together and speak quietly so that rocks don’t fall from the top of the cave.” We enter the tunnel carefully, as the opening is filled with a downward drop of loose rocks and rubble. I’m worried that perhaps my daughter, ten years old, will have difficulty. Actually, watching her climb over rocks like a mountain goat, I’m more worried that I’ll be the one having problems.
Halla points out various formations in the tunnel. We see the small stalactites that have formed on the ceiling of the tunnel, and hear the dripping of water all around us. The water rains gently from above, making its way down through deep fissures in the floor of the tunnel. “Careful not to walk on the cracks,” warns Halla. “They were created by earthquakes.” The tunnel narrows. “Watch your head,” says Halla. Too late. *CRACK!* I knock my noggin on the roof of the tunnel. Thank goodness I’m wearing a helmet. Sadly, I’m pretty clumsy, which means the others had to endure a lovely caving filled with the soft sounds of dripping water and the shrill shrieks of “OW!” and “DAMN IT!” and “NOT AGAIN!”
Being below the surface of the land really gives me a feel for the power of volcanos. The fact that the tunnel had been formed from flowing magma gives me a feel for the earth in a way I had never felt before. Eventually, we make our way out of the tunnel. I feel different. Stronger. Better. The tunnel helps me to shake the last of New York’s claustrophobic trappings. I feel, as hippied out as it might be to say, FREE.
After a little snack, Halla says, “On to the next cave!” We again make our way across the moon-scape, and eventually come to another opening in the ground. This one has snow escaping from it. “We’ll need to be careful of the ice,” says Halla. “Oh, by the way, this cave is much harder than the last one.” Oh, great, I think. Way to butter me up. Make me think I’m strong and then, well, throw me into the maw of hell. The last one was hard enough. But my kid is already making her way down… Off we go.
This tunnel is, as Halla said, much more challenging. Rocks shift beneath my feet, and I hear my kid grunting a bit as she strains to climb up and over some of the rocks. Eventually we come to a narrowing of the tunnel. “That way, or that way,” Halla says, pointing to two think tunnels that look, in my eyes, equally as narrow and difficult. I let my kid decide. We climb upward. I’m breathing deeply, really noticing the unique way Iceland smells. Actually, I noticed the scent as soon as we got off the plane, but it was only now that I associated it with the volcanos. A base, earthy smell, yet a sweet note of tropical flowers. The scent is dreamy. I wonder if, perhaps, the Little People have cast a spell over me. If perhaps they haven’t lured me to this cave… (I know, I know, ridiculous, but I am a fiction writer, after all, so it makes sense that I would start dreaming all sorts of terrifying scenarios).
We exit the tunnel into a small, naturally lit cavern. Sunlight! This tunnel, Djupihellir, has four levels connected by narrow tunnels and various openings. We have an option of getting to the next level either by a ladder, which sadly didn’t do so well during the last winter, and is still surrounded by snow and ice, or by rope. One in our small party of four tries her hand at the rope. She makes it about halfway. My kiddo also gives it a go, but doesn’t make it very far. I think of the Super Mario video game from when I was a kid, when Mario had to transverse the underground tunnel level, which was filled with pits of lava, ropes and all manner of other trials and tribulations.
We abandon the ropes and head back to the ladder. Halla quickly makes her way up, and another in our party also heads up. My kid is next. She moves up a couple of rungs, but then gets to one that is missing. I stand over ice, thread my fingers together, and make-shift a rung. My sweet girl looks at me, terrified. I don’t blame her. I’d also be scared witless using someone else’s hands as a rung of a ladder. But she takes a deep breath and gives it a try. One wet and muddy Nike slips into my fingers. Holy crap, when did my daughter get so heavy? And was the ground as icy and slippery beneath my feet as it all of a sudden felt? And could I see HOLES through various areas in the snow, leading who-knows-how-far downward? I’m starting to feel like a nervous wreck.
My kiddo grabs hold of a helpful hand above, and I try to give her a boost upward, but she’s frozen, as petrified with fear as the tunnel is with lava. “I can’t,” she says in the smallest, most pitiful voice. The rest of us try to reassure her, but it’s no use. I help her back down. My kid is in tears. I give her the biggest mom hug I have in me, and tell her how proud I am that she gave it her all. She smiles up at me, which is the biggest reward ever for an adventure such as ours. Halla calls down: “We’ve gone far enough. You’ve done incredibly well! I’ve never brought anyone here before who is so young!” My kiddo beams. It helps her to feel more grown up and accomplished knowing that she might be the youngest kid ever to visit this cave.
With everyone safely down the ladder, Halla asks us to sit for a bit and listen to the tunnel. We all find a rock and take a seat. I hear the water dripping, my kiddo’s sweet breaths, and I really feel connected to this place. After ten minutes or so, cool, calm and collected, we make our way out of the cave, hike back across the lava field to the car, and have a treat of chocolates and steaming hot chocolate. We made it, I think. We’re alive! I haven’t felt this good in a really, really long time. I hug my kid, kiss her on her sweet little head, and my heart leaps in new and wonderful ways.
“OK, guys,” says Halla. “Let’s go!” We pile in the car and start heading to the mountains. Because, of course, our adventure isn’t yet over. We’re on our way to an even bigger hike, a long winding trail up, over, around and down mountains, and we’re on our way to find geothermal hotsprings, the jewels of Iceland. I’ll be writing all about them in my next post.
Thanks for reading and please, if you like what you see, follow my adventures and ‘like’ my Facebook page!