Journey to the centre of the Earth

In Iceland, a revolutionary sustainable tourism project lets tourists descend into the magma chamber of a volcano. Aaron Millar steadies his nerve and checks it out

As I stand on the edge of the volcanic crater, these words echo in my mind: “To descend into the interior of a canon … when perhaps it is loaded, and will go off at the least shock, is the act of a madman.” So begins Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and so too begins my own. I am about to do something truly extraordinary. I am about to go inside a volcano.

Thirty minutes outside of Reykjavik, in Iceland’s Blue Mountains – and not far away from the setting of that classic tale – a geological rarity has been transformed into one of the most audacious tourism projects ever conceived. While most volcanoes seal up after eruption, Thrihnukagigur has remained open, leaving a more than 100,000 cubic-metre abyss where once, 4,000 years ago, red-hot lava flowed. It is the deepest of only a handful of such open volcanic chambers known on Earth and the only one the general public has ever been allowed inside.

The tour begins with a 40-minute hike across a lava field of crunchy black sand and beds of spongy moss and wild flowers. Keeping me company is Árni Stefánsson, the bordering-on-fanatical visionary behind the project and original discoverer of Thrihnukagigur’s chamber. As we walk he animates the formation of the landscape around us, pointing out jagged fissures, raw sweeps of molten rock and holes ripped into the Earth by the shifting of colossal underground weights. “The world is always forming,” he smiles. “But in Iceland it’s happening a little faster.” He also fills me in on how this madness we are about to embark on came to be.

Árni’s passion is caves – he has been exploring and protecting them all his life – and in 1973, after hearing rumours of a supposed bottomless pit, he couldn’t resist investigating further. Arriving at Thrihnukagigur he dropped a stone inside, counting 4.5 seconds for a sound to come back. “This is deep,” he tells me, eyes lighting up with the memory. He descended that midsummer evening and became, he claims, the first person ever inside the magma chamber of a volcano. “It’s like a beautiful museum,” he says, “created by the almighty, but if we do nothing, people will just trample it down. It has to have some guardian.” Now the form of that guardian has finally taken shape. Árni believes that by opening up Thrihnukagigur’s chamber for tourists, in a controlled and sustainable way, he will help preserve the space inside for future generations.

After strapping on a climbing harness and helmet, we hike from the project base camp to the entrance of the volcano. A narrow metal gangplank and open-sided cable lift hangs from a steel girder, secured above a 12ft-diameter black hole. I walk the plank and absolutely nothing – no sound, or colour, or light – rises up from the 400ft of darkness beneath me. As we climb into the open-sided metal basket and slowly descend into the abyss – my grip tightening on the rim of the cage as we watch the eye of white surface light contract – floodlights gradually illuminate the walls of our passage and the base of the volcano floor. A tapestry of jagged burgundy lava scars, terracotta bubbles of frozen stone and waves of sunset yellow and orange are revealed around us. The full chromatic spectrum of fire, perfectly preserved in the deep Earth. “It’s like going inside a piece of art,” Árni says. I can’t quite believe where I am.

Once on the volcano floor we are free to explore the base of the chamber – an enormous cavern big enough to hold three full-sized basketball courts and more than one Statue of Liberty. The immense heat (as much as 1100˚C at its peak) has long since evaporated, leaving only freezing shadows and hollow silence, broken by the intermittent patter of raindrops seeping from the porous ground above. I touch the walls and volcanic ash, coarse and jet-black, crumbles and sticks to the tips of my fingers.

Later I lie down on the stone floor and look up at the needle of light now no bigger then a solitary star. I have the impression of being swallowed, of being in the bowels of some giant stomach, or about to be born. But it is peaceful too. “For me, its beauty is in its hugeness,” Árni says, “how small you feel in it.” But its beauty is also surreal. I watch the lift rise and fall like one might watch a lunar landing or an extraterrestrial visit – where we are simply cannot be the same Earth I come from. Except, of course, it is. And perhaps that’s also the point – like peering behind the scenes of a play, or learning the secrets of a magician’s trick, the world feels a little more remarkable having seen the inside of its machinery. The act of a madman perhaps, but a worthy journey all the same.

The Inside the Volcano tour is open 15 May – 30 September 2014 and costs roughly £200 per person, including transfers to and from Reykjavik, a 45-minute hike each way and about 30-40mins inside the volcano. A moderate level of fitness and a good head for heights is required; minimum age 12 years.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Financial Times in July 2012.