“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.” – Terence Mckenna
The bags were unpacked and the house was silent. The rain continuously tapped against the windows as the greenery of England’s spring lay soaked and drenched in the May showers outside. A slight break in cloud and I went for a familiar walk around the local park – a place I had no doubt completed hundreds, possibly thousands, of identical laps around whilst out jogging and walking. I was back home following a ten-week spell abroad trekking through the mountains of the Himalayas in Nepal and then briefly getting some sun and party in Cambodia. Originally I had planned to return to Blighty a couple of weeks later than planned, but a tiredness of conventional South-East Asian backpacking (heat, stomach problems, getting drunk every day) had led me to wrap up the trip slightly prematurely and conserve the money for something else. Something else still within the realm of adventure of course; I was still hungry to keep exploring and challenging myself upon the platform of planet earth. I loaded Google Maps just to remind myself of the territories of the world that lingered close to U.K shores. Portugal? Greece? Hungary? Everything seemed a bit ‘safe’ and nothing really tempted and got the blood pumping as it should when you’re young and attempting to live life to the full. Then it struck me. I wanted to explore a place like I had in Nepal or New Zealand where striking natural beauty, unique landscapes and adrenaline-filled adventure lingered at every corner. I wanted to explore the tops of mountains and not the bottom of beer bottles. I wanted to go to Iceland.
In what was probably one of the more spontaneous decisions of my life, I hedonistically booked the flight and began researching and preparing for my first venture into Scandinavian lands. From what I had seen from nature documentaries and imagined from the otherworldly, ethereal music of Icelandic artists Sigur Ros and Bjork, I was going to go and see a magical, mystical land of volcanoes, glaciers, wholesome people and alien landscapes that sat isolated from the rest of the world. My mind was open; my bags packed once more. Let the next adventure begin.
Following a three hour flight North, I touched down in Keflavik airport and made my way to the capital Reykjavik. After walking around the rustic capital, getting some food and checking into a hostel for the first night, my first thoughts circled around disbelief and confusion about how ridiculously expensive everything was. Sure I had heard this land of vikings was pricey to the visitor, but come on – $50 for a hostel bed; $25 for a meal; $6 for a small bus journey; $3 for a bottle of water!? I soon realised I was going to have to undertake this journey a bit more ‘hardcore’ than usual and live as bare as I could. Luckily I had my tent, sleeping bag, hiking boots, a penny-pinching attitude and good health all in tow. I spent the rest of the day climbing a small mountain (Mt. Esja) that overlooks Reykjavik then hit the road outta the city the next day. Wilderness: here I come.
Your choices when travelling around Iceland as a tourist were generally either you A) rent out a car at an expensive, but affordable price; B) get shafted paying for the local buses where journeys of one hour need four separate tickets; or C) get extremely shafted by paying the almost laughable costs of tour agencies and companies who would transport you around the island for the mere cost of your life savings and probably a kidney too. As a poor backpacker without a driving license the choice only seemed to lie in option D) – walk along the side of the main road casually and stick your thumb out. That I did as I headed East along the south coast. Although I had hitch-hiked numerous times before, you can’t help but feel a little weird the first time you stick your
thumb out and stand awkwardly on the side of the tarmac. Luckily the journey started with a direct hit when two Canadian girls I had met the day before on the mountain instantly recognised me and pulled over to pick me up. Less than ten cars passing and already a ride. A good start. We chit-chatted and eventually headed to Seljafossland – a large and beautiful waterfall that rained down over the top of a large green cliff. A path circled around the back of it so you could observe the spectacle of the universe from every angle whilst getting drenched inside out. I scrambled up the hills around it to get the view from over the top too, and I have to admit that in the heat of the sun, among the green grass, blue skies and the music of Sigur Ros sailing into my ears, I was in a place of sheer joy and happiness – the kind of pleasure you feel as a kid on the first day of freedom outside on the summer break. Iceland was already as beautiful as I hoped it would be.
