Circumnavigation of Iceland comes to completion today — huzzah! But the expedition is only about half way complete — even bigger HUZZAH!
Today, the morning began at a lava tunnel named Raufarhólshellir in the south of Iceland.
Safety equipment was necessary in case of falling rocks or collapsing tunnel walls which at the time did not seem as scary as it does now as I write this account of the day.
The interior of this lava tunnel was fascinating, literally seeing the tracks of centuries old lava flow along the tunnel walls, icicles at my feet (yes, icicles! more on that later), and openings near the beginning sections of the tour that allowed sunlight to enter this subterranean adventure. In this initial section of the lava tunnel, greenery was alive and well among the rock, and the temperature was pleasant, a bit humid even, due to the temperature and humidity difference between the air above and below ground. I closed my eyes for a moment and felt like I was in the amazon. That was until I opened my eyes to see ice formations on the ground that looked similar to stalagmites.
These icicle formations are a result of the openings in the top of the lava tunnel. The difference in air temperature allows for condensation to form and as it drips from warmer air, to cooler parts of the tunnel, it eventually freezes in place and forms these creations that look like miniature castles for Elsa.
As you travel deeper into the tunnel and no more sky lights appear in the tunnel, the temperature becomes much cooler and light decreases. Your eyes slowly adjust to the different light level and your helmet light becomes your dearest friend. Within the tunnel, there are lights to help illuminate the coloring within the igneous rock walls. Parts of the tunnel have metal railing to help you navigate as well. One spectacular part of the tunnel was elevated on a metal platform so that you are literally in the middle of the tunnel itself, able to see ceiling to floor in close proximity. It was here that our guide, with warning, turned all lights off in the tunnel; we experienced complete darkness and a bit of serenity in this magical place. When light was restored, the colors within the rock were even more prominent, especially an odd white glow that seemed to glisten like a glitter film along the rocky structures. It turns out the only thing that can live in this environment is bacteria and that glistening glow is just that; bacteria. Fascinating.
Generally when you think of caves, you often think of bats and the thought crossed my mind as well within this lava tunnel. I’m no stranger to caves and those types of systems, in Virginia, we have bats within our caves, usually brown bats and often smaller in stature, from my experience. In this cave system, there are no bats for one simple reason; the type of rock. The basalt within this tunnel does not allow for good acoustics, which bats need in order to use their echolocation. Another fascinating fact setting this experience apart from anything else I had experienced thus far. Back in Virginia, and elsewhere in the world, caves and underground tunnels are unique sites for concerts and performances…but not this one for the very same reason. It is not acoustically pleasing, it does not allow sound to bounce off of its surfaces. In fact, our tour guide shared that a touring youth choir and even bands have sought this particular cave for events, even event planners with DJs have rented the space, but all found that the acoustics were not great; something the scientists who take care of the tunnel shared up front, but the renters did not heed at the time. The events have taken place but were not as exciting as planned as result — another reason you should probably listen to scientists sharing their knowledge with you. Great acoustics or not, this place was fascinating indeed and I enjoyed my time investigating the interior. Now my curiosity is piqued in regards to the bacteria found within the tunnel. What can we learn from it? I’d love to investigate further.
The rest of today’s journey was making our way to Keflavik to meet the next portion of the expedition team tomorrow. My long time friend, fellow Educator Explorer, and remaining expedition roommate, Jennifer Burgin joins me tomorrow. I have bought local salmon and fresh vegetables to cook for dinner tomorrow; I am so excited to welcome JBu to Iceland and show her some local cuisine.
To wrap up the day, I took a leisurely walk around Keflavik to explore local sights and immerse myself into this urban landscape. I have spent the last week around the country in places with very few people for the most part, and now it was time to change the scene and explore in a new way. I can tell you, I love urban locations, but my study as a field scientist is usually a bit more remote — I am looking forward to this change and discover new things.
During my exploration, one of the first things I noticed was the widespread purple lupine that seemed to be everywhere. From speaking with locals, planting purple lupine in the area began in the late 90s as a way to help prevent soil erosion and it has been quite effective and beautiful. The problem being, it’s too effective and chokes out native plants, specifically the beautiful, beloved, and iconic moss. That moss is actually a lichen, a combination of algae and fungi. It is sensitive to human interaction and also other plants that may live nearby, such as the invasive purple lupine. Another observation was the shear size and magnitude of dandelions in Iceland.
The pedestrian pathways that I look from the hostel where I will be staying a few days in Keflavik were clear evidence that effort has been made to preserve green spaces, I was surrounding in these paths by wildflowers, moss (lichen), and purple lupin. Even as I reached the urban area with side by side houses, restaurants, museums, and stores, there were small green spaces everywhere, even the personal spaces by family homes seem to take great care of their space leaving space for natural growth rather than a perfectly manicured or use of imported plants.
I loved seeing the urban architecture while the last week had me immersed in country architecture, the kind you probably see most often when you google images of Iceland. Mostly cinderblock construction and more modern in style with smooth exterior walls and earth tones rather than vibrant reds, blacks, and blues as I have seen thus far. It was charming to see remnants of the belief in hudufolk (hidden folk), some residences taking care to display elf houses in front of their homes. I will most definitely bring Jennifer here tomorrow to see her first elf house.
I’m going to retire for the night, but stay tuned for part two of this expedition beginning tomorrow.