Journeying to the Wilderness of Iceland With Jules Verne

by Jacquelin Cangro

As we wind around inlets and coves along the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland, I grip the armrest harder. Our destination is the very tip of the peninsula, which juts out like a slender finger into the Atlantic Ocean. We plan to hike the glacier, Snaefellsjokull, but just getting there is a test of our nerves. To the right is a sheer drop to the water, maybe 1000 feet, minus the reassuring safety of a guardrail. To the left is the mountain face, covered with moss and black lava rocks that look like they’re on the verge of making a break for the water below. Just when I think the most treacherous part of the drive is behind us, the cars wheels leave the pavement, as we veer onto a small dirt road. But road might be too generous a term. It’s more like a large path. And then it begins to rain.

“Henry,” replied the professor with perfect coolness, “our situation is almost desperate; but there are some chances of deliverance, and it is these that I am considering. If at every instant we may perish, so at every instant we may be saved. Let us then be prepared to seize upon the smallest advantage.”

Like Jules Verne’s characters in The Journey to the Center of the Earth, we also feel as though we are facing a double-edged sword in this majestic landscape, one that is capable of delivering both grandeur and peril. Everywhere we look, the view is breathtaking – from the craggy hills covered with spongy moss, to the waterfalls appearing as if from nowhere and the outcroppings of black lava rocks. We glean our one small advantage over the domineering wilderness from a rejuvenating lunch in the town of Hellissandur. After refueling, we feel almost ready to take on Saefellsjokull.

In The Journey to the Center of the Earth, Verne sends Professor Hardwigg* on a similar adventure. The eccentric professor decodes an ancient manuscript and discovers that it contains directions to the center of the earth. The instructions lead him to the Snaefell volcano, where I now stand with my friend and travel companion. In the novel, Hardwigg recruits his nephew Henry and an Icelandic guide, Hans Bjelke, to explore this new frontier. In fact, they began their ascent to its magnificent snowy nightcap on the same date in June, though in our case Snaefellsjokull is shrouded in a cloudy mist.

Written in 1864, The Journey to the Center of the Earth is a glimpse into the future as seen from the Victorian era. Considered the father of science fiction, Verne came of age as the industrial revolution began to sweep across the western world, and along with it, the conviction that nothing should halt progress. Even though he was self-taught, Verne was curious and enthusiastic about new technology. Giving voice to Verne’s own belief, Professor Hardwigg says, “When science has set forth her fiat – it is only to hear and obey.”

We follow the circuitous route at sea level. Every ping on our car from the dirt road makes me thankful we purchased gravel insurance from the rental company, something that seemed like an unnecessary expense at the time. There are no signs or mile markers to announce our arrival at the national park–or to point us in the right direction. We take it on faith that we’re going the right way, but we have trouble locating the visitor’s center where we’d hoped to join a guided hike with a park ranger.

We drive around, but never do find the visitor’s center. (I learn later that it is located in Hellnar on the south side of the volcano; we approached from the north.) My friend parks the car in what we assume is a parking lot and search for a trailhead, which isn’t easy to spot. I find myself wishing we had the professor’s Icelandic guide Hans Bjelke to lead the way. But, to borrow Verne’s words, “…and therefore went like a brave soldier mounting a bristling battery, to the ascent of old Snaefells.”

Immediately upon exiting the car, we are pummeled by wind and rain. I lean forward into the wind and pull my rain jacket tighter around my body. The clouds seem to have gotten lower; they now appear as if they are only a few feet above us. Our map shows two trails that lead through the mountain’s peaks and valley. My friend spots a red blaze so we follow it. Initially the going is relatively easy despite the weather. The trail is soft, springy moss – easy on the feet.

Unlike Verne’s characters, who meet Icelanders of many temperaments along the way, we see nary a soul. There were no other cars in the parking lot and we are the only hikers as far as the eye can see. Rather than enjoying the solitude, it leaves me disconcerted. There would be no one to send for help, should anything happen, I worry. I’m reminded of Henry’s nervousness about the mighty Snaefells that sleeps beneath our feet.

What proof have we that an eruption is not shortly about to take place? Because the monster has slept soundly since 1219, does it follow that he is never to wake? If he does wake what is to become of us?

(Though Verne did not know it, Snaefells was actually last known to erupt in 250 A.D.)

As we ascend the 4500-foot volcano, the mossy ground cover gives way to small stones. The lava rocks are suddenly everywhere. Each step sinks into the gravel and displaces more stones, making it seem like we are hiking through thick sand. The wind takes our voices down the mountain, so we walk in silence for the better part of an hour.

For a whole mile we had nothing under our feet but lava. This disposition of the soil is called hrawn: the crumbled lava on the surface was in some instances like ship cables stretched out horizontally, in others coiled up in heaps; an immense field of lava came from the neighboring mountains, all extinct volcanoes, but whose remains showed what once they had been. Here are there could be made out the steam from hot water springs.

I see a glimpse of red disappear behind an outcropping of rock. More hikers! We quicken our pace to catch up with them. A couple is coming down the mountain and are able to offer some advice. “Go to the waterfall. It’s beautiful.” The woman wipes the drizzle from her face. She and her husband look worn out. The elements have taken their toll, but not without leaving some grandeur in return.

We continue following the red blazes and, before long, make it to the waterfall, which is nestled in a crevasse. The mist from the sky and the falling water makes the trail even more unstable. The wind is so fierce here that we have to sit down to get a photo. We don’t want to test the possibility that we could be blown into the rushing water. After a quick rest, it’s time to move on. We look in the direction of Snaefellsjokull, hidden by clouds. We have way of predicting how much worse the weather could get, but before long the lava rocks beneath our feet will change to ice.

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”

We soon decide to turn around. Professor Hardwigg would not be happy with us. He was impatient, pushing ever forward despite the dangers – real and imagined. Craters were often feared by Icelanders as the entrances to hell, a belief which left many volcanoes unexplored for centuries.

Even though we didn’t make it to the center of the earth or even to the crater of Snaefell, like Verne’s characters, we realize that the true journey is really about discovering oneself, always probing deeper for what lies at the center.

*Some texts list the professor as Otto Lidenbrock and his nephew as Axel Lidenbrock. I have used the names from Vernes original edition here.

More information about Jacquelin Cangro and her writing can be can be found at

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