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The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Travel - INTO THE DEEP

n 2010, the Ice­landic vol­cano Ey­jaf­jal­la­jökull erupted, send­ing ash plumes across north­ern Europe, dis­rupt­ing air travel and fo­cus­ing the world’s at­ten­tion on the tiny is­land na­tion. Ice­land sits astride a con­ti­nen­tal rift, in which the Eurasian plate and the North Amer­i­can plate are pulling away from each other. That con­ti­nen­tal bound­ary runs through Ice­land, and it’s the rea­son why the is­land has 130 ac­tive and ex­tinct vol­ca­noes. It’s also the rea­son why the tiny na­tion, founded mil­len­nia ago by hardy and re­source­ful Vik­ing set­tlers, has long cap­tured the imag­i­na­tions of peo­ple who want to know more about what lurks be­neath the sur­face of the Earth.

Ice­land is one of those nat­u­rally blessed beau­ties with breath­tak­ing land­scapes and oth­er­worldly scenery. It courts trav­ellers from around the world, as well as film­mak­ers from Hol­ly­wood and Bol­ly­wood, right through to Hong Kong’s own Jackie Chan, whose up­com­ing film Kung Fu Yoga is par­tially shot in Ice­land. Ice­land has also served as a wild, beau­ti­ful and bru­tal back­drop in the wildly pop­u­lar Game of Thrones se­ries.

But Ice­land’s beauty is about much more than sweep­ing ex­panses of snow and moun­tains. As I dive in an al­most-life­less con­ti­nen­tal rift, crawl into a sap­phire-blue ice cave and stroll in­side the world’s largest man-made glacial tun­nel, I am in­spired by the

GLACIERS IN PAR­TIC­U­LAR ARE NAT­U­RAL WON­DERS THAT, IN AN AGE OF GLOBAL WARM­ING, WE NEED TO AP­PRE­CI­ATE AS THEY DIS­AP­PEAR

depth of Ice­land’s nat­u­ral won­ders and cre­ativ­ity – but also the in­ven­tive­ness of the Ice­landic peo­ple, whose tiny pop­u­la­tion of roughly 333,000 seem to thrive on its iso­la­tion.

Dressed in a neo­prene dry suit, air­tight from head to toe, with a steel scuba tank on my back, com­plete with lob­ster-claw wet gloves and flip­pers longer than my calves, I feel as clumsy and bulky as if I were don­ning a Miche­lin man cos­tume.

I make my way to dive in the crys­talline wa­ters of the deep, nar­row crack that is Sil­fra, a rift plung­ing be­neath the sur­face of Thingvel­lir lake that is about six foot wide at its nar­row­est points and up to 60m deep. The glacial wa­ters are also the cold­est I have ever swum in, with year-round tem­per­a­tures of be­tween two and four de­grees Cel­sius.

The in­flated dry­suit is so buoy­ant in the water that be­fore I have any con­trol over my core and limbs, my flip­pers float up to the sur­face, my tank fac­ing

I take a gulp of the icy water and, as promised, it tastes clean and slightly sweet. The melted water from the nearby Langjökull glacier is fil­tered by the por­ous lava rock for be­tween 30 and 100 years be­fore it reaches Thingvel­lir Lake, seep­ing out from un­der­ground wells and feed­ing water into the fis­sure. Sil­fra, which means silver in Ice­landic, is named af­ter the clear water sparkles that bub­ble up from the un­der­ground springs.

But you don’t come to Sil­fra for wildlife. Not a lot of ma­rine life can sur­vive in the ice-cold glacial water, and the lack of life in turn keeps the water as clear as glass. The only ma­rine life you’ll likely see is the long, neon green sea­weed sway­ing in the void. Some divers even re­port ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ver­tigo be­cause the water is so clear that they lose all sense of depth al­to­gether. It is the dom­i­neer­ing na­ture of Ice­land’s ge­ol­ogy and the vis­ually un­mis­taken life­less­ness that en­gulf me in this all-at-once eerie, daz­zling, flaw­less and con­fus­ing feel­ing – the odd sensation that I may as well be on a space walk, as any­where on Earth.

There is fre­quently this sense of oth­er­world­li­ness in Ice­land – the land that time for­got. A trip to the Vat­na­jökull ice caves re­veals the beau­ti­ful blue and crys­talline world that ex­ists be­neath a glacier. Here,

ge­ol­ogy and icy hy­drol­ogy meet. As with many of Ice­land’s most scenic lo­ca­tions, it’s a raw, stark kind of beauty; driv­ing home the need to ap­pre­ci­ate the nat­u­ral won­der of glaciers in an age of global warm­ing.

