Of caves and mountain glaciers

The day that I was supposed to photograph the remains of Gudrid Thorbjornardottir’s homestead in Iceland, it rained torrentially. When I left Borg, the home of Saga characters Egil and his father Skallagrim, I was hoping the grey sky would remain a bright overcast, my favorite type of light.

Gudrid’s childhood home lies in the shadow of Snæfellsjökull (‘fellsjökull’ means mountain glacier.) In the tiny village of Hellnar, I asked the clerk in the coffee shop where I could find Gudrid’s farm. He sent me back to the main road, and told me to look out for an L-shaped wall of ruins and a statuette of a female explorer in a Viking ship.  The sky grew darker and darker as I approached the farm. Like most days, I was wearing a head-to-toe rain suit in anticipation of bad weather. Knowing that it would be too wet and windy for view camera photography, I attempted to photograph with a medium format rangefinder, ready to take off the lens cap just as I triggered the cable release. My husband stayed in the car; he claimed this mission was pointless. He was right. Before I even had a chance to set up the tripod everything was drenched.

Feeling defeated, I took refuge back in the car. Flipping through my Iceland guidebook to pass time, I read about a cave situated not far from where we were, and decided we were better off exploring rather than sulking in the car. We drove up the rugged F570, a single lane mountain road towards the heart of Snæfellsjökull.

The cave I was looking for is called Sönghellir, as is so named after the sound of the singing dwarfs that inhabit it. Suddenly my Viking obsession dissipated and I tuned into all the other creature mythologies surrounding me. We left Hellnar, which is not only Gudrid’s birthplace but also the home of Bárdur, a half-troll who became the guardian spirit of Snæfells. We drove past the homes of elves (painted on rock walls) and I remembered Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, another mythical tale set in and around the glacial volcano that defines this region.

Leaving the car at a gravel pullout, I brought with me a little point and shoot camera. After a three-minute walk I was in the pitch-dark cave, bellowing out fa-la-la-la for lack of a better tune. The sound echoed far more impressively than I expected. Feeling my way along the walls, I followed the contours of the rock to a little loft in the back of the cave. Curled up in a ball, I pointed the camera at the wall and pressed the shutter. The flash briefly lit the cave and a small image lingered on the screen. The picture showed traces of graffiti, the kind that says “so and so was here.”

I never managed to photograph Gudrid’s farm that day. The heavy rain persisted into the evening and I had to push on to other sites. Yet I value the serendipity of discovering a different place that was both historical and mythological. Some of the names that were carved into the cave wall were dated from the 18th century and I wondered what these travelers were up to when they stumbled upon Sönghellir.

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