Going to Iceland

IS "GOING TO ICELAND" the title of a Mountain Goats song? If not, it should be.

Road trips are the perfect theme for songs by The Mountain Goats and the perfect setting for the seminal bildungsroman of a young, ambitious novelist. They have a sense of urgency, panic and, at the same time, a sense of the creative endeavour present in the act of doing something. That urgency is the same flair that you can feel manifest in the best punk music, poetry, and in the urge to travel; and it’s that which made the idea of driving around Iceland so tantalising. It’s what made it become an inevitability rather than a pipe dream. And then in January, after the weight of Christmas-time retail had lifted, made the idea unfold slowly, and then all at once.

Closer to February than was comfortable, we booked our flights, choose our home (a small van with a sofa bed and a little gas stove), and bought maps for a trip that was happening in a month’s time, using all the remaining holiday I had accumulated, plus unpaid leave, and the vast majority of any savings I’d gained from working part-time at almost minimum wage. The overdraft that I had somehow bought back was emptied again and I was back to scraping the bottom. But it was basically the only window of time we had. Between March and April I was recording an EP, and then for almost all of April I would be travelling in China. The idea of going later than that hadn’t even occurred to us as a viable option. Either we would go now, or we’d never go. If we didn’t go now, the dream would be over.

This urgency is something people thrive on. Or at least, the sort of people who you imagine travelling, would thrive on. But not me. When I went to Canada for four months, it seemed like something an adventurous, outgoing person would do. Not even that adventurous. Just something that someone who was less anxious than me would do. Someone who didn’t spend most of their time alone, reading. Someone who didn’t frequently get great waves of relief from cancelling social obligations. I’m not that kind of person. To go to Canada, I had to apply within the university, and my biggest fear was that I’d actually be accepted. But I rested assured that I would almost certainly not be. There was only one place available to the university I had applied for, and it wouldn’t go to me. I applied because I would have hated myself if I hadn’t. Because it would’ve confirmed what I already thought about myself: that I was boring, and a coward, and for the rest of my life this is the kind of person I’d be. The kind of person who does nothing, and who accepts that path which is easiest, which is to, ultimately, Do Nothing. After a while, everything is too much effort, and comes with some chance of failure or embarrassment, even if the only person who knows you failed is yourself.

Kingston, Ontario, where I used to melodramatically look out at the lake. 

Kingston, Ontario, where I used to melodramatically look out at the lake. 

 

But I was accepted, and I worried about it all summer, meticulously planning for everything that could possibly go wrong. At one point, someone had to tell me that no one was going to force me to go. But for me, once it became inevitable, I would have to endure the anxiety, the stress, the endless reorganising and re-planning, the constant, suffocating personal admin. It goes without saying that the trip was one of the best experiences of my life, but that’s not to say it was easy or not, at the same time, one of the worst experiences of my life. Enduring anxiety about the unknown is the only way for me to experience something new. Not getting over that anxiety, but just accepting that it happens. It’s something I know now. There’s going to be so much I won’t enjoy. So I have to force myself to get into a situation where I have no choice but to do it.

“And maybe this is what I find both relaxing and exciting in a road trip. The license to free time, the urgency in movement, the elastic sense of schedule and place, and the openness of space.”

On the run up to going to Iceland, I had the same feelings: The sense of oncoming dread and worry that curdled with excitement; the sense of unpreparedness; the feeling that things were out of my control, but at the same time, if things went wrong it’s because of my own personal failure. It was something I felt the urge to bail on before we finally booked it. It was something whimpering in the back of my skull, that things would go wrong, that it was a waste of money and time. It’s hard to distil the romance from the horror of being a passenger in something seemingly beyond your agency, especially one that still requires your action: for you to continue forward. They’re both mixed together in a way that is at once anxiety-inducing and freeing. I guess this is why I find air travel weirdly relaxing. In an airport, I am a picture of tranquillity. While everything going on is essentially beyond my control, it’s also being controlled by something. There are times, places, schedules, and rituals. I arrive hours early and bring podcasts, books and audiobooks. I have an excuse to drink more coffee than is advisable and I relax. Planes are amazing. You’re just told that you’re going to be in a place—that isn’t so uncomfortable, really—for hours, and there’s no way around it. It’s responsibility being removed from you, and a license to waste time, become insular.

And maybe this is what I find both relaxing and exciting in a road trip. The license to free time, the urgency in movement, the elastic sense of schedule and place, and the openness of space. Stress bubbled up for almost a month right up to getting to the airport. And then, nothing.

The South Coast

The first nights of the trip were a bit of a blur. We were doing the island over eleven nights—to perfectly fit the holiday I had accumulated—and we landed around about 2pm on the first day, meaning that we didn’t really get going until past 4pm, once we got to Reykjavik and picked up the van. We went without food shopping (we had brought snacks from the UK) and tried to get as much of the “Golden Circle” done as possible—the most famous tourist attractions, the sweep of which can be done in a long weekend trip to Reykjavik. Starting at Þingvellir, we spent a few hours walking around where the first national parliament of Iceland was held, over a thousand years before, in a valley created by the separation of tectonic plates. Then we drove to Geysir as night was falling, hoping to camp nearby, and ended up at a bar called Skjol—halfway between Geysir and Gullfoss—where they let us park up and stay the night, sharing an irresponsible first meal buying a pizza, but saving our krona on potential showers and beer (later we learned never to forgo a shower, and to always forgo an expensive meal). In the morning, we took off to see Gullfoss, a waterfall, and Geysir (you guessed it). We spent a fair amount of time looking at the Geysir (after which all other geysers are named), before realising that it almost never erupts over a period of years, let alone forty minutes. Strokkur—which erupted many, many times over while we were standing there—was a better bet.

Then we drove about 50 minutes down south to Selfoss, the last place to stock up on food before the long stretch of the south coast. Iceland is well-known as expensive, making the decision process arduous. We spent a very long time trying to figure out what cheese we wanted, and how much it cost, and made an apparently classic tourist mistake of buying a bottle of very thick yoghurt instead of milk (it’s all called the same thing, you just have to differentiate the different variations of “mjolk”). Then we stopped at Seljalandafoss and made coffee in the back of the van. It was just boiling water on a stove—but we had ground coffee, and a french press that came with the hire (Icelanders have their priorities right). We got totally soaked by the waterfall, and then drove in search of the “hidden pool,” Seljavallalaug. Hannah had seen it online, and had become obsessed with it, claiming that it would probably be “the best thing we’d see” on the south coast; something that wouldn’t be part of anyone else’s trip to Iceland; and that, unhelpfully, didn’t seem to appear on any map I could find. But this also meant very strict timing: we had to go either early morning or late evening, to avoid other travellers. Such were the demands made on my regimented itinerary.   

Of course, with everything about Iceland, it’s described in a way that makes it seem candid, mysterious, and secret. As if you could go there with the whole island as your own. And it did feel like that, so much. We went in winter, when it is less busy, and went off the beaten track of the Golden Circle. But even a hidden pool on the side of a mountain had some other visitors. We found the turning, followed a disturbingly pot-holed gravel track down to what looked like just some abandoned old shed, parked up, and walked for about 20 minutes through a valley, and then found it — in a strange, pure patch of nowhere. It was geothermally heated by naturally hot water which flowed into the pool. Even in winter, it wasn’t too bad. We spent about 30 minutes in there, feeling very cold when we got back out. But I can’t say very often I’ve had such a view from the side of a pool, or been out so far in what seemed like nowhere.

“Of course, with everything about Iceland, it’s described in a way that makes it seem candid, mysterious, and secret.”

It was then a short distance to Skogarfoss, another huge waterfall, and this time we got really soaked. To the skin. You see, you can walk deceptively close to the waterfall without getting very wet. I was standing under it, looking up in awe. For almost 30 seconds I just watched, and then realised I could safely get out my phone to take a photo from that perspective. And then the wind changed. For whatever reason I decided not to wear the waterproof trousers I’d brought. After drying out, we went in search of the black sand beaches at Vik, as night was falling; they were surprisingly difficult to find. And then, we drove through the deep, dark, windy night for an hour and a half to Skaftafell National Park, where we knew we could camp. We arrived at around 9.30pm, thoroughly in the dark and fully spooked. We spent some time searching, but couldn’t find anywhere to pay for camping. Sorry, Skaftafell. We never paid for you. We used your showers, toilets, washed our dishes in your sinks, slept quite snugly in your car park. Like cheap freeloaders, after a very long, rushed day.

