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“Nordic Exposure” An Icelandic Adventure – Part Four

17 minute read

 

Previously in Part Three of “Nordic Exposure” An Icelandic Adventure – waking up to find my headache still wasn’t gone, smelly eggy showers, happy birthday banners and a muffin with a candle, being an hour early for the bus, being early was my fault, yes it was my fault, my fault, did I mention it was my fault, getting wet while waiting for the bus, reaching the secret lagoon, walking around butt naked, communal showering, standing out in the freezing cold, amazing geothermal hot springs and freezing rain, two hot ladies canoodling each other, the headache disappearing, two hot ladies canoodling each other, exploding geyser, did I mention two hot ladies canoodling each other, a birthday meal and birthday cards, oh, and there were two hot ladies canoodling each other, happy birthday to me.

 

Day Four – Monday 

The car rental place was situated in a commercial district right down near the seafront, but rather than head there by taxi we decided to walk instead.

Our time so far had been spent travelling away from the city, but this morning we got to enjoy a leisurely half hour stroll through various parts of Reykjavik.

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And this brings me onto another observation, which is that Iceland seems to have so far escaped the commercial choke hold of globalisation.

And what I mean by this is that I didn’t see any of the major chains that are so closely associated with most towns and cities throughout the world. There are no McDonalds, no Burger King, and no Starbucks; so if you had planned on visiting Iceland and would still like to ‘go large’ or have your ‘grande skinny latte with two pumps of hazelnut syrup and a bit of squirty cream on top’, then I’m afraid you’ll be bitterly disappointed.

Apparently Iceland did once have McDonalds but they opted to pull out of the country due to ‘financial complexities’, but whether Iceland are bothered about this or not, I don’t really care. Personally I’m choosing to send Iceland a major fist pump for being a largely chain-less nation and I like to imagine them sticking two fingers up at The Man!

But to be completely honest with you, they’re not really needed there anyway. Reykjavik is full of independent coffee shops, burger joints, casual eateries, and restaurants; the quality of which is out of this world. The food always tastes fresh, and the fish is of a really high standard with it being so close to the sea. They also have a couple of quirky places that really appealed to me; one was the Chuck Norris Grill (what a legend), and another was the Lebowski Bar whose theme was based on one of my all-time favourite movies, The Big Lebowski.

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Another related observation is that despite having been out and about in Reykjavik on both a Friday and Saturday night, I didn’t spot any loud or drunken people in the bars or streets. I’m not naive enough to think that this doesn’t ever happen, but I certainly saw none of it while we were there. All I ever saw was people having a good time while remaining respectful of those around them.

I was feeling really at home amongst the laid-back and peaceful culture of Reykjavik.

 

As we got closer to the car rental place I was feeling disappointed that the walk was almost over. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable experience and when I return to Iceland in the future I will definitely be setting aside a full day to explore the city.

We were greeted warmly by the two guys at the car rental reception and after spending ten minutes signing various documents we were led outside to our 4×4 SUV. I received all the necessary instructions about which button did what and which numbers I should call if we were to have a problem, and then a few minutes later we were ready to set off.

I was feeling a little nervous, just as I always am when I’m about to drive for the first time in a new country; but the excitement of the road trip far outweighed the nerves. What a day we had planned, taking to the road and venturing to the volcanic beaches of Vik, making a few key stops along the way, and then rounding off the day with a trip out to see the northern lights. It would be the perfect end to the trip.

“Are you ready?” Alex asked.

“Hell yes. Let’s do this!” I responded with a grin that reached from ear to ear. “But let me just quickly set up the Sat Nav so that I can find my way out of the city.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, ready to key our destination into Google Maps. But as I glanced at the notifications on the screen my heart sank and the smile fell away from my face.

“What is it?” Alex asked.

I couldn’t speak.

“Elliot, what’s wrong?” Alex persisted.

I looked up at her, feeling as though I could cry at any moment. And then I finally spoke.

“The northern lights trip has been cancelled.”

Three strikes and we’re out.

 

For as long as I can remember it had been a dream of mine to see the northern lights. And we’d come at a time of year when there was a high probability of seeing them, yet due to a continued lack of visibility the trip had been cancelled for the third and final time. We had no opportunities left, the dream was over, and it was like reliving England v West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final all over again. Damn that still hurts.

I spoke very little as we manoeuvred our way out of Reykjavik and kept my mind busy by concentrating on how to negotiate a roundabout while driving on ‘the wrong side of the road’. But once we got the tricky parts out of the way and were on a straight road, I finally spoke.

“I just didn’t even get a chance of seeing the lights, and that’s what’s most disappointing”.

