Sunday, 29 January 2012

Going solo: Adventures in Iceland

An original entry for the Ede & Ravenscroft travel writing competition

We had crossed onto the glacier with mixed success. Some of our party had turned back, too frightened to negotiate the icy ledge across the col. I was determined to push on. For the last six months, this adventure had consumed my thoughts and we were nearly there. Turning the corner, immediately I could see we had made it. I was grinning. A conical mound, fifty metres high, rose up from the black earth like a bursting growth. People were standing at the top as a helicopter circled overhead. This was no ordinary summit. Striding over to it, I bent down and felt the ground beneath my boots. “It’s red hot!” I shouted. Steam rose around us and the hillside gurgled gently. The place was alive. Shades of red, yellow, purple and green glowed from the black rock. I peered into gaping holes in the ground where dangerously-hot vapour belched into the air. It was like looking at the core of the Earth. Time passed without notice as I sat, stood, touched and took pictures. Returning to meet with my companions, Heather and Jude, they were pointing and laughing. Next to them was a part-cooked pizza left on a rock at the volcano top. “Stone-baked!?”
This was Iceland, atop the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in June 2011.

Why Iceland?

It was an interest in conservation work that I developed through environmental studies at Leeds in my first year, which made me consider volunteering for BTCV abroad last summer.

In April 2010, Iceland made international news headlines with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, a strato-volcano on the south coast of the island. Ash clouds reaching 9 kilometres in height above the volcano caused much of Europe’s airspace to shut down for 6 days. Of course, the media went into frenzy with weeks of coverage on the incident, interviewing government scientists, airline operators and stranded holidaymakers.

So, when an opportunity presented itself to undertake several weeks of conservation work in the lee of the infamous volcano, Eyjaffjallajokull, I leapt at the chance. Working for the Icelandic Environment Agency, on behalf BTCV, the project would involve repairing hiking trails in a remote part of the Vatnajokull national park. It’s the largest of national parks in Europe, covered by an ice sheet 8000 square kilometres in area. I was drawn to Iceland by a longing to experience this wild country.

As I would learn, Iceland has huge amounts to offer for a budding traveller, from spectacular landscapes to delicious food and Nordic culture, and in Reykjavik specifically, great beer.

With an ambitious plan for the summer and little of my overdraft left to pay for it, I worked fulltime during the Easter break. After months of planning, booking flights, hostels and buses, I was ready for the big trip.

Culture in the capital

After hours of anxious travelling, meeting the times of the train, plane and bus, I arrived into Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. I trudged on from the bus station with a heavy rucksack and a heavier wallet, full of Icelandic cash, in search of Reykjavik Backpackers hostel. Unfortunately, the hostel proved difficult to find with only a basic print-out from the internet. It was six o’clock in the evening and the city seemed deserted. I walked down long avenues lined by wooden houses, their roofs painted a variety of colours, as I had seen in my travel guide. Eventually I found Laugavegur street, which runs the length of the city centre. A sense of sheer excitement, tinted with apprehension, resounded in me. Now I was going solo.

Reykjavik Backpackers hostel has possibly the best location among hostels in the city, surrounded by restaurants, bars and shops in the central district. Upon checking in, I was invited to the Backpackers’ pub crawl, and was told to be ready by nine. This was in many ways foreboding for how the rest of my weekend would play out. With such a busy mix of young people at the hostel, I could only embrace the energy and enthusiasm of it all, even after a day of trains and planes and Gatwick airport.