Waking up at Skaftafell, we realised we’d left the back door open by a crack all night. That said, we weren’t all that cold. Mistakes were made, lessons learned. Sleeping in a van in Iceland sounds like a suicide mission, but we had an incredibly good heater in the back that ran off a separate battery. Very snug, once the heater warmed up. We woke early and took an hour’s morning walk along one of the national park’s hiking routes. It boasts a fair amount of awesome hikes, but we weren’t to be there all day, and had no money or gear for the famous glacier walks. Instead, we went up to the take a look at the glacier, hopping over some frozen streams, and then back round again. It’s some of the most peaceful walking I’ve ever done. There was really almost no sound at all coming from anywhere. Just the two of us watching the sun rising in a soft, placid sky, the steady crunch of our boots the only real sound. It was early enough that no one came by the same route. Of course, the wont of Man is to destroy. You can’t have silence for long. I had some enjoyment skimming stones over a frozen lake, and then finding the biggest rocks I could use to smash the ice.

After that, we go going to the last stop on the South Coast’s tourist essentials, the blue icebergs at Jokulsarlon. I feel like we got some respectable pictures but this is the sort of place where it feels the height of amateurism to have merely a pair of DSLR cameras and an iPhone. Every photographer on the face of the Earth was there, carefully composing their shots with colossal cameras, tripods, drones. Makes you wonder at the meaninglessness of everything. I like the quote by Teju Cole in Known and Strange Things: “We are surrounded by as many pictures of things as there are things themselves."

It was a topic that came up a lot. I had the constant urge to take a lot of photos, out of enjoyment, and also the feeling of necessity. I like photography even though I know nothing about it—which is sometimes the purest form of enjoyment. No matter how technically poor they are, there’s something immensely satisfying about capturing a shot which seems well composed. But also, it’s about showing people when you get home, and I guess the memories—even though the memories, aided by photographs, are no longer really memories at all. Memories will never be faithful, or even real, whether you photograph something or not. Hannah’s thinking was that no matter where we went, everywhere had been photographed by far better, more competent photographers than us. We should attempt to get photos of things less people had seen. Iceland was about going somewhere different, less traversed, than other countries. But it’s not, really. Not compared to its size. Are photos about getting a unique picture, or are they about saying, "I was there." I existed. That was what I saw, for a brief time. Are they about looking back on things, reminding ourselves that these were memories we used to have, even if they’re kind of gone now. Writing this, less than six months after going, I have to rely on photos to remember the order of events, details, the feeling of places. But it’s not really remembering so much as recreating. At the same time, spending all day snapping things is a detraction from what was actually there. Would I prefer to remember, or have enjoyed fully. Sometimes it’s best just to look. Even having a camera on you, means that in every situation you’re second-guessing. In the back of your mind, there’s something nagging at you, to capture it, to show someone.

*I have never driven anything other than a tiny little Citroen car, have never really driven in snow, and certainly never in a country that isn’t the UK — I found the whole experience of driving around Iceland deeply unnerving, and at the slightest bump and stutter I was terrified I was breaking something. Hannah was not insured on the van for reasons of both our safety.

It was then an hour drive to Stokksnes, a black sand beach that stretches out from Vestrahorn Mountain, which is a disturbingly long way down a quite narrow, winding, bumpy mountain road.*

The landowner charges for going onto Stokksnes beach, which is a matter of some controversy on some message boards; however, I’m not sure it bothered us. We paid, drove down the beach and got some pretty insane photos. Also encountered a guy in a van, again, that it seemed had been trailing us this whole time. We’re unsure to this day whether this was multiple groups in the same hired van company, or one guy who followed us around the whole island. It was a cold, dark windy day and walking along that beach was pretty invigorating, just to look at the scale of everything, and how empty it was.

When we got back, the landowner suggested we go look at a creepy model village. Built for “a movie” which was never named or elaborated on further it was a disturbing "viking village" that was completely abandoned, now populated by a group of wild Icelandic horses that hang around nearby. Despite being pointed out as some sort of attraction by the landowner, it also was covered in signs telling us not to go in. Hannah persuaded me to go in, and I felt unnerved the whole time.