And that was true. Because even if we’d had just one night where we’d been able to travel out and had had just a little bit of hope of seeing them, then I don’t think I would have felt as bad, even if the lights never actually made an appearance. What really hurt was that we got just three straight cancellations with not even a shred of a chance, not even a snippet.

I think Alex felt bad about the situation because she’d seen them previously and on that particular night she’d been treated to a spectacular display by the Aurora. But I assured her that there was nothing to feel bad about and that it was just ‘one of those things’.

I sighed out loud and then spoke again.

“Oh well, fuck it…let’s put on some music.”

And then we put on a CD that I’d brought from home; a beautiful soundtrack from a travel-based movie that was part-filmed in Iceland. I may have mentioned the title earlier on in this feature.

When the opening track kicked into life my spirits were soon lifted. Memories of the movie came flooding back to me and as I looked out towards the horizon I felt another ‘traveller’s moment’ coming on. My heart pounded and my breathing started to quicken as I looked out at the vast and snowy landscape, and the endless range of mountains that dominated the backdrop.

I couldn’t believe I was here, sat behind the wheel, driving towards what appeared to be an endless horizon in a land that felt like another world.

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The disappointment of the northern lights was slowly disappearing as I began to convince myself that somehow, and for some reason, it would turn out to be for the best. Because when the day finally arrives and I find myself standing underneath that magical green display in the sky, I know that it will be more impressive, more beautiful, and even more significant because of the misfortune we’d had on this trip.

And do you know what? I’m looking forward to it already.

 

We continued along Route 1 towards Vik, which was a journey that was impossible to mess up. Route 1 was just one long road that, if followed, could theoretically take you all the way around Iceland and back to the starting point in the capital city. It’s certainly an idea that I’ll keep banked for the future.

The first stop of the day was at a nameless destination that afforded incredible top-down views of the landscape below it. This was the most moon-like view of them all and for a moment I felt like an astronaut, looking down into a deep crater.

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It was a magnificent view, but I was finding that I couldn’t stay outside for much longer because the temperatures had really started to plummet now that we were outside of the city.

We hopped back into the car, turned the key in the ignition, and pulled back onto Route 1.

 

The next stop, and the first significant one of the day, was at Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. The view from the main road didn’t really do it justice and the waterfall looked tiny against the much grander backdrop. But as we continued along the approach road it became for more impressive and the anticipation was almost unbearable.

I’m a huge fan of waterfalls, and although I’d been blown away by Gullfoss two days previous, we’d only been able to view it from distance. Here at Seljalandsfoss though, we could get as close as we wished.

The torrents of water fell from the top of the cliff face and roared as it plummeted towards the pools below, creating a giant white mist that threatened to soak anybody that stood in its wake. It was a beautiful display of nature’s power. Once again it was at this point where I decided to record a short video to try to capture the moment.

 

With our crampons in place we were able to venture with confidence towards the waterfall. I stopped to take a few photos and although my gloves had only been off for maybe two minutes, the cold bit into my exposed fingers so deeply that they quickly became painful.

I put my gloves back on and quickly slipped my hands inside of my coat, placing them underneath my armpits in a bid to warm them back up. It took almost ten minutes to get my fingers functioning normally and for the pain to disappear, and it was a real eye-opener as to what it must be like for those brave adventurers that often travel into extreme environments. They certainly have my respect.

There was a bridge that went over a stream towards the western side of the falls. In the distance I could see a set of stairs that led upwards and I knew that I had to go, but Alex, who has a genuine phobia of falling on ice, decided to stay put.

She’s admitted to me since that one half of her felt sick as she watched me venture towards the falls, but thankfully the other half of her was kept entertained by the sheer volume of people that were slipping, sliding, and falling over on the ice. It was pure comedy.

The bridge had approach ramps rather than steps, but the surface was covered entirely in ice and there was no exposed wood whatsoever. It was hilarious watching people try to clamber up the ramp with shoes that couldn’t grip onto the ice, and there was a line of people that were holding hands while trying to help each other up. I felt cocky as I walked straight past them, up the ramp, along the bridge, and down the other side without any problem at all. I could feel their eyes on me and I could’ve sworn that I heard one of them call me a bastard.

 

So far, so good, and a minute or so later I found myself at the bottom of the steep set of wooden steps that were once again covered in ice. Although the bridge situation had been a funny one, these steps were undoubtedly dangerous, maybe even potentially fatal, and so I helped everybody that I could who was making their way back down. I could see the genuine fear on some of their faces, and although I had my crampons in place, I was sure to take extra care as I began my ascent.

