2017 – Building on 2016’s Lessons

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December is an interesting time of year for me. Within a week you have Christmas: a time to take stock and be appreciative of family, friends and your life as it is; and New Year: a time to reflect on another year passed, plan towards what you want and get excited about what lies ahead.

I feel being overseas gave me an advantage over both and to be alone in Iceland allows a rare opportunity to have an inordinate amount of time to think. Surrounded by immeasurable beauty, it’s wonderful to get lost in my own thoughts evaluating my life. Where I’ve come from; how I’ve changed and what my intentions for my future are. I’m struck by the deepest sense of calm and connection in that week and I’m filled with appreciation.

Pure contentment.

Absolute admiration for this life we have and the experiences we can create.

My 2017 begins with this incredible sunrise.

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I was originally going to spend today writing and have a ‘quiet one’. With new information, however, I’m on my way again with another two and a half hours’ drive. Every turn around the next approaching mountain brings a new feast for my eyes. Iceland is like an experienced waiter; constantly bringing a new dish just as your current one is finished, complemented with a fresh glass of wine to create a taste sensation.

My eyes are twinkling with delight.

Just take a look at this terrifyingly beautiful glacier that looks like a sweeping tidal wave cascading over and between the peaks; frozen in time, their rich blue demonstrating their purity. I wish the scale could be truly conveyed in this picture.

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I’ve been blessed with many memorable New Year’s days; such varied and notable experiences like being with my family high in the Swiss Alps (also surrounded by snow) and dancing in the summer heat of Franschoek surrounded by happy smiles, authentic human beings and nature.

Today I get to add to this list: Jökulsárlón – Glacier Bay.

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I haven’t actually gasped out loud many times in my life. This is one of them. As a result of global warming this glacier has retreated nearly 4 km creating a lagoon filled with docile icebergs. It’s not that wide but its damage is not visible from the shore – it’s 250m deep!

Glaciers, icebergs and fragments of ice keep my soul captivated every second.

A stroll down to the beach (also black), brings a contrast to these sleeping giants: chunks of ice litter the shore as the sea declines its gifts.

Time is the sculptor; the beach is the gallery and the ocean the curator meticulously placing them across the dark sand for our delight. I could spend hours here in summer; but conscious of the time and not wanting to drive in the dark I reluctantly trudge off taking it all in one more time.

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This is the start of my year.

A thought from the beach starts to echo in my mind:

Without emotion and experiences, essentially each day is the same. If we can control how we react to our surroundings we have the power to shape our days so that there are far more good ones than bad. The only reason we say a day (or year for that matter) is “good” or “bad” is because of the lens through which we look at it – a lens which is ultimately created by the experiences we have.

As if the day isn’t to be outdone, I get to drive back and see the stage from the other side with another masterful sunset as my companion.

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This fortuitous man has the pleasure of being ‘introduced’ by one of my Austrian hosts K to three Icelanders: I, H and S. Incredibly, S had just recently spent three months travelling around South Africa. I consider this a real treat to be able to chat to them about their homeland and get an understanding of their culture, as well as experience their love of their island. Nothing better than feeling the passion that shines through people’s eyes as they talk fondly about their home.

By the end it’s settled: I’m coming back in summer and they are coming to Cape Town in 2018.

I look forward to both.

Slightly apprehensive about the 29 hours journey heading home having never done this length before, I wake up at 03:30am. Not being a morning person I’ve realised certain things are easy to get up early for and travel is definitely one of them.

I needn’t have worried; it was surprisingly breezy (barring an almost faux pas in Copenhagen resulting in me reaching the plane just in time to board). Perhaps it’s because I have twenty one days of experiences to reflect on. The special people I’ve met. The breathtaking beauty of three previously unexplored countries. Or calculating the distances I’ve travelled.. In the end I cover 26 643km by air; 1 832km by road and 84km by foot.

With so much time alone to reflect on my travels together with the varied array of experiences I have had means I get some incredibly valuable insights.