It was another hour and a half up to Djúpivogur to find somewhere to camp, a quaint and clean coastal town. The campsite overlooked the whole town, coast, and the far-off hills, and was ours entirely. We checked in at Hotel Framtid, where the man told us, quite bluntly, that a local, who was perfectly harmless but not right in the head, may come and take a look at the van if we stayed there—but we were reassured, once again, his harmlessness, and also not to speak to him or acknowledge him in anyway. Besides that, we had maybe the most relaxing night of the trip. There was an unlocked indoor lodge, with a sofa, a month-old copy of The New Yorker, showers, toilets, a stove, cutlery, and so on—and a spectacular view, which we didn’t adequately manage to photograph. Maybe somethings are better remembered; but I remember this as one of the most relaxed I felt the whole trip. We made a makeshift shakshuka on our in-van stove, washed up, made the bed, and read until we fell asleep.  When we woke, the ground was covered in thick, white snow.

A Slight Hitch 

The East Coast had been a bit of a sticking point when it came to my meticulous plan. It was maybe the part of the island that had the least that we really wanted to do. It seemed like there were a lot of small towns and lakes dotted all the way up, but each were hours apart along different roads that would have to loop back on themselves, and thus take twice as long. There was no smooth, day-long route that took us to the next stage of the trip, and there were few places we could stay. We were going to make it up as we went along, but were prepared for a long day of driving, if necessary.

While the weather had been snowy, cold, and windy all the way around—actually, uncharacteristically so for this time of year, or so we were lead to believe—we awoke to a picturesque blanket of snowfall across the plateau of comfort that we had ended up at after a few days of hectic, full-pelt driving and sightseeing. We didn’t really want to leave. But leave we did. Mistake number one. 

This is the part of the trip that I try my best not to remember because of how stupid I feel and how embarrassed I am—and general, pervasive feelings of shame. Because I misread the weather app, and also because I wanted a long, maybe eventless drive to be quite interesting, I planned to go along the East Fjords. It was white on the weather map, meaning “wet snow/snow”. Green was great. Orange (spots of ice) and light blue (slippery) meant just to be careful (though, we were told, it could still lead to accident if we weren’t very careful indeed). I thought that because there’d been snow on all these roads so far, it meant something similar to what we’d already come through. It wasn’t red (impassable). But for our van, it may as well have been. We got quite far up a deathly mountain road, in snow so thick you couldn’t even see the road. There were no tracks of previous vehicles at all. We got stuck, of course, while turning around. Pretty badly stuck. There was some level of panic before we rang for someone to come pick us up. And out of the cold, white daylight came two very tall Icelanders in the largest four wheel vehicle I have ever seen. They pulled us out at a death-defying angle. £200 later (the Icelanders accepted card) we were back on the road, pretty shaken, and after stopping to fill up on snacks and tea, we set off again—this time determined to get through a long, slow drive through the elements to Myvatn, a four hour drive in normal conditions, as there were few other places we would be able to get to in the day. Now, re-examining the road conditions, most of the east coast was unavailable to us. So we drove, very slowly and carefully, all the way to the north and to Myvatn—a lake which was to be one of the major stops of the trip. I took until the evening to drive up steep, winding roads dusted with ice and snow. It was a pretty spectacular drive, really. We stopped at Vogar, next to Myvatn, where we cooked some food, read for a long time, and went to sleep early, thinking it was best to relax after our misadventure.

Maybe now is the best time to talk about what we did in the long hours around the island, which we had to take quite slowly due to weather.* I am also, by nature, a careful driver. I’d never driven a van before and I’d never driven on the right hand side of the road before, making me doubly careful. Either way, by the time we got to Myvatn, we decided to take the island at a slower pace. We were well ahead of schedule and needed some down time.

* A full breakdown of listening, reading, photos, maps and info is available in the footnote.

Our car listening comprised a few different things. We had Hannah’s playlist of road trip music—mostly relaxing and thoughtful, folksy stuff, rather than anything too upbeat. You need contemplative music to avoid distracting from the scenery, which was endlessly engaging. It was almost hard to drive, as I was constantly distracted by the urge to look. We also listened to The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, the first book in a fantasy trilogy that we’d had recommended to us many times, and a lot of podcasts. We listened to lots of Song Exploder, Ezra Klein Show, and Voicemail Poems,  amongst others. Podcasts were our main source of entertainment going around. In the evening, we read. The books I brought with me were Derek Walcott’s White Egrets; two books by the Icelandic author Sjon, Moonstone and The Blue Fox; Atom Station by Halldor Laxness, an Icelandic author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature; and The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin, of which I read The Tombs of Atuan, the second novel in the quartet, a slower and more thoughtful part of the series. The novels by Icelandic authors felt appropriate for obvious reasons. I feel like when you go somewhere new you should read some sort of book about it, whatever form that takes. But I also felt, and perhaps this is an outsider’s naive idea, that Earthsea was a pretty good choice, too, as it was an epic fantasy saga. Out of the Icelandic novels, Moonstone was the highlight. It was poetically written and quite surreal, and with a style sprung out of the protagonist’s love of surrealist cinema, the blight of the Spanish Flu, and Icelandic independence. It’s also refreshing to read a novel about a young gay man, and a sex worker no less, portrayed as having agency and portrayed with empathy, rather than sympathy. It was not written as though these were situations he was thrown into by fate, but free choices he’d made.  Much of the reading time was in communal areas at campsites, rather than in the van, where we usually fell asleep immediately. When we arrived at the campsite in Myvatn, we read for several hours, not in the mood to go see anything that night, and waited until the morning.

