An Icelandic journey to the centre of the earth
I'm about to leave empty-handed when the clouds break and, as Verne wrote, it seems Snæfellsjökull has sprung straight up from the seabed. Here, Axel claimed he was so 'engrossed by the exalted rapture of these soaring peaks... I forgot who I was and where I was.' Expanses of black rock swoop down to the shore, where lighthouses look little more than golf tees perched on the cliffs. Despite their presence, a glance at a map reveals the surrounding cape is strewn The church at Ingjaldsholl, below the towering peaks of Snæfellsjökull, was built in 1903, though it houses some older tombstones and a wonderful painted wooden altarpiece with shipwrecks: Anne Dorothea in 1817, Solöven in 1857 and Brilliant Star in 1882.
Far below, on the peninsula's southern beaches, stands the Hotel Buðir, a place where Professor Lidenbrock's party passed through on their journey to Snæfellsjökull, and a popular retreat for Icelandic writers and artists. Night closes in as I descend the mountain. The reflections of shooting stars light up the saltwater pools around the hotel, and the glacier glistens a brilliant white in the moonlight.
While staying at the hotel in the 1960s, Icelandic author Halldór Laxness wrote Under the Glacier, a story in which Snæfellsjökull induces hypnosis in a small community, leading them to believe that they could bring the dead back to life. Another legend tells of a half-troll whose daughter was pushed onto a passing iceberg by her cousin. The half-troll then murdered his nephew to avenge his lost daughter, unaware that she had drifted to safety in Greenland, before he retreated inside the mountain, where he hides broken-hearted to this day. Silhouetted against the night sky, it seems that this strange mountain has always fiercely guarded its secrets. I will just have to find a different way of getting inside.
'Little did I realise what awaited us on the Snæfells peninsula, where the damage wreaked by impetuous nature had created a frightening chaos... though the volcanoes were extinct, the debris that remained bore witness to their former violence.' - Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
Maybe this is your passage to the centre of the Earth, maybe it isn't,' says Guðbjörg Gunnarsdóttir, the park ranger, pointing into a gloomy cave. 'It's not somewhere I'd want to go on my own anyway.'
We are in the lava fields, the strangest and saddest parts of the Icelandic landscape. In Drangahraun, the fury of Snæfellsjökull is recorded in stone - it feels as if every tide of molten rock had frozen still barely a moment ago. Black basalt steeples watch over sheep tracks, a labyrinth of alleyways that pick their way between convulsing rock formations, scorched earth where there were once green meadows.
'We tell children that this is where the elves live, so they keep away,' says Guðbjörg gesturing over the field. It takes little imagination to spot strange figures in the distance - clumps of rock scattered across the land by eruptions - but Guðbjörg is serious. 'People laugh at Icelanders' belief in elves and trolls, but it's not so simple. It's like radio waves - you know they're there, even though you've never seen them.'
Even without elves, there's more to the lava field than meets the eye. Buried under the rock are hidden caverns where, it is said, outlaws banished from Icelandic society took shelter hundreds of years ago. To the east at Hraunfossar, underground streams flow beneath lava fields. The cave beneath us is a dried-up watering hole for cows on the slopes of Snæfellsjökull, only recently emptied of tonnes of mud and snow to reveal a gaping tunnel beneath.