Travel Diary by Declan Pitts

A Trip Around Iceland: Part I

@16bitdec

"Travel for me is about experiencing something out-of-the-ordinary and engaging with different cultures. When you leave your comfort zone and enter an unknown place, it engages your mind in ways it traditionally wouldn’t."

Hey Trippin Community, I’m Declan Pitts, a London-based designer currently stuck indoors due to COVID-19. I wanted to share a story of my latest trip to Iceland and explore how it impacted my views on travel and possible ways to keep sustainability at the forefront of an adventure.

Global warming is rife and in the midst of a pandemic that is halting all travel, it is an exciting time to adopt a more conscious mindset for future excursions. The planet is evolving and so is society; our consciousness around how we travel and where is more critical than ever. The decisions we make and how we engage with new territories can really make a big difference.

Travel for me is about experiencing something out-of-the-ordinary and engaging with different cultures. When you leave your comfort zone and enter an unknown place, it engages your mind in ways it traditionally wouldn’t. I find this feeling to be addictive and affirming when you come across something you didn’t know existed. Obsessed with exploring new places and pushing myself off-the-beaten track, I love to discover local people, local treasures and experience things first hand. It’s a combination of fear and wonder that keeps me looking further, and my strong roots in sustainability, that encourage me to explore wild, natural terrains.

I recently escaped the mundane streets of Whitechapel when a friend of mine called late on a Thursday to ask what my plans on Saturday were. Three days later, I had landed in Reykjavik with nothing but excitement and wonder for what this barren land would offer. All I knew was that we were renting a campervan, driving around the island on the only road there is and we would be photographing and filming anything that took our interest. Not to mention, we’d also have to make the 828 mile journey in six days to catch our return flight.

One phone call from Tom Cassell, a delayed train to Manchester, a speeding taxi (tipped to race me there) and some swift running led me to a lovely, albeit, sweaty, seat on an Icelandic Air flight. To my surprise, within 2 hours and 50 minutes, I landed in the home of the Trolls - Iceland. With very few campervan rental companies and only 72 hours to prepare, we found something maybe a little too comfortable for the 4x4 trail that would lead us around the entirety of this otherworldly island.

Iceland stood out to me for its sheer diversity of landscape and untouched culture. I have never appreciated how quickly a place can change like I have there. You can be driving amongst dry mountain cliffs that feel like you’re in the Grand Canyon, and then twenty minutes later, you enter this vast volcanic plain that absorbs your entire perspective. This drastic change of scenery never ended, and it made me grateful for previous places I have visited.

After the first night eating local delicacies, we packed the campervan with overpriced crisps, all the camera gear you could imagine, and clothes we hoped would keep us warm. We set off into the night to park outside our first destination, Bláskógabyggð. Driving for hours in pure darkness, the mystery was intense for we didn't know what we'd wake up to. Jeff, a good friend and photographer, who had visited before suggested we get to all the spots for sunrise or sunset to see their complete beauty.

I woke up at 6am in the middle of this car park, watching the sun kiss the cap of a glacier and listening to the immense sound of a tumble dryer. The air was intensely crisp and the views of the Gullfoss Waterfall were mind-boggling. Even early in the morning, there were hobbyist photographers camping in the hills with their tripods in hope of capturing the shot they travelled hundreds of miles for. The noise and sheer scale of this frozen waterfall gave me energy unlike anything I’ve had before. I found myself letting out a euphoric roar into the sky, as the excitement grew palpable in the air.

The roads around the Golden Triangle were just magical. Single-lane paths with only two directions - forwards and back - led us to a 100° geyser, past the infamous Langjökull glacier and past halo-like 4x4 coaches taking tour groups to the top.

Catching up with Jeff, who’d just flown from Bali for the trip, I got behind the wheel for a few hours which really put this unravelling landscape into perspective. In the distance appeared a snow capped mountain, which we were certain was a cloud. From waterfall to waterfall, the landscape evolves from beautiful green pastures with flocks of sheep to mossy volcanic plains, with ever-changing river formations bordered by black gravel akin to the surface of Mars.

The scale of this land definitely became real when we found ourselves by an old research plane that crashed after getting lost in the fog. It’s insane how colossal waterfalls such as Langjökull really are. Melt water from the glacier pours right in front of your eyes casting rainbows that seem to follow your every move. At Langjökull, you can walk right behind the waterfall; the spray is intense and refreshing as it drenches you the closer you get. This really made me think about the power of our melting glaciers and wonder will this waterfall ever dry up?

Alone, yet surrounded by like-minded individuals on a quest to discover this mysterious land. You forget about all concepts of time, due to the long days of hazy skies which change black within a click of a finger. The diversity is utterly insane. We stop by a volcanic ash beach with 2° seas and observe the landscape through my drone. This really forced me to reflect on what the stress of city life is all about. This was the first time I’ve ever experienced being with nature and how it’s demise is definitely way way way out of my control. But I was realising I have a part to play to share how I felt, but also enable others to connect with earth like I was.

Endless straight roads with tourist cafes loaded with local lamb soup and Icelandic tourists spread the entirety of the south coast. Waterfalls larger than life become almost unsurprising as your mind begins to understand how this land was formed by volcanic activity.

Icelandic culture is slow and only recently has it been hailed a tourist destination. As we flew our drones over one of the national parks leading up to the foot of the Vatnajökull glacier, some park rangers pulled us over and demanded we bring the drone down. Little did we know we had just pulled next to a light aircraft runway. This small mistake led us to take an afternoon helicopter tour up and over the massive ice sheets that cover 8100sq km. I guess the lesson we were going to learn was sometimes a drone doesn’t quite do the job...

With a friendly Canadian pilot who told us he sleeps in the aircraft hangar, we experienced Iceland the only way you should. It is difficult to describe what we saw, and even more difficult to capture photographs when your mouth is open wide from sheer amazement. 300-ft glacial waterfalls seemed to disappear into colossal ravines, the moving ice sheets were lined with these fabulous patterns of volcanic ash that almost timestamped the ice like lines in a tree. No matter where you looked, the views were just ridiculous. I had never experienced landscape so awe-inspiring in my life. The ice sheets went as far as the eye could see. The mountains looked like piles of sand… but I mean ridiculous huge piles of sand. The lack of vegetation here really confuses your perception of scale, you almost have to squint to see where the white plains disappear too.

The pilot flew us straight over a giant ‘puddle’ where he said the water had only recently begun to melt in the previous summer. This is where it began to sink in. I was witnessing one of the fastest retreating glaciers in the world. Amidst the peaceful natural wonder that Iceland is and far away from the media's outcry on whether global warming is real or not, I was now witnessing the damage first hand. It created a paradox with me knowing my thirty minute helicopter flight was undoubtedly bad for the local environment, but also reinforced the reality of how this global issue is affecting every corner of earth. You simply have to go and see it for yourself, it’s truly magnificent, powerful and moving. It instilled a confusing feeling of sheer joy and excitement, but also this heightened urgency to share the story of how quickly these ‘things’ are melting.

Emotional after the flight, I went and sat at the foot of the mountain and collected myself. I wanted (and still want) everyone to see the raw beauty that exists not too far away, and understand that we’re losing it. Without that experience, there would have been no way to understand the severity of the glacial melt. It was without a doubt the most powerful sight I have witnessed. It proved I needed to do my part as a world citizen. From travelling to Iceland and discovering this heliport by accident and being in a position to fly above the glacier, I would not have had the epiphany for how important travel can be when framing your perspective of the environmental catastrophe we are all involved in.

Stay tuned for Part II, coming out next Wednesday, 1st of April...

Photography by: Declan Pitts

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