For years I’ve been an avid reader of Icelandic sagas, and for that reason I’ve wanted to go to Iceland for a long time. Over the years I’ve noticed that when I hype myself up with expectations over a long period of time, I’m invariably disappointed. So it has been with a certain amount of dread that I’ve been facing the prospect of actually setting foot in Iceland.
As soon as I landed at Keflavik international airport I noticed the colour of the light and how lush and saturated everything looked. As I drove into Reykjavík I was struck by how utterly alien the landscape looked. All new geology caused by volcanic activity, no trees in amongst the rocks, just tiny little heath and lichen. I got such a shock when I stepped out of the car to take this picture.
Although the ground is obviously very rocky, the rocks are covered in such think lichen that it is like walking on the softest and most luxurious shag carpet that you could possibly dream of.
After we spent about half an hour marvelling at the amazing landscape we got back in the car and within about ten minutes I saw a small tornado off in the distance.
Although I’ve been through areas within an hour of one passing through the countryside and a small town in Ontario, Canada years ago, and have seen close up the destruction they cause, I’ve never seen one actually happen. More amazement!
After boggling on the tornado until it petered out, we made our way to the accommodation that we booked (reykjavik4you) and were blown away by how nice it is! I’m not kidding, this place it as good as it’s website says it is. Here’s a picture of the lounge area of our room.
Spa bath, DVD player with free movies, flat screen TV, hi speed internet, kitchen plus a great bakery just across the road and it’s located in the middle of town!
As soon as we dumped our bags we went for a stroll downtown. With a population of about 120,000, Reykjavík is not a huge city, but it has tremendous heart. The town is just abuzz with an energy that I haven’t seen anywhere else that I’ve been to in Europe. For me there is a real sense of Reykjavík being a “happening place”, and in the short time I’ve been here, I’m already kicking myself we spent so much time in Finland and we didn’t spend it here instead!
So far, so good (he says, tempting the gods).
Amanda who is one of the last two people who still lives in Vinstad year round, runs what she calls the “smallest cafe in Norway” in a schoolhouse that is no longer used.
Vinstad can only be reached by a short ferry ride from Reine and it’s the starting point of a short hike to Bunes beach.
Amanda makes a little money selling drinks and fresh made waffles to the hikers who come through. After our hike, as we waited for the ferry to come we had some waffles and a chat with Amanda. She told us how her family had been in the area for centuries but the community had been shrinking for decades now with people moving away to find work.
As we talked I mentioned that I like to go to places that are bit of the beaten track. Amanda in reply said, “a lot of people who come here say that”, and then she pointed out that 12,000 people a year come over on the ferry to Vindstad!
Although today was windy and a bit wet we went for a short hike (about 7kms) and this is where it ended up.
Years ago I bought a book called, “The Royal Tour 1901, or the Cruise of H.M.S. Ophir; Being a Lower Deck Account of their Royal Highnesses, The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York’s Voyage Around the British Empire”, at a garage sale. It was a fascinating reproduction of a British seaman’s illustrated journal of his time as a sailor on the 1901 royal tour that visited Australia.
Unfortunately I gave it away a few years later.
The book was interesting to me because it was full of descriptions of Australia and Australian life from over a hundred years ago. Although the author Harry Price, didn’t have much good to say about Sydney (probably one of the more dangerous ports in the world at the time and who could blame him), where I live, his book is full of little glimpses of the naive and excited mindset of an ordinary person who felt they were part of a great empire. Like I said before, fascinating stuff.
One of my favourite parts of the book is when Harry decided to use his day of shore leave to walk from Hobart (Tasmania) to the top of Mount Wellington which looms over the town.
Mount Wellington is further away (19kms or nearly 12 miles by road) than it looks from Hobart, and it’s surprisingly high (1,271 metres or 4,170 feet). An ambitious and very steep day-walk that Harry Price was ill prepared for.
Locals in Hobart can tell you that the summit is quite often covered with snow, even in the Summer.
Not only were Harry’s navy shoes totally inadequate for the task, it also snowed as he reached the summit and he wasn’t wearing warm clothing. A sodden and freezing Harry got back to his ship late at night and with bleeding feet. I remember as I read the book how I identified with Mister Price’s optimistic cluelessness. I totally understood the young Harry’s delusion of being 10 feet tall and bullet-proof. I’ve felt the same way in the past and it’s gotten me into what I like to describe as “character building experiences”.
It must be a testosterone thing.
When ever I hear people use the word “adventure”, I’m always reminded of something I read years ago (I can’t remember who said it and I haven’t been able find out, but I was under the impression it might have been Mallory), that, “adventure is discomfort, remembered in comfort”. Although many people wish they had more adventure in their lives, I can honestly say from personal experience, that adventures are usually very unpleasant when they are happening, but of course they make for great dinner table chat.
Nowadays I feel that adventures come from bad decisions and are to be avoided.
Last Saturday I was out skiing with my wife and friends on what was a beautiful day. I thought to myself, “it just doesn’t get much better than this”. The sun was shining and it had snowed the night before. In short, it was a perfect spring day to go skiing.
With such good conditions, it surprised me to notice that I was in a very bad mood.
At first I couldn’t put my finger on why. My wife, Engogirl picked up on my dark mood and asked me if there was something the matter. I said that for some reason, everything was bugging me and that it wasn’t anybody’s fault and that it was just a strange head space I was in at the time.
I was going to try and work things out in my own mind.
Since I hate the whole resort thing with the crowded ski lifts, the waiting in line while strangers ski over my skis and trash them, I go back-country skiing with telemark skis.