“The snow had really settled overnight and it felt like we were driving across alien roads on a different, snowy world.”

Myvatn 

The next day was a vast improvement. As the sun rose, it was clear that the north and Myvatn were to be one of the main highlights of the whole trip. The snow had really settled overnight and it felt like we were driving across alien roads on a different, snowy world.

The first place we stopped was Grjotagja Cave, a small thermal spring only accessible by what is, essentially, a slippery dark hole in the ground. It was hard to find (google maps was not happy about us trying to—at all). You essentially take a turning off the main ring road, at a guess, close to Vogar, and then the drive round loops past the campsite again. It was most famous for being the location of a sex scene in Game of Thrones. Once a popular bathing spot, you are now advised by signage that is too hot to swim in. It was incredibly dark in the cave and so photos were difficult, but that made the challenge all the more appealing.

*While some people will avoid travelling in Iceland in the winter (and for some good reasons) I can highly recommend it. Places are quieter, things are far, far cheaper. 

Then we headed to Myvatn Nature Baths. We weren’t keen to attend the famous Blue Lagoon, partially due to time constraints around our stay in Reykjavik, the price, and the supposed commerciality we’d heard so much about. It’s necessary to book well in advance—and we weren’t certain where we’d be and when—and it was supposed to be overcrowded and is currently expanding. Instead, we resolved to spend time in the nature baths on the opposite side of the island, where it’d be slightly cheaper, quieter, and a good pit stop on our tour—almost exactly halfway around. Good decision. We got there for when it opened, which was midday in the winter, and I think we might have been the first ones in.* Later, a bus of people arrived, but there were two very large pools and you really did feel quite alone and relaxed. The location was pretty stunning. You could look out from that spot to most of Myvatn and the surrounding mountains, like an infinity pool. It was so cold outside the pool that while our bodies began to overheat, my hair and beard froze after only a few minutes.  

After an hour or two of relaxing, we got out, bought some coffee and some geothermally baked rye bread (cakey and very sticky; we ended up eating it for days afterwards). Then we went in search of Krafla, the nearby volcano. We didn’t know if we could get there, really, but we drove closer and closer until we couldn’t drive anymore, and then hiked up a hill, thinking we could view it from the top. The going was tough, and from the top there was still miles to go. Nevertheless, we trekked on, through such a thick snow we could only go a step at a time. I think Hannah thought I’d gone mad but when we got to Viti, a crater made by Krafla, it was worth it.

As we came down it started to get dark, so we camped in Laugar, maybe half an hour’s drive at a farm called Hjalli, stopping off on the way for snacks and fuel. The owner of the campsite, which looked for all intents and purposes closed when we arrived, was quite suspicious of our suggestion that we’d be staying in a van that night, as all Icelanders so far had been, warning us of the tremendous cold predicted for the next few days. She also apologised that not all of the inside facilities were available as one was being taken up by her son’s drum kit. That was probably the coldest night of the trip. It hovered around freezing every day, and dropped to minus 10 during the night. 

Akureyri and the North

According to lore, Godafoss is the sight where a lawspeaker from Iceland’s parliament threw his idols of the Norse Gods, declaring Christianity Iceland’s official religion. Godafoss, thus, means “waterfall of the gods”. It’s an awesome name, for an awesome waterfall, even more so in winter. Large sections were frozen, and there was no real infrastructure around the waterfall, making it feel like (and this was probably true) you could very easily fall to a horrible icy death.