This is what I’ve learnt (or reaffirm in some cases):

  1. Positivity. A simple smile, hello and “how was your day” can kick start some of the great conversations of your life. Don’t be shy to take the first step with this. Small gestures can transform your experiences; you don’t need to make huge changes or seek out the best guru.
  2. Be still. Being completely alone in silence and solitude (no one in sight) is an invigorating feeling. I love this – the other day a friend of mine typed alone as All-one. When we get in touch with our true inner essence we experience our connection to everyone and everything. We are, in fact, never alone because we are All-One.
  3. Road trips. There’s nothing quite like them! Make sure you have a decent soundtrack to match – music can play such a key role in your experiences; especially if you are alone.
  4. Be open to asking, all knowledge is learnt. We’re not supposed to figure everything out on our own. Getting help and asking for it should be normal but most of us don’t do it. Don’t be afraid to ask. We can’t know everything.
  5. Duality of life. Everything can be a double-edged sword depending on your circumstance or view point. Snow is great to ski on but scary as hell when you need to drive on it. Learn to be cognisant of the bad side of the coin; but focus on and appreciate the good.
  6. No excuses. Don’t let ‘oh it’s so expensive’ stop you from exploring your home. You’ll figure it out. I ate 1 meal a day for 4 days in Iceland (maybe that’s why I’m actually 1kg lighter after my holiday). No one ever regrets the experiences they have.
  7. Travel alone at least once in your lifetime. Many may find this vastly outside of their comfort zone, but you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to meet interesting people along the way and experience adventures you might never have had if you were travelling with someone.
  8. Human beings. Culture, language, geographic location actually mean nothing. We truly are all the same. Embrace that. Start thinking of Earth as your home and not just the country you live in.
  9. Real connection. True connection could be the next revolution. Looking people in the eyes; seeing smiles; hearing laughter and different accents; hugging people – this is true connection and what feeds your soul. Technology has its place; creating deep meaningful connections is not one of them.
  10. People watching. Being alone means you have no one to talk to. Avoid your iPad or phone and watch people instead. Learn to sit in your discomfort and that being alone can be really fun. Watch how people interact, recognise your own behaviours in others and get an outside perspective on what you are like. It’s also interesting to see how differently we behave in the presence of beauty: some quietly admire the view; others try find their special pose in pictures to be forever remembered; others methodically try to achieve the perfect scenic shot with no humans in frame.
  11. Appreciation. Iceland could change in no time at all from a wonderland to a harsh intimidating and unforgiving place that I sometimes battled in; when this was the case it made me think of how tough it must be for those with disabilities. Difficult suddenly becomes near impossible. Twenty minutes for you could be an hour for the same task for someone else. Be grateful for the blessings you have.

This was an incredible journey. A real blessing to see old friends and make new ones. My travel bug has definitely grown with the feeding it got in 21 days – I look forward to the next adventure. But the best gift I’ve been given is a running start in 2017 and I’m truly excited about the milestones for this year. Writing two more books and preparing a Ted Talk just to mention a few.

I’d like to take a moment to thank you all for your support and taking time out of your days and lives to read my thoughts and experiences. My wish for all of you is that you find fulfilment in your daily life. Whatever fulfilment means to you; and perhaps that’s something to think deeply about? Learn to experience magic every day. I feel blessed that one of my ways to experience this is taking a blank page and transforming it into pieces like this. I love writing and I’m truly grateful for this gift each day.

Let’s see what richness 2017 brings for us to share.

Live with passion.

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Iceland: A New Year’s to Remember

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“Why on earth do you want to go to Iceland?”

A fairly stock standard response when most heard about my plans.

Iceland – A New Year to remember

Truth be told, I hadn’t done any research on the country. My soul purpose was to see the Northern Lights and continue my dream of visiting new places. I had no idea about all the treasures this island stores with a population of around three hundred thousand that covers 103 000 square kilometres – that’s roughly the size of Ohio in the US.

Listening to my gut was the best thing I’ve ever done. By now you would’ve read my introduction into Iceland and the changes in weather. I had decided that, as I was travelling alone in the country, I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve and the first day of 2017 in a remote part and not be in the capital Reykjavik; even though it’s known as one of the best cities to celebrate NYE.

