“Nordic Exposure” An Icelandic Adventure – Part One
10 minute read
If somebody had told me a year ago that I’d spend my 40th birthday freezing my nuts off, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it.
I thought I’d be on a scorching hot beach, discovering temple ruins in the tropics, or possibly even trekking through a lush and humid jungle beneath the dense canopy of the rainforest.
But alas, I spent it wrapped up in approximately 5 layers of clothing; comprising top and bottom base layers, fleece-lined cargo trousers, long-sleeved fleece top, a down-layered body warmer, a down-layered coat, waterproof jacket, 2 warm scarves, 2 pairs of thick socks, 2 pairs of warm underpants, one beanie hat, and ultra thick gloves (oh, and a partridge in a pear tree).
In other words, my 40th birthday was the complete opposite of what I always thought it would be. But do you know what? I wouldn’t change a single thing about it.
Get ready ladies and gentlemen; it’s story time.
Now as you can probably guess from that intentionally-sarcastic yet carefully-worded introduction, this was a surprise trip that was arranged for me by my super-thoughtful and altogether-wonderful girlfriend, Alex. Now that surely has to earn me some brownie points, or at least a pat on the head and a freshly-baked cookie.
Alex had visited Iceland before with a close friend, and as such, she knew that it was a destination that would appeal to my adventurous spirit.
She confidently told me that “Iceland would be like no place I’ve ever seen or experienced before”, which is a bold statement considering that I’ve been to Blackpool.
But I was guessing that Iceland wouldn’t be about hens, stags, dodging piles of vomit, or screaming if you want to go faster. And that could only be a good thing.
I believed that I already knew a fair bit about Iceland before we boarded the plane and started flying north-west.
The singer Bjork is from there; I knew that. I was also aware that a good portion of one of my favourite movies, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, was filmed there; so that’s two things. Oh, and Iceland has a lot of snow and has a tendency to get quite cold; which makes three, no, four things! And, well, that was about it really.
So, thinking about it, I guess I didn’t know that much about Iceland after all. But I was willing to learn, and as the plane began to descend over the snowy landscape, my heart began to pound with excitement.
Day One – Friday
As we exited Reykjavik airport the first impression I had about Iceland was that the air felt so fresh and clean. It may sound like a simple thing, but it really did stop me in my tracks. I just stood in the car park taking deep breaths, trying to take in as much of the stuff as I could.
But as I walked towards the bus and continued to breathe deeply, I got one or two odd looks. Perhaps I was breathing a little too enthusiastically.
But then I caught sight of another man about twelve feet away who was engaging in the very same breathing technique. I breathed in deeply, and so did he. I breathed out, and so did he. I had a big smile and a pleasantly-surprised look on my face, and so did he.
And then we made eye contact and instinctively gave each other a wink, a smile, and a little nod of recognition. It was like a secret club; the Clean Air Appreciation Society, if you will. And we CAAS members need to stick together you know.
My second impression of Iceland was that it was like being in another world entirely. In fact, it was actually like being on the moon (although I admit that I haven’t been to the moon recently, so it may have changed).
Iceland is an actively volcanic island, and as the bus transported us from the airport to the city, we passed huge lava fields made of black rock. With a mountainous backdrop and a patchy blanket of snow, it really did make me feel like I was a visitor within some kind of alien moonscape.
I was only one hour into the trip and Alex had already been proven correct; Iceland was indeed like no place I’d ever seen or experienced before.
I couldn’t help but wonder what else lay ahead of me.
The third impression that I had of Iceland was that the people were super friendly. And I don’t mean the kind of over-enthusiastic friendliness that often feels forced, but rather a natural friendliness that was both cool and calming. In fact it seemed effortless; like they were comfortable in themselves and that they didn’t need to make any kind of special effort. It’s just who they were.
We’d arrived early at OK Hotel and were greeted by a young man whose demeanour inspired the above paragraph. He couldn’t have made us feel more welcome and we managed to get an early check-in and made our way up to our room; a self-contained open-plan apartment which included a kitchenette and lounge area.
The apartment was decked out with a very individual and artistic decor, and on one wall there was a collage of picture frames which made for an unusual yet captivating focal-point.
