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.
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.
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.
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.