I spent it in Vik: Population 291.

What to do in a place so remote?

The 31st of December begins with me enjoying sunrise (11am I should add) on Reynisfjara beach – the famous Black Beach. Jet black sand; cylindrical rock formations that make me think of a church organ; sub-zero winds blow snow across the beach and a jagged coastline is battered with angry waves fighting against the wind. What dramatic company I’m in as we welcome the sun into a relatively clear sky. After three days of cloudy weather this feels like a royal treat.

I find a sheltered spot with some rocks that look like a futuristic design using various heights to create a natural seat for me. The sun on my frozen face, I close my eyes and simply smile at being in such a magnificent setting. I feel invigorated by the solitude, not having to speak and simply sitting in the ‘stillness’ thinking about the 14 000 kilometres I’ve travelled to be in this exact spot. What an age we live in to be able to do these distances in such short spaces of time.

I’m also struck with an appreciation of ‘home’. Planet Earth. Our home. How we all benefit from an invention like flight. Or the cure of some disease no matter where we choose to live.

The beach is full of tourists trying to strike unique poses and take their special photo of this memorable place; so I decide to walk further up the beach in the relentless wind towards the arch, Dyrhólaey, on the far side of the bay. It’s wonderful to be the only person on the beach and leave only my tracks on the snow-covered sand. The video below gives you an idea of what it’s like to walk there – as though some crazed explorer discovering new lands.

Having been here almost two hours, I decide to take a drive further south to a place called Kirkjubæjarklaustur; about forty five minutes away. The wind is howling and with snow still on the road, the first fifteen minutes are definitely the hairiest. That overturned car I mentioned in my previous post is a glaring reminder twenty minutes later as I pass by. Reinforces how any lapse in concentration can lead to problems out here.

The drive is incredible with everything looking dazzling in white. Iceland looks like one big present wrapped in snow. I’d later see it in a different light when the snow had been all but blown away.

This village is even smaller than Vik – 120 people – and thoughts of having a late lunch here quickly fade. Nothing’s open. This small town will forever live in my memory though; because it’s unbelievably my first time filling my car with petrol myself (we have petrol attendants in South Africa).

The firsts on my list having turned 37 in November are racking up quickly – loving it!

The village feels eerily abandoned with no signs of life so I stop at another waterfall and enjoy more quiet solitude; just running water to keep me company.

The roads are almost apocalyptically quiet. This gives me an opportunity to stop on a straight stretch to get a picture I’ve always dreamed of taking myself. Seeing no cars for miles in each direction I’m safe in the middle, my car parked in a picnicking section.

I need to have this framed.

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A quiet road is like a quiet mind; rare and perfect for the soul

A phenomenal end to a memorable year

This 136km drive may have been ‘less’ than my previous day, but the sunset driving back is worth its weight in gold. A truly beautiful way to end off 2016.

Back in Vik and safe to take photos I capture the wonderful sight of the first evening star with the thin sliver of the moon as it begins its waxing phase back to full glory. How incredible that as we start a new year, so too is the moon in its beginning phase.

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Finally getting a chance to eat, the waiter gives me the best news ever: “Are you ready to see the Northern Lights tonight?”

As if this trip and day couldn’t get any better.

Aurora Borealis: on New Year’s eve.

You can’t script this stuff.

Yep, it’s been confirmed. I’m definitely the luckiest traveller on the planet. I’m able to ask this same question to J and M when I get back to the hostel. Amazing what smiles it can generate from strangers. A wonderful surprise to end up making two new friends, on a night I expected to spend alone, as we chat and share our Iceland stories with a good few laughs in-between.

I laughed a lot this holiday. That stands out for me as one of the highlights.

Then, before we can even think about where we would go to watch them – they make an unexpected appearance. I pop my head outside and see what looks like a normal white light in the sky. As if low clouds are being lit from the next town. I’m not even sure this is them. Until they turn green and start dancing across the sky. Scrambling for the camera my dear friend had leant me just for this – I start snapping away. Man do I wish I had a tripod but, nonetheless, I succeed in getting some beautiful moments captured to remind me of this night.

