Maybe it’s important to state the reasons that made me travel to Iceland. I have a weakness for places of extreme beauty. Mainly, I’m attracted to parts that are alien, unsettling and with a specific kind of beauty, places that you need to know how to observe with a more in-depth look that “Oh what a pretty place!”. So, when I saw pictures of Iceland for the first time, I felt that behind the incredible landscapes there was something special, different from any other place I ‘d been before.
While preparing for the trip, I realised that this country had a rich, tough and poetic history in its core: Vikings crossing oceans from Norway, family drama, feuds between clans. A vast array of topics that lift the imagination and curiosity of placing ourselves in the shoes of those who first set foot on this island made of fire and ice, with nothing but a few belongings in their hand and a promise of a better life. This is what sagas are made of, and if its sagas we’re looking for, this is the perfect place to find them.
The word road trip was the leitmotif that made me pick up my backpack and go out discovering this island planted in the middle of the Atlantic. A Kangoo van, specially adapted for sleeping in, equipped with a stove, cutlery, pans and a large jerrycan. It would be my home for the next two weeks while driving on the Ring Road, the highway that connects both ends of the country and that, in a certain way, is the best option for complete autonomy and genuine experience in a country that screams out space and freedom in every kilometre. I said goodbye to Raquel, my Portuguese friend that hosted me the first days in Reykjavík, and wheel in hand, I stormed off into the open road.
The choice of going in September brought with it the bad weather and clouded skies, but for those who, like myself, enjoy this heavier mood, it’s a delight for the senses. There’s a whole amount of drama in the air that makes Iceland incredibly charismatic. Places like Seljalandsfoss or Gulfoss, breathtaking waterfalls with a kind of majesty that only mother nature can impose upon you, fittingly translates this charm and engages within us a state of contemplation that lasts the entire trip.
This is the painting that makes up the whole island: a state of constant enchantment and awe, an everlasting questioning of how a place like this appears on earth. A place where we go from mountains with a unique tone of green, (which I can only describe as radioactive) only to find on the other side a vast field nothingness. The sandur, the broad plane of volcanic sediments, that caches treasures like Reynisfjara or Dyrholaey, two sizeable black sand beaches and jagged cliffs encrusted upon the ocean, rising from the waves as if to purposely shock us. Or even Sólheimasandur where the wreckage of an old Dakota DC-3 belonging to the American Air Force now lies abandoned in the midst of the desolation, serving only as yet another element of strangeness and disconcert to what is, in itself already, an unsettling place.
Although this feeling of otherworldliness is constant throughout the Ring Road, it is immediately absorbed by us and interiorized as comfort and humility for what lies in front of our eyes. Places like Skaftafellsjökul, a massive glacier, capsuled within a valley where the green, the blue, the white and the black from the bottom of the earth, all harmonise with everything around it to create a painting worthy of being in a museum. Or even Jökulsárlón, a bay where small icebergs of sinuous shapes like ballerinas, float in perfect harmony with the grey backdrop and the ice blue water, involving us in a state of communion with what surrounds us.
And that’s another thing to bear in mind, Iceland getting deeply under your skin with strength and might that steals our breath and profoundly transforms us with an unforgettable trip. That sensation is particularly palpable when in front of Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Here the loud sound of the current and the splashing of the of water leaping from the massive mantle of white mercilessly wet our clothes and makes the visit to this place an experience that’s engraved in your memory for a long, long time.
But there’s more than all of this life on the road. A few places in the island allow us to rest and land back on planet earth for brief moments, allowing us to get tangled in its history and settlement, without letting the charm and the magic fade away entirely.
Places like the Settlement Museum in Borgarnes, where the history of the discovery of the nation blends in with the sagas of the first families that docked on the coast. Or in the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, where the history of the fishing of the illusive Greenland shark is told in a fashion as original as the taste of this fish, or even in Budir, where a church, as black as volcanic ash, humbly rises in the middle of the surrounding imponent landscape. All of them serve as a background to let our imagination run free and attempt to place ourselves in the shoes of the men who first step foot on this island. Over a thousand years ago, the context of pure survival, where solutions often were found with ingenuity and adaptation to the circumstances, resilience to adversity and the moulding of identity as unique as the landscape of the country itself.
It’s hard to express what you feel about the place that touched you the most. The truth is that Iceland makes us appreciate the roads, the valleys, the waterfalls, with a spirit of deep introspection and haunting the leaves us levitating in the face of so much and so intense. Iceland possesses a song that penetrates and resonates in out chest, and putting it in a box alongside other places we’ve visited before is merely impossible, because Iceland’s echo, unique and with its own tonality, play in our memories for a long time, maybe even forever.
Follow Miguel Neves’ adventures @thedeserts.