My dear ones,
Now that I have had a chance to catch my breath, I can start sharing my adventure with you all. Apologies for the length of this first post and that it is not completely up to where I am now- bear with me. I have now decided to split it- it was a long beautiful, exhilarating, and at several points, very testing trip over to the east fjords- and there is much to say. I’ll try not to make it too much of a Kimi Story (Emma and Chris!). Make a cup of tea, sit down, take your time!
After the months of planning it begun to Sunday morning (29.01.17), with a tearful goodbye at Heathrow. I travelled with my Mum and met Emma and Chris there for a farewell cup if tea – my last on British soil for a while. It was so comforting to have my support team to see me off. Chris provided much needed distraction and entertainment, whilst Em made me feel braver, and Mum as always held my hand. It was soon time to go, and with a last look and a wave I headed for security.
I still could not really believe I was doing this thing. Right up until I boarded the plane. I had led such a restricted life for so many years with my health, that if five years ago someone had told me I would be doing something crazy like this I would have laughed. Until 2015 I was too scared to even get on a plane for fear of getting sick in a strange place, I just couldn’t trust myself to be well- and now here I was, my life turned around and I was going to one of the remotest parts of Iceland to be an artist; just living plan A for a while. When I said to Emma that I thought it would probably feel like a holiday for the first week or two she had told me it definitely wouldn’t, and that it would hit me on the plane that I wasn’t coming home for a while but just to breath and that I would be alright; as usual she was right. About it all. Despite all my excitement, leaving everything and everyone I love so much behind, suddenly felt really hard.
The flight was turbulent but went without any hitches or delays. We landed and I was a little surprised not to see any snow and ice, but as I am coming to see Iceland is a very changeable country in both weather and landscape! Once through the airport I boarded my FlyBus and begun taking in the scenery. The light was beautiful- the distant mountains glowing pink and orange. Someone had suggested to me that Iceland is somewhere between the Scottish Highlands and the moon- which now felt very accurate. The drive between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik is spiky and earthy and there are very few trees- just piled up rocks about the same height pushing up into the enormous sky as strange black monuments to trees; or without snow acting as substitutes for snow men- permanent, fixed stone men greeting all new comers! As we approached Reykjavik the sky burst orange and yellow- it felt like a warm Icelandic welcome and I felt a jolt of excitement. So far so good…
Here is where things went awry. You can plan to the nth degree before a trip and seemingly phone everybody in Iceland (< Emma!) to make sure they know you’re coming but it can still all go wrong! When I reached my bus stop, I found my guest rooms with relative ease. I had been sent instructions for how to get in as there would be no one in the office, being a Sunday evening. The instructions were akin to a game from the Crystal Maze or an escape room, and as someone with a very dyslexic brain who struggles with instructions I was a little anxious, so I knew I had to follow carefully to avoid panic. Having found the green gate around the side of the building I located the key box. I had to reach through the gate, open it, and put in a combination of numbers on a key press. Stage one, complete. It felt like a small victory. Once I had retrieved the keys I opened the gate with a little difficulty- but I was through. Stage two, complete. I headed for the door, put the key in the lock AND…nothing. It would not open. After 20 minutes of trying, fearing the key would break, I walked around the building trying every door I could find. Nothing. It was out of office hours and I didn’t have a mobile number. My case was heavy (at its weight limit of 23kg having already ditched 6kg the previous day- goodbye extra tea bags and Converse 😦 !!) and my hand luggage at capacity also, but I walked the streets of central Reykjavik seeing if there might be anyone who could help. All my planning, but how could I have been so stupid not have put any emergency numbers in my phone from the few contacts I did have in Reykjavik?? In desperation I tried the door again but to no avail. Game over. After an hour I was cold, exhausted, and hadn’t eaten since breakfast; not even two hours into my adventure and I felt defeated, stupid and so alone. I switched my phone data on and contacted the people I can count on always. My Mum and sister. As usual they lifted my spirits and reassured me from afar that I could do this. I found the nearest hotel and luckily was able to book a room. Quite what the receptionist made of me- all wide eyed and desperate, but she was very kind. Certainly not what I had planned for my first night, but I was safe and warm. I collapsed in a shattered, soggy heap, and ordered room service. It certainly was the most expensive bagel I have ever eaten and I felt so crappy I couldn’t even finish it!
