Holed up in smokey cove

The plane begins it’s descent into Keflavik airport and I start to get a clearer view of the strange landscape below. Volcanic rocks form pointy mounds from the greeny yellow flat lands of the lava field, like piles of sand or aggregate heaped up for shipping. Straight lines score across the ground with the trace of previous structures embossed in the rough terrain. The sea makes a white border around the black coastline and I can see some gentle swell washing in. The clouds are formed into gradient lines or colour blocks and the wind is starting to pick up but the forecast for southeast Iceland looks good. 

I’m tired as it has been a hectic morning and an early start. I’d been at a festival in my local park the night before where appropriately, Björk was headlining. I’d then scooted into a pub on the way back for a last drink with a friend. I was up early as I was on BBC Radio Wiltshire who were reporting the story of the paramedics that picked me off the motorway and treated me for meningitis earlier in the year. I have no real connection to Wiltshire other than this but was happy to do it as I’d written to the ambulance trust when it all happened to say thanks. The producer calls around 8am and chats briefly then switches the phone so I can hear the output. They’re playing Elton John and ‘That’s why they call it the blues’. I realise later that this is the main story of the morning and feel like I should’ve been more prepared. It’s good to chat about the trip though and hear Jan, one of the paramedics talking about what happened and sending good wishes for the journey ahead. It’s a nice send off and the presenter even called me an explorer which is definitely not I title I have earned. My sister and family have been visiting for the weekend and are flying back to Barcelona so we go to the airport together. As I check in I feel like I’ve got too much stuff with me, the woman puts a sticker on bag to say ‘heavy’ and it is. It’s been a rush to get here, not just today but over the past few months. Media interest in my trip has also made it fun but strange. I’m desperate to stop talking and start doing. I feel empty, a bit excited and apprehensive but mainly, exhausted. 

A new Icelandic friend has been very kind to offer to pick me up at the airport and take me into Reykjavík. We’ve chatted online and I’m really pleased to see him as a friendly face at the start of the trip. The air is noticeably colder and cleaner and I’m struck by how much quieter it is here. We drive to the hostel I’ve booked into and chat about traffic congestion, hunting, kayaking around Iceland, the weather and local politics (there have been local elections recently). I’m hoping to collect my boat in the morning and he’s kindly offered to help me with the logistics of getting it to the east. We briefly meet a Turkish Canadian geologist as we drop my bags on the way to a supermarket. I later learn that he is a well known volcanologist. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a volcanologist before but he has some students with him and they are recognisable by the small pick hammers in their bags.

The next few days don’t quite turn out as planned as Icelandic customs and the shipping company wrangle over when the kayak will be released. The wind picks up and I watch the gusts punching, pushing and buffeting the tents in the adjacent campsite and decide to stay another night indoors. I hear the wind whistling and slamming the building overnight and figure it was a good choice. I end up chasing my cap down the street and being blown sideways outside the newly built Harpa concert hall. The shelter of which later makes a good place to catch the sun and a quick doze. The weather changes over the next day and I switch to the campsite, later hearing that this has been the choice for some Icelandic families evicted from their homes post crisis or not eligible for social housing as they have pets. The situation becoming so desperate that the Icelandic dog association had to step in to provide food for the animals. The campsite is right next to an outdoor swimming pool with hot pools and a steam room, and a stone’s throw away from an interesting modernist concrete church. 

Walking there one morning listening to a track by the Icelandic singer Bubbi Morthens about a shipwreck off the island of Skrudur, I notice the eclectic style of the large houses that line the street. The road falls away to one side and the buildings are cut into the hillside, it’s lined with pines and brighter green trees just coming into leaf. In the background the city disperses and gives way to impressive black mountains with snow streaked sides, their tops shrouded in the early morning cloud. A yellow glow like melting butter on warm toast lines the horizon as the sun starts to break through and warm the chilled air. The ground is damp with dew but the clouds lift and the sun begins to shine in the increasingly blue skies. Reykjavík is growing fast and the traffic problems are testament to this, but it is still a city on the edge of pretty amazing wilderness. I’ve read that ‘vik’ means cove and ‘Reykja’ means smokey. So called because of the local geothermal activity. 

