Northern Lights, Horses and Cold!

Day one began harmlessly enough. It was still pitch black outside at nine-thirty when we set out to walk to the van rental place.  Oh, I forgot to mention it was freaking cold! After a few wrong turns we came across a host of Asian fisherman each frantically inhaling pack of cigarettes before their next shift begins, they offered no help to two lost white gents with a smartphone acting as our unfolded map. Arriving about a half hour after we left the hostel, not yet frozen but close, we were about to immerse ourselves into this playground for the senses by renting a Camper Van from Rent.is. Having someone to be my copilot and take some of the burden of driving would be very helpful on these sometimes treacherous roads. The buddy who was brave enough to make this journey with me was an adventurous soul himself.

Before we found ourselves each desiring to travel to Iceland, we had met in March on a camel safari in the Thar Desert near the Pakistan/India border. What we then discovered was that he, along with his brother and brother’s girlfriend, were about to embark on the same epic adventure as my best friends, Cecil, Dave and I were. The ‘Rickshaw Run‘ would comprise 3,000 kilometers of driving a 3-wheeled tin bucket across ungodly hellish terrain from Jaiselmar to Shillong, India. For those not going right to Google to see where those two points are located I will let you know. Jaiselmar is near Pakistan and Shillong is on the far side of Bangladesh. A helluva long drive in a vehicle that could only take 7 liters of petrol and get you about 65 km/hr with a good tail wind and downhill slalom tires. Suffice it to say, with a combined 6,000 km’s of driving experience traversing desert, mountain and downpours, as well as cattle, goats, and camel’s, we felt confident we could survive whatever Iceland had to throw at us. Because let’s face it, when you see dead bodies on the road in India and are targeted over every other inhabitant of the Indian roadways, you seem to be a bit more understanding of the life/death paradigm on the open road.