Much later, after a meal at “Reykjavik’s best pizza parlour”, I found myself knocking back pints of Viking beer in an old bar downtown. I was there with Sam, an Australian stock-broker in his late twenties, and two girls from the US Mid-west, of a similar age. The evening had gone well. Having met at the hostel, we had chatted and joked over dinner about the Royal Wedding and the London Olympics. Before heading out for the night, we drank cheap Icelandic vodka and mixers at the hostel, on the terrace. From here we could see far across Reykjavik harbour. As the sun went down, the bustle of Icelandic nightlife grew in the street below. Inside a hot, smoky bar downtown, furnished from wood, I found myself buying some of the most expensive beer in Europe. Drink in Iceland is very good, but along with the food, it’s expensive. A pint of lager can cost around four pounds. A sparky young guy, short and excitable, introduced himself. He had just arrived at the airport not an hour ago, and was keen to see what Reykjavik had to offer. “How long are you here for?” I asked, shouting to compete with the noise of the horrendous speaker system. “Only for the weekend!” he replied. “I thought I’d book some flights to Iceland for the hell of it and get off work early. What’s there to go see on the island?” Having spent a long time reading the travel guides, I told Neil about the usual tourist attractions. A plan soon developed, that Neil and Sam would hire a car early in the morning and we would take to the “open road”. My itinerary for Saturday had gone out of the window. I was still unsure about the idea - travelling with two guys I’d never met before, who were now quite drunk. And it sounded expensive. Would this actually happen?

Road tripping along the Golden Circle

The Golden Circle, as it is called, is a popular tourist route that takes in a number of attractions in the South-West of Iceland. Coach companies offer excessive fares for a day-trip around the Golden Circle, visiting some of Iceland’s most photographed places. We would visit these locations, but without the boredom of a slow coach journey: Sam would be driving for the day.

Having signed for the car, Sam opened the passenger door and went to sit down. He had a sudden realisation that the driver’s seat is on the left and the gear stick would be on his right, since in Iceland they drive on the right-hand side. This was not a good start. Each of us, still very much hung-over, were looking worse for wear. My only sustenance that morning was a hotdog I’d wolfed down the night before; spicy mustard and ketchup. (Strangely, Icelanders are known for their love of hotdogs. This meant we’d finished off the night in classic Icelandic style).

The three of us left the car rental garage near the waterfront and took to the main roads out of the city. Sam drove fast; very fast. The black, perfectly bitumen-coated highways stretched on to the horizon, across the dusty plains outside Greater Reykjavik. The corners were long and sweeping, with mile straights in between. With this, Sam pushed the Skoda hatchback to its limits. We would overtake three, four or five cars at a time. Neil, who was used to the New York subway and was now sitting in the front passenger seat, displayed alternations of adrenaline and genuine fear. “Slow down! For God’s sake!” he pleaded. I was equally unnerved, but found Neil’s whimpering to be hilarious at the same time.

The sudden thrill of racing through open country, like an episode of Top Gear, was unexpected. But I didn’t appreciate Sam’s carelessness. It demonstrated to me a wider predicament that many solo travellers find themselves in when meeting new people, how to judge someone’s character and to know when to trust their ‘new friend’ (stranger). Some things cannot be learnt by reading travel guides.

Together we visited the honey-pot sites: Thingvellir national park, Geysir with its huge spouts of hot water and the smell of sulphur, and finally the gigantic falls at Gulfoss. Then we looked for another dose of entertainment.

At Gulfoss, you are close to the central region of Iceland. Much of the inner island is uninhabitable, being at higher altitudes, with unforgiving weather. Though a network of dirt tracks or ‘F roads’ do cross the expanse. The F roads are only frequented by tourists and enthusiasts in super jeeps. Not in Skoda hatchbacks. We cruised along the tarmac road before it turned to gravel. Soon the potholes grew bigger and with concerns about breaking the underneath of the car, we stopped. Before us was a barren and icy landscape. It was humbling that we could not see any sign of human development. This place had not been tamed.

Driving back to Reykjavik, we flicked through travel guides. My finger rested on a page about a natural spring, which was a short walk from the town of Hveragerdi. Following the description by Lonely Planet, we parked up on the edge of town, behind a farmstead neighbouring grassy fields. We made our way across the fields eagerly, in search of the hot stream. I had never been to a natural spring before and this could well be the most amazing wild swim possible.

