On a wing and a prayer

‘On a wing and a prayer’. That was us heading to Iceland. We decided when to go based on meeting up with friends. We decided how long to stay by allocating a week to walk the La-ha-ha-ha trail (see here) and adding another nine or ten days to see other stuff and we booked a rental car so we could get around.

After that we just didn’t think about it anymore. Not until we got to the airport, when it occurred to me that perhaps I ought to have a quick look at what there was to see. I typed ‘Iceland’ into Google on the Charles De Gaule airport Wi-Fi 15 minutes before we boarded our flight and started reading. I looked up a short while later, caught Emma’s eye and said, ‘Iceland sounds pretty good. We should go there’. Emma smiled.

Fortunately, in Iceland you can’t go too wrong. There is one road that encircles the island and unless you have a monster truck or van like the locals then it’s really the only way to go.

A local tour van

We had a Skoda Rapid, a ‘compact’, and while it was my second favourite rental car of the journey, it was a long way from a monster truck.

So it was the ring road for us and nine days to do it. You really need at least fourteen, but that’s the yin and yang of travel on a wing and a prayer. It is only with hindsight that the desire for five more days kicked in, so in the moment there was no problem. We saw what we saw, and that’s what we saw.

And you should have seen what we saw! Iceland is a wonderful country. It’s unique. It is its own special beasty. An isolated outpost tucked way away up there in the North all on its own. As the ‘Niceland’ book I picked up at the Reykjavik Campground says,

‘Lying far out in the North Atlantic, just nudging the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the world’s most remote islands. Because it straddles the North Atlantic ridge, where the two tectonic plates which underlie Europe and North America are drifting apart, volcanic activity is frequent and earthquakes practically an everyday occurrence. These dramatic forces from the earth’s core combine with the country’s numerous glaciers and tumbling rivers to shape its unique and varied natural surroundings’.

Australia is gorgeous because it’s geologically stable and ancient. Iceland is gorgeous because it’s geologically alive and young. It is a virtually treeless landscape of fjords, volcanoes, glaciers, scorched hill sides, mountains, lava flows, braided rivers, black beaches, waterfalls, steaming vents in the earth, boiling mud pots and geysers.

Black beaches and mountains
Braided rivers

There are few insects because it’s so cold and the weather is extremely fickle even in mid-summer. Wildlife consists mainly of birds of which there is a great abundance, and a seemingly healthy marine ecosystem, based on the five minutes it took to haul in six or seven huge Atlantic Cod at the end of our whale watching trip (see below). There are reindeer, but not in places that can be reached with a Skoda Rapid.

There are also horses. Iceland has its own special breed and they outnumber the human population by three to one. They’re everywhere and they’re nice to look at. Emma’s friend Nikki (a thoroughly horsey person) says they’re a unique breed and chastised her for not fitting pony rides into our itinerary. This was a good thing if you ask me. I proffered the view that they would not be nice to ride because they were cold and wet and therefore grumpy and that they would all be happier in Fiji. I did however go to great lengths to take a photo of the beasties… and Emma took a photo of my efforts.

Alas the photo of the beautiful herds was poor

We raced our way around the ring road, nine days not being long enough to spend more than one night in the same town. We only looked up what to see each day the morning we set out and we camped every night of our stay save one, which had the effect of making the most expensive country we have been to quite cheap.

It was cold – far too cold for camping

We referred to the towns we visited as ‘the place starting with…’ (insert first letter of town name), because really, they are just unmanageable for humble Aussies. The Icelanders know it too. My favourite touristy fridge magnets and T-shirt read ‘What part of EYJAFJALLAJOKULL don’t you understand?’ or ‘EYJAFJALLAJOKULL is so easy to pronounce Ay-uh-fyat-luh-yoe-kuutl-uh’.

The ring road journey is an ever changing feast for the senses. One glacier accompanied us for more than 60 kilometres in the south, with glacial tongues sliding their way down on to broad, flat, black, plains streaked with braided rivers. Other times we drove through moss covered lava fields, which looked like someone had pushed up too hard from underneath the surface and accidentally broken the earth. Which is probably what happened. Except it wasn’t ‘someone’, it was ‘no-one’. Just the earth doing its thing.

This glacier covers 8% of Iceland

Half way along the south coast is ‘the lagoon starting with J’. It was the closest thing I could imagine to visiting the north or south pole without visiting the north or south pole. A massive ‘outlet glacier’ to the big one, in retreat since the 1950s, it has created the ever expanding lagoon in which bergy bits float around before slowly making their way to a narrow neck and being swept out to sea. There they are pummelled by the surf and forced up on to the black sandy beach where they sit and slowly melt, like massive sparkling diamonds.