The risk was worth it though and the view from the top of the steps was incredible. It didn’t lead to the very top of the falls, but rather about half way, which enabled you to be eye-to-eye with the waterfall. From this position I began to feel the full force of the water, the power of which could be felt deep in my chest and ears.

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It was a beautiful force of nature and I didn’t want to go back down, but I was getting soaked by the spray and the one thing you really don’t want to be in these temperatures is wet.

I took one last moment up there, just for myself, and then carefully descended the steps and returned to Alex.

“Happy?” She asked.

“Very.” I smiled.

And then we returned to the SUV where I removed my wet coat, turned up the heating, and then turned back out onto the main road where we continued east towards Vik.

 

I’m sure many of you will recall the volcano that erupted at Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland back in 2010. Despite the eruption itself being relatively small, the ash clouds it created caused major disruption to air travel across Europe and saw a number of flights being cancelled. The initial disruption which lasted for several days saw many tourists abandoned abroad and unable to return home.

But the disruption didn’t just affect travellers. Also affected was Thorvaldseyri farm, which is located at the base of Eyjafjallajokull. The farm was seriously damaged with the crops and water supply being completely ruined, casting its future into real danger. But thankfully, due to a number of volunteers stepping forward to help and with a little ingenuity on behalf of the owners, the farm eventually reopened and is now flourishing with a visitor centre that has become a hot spot for tourists.

The farm and the volcano can be seen direct from the roadside on Route 1, but we didn’t spot it until the last minute and pretty much ended up slamming our brakes on. We turned the car around and then went back to take a closer look. It was a stunning view and one that cannot really be captured on camera; you just have to see it with your own eyes.

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The farm, set some way back from the road wouldn’t by itself be enough to make you look twice; but coupled with the giant Eyjafjallajokull situated immediately behind it, towering over the farm, the sense of scale is bordering on the unbelievable. The approach road turns immediately off Route 1 and runs in a straight line all the way down to the farm, which works almost as a piece of live art, directing your gaze in a way that leaves you mesmerised. The effect is quite literally jaw-dropping.

After taking a few photographs and trying to capture the scene as best as possible, we suddenly became conscious that time was ticking by, and so we returned to the SUV and continued heading east.

 

The weather reports had suggested that we may see some snow in the afternoon and sure enough the skies were beginning to look heavy and grew darker with each passing mile. But despite this sudden change in conditions, by the time we reached the second waterfall at Skogafoss we’d still not seen a single snowflake.

The entrance road was long and switched back a couple of times, but soon enough we were in the car park, sat on a bench, and slipping our crampons into place. I looked towards the sky.

“It’s getting darker Alex.” I said.

“I know. Let’s go have a quick look at these falls.”

But only a matter of seconds after we started walking, the first flakes began to fall from the sky.

“Here it comes.”

And within less than a minute the snow started to fall heavily, as though somebody had taken the snow dial and suddenly cranked it up to 10. We put our hoods up in a bid to protect ourselves while we took a couple of photos, and I had to shield my camera against the rock face to make sure that the lenses didn’t get damaged.

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The waterfall itself was intense; it was bigger, wider, and even more ferocious than Seljalandsfoss. There were steps to the side that led all the way to the very top and I’m sure it must have been a dramatic viewpoint from up there, but I never even considered tackling it in the worsening conditions.

The snow was settling thick and fast, and the footpaths and the car park were disappearing under a thick white blanket. All my instincts were telling me to leave while we still could.

“Let’s get out of here Alex.”

We hurried back to the SUV, squinting to keep the snow out of our eyes and holding hands to make sure that we stuck together. I tore off my crampons, jumped inside, turned the key in the ignition, and started driving.

But the car park now seemed completely different to the one which we’d first driven into. I couldn’t see any markings or road edgings, and I made my way back out purely from memory.

The entrance road with the two switch backs was even worse, and with sloped edges leading down to ditches on either side, I had to make sure that I didn’t veer off course because otherwise we may have tipped the vehicle onto its side.

The only way I was able to navigate the road was to try to spot where the angles of the snow changed as the edges of the road met the embankment. The windscreen wipers were now on their maximum setting and the wiper blades swept frantically from left to right.

“Just a little further Elliot.” Alex encouraged.

I was halfway through making the final 90 degree bend when the SUV suddenly beginning slipping to one side and then steadily began to tip, but I somehow managed to correct the steering, levelling it out and bringing us back into a straight line. My heart was pounding.

I was now on the home straight and all I needed to do was continue forwards, back down to the main road. The junction was getting closer.