The wait continues and no news is emerging from the notoriously strict customs office. Over the days that follow I am welcomed and looked after by my new friends with a show of kindness and warmth that reminds me of the greatness of human spirit. I’m picked up and taken all over the place, we feed the ducks with their young daughter, I’m invited for dinner several times, we go kayaking with the local club, I’m lent a boat, equipment and clothing so as not to get mine wet, I’m helped with route planning and weather info and my onwards logistics are all sorted out for me. We’ve got a clear plan in place that just relies on the bloody kayak being released. Via a friend in London, I meet a British photographer who is finishing a book on Iceland and offers to take me for lunch. We go for burgers at the famous ‘Tommy’s’ and talk about travel, loss, weird landscapes and adventure. The weekend arrives and still no news but the woman at the shipping company promises she will get aggressive with customs on Monday morning, we wonder why this hasn’t happened already. 

As they say though, every cloud has a silver lining and this one certainly did. At the kayak club, a friendly woman had offered me a seat in the car on a tour she’s giving some visiting friends from Switzerland of the local area. She is part of the volunteer Icelandic mountain rescue team and knows the area well. She picks me up at 9am and off we go on a trip that that includes potholing in a lava cave, a picnic on a cliff top, remote lighthouses, bird watching, geothermal pools, a volcanic crater lake and a vast collection of fish drying racks exporting cod heads to Nigeria. It’s a brilliant day and full of interesting stories. I’m invited for an Icelandic lamb dinner (Saturday is the special meal day in Iceland) but I decline as I’ve been offered a ticket to a friendly football game between Iceland and Norway. It’s one of the last games they’ll play before going to the World Cup. Whilst I can’t say that I’m an avid football fan, the offer of tickets and the chance to see a national game on home turf are too good to turn down. It’s a great experience and we’ve got seats in the same stand as the band that travels with the team. I’m witness to, and part of the renown ‘huh’ Viking war chant and as the cold wind blows through the drizzle I feel a shiver down my spine and a link to eons past. Iceland didn’t win and as Norway score the deciding goal the silence that descends in palpable. I walk back with the sound of ‘Ég Er Kominn Heim’ in my ears and the colours of the Icelandic flag smeared across my face, wondering why people in the campsite are staring at me.  

The next day (actually in the middle of the night) I’m invited for brunch with the Swiss Icelandic family. Their home is warm and welding, full of interesting things. I’m introduced to amateur radio and the use of the sea to bounce signals across a long distance, making communication with Greenland, the UK and occasionally the US possible. I meet viking hens, learn that Iceland is one of the few countries free of the deadly veroa mite that affects bees and am given a photo tour of the island along with many other stories and insights. It’s national seafarers day in Iceland, a yearly celebration of the fishing fleets and memorial to those that have lost their lives. Down at the harbour, we see women pillow fighting on a pole over the water (apparently it’s usually men) a display of fish, a rescue demo by a helicopter crew, I try sour whale meat and pickled herrings as well as Iceland’s best ice cream. I’m invited back for homemade pizza and after another weather check, watching the news of events to mark the day around the country and a polar bear breaking into a hotel in Svalbard to steal chocolate. It’s been a fantastic weekend and in many ways I’m pleased that customs have dragged their feet.

The next day, the plan swings into action and I have to go to the customs house downtown to pay an extortionate temporary import tax that for some reason can’t be paid by VISA but I will get back when I leave in ten days time, apparently. Again, with a huge amount of help from my new friends, we pay the money, get the boat, pack it and take it to be transported overnight to my start point in Höfn. It frantic but exciting and there is time to squeeze in some delicious home cooked cod and cheese sauce before the flight that will take me and my remaining things eastwards. The small domestic airport is informal and there is a twenty seater prop plane on the runway about to board at the time of my flight, without further ado, I get on it, find my seat, wave goodbye and at the last minute realise it is a flight to Husavik, not Höfn. This would have been a stupid mistake to say the least, after all the effort on the part of others to get me to this point, but it wouldn’t have been the first stupid mistake I’ve made with flights in my life. 

I’m really sad to leave but after a week waiting, am very excited to be nearer to launching for the first leg of the trip. The conditions are perfect and I have a clear view of the coastline, glaciers and mountains for the whole of the fifty minutes of the flight. There is a bus from Reykjavík but it takes a long time, which I now don’t have. A hitched ride from the airport, a celebratory 2.5% beer, cold winds from the glacier, an overnight camp and before I know it I’m following a fork lift with my kayak wobbling along a bumpy road in a desolate industrial area of the port to a small slipway. Truck drivers stop by inquisitively as I faff with my stuff and try desperately to ram it all into the small boat. I stand on my own and watch as the water level drops in the muddy harbour. I push the kayak into the water and I’m off, this is it. Who knows what lies ahead!