Iceland’s black rock, lava tubes, and moonscapes are all volcano generated, but their visual effect is highly varied. This troll sculpture, for example, is constructed from black volcanic rock and marks the trail head from Hellnar to Arnarstapi. I’ve written more about it in the blog, “Icelandic Whimsy.”
Our visit to the lava tube near Pingvellir National Park marks one of the enduring memories of my trip to Iceland. The caving guide handed us a hard hat and a small led light to anchor on the front of it, and we scrambled down into the dark. The floor of Gjabakkahellir Cave is filled with boulders. The ceiling shows almost no stalactite formation, since the lava tube isn’t all that old, geologically speaking. In Iceland they call the little bits here and there “cave nipples.”
Hiking a Lava Tube
Taking photos in the cave was tricky. My camera did not like the artificial light and I got some really weird effects that I won’t impose on you, dear readers. Some lava tubes I’ve hiked (like in Hawaii) have wooden walkways built above the boulders, which makes for a very easy trek. But in Iceland, be prepared to haul yourself over and around some very large boulders. And yes, you DO need some hiking boots with good support.
Our caving guide, Palmi, considerately waited from time to time for all ten members of the group to assemble. When we came to the deepest part of the cave, he instructed us to sit down on a nice comfortable boulder (there are no such things, of course) and to switch off our headlamps.
It’s not that the complete dark was a totally new experience for me, but the day marked one of those big zero birthdays that give one pause. For some reason, those decade-separated dates prompt me to think through what the most important values of my life truly are. For one thing, as I sat there in absolute darkness, sunlight seemed very precious to me (as did my daughters).
Then Palmi told us a story about trolls from Icelandic folklore. His style was spare, dry, droll, but completely captivating. The Icelandic sense of timing, by the way, is not the same as that of a North American. A teacher typically gives a student a scant three seconds to come up with the answer to a question. Icelanders know how to wait for the answers to emerge.
I remember experiencing something similar in seminars with the Icelandic-Canadian poet Kristjana Gunnars. The northern afternoon light would dim imperceptibly as we sat around the big conference table, the stories and poems to critique spread out in front of us. She didn’t seem to feel any discomfort sitting in semi-darkness and waiting in silence for we North Americans to respond to each other’s compositions. I felt the same sense of time with Palmi, the kind of time where deadlines and efficiency do not signify.
But I could also feel my youngest daughter getting twitchy. She likes action, drama, and thrives at a high pitch of emotional engagement. My oldest daughter, by contrast, likes calm, reason, and an organized approach to an event. It was very possible that one or the other of them would break the spell with a suggestion to get on with things, so I broke the silence to ask Palmi for another story so we could stay in the lava tube a little longer. He thought for a while and then chose a legend about the ancient Icelandic gods—scary and wonderful to hear in such complete darkness.
Afterward, my daughter announced to the group that it was my birthday. Ten people from various countries in the world, whom I didn’t know and would never see again, sang “Happy Birthday” to me in English while experiencing utter darkness many meters beneath the surface of the earth inside an extinct lava cave. I will always remember that unique experience.
Can you spot the hole where we climbed out of the lava tube? I promise it’s visible!
Driving eastward from Reykjavik on the Ring Road for a few hours takes the visitor through many miles of denuded countryside, black fields of volcanic ash with rivers cutting their bleak path through them, with occasional long bridges marking the areas most likely to flood. In recent years some very big volcanic explosions have occurred in which the heat of the eruption immediately blasted through the ice cap on the crater of the mountain causing massive flooding and erosion, as well as devastation of all life in the area.
These moonscapes both repelled me and captivated me. I wanted to pass through quickly because I found the austere lifelessness uncomfortable, but I also wanted to drink in the sight, imprint it indelibly on my mind.
The photo [R] gives a close-up view of the actual material directly under your feet.
Then we came to vast expanses of lichen-covered rock that was such a surprising color and texture that it was difficult to believe nature had done it and not a foam blower. At one point we saw a bit of a hiking path through it where the spongy stuff had been worn down to show the reddish color of the iron-rich earth. Hope you get an idea from the photo below of the otherworldly weirdness of an up-close encounter.
The seascape at Vik on the southernmost tip of Iceland (and the rainiest spot on the island) also embodies the surreal in landscape with its black beaches and the sea stacks in the distance.
Lava Rock as Building Material
Many of the recreational sites in Iceland are built from volcanic rock. Our first introduction to lava rock happened straight off the plane as we walked from the parking lot of The Blue Lagoon to the building itself. I’d recently returned from a tropical climate, and the black rock didn’t presage anything comfortable as do flowers and palm trees. The whole experience of soaking in the steaming pool, however, was a wonderful surprise.
The architects for public buildings also use black lava rock as a building material and pair it with turf on the roof or side walls, such as this structure at Laugarvatn.
As you can see, the Icelandic government uses volcanic rock to build the volcano information centers, such as this one for Hekla.
I should definitely expand the use of volcanic rock in Iceland to include its use by the working class, particularly those structures created to withstand the mighty forces of nature. Lava rock of all sizes form the sea walls all over Iceland.