“Nordic Exposure” An Icelandic Adventure – Part Two
14 minute read
Previously in Part One of “Nordic Exposure” An Icelandic Adventure – wearing lots of clothes like Joey and asking if I could beeee wearing any more clothes, meeting the Clean Air Appreciation Society (sort of), being on the moon (sort of), Iceland’s super-friendly people, stress, headaches, Pad Thai (isn’t this supposed to be about Iceland) and Beer Lao (it really is supposed to be about Iceland), big plans, cancelled plans, altered plans, working the Lossul charm, being a cat (sort of), oh, and a solitaire loving bus driver (with a solitary solitaire fist pump)
The next impression that I had of Iceland is that it looked like a landscape from Game of Thrones.
You know the landscape I’m talking about; snow, black rocks, dramatic mountainous backdrops. And there’s a good reason as to why it looks like a landscape from Game of Thrones, and that’s because it is a landscape from Game of Thrones. It was filmed there.
Well, actually it was filmed in all kinds of funky places around the globe, but today we found ourselves in Pingvellir National Park, used for the harsh and desolate lands that are found north of ‘the wall’. It was dramatic to say the least, but thankfully the drama did not involve white walkers making their way towards us on horseback.
Our first stop of the day was at an astonishing viewpoint at Pingvellir; an area that sits on top of the mid-Atlantic rift between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. From the viewpoint you can actually see the crack in the ground which continues to move apart by a further 2.5 centimetres every year! This is a truly remarkable thing to see and Iceland is the only place in the world where you can actually see a rift above the ground rather than under water.
It’s just one of the many wonders of this magical country and only serves to add credence to the feeling of being in another world.
I took the opportunity to grab some photos while the sun was rising. And that was another thing that felt so truly different to anything I’d experienced before; the sun was rising at 11.00am!
In other countries if you want to get up to watch the sunrise you have to set your alarm ridiculously early. But in Iceland you actually have to have a lie in if you want to get up to see the sun rise. Think about that.
The next stop of the day was at the Geysir Hot Spring Area.
This is something that I’d always wanted to see for myself and I could hardly contain my excitement as we sat beside the bus, slipping our crampons over our boots.
When Alex had first suggested taking crampons I wondered if she was being overly-cautious. My reasons for thinking this were sound given that Alex has the incredible talent of being able to turn even the most sound of environments into a potential disaster zone. Long-story-short, she makes Laurel and Hardy look graceful.
But within minutes of setting off I found myself thanking her with the utmost sincerity. They were worth their weight in gold, because as other tourists clung onto railings and were slipping and sliding along the ice, we both walked past them like professional ice walkers.
We made our way up towards the main geysir, which was easy to find as we could simply follow the pungent sulphurous smell. Along the way we walked past a dozen or so people that were struggling to keep on their feet, and we couldn’t help but adopt a slightly cocky and holier-than-thou attitude which was afforded to us by the crampons.
But karma has a way of biting you on the ass.
While Alex and I were high-fiving each other the geysir suddenly started bubbling and then erupted, exploding geysir water some 20 metres or so into the air before finally falling back down to earth, covering the two of us in the hot sulphurous liquid. We were soaked. And I still had the headache.
On the way back down to the bus, we couldn’t help but feel envious of the crampon-less tourists that were slipping and falling on the ice, because at least they were dry; the bastards.
Thankfully we were able to dry off in the bus as we were driven towards the third stop of the day; Gullfoss waterfall.
I’ve seen some pretty mind-blowing waterfalls in my time, but Gullfoss is right up there with the best of them. Most of the ones I’ve seen so far have been smaller and set in green and tropical surroundings. Gullfoss, on the other hand, was on a scale that can only be described as epic.
Unfortunately our visit here was a real mixed-bag of emotions though. On one hand you had the overwhelming sense of witnessing something that was beautiful beyond belief, but on the other hand it was also stressful and frustrating. Let me explain.
The tour organisers have to keep to some very rigid timekeeping and we were warned right from the beginning that if we weren’t back at the bus on time then they wouldn’t think twice about leaving us behind. There was no joking, no negotiating, and they were absolutely serious. Everybody understood this, and everybody respected this; except for one person.
Before leaving geysir we got delayed by ten minutes because one woman was late getting back to the bus. Our guide must have been feeling a little lenient on this occasion because he did in fact hold the bus back for her, but he made it absolutely clear that it meant our time at Gullfoss would be cut back by ten minutes.
