Iceland – The arctic utopia which almost claimed my life

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A grand total of only four days in Iceland managed to evoke feelings of amazement, wonder, worry, sheer panic and relief whilst delivering me through a cycle of frost, warmth, more frost and eventually the (man) flu. This is the story of the bucket-list country which showed us a slew of sheer natural beauty; the story of a country which stole my heart and, almost, my wallet…

Right. Now that we’ve got that bit of unashamed click bait out of the way, I can continue with my story. For the record, though, I maintain that without my wallet (and Swedish residence card) I would have been stuck in Iceland with no money or shelter. This would obviously have led to hypothermia and imminent death. Moving on…

Day 1 – Welcome to Reykjavik!

Not before you hear about the plane that almost claimed our lives!

Our flight from Copenhagen seemed to be departing without hiccup until, well,  the engine failed! The little engine that starts the main engines, that is… Yes alright, the plane was still on the ground, but that’s beside the point. After an hour sitting on an idling plane while the technicians did their thing, it was eventually decided that we would jump start the vehicle that was going to fly us 35,000 feet above sea level for the next 3 hours. My shattered nerves… and I’m not even a nervous flyer!

Enough with the melodramatic anecdotes. Onward with the adventure!

When we arrived (whole) in capital city Reykjavik, it became immediately apparent that two South Africans – having barely put foot in sub-zero temperatures in our lives – could never sufficiently pack for the cold there. This, in a place which is actually kept relatively “warm” by the gulf stream. I shudder to imagine myself in any place colder! Although the temperature was barely minus 7 degrees Celsius, the icy wind tore relentlessly at our hands and faces, providing sudden inspiration for a brisker walk to the awaiting bus.

What ensued was a 45 minute drive through the most beautiful white, wintry tundra followed by an afternoon of exploring while the limited sunlight was at our disposal. I’m ever-thankful that we arrived with daylight to spare because, well, the photos speak for themselves…

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Dragons Dancing – Aurora Borealis!

Despite the always-on-point-sunrise-sunset photos which Iceland’s position provides in abundance, we were particularly excited for the arrival of nightfall for one magical reason: a hunt for Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights! This was the whole reason I wanted to bring Em to Iceland in the first place and, although not guaranteed, the weather was perfect for a potential sighting.

Our chariot of choice? A 700 Brake Horsepower, 4-tonne Super Jeep – courtesy of superjeep.is – with tyres not even the most ardent Crossfit fanatic would be able to flip.

Unfortunately our driver, Daddi, kept us waiting at the hotel quite some time after the stated pick-up time. This gave us plenty time to reflect on our monstrously-priced yet delicious buffet dinner while contemplating asking the reception desk to phone and pause the light show until we got there. Despite our Daddi issues, we were soon on our way into the wilderness, a meeting point roughly 15 minutes outside of the city.

We met up with the fleet of Super Jeeps and the chattering teeth of their excited occupants and spent some time taking photos in front of what they told us was a very faint line of the Lights. Meh. Just as disappointment threatened to dim our hopes, we were told that the hunt was about to continue! Another hour or so in the Super Jeep took us to a much deeper, much colder part of Iceland amidst the glaciers where you were at the mercy of the wind and never more thankful for the large, 700 BHP, 4-tonne windshield that we brought with us.

After some fun navigating the waist-deep snow, the Jeep fleet parked itself and everybody piled out. We allowed our eyes to acclimatise to the tune of the tour-leader shouting “There they are! Aurora Borealis!” Ignoring the fact that we were probably going to freeze to death out there, we pivoted and paraded forward. “The dragons are dancing tonight folks!” he roared as we finally caught sight of them.  Sprawled across the night sky, a stream of lights,  not quite as green as the photos, but every bit as magical.

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For this once-in-a-lifetime experience, we stayed – awestruck – for as long as our warmth-deprived bodies would allow. Perhaps a bit too long, as somewhere between the windswept glaciers and the vodka-spiked hot chocolate, I developed what would be the start of terrible flu.

Totes worth…

Day 2 – The Golden Circle

I could count on one hand the number of days in my life which produced more roller coaster emotions than this one.

It started innocently with an early (8am in Iceland is 3.5 hours before sunrise) pick-up from the hotel to the bus station. We boarded the bus and – after a quick pit-stop at a well-known souvenir store – were well on our way towards viewing some of the natural delights that Iceland has to offer, while our tour guide kept us entertained with little known facts and anecdotes about his beautiful country.

Facts:

  • Iceland became the smallest nation (population around 350 000) to qualify for the Soccer World Cup during the 2017 qualifiers.
  • In summer, Iceland has sunlight around the clock. In winter, this reduces to around 4.5 hours.
  • Iceland has been the setting for multiple Game of Thrones scenes throughout its time on air. Our next location, Thingvellir, was one such location.

Thingvellir

We arrived at the perfect time, with the sunrise casting spectacular light on this natural wonder. Thingvellir is the location of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which separates the North-American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It is used, in Game of Thrones, as the narrow path leading to the Eyrie and as well as the location of Arya’s and Sandor Clegane’s journey.

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There is something magical about this location when it’s coupled with snow, sunrise and ice cold air. Unfortunately, the magic was abruptly stopped when, in the space of 5 minutes at the store, I managed to lose my wallet shortly before the bus was set to depart. This wasn’t just my money we’re talking about, it was my Swedish residence card, travel card, South African ID and both bank cards. I would need it to leave the country. A panicked 10-minute search yielded no result, so I was forced to leave my name and number with the information desk and hope like hell that someone found it.