The next ride I teamed up with a Russian backpacker and we soon got picked up by an American couple heading East along the coast. A British guy, a Russian and an American couple in a rented car in Iceland – it almost sounds the start of some joke but such is the randomness of life of when you’re out exploring the world with no strings attached. Heading to the next giant waterfall Skogafoss, we conversed and shared stories and insights about life. The Russian jumped out to climb a volcano en route and I carried on to explore the beauty of this magical island with the Americans. The sheer randomness of hitch-hiking was a welcome reprieve to the organised, rigid travelling of minibuses and coaches in Asia; the total feeling of unpredictability you feel when you stick your thumb out at the side of the road and await for a stranger to come out of nowhere is a feeling that is exhilarating and in some way addictive. If I felt awkward on the first ride, I was now excited when I hit the road again and got picked up instantaneously by an elderly Austrian couple who were heading to the far east of the country to undertake a three-month boat ride around the island. Whatever floats your
boat as they say, I was rather jealous and slightly inspired – this wasn’t the first time in their life they had escaped society to undertake an adventure on the ocean. I loved the openness and open-mindedness of the elderly couple – an age group in my country so known for their rigid following of right-wing culture and fear of the ‘other’. Of course you always try to be entertaining and give something back; relying on free rides you always made sure you tried to offer something – whether in the form of petrol money, good conversation or offerings of snacks. Despite the age and language difference, conversation flowed nicely and they soon dropped me at Vik – a charming, small coastal town that was famous for adorning a beautiful black sand beach and interesting rock formations out beyond the cliffs. I made way to the top of the cliffs and explored the beautiful coast and farmland around the town.
Up In The Hills
Although the weather had been great and pleasant since I first arrived, the inevitable rain I was worried about soon stormed in from the upper Atlantic. The green glass and blue skies suddenly lost the summery shine to the greyness and I spent an awful night sheltering in my tent as it got battered by 90km winds and horizontal rain. Eventually I gave up on sleep, got out in the perpetual daylight and packed up my tent to head inside the camping ground kitchen. The next day didn’t improve, forcing me to spend the entire day indoors waiting out the storm. Damn. My mood was defeated but finally the weather improved and I decided to give up on trying to reach the glacier lagoon which was currently being battered by another storm and instead head back west to Skogar – where there was an enticing 26km trek through the hills that passed between two active volcanoes. I hitched a ride from a friendly French couple and headed back in that direction with two American guys on their first trip outta the states. Before exploring an eerie plane wreck on a black beach and one of the island’s largest glaciers, I jumped out by the waterfall, said au revoir to the Frenchies and started making my way up the steep green hills, following the river and its many waterfalls upstream as I trekked deeper inland with my bulky backpack.
The shore soon disappeared from sight and I became increasingly engulfed in the mysterious and fascinating alien landscape of this land of ice, rock, wind and fire. From what started as a walk along green grass and an array of glorious waterfalls, I was soon up in the arid land of snow, red volcanic rock and absolute, sheer beautiful isolation. I was totally alone, climbing up from hills of snow, marvelling at the clear blue skies and enormous dome-shapes of the volcanoes beside me. What stood to my left was a volcano that erupted in 2010, causing new land masses to form and creating an ash cloud so big that it grounded many flights further south in Europe. I felt alive. On edge. It was probably dangerous for me to even be doing this trek alone as it was still slightly off-season, the huts were closed and nobody even knew I was here. But I loved that; the feeling of total isolation, journeying through breathtaking scenery, battling through the ankle deep snow as I headed over a kilometre upwards. Toward the top a beautiful, crystal blue pool of icy water reflected the sun into my eyes. The silence was sharp; the air cold. Beyond that I started to to descend into a distorted wonderland of newly-formed cliffs, boulders and jagged rock formations sporadically sprinkled with pockets of gleaming white snow. Even a rainbow stood shining in the valley as I breathed in the perfectly fresh air and trekked further into the idyllic surroundings.