Akureryi is the “capital of the north” in Iceland, and one of the bigger cities the country has. That said, it’s probably one of the quaintest little towns I’ve been to in my life. The sleepy frozen streets were mostly empty as we crunched around, quietly observing. At first we went to the icicle-laden botanical garden, and then warmed up by going for coffee with huge sticky pastries. Then we went to look at the church, peered at the cute, slopey-roofed houses in delicious primary colours, looked out from the harbour, and also spent some time in the bookshop, once again getting some coffee. We were taking it easy. We still talk about wanting to be back in Akureyri. It seemed sufficiently “away-from-it-all”, whatever that means, but with all the comforts of a small harbour town. It seemed like it’d be a nice place to live, if you wanted to have a quieter life.

“Home feels unnecessarily busy and fraught. Iceland does not. It feels spacious, loosely mysterious. Blank, ready for travel.”

After coffee we decided to get some culture at the tiny Akureyri Museum. Their main exhibits were on the history of life in Akureyri, including a wonderful picture labelled “Rhubarb and a bourgeois family”, an exhibit of the evolution of maps of Iceland, and another on postcards. I don’t know why, but these museums about tiny, insignificant things really please me. Maybe that’s what I liked about Iceland. There’s a part of Sjon’s book, Moonstone, where the protagonist complains about Reykjavik, and Iceland, for being too small— or feeling too small—and too boring. But that’s probably what people find alluring about it. At least, that was part of it for me. The emptiness and the space; the sense of isolated and small communities; of old stories passed down. These are naive and condescending thoughts, I know. They romanticise a place and a people as apolitical and unimportant—both of which are very much untrue. But it is also how it feels, in comparison to home. Home feels unnecessarily busy and fraught. Iceland does not. It feels spacious, loosely mysterious. Blank, ready for travel.

We left the town to drive a short way to our campsite, which was uphill on a slope that we eventually got stuck on, for a second time. This time it was on ice. We couldn’t get a grip, the tyres only slipping backwards. This was at the weather’s worst (there had been weather warnings emailed to us about the next few days) and we feared, once again, for our lives. Then, out of the snow, an Icelander drove up and offered to help. He had very broken English (uncommon among any Icelanders I met thus far) but asked us where we were from, if we needed a hand, and so on. He drove us at breakneck speed easily up the ice and then onward to the campsite, leaving us only 100 metres away and wishing us well. Something I noticed about Icelandic driving was that even in the worst conditions, they drive very, very fast. The campsite was deeply covered in snow but had a large cabin to house our weary souls. It was the best cabin we’d found so far, with a kitchen, a very large common area, a Frenchman, showers, and a sign saying to call the warden if we arrived. Looking at the weather apps we discovered that the roads in front and behind us were the white of “snow/wet snow,” which led us to doom on the East Fjords, while the Frenchman explained that he’d been at that cabin for two days due to the weather. This troubled us.

When the Icelander had looked at our tyres, he did not look impressed. We struggled to get up to the campsite to begin with, and we were quite worried we’d struggle to get down as well. Our van, which had seen us through so much, was not that fantastic in the deep snow, and I am certainly not a fantastic driver in snow. One of my decent qualities is the ability to remain calm in these situations. We chatted to the Frenchman for a while, talked about our predicament, and mentally prepared ourselves for two or more days in Akureyri (which wouldn’t have been so bad, really). We made shakshuka using ingredients we still had on the road and ingredients we found in the cabin. (It was a bit of a staple on our trip round. It felt like a real meal, but we could dramatically simplify it, and could do it in one single pan over an open flame.) Then we settled in for a night of heavy book-time. I was reading The Blue Fox, which had many scenes of deep snow, and a man’s pursuit of the titular fox through the horrible winter. He eventually becomes stuck deep down in a glacier, bleeding profusely from his acts of folly. It began to feel too relevant. However, it seemed our French friend had it worse. He was alone, and needed to be back in Reykjavik much sooner than we did. We had time to spare. He also didn’t have a book with him. He spent his time staring at his phone and drinking fanta out of a two litre bottle. He explained that unlike our van, his did not have an independent heater, and if he slept in it he had to keep the motor running all night to stay warm. He paid the warden extra to sleep in the attic of the cabin.

