"Iceland will not disappear, but the ice might. Humanity needs to adapt to survive. Sustainability is the first step..."
At the north easternmost point of Iceland, driving alone for hours without a car in sight, we stumbled upon a Chilean woman who was fulfilling her 14 year old dream to cycle around Europe - starting in Iceland. She was on the very same bike that inspired her journey, 13 years before. It was nothing short of fucking amazing. You can’t explain how quiet and lonely these seemingly infinite mountains can be. We were four days into our drive and out of nowhere was this figure cycling into the distance. With a mossy cliff top looking straight out of Skull Island to our left and 20-ft arctic waves crashing only 50m away from us on our right, the smile of this solo traveller beamed upon us.
We had to stop, mainly because we hadn’t seen another human or non-flying animal or sheep for hours, but also how can you be cycling this far away from civilisation alone? She told us of her dream to come here and how she’d saved up to bring her bike (that definitely had seen better days) across the Atlantic. For her, nothing else mattered than that moment. I asked where she had been sleeping and she responded by explaining wherever had an open door: farmers' couches, abandoned fuel stations - anywhere she could. She wanted me to take her photo and share the message that if she could do it as a solo female traveller, anyone could. Simply powerful. This amazing human was just living, and that’s what Iceland enables. It’s about living. After a nice, but brief chat, she set off into the wind never to be seen again.. Even though we were utterly isolated from the connected world, myself and Maria are still in touch and she is back home in Viña del Mar. I wrote to her today to share that I was writing this story and she replied with excitement. I’d love to stumble into her again.
This interaction did not make a lot of sense to me at the time. How could I be nearly 400 miles away from Reykjavik, with two friends I made over the internet, be offering a woman on her 12 year old bike a chocolate milkshake in one of the most desolate parts of the world? But that is what Iceland does. It invites and welcomes everyone from all walks of life, to explore and be free from all worries. The emptiness absorbs your presence and confirms how small we as individuals are, yet unlocks this freedom from within that has stayed with me ever since. No other country has ever given me this long standing feeling before.
The weather over there can be intense, in typical ‘Forest Gump’ style, we witnessed rain in all shapes and directions. Myself and Jeff definitely did not account for this and learnt the hard way after locking the keys of our campervan inside. So I pose a thought...
What do you do when you are locked out of your vehicle five hours from the nearest city, with no waterproof jacket at a place known as ‘Diamond Beach’, notorious for it’s black sand and glacial chipps floating into the ocean? Do you stare at the beautiful Ice Lagoon until you become part of the glacier? I mean it was amazing, but that wouldn’t suffice as a solution. Maybe you call the rental company who’s a five hour drive away? Or the helicopter pilot? Do you google “How to unlock said RV without a key?” Do we smash the window?
Well let me tell you. Half way between where we were and the remote town of Höfn, was a very skilled man named ‘Ziggy’. After countless phone calls and a growing sense of desperation, this faceless hero answered my prayers by announcing he could ‘get into the van’ and was only an hour or so away. It then became a waiting game, a patient waiting game in -2C weather.
Laughed at by other tourists as I yanked the door handle off the vehicle, Ziggy calls and announces he is near. We ran over from the Blue Lagoon tourist office, where we had found some warmth when this Toyota pickup pulled in and hops out Ziggy. He was armed with what looked like a strange coat hanger, a bike pump and one of those whoopie cushions used to prank teachers. Gathering an audience of beady-eyed tourists, he pops open our side window and to our amazement hooks our keys from the table like a hook-a-duck. Now, I’ve never seen someone pick a car lock, nor did I expect to, but witnessing this skilled act in the middle of Iceland was just insane. Ziggy drove off with a wad of cash looking for the next fools to help. Only in Iceland!
The entire ecosystem of the country is so unique and diverse it makes it the perfect place to adventure. Described as the New Zealand of Europe, it’s ever-changing landscape will keep you excited and alive. Be it alone or in a group, the locals approach you with open arms and want to find out more about you. Magnificent views become normal, waterfalls bigger than life never fail to amaze (no wonder they call the waterfalls after different Norse Gods) and air cleaner than febreze make the £12 Budweiser worth it.
On our return from the other side up the mountain, we drove past vastly obscene yet dormant fjords and I was tasked with navigating a route leading up into the middle of the country. A 4x4 (only) hill climb with no barrier between you and a 150ft drop was the only way forward. From sunset and peace to wheel spin and snow, the country just changes like you’re on the set of Interstellar. After picking up a hitchhiker and dropping him off at a gas station, we discovered a fishing village that could not have been more pretty and peaceful.
I really have learnt a lot about a culture so foreign yet seemingly so familiar. I found fishermen with Liverpool FC tattoos sniffing tobacco, fuel stations surrounded by wild horses and learnt that sometimes cooking super noodles on volcanic steam won’t kill you. Iceland found me, unbeknown to my arrival. It’s now a place I hold close to my heart. I want to go back to the blue lagoon and learn more about the doctor that went against the country's opinion and put acne sufferers in alien looking water and healed their skin disease. Now, making the Blue Lagoon Iceland’s biggest tourist attraction. I want to go visit the glaciers to see how much it is retreating and share the stories of the locals who won’t move house, even though their great grandparents farm is now surrounded by volcanic moss.
It truly is magical, and you will understand where the stories of trolls come from when you break down in the middle of a frozen black sand desert that echoes your own breath. The harshness of this inhospitable land is home to some of the most amazing and unique people. I discovered that because a volcanic eruption killed a large percentage of the population some hundred years ago. The locals have an app to see whether their next date is someone they are related to or not. Everything here is thrilling and adventurous and somewhat dangerous. Driving to a waterfall on a 15-mile road that took me over an hour due to potholes makes the journey worth it. It teaches you that it’s the journey and the story that matters. Everyone takes the same photo and posts it to Instagram, but you don’t hear about the mindset needed to get there. Iceland and its people refuse to give you a choice, you just face it. Waterfalls that could put Niagara Falls to shame can go from sunset to snowstorm in seconds and this is the norm. However, the impact of climate change and the effect it is having, should and can not become normal.
In the midst of growing volcanic activity, Iceland could completely change at any point. The frozen ice statues on Diamond Beach are only going to disappear, but the wisdom hidden within this island remains strong and proud. I can only recommend one thing; book a week off work (once the pandemic is over). Get your friends, a camera, some bloody warm clothes and just start to drive. You can go off-road wherever you like and it really is easy to get lost… but that’s the point.
The biggest reflection I’ve taken from this trip was: three days prior to landing in Reykjavik I was hunting for work in London without a clue what my week would look like. With no time to prepare, I took a leap of faith into the unknown and those special six days that will stay with me forever. And for me, that is what travelling does and should do and I feel this should be a part of the human mission. To make your own path, forget about purpose and let your journey take you where it’s meant to.
Iceland will not disappear, but the ice might. Humanity needs to adapt to survive. Sustainability is the first step, but I don’t know how to make you change your mind. I can only advise you; go and see it for yourself. Make your own decision. Understand your own impact and share the story even more. For this is our reality and Iceland isn’t the only place changing.
Photography: Declan Pitts