The ‘diamond’ beach
Ancient ice
Not a bad spot for lunch
Iceberg target practice

The day we made it to the east fjords it rained so hard we couldn’t see more than a hundred metres in any given direction and when we went looking for puffins we discovered the migration had begun. Couldn’t blame them. The weather was horrendous. In the north we stumbled across fields of boiling mud pots and hills scorched bear by the heat of volcanoes not far below. We walked among vast lava flows where the rock beneath our feet was just 31 years old.  It was put there by an eruption which lasted nine years and only finished in 1985. How often do you walk on rocks younger that you?

Boiling mud pots
That’s where all this lava came from
The earth just splits open all over the place
Lava field self timer
They use all this geothermal activity for power generation

There were hot springs as well and we spent happy hours paddling around in the beautifully warm waters, revelling in the freedom from thermal underwear. Hot springs are an Icelandic way of life. Back in Reykjavik the locals lolled around in the geothermally heated waters of wading pools for hours on end. Like seals sunning themselves on rocks, except for their iridescent white skin. I guess you have to get your sun while you can.

This place called them ‘nature baths’
Warm water fun – the air was about 10 degrees

We also took a day in the north, ‘in the town starting with D’ to go whale watching. We cruised out onto Iceland’s largest fjord where we were blessed by a pod of 40 or more humpback whales. They surrounded the boat, spouts spurting and tail fins flipping skyward before disappearing into the depths to re-emerge on the other side of the boat minutes later.

Our boat in the Dalvik harbour before we left
Looking for whales – not bad scenery
We thought of stealing these suits – so warm
They came that close
Happy after the whale watching experience

As we drove my Charlie Brown Pez dispenser handed out Pez, and the car stereo steadily made its way through every song on my phone in alphabetical order, except for the Jaques Louisier Trio’s jazzy rendition of Vivaldi’s four seasons which I love and Emma thinks sounds like elevator music. On the upside I did catch her humming along to various Coldplay tracks, which means she may be coming around on that one.

We completed the ring with a stop at Geysir and the national park starting with a funny ‘p’ like character that actually makes a ‘th’ sound. Geysir is the sight of the original geyser (the one all future geysers are named after) and where a pool of boiling water launches itself 40 metres into the air roughly every five minutes (Strokkur geyser) and the funny ‘p’ place being the Þingvellir National Park where you can view the gap being created by those tectonic plates which are slowly ripping Iceland in two.

There it goes!
Full height – couldn’t fit in the iPhone photo!
The ‘divide’ at Thingvellir

And all the while everywhere we went, there were fosses (waterfalls). Foss after foss. The big ones, Dettifoss, Gulfoss, Svartifoss, Selfoss and Godafoss were spectacular. The other ones would have been spectacular in almost any other country. Here they scarcely warranted a sideways glance. Mostly because you risked straining a neck muscle trying to keep up with them out the Skoda Rapid window as they flew by in rapid succession. Ok, I exaggerate, but only a little.

Massive volume of water at Dettifoss
Gulfoss – ‘gold waterfall’

The last night of our stay however was just too miserable and cold to pitch a wet tent. We retreated to a hostel ‘in the town starting with L’. It was basic but felt like the height of luxury. I guess it’s all relative. Our mattresses didn’t go flat in the middle of the night to start with, a problem that had been afflicting Emma I the whole time.

The upside to knowing virtually nothing about where we were going all this time was that all of the above was a wonderful new discovery. Without expectation there is no disappointment and without agenda there is no imperative, except in our case to make sure we made it back to Reykjavik nine days after we left. Of course given our lack of planning there is always the chance that we drove straight past some magnificent sights through ignorance, but what concern is that given we don’t know what we missed and the rest of it was so good?

I’ve decided to take it as a sign of personal growth just how relaxed I was with free form travel. You should try it sometime. Pick a spot on the map, go there and see what you find. There’s a good chance it’ll be wonderful, especially if it’s in Iceland.



‘How do you take an experience this vivid and explain it to someone who hasn’t lived it?’. A fair question, posed atop a rocky crag looking out at a scene that looked for all the world like someone had dropped it into place like the backdrop to a play. It was a question posed to me by Andrea just days from the end of a yearlong, ‘world-long’, tour and was referencing more than just the mountains, glaciers, valleys, lava fields and rivers before us.

Andrea, Peter, Sydney and Tobin, our friends from Canada, the ones we first met in Cambodia nearly 6 months ago, were to head home in just a few days’ time. Iceland, the country upon whose rocky crag Andrea and I were sitting at the time, was the seventh country we had visited together, but I was still unprepared for the question.

