When I was growing up, I had an irrational fear of lava.
It’s been 15 years since my last lava nightmare, but volcanoes still taunt my imagination. I can’t maintain the concept of a mountain in motion, of a world so unstable that stone can dribble down an island’s chin. I am fascinated with the way mountains can simply appear from the ocean floor; I follow the Hawaiian Islands along their chain of seamounts to the Aleutian Islands, or chart the decay of a tropical volcano—island, atoll, cay. But, if I’m honest with myself, I can’t really believe that such change is possible.
I don’t fear lava—now I mythologize it.
These thoughts were close to my mind yesterday morning when I decided to visit Manjang Cave, the longest lava tube on Jeju Island. I’d seen some beautiful pictures on a brochure, and read again and again some expert’s statement that the Jeju lava caves were “the most beautiful in the world.” And, of course, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Manjang Cave is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, one of three on Jeju Island (the other two being Sunrise Peak and Mount Halla). So, I decided to stop by for a visit.
I took a bus to the Jeju City Bus Terminal, and asked the woman at the tourist information center the best way to reach the caves. She suggested, in excellent English, that I take the 700 bus. Armed with the Hangul translation of “Manjang Cave” written on a scrap of paper, I boarded the bus.
This was the first time I had been east of the city. For a while the bus worked its way through city streets, but then it broke out of the city and into some truly enchanting countryside. On either side were small fields bordered by low walls of volcanic stone, walls that then joined together to create narrow streets. In the villages, roofs of houses peeked above the black stone. For about an hour I watched the country roll past my bus window, then the bus commentary announced “Manjang Cave Entrance” and I got off.
From the bus stop, it was about a little over a mile’s walk to the cave. I later learned that there was another bus that took that same route, but for the time I enjoyed walking through the fields and forest under a light rain. After having spent most of my time in or near the city, it was refreshing to look off of the road and see nothing but green. Soon I reached the entrance and paid the entrance fee—2,000 won, or about 2 US dollars.
The temperature dropped instantly as I descended the steps into the cave. It was an eerie feeling to be standing at the barrier between sky and stone—above me were trees laced with blue sky, dropping vines like a backdrop for an Indiana Jones scene. In front of me was blackness. I felt strangely hesitant as I turned down the steps and darkness closed around the back of my head.
It took me a second to adjust to the inside of the cave. The floor of the cave was pockmarked by past lava, and as I picked my way across the floor I was glad to not be wearing sandals. But once the disorientation faded, I began to feel in awe of the space in which I found myself. The most striking feature of the cave was its size. The cave was long—I knew that. But what I didn’t expect was the height of the cave. In some places it narrowed into a space no wider than thirty feet, but then the tube turned and I found myself in a vast, empty room of stone. Cupolas, they called these places, because of their similarity to the dome of a cathedral. Colors ran down the ceilings—yellow, brown, and, on one face, blue. It was my knowledge of the world inverted—beauty not in any one object, but in a whimsical emptiness.
Though the size of the space was inspiring, I also found myself enchanted by the details of the tube. Though this cave was without the man-sized stalactites and stalagmites that define other caves, it still contained some intriguing stone formations. My favorite were the subtle stalactites that dripped down the walls, melted into peaks like the surface of a plastic spoon left too close to the stove. Also intriguing were the lava rafts, one of which is famous for the resemblance it bears to the island of Jeju. And, at the end of the 1,000-meter stretch of cave open to the public, a pillar of lava poured down from an ancient crack in the tube’s ceiling.
I couldn’t bring myself to believe that this space had once been hot enough to funnel lava, hot enough to melt stone walls or crumble a ceiling. I was enclosed on all sides by evidence of a volcano—lava toes, lava benches, lava flow lines, lava rafts. All of my fears were solidified, itemized, presented via low-light interpretive signs. But I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that this was once a volcano, or that several thousand years ago I would have been chest-deep in molten rock.
Instead, I contented myself with a hazy sense of wonder. I admired the colors of the stone, the textures. I let myself marvel at the beauty of empty space. Then I walked out of the cave and out through the backlit vines, into the rain and the rock walls and the flat sky.