We walk up the hill away from the lights of the village, and sit in the snow just staring up; admiring one of earth’s exclusive spectacles. The reason I’d booked my trip is above me, and I can’t be happier. A moment shared with two travellers I now consider friends. Some early fireworks means we get to see the snow covered mountains light up red after the explosions while the Northern Lights silently wave above. Then just as quickly as they arrive they fade into the darkness, just the spattering of stars dancing in the sky.

There are some things you can’t completely comprehend reading about in books or seeing in pictures; you simply have to experience yourself. This is one of them.

The show isn’t over though. Fireworks from what seems like every house in Vik start just before midnight and feel like there’s no end in sight. “The big ones are being banned next year – so I’m sure people are going to go large”. The comment from the car rental guy could not have been more spot on. Actually, looking back now this guy gave me some real pearls! I later hear that Reykjavik’s sky that evening was a war zone for a time. We have no timer so don’t count down midnight – J pops the cork at 00:00 and they generously share their champagne.

What a way to see in 2017.

And this is just the start!

Iceland: The Adventure of My lifetime

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Travelling on a whim and choosing a place based on very little personal research can be the best decision of your life.

Iceland as the final week of my European holiday turned out to be a stroke of genius.

It was a wonderful combination of being both scared and excited; focused and calm; acting like a little kid while behaving like a responsible adult. These all combined to form the perfect balance which resulted in an utterly blissful experience. Perhaps being there in the middle of winter helped bring out all of these polar (excuse the pun) opposites – a beautiful correlation to life itself and how duality exists at every turn.

Testing conditions

This was no more evident than driving in a snow-covered winter wonderland admiring the spectacular scenery and suddenly driving past an overturned car. No one inside, so hopefully just a damaged car.

The roads are so narrow with zero shoulder to pull over and admire these views, that so many great pictures are only shared when I close my eyes. Did I mention the gale-force winds? Snow and ice-covered surfaces? Add to this the fact that we drive on the left-hand side of the road in South Africa and you have yourself a driving experience similar to doing your driver’s test every time you turn on the ignition.

My flight was delayed by ninety minutes in Copenhagen because of wind in Keflavik; and I still couldn’t have had a precursor to what was coming. It would sometimes be as though I was inside a National Geographic special.

Here’s a video on why it takes us thirty minutes just to get off the plane.

“Please hold onto your door at all times when opening it in Iceland” the clerk at the car rentals casually mentions when he hands me the keys.

Oh boy.

Wind that makes the South Easter back home look like it’s using training wheels.

As we walk to my Toyota Yaris my shoes crunch the fresh snow and a feeling of anticipation comes over me that I can’t quite describe. I’ve never been somewhere this far north. This remote. This temperamental weather-wise.

They say if you don’t like the weather in Iceland; just wait five minutes.

They’d started the car earlier to warm the seat and put the heater on full blast to relieve my African skin from the Arctic bite. With both hands on the steering wheel, I take a deep breath, remind myself they drive on the right here, and let out some kind of high school kid’s whoop of excitement as though the smartest girl in school has said ‘yes’ to my dance request.

Driving challenges in the ‘Arctic circle’

Destination: Hlemmur Square hostel, Reykjavik. 49 kilometres further. I’ve already done 13 891 kilometres. What’s another 50 right?

I feel as though I’ve aged with the drive – the wind relentlessly smashes into my car and I am scared to death of sliding off the road.

GPS is usually an absolute win in a foreign place, but when the woman yells out “Left at Laugervegur” (and this is a tame name!) I still have no idea where to turn. I hold that device in my lap like a new-born baby, constantly looking down like a Blackberry user of yesteryear.

I can’t tell you how many times I have to make a U-turn where possible because I’ve missed my turn. Definitely more than twenty. At least hand brake turns are legal in Iceland (that’s a joke before you start quoting that erroneously – that was just for you mom).

