Secrets of Fljótstunga

Fljótstunga, in the Reykholt area in West Iceland, is a magical little place. Situated just half an hour from the middle of nowhere, it’s a gorgeous little farm perched on a hill. It is approached by a short, rough track, dotted with occasional spindly trees and populated by the ubiquitous Icelandic horses. It’s a working farm, although it has diversified into hiring out Scandinavian wooden cottages that are sprouting up in the lava fields, right next to the lava fields and low bushes where berries will be found in the autumn.

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My visit, though, was in the Icelandic summer. This meant that the grass glowing green with vitality and although a fine rain hung in the air, it might just turn out to be as burning hot as it was yesterday.

I visited Fljótstunga to go underground. Yes, The Clash song was on repeat in my head, like some kind of punning psychological tick. I am English, and some songs are just in your DNA. There are plenty of places where you can go underground in Iceland. The country is riddled with lava tubes, dormant volcanoes and mysterious unclassified caves that are stuff of legend, now vacated homes and featured in renowned literature. There are companies in Reykjavík that will take you and your wallet underground straight from your plush hotel, complete with promises of your own adventures deep underground. There is a dormant volcano that can be entered seemingly on a contraption borrowed from the window washers of Manhattan’s tallest towers.

I wanted something a little more organic, a little less touristy, and a lot less expensive. Enter Fljótstunga. The owners of the farm are the custodians for Viðgelmir, a lava cave. Viðgelmir is  massive 1,585 meters long, the highest point inside the cave is 15.8 meters and 16.5 meters in width. It’s huge. Víðgelmir lava cave is considered by speleologists (impressed with that word? You can have it!) to be one of the most remarkable caves on earth.

Víðgelmir is by far the largest known of all lava caves in Iceland; apparently no one has ever traversed its full length. Deep inside there are many spaces with well preserved lava formations. Bones and jewellery from the year 1100 have been found inside, believed to have been from previous inhabitants, including a thieving, female warrior.

The entrance to Víðgelmir is a short distance from the farm, where the green meadows had given away to the sharp mess of a lava field. A portion of the cave roof has collapsed inwards, leaving a hole the size of several cars. A rusty ladder was affixed to the side of the aperture, which I nervously climbed down. This then lead to a path roped across the shattered volcanic rocks. The guide helpfully pointed out that the rope as for guidance; it wouldn’t hold my weight in the event of a fall, as I clambered down the steep, slippery rocks into the darkness and gloom. Where sunlight could still reach, moss and lichen had started to flourish, but as the darkness encroached, this gave way to dark, sombre rock. The tube was covered in what appeared to be think, melted chocolate, although this was actually hard and brittle. The smell was one of damp and stale air.

We continued through an alarming locked gate, which is apparently for locking people out, not the nightmare of being locked in this subterranean prison. The guide then did something quite remarkable, and extinguished all the light sources in the cave. This had an amazing effect on my senses. Being enveloped in complete, absolute darkness is an experience in itself. I could see nothing at all, with not a single pinprick of light to illuminate my retinas. Instead, my hearing took over. I could hear my own breathing, and the sound of blood rushing through my ears. But more than that, I could hear the dripping of water from the cave roof.

On entering the cave, I’d barely been aware of the droplets of water, save for the ones that hit me squarely on the back of the neck and dribbled coolly down my spine. Without light though, the drips performed a cacophonous symphony, alternating between slow and soft, hard and fast. It sounded like the most divine xylophone, played by a psychotic mouse. I’m told that the drips have been recorded by artists down here. I’m not surprised.

The surprises keep on coming though. Around the corner, I am confronted with a partial collapse in the cave, causing a sharp slope up to the roof. It’s covered in one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Sharp tentacles of ice rise from the slope, pointing upwards to where they have fallen from. These stalagmites are made of ice, and are glistening white. Even in July, they remain here in the cold depths of the cave. Ice can close the cave entirely in the harshest winters. Some say that the ice formations are a city lived in by elves, but I think it’s too cold for your average elf. I was shuddering, not just with the cold, but the sheer beauty of this forest of inverted icicles, catching my torch light and refracting light like the most expensive diamonds.

It’s utterly, utterly spellbinding.

Original article on Iceland Review Online.

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