From the window, I watch as black cliffs and crumbling, extinct volcanoes give way to the outline of a massive glacier. Thick, bush-like undergrowth in shades of brilliant crimson and rust offsets the black and green with random bursts of color. My guide, native Icelander Kristjan Guðjónsson, steers his massive Jeep along our side of the narrow, deserted highway. One of the owners of the family business Wild West Tours, he’s agreed to drive me north and west of the capital city of Reykjavík to hike on Snæfellsjökull, a glacier made famous not only for its vastness, but also for the frequent reports of mysterious lights that appear among the thick, springy moss cloaking its surface.
“I’m going to show you something,” Guðjónsson confides as we leave the vehicle and follow a faded path along the glacier’s hip, traversing in a zigzag pattern up the steep sides. He’s smiling, and I half expect him to launch into a tourist-pleasing tale that involves trolls or the Huldufólk, Iceland’s Hidden People, waiting in some deep crevasse of ice to greet us. What he says next is even better.
He pauses, the tops of his boots sinking into the deep, soft moss, then spreads wide his arms. “This,” he announces, “is where Jules Verne said in his book ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ that the secret entrance to the core of the planet is located.”
I’m not sure what to say, but I can see how Verne might have been charmed into believing anything when surrounded by such astounding beauty. We hike for a while, then make our way back to the path, descending through a light layer of snow. A short bend in the road later, he pulls into an area near a small wooden park ranger’s station, where we’re ushered through a gate that guards a metal stairway leading into the dark depths of Vatnshellir lava cave. The center of the Earth, indeed.
The winding staircase spirals downward. Instead of the bone chilling cold I’d anticipated, the temperature is brisk, but steady and not uncomfortable. The park official who accompanies us explains that Vatnshellir translates to “water cave,” and scientists believe that it was likely formed in a single volcanic eruption that took place between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. Eerie stone formations along the walls and floor help to create an otherworldly setting.
After adventures in the cave, my exploration continues in an area near the Hraunfossar waterfalls, where a torrent of water flows from beneath a field of ancient lava, cascading down the face of the cliffs in too many cataracts to count, each on its way to join the glacial river Hvítá flowing beneath. It’s late as I pick my way along the facing edge. The midnight sun illuminates the rocky clefts and ridges, forming outlines that might be faces peering back; carved eternally in stone.
In the morning before breakfast, I head outside in the nippy air to a series of tiered thermal pools that are a natural feature near my accommodations. Beneath Iceland’s hard exterior, geothermal activity is ongoing. It powers the entire country, and breaks open in countless thermal pools across the landscape. Many of the steamy springs are on private land, or can only be reached with a good map and a vehicle capable of negotiating the terrain. During past visits, I’ve made numerous pilgrimages to the famed (and far more accessible) Blue Lagoon, but this time I’m in search of the kind of healing peace that can only be found in a still-wild setting—like here, where glaciers, waterfalls and beaches made of tiny black pebbles take the place of sidewalks and cafes.
I float on my back, gazing upward at the milky topaz sky. This place is renowned as a premier viewing location for those in search of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Right now, there are clouds gathering, and I remember my pre-trip correspondence with Kristjan’s brother, Guðmundur, about the weather; he described it as unpredictable—often changing significantly from one hour to the next. By the time I reach the dining room for breakfast, it’s raining.
One last cup of tea, and it’s time to drive away. The road leads between fields of Icelandic horses, their eyes nearly hidden beneath the thick forelocks that fall across their faces. I stop three times to take their photographs, and it’s only when I draw near the city that I encounter other cars. Some might use the words empty, or barren, to describe this landscape. I would say deep and full. Verne was right, in a sense: Without doubt, Iceland is a portal; a gateway to another world.
By Debra Bokur