Thankfully, I arrive at my destination in one piece. Now to find parking. Note to self: think about what is ‘easy’ in your life where you live and then question everything when you travel, because it will be different.

Advice: Be prepared. Or be happy to “find out as you go”. The latter is what I’m comfortable with.

Checked in and car stowed away in a nearby parking lot, I grab my friend’s camera to head into Reykjavik to practice night shots for the Northern Lights.

Reykjavik at night in December: Beautiful

I quickly realise that anybody walking around outside is a tourist. Putting myself in a local’s shoes – I’d also probably be inside wrapped up warm and in front of the television.

I push through the biting wind and meander around, finding that I am on the main strip with shops, restaurants and bars. I won’t be drinking much this week as beer is five times what we pay in South Africa. And wine? Well, that’s about ten times the price.

Just as in Austria, most streets are magically decorated with lights and homes have trees inside or lit up balconies. I even come across a building with a hologram of an elf hanging onto it for dear life.

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Hostel Accommodations

I’d booked hostels and I thoroughly enjoyed my decision, meeting people from around the world and hearing their stories about travelling including Iceland to date. I get great tips on what to see – specifically Glacier Bay from C which I’ll share in a later post. He also shares his photos and videos from Black Beach on how quickly the weather changes here. Literally 2 minutes is the difference between a photo of clear black sand to the video of arctic wind with hail and snow.

Staying in a shared room with nine other people means I immediately meet some fellow travellers – K & R from the States and F from Italy. F will later tell us about his ordeal where the wind basically blew his car door off. If I hadn’t heard him tell me in person I’d never have believed this story. The car rental guy’s voice echoes in my head. Door opening will become a game of wrestling with an invisible monster on the other side.

These experiences and interactions show you just how similar we all are and I can’t stress this point enough. I look forward to one day seeing these new friends in either their home towns or mine. Nothing makes me happier than hosting people in Cape Town. The offer is always open.

It’s quite invigorating to wake up and know that every single minute that day you will see something you’ve never seen before. I’m looking forward to driving around their Golden Circle route complete with scenic views, geysers and waterfalls. I check in with the help desk first and am advised that the weather isn’t good enough to drive alone today. Disheartened, I decide to take an ‘easy’ route and visit the famous Blue Lagoon. I think it’s a wise decision and I start out just driving around aimlessly in Reykjavik. Great to have no care in the world and just go on your gut.

Today viewing a map, I now realise I basically ended up just doing a big circle that day! With no sun and no discernible land marks (mountains covered in low cloud) I really have zero direction sense. Even if the sun’s up, being from the southern hemisphere is a challenge because I’m used to seeing the sun and knowing that’s north. You can get horribly lost if you don’t catch yourself.

Where’s a co-pilot when you need one?!

I believed this before my trip and it’s an even stronger conviction I have now: everyone should travel (at least once) on their own.

There’s an incredible wonder being lost but knowing that, with a little help at any given moment, you’ll eventually find your destination. Being free from time constraints and just enjoying what your ‘alternate’ route shows you. Getting lost actually brings me more luck than anything else this trip.

Essentially? You’re only lost until you ask for help. Another beautiful correlation to life.

The benefit of travelling in winter and driving around the country means I become a quick expert at planning my time to be able to drive only during the ‘daylight’ and still see all the marvels that await me at every turn. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, museums on the volcano eruption in 2010 (it’s called Eyjafjallajökull); random plane wreck at Sólheimasandur or my final destination for the day, and base for three days, Vik – population 291.

My appreciation for all of this amplifies after spending a good ninety minutes driving on snow-covered roads at the start, following in the modern-day wagon ruts from previous cars. I take it incredibly slowly. Locals behind me must have been cursing non-stop. I don’t care. I’ve experienced how quickly things can change in life and I’m determined to not let that happen here and ruin my vacation.

So far my Iceland trip has given me an overdose of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline all at once. I’m hooked. I’m in love. I’m completely in my element.

Little do I know that the best is still to come.