But upon our arrival at the site, Alex and I both needed the toilet. And we knew we had to go because it would be a long journey to our fourth and final destination of the day. Unfortunately though, there was a queue. And not only was there a queue, but once we got to the front we found we had to pay to use the toilet; but we had no coins, only notes.
Thankfully though there was a change machine and so I desperately fed a note into it, only for the note to be rejected. And so I now needed a plan B, and plan B was to pay by credit card. Yes, that’s correct; Iceland is the first country I’ve ever visited where I could actually pay by credit card to go do a number one. But then my card got rejected, and so I now needed a plan C.
Plan C was to use the change machine again, but to say a little prayer this time in the hope that the Toilet Gods would hear me and accept the note. But they didn’t, and once again the note was spat back out at me. Snatching the note from the machine I looked at it with piercing eyes, said a few encouraging words, and then tried it for a third and final time.
And it worked!
Coins pinged out of the machine and I whooped with excitement like I’d just won the jackpot on an old-school fruit machine. I gave Alex one coin and I took another, and before we knew it we were through the turnstiles and heading to our respective male and female toilets.
I burst through the door and then almost screamed…
“WHAT THE FUCK!?”
…because somebody had done one of the worst smelling number two’s that I’ve ever encountered in my life! Seriously, my eyes were stinging within seconds and I had to cover my mouth and nose with a sleeve. I then looked around the bathroom, using my one free hand to open the stalls, expecting to find a dead body in there. I didn’t find a dead body, but what I did find was something horrific floating in the toilet bowl of the third cubicle. Trust me, it was nothing short of evil and possibly even the product of Satan himself.
It was the quickest number one I’ve ever done in my life.
Back outside I bumped into Alex whose expression changed as soon as she saw me. I think I was finding it hard to hide the horror that I’d just been witness to.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
“I’d rather not talk about it. Is this the way to the falls?” I asked, intentionally changing the subject and pointing to a footpath; a footpath that had a signpost next to it that read ‘to the falls’.
Alex turned her eyes from the sign and then onto me. She looked concerned.
“We can talk about it when you’re ready.” Alex said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.”
With our crampons firmly in place, we made our way down to the viewpoint with as much haste as possible. Our time was disappearing quickly.
But despite only having a few minutes left, it didn’t prevent us from feeling the full impact of Gullfoss. In terms of both beauty and scale, it was breathtaking.
It was so difficult to properly capture the sense of scale in a photograph, and so I decided to include the following video instead.
To either side of the falls lay a vast expanse of beautiful white snow, while the Hvita River, fed by the Langjokull glacier, drops down in two layers between the canyon walls. The sound of the falls itself is impressive, but the visuals are so staggering that it’s difficult to know where to look; my eyes were darting all over the place.
Time was running out, and so I took off my gloves, grabbed my camera, and using the telephoto lens I managed to capture a few close ups of the cascading waters. I was really pleased with the results, but now it was time for some wider scale photos, and so I began to change lenses.
My gloves had only been off for about a minute, but with the sub zero temperatures mixing with the moisture in the air, the coldness was really beginning to bite. As I took the plastic cover off the pancake lens, my fingers failed to grip on tightly enough and the lens slipped through my fingers, falling onto the hard wooden platform below where it begin to roll. I dropped to my knees and managed to grab it just before it rolled off the platform edge and onto the rocks below.
I swore out loud and then snapped the lens into place, relieved to find that it hadn’t been broken. But as I stood up to grab the last few photographs, the blood rushed to my head and then my headache began to pound more than ever. I cursed the situation, having only a couple of minutes to spare before the bus left.
After giving myself just thirty seconds to gaze across the majestic landscape, I turned and then started running back towards the bus.
Damn that selfish woman who was late back to the bus, damn that stupid toilet that I had to pay for, and damn this bloody headache that was still plaguing my trip.
The stress was starting to creep back in, but I was determined to fight it off.
Back at the bus I sat taking deep breaths for a couple of minutes, allowing my heart to stop racing. I started to feel a little better, despite the fact that my head was still pounding.
“Are you ready for the big finale of the afternoon?” Alex asked.
And then we were led towards what I can only describe as a tank-cum-monster truck.
“Where are we going in this beast?”
“We’re going snowmobiling!” Alex said, with a huge smile on her face.
“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed, with a huge smile on my face too.
Headaches and stress aside, this was turning out to be one of the best birthdays ever!
It took an hour of off-road driving to reach the snowmobiling centre, and we’d had to battle through deep snow, getting stuck a couple of times in the process. It really had been quite dramatic and I’d been given an early squirt of adrenaline even before I’d so much as seen a snowmobile.