Unsure of the route, we hopped over several fences to reach a narrow valley in the hillside and continued on. Deep colours of red and yellow flashed from steep valley sides, which were probably sandy deposits from past volcanic activity, no doubt. Stepping down a marshy slope, careful to avoid the vents of steam issuing from the hillside, Sam and I reached the stream. It was barely waist deep. “Never mind”, I said, and we prepared for a quick dip. Neil on the other hand, being the city-boy, was not so keen to embrace the Icelandic experience and he remained on the footpath above.

The stream was barely hot, but it was warm, and I bathed in trickling waters for several minutes. The familiar smell of sulphur, akin to rotten eggs, filled the air. In Iceland the smell of sulphur flows even from bathroom showers in Reykjavik, so there is no escaping the scent of volcanism. The stream was a peaceful and quiet place - unlike at the Blue Lagoon not far from the airport, which is a highly commercialised leisure complex with natural pools. This stream, high in a gorge somewhere above Hveragerdi, was infinitely more tranquil. There were no coaches and no disproportionate entry fees. In comparison to those who would queue for a dip at the Blue Lagoon, we felt like winners.

With some extra effort and risk-taking, a regular travel experience can be upgraded to first class, at no extra cost. I’d like to think we managed that on our journey together around the Golden Circle.

    The ride to Thorsmork Nature Reserve             

After a weekend in Reykjavik, it was time to head east and take up camp in Vatnajokull national park, where I would stay for the next fortnight. Unfortunately, recent ash fall in the area had led to severe dust storms, causing problems for other trail teams who were repairing hiking trails near Vatnajokull. The project’s coordinator, Chas, emailed us to say that our base camp would move to Basar, an outpost centred in the Thorsmork nature reserve. Thorsmork was closer to Reykjavik and was well-known for its diverse flora and fauna. It would be more remote than working in Vatnajokull, so there would be fewer crowds. I also knew it was within a stone’s throw of the Eyjaffjallajokull volcano. In many ways, this was good news. Sadly, I had not appreciated that a change of location also meant a change in buses to get there and more importantly a change in our departure time.

I awoke early on Sunday morning in the hostel dormitory with my alarm ringing. I shot out of bed and began gathering my things. Without a shower or breakfast I left the hostel and hopped into a taxi for a quick ride to the bus terminal. The journey to Basar camp would require a full day’s travelling; I hoped that I could sleep onboard the coach. Sitting in the taxi, checking in turn that I had cash, passport and phone, my phone rang. It was Chas, the project coordinator, who worked for the Icelandic Environment Agency. I quickly learnt that the only bus going from Reykjavik to Basar that day had left thirty minutes ago. I had missed out on meeting with the other volunteers and I had missed my lift. I was deeply frustrated with myself.

Luckily, Chas had anticipated such a mistake and was waiting at the bus station in his Mitsubishi four-by-four. He would be driving to Basar that day with food supplies and tools for our work. I was saved, and slightly embarrassed. After helping to load his truck with boxes of kit from a storage unit on the outskirts of town, we took to the main road east along the coast. Chas, who had moved to Iceland from the UK eight years previous, was an intriguing character. He had a unique position looking after numerous conservation teams working around the island. This meant driving big distances between trail teams each day to maintain their supplies, while often working alone. Chatting to him about his work, I was not envious of his job, but he was clearly living and working in a place that he loved. Looking out of the car window, I could see why. Flat coastal plains on one side jumped into mountain ranges on the other. There was a feeling of space and freedom in such a big landscape that I had not witnessed before.

I was resting, eyes closed, in the passenger seat when we pulled into a roadside garage for diesel. Chas got me a coffee and some food to share; I was touched by his generosity. He explained that the final hour of the journey would involve a tricky section of off-road driving up the Thorsmork valley. Fine glacial sediment beneath the car’s tyres would change to rock and boulders as we progressed further, testing the Mitsubishi’s suspension and Chas’ driving skill. The exact path of the road changes each year as winter flooding wipes the valley-floor clean from human tracks. Eventually the car would have to cross several major tributaries that flow into the River Krossa. Chas reassured me that he had crossed these rivers many times in his truck, although getting stuck in rising waters was not uncommon he said. The bonnet of the car would plunge below the river surface as a wave of murky water hit the windscreen and the diesel engine ploughed on through, the tyres desperate for traction until we emerged on the other side.

