An Icelandic journey to the centre of the earth
Professor Haraldur Sigurdsson is something of a celebrity in this remote corner of Iceland, a volcanologist who grew up in the shadow of Snæfellsjökull and who has set up a volcano museum in Stykkishólmur, his hometown. Little more than a cluster of timber houses huddled around a natural harbour, Stykkishólmur is one of the last staging posts before the Arctic Circle. Pacing the quay are sturdy fishermen with thick woollen jumpers and rambling beards. Seagulls stalk the rooftops - swooping down on discarded scraps of fish - but otherwise, signs of life here are scarce.
In the darkened hall of the professor's museum, paintings of volcanoes hang alongside antique geological instruments used by Verne's contemporaries. 'At the time Jules Verne was writing, some people believed the earth was hollow,' he says. 'For readers in those days, a trip to the centre of the Earth, with dinosaurs and cavemen, was quite plausible.' Not that geology has lost its sense of adventure: Professor Sigurdsson recounts how his helicopter was rocked by the sonic boom of exploding gas bubbles as he hovered over the crater of Eyjafjallajökull. The eruption that brought European airports to a standstill he shrugs off as barely a blip.
Haraldur Sigurdsson is touched by an eccentric genius common to Icelanders. Visitors to these parts might hear about the optician erecting homemade wax stalagmites in caves; the record producer building his own troll garden beside a waterfall; the adventurer who has tweaked a Soviet missile launcher to transport tourists across the Langjökull glacier (and who one day hopes to build a concert venue out of the ice at the top). There is something about this empty land of lonely roads and rusting barns that seems to breed a peculiar resilience in its inhabitants.
We step out into the daylight in Stykkishólmur, and birds are circling above as a boat leaves the harbour. The professor points to the huge white mass beyond the tiny town. 'Snæfellsjökull isn't dormant,' he says, 'it's just taking a break.'
'A sheet of snow gleamed on the slopes of these distant mountains... the peaks brazenly pierced the grey cloud to reappear above the shifting vapours like reefs, suspended in the sky...' - Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
From Stykkishólmur, the road winds along fjords and over mountain passes to the foot of Snæfellsjökull and up to Verne's fabled passage to the centre of the Earth. Driving towards the peninsula's tip, it's clear that human settlement has hardly made a scratch on this barren landscape. Horses watch the few cars speeding past with the attentiveness of spectators at a tennis match. Sheep amble the roads, meeting drivers with looks of horror. Nameless waterfalls tumble down from the plateau above, while the shadows of clouds dance across treeless slopes.
A dirt track leads to the summit and the mist thickens as we ascend. There's something hallucinatory about climbing these mountains - drivers on one road have talked of sensing an extra passenger in the back seat. Mystics, too, have flocked to the volcano, claiming it as one of the planet's seven sources of spiritual energy.
It was on the summit that Professor Lidenbrock and Axel made their camp, waiting for the shadow of a nearby peak to pinpoint the crater where they were to begin their descent. Following their route is easier said than done. Parked directly on top of the mountain is a vast Ice Age glacier that Jules Verne, who never visited Iceland, neglected to mention in his novel. Any crater would have to be buried deep beneath thousands of tonnes of dense ice, so it's difficult to know where to start looking.