“Come on. Come on.” I whispered to myself.

Fifty feet to go, then twenty, then ten, and then…

“Thank fuck for that.”

…we were there.

I looked out onto Route 1. If I turned left, we continued east towards Vik; and if I turned right, we’d be heading back to Reyjavik. I was in two minds as to whether we should turn back, but instead I turned the wheel to the left and made the decision to push on through the snow.

 

Ten minutes had passed since turning out onto the main road and I was beginning to have that same feeling that I’d had at the falls; my instincts were telling me to turn back.

But any man will understand the feelings of conflict that arise in a moment like this, feelings that tell us that we’ve failed. Some people would call it male pride, some might call it macho bullshit, but no matter what label you give it one thing is for sure; it can do us more harm than good.

Half of me was telling me to push on and to embrace the adventure and the potential danger, but the other half was reminding me that there’s a very fine line that runs between bravery and stupidity.

The windscreen wipers continued to cut through the snow, allowing me to just about see the blur of red tail lights from the car in front. Visibility was reducing, the sky was growing darker, and the vehicles were beginning to slow. Things were going from bad to worse.

But still I pushed on and still I ignored the alarm bells that were going off in my head. I tried to convince myself that I was somehow being brave, an adventurer, and some kind of tough guy; but in reality, I was being ridiculous. In fact I was being downright stupid. And despite the SUV being fitted with winter tyres, I felt the vehicle beginning to lose grip and the engine rev as it fought against the conditions.

“The hills are right up ahead.” Alex said, remembering the route from her last trip.

Alex had previously told me that Route 1 ascends and then weaves steeply into the hills, which was something that seemed inviting at a time when the roads were clear. But today was a different matter entirely.

“Do you want to turn back?” I asked, perhaps trying to put the decision-making into Alex’s hands.

“It’s up to you Elliot.” She replied, with the decision-making firmly falling back into mine.

And so we continued on for a short while, despite the klaxons that were sounding in my mind. I fought it for as long as I could but then my heart suddenly began to sink, because I knew exactly what I needed to do.

I was not Indiana Jones, nor was I James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Nathan Drake. They were just cool characters in movies and videogames, whereas this on the other hand, was real life. There are no replays, no repeats, no unlimited continues, and I had Alex’s safety to think of, not just my own. I was not an experienced snow driver and nor was I a survivalist; and we weren’t equipped to survive in freezing conditions.

The rationalising continued in my mind, understanding that even if we made it to Vik the snow would be so thick that we wouldn’t even be able to see the black beaches anyway, nor would we be able to explore the area. It was getting late in the afternoon and darkness would soon be with us, and after letting all of this spin around in my mind for a couple more minutes, I knew what I had to do.

I pulled the SUV to the side of the road and waited for the other vehicles to pass by; and then I swung the steering wheel into full-lock and made the complete 180 degree turn, pointing us west towards Reykjavik.

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I knew that I’d made the right decision yet still I was wrestling with my thoughts.

“You know I wanted to carry on.” I said to Alex. “And I wouldn’t have turned around unless I had no other choice.”

“I know.”

“And it’s absolutely freezing out here, we have no spare clothes, no food, and we’ve very little water.”

“I know.”

“And the hills were coming right up and you know how the tyres were feeling on…”

“Elliot, I know” Alex said, cutting me off. “It’s okay.”

A man’s mind can be a complicated place sometimes, because although our basic needs are actually relatively simple, there can be a hell of a lot of conflict that goes off between our ears. The need to protect our masculinity is something that can lead us to do some potentially stupid things, but even if we make the right choices and manage to overcome our pride and our ego, we still often seek validation that our masculinity has remained intact. This need occurs far less often the older we get and the more self-assured we become, but every once in a while something can happen which brings that need back to the surface.

“I feel like I’ve let you down somehow.” I continued.

“Elliot, it’s okay. Honestly. I completely understand why you had to turn around.” Alex looked at me and smiled. “You did the right thing.”

I laughed. “Okay. I promise I’ll shut up now.”

But my heart was still thumping in my chest, because although I’d made the decision to turn around this didn’t mean we were out of trouble just yet. We were still two hours from Reykjavik and we still had steep inclines to negotiate on the way back.

The snow was still falling heavily and the roads were getting so bad that we could no longer see them. The only way we could tell that we were still on the road was by the tall marker sticks that ran alongside the carriageway; I just had to make sure that I stayed between them.

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The visibility had gotten even worse and without any warning a vehicle would suddenly appear in front of us, coming straight on, and so we also had to remain vigilant so as to avoid a potential head-on collision.

