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