As we climbed off the truck the weather was colder than ever, but the views more than made up for it. To put it into some kind of perspective, it almost reduced me to tears.
The snow was pristine and looked untouched, and with the mountains as a backdrop and the late afternoon sun breaking through the clouds, it was the closest image I can imagine as to what heaven would look like; if you believe in that kind of thing. It was silent, peaceful, and beautiful beyond belief.
And perhaps one of the reasons for feeling so overwhelmed was because for the first time in my life, I was stood on an actual glacier. My mind raced at this concept; that I’d soon be on a snowmobile, hurtling across a glacier, in Iceland, and with Alex sat behind me with her arms wrapped around my waist. It sounded like something from a James Bond movie!
“Are you coming Mr Bond?” Alex asked, as she turned towards the cabin.
This question really set me back. How did she know what I was thinking?
“Sorry?” I asked.
“I said are you coming Elliot?”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
I must have been hearing things.
Ten minutes later we were both kitted out in snowsuits, and quite frankly, we both looked ridiculous. But while everybody else was stood casually chatting, Alex and I started running around throwing snowballs at each other.
And it was just as the instructor came outside to begin the tuition that Alex then hit me directly in the groin with a snowball. I turned around to face the instructor and wondered why he was looking at me a little funny, but then I glanced down and noticed that half of the snowball had remained stuck to the snowsuit, right between my legs. It looked like a snow-testicle.
“Excuse me” I said, brushing the snow away.
“As I was saying” continued the instructor, “if you could please follow me over to the snowmobiles.”
“Idiot.” Alex joked.
“Well it was your fault.” I said. And then I pushed her over in the snow and ran off.
After receiving our instructions we all sat on our snowmobiles and turned the keys in the ignition. The sound was immense as the engines roared into life together, and then we all sat waiting for the instruction to accelerate.
There were approximately twenty snowmobiles organised in two lines of ten, and Alex and I were in the middle of the back row. The main instructor drove up and down the front line, like an army commander on his horse, preparing his troops for battle.
And then he stopped, raised his hand, and then gave the signal to GO!
I could feel my heart pounding as the adrenaline started to kick in, and then the drivers on the front row began to peel away, one at a time, from left to right. When they were all gone the vehicle to my far left moved away, and then so did the second, the third, and the fourth. Finally the couple to my immediate left opened the throttle and tore away, signalling that it was now our turn.
I hit the accelerator and we were away, tearing across the snow, following the driver in front and weaving from left to right. From above the entire group must have looked like an electrical sine wave, going from positive to negative, positive to negative, as we snaked our way along the glacier.
It was difficult to tell where the ground met the mountains and where the mountains met the sky, because all I could see was the driver in front shrouded by a complete blanket of white.
Alex gripped onto me as we hit dips in the ground and bounced around on the seat, and we made sure to tip our bodies, left and right, to counter-balance the weight as we turned the snowmobile. It was literally a case of following the vehicle in front and placing trust in them and that they weren’t leading us astray.
I’ll admit that for the first few minutes I was a little bit nervous; partially because it was something I’d never done before and was learning for the first time, but also because I felt responsible for the safety of Alex who was holding onto me and placing her complete trust in me. These things aren’t so bad when you only have yourself to worry about, but it’s another thing entirely when you’re also responsible for the safety of another person.
But the nerves soon passed and as my confidence built I found myself intentionally dropping back just so I could hammer the accelerator and get us moving as fast as possible. The adrenaline switched from providing me with the initial alertness to then allowing me to feel pure thrill and excitement.
Here I was, on the very last day of my thirties, flying along on a snowmobile in a sea of pure white. Mountains were all around me, the sun was breaking through the clouds, and my girlfriend was hanging onto the back of me; the very person that was responsible for making all of this a reality.
I felt like an incredibly lucky man.
About 25 minutes later we all pulled up alongside side each other and switched the engines off; taking a short break so that we could chat, take photos, or have a moment of peace in which to appreciate the views.
I took a few steps forward until I could ensure that everybody was behind me and there was no one to my sides. From this position I was able to stop and look around, feeling like I was the only person there. Even if just for a few moments, it was as though I were alone on this beautiful Icelandic glacier.
A gentle breeze blew against me, which created a delicate whistling in my ears and made my eyes begin to water. As I wiped the cold tears from my face I looked up at the sun that was now setting through wintry clouds alongside the mountains.