We made it into Basar camp, incredibly, hours ahead of the coach, which had to make stops along the way. Sheltered beside rocky outcrops, the camp had three wooden bunkhouses clustered around decking and picnic tables, surrounded by trees. The sun was shining and people of all nationalities were enjoying the last of their weekend in Icelandic backcountry. Inside the largest of the bunkhouses, I met with our team leaders and another trail team. I joined them for a game of cards, keen to make friends. The atmosphere, friendly and welcoming, would stay with us for the next two weeks.


Thingvellir National Park

Myself, Neil and Sam at Gulfoss

Dusty plains and wild horses outside Reykjavik

Basar camp; Utigonguhofdi in centre

Anna working on the trail

Standing proudly above my new steps

Venturing further into a gorge

The new lava fields on Eyjafjallajokull
Thorsmork valley and nature reserve

Colourful-looking Reykjavik

 Conservation work

Conservation work can be hard. Repetitive labour in miserable conditions is physically and mentally wearing. I had expected this. I quickly found that your own perseverance makes the end result more rewarding. Friendly banter and tea breaks fuelled our enthusiasm for the job across those two weeks, digging, sawing and hammering. Whether the sun shined or the rain drizzled all day long, there was a team spirit between us volunteers. We were a mix of different ages and backgrounds, but were united by a motivation to conserve the beauty of the land. It was a strong bond.

We were repairing part of a popular trekking route, the Laugavegur trail, which I had read about in a British climbing magazine months previously. Footpath erosion is a problem plaguing many national parks across Europe. They are natural playgrounds for exploration and adventure, yet they are highly sensitive to human impact. After many years of enjoying the grandeur of mountains in the UK, walking, climbing and cycling, I thought it was time that I gave something back to the environment, from which I had gained so much. I relished the opportunity to trade a desk and a computer for a hammer and nails.

Venturing too far

While the days were spent ‘at work’, my evenings were my own. If I wasn’t playing cards or walking with my new friends, I was trail-running out of camp. Blazing across sand and scree, the near-constant daylight during summer gave me energy and a hunger to run. I would time my ascent of nearby mountains, and using my digital camera’s self-timer, I could finish with a summit photo.

I grew to know those trails well. Eventually, I would run without a map or a phone. I’d found the maps to be unreliable and phone signal even more so. One evening, I made my way up a narrow river valley a mile or so upstream from camp. The sound of my Ipod pumped in my ears as I jumped from rock to rock, over the river, bounding on. There was no path, just boulders and stones and sloshing water. The valley kept on going, and there was no sign of reaching the end. I realised it was time to turn back for dinner. I had felt invincible before now and suddenly I had been defeated, and I was tired from the adventure.

But my mind was still running. I looked up and around at the valley sides that enclosed me. A steep earth bank rose up to the skyline. Logically, I thought, if I could climb out of this valley I could drop down into the other one and make it back to camp quickly. The slope was sheer, but I yearned for a better view and I started climbing. My leg muscles burned with the gradient and soon I was clawing at the earth to keep balance. Doubts about my plan of action shot through my head.

Emerging onto the hilltop, my view was magnificent. The mountain of Utigonguhofdi stood adjacent, one that I had climbed a number of times, with the late evening sun catching its sharp and craggy edges. I could not lose focus however; I was stuck on a rib of land, flat and marshy on top, without a clear descent route. I could not turn back as I would likely lose grip on the earth slope and this could be fatal. I walked across hummocky land until I found a spring running down-slope and I followed it, safe with the knowledge that this would run all the way into Thorsmork valley. I descended, deeper and deeper into a gorge cutting through rock. I was confident that I could make it back to camp safely - whether it took ten minutes, in time for dinner, or ten hours, no longer mattered.

