Icicles – Leidarendi Lava Cave. Image: PBerry
As I eagerly await the beginning of my summer programme of visits to Iceland with Rayburn Tours, I have managed to find a little time to reflect on trips made back in the spring.
Back in March, I had the opportunity to visit a new location – the Raufarholshellir lava cave near the town of Hveragerdi in southern Iceland. Lava caves (or tubes) were formed when surface-flowing lava solidified – while molten lava continued to flow in a tunnel (or tube) below the surface. The tubes eventually drain as the lava flow ceases, and the rock cools to leave a long, narrow cave.
Raufarholshellir is 1360 metres long, and ranges between 10 and 30 metres wide. The height of the cave averages around 10 metres, and the feature was the product of a fissure eruption some 5,200 years ago. The roof is around 12 metres thick, but has collapsed at three points to open the cave to the sky. During the winter months, snow blows in through the roof windows to create giant ice columns that add to the mystery of this place. A red-brown iron stain marks the basalt around the roof openings, but is absent from the far end of the cave where there is less exposure to the open air.
I have been fortunate enough in the past to visit a number of lava caves in other parts of the world such as Hawaii and New Zealand, and have now also managed to explore a number of lava caves in Iceland. They are all quite different, with each cave having its own special character.
Shark’s Tooth Lava Stalactites, Leiderendi
One of the more adventurous complex of lava caves in Iceland is Leidarendi, located just a few miles south east of Hafnarfjordur, one of the southern suburbs of the Reykjavik metropolitan area. They are found in a giant scoria crater called Stori Bolli (‘Big Cup’), and were first opened in 1992. The caves were created around 2000 years ago when a major eruption produced a huge lava field in this part of south west Iceland.
On my last visit to the caves, my group was met by the excellent guides from ‘Iceland Expeditions’, who kitted everyone out with safety helmets and head torches. The entry into the cave system was pretty narrow, but once inside it was possible to walk through the old channels – with a few spots demanding a crouched posture or all-fours, and one or two a bit of a crawl with chest on the cave floor.
While underground, we were given some fascinating information about the volcanic activity in the Reykjavik area, and were able to explore a good length of the lava tube system. With our head torches lighting the way, the smooth cave walls were clear to see – and it didn’t need a great imagination to visualise how flowing lava streams had sculpted and polished these channels.
One distinct feature of the Leidarendi system is the presence of lava-icicles – stalactites and stalagmites on the cave floor and ceiling – formed from dripping and splashing lava. The ‘stalactities’ are sometimes known as ‘shark’s teeth’ lava. Lava flakes that had fallen from the walls and roof due to frost and erosion littered the tunnel floor beneath our feet.
Back in the winter, it was a strange feeling re-emerging from this sheltered underground world back into a raging snow storm – but a great experience that really brought alive the scale and wonder of the volcanic activity that has formed this unique subterranean landscape.
The Mariuhellar lava cave is found in the Heidmork Nature Reserve, Just 20 minutes from Reykjavik. ‘Hellar’ means ‘cave’ in Icelandic, so Mariuhellar translates as ‘Maria’s Cave’. There are actually 3 accessible caves here, formed in lava flows that date back around 4,600 years.
(Photos – L: Reykjavik.com; R: guidetoiceland.is)
In my younger years, I was rather more flexible and a little thinner in waistline – and able to face the some more advanced challenges in the area around Grindavik, on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Hiring my own personal guide, I was taken to some really difficult to access caves and tubes that really tested my limited ability as an underground explorer. A great experience, but one that is beyond me now with my present body-shape!
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There is a huge number of other accessible lava tubes throughout Iceland. For instance, the Lofthellir Cave near Lake Myvatn in north Iceland contains some impressive lava sculptures, while the Víðgelmir lava tube situated in the Hallmundarhraun lava field in west Iceland claims to be the largest in the country. Maybe I will get chance to explore them on future trips. Meanwhile, I will have to confine myself to making up new stories about the trolls that use the caves as a network of dark shelters while plotting dastardly deeds to terrorise the local people.