An excursion that takes us "inside" a volcano! We are hyped! Our quest of seeking out something that cannot be seen or experienced anywhere else in the world has been made possible by a rare phenomenon in Iceland.
Following a mega-volcanic eruption the magma normally hardens closing the crater opening. Not so with
Thrihnukagigur. After its mega blast 4,000 years ago, an anomaly of nature occurred - the magma did not remain in the cavity! Volcanologist
Haraldur Sigurdsson says, "It's like somebody came and pulled the plug, and all the magma ran down out of it."
My husband Rick and I arrive by bus over the twisting road from
Reykjavik to the volcano area. Thora, our guide, meets our small group where the road ends at the foot of
Bláfjõll Mountain Range.
After sharing some intriguing facts about Thrihnukagigur, Thora asks that we stay on the path for conservation of the terrain (and so no visitor is lost or twists an ankle), then leads us on a 3km (1.9mi) hike over a lava field to the volcano.
At one point we pass over the split between the Eurasian and North American rift that runs northeast to southwest across Iceland, which is widening by 1.5cm (half an inch) each year.
Arriving at the small 'Welcome Cabin,' our group of ten is divided into three, with us in the middle group. By the time we are fitted with a harness and helmet, it's our turn.
We walk up the nearby embankment to the gaping opening of Thrihnukagigur or Three Peaks Crater. We will descend 120 meters (400ft) into one of them.
A metal cage awaits us; one like the window washers of sky-scrapers use. Pall, the operator, assures we are properly hooked to the cage frame with carabineers, and then presses a red button. After a few jolts and the cage scraping against the rock face, we rumble slowly into the dormant volcano's cavernous maw.
Icy fingers run down my spine caused by more than just the 4°Celsius (39° F) at the bottom. I am blown-away with the enormity of the chamber: its ground space could hold three basketball courts and could easily fit the Statue of Liberty!
We are un-tethered and other than being instructed not to go into the red-roped area, we are free to wander from the semi-flat section and gingerly find our footing up, down and over jagged rocks to get nearer to the chamber walls. It is strangely emotional witnessing the results of gases, pressure and extreme temperatures of the magma that violently blasted to the surface so long ago.
The colours are astounding - amber, yellow, green, russet, and red - which, as our guide explains, "are from the different ore concentrations; the red is rusted iron, browns indicate copper, yellows for various sulfur compounds, and the pitch black sections are where this outer coating has crashed down in chunks from the walls."
Humbled by this grandeur, I am rendered fossil-still, until I hear Rick call, "Come over to this edge; you can't miss seeing this!" I grab onto sharp boulders and make my way over to where he gazes way down into a seemingly endless abyss of more dazzling colour in swirling patterns. A spectacle to behold!
We learn that this chamber was first discovered in 1974 by long-time caving enthusiast Árni B. Stefánsson, who at that time descended without a headlamp and thought it nothing more than a dark hole. Years later, this time with lighting, he was overwhelmed by what he saw, and began petitioning the government on the fine line between conservation and exposing this wonder to the public.
National Geographic helped this along by doing a documentary about this amazing chamber, which led to an entrepreneur covering the cost of the lift and lighting for the magazine's crew to film the documentary; this was 2010. The first tour took place in 2012 - the first time in history visitors, like us, could venture into this eerily magnificent subterranean world.
Above ground again, we fill up on a much appreciated bowl of steaming traditional meat soup and several cups of coffee before our trek back from our "inside the volcano" tour - as Sci-Fi as anything we have done to date and probably ever will. A truly indelible experience!
Irene and Rick Butler at Iceland's Thrihnukagigur Volcano