I should have said something like, ‘You probably shouldn’t try. Save the best bits for yourself and try and take your new found perspective back into life at home’ (with thanks to the wisdom of Rolf Potts and ‘Vagabonding’). I didn’t though. What I did say flippantly was, ‘you can’t and going home is going to suck’, which fortunately made Andrea laugh, cause I’m not sure what I would have done if it had made her cry!

The rocky crag on which we sat was roughly half way along the ‘La-ha-ha-ha’ trail in southern Iceland. It was an extraordinary spot in an extraordinary landscape, with 360 degree views, crystal clear air and a light but cold breeze biting around the edge of jackets, thermals and beanies. I mean ‘toques’.

It’s not really called the La-ha-ha-ha trail, but that was the best we, collectively, could manage. To foreigners the arrangement of consonants in the Icelandic tongue is as foreign as the landscape itself. The trail’s real name is, Laugavegur, but if you say it like it reads no self-respecting descendent of the Vikings will give you any credit.

Ready to go – Lah-ha-ha-ha

Andrea made a determined effort at proper pronunciation at the trail head by asking a ranger to say it slowly three times over. She came away lolling her tongue in her mouth like it was swollen from a bee sting, rolling her eyes backward in her head and stuttering while spraying forth a fair volume of spittle. It was funny, and we all agreed that ‘La-ha-ha-ha’ would suffice.

The hike is 55 kilometres from Landmannlauger in the North to Thorsmork in the south. Like so many other places we have been it was stunningly beautiful, but it is not like ANY other place we’ve been. Not a bit. There is a natural tendency when exploring to relate what’s before you to somewhere else, but here every time I went to say ‘it’s like…’, my mind drew a blank.

The trail climbs 490m on the first day through lava fields and barren hills scorched by steaming volcanic vents in the earth. ‘It’s like the earth farted’ Peter declared to the particular amusement of the younger contingent. The second day saw us take a stroll across snowy alpine plateaus where sunlight illuminated the hills with dark brooding hills behind before a dramatic descent into what called to my mind images of ‘the promised land’.

Day 1 – sunshine
Day 1 – ‘the earth farted…’
Day 1 – great weather at the start, lava flows behind
Day 1 – Tobin, Andrea and Sydney deep in discussion
Day 1 – magical landscape
Day 1 – rainbows!
Day 2 – the high country
Day 2 – extraordinary landscape
Day 2 – ‘the promised land’

Day three saw us wandering through the valleys of this ‘promised land’ past creeks and rivulets lined with electric green moss and crossing glacially fed rivers which gave us ‘ice-cream’ headaches in our feet. On day four we hiked a circuitous course to avoid being blocked by a spectacular canyon, worthy of the name, and into a landscape which one imagines was what Tolkein had in mind when he dreamt up Mordor. Vast fields of black volcanic rubble leading to and surrounded by volcanoes – Mt Doom!

Day 3 – glacial rivers are cold!
Day 3 – massive canyons
Day 4 – it hailed for quite a while. Nice rain suit Peter

On day five we trekked into Thorsmork through Iceland’s version of forest (little more than a shrubbery) before finding ourselves camped at the foot of the volcano which blew in 2010 disrupting air traffic across the Northern Hemisphere for months. Signs near the end of the hike warn you what precautions to take to avoid pockets of deadly gases which can accumulate in low points in the landscape and floods caused by lava melting the glacier in the event of an eruption!

The glacier above Thorsmork

The weather while we hiked was as fickle as the landscape, meaning it was constantly changing although cold was a common theme. It was a bit like spending five days in a fridge with temperatures generally sitting around 7 or 8 degrees and sometimes creeping into low double digits. It also rained sometimes on most days, but not all the time on any particular day. Clouds and rains squalls moved around us and over us and for a while we even trekked through hail.

Fog is also known to roll in on occasions making it hard to find your way between the trail marking posts across the high plateaus and unlike Nepal, for this trek we had no porters. Adults and children alike had to carry packs, mine filled with food for a week in a country that sells consumables almost solely in tins and glass jars.

Sounds a little daunting doesn’t it? I thought so, and for a short while on the bus ride from Reykjavik to the trail head I started to wonder if I had rocks in my head. It’s a good thing we went with Andrea and Peter is all I can say. Well actually we only went because Andrea and Peter were so intent on it and we enjoyed their company so much it didn’t make sense to say no.