The next day started slowly. Anticipating the potential of going nowhere, we slept in, spent the morning taking long showers, having a decent(ish) breakfast, and reading. I spent much of the morning checking the weather app for a route out of Akureyri. I wish that I had taken screenshots, as it’s now hard to describe. Basically, we were totally closed in by white and red roads, unable to drive anywhere. Each road had an icon to say that vehicles were clearing them. I watched these icons go back and forth, hopefully, agonisingly. I figured that the weather may in fact get worse, and so we better take an opportunity to drive when we got one. Around midday, the route to the north opened up: a mixture of light blue and orange, which essentially just meant slippery. It was going up route 76 rather than 1, the ringroad, and added an hour and twenty minutes to a journey between Akureyri and Varmahlið, and probably even more due to the weather. But we seized our chance, after not even that long stuck in a cabin. It felt like a long time. We set off with much apprehension, wondering how far into the white cold day we would get. It was long and maybe the most beautiful of the drives of the trip. The roads followed the north coast — and sometimes a little too directly. Often we’d be driving along mountain roads with minimal railing, or none at all, and the snow was falling so heavily that it was difficult to see. I had to wear sunglasses to stop my eyes aching, but this decreased visibility further. We took it very slowly. There were many long, grateful tunnels of rest and darkness, and a smattering of little towns and cabins that we passed. Hannah remembers this section as one of the most vivid. We listened to No Such Thing as a Fish, Voicemail Poems and I Think You’re Interesting, and those sounds now seem inextricably embedded in memories of going in and out of tunnels in the falling snow.

We got back onto the ring road in the early evening. Due to a lack of places to stay at that time of year in the north, we decided to stop at the first place we got to, Steinstaddir. It was situated off the ringroad down a long side-road, then into a creepily empty hamlet. It certainly was the right place, although when we tried the first building it was locked and totally empty. The second building, further down a slope, was open, and looked to be a converted school house. It had two very, very large communal areas with long tables, very high ceilings, huge kitchens, a separate laundry area, and many rooms, with freshly made single and double beds—all deserted. The only sign of human life was a freezer filled to the brim with unlabelled meat, and an A4 piece of paper with Icelandic writing on, including the name Fredrick Fredrickson and what was probably a phone number. We gave the number a call. A man came around to charge us for camping. We didn’t have the cash on us, and he had no card machine, so he halved the cost to 500kr. He seemed pleasant enough. We realised that we could have stayed in the rooms, if we had wanted. They were totally unlocked. But, we had just been the subject of some quiet Icelandic kindness, just then, and didn’t feel in the mood to abuse it. We used the inside areas to make lots of whisky coffee, have dinner, shower, and read. It was echoey and ridiculously creepy, in the middle of nowhere, again

Yet, the north west seemed particularly absent. The town was devoid of movement. Icelandic horses chased each other in front of a low hill, as the sun set. The days had got longer in the short time we’d been in Iceland. We were in the period almost exactly between the seasons. The next day we woke early, and drove a very long way, Google Maps leading us astray briefly down gravel paths that it assumed would save time. We ended up in Reykholt, a historic town, to learn about Snorri Sturluson at the “Snorrastofa”. At first, we were the only people in the small museum, and so were treated to a decent summary of his life and influence by the woman who worked there. Snorri wrote the Prose Edda and is believed to have written Egil’s Saga. He was probably the most influential Icelander ever. The woman at the museum won me over by comparing his work to Tolkien’s, and citing him as a major influence on Tolkien’s work.

After a wander to look at Snorri’s pool, we headed on to do a long sweeping drive around the Snaefellsnes peninsula, a stretch as beautiful as it was windy, slowly ascending a mountain road to cut off the tip of the peninsula, and stopping at Kirkjufellsfoss, a pretty spectacular waterfall. This was a day of sightseeing done mostly from the van and it was hard to keep our eyes on the road. Every time I ascended another slope, the temptation to look down, or behind, was pretty overwhelming. We were on one of our last days, and there was nowhere to stay out in the north west or on Snaefellsnes, so we decided to hedge our bets and stick close around the south west. We ended up at Bjarteyjarsandur, a family-run farm, where they let us park up and camp, use their showers and kitchen in a huge house that sold the farm’s produce, cooked dinners and Icelandic memorabilia. We cooked while the owner watched reality TV. Once again, Icelanders seemed polite and welcoming, but mostly disinterested in us. They kept themselves to themselves. They had a pair of excellent, friendly sheep dogs that paid close attention to us and we slept quite happily, but started to think about the last few days to go before we had to return home and immediately go back to work. How we’d be back in touch, constantly, with the internet; a virtual world seemingly more interesting than the spaces we were in most of the time. We had the internet virtually everywhere in Iceland, but didn’t really want to connect to it that much.