You might imagine how the next 4 hours of our bus tour went: Constantly testing the definition of “insanity” by checking and re-checking pockets and bags in case it suddenly re-materialised, firing off stressed emails to the tourist department and repeatedly checking in with the tour guide in the hopes that someone, somewhere had heard something.

This is such a shame because, as much as I wanted to enjoy what we were seeing and hearing, it was very difficult to focus on anything considering the circumstances. We did stop for lunch and to view the epic Strokkur geysir, which is situated in a geothermal area and erupts every 6-10 minutes. What you don’t see in the pictures throughout Iceland is the very strong smell of sulphur in all the geothermal areas. It takes quite some getting used to!

If anyone’s wondering, actually losing your wallet is a very effective way to get your girlfriend to buy you lunch!

Relief!

Over 3 hours had passed since I had lost my wallet, and I figured if somebody had found it I should have heard something by now. Naturally, as the shock subsided, we began to devise a contingency plan involving a visit to the Reykjavik police station and the Swedish Embassy to declare myself an idiot. Fortunately we had some gaps in the itinerary for the last day before we flew back home, so all hope may not have been lost.

Even more fortunately, shortly before we arrived at our next destination on the Golden Circle, an Icelandic goddess by the name of Ása phoned to say she had my wallet. No, Ása literally means “goddess” in Icelandic. Apt.

Instant relief! I would not be dying in Iceland anytime soon! Plans were made to get the wallet sent back to Reykjavik – thanks to Reykjavik Excursions – and we were able to continue to our next location, with moods lifted and new-found vigour.

Gulfoss Waterfall

In a valley surrounded by snow-smeared mountains glowing orange with the dipping sunset, lies the striking Gulfoss waterfall.  We braved the freezing winds, only taking our gloves off for less than a minute at a time so we could appropriately photograph this spectacle of fire and ice. Had it been 30 degrees warmer, we could easily have sat there for hours, entranced by the thunderous plunging water below. Alas, it wasn’t 30 degrees warmer and we couldn’t feel our faces anymore, so we didn’t. But we did get some decent selfies!

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Fontana Wellness Spa

The last leg of our journey was an extra that is not typically included in Golden Circle tours, so we weren’t sure what to expect. I can now tell you with certainty that it did not disappoint! Fontana houses geothermally heated pools and saunas. The outdoor pools range between 30 and 42 degrees Celsius, which makes them absolute bliss for wallowing in, staring out at the frozen lake and forgetting how cold it is outside. After a demonstration of how Icelandic locals bake their own rye bread in the geothermally heated soil as well as a delicious taster, we made our way to the change rooms. The 30 metre dash from shower to outside pools in freezing temperatures out of the way, we spent as much time in the natural hot tubs as we could, enjoying the warmth which is so difficult to find during the Icelandic winter.

Fontana Wellness Spa Iceland

Unfortunately, the hot-cold cycle combined with the frost from the Northern Lights hunt the night before was too much for my immune system. I managed to pick up and awful fever and spent the bus trip back to our hotel sleeping in a hot sweat after sourcing some strong pain killers.

Despite all the drama, the draining up-down emotions and picking up the flu, this day will forever be one for the memory banks. It’s almost a shame that such staggering natural beauty is shared by so few.

Day 3 – Blue Lagoon

My friends from Durban are all familiar with the infamous Blue Lagoon. Only that lagoon, this lagoon is not. Iceland’s Blue Lagoon lies around 45 minutes away from Reykjavik and is one of Iceland’s premier tourist attractions. This massive, completely geothermally-heated lagoon – with its crystal blue water and 800 year-old lava surroundings – has an average temperature of around 38 degrees and is large enough for hundreds of people to enjoy simultaneously.  What’s more, as it is serviced by an in-house bar, reasons to get out of the water are scarce.

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Although this is somewhat of a tourist hot spot, I am still infinitely grateful that we made the choice to come here. There is something surreal about being in naturally heated water while snow and ice lie all around you. Experiencing this natural phenomenon was, well, phenomenal… I only wish we had had the foresight to book an evening session at the lagoon for a chance to view the Northern Lights from the warmth of the lagoon. (If you plan a trip to Iceland, do this!) 

Day 4 – Goodbye Reykjavik

With wallet recovered and bummed painkillers taking their full effect, it was time to gather our belongings and our memories and say goodbye to Iceland, the most extraordinary place I have visited.  I imagine the solemn mood in the bus to the airport was not unique to us as everyone reflected on the magic we’d seen in days gone by, all longing for just a few more hours in this enchanting arctic utopia…

 

Hey, you! Well done if you actually made it to the bottom of this essay without skipping anything! If you enjoy this type of post, please let me know in the comments so I know to deliver more melodramatic travel stories. Thanks!

For more photos of my Iceland trip and other Eurotrip goodness, feel free to follow me on Instagram —> @AddyAtkinson

1,512 thoughts on “Iceland – The arctic utopia which almost claimed my life

  1. Beverley Chadwick says:

    Well-written (perhaps a bit melodramatic – but hey! it’s a good story) essay! I can just imagine your horror/terror at the loss of your wallet and the plane engine not working. Seems to have all been worth it and you have some wonderful memories to look back on.

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