Come to Iceland and go trekking? Sure, why not! These two are a remarkable pair, readily and happily seeking out adventures for themselves, Sydney and Tobin at which other parents, probably myself included, would baulk. Here in Iceland however they reinforced what they taught me back in Nepal – don’t underestimate what you and your kids can do.

Andrea and I covered a lot of ground perched atop that rocky crag I mentioned earlier, most of which I wish I could have bottled and regurgitated to you all when our 12 months on the road is up. Among the fields of fertile discussion however was just how much there is to be gained by exposing yourself and your family to the pleasures and discomforts of a few days stripped of that which makes us feel invulnerable most of the rest of the time.

It’s curious, I think, that here in Iceland I don’t really feel all that far from home, yet 25 kilometres into a 55 kilometre walk can make you feel a long way from anywhere, or at least anywhere in which that which sustains you is readily on offer. Tired, hungry, footsore and cold, in the right measure, have a remarkable way of building resilience. What value is that lesson relative to lessons in reading writing and arithmetic? This we pondered.

It’s a lesson Sydney and Tobin have learned well. They tackled the trail like the veterans they are having trekked, canoed, rafted and skied more outdoor journeys by the age of 10 and 12 than many people will in a lifetime. They never flinched from the travails of the trail be it hills, cold, hail, glacial rivers or just another 3 kilometres after having already walked for five hours.

Having said that, if Sydney and Tobin took to it like veterans, then Amy and Oliver win the award for rookies of the year. It was their first multiday hike and they took the whole thing in their stride, packs and all. I was really proud of them. For making it from one end to the other, for carrying their own gear the whole way, for their good humour and for their company.

Carrying full packs over challenging terrain

Of course Andrea and Peter’s ability to string a tarp in treeless landscape to put a roof over our heads and get us out of the rain at the end of a long day’s walk helped a whole lot too. As did the little huddles they had us in underneath a tarpaulin to get warm and get out of the rain when lunch time rolled around and the weather wouldn’t let up. It’s remarkable how warm it is under a tarp pulled snugly over eight people sitting down to eat.

Perfect place to eat/camp
8 of us sat in there for lunch – toasty warm

Amy may have berated ‘Bad Andrea’ and ‘Bad Peter’ in her own special kind of way when she was denied a third or fourth piece of chocolate or hot drink, but we all welcomed these little outdoor tricks to keep us dry and full. Same goes for Peter’s rendition of Saturday Night Live skits about ‘choppin brocolli’ (you probably had to be there) which had everyone laughing instead of shivering at just the right time.

The broccoli that started the singing

I turned 42 along the way and got everything I had hoped for my birthday which included a hug from Oliver, carefully wrapped by Amy, a kiss from Emma, a hike in Iceland and a Pez dispenser. I love my Charlie Brown Pez dispenser, even though it earned me a stern rebuke from Andrea because Amy and Oliver didn’t know who Charlie Brown was or is. My birthday cake was pretty special too… although somewhat misshapen after three days squashed in a pack. It was still ravenously devoured.

Note the wrapped up hug on the right
Cake and candles

The morning after our arrival into Thorsmork was clear and sunny. The best weather we’d had all trip and we spent it lounging about on the grass in the sun looking up at huge glaciers as they slowly ground down the mountains before us. Feathers leaked from a split in Andrea and Tobin’s jackets to go with the gash in the floor of their tent and in keeping with the repaired holes and punctures in their camping mats and the stitching giving way on Peter’s pack.

Glorious sunshine for drying everything!

A year on the road was taking its toll on their gear and taken as sign that their year was up.  We threw a party in the Reykjavik campground on their last night complete with beer, sprite for kids, chocolate cake, ‘topping blend’ (cream?) in a can and balloons.


Anyone who has travelled anywhere knows that no amount of words can properly explain all the vivid textures sights, sounds and experiences that getting out and about has to offer. No amount of words can explain an experience as vivid as twenty-four hours a day with your family for a year while travelling the world. I think however that explaining it is not why we do it. As Passenger would say,

‘We should run through the forest
We should swim in the streams
We should laugh, we should cry,
We should love, we should dream
We should stare at the stars and not just the screens
Feel, feel like you still have a choice….’.

We do it to feel like we still have a choice, beyond that, we keep the best bits for ourselves, and that is enough.

I don’t know what you say to a family that has just successfully navigated the world for 13 months together. Congratulations is kind of the right sentiment but not quite right. Anyway whatever that sentiment is, that’s what we wish the Douglas-Grants. I rather suspect they know how we feel. We can’t wait to see you again on your home patch soon!

And here are a stack of photos of our trek together – so many to choose from, thanks for sharing your photos Peter.