(*Having emailed my contact for the guest rooms, they responded the following day. Apparently when it is cold the lock gets stuck and needs oiling…so next time I’ll be sure to pack my WD40!!!)
Originally I had thought I would spend the following day (31.01.17) just mooching about in Reykjavik without plans, acclimatising and exploring. Zanna and Tom had convinced me the previous weekend that I may be feeling a little far from home, and perhaps it was an idea to plan something really exciting for my first full day in Iceland. Also they pointed out that this was my opportunity to be a proper tourist before heading off into the unknown! So I had booked a ‘Hot’ Golden Circle tour with GTice, which included a trip to the Secret Lagoon. It felt a bit indulgent when I booked it, but I am SO glad I took their advice. After the shenanigans of the previous evening, it was great I wasn’t wandering around alone; the whole day was entirely planned- and it was something really bloody brilliant! I was picked up from my hotel at 10 am and off we went- into the wilderness, albeit a busy touristy one!
I overuse the word awesome. I use it all the time. But this day was truly TRULY awesome and awe inspiring. Our party could not have had a better or lovelier guide on our trip. Ian, a Scot who’d lived in the country for 18 years, was a mine of information telling us about all sorts between sights; from how to drive in all weather conditions, to explaining the financial crisis, how salad was grown in Iceland, about the horses and their unique gait “tölt”, and (importantly) all about Icelandic pre-pool/lagoon shower etiquette. There would be no time for British repression and prudity if we wanted to go into the pool!
Our first stop the Secret Lagoon. Armed with our new knowledge of how to prepare for bathing, it was into the communal female shower (!), swimming costume on and then a brisk walk (no running!) from the changing room, outside to the pool. There is no point in lying- it was bloody COLD. But once in the lagoon it was soon a distant memory, it was warm and beautiful, surrounded by mountains, and with its own tiny geyser next door which erupted every 5 minutes, spewing steam across the pool. The air smelt sulphury, but not in an unpleasant way and the warmth of the water teamed with the cold wind on my face was extraordinarily invigorating.
Next stop Gulfoss waterfalls. Beautiful, unfathomably powerful and a true wonder. The sun shone and the wind blew. However, there were so many tourists, and I was saddened to see so many people in one place, not witnessing a true natural spectacle. The same at Geysir. Instead, backs turned, selfie sticks in hand they took photos of themselves in front of it without so much as a quick glance at the real thing. Of course I took photos, but I also took time just to look with my eyes. For me, photos just never do justice to a whole experience- and if I want to see amazing photos of a waterfall Google has some pretty great ones! My eyes might never see this sight again. I tried really hard to drink in the unbelievable, taking in memories with my eyes and brain, hoping I could remember everything (how it smelt, how it felt, the light) as well as having a few snaps to show people. I only wish I could have managed to co-ordinate myself in the wind and cold to draw!
After taking in the three different viewing platforms, I popped into the visitor centre where the meat/lamb soup (a staple of Icelandic cuisine) had been recommended by our guide. It was just what I needed after the bracing wind off Gulfoss. Really simple, just root vegetables, lamb and stock- but utterly delicious. It was like a comforting liquid hug! And even more impressively they offer free refills like places back home do coffee. My only regret was that I didn’t have time for a second bowl!
Then on to Geysir. Like Gulfoss, we learned that the park area had been given over to the Icelandic people- which is wonderful. However, this means there is little money for upkeep, and health and safety is fairly non-existent. Icelanders expect people will exercise common sense. In theory yes, but people are stupid- especially tourists. I saw so many people climbing over ropes to get a closer look…! Geysir itself does not erupt anymore- or very rarely anyway- but it’s neighbour, Stokkur erupts around every 12 minutes. It was like a hole in the world- an eye, violently blinking. The world doing a huge sneeze! Like most things in Iceland it was mad, elemental and exciting- and I certainly wouldn’t have felt safe any closer to it.
Last stop on the tour, the area where the are the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates meet and are pulling apart. It was like giant splits in the skin of the world. Geology rocks 😀 ! This is also the site of the world’s first parliament,the assembly fields of the Alþingi. (*Prepare yourselves for maximum Game of Thrones geek off people…) I was in Winterfell, beyond the wall, where the Wildings are- truly in the land of fire and ice!