On the final day of the road trip, we were feeling melancholy. We had several days left in Iceland, but here was the end of our adventure. The van was going back, and we’d no longer have that uncharted sense of total freedom; that we could drive anywhere, see anything. But now we didn’t really know where was left to go within the time-frame. The van had to go back at midday to Reykjavik, on a full-tank, so we couldn’t go far. At first, we went to bathe in the Secret Lagoon—a fairly modest outdoor lagoon, where we tried to soak away the aches of the trip. Then, after unsuccessfully attempting to visit Halldor Laxness’ house (it was closed), we decided we needed one last aimless drive. We picked a point on the map, a church right on the coast, a few hours south, close to a free, mostly abandoned, campsite. Driving somewhere brought back that sense of purpose, that urgency of travel, briefly. Strandrakirkja is actually pretty beautiful. It’s a little, 12th century church, with more than its fair share of cultural weight. We parked up by it, opened the side door of the van, and brewed coffee, watching the waves come in.
 

Two Days in Reykjavik 

“No matter where you go, you find your haunts pretty quickly, especially in somewhere as cosy as Reykjavik.”

Reykjavik was actually a second-thought on our priorities. Why go to Reykjavik when there’s all of the island to see? That's closer to what Hannah thought, whereas I had thought of Reykjavik as one of the essential stops of Europe, and wanted to get in a few days there. We met in the middle. The van was rented for the maximum numbers of days we could afford, and the trip was booked for the maximum number of days we had off from work, leaving two nights for Reykjavik.

We stayed in an AirBnB, in an incredibly beautiful, minimalist flat—one that if you’d pictured an Icelander’s flat, you’d picture this. Huge bed, friendly cat, nice host (who we barely saw, really—we spent most of the time out of the flat). But we were winding down a bit. Starting at Hallgrimskirkja, we saw the sights, took the pictures, and did the touristy things—which, after a breakneck tour of an entire country, was pretty much what I needed. It felt a little more like a holiday. Hannah got one of Iceland’s famous hotdogs. I did not. For the most part, we took it easy. If Reykjavik was good for anything, it was good for places to stop for coffee and beer. Expensive, mind, but cosy.

Luckily, we were prepared for Reykjavik’s expensiveness. This time, we didn’t have supermarket goods and a stove—we had to eat out and we had to do things. These were our last days, and we wanted to make sure they were great. Which means, unfortunately, no skimping. We hit up the Icelandic Punk Museum, which, to walk past seemed to be just a hole in the ground with punk music blaring out of it. The whole thing is literally a bunch of revamped cubicles in a public toilet (many of the toilets still in tact), covered in graffiti-ed or plastered information on the progression and history of punk in Iceland. At the end, there were headphones to pull down from the ceiling to listen to different records. We went to the Settlement Exhibition—pretty interesting and almost ridiculously interactive—and the Whales of Iceland museum—very, very expensive, but impressive. It contains life-size replicas of all the whales found in Icelandic waters in a huge warehouse. By chance we went to the Reykjavik Museum of Photography during a free exhibition of Auður Omarsdóttir's work, and had a chance to look very cultured amongst the wine-drinking critics.

No matter where you go, you find your haunts pretty quickly, especially in somewhere as cosy as Reykjavik. It might be a capital, but, and this goes without saying, it's not very big. After over a week spent in a van, we wanted beer and we wanted coffee. Kofi Tómsar Frænda, a small student-ish bar-cafe, became an easy haunt for good coffee and comfy sofas—and an excellent spot for people watching on the main street, as it was situated just below ground on the corner right at the centre of Reykjavik’s busiest district. We also made several stops at Kaffibrenslan, a very cosy two-story cafe-bar with great wooden decor. It felt like it should’ve been a house that I could live in. Good coffee, delicious vegan soup, and great beer. We were pretty much gasping for good beer, which Iceland has a lot of. My main advice for Reykjavik, though, is to drink during happy hour. Happy hour is an institution at pretty much every single bar and lasts a very long time. The beer at Kaffibrenslan was half price from 4pm to, I think, almost 9pm—so a glass of Einstok equated to about £4 each, which is about as expensive as it is here anyway.

We spent a lot of time there, tucked up in the corner by the window, enjoying Icelandic beer and looking back at our photos. On the second day, we huddled there to wait for a dreadful midnight bus, to a long, overnight wait in the airport, and to eventually get home and get some real sleep.

 

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