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My journey to the centre of the earth begins at the crater of the Icelandic volcano Thrihnukagigur. Where lava once seethed, now visitors are amazed by the wonders of this sleeping force of nature. A truly unique experience. A black hole awaits me. 120 meters deep, just below my feet. Looking down from the safety of the narrow metal gangway, I gaze into the gullet of the crater and see… nothing. And maybe it’s all the better. Who wants to see the face of a fatal abyss scowling from underneath? My knees tremble as I enter the ominously swaying metal basket. A moment later, it starts its descent with a jerky movement. The engine is rattling and the supporting metal structure creaks. Fathom by fathom we are immersed into the darkness, along the jagged textures of rock that I can reach out and touch. After the initial 80 meters through the narrow shaft of the volcano, the rocky walls suddenly recede. Before my eyes are cascades of solidified lava, rock faces shimmering in shades of fiery red and gold, permeated by black veins. After seven minutes, the basket jarringly touches down on the millennia old lava. The mouth of the crater is now just a tiny speck of light overhead. I stand where the lava once seethed. I am inside Earth.
In the early morning, Sólveig Arnarsdóttir, a 40-year-old woman with red-blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, picked me up at a car park in Reykjavik. For about an hour we drove up the Icelandic highlands and arrived at a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Along narrow pathways we then traversed the hostile volcanic landscape on foot. “This area is very active. Minor earthquakes are frequent, but no region is monitored as well as this, since Reykjavik is critically close”, Sólveig told me. But the mountain that once spewed magma has been sleeping for more than 4,000 years. And its remains are a scientific enigma. “After an eruption, normally craters collapse or are filled up by cooled lava, but the Thrihnukagigur has remained open”. While Sólveig has entered the yawning maw of the volcano dozens of times, I utter a sigh of relief as the basket reaches the volcanic rubble floor. All around bleak crevices lead to the further insides of the volcano. I gaze at the surrounding walls of the cavity in awe and feel small. The power of the elemental forces that created this space and which are constantly cooking beneath us feel alarmingly close.
As I disembark the basket, I am amazed by the play of colours on the rock faces. Golden yellow, violet, green and ruby red. I was never aware that the insides of the earth could be this colourful. A sparse waterfall pours into the volcano, making the air sparkle in the reflections of the few rays of light. Fat pearls of water fall on my white helmet and I exit the drop zone. Aside from water drops, the hole above also drips pebble that turn into dangerous bullets. I gaze at the gondola as it makes its way back to daylight and soon becomes indistinguishable. I am left in the gullet of the volcano. But I am not alone. Next to Sólveig are two American scientists. And Árni Stefánsson, aged 64, an ophthalmologist, enthusiastic cave explorer and the discoverer of this volcano.
Forty years ago, the young Stefánsson met an elderly man who spoke of a bottomless pit. “I asked him to show me the location”, he recalls. “My first thought was: Where did all the lava go?” He studied aerial photos and saw a bulge on the western slope of the volcano: a lava pool. A second exit? Could this be the answer to the riddle? Árni inched himself into the cave by rope. “As I arrived below, I was disappointed. There were no formations; no second exit; no answers to my questions”. Almost 20 years went by before his return, though “the thought of the cave wouldn’t let go of me”. In the spring of 1991, he once again abseiled down into the gullet, inspecting the cave and comprehending its full dimensions. “Then it dawned on me that what I had discovered was something worldly unique and that it had to be protected”.
Since 2012, visitors have been able to book the trip into the bowels of the earth. It costs around €270/£ 198, which is an exclusive price. As Árni explains, “We are a non-profit business. The income covers our expenses and what is left is donated to nature conservation”. After an hour, my return draws closer. I am reluctant to re-embark the metal basket. I throw a last glance around the cave. The panoramic sea of colours will stay with me for a long time. I would love to stay longer. Right here in the multi-coloured heart of Nature’s slumbering powers. Book a tour into the gullet of the volcano and experience an unforgettable mixture of nature, history and adventure! For more information go to: www.insidethevolcano.com