Our first attempt to escape Reyjkavik for the frozen tundra of northern Iceland in the Renault Camper Van hit a hiccup when the cigarette lighter blew a fuse as we were heading out of town. Oh, I almost forgot to give my “buddy” a name. We’ll name him ‘Anthony’ for purposes of this blog to protect his identity. He’s rather famous in parts around Windsor. He has been seen in adverts across England, thanks to his epic Rickshaw Run experience, where his team (“Shillong Way To Go”) wore the proper Boot’s Pharmacy SPF suncreen in the blistering Indian sun. If you blinked at the end, you missed this Anthony character. And let’s face it, protecting your skin in the Indian sun is of utmost importance to those in England where it barely registers 20 Celsius on a good day. Do they even have long enough periods of sun to warrant such a product being slathered on exposed skin? Do they even have sunny days in the summer in England? I doubt it. But back to Iceland and our Camper Van (“CV”). Returning that vehicle, we thought a simple fuse change would have us on our way in minutes. August, surprised to see us back was probably wondering to himself, “Ha, these young lads thought they knew what to expect on the roads of Iceland. Wimps are already chickening out.” No, August we just need you to do the simple thing of changing a fuse so we can be on our way. This proved too large a chore for August and his female cohort who offered up “watch the large trucks who drive crazy on the road. It’s probably best if you move to the side of the road and let them pass.” Advice that was so extremely wrong it was laughable to Anthony and I as our trip would progress. There were two other vans on the lot. But we learned the one similar to ours hadn’t been cleaned out so they ‘upgraded’ us to a larger CV that could sleep 3. It actually was a much nicer van but also ate 2x the diesel fuel. Something that is super expensive in an already crazy expensive country. If you haven’t heard, Iceland is a wealthy country. And they sure as hell display it in their prices. From the mini-mart to the gas pump and all places in between where you will need to purchase items that you actually need to survive. Anyway, after an hour and a half of wasted daylight, a very precious commodity in the winter here as daylight only lasts from about 10:00 to 16:00. And that’s if you are lucky enough to have sunlight all day and not be behind mountain peaks. In reality, you might not see actual daylight until closer to noon and if the clouds roll in, darkness will start around 15:30. Anyway, off we went in a CV twice the size of our first but with a working cigarette lighter which is much needed for your phones and portable devices. Otherwise, you will die. Seriously! Your family will be notified that the authorities found your frozen carcass inside a luxurious CV despite you being bundled up in your Coleman sleeping bag with a can of Pringle’s firmly entrenched in your frozen grip. All because you couldn’t call for help along the desolate Route 1 highway that encircles this island the size of England. Or you were just stupid and tried to hit a side road that doesn’t show up as an orange or blue line stretch of road on the local road conditions site (road.is). Trust me, it happens. Well, at least I think it does.
At this point you are saying out loud, ‘this started off sounding super exciting with an informative slant about what the best things are to do on the island, but now it’s sounding like this country is a frozen hellish tundra.’ Well, calm down there mate. The best part is coming. And it will span the remainder of this article. But it won’t be a preferred itinerary for you to plan your upcoming adventure to this barren winter wonderland.
The first thing you notice behind the wheel is that there is little to no traffic anywhere. There are approximately half a million people that inhabit the island and the rest are tourists. Predominantly Asian tourists. Which can scare some people if you do have to drive these roads. Look, stereotypes exist for a reason. Lighten up. I saw no accidents, save one. No, make that two. Those come later. You’ll have to stick around for that. So even Asian drivers can safely navigate these treacherous driving conditions. Moving along. . . we make it to Route 1 and begin to notice that the landscape is quite different from what you see in Reykjavik. In fact, the landscape seems to change about every 20-50 kilometers. It certainly does impress. Getting comfortable inside the warmth of the van it still doesn’t keep you from pulling off the road every 30 minutes or so to take a picture of this incredibly beautiful country. You will likely want to stop often and photograph the gorgeous, thick haired Icelandic horses that dot the landscape throughout your entire journey. Save the extremely desolate northern stretch of highway.
The sunset the first day occurred mostly in our rear view mirrors. But we were fortunate enough to spot such a large gathering of those Icelandic horses and captured some great sunset shots with them in the foreground. We had to pull off the road and hike through knee deep snow to do so, but it was worth it. Their curiosity got the best of them and many of them wandered over to us, a couple even wishing to be pet. Leaving our new heavily coated four-legged friends, we drove into the dark night, missed some turns but otherwise an uneventful day of driving. By our standards we were true journeymen making it from Reykjavik all the way to Myvatn, where we found a campsite for the night.
As we were bunking down, getting the generator started so we wouldn’t become that frozen corpse clinging to a can of Pringle’s (our go to food on this trip) and getting the stove going so we could make some tea, a car pulled up next to our van. Anthony assumed the occupants had come out to the middle of nowhere for a ‘dogging’ session. I had to inquire as to what this meant (urban dictionary has the meaning). After laughing hysterically, Anthony must have wanted to join in their fun as he commented “I am going to go say hi.” A couple of minutes later he returned to the van, still clothed mind you, and said, “Martin and the Northern Lights are out.” For a brief second I thought this meant Martin was naked and he had some really good marijuana. But Martin actually was a Polish chap who photographs the awesome spectacle on a near nightly basis we would learn. Being the expert, he showed us how to set our cameras to best catch them. He took us to a better spot to capture this dancing spectacle in the sky. We shot picture after picture and we did get some good photographs. “They won’t be as good the next 10-14 years,” Martin would inform us, as the southern hemisphere would be the larger recipient of their magnificent dance over the upcoming time period. Capturing the best photos we could and trying to avoid frost bite in the -17 Celsius chill, we returned to our campsite and climbed into our sleeping bags to sleep. It was 02:00 and now my birthday. There is something special about seeing the northern lights for the first time on your birthday. Even if your fingertips, toes and face are frozen. Now, we were cozy and fast asleep in the warm van.

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