After a long day, it was then time to head back to Reykjavik- but not before a quick stop by the side of the road. Ian produced sleds and everyone joined in quickly packing snow to form a track. Children young and old slid down the hillside in the fading light, and much fun was had by all. A perfect end to a brilliant touristy trip.
Back at my hotel (which I had decided to stay put in), I made the 30 second trip from the front door to the famous Bæjarins Beztu hotdog stand and asked for one with everything. Oh. My. Golly! I am so glad I am not still vegetarian and this delightful little sausage experience didn’t pass me by! Hands down the best hotdog I’ve ever had (and the cheapest way to eat in Reykjavik). A lamb hotdog in a steamed bun with crispy onions, raw onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard and remoulade- a sausage with everything on a day that seemed to have everything! (* It was so tasty I went back for a second one the following morning before embarking on my epic bus journey!)
My second full day in Iceland (31.01.17) begun with a last posh breakfast in my overpriced hotel (I was sure to take as much as I could stuff in my pockets for a bus picnic later in the day!) and an intrepid march in the morning darkness to hand in my form at the Iceland register office. This was all to ensure I can stay in the country longer than 3 months, and had slightly weighed on my mind. Not having explored the city much, I was armed with a map and thankfully hardly got lost at all. The whole process was much simpler than I’d anticipated so I needn’t have fretted. It was a reassuringly similar administrative office to any in the UK- including the manner of the cashier/administrator- so I felt pretty at home! Having not spent much time in the city I was sure to walk back via a few sights of Reykjavik, the Solfar (Sun Voyager) sculpture, where I enjoyed a brief moment of solitude before a before a bus load of tourists arrived to not look at it; and the shining brick of lava that is the Harpa concert hall.
Enough time to pack up, and gather myself (with a hotdog!), before settling up and setting off for the bus station at Mjódd. Time to get my tickets and a little wait before boarding my bus to Höfn (which I now know is pronounced Hup! The fn is always a p sound) at 1pm. The journey started in standard changeable fashion- zero visibility, fog, rain and snow, all within an hour, and then, beautiful spring-like sunshine. What the driver failed to mention was that the 51 bus, though one route, is not all on one bus. At Selfoss the bus pulled into a stop, and without a word, everyone got off and got on to the adjacent bus. Once I realised, I had just enough time to drag my extremely weighty case from under the bus and throw it on to the next one. Needless to say I was on edge at every stop from then on, ready to jump off at any moment!
At Vík we did indeed decamp again, but this time to a much smaller minibus. By this time only three other people were journeying onward. Icelanders don’t appear to really travel by bus, so outside of the city there is little need for anything bigger than a people carrier or a minibus . Very different to my morning commutes to Holborn! I was promised this was the last bus, no more changes.
In total the bus journey was 7 1/2 hours, and it was EXHAUSTING. But I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone coming to Iceland for longer than a few days. The idea of hiring a car fills me with terror in this place- weather conditions, and the mad Icelandic road rules, in that are there are no real rules- think Mad Max! Bus services are patchy, but it is a great way to see this crazy country. I loved starting to feel like I was off the tourist trail. Mile by mile and minute to minute the landscape changed at such an alarming pace. Beautiful snow covered peaks, vast flat deserts of yellow scrub land, plains of black sand and distant ferocious waves, fields covered in mounds that could have been giant mole hills or tiny volcanos, waterfalls big and small, black mountains that glistened and looked like they had melted, and lumpy mossy green covered lava fields with the texture of hundreds of squashed Jabba the Hutt’s. In the black lava fields that stretched for miles and miles my tired eyes begun to play tricks, and I was beginning to believe I could see figures hiding. Even if there are no “hidden people” (it is thought over half the Icelandic population believe in the huldufólk)- there is something magical about those landscapes, and I certainly would not want to get lost in them.
Along the way the sky was so large and imposing- and I don’t think I could ever feel anything but little ever again. I had never appreciated the weight of the sky before.
Iceland is the peaks, the moors, the dales and the highlands; it is the the moon and Mordor, and the Fury Road, and Westeros and Narnia, all rolled in to one.
In the pitch black, the last on the bus, I made it to Höfn, the driver very kindly detouring to drop me outside the Apotek guesthouse around 8.30pm. The staff in the guesthouse were lovely, but by this point I just knew I couldn’t wait to be in a place where I could breathe, settle, properly unpack and call my home for a while. Tomorrow.
To be continued…