Ice­land’s sec­ond largest glacier, Langjökull (“The Long Glacier” – the same glacier that feeds the pure water into Sil­fra – is home to Ice­land’s first, and the world’s largest, man-made ice cave. Since 2015, lo­cal tour com­pany Into The Glacier have been of­fer­ing var­i­ous trips to let vis­i­tors ex­pe­ri­ence the “hid­den ice” in­side the 1.3km-long glacier, through a tun­nel sys­tem that’s 550m long and 30m be­low the sur­face. In a coun­try not short of mar­vel­lous nat­u­ral ice caves, you may won­der why some­body would come up with the idea of drilling a costly man-made ice cave in a glacier – a struc­ture that, with­out reg­u­lar main­te­nance, would fill up with snow within a decade.

IN JULES VERNE’S 1864 SCIENCE FIC­TION BOOK,

THE PRO­TAG­O­NISTS DIS­COVER THE EN­TRANCE TO A PAS­SAGE INTO THE CEN­TRE OF THE EARTH ON SNAEFELLSJÖKULL

The orig­i­nal idea for Into the Glacier came from two ad­ven­ture tour op­er­a­tors, Bald­vin Ei­nars­son and Hall­grí­mur Örn Arn­gríms­son, who had the idea to not only show vis­i­tors the glacier, but to take them deep into the heart of it. Ei­nars­son and Arn­gríms­son gath­ered top en­gi­neers as well as renowned vol­ca­nol­o­gist and geo­physi­cist Ari Trausti Guð­munds­son to plan the US$2.5 mil­lion project, which took over five years to study, model and con­struct. A spe­cialised, one-of-a-kind drill was de­signed to dig a mas­sive hole, ex­tract­ing 5,500 cu­bic me­tres of ice from the glacier.

The duo’s de­sire to fathom sub­ter­ranean se­crets is more than rem­i­nis­cent of Jules Verne’s 1864 science fic­tion book, Jour­ney to the Cen­tre of the Earth, in which the pro­tag­o­nists dis­cover the en­trance to a pas­sage into the cen­tre of the Earth on Snaefellsjökull (mean­ing snow-fell glacier), which is ac­tu­ally about 170 kilo­me­tres west of Langjökull.

To get from Ho­tel Husafell to our des­ti­na­tion, we board an eight-wheeled 45-seater mon­ster truck named the Ice Ex­plorer, which was orig­i­nally used as a cruise mis­sile launcher by Nato. Af­ter a slug­gish crawl in blind­ing white­ness, we fi­nally find the cave en­trance

at about 1,250m above sea level (with the help of GPS) and we make our way in­side. The sheer-carved walls are hol­lowed out at var­i­ous in­ter­vals and in­stalled with LED light­ing to avoid to­tal dark­ness. We di­vide into smaller groups for an hour-long tour, dur­ing which our guide points out glacial fea­tures (crevasses, moulins, run­ning water, ice lay­ers and the gaps be­tween them) and ex­plains how glaciers evolve over time. The glaciol­ogy crash course is an in­sight into the dras­tic im­pact that ris­ing tem­per­a­tures are hav­ing on the re­ced­ing glaciers. Groups of re­searchers are also us­ing the site to mon­i­tor ice move­ments over time.

This project is backed by Ice­landair Group, a cor­po­ra­tion that op­er­ates in both the avi­a­tion and tourism sec­tors in Ice­land. While the man-made ice cave may not be the most strik­ing cave I’ve ever seen, I would ar­gue it is a liv­ing tes­ti­mo­nial of how cre­ative and dar­ing Ice­landers are: they dream, they de­sign and they get the job done.

Ice­land is of­ten called the land of fire and ice, and for good rea­son. It has all the el­e­ments to steal your heart as your make your own jour­ney to the cen­tre of the Earth. And hope­fully back out again.

FROM HO­TEL HUSAFELL TO OUR DES­TI­NA­TION, I BOARDED AN EIGHTWHEELED, 45-SEATER MON­STER TRUCK NAMED THE ICE EX­PLORER, WHICH WAS ORIG­I­NALLY USED AS A CRUISE MIS­SILE LAUNCHER BY NATO

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01 Askja, a caldera lo­cated in a re­mote part of the cen­tral high­lands of Ice­land 02 Ice­land is also a great place to watch the Aurora Bo­re­alis, or North­ern Lights 03 Div­ing in icy wa­ters at Sil­fra 03

04 04 Pho­tog­ra­phers take in the North­ern Lights by a glacial lake 05 Sil­fra is the only place in the world where one can dive be­tween two dif­fer­ent con­ti­nen­tal plates

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06 06 Vis­i­tors can ex­pe­ri­ence the "hid­den ice" in­side a glacier 07 Ice­land, a scarcely pop­u­lated arc­tic is­land, is known as the land of fire and ice

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08 Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the "hid­den ice" led by lo­cal tour com­pany Into the Glacier 09 The eightwheeled 45-seater Ice Ex­plorer, orig­i­nally used as a cruise mis­sile launcher, is now used for trans­port­ing vis­i­tors 10 The walls in­side a glacial cave are hol­lowed o

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