And then it hit me; the realisation that I was experiencing what I often refer to as a ‘traveller’s moment’. It’s one of those times where you stop and say to yourself…
“Am I really here?”
“Is this really happening to me?”
Alex came to join me and for just a few seconds we stared out along the landscape which appeared endless. We turned and hugged each other, but then we soon started wrestling and I managed to dump her down into the knee-deep snow.
She fought to get up but just wiggled around like a turtle on its back, creating an unintentional snow angel in the process. I pointed at her, laughed, and then turned around and attempted to run off. But then I caught my boot, stumbled, and fell face first into the snow.
I lay there chuckling to myself and in the background I could hear Alex giggling and making uuuurgh noises as she attempted to get back up. Glancing upwards I could see that we’d now become the centre of attention and that the other snowmobilers were looking at us like we were idiots.
And I was okay with what, because we are what we are; idiots.
Shortly afterwards we made our way back to the snowmobiling centre, and it was relatively drama free apart from one specific moment.
I’d managed to reach peak confidence on the return journey, but it was during that peak where things almost came unstuck; hitting a relatively large and completely invisible lump in the snow. The snowmobile began to tip onto its side but I instinctively adjusted the throttle while throwing my body to one side, and then quickly accelerating again to pull us out of it. It was one of those ‘twitchy-bum’ moments, but we managed to come through it unscathed.
By the time we reached the snowmobile centre I felt genuinely sad that it was all coming to an end. It had been one hell of an experience and something that could definitely sit pride-of-place on anybody’s bucket list.
After completing the one hour journey back down from the glacier we climbed back onto the bus feeling tired, but elated.
“Have you had a good day?” Alex asked.
Smiling, I replied. “It’s been the best, and I can’t believe that it’s about to get even better!”
And this was true, because we would soon be swapping buses back in Reykjavik so that we could go on the northern lights tour. What a day; seeing a tectonic rift, witnessing the natural geothermal phenomenon of geysir, taking in the epic waterfalls at Gullfoss, and snowmobiling across a glacier.
This amazing Icelandic pie was about to be topped with a huge dollop of Aurora sauce!
“Excuse me?” I said, leaning forward towards our guide.
“Could you tell me what time we’ll back in Reykjavik?”
“About 8 o’clock.” He replied.
I leaned back smiling.
“Thanks, that’s great. We’ve got big plans tonight!”
“What are you both doing?” He inquired.
“Oh we’re going on the northern lights tour.”
“The northern lights tour has been cancelled tonight.” He said, very matter-of-factly.
“Excuse me?” I said, my face no longer smiling.
“It’s been cancelled due to poor visibility.”
I sat back, completely deflated. Alex held my hand, saying nothing, but knowing exactly how I was feeling.
That was it; two strikes gone, and I still had the fucking headache.
I used the journey back to compose myself and to put it all into perspective; it had been an incredible day and I wouldn’t let nature ruin it for me. The circumstances were beyond my control.
There was a gentleman sat next to us on the bus who was in a far worse position as it was his final night in Iceland and he hadn’t seen the lights at all; at least we had one more chance. He’d also been kind enough to allow us to borrow his mobile phone so that we could call the tour company to reschedule.
We arrived back in Reykjavik feeling a little more upbeat with a free evening and with the knowledge that we had a third northern lights trip booked for Monday evening; our final night.
On the way back to OK Hotel Alex wanted to visit a supermarket, while insisting that I wait outside. I had no idea what was going on, but it was clear that she had something up her sleeve. And once we made it back to the apartments we decided to keep the evening simple and to eat downstairs.
And it was in the bar of OK Hotel that my spirits were lifted. Alex had forgotten one key item from the supermarket and so she went to speak to one of the bar men and to ask for some help. At best she expected that they may have had what she needed in the kitchen, but instead the young man actually put on his coat and offered to go back out into the cold night to get what she needed.
We were both stunned by this wonderful act of kindness in which he went above and beyond any standard level of customer service. In the unlikely event that he’ll ever get to read this article, I’d just like to say thank you once again. Acts of kindness like this are something that is never forgotten.
For dinner I opted for a traditional Icelandic fish-stew dish called Plokkfiskur. It was a beautiful dish in itself, but after a long and tiring day it tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten. And accompanied by an ice-cold bottle of Einstock beer, it was the perfect end to the evening.
I climbed into bed as a very happy man, feeling hopeful that I’d wake up the next morning, the day of my 40th birthday, with a clear head. After two full days of suffering, surely the headache would finally be gone.
Click here to read Part Three of “Nordic Exposure” An Icelandic Adventure
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