No one knew where I was when I fell asleep that night, alone in a green tent in a small village with a name I couldn’t pronounce. I’d spoken about going south, but the rain was torrential, visibility nil, and after 35km and some map-and-soul searching in an empty petrol station, I threw caution to icy wind, and turned around, heading north instead. And just like that, no one knew where I was. I barely knew myself. A world away in Iceland: that much and no more.
The day began with a banana and a small tub of plain yoghurt. Both of which cost four times what I have ever paid for either. An hour later, however, my mouth filled with the chalky chaff of anxiety when I found the small family-run car rental place with which I had booked a car – and, I felt my belly flip the flop of a fish on dry land, paid in full – locked and desolate.
Without my car, there was no other plan. The car itself hardly qualified. I had booked no accommodation anywhere on the island, though I had rented a small tent, a blow-up mattress and a fleece blanket (“You’re going to freeze in that,” said the guy at the outdoor shop, snubbing my South African sleeping bag). Local buses didn’t readily access the parts of the country I’d considered visiting (my itinerary, too, was tenuous at best), and with only five days on the road, hitching wasn’t really an option either. On some of the quieter roads, I’d heard, you could wait hours for a ride. My car – paid-in-full besides – was essential.
But time passed; it always does. Phone calls were made, reassurance offered, my car delivered and the inconveniences of the Reykjavík Marathon, which had closed virtually every major artery leading in and out of the city, and an annual cultural festival, which had closed all of the inner-city streets too, eventually navigated. And there I was: on the road. Me, my camping gear, some humble groceries in the boot and two dozen Icelandic radio stations at my fingertips. The number of radio stations quickly dropped the further I drove from Reykjavík.
My northerly about-turn brought good omens with it. The rain paused and the fog, so impenetrable further south, hesitated and lifted. Mountains soared on my right, steep and scarred by landslides; the ocean on my left, choppy and raw; the earth all around me, rugged and divided by driveways leading to middle-of-nowhere farmsteads. Before me: the road unravelled like a roll of film. I caught glimpses of my elated face in the rear-view mirror.
I turned west off the Ring Road – Iceland’s national highway, mostly tar, occasionally dirt, which circumnavigates the island – onto the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and wound my way to the sleepy fishing village of Stykkishólmur.
The clouds descended again – I was learning quickly about Iceland’s elemental nature – and the wind whipped up, indiscreet in its iciness, licking the back of my neck and running its fingers down my spine. I pulled my Canadian windbreaker closer around me and, leaving the campsite where I had carefully angled my car to best protect my tent, wandered into town. The rocky outcrop at the edge of the harbour offered a view of the entire village and its impossible surroundings. In the distance, snow-capped mountains, even this late in the summer (summer: eight degrees and a freezing wind); in the foreground, an archipelago of uninhabited islands, splintered from a land that would be uninhabitable to most. And yet, on the edges, always, just one more home, often brightly coloured, always clinging. The squat lighthouse beside me lived out its rotating life with purpose, a poem in its window, or a prayer perhaps.
This, a land of literature lovers, which holds more writers, more books published and more books read per person than anywhere else in the world. One in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.
That night, I ate the first of only two meals I would eat in a restaurant in the week that I was in Iceland: the linefish – a piece of cod, cooked to perfection and served up for the Icelandic price of R345. I wandered home in the not-quite-dark at 10:30pm, climbed into bed (grateful for my fleece blanket) and lay on my back alive and disbelieving. And no one knew where I was.
I’ve started writing this several times. And every time I falter, delete, begin again, falter, delete, begin again. It has been over two months since I turned around at Hveragerdi and instead headed north to Stykkishólmur, but every attempt at putting these experiences down has seen the words turn to glue in my mouth, my fingers lie lethargic and will not lift from key to key.
It’s not that it was so indescribable. It was just a place. A time. Five days on the road. Two days in Reykjavík. Nothing that a few carefully crafted sentences couldn’t describe. Surely. And it’s not that I feel possessive about it. The stories are there for the telling. But I suppose I fear my ability to do it justice. Am I capable of relating the conversations that took place in my head as I moved through a place that gripped my heart?
Self-doubt seems such a safer space.
There are a few more photographs of day one’s adventure, should you wish to take a look.