I could hear my heart thumping as the tension built in my head, but then I took a few deep breaths and pushed onwards.

One hour and 59 minutes until we reached Reykjavik.

But I had a feeling it was going to seem much longer.

 

The first hour of the return journey remained every bit as intense as it had started. But thankfully, and not before time, the snow began to slow down, the flakes got thinner, and the skies became lighter. Patches of clear road began to appear and at one point we were lucky enough to find ourselves positioned immediately behind a snow plough, meaning that the road was being cleared for us as we drove.

There had been a couple of worrying moments though; one being as we stopped off in a small town to take a bathroom-break and we thought the vehicle had gotten stuck in the snow. And there was a little bit of bottom-twitching when we had to negotiate one large hill and were doing fine, but then the idiot in front of us managed to pull off a ridiculous manoeuvre which meant us having to come to an almost complete stop, losing all the momentum that we’d built up.

When we finally got back to Reykjavik and pulled the SUV into a parking space, I switched off the engine and let out a huge sigh of relief.

“What a day!” I said.

“Are you ready for a drink?”

“I think I’m ready for two…possibly even three!”

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To the average person, including myself, two or three drinks may not sound like a lot. However, as a visitor to Iceland this is like making a full-on declaration that you’re in serious need of the calming effects of alcohol. Let me explain this by moving onto my next observation.

Iceland is expensive; make no mistake about it, you can try your best to make your visit as cheap as possible and you can try to cut corners, but no matter what you do there is no escaping the fact that it’s not a cheap country to visit.

In England, a standard bottle of beer will cost you somewhere in the region of four pounds, but in Reykjavik you can expect to be paying between eight or nine pounds as an absolute minimum. And in terms of eating, I struggled to find anywhere serving the kind of good quality but relatively low cost pub meals that I could find back home; instead the prices were on a par with good quality restaurant prices at the very least.

Maybe there are cheaper alternatives available, but I certainly didn’t spot any myself and from what I’ve heard from other visitors, this is generally an agreed upon observation.

But this certainly doesn’t need to mean that it’s not a viable option. During the day I opted for supermarket bought snacks, and then in the evening I’d indulge with a proper meal to end the day. I never had any more than two beers though and for the entire duration of our trip I never even got tipsy.

Despite the expense, every meal I ate and every drink I consumed was nothing short of impressive. The freshness of the food was undeniable and they certainly know how to brew good ale. As such, I was more than happy to spend my money here.

 

The following morning we had a short stroll around the city and then returned to our favourite coffee shop on Laugavegur; a beautiful little place called Sandholt.

We’d visited here on our first day and had been completely taken by it, and so it seemed only right to come back here before returning home. As we sat down my favourite Tom Waits album The Heart of Saturday Night played in the background, which is almost unheard of. I’d never heard his music being played anywhere before.

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“Have you enjoyed yourself then?” Alex smiled.

“It’s been a truly incredible trip. It really has. Thank you so much for everything.”

“You’re not too disappointed at how some things turned out?”

“No, not at all. I admit that I was at the time.”

And this was true. The third and final cancellation of the northern lights trip had been a real gut punch.

“But now I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.”

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And that’s the way that you have to look at things sometimes. We can have an idea of what we’d like, and we can do everything right in trying to achieve it, but sometimes things just don’t go as planned. But the biggest lesson is in how we respond to those situations. We can either see it as life dealing us a blow and we can sit and complain about how ‘life just isn’t fair’, or we can see it as an opportunity to adapt, to grow, and to find meaning.

Maybe not every box did get ticked this time, but there were a hell of a lot of unexpected surprises that I know I’ll talk about for years to come. And it is those unexpected moments and the things that catch you off guard that often turn out to be the best. That’s what travelling is all about, as too is life. Because if everything turned out exactly as we planned it, then how boring would that be.

Sometimes it’s nice to be taken by surprise, unless it means finding an unexpected number two floating in a toilet that takes credit card payments. I’m okay without that.

 

When our plans had to change because of the weather I’d told Alex that I was happy with that because it meant having the last day of my 30’s having an adventure, while the first day of my 40’s would be spent relaxing. I’d said that this would be symbolic of how I saw my life, in the sense that I wanted to be able to spend more time relaxing rather than running around being busy all of the time.

This is true. I do want to relax more. But the adventurous spirit is as alive as it ever was, and as I sit here under the tree in my garden writing about this trip I look back into my house and see the pile of travel books, the maps, and the trinkets that I’ve collected along the way.

Who am I kidding? I will never change. And for as long as that flame keeps burning away inside, I know that I couldn’t, even if I tried.

 

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