When you’ve become used to being on the road for months at a time, two weeks doesn’t seem like much. Funny, then, how a 14-day trip to Iceland and Norway can fill enough memories for a year. What follows is just one of those memories.
“Your tent sucks.”
My girlfriend looked at me out of the corner of her eye, a wry smile forming at her lips.
We sat, huddled in the front seats of our rental car, sleeping bags tugged unwieldily around us, as an interminable rain poured down just beyond the increasingly foggy car windows. We were in Ólafsvík, a small fishing town on the western tip of Iceland, tourists held prisoner by the weather. It had been raining since the previous night, and my girlfriend was right: my tent did suck. I’d brought it because, well, I already had it — and as in most cases, I preferred the free option over buying a new one. If it meant waking up in a puddle, well, that was a risk I was willing to take — only this time, it appeared it would mean waking up in the doghouse, too.
The day started promisingly enough. We had camped the night before in Blönduós, another seaside town dotted with white-walled, red-roofed homes that straddle the Blanda River in the northwest of Iceland. We’d gone to sleep with visions of hiking up Kirkjufell, Iceland’s most iconic mountain, the following day. We’d even done our part in ensuring good karma by giving a ride to a pair of French hitchhikers in the morning — in the pouring rain, no less. Mother Nature, it seemed, wasn’t into the whole karma thing. Instead, she was more the Old Testament type: fire and brimstone, turned rain.
We drove west and into the belly of the beast: a wet, thickening haze that strained the upper limits of our windshield wipers. It was the kind of rain you tried to squint through, knowing full well it wasn’t making a damn of a difference.
We had left the main highway for gravel roads — and our car, once bright red, was now a muddy brown. We were on the way to Grundarfjörður, home to Kirkjufell — that of Game of Thrones and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty fame: a mountain that, when viewed from the southern end, rises to a near-perfect point. Our initial plan was to spend the night there at a campsite within view of the mountain and ocean beyond. One look at the campsite and those dreams dissipated quickly: the field was soaked through, puddles forming in the blades of grass. The mountain trail would be a mess, too — not least because it was less of an established and easy-to-follow trail, and more of a vertical climb through occasionally precariously steep terrain.
Weather be damned, we were only going to visit this place once. Might as well make the most of it. We scrapped the mountain-climbing plans and resolved to explore the nearby Kirkjufellsfoss, a two-tiered waterfall that cascades into a shallow, blue-gray stream leading out to the ocean. The rain clouds hung thick and low over the mountain beyond, lending a striking backdrop to the scene. It was one of those moments when you laughed to yourself, remembering the sheer beauty of your surroundings.
Onward we went to Ólafsvík, along coastal roads blanketed in mist. Evening was fast approaching — a time we would usually spend cooking on our small, propane-fuelled camp stove outdoors — but with the rain showing no signs of slowing, we made an exception.
“Let’s go out to dinner,” my girlfriend suggested. “My treat.”
We popped into a cafe where the server — in perfect English, honed through hours of herding lost tourists — apologized for not having any food on the menu, instead pointing us down the road to one of the other two restaurants in town. It suited us just fine: the place was warm, and the atmosphere inviting. Soft, yellow incandescent bulbs hung from the wooden-beamed interior. Candles flickered at the table. It felt as though we’d arrived in a grand, communal cabin — at last, some shelter from the rain.
We set about ordering our meals, relishing in the chance to shed our now-soaked jackets. Browsing through the menu, we both settled on a modest meal of hamburgers and fries. My girlfriend ordered a beer, too. (If you’ve spent a króna before, you’ll know where this is going.) We scarfed down our burgers and basked in the building’s warmth before the bill came. Final tally? $75 CAD.
Back on the road, the rain relented enough for us to spot the squat, blue tent sign pointing towards the town’s campsite. After pulling into the wide, open field banked by hills, with a small wooden building housing a kitchen, toilets, and showers, we drove to the farthest corner and claimed the driest, flattest spot we could find — which, it should be said, wasn’t saying much at this point. The rain had mostly turned to drizzle, leaving a brief window to set up our tent in relative comfort. Out came the tarp, spread wide over the soggy blades of grass, then the tent, fly, and pegs. As with much of Iceland, the pegs proved a bit of a challenge: just beneath the grassy surface was pure rock and pebble. You could try to move the peg around and find a better hole, but the odds were even greater that you’d only find a worse one.
In the end — after a few curses from bent pegs and sore hands — the job was done. We headed to the campsite’s picnic tables to relax and enjoy the remnants of the evening, playing cards and chatting with fellow travellers. By nightfall, we trundled back through the rain to our tent, where one look beyond the zippered fly confirmed the worst: it was waterlogged.
Out came the soggy air mattresses, stuffed into the trunk of the car, and we piled into the front seats — our only sanctuary left from the rain. I’d spent my fair share of nights in the car the year before in New Zealand, and half of me was feeling nostalgic about the prospect of doing it again. Then I tried to get comfortable in the reclined passenger seat and remembered why we didn’t do it more often: it’s friggin’ hard to find a good sleeping position when your legs dangle off the edge of the seat by a good foot. I’d settle for twenty minutes and realize my legs had fallen asleep before I could. Only the eventual sun’s rise put an end to the night’s discomfort — and I was all too glad to get out of the car and greet the morning.
Something magical did happen, though, when I wrestled myself out of the dank confines of my sleeping bag and into the crisp, morning air. The night’s rain —
by then, nearly a two-day rain — had cleared, and in its place, a vibrant rainbow spread across the sky. The fog — thick as a curtain just hours before — had finally dissipated, revealing a backdrop of lush, green mountains stretching into the horizon. Just beyond the campsite fence, a team of Icelandic horses grazed in the morning dew.
A smile breaking out across my face, I mustered the only two words I could:
Other things we saw: