We woke up super-early ’cause our flight was at 6:45am. Marku generously drove us to the 2 hours to the airport in Helsinki. Our Icelander Air flight featured these shimmering “Northern Lights” in the area above the overhead luggage — a funny touch. We were smashed a bit by the cold as we took the bus to pick up our hire car — but it was truly beautiful to be cold again. The wait for the car wasn’t so beautiful. Epic queues at car hire places is a thing you just have to get used to. If you pick up a car at the airport in Europe be prepared to wait in line for about 30-45 minutes.
Keflavik Airport is a long way out of town. Originally it was an airforce base established back in WW11 when Britain (and then the US) decided to occupy Iceland. (It was almost an invasion — the justification being, “before the Germans did it.”) But the long drive gave me a chance to get used to the right-hand drive, plus changing gears with my right hand. Iceland has a LOT of roundabouts too — very tricky.
As you drive into town you pass this vast desert of rocks sometimes spattered with grass. No houses, no trees — just rocks. “Why didn’t they build the airport here?” I wondered. Later I learnt that particular area was still geologically active. Riiight! I get it.
Eventually we arrived in town and our hotel was on a street that was closed to car traffic for most of the day so we had a terrible time working out where to park. Google maps was thoroughly unhelpful in this situation constantly telling us to turn where we simple couldn’t. Eventually we just parked at a public carpark and it took me ages to work out the machine which had only limited English instructions. Arriving at our hotel room — which was on the top floor — we were a bit “over it”. But it was a nice space and had pretty spectacular views of that big church.
This is our little hire-car (white) in the hotel’s tiny carpark
What they don’t tell you about Iceland in the guidebooks is that the shower smells like farts. I think Dee even tried to blame me. But it’s the high sulphur content in the water — it’s especially apparent when their water is heated. But it’s not a big deal — at least I didn’t think so.
Next we had Vietnamese for lunch then we got some groceries at this el cheapo supermarket chain featuring a very wasted-looking pig called Bonus. (see below.) Much like Franklins or Bi-Lo back here. That night we had dinner at a place called the Public House — just a beer and burger thing. Iceland is pretty expensive it should be said. A bit “eye-wateringly” so at some points. Expect to pay about double what you’d spend in London. (HORROR STORY: we paid A$12 for 4 pappadams the next night).
The next day we headed north towards Gullfoss (golden falls) and Geysir (which does not need a translation). Almost immediately out of town the scenery was truly fucked-up. Like nothing I’d ever witnessed before. It was just a mixture of bizarre and magical no matter where you looked. (And you could see as forever as your eyes would allow because trees were a bit of a novelty.)
You really cannot describe it adequately, not just because it was so alien, but also because there was always too much to look at. Too much to process. I have talked to people who have been to Iceland — mainly Laura Morrissey — and we agree you just can’t explain how different everything is. (And I’ve been to a bunch of places at the “end of the world” — namely Tasmania and New Zealand and Norway.)
But the super vulcanism really makes this place special. I’ve seen it described as “lunar” or “jurassic”. And that relates to the rocks and sometimes the sparseness of vegetation. Maybe also weird stuff like black sand and all kinds of alpine moss. And sometimes of course because every once in a while you see steam literally pouring out of the ground! (No wonder Iceland is literally powered by geo-thermal electricity).
Another crucial aspect to this vibe is because Iceland is so bloody diverse and you can never get used to one particular vista. Everything changes just a few more minutes down the road or even if you turn your head around. I really struggle to articulate the experience. And pictures do not help. The limitations of photography to do justice to a landscape was never more apparent than on this trip. It was almost heartbreaking. (But I got over it.)
We stopped the car a few times for photos (never as grand as what I hoped) and at one place the wind was so bad I thought it was dangerous — like it would blow the door off the car as I opened it. We saw some poor touring riders on fully-laden bikes just swimming across the road because they couldn’t stay straight and travelling less than walking speed. They were hardcore.
The geyser at Geysir was interesting and worth the stop — but after one eruption we were like, “OK — been there, done that.” There were lots of gooby tourists around with super-amazing cameras trying to get a shot/video that had been taken a billion times before. Good luck with that.
So the geyser spews-up every 8ish minutes. As we arrived in the car we saw the geyser go off in the distance. Then we parked, and it took us about 3 minutes to walk up to the spot and we spent exactly 1 minute waiting, and then we promptly left. Express tourism. It may or may not have been a bit like our trip to the Louvre where we just went straight for the Mona Lisa (which took about 4 minutes) and then we were like, “What now?”.
At Gullfoss we parked for free again and followed the columns of tourists towards the falls. From the top it looks super boring, almost like — are we in the right place? But then you get past the tourist office and suddenly the canyon becomes apparent and you get a few choices . You can stay up on the ridge or dive down to get super close. We went down and later I realised this was the farthest northerly point on Earth I had ever been — previously it had been in the fjords of Norway.
The farthest north I have ever been, and may ever go.
At dinner that night I managed to convince Dee to do something YOLO. Being a GEN-Y/ millennial I think she was particularly susceptible to that word being barked at her at any protestation she tried to throw back at me. Eventually she caved and agreed to booking a ~$500 snowmobiling adventure on some glacier a few hours east at 12:30pm the next day.
See on the plane over I had seen a tourist video of Iceland where they showed snowmobiling and it looked easy and apparently, “JUST LIKE RIDING A BIKE!” I can ride a bike, I thought. And I figured that we should see some “ICE” in “ICELAND” — right?
That afternoon the sky was super clear. I found this local website that extrapolated the cloud data and predicted if a clear night was ahead and it gave a pretty good forecast. So I set my alarm for 2:50am. There was no real science to that except I just betted that time there would be the least light pollution. Instead I accidentally woke at 2am and went onto the balcony. The night was indeed pretty much clear, but as I looked these strange clouds swirled about towards the west and they moved faster than normal clouds — and up and down unlike any normal cloud. My heart started racing. I dove back inside and grabbed my camera which has a “stars” setting. Just holding the camera steady with my hands — not even leaning against a wall — I took a shot and there it was. It looks far more impressive in the photo, but it was still an amazing feeling knowing they were up there — dancing about. I woke Dee and she came out for a look and did her best to be impressed.
I then got dressed and smashed down to the harbour which the inter-webs told me was the best place for viewing in the city. By the time I had got there the lights had virtually stopped and that was a tad disappointing — but I had to try. In fact, by now it was 3am and if I had woken at 2:50 like I originally planned — I would probably have missed them.
Earlier that night
WHITE OUT AND WONDERING HOW MANY WAYS WE COULD DIE (or “Our visit to Mýrdalsjökull”)
The next day I was still convinced my impulsive decision was on point. Dee was incredulous. She was convinced I would be a mess once this whole malarkey was acute. After 2.5 hours of driving we turned up to this very remote looking outpost. No one seemed to be around. We went up to a door that looked like it was where we needed to be. But in a massive fail we tried to pull the door — where it was a push-vibe. Another entry in our FAIL-LIST. We hurried back to the car — thinking the door was locked because we were too early. After hiding in the car for about 20 minutes other prospective adventurers started arriving and we saw them gain access and realised our fuck-up.
We stopped at this waterfall on the way
So we slunk back and signed huge waivers and got fitted up in this gear. Like a full body suit. Big fat shoes. Gloves and a balaclava. Then a massive helmet. All of which was either too big or too small but we didn’t have the heart to complain or fuss. Once kitted up — shit was about to get real.
We awkwardly trudged over to this rusty truck with massive tyres. With the help of a small step ladder we were on board and so began the bumpiest journey I have ever experienced. It was so bumpy it was just plain fun. You just couldn’t help but LOL. Meanwhile Dee was beginning to fret.
So now I will turn over to Dee for her thoughts:
“I was bloody loving it, but also really thought that Davey was going to throw up. He is a terrible with motion sickness and the ‘super-jeep’ ride was like serious turbulence to the nth degree. And also he was already nervous about the whole thing, so I spent the journey up to the glacier worried that he was going to vom. But if I didn’t have that to worry about, that would have probably been the most fun part of the whole thing. It really did feel as if we were going on a lunar journey – the landscape became increasingly grey and rocky; all of our fellow astronauts kept their helmets on and really seemed to be contemplating the seriousness of our mission. Dunno what we would be doing on that lunar mission (colonising? snowmobiling the hell out of some alien life-forms?) but everyone seemed to be feeling the same. Anyway, I kept on turning to Davey to offer him encouraging, “isn’t this fun!” looks that usually coincided with us being unable to get up a particularly steep incline or bracing to drive over a glacier.”
(I also worried about the truck tipping over, the truck breaking down [it sounded very sick and took a few go’s to get started], frost bite on my fingers, and how I would pay for clean-up if I vomited into my helmet — the place I felt would be the most appropriate.)
Once we were snowmobiling I thought how bloody impossible this situation would have seemed to me just a few days ago — or a few hours even. “I am on a fucking glacier, in the middle of Iceland, which is on top of a volcano, driving a bloody snowmobile. What the fuck?” A few seconds after we started off into the icey-snowy oblivion I forced myself to make a note of this. And underline it.
But the higher we got, the colder it got. And the whiter. Pretty soon we couldn’t see more than 50 metres.
I was pretty worried most of the time — not shit-scared it should be said — I spent a bunch of the time up there just processing all the ways things could go wrong. But despite that — I had an incredible time. I knew this was well above my comfort level and I would appreciate it forever (obviously once we were safely down). It was absolutely insane being so close to a crevasse (having studied all those mountain books once upon a time) and being in a total white-out was just like being in the Empire Strikes Back on Hoth where Luke is visited by ghost Obi-Wan. I had no faith that Han Solo would rescue us should things go pear-shaped.
The most horrible of thoughts in my head was that in this white out we had no idea of navigation — and this is one on my most evil fears. If our guide was somehow compromised by a sudden crevasse or a roll-over or worse — our group would have little to no idea how to get home.
At the start we had this briefing — but it was so windy, and my head was inside a helmet an astronaut would be jealous of, and thus I missed crucial points about the artificial heaters inside the handlebar grips. Consequently after the first leg my fingers were so cold I had to unzip my jacket and press them against my raw skin to heat them up again. And then Dee was like, “Why aren’t you using the heaters — ya dig-head.” Pretty much verbatim.
At this first stop we huddled around the guide who drew us a snow-map of the region on the ground. Then he proceeded to point out that we were standing directly on top of a massive volcano called Katla which hasn’t erupted for 98 years — yet it usually erupts every 13-95 years. In other words — it was well overdue. And tremors were detected just the month before. (And it seems there was one as recently as September 11, 2016). And then he said if it blew it would probably flood the town he lived in (Vik) and there was a pretty good chance the next eruption (when it comes) will ground flights world-wide for maybe 120 days. Freaky. We just might have secretly hoped it blew while we were in Europe and we were stranded. That would be terrible!
Next stop was at a crevasse and that was fucking insane. I stood well back. Like I have read Inter Thin Air and seen that Touching the Void documentary. Crevasses are very, very dangerous places.
But then this American dude wandered off up along the edge of the crack. I was so concerned that he was getting too close that I pointed him out to the guide. The guide started shouting at him to come back but he couldn’t hear. Then the guy suddenly pulled out his wang and started pissing into the crevasse. I was appalled. I am a pretty sure his partner overheard me saying to Dee, “That is so fucking rude.” Apart from the brazen crassness, I bet the glacier fed some local water supply. And the dickhead had taken a piss just a hour before at the little hut where we all got geared up. Sheesh!
Our last day was meant to be at the Blue Lagoon — but, HOT TIP, you need to book well in advance so there were no suitable times. It was raining and a bit chilly so we bummed around the sights within walking distance. It was a mercifully “nothing” kinda day. A rest day. See our flight was at 6:45am the next day and we had to be out of bed at like 2:30am. Even then we only just made it. For a tiny airport it was ridiculously busy. And there were so many security/passport/checking-in/bus-to-the-airplane hoops we had to go through. Insane.
Morning on day 3