Right next to this was a door that led out onto a shared balcony, enjoying views of the cathedral and city.
It was perfect.
About a half hour later, after we’d finished unpacking and had put all our layers back on, we ventured back out into Reykjavik in search of food.
We found a wonderful little Thai bistro-supermarket named Mai Tai, and whilst sitting at a high-raised table we tucked into our king prawn pad thai and sipped on Beer Lao. We also made casual conversation about our impressions so far and also about day-to-day life.
On the build up to this trip I’d experienced a considerable amount of stress and had been feeling quite desperate to get away. But the stress had taken its toll and now that I was getting the chance to unwind and relax, the tension steadily began to dissipate, leaving behind a dull but painful headache.
I did my best to ignore it and kept reminding myself to drink as much water as possible and that surely an early night would help.
“So would you like to know what you’re going to be doing?” Alex asked, as though she could read my mind.
“Hell yes! Tell me! Tell me!”
And then the itinerary for the trip was explained in full and precise detail which Alex had arranged with military precision. Tomorrow we would be…well, hang on. I’m not going to tell you. I’ll just let you read this story and allow it to unfold as we go along. But trust me, it was going to be an adventure, and it was to begin this evening with a trip out of Reykjavik with the hope of seeing the Aurora borealis aka the northern lights. Alex had already seen the northern lights on her previous trip to Iceland, but this was going to be my first time and would be a dream-come-true.
I sat back with a smile on my face, thinking of those beautiful green lights and about the next few days. I felt incredibly grateful for all the effort that Alex had gone to in order to make my 40th birthday something truly special.
“Oh no!” Alex said, looking at her phone.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The northern lights trip has been cancelled for tonight!”
Even the best-laid plans can come unstuck sometimes.
Whenever you’re making plans that involve nature, nature will always be in control. And one of the risks of planning to see the northern lights is that you may not actually get to see them. They’re not activated by a switch or mobile phone app, and you have no control over them whatsoever.
All you can do is keep your fingers crossed and hope that the weather conditions, and luck, are both on your side.
The positive thing was that we were able to reschedule for the following night, giving us a second chance at seeing the lights. We also had another free night on the Monday and so this also gave us a third chance, should we need it.
You could call it a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ scenario, but I was feeling positive that I’d get to see the Aurora before heading back to England.
Despite having managed to buoy my spirits, Mother Nature then decided to hit us with another little curve ball. The weather forecast for the weekend had taken a sudden turn, meaning that the Sunday, my birthday, would see heavy rain across Iceland. And it just so happened that the biggest day of outdoor adventure was planned for my birthday.
My brain started working overtime, thinking about the plans that had been made for the Saturday which were going to be much more relaxed and less reliant upon the weather.
“We’re going to have to reschedule this Alex.” I stated.
“But the weather reports could be wrong.” She replied. And she was right, they could. But was it worth taking the chance?
“We could swap the two days around and do tomorrow what we were going to do Sunday?”
“I know, but that’s not how I thought you’d want to turn 40.” Alex seemed completely deflated.
“I know it’s not how you’d seen my birthday going, but I can promise you I’m going to have an amazing birthday, regardless of what we do on the actual day. It’s the full trip that matters.”
“But the weather reports really could be wrong Elliot.” Alex repeated with dwindling protest, knowing that it made sense even if she was reluctant to admit it.
“I know. But I really don’t think it’s worth the risk. I know it’s disappointing to have to change our plans, but it’d be even more disappointing if the weather report is right and we couldn’t go at all.”
Alex sat in silence, looking completely floored.
“Do you know what?” I smiled.
Alex looked up at me.
“I actually think this could be for the best.”
“How do you mean?” She asked.
“Well this way we can have the big day tomorrow, finish it off by seeing the northern lights, and then I can wake up and have a nice relaxing day while I turn 40.”
“Are you honestly okay with that?” Alex smiled.
“I absolutely am. I promise. ” I responded. And it was the truth; maybe Mother Nature was intervening for a reason.
We spent the next hour or so rescheduling our plans for the next two days, and then we headed back to the apartment for an early night.
Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
Day Two – Saturday
The big day of adventure began with a bang! But unfortunately the bang was in my head.
Despite drinking lots of water and having an early night, the headache still hadn’t shifted. It was really beginning to plague me.
Stress isn’t a nice thing at all, and if there’s one thing that has hampered my life this year then stress has been it. It creeps under your skin and slowly infests your entire body and mind, and it manages to do so without you even realising it.
You may get the odd migraine here, and a bit of heartburn there. It could quicken your temper a little, or even disrupt the occasional night of sleep. It starts small; so small that you don’t even notice it. And then it builds, and builds, until one day you reach saturation point and then you lose your resolve completely.
We’ve all heard about how your physical immune system can be broken down, which can then result in colds and illness. Well, the mental immune system is no different.
I sat up in bed, holding my head in my hands and slowly shaking it from side to side in the hope that it would somehow take the pain away. It didn’t, and so instead I just took some ibuprofen, drank a big glass of water, and then showered and got dressed.
I wasn’t going to let it ruin my day.
We arrived at the bus station on time, which was quite an achievement for the two of us. And after finding the correct bus we stepped forward with a confident look on our faces, making it on board with just one minute to spare.
But as we handed over our booking confirmation the guide just waved us away.
Alex and I looked at each other, confused, and then we turned and looked at our guide with the same confused look on our faces. We both shrugged.
With an emotionless expression on his face, he declared that we needed a proper ticket and that we had to go back into the terminal and get one printed. We looked at the driver in the hope that he might interject and tell us it wasn’t necessary, but his head was facing down and his eyes were fixated on something on his mobile phone.
Running back inside the bus station with approximately 45 seconds left until departure, our eyes scanned the room to work out where we needed to go. Long queues had formed at every ticket kiosk and they were all moving at a snail’s pace; we didn’t have time to stand and wait. But then I caught sight of a young lady sat all alone at a desk, tucked away in the corner of the room. She looked serious and unapproachable, but time was running out and so it was time to work the Lossul charm.
I walked up to the counter with one of those lost and pathetic looks on my face, a bit like a cat often has when it really wants a bowl of milk. The lady looked up at me with an expression that seemed really quite stern, but when she saw my face her expression softened and it was suddenly full of pity.
It was at this moment when I knew my charm had worked, and that she really could tell that I was pathetic.
“Can I help you?” She asked.
I almost asked for a bowl of milk, until I remembered that I was a man, not a cat. I held up my booking confirmation with a sad look on my face, and then I turned, looked outside, and pointed towards the bus.
“The man on that bus said we need to turn this into a ticket.” And then I smiled a nervous smile, and flashed my shiny white teeth.
Her eyebrows wrinkled and she pressed her lips together, and then she reached forward and took my booking confirmation from me.
“Let me see what I can do.”
Two minutes later we were running back outside, relieved to see that the bus was still there. As we clambered onto the bus, breathless, the guide took our tickets from us while wearing the same emotionless expression. He pointed to the two seats at the front of the bus.
“Sit here please.”
This was an epic result. We’d arrived at the very last minute, I’d had chance to work my sad and pathetic charm with great aplomb, and we now got front row seats on our big day of adventure!
The guide then turned to the driver and told him that we were now ready to leave, but the driver just waved his hand at him while his eyes still remained on his mobile phone.
The guide stood back with his arms folded, waiting. Clearly he’d experienced this behaviour from his colleague before. What on earth was he looking at that had him so engrossed?
I leaned forward to take a closer look, and then I caught sight of the familiar green and white graphics on the screen of his smartphone.
He was playing solitaire.
Everybody sat in silence and waited patiently. The guide stood with his arms still folded.
Ten minutes later the driver managed to clear his fourth and final deck, and then he put down his phone, gave the air a discreet little fist-pump, and then turned the key in the ignition and allowed the engine to roar into life.
We were on our way for what is known as the Golden Circle tour.
This classic tour takes in some of Iceland’s most famous landmarks, yet we’d be doing this today with a twist. Because when most tourists would be concluding their trip and heading back to their hotels, we’d be doing something very different.
And this was going to be a day to remember.
Click here to read Part Two of “Nordic Exposure” An Icelandic Adventure
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