Eventually I realised it was 10.30pm (hard to spot in a land of constant daylight) and pitched up my tent in a completely isolated spot, miles and miles from the nearest soul and overlooking a glorious view of the natural wonderland of Iceland. It was a moment of ethereal beauty; never before had I just headed into the wilderness with a tent and camped up for free with a world class view and perfect silence. Free, yes! The idea of not having to pay somebody else to sleep on planet earth was liberating. I almost felt like the animal I am; the animal we all are and all were before we burdened ourselves with the concept of Money and bureaucracy. I was beginning to understand where the beautiful music of Sigur Ros came from; where the laid-back relaxed culture came from; and the fact that the country was not afraid to jail their corrupt elite bankers following the financial recession. Life is much more simple when it’s deeply rooted in the natural world – with much more connection to the physical reality of the universe and less connection to ideology of all kinds possible. A healthy dose of nature for everybody would truly make this world a less shitty place. But hey, for now I’ll enjoy the midnight sunset to myself.
Back to Reykjavik
Unlike my other adventures, this one was certainly less open in terms of longevity and flexibility so I decided to head back towards the direction of Reykjavik where I would leave in a few days. I spent the next day descending into the bucolic valley and exploring the now alpine-like surroundings before heading back towards the coast while following a mountain dirt road. The road was a testing route with constant river crossings resulting in cold feet and wet trousers up to the knees. The wind was also picking up through the valley making it more of a trudge than a trek. Luckily hitch-hiking was back on the cards and I managed to catch a ride from a Colombian family on holiday – a man, his kids and their grandparents. Although the man spoke perfect English having lived in the states for some time, the rest of the family conversed in Spanish prompting me to test my awful Espanol for a whole twenty minutes. Again, the randomness of hitching cast a smile on my face. In what other scenario do you end up in such situations from nowhere? Eventually they dropped me off on the main road where I grabbed another ride off a French adrenaline junky who proceeded to tell me about his insanely adventurous life of backpacking, skydiving, skiing and surfing around the world. What an inspiration he was – over forty years old and still going strong, staying true to himself and keeping his adventurous soul in tact. His next adventure was a trip to Madagascar. He dropped me off in a place called Selfoss where I decided to go on an eating spree having been living off cheap, rationed food for the last couple of days. I pitched my tent again for the night before researching and finding my next destination the following day: a hot-spring valley with a warm river you could bathe in – the perfect place after trekking and constantly being on your feet for the last few days.
I arrived in the town of Hveragerdi the next day which was a town basically built around a plethora of hot springs. The centre of the town had a geothermal park, a restaurant that used geothermal heat to cook food and random manholes everywhere letting out steam from the volcanic land below. It was extremely interesting to see and I headed outta town into the neighbouring valley to explore the natural wonders that lay hidden in it. Yet again following some more walking through hills and rolling landscapes, I arrived at the hot river and took a good hour to enjoy the feeling of bathing in natural warm waters. The day was chilly and cloudy, but submerged in the water I was almost drifting off into sleep. Nice and relaxing for a while but eventually I jumped out into the cold Iceland wind and decided to hitch-hike back to the capital city for my last couple of days in the capital city.
I finished my last couple of days exploring Reykjavik and around, including a great hike around one of the country’s biggest waterfalls where I met an Icelandic teacher and her two interns – a German and American girl. We ended up having a great full day together crossing rivers, climbing up hills, sharing snacks and jumping in the freezing ocean at the end of the eventful and fulfilling day. I guess following my lack of satisfaction in Cambodia on the last adventure this was more of the sort of thing I was looking for: individual, unpredictable adventure with beautiful nature and time to reflect on the wonder of existence on this green and blue rock that spins a thousand miles an hour as it rotates around a ball of fire in an infinite universe. The world and its people certainly behold many wonders – whether in the form of the kindness of strangers and randomness of events, or just the sheer beauty of the world we live in. Iceland was a perfect example: waterfalls, mountains, volcanoes, hot springs, dramatic cliffs, glaciers and the accessibility to hitch-hike and meet friendly people. Oh not to mention the rare Arctic fox me and the French couple spotted that one day! I was content for now as I headed back to the U.K to undertake an eight-day medical research trial to stock up the travel tokens again. Nothing comes for free hey, except if you head off into the wilderness with a tent. Thanks for everything Iceland, or as they say in Icelandic: ‘Takk!’