I scrambled further down into the gorge when I came to a steep drop. Peering over the edge, I could see the bottom just a few metres away. I thought about an easy way to down-climb this steep section. But the rock was slimy and wet. If I slipped here, what would happen, a sprained ankle, a broken arm or worse? The reality of the situation hit me. I had seen the film 127 hours a few weeks before and here I was, in a rocky gorge somewhere in the Thorsmork nature reserve, far from help. People back at camp would be wondering where I was, plating up a hot dinner for me, while I was stuck here, exhausted. Was this really what it meant to go solo?

It can be easy to venture too far, because risk is something we live with everyday, so we are always looking to push the boundaries. Knowing when the risk is too great requires sound judgement, and on that day my judgement was undoubtedly poor. The experience gave me a greater respect for those mountains and it confirmed my relationship within the environment. Ultimately, we are at the mercy of nature. You can only ignore this at your peril.

Hiking onto the Glacier

Our team leaders, Anna and Claire, had mentioned the new lava fields below the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, suggesting it was a day’s walk to the volcano summit. So, on our day off from trail work, five of us set off to find possibly the world’s youngest rock, spat out from the belly of the Earth a year before. The route would involve an arduous hike up icy slopes and across exposed ridges to reach the glacier under which the volcano rested.

We had crossed onto the glacier with mixed success. Some of our party had turned back, too frightened to negotiate the icy ledge across the col. I was determined to push on. For the last six months, this adventure had consumed my thoughts and we were nearly there. Turning the corner, immediately I could see we had made it. I was grinning. A conical mound, fifty metres high, rose up from the black earth like a bursting growth. People were standing at the top as a helicopter circled overhead. This was no ordinary summit. Striding over to it, I bent down and felt the ground beneath my boots. “It’s red hot!” I shouted. Steam rose around us and the hillside gurgled gently. The place was alive. Shades of red, yellow, purple and green glowed from the black rock. I peered into gaping holes in the ground where dangerously-hot vapour belched into the air. It was like looking at the core of the Earth. Time passed without notice as I sat, stood, touched and took pictures. Returning to meet with my companions, Heather and Jude, they were pointing and laughing. Next to them was a part-cooked pizza left on a rock at the volcano top. “Stone-baked!?”

Exploring old Reykjavik

Reykjavik has a youth and vibrancy about it that I had not expected. Having completed our conservation project in Thorsmork, remote and rugged, I returned to a city full of people and fashion. Iceland has its own fashion of designer knitwear, first seen on a billboard at the airport, cosy and warm, which seems out of sync with the harsh reality of life for Icelanders historically speaking. Murals and graffiti colour the houses in Reykjavik, while modern sculptures are to be found in many public parks.

Yet the city does not forget where it has come from. Without time to visit the City Museum, I wandered through backstreets and stumbled across an old church building and Reykjavik market. Even the new opera house by Reykjavik harbour, a multi-million pound development and now a cultural landmark, has glass walls made to look like fish scales. It’s a permanent reminder of Iceland’s oldest industry. The country, like many others in Europe, is grappling with deep-set economic problems after a banking crisis in 2008. And controversy surrounds Iceland’s environmental record for overfishing. With regards to whaling, I saw the slogan, “Meet us, don’t eat us”, accompanying adverts for whale watching. Despite some of the country’s problems, I found Iceland to be a charming place, full of colour, history and beauty.

Thoughts about solo travel

Although I went to Iceland as a solo traveller, it’s important to emphasise that I was never really alone. I shared great experiences with new people and made new friends, whom I have kept in contact with. As a solo traveller, it allowed me to bond with people of different ages and from different parts of the world. Sam, Neil and I - an Aussie, a Yank and a Brit - were brought together through the pursuit of adventure and travel. Backpacking has a culture in this way that facilitates new friendships and I would happily undertake a new adventure alone, with this philosophy in mind.

My experienced showed that by venturing unaccompanied you can fully immerse yourself in the culture and the environment of the place that you visit. I could be flexible with my itinerary and I had time to reflect on new experiences while I was there. By going solo, I found my adventures in Iceland to be cheaper, better informed and more fulfilling.

No comments:

Post a Comment