In my mind summer in Iceland equals “rain,” but this equation only exists because this past summer was my first visit to Iceland, and it just happened to be the worst on record that anyone local could remember in the past 35 years.
Coming from New England, at first it was hard for me to fathom that I had neglected this nearby island nation for so long. The chance to visit finally came at the end of 9-weeks of contracted work on a small expedition ship in the Arctic – namely up in the Svalbard Archipelago – but wrapping the Arctic season up in Reykjavik, Iceland.
After five days of visiting spots along the north coast and into the remote western fjords with our ship, by happenstance I disembarked the ship at the end of my contract with a couple of colleagues who were keen to rent a van and visit more of Iceland over land.
And so I found myself “glamping” in a converted Renault panel van with a 6-foot something bearded Irish fisheries expert possessing of a wickedly dry sense of humor and a range of impressive curse words, and a buoyant young woman who is a professional photographer from the Galapagos Island, and who had never camped before in her life. Besides Luke hating us women for our innocuous farting and snoring in the close confines of the van, the three of us gelled and had a blast travelling together.
Driving through Iceland is otherworldly. The terrain goes from barren lava fields to rugged volcanic peaks, and from meadows of soft tundra to an abandoned fishing village in an instant. Throughout the landscape is a periodic peppering of ancient churches, lonely cows, herds of Icelandic ponies, steaming fumaroles and sulfur vents arranged on a framework of frost patterned ground.
Stepping off the ship and away from 9 weeks of complexly planned daily schedules complete with early mornings and late nights, the three of us were gob-smacked by the fact that we could suddenly sleep in and dictate our own schedule, and so we reveled in these very acts. Our mornings were late, our dinners were tardy into the double-digit hours of the night, and we visited daily destinations on a timetable all of our own, often rocking up to highlight spots just as the line of tourist coaches and camping vehicles was retreating for a meal.
We planned our road trip itinerary by raiding the postcard rack in the first shop we entered. I took photos of places we liked on the cards with my iPhone and later we identified the spots huddled over the map in the cab of the van, circling our proposed destinations in bold swipes on the map and all but proclaiming, “We are going here because it looks cool.”
That first night, newly released from the ship, driving our now fully-stocked mobile housing unit, and up to our own devises for the first time in a couple of months, we camped at the first of a string of campsites-cum-youth hostels providing basic toilets, showers, and sometimes even a washer/dryer, shared kitchen, or the coup de grâce; a hot tub.
Part of what makes Iceland so attractive as a tourist destination is that it’s just so damn easy to explore. The roads are well maintained, everything is signed clearly, and most visitors choose to explore with a camper van of some description. Some camper vans go well beyond being actual vans, and reminded me more of vehicles from the Mad Max movies or the desert around a Burning Man festival. It was not unusual to see massive ex-Russian military vehicles kitted out with mammoth tractor tires, ladders for accessing the jacked-up ride, water and fuel tanks, and motorcycles strapped to the back.
We soon learned that these “hard-core” vehicles, when not off in the outback trundling over the complex series of 4×4 tracks crisscrossing lava-fields around the country, were parked closest to the shower houses of our campsites. They were there when we arrived around sunset on our leisurely schedule, and they were gone – completed vanished – by the time we were making our way through the muddy fields in pajamas to the toilets to brush teeth and get water to start the coffee.
For most of our car-camping foray, we spent our time seeking relief from the crowds at each of our postcard destinations, and hunted out the empty spaces on hillsides and off the beaten track that were not overrun with the impressive array of international tourists. I heard Spanish, Italian, French, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic amongst other tongues being spoken on the crowded tracks at the most popular sites.
However, each time we parked in a jam-packed parking lot and followed the well-maintained paths past coffee shops and pay toilets, to trudge in single file up to whatever iconic waterfall or view over geothermal wonders we were trying to attain, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was on a pilgrimage of some sort. Somehow I felt destined to find religion in the thousands of liters of flowing water cascading over the cliff, to glimpse eternity in a rainbow stretching over bleak fields full of Icelandic ponies, or to recognize a higher power in the stiff gliding wings of nesting Northern Fulmars coasting over black sand beaches and columnar basalt rock walls.
In Iceland, it became apparent that all I needed to do in order to salvage my faith in the freedom of travel and exploration was to place one foot in front of the other behind the person in front of me and ahead of the one behind. For a few brief days I became a rain-soaked pilgrim in a land of postcard worthy grandeur.
A couple of weeks later and back at home, I got an email from Luke who had stayed on to explore more of Iceland after the ladies went home – me to New England and Daniela to the Galapagos Islands. He wrote at length about the scenery he encountered, his birdwatching forays, and taking lazy naps on the tundra. And reflecting back on the time the three of us had spent in our camper van, and hoping as I do that we have the chance to go back to Iceland, he quipped, “You and Daniela were good fun – except for the snoring. I won’t tolerate that next time.”