An Icelandic journey to the centre of the earth
The barren, rugged lava fields of Staðarsveit. (David Noton/LPI)
‘“See the great fins!” shouts the professor. “See the air and water sprouting from the blowholes!” We stand, shocked, astonished, terrified at the sight of a shoal of sea monsters, the smallest of which could split our raft with a snap of its teeth.’ - Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
A jet of water erupts off the starboard side of our boat, and the spray splashes the deck. There's barely time to understand what's happening before a flash of silver whale's skin breaks the surface, dips beneath a wave and plunges down to the dark fathoms of the North Atlantic. Out here, within sight of Reykjavík, whale spotters and whaling boats scour the seas for these mighty beasts. The minke whale, notorious for its bad breath; the blue whale, whose tongue alone outweighs an African elephant; and the leaping humpback whale, all have patrolled the depths beneath our boat.
These may not be the sea monsters Jules Verne describes in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but Iceland is the setting for his famous novel. Verne's heroes - the eccentric Professor Lidenbrock and his long-suffering nephew, Axel - discover a clue encrypted in an old Icelandic manuscript that sends them to the island in search of a passage to the core of the planet. The adventure follows the characters as they navigate underground seas filled with prehistoric sea monsters, dodging lava flows and crossing bottomless chasms. The strange subterranean world that Verne describes isn't too far removed from the landscapes on the surface in Iceland. This, after all, is a place where lightning storms ravage volcano craters; where the ground can crack open and gobble up the farmland; where new islands have popped up overnight in the surrounding seas.
Pulling into Reykjavík harbour, just as Verne's characters did, it seems remarkable that anyone could make their home in this forbidding land. Huge cliffs loom all around, looking like they might lurch forward at any moment and push the tiny town into the sea. Reykjavík sits on the edge of the Arctic Circle with a defiance that would make its Viking founders proud. In the summer, revellers flock to the streets for the runtur - the bar crawl famous for its excess and irreverence (one nightclub even has the faces of failed Icelandic bankers plastered over its urinals). In the winter, the crowds disappear inside cosy cafés, while the corrugated-iron houses shudder in thundering Arctic winds.
Guarding over the city is Hallgrímskirkja, the church where, from high up in the bell tower, the outline of Snæfellsjökull can just be seen. This snow-capped volcano, scarcely visible behind a veil of mist, was Professor Lidenbrock's destination - the mountain where an ancient riddle spoke of a crater at the summit that leads to the centre of the Earth. The volcano strikes an ominous presence on the horizon - one of countless sleeping giants in Iceland that might one day stir, sending torrents of fire, rock and ash raining down. Lurking in the fog, Snæfellsjökull seems to dare me to trace the footsteps of Verne's heroes - to scale its slopes and find out if the summit really does hide a gateway to a world beneath our feet.
'How can we know for certain that Snæfells isn't about to erupt? The fact that this monster has slumbered since 1229 does not mean that it will not wake. And if it does, what will become of us?' -Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
We are not talking about pregnant ladies,' barks the professor. 'We are talking about volcanoes; there is no due date - no timetable for an eruption.'