I’ve been skiing for years but I’ve never really learnt how to ski properly. Skis are basically long snow shoes for me. My balance is crap plus I have the added disadvantage that I’m not keen on falling at speed which means I dread going down hill. For someone who can’t ski well, I’ve done a lot of back country skiing and snow camping, but the deal for me is that skiing is a means to an end. I just like being out in the bush away from the crowds.
I know that for some people skiing is all about the physical activity and developing the skill. Not for me though, I simply don’t have the aptitude or the desire to get good at it. Generally I just like to get out and be in nature.
So why was I so pissed off on Saturday?
Maybe it was because my old leather ski boots (over 15 years old) had finally bitten the dust and all the new telemark boots are plastic, which I find anathema. I rented some older leather boots for the weekend and as I plodded along, thinking dark cranky thoughts, I felt a blister growing on my heel.
Then there was the cross-country ski instructor who made a point of skiing right up to my wife, and stopping to block her way to show his distain for our group.
What a wanker!
As the day wore on and the temperature rose, the snow became stickier and began to ball up under the my skis but the snow in the shady areas had turned to ice. The skiing experience was like a mixture of trying glide across fly paper and slipping on a banana skin. I was in a constant jerky state of almost falling over for most of the day. So very unaesthetic.
In summary, I was having a John Howard (our ex prime minister) of a day. Short and bloody irritating!
As each thing annoyed me I started to think about how I wanted things to go better than they were, on such a nice day and in such good company, then it struck me why I was having such a bad day.
I had broken with my usual habit of having low expectations!
The good company, beautiful day and surroundings had lulled me into thinking that I was going to have a great day and every thing was going to go smoothly. But as the day progressed all the little niggles added up to a general feeling of incoherent discontent that grew into a smouldering rage.
I should’ve remembered old Seneca’s warnings about how fortune’s favours never last and how we shouldn’t get our hopes up because that leads to disappointment and then onto unhappiness.
Stupiddy, stuppidy me!
Here’s a few short videos (a total of 24 minutes) by Alain de Botton about Seneca on anger.
When I was about 15 in 1971 I got interested in going to Queensland. At the time, I had a friend called Karl and I talked him into going up (we lived in Sydney) there with me during our school holidays in the summer. Back then airfares to Brisbane were very cheap so we caught a plane. From Brisbane we decided to take a train up to Cairns, stopping off at Proserpine on the way. I wanted to go Proserpine because from there we could go to Airlie Beach, which was near a few well-known resorts and the Great Barrier Reef.
The resorts had names like Daydream Island and South Molle Island. As a small child, growing up in the city, places with exotic names, evoked in me, visions of “Adventures in Paradise” a show that I used to love. Also as a kid I was fascinated with the idea of small islands and I used to fantasize about living a subsistent life on one.
It never occurred to me that the tropics were, about the last place on earth that a pasty, freckled, red haired, white boy should try and make a home. It was only years later when I lived in Vancouver, Canada did I understand what habitat my genes were suited to. Long periods of rain and overcast skies made me feel “right”. I suspect my gene sequence was evolved as a good survival strategy in the last ice age by one of my mammoth hunting ancestors. As a teen, such realities never intruded into my thoughts.
Another reason why I wanted to go to Airlie Beach, was that at the time I used to do a lot of skin diving. I even learnt how to scuba when I was 14. The scuba course cost me $11 and was taught at a Y.M.C.A. indoors pool over a couple of nights. FAUI? PADI? Decompression tables? Never heard of them! We were told; ” just don’t come up faster than your bubbles and you’ll be O.K”. Every one knows that the Great Barrier Reef is a Mecca for divers and I considered myself one, so I just had to go.
When I look back, I’m amazed that my parents let me go, at that age, with only another teenager as a companion. Come to think of it, what was Karl’s family thinking? Letting him anywhere near me, never mind traveling up the coast thousands of kilometers away, with me.
The plan was that when we got to Airlie beach we’d hire a boat and live in it for a week and when we got there, that’s exactly what we did. We hired an open fourteen-foot aluminium dinghy equipped with a small outboard motor for eight dollars a day. After 5 minutes of instruction we were in the water and heading out to sea for the nearest island. Lifejackets? Never heard of them!
Enough of all this intermediate stuff and onto “all the dumb things”!
One day, while out in the boat, Karl and I saw some bad weather closing in so we headed for shelter in a fairly protected bay about 10kms north of Airlie Beach. We anchored in about 2 metres of water and swam ashore. We did this because the tides in that area are quite high and when the tide goes out you can be stranded on a tidal flat until the next tide comes in. The looming weather wasn’t as bad as we expected and we spent the next couple of hours ashore exploring the nearby bush.
Yep! You guessed it, when we came back to the boat the tide had started to go out and the dinghy was sitting in about 30cm (about 1′) of water which was too shallow to use the motor or row, so we started pushing the boat as fast as we could, towards the receding water. The problem was, was that the seafloor in that area has an incredibly level surface with not much of a slope for kilometers. This all meant that no matter how fast we pushed the boat, the water quickly went down to a level where we couldn’t push it any more. So there we were, stuck out in the middle of nowhere on a tidal flat for the next 8 hours which meant that we wouldn’t be able to leave until after dark. Food? Water? Didn’t have much of that. Contingency? Never heard of it!
The good thing was, that after the squall had blown over there were millions of butterflies migrating out to sea. It was sublimely beautiful and calm. Karl thought it would be a interesting thing to see how far out to sea we could walk. We walked for what seemed like an age, following the butterflies straight out to sea. When the water was only half way up to my knees the dinghy was nothing more that a speck the size of a piece of dust. On we walked following the butterflies straight out to sea until the water was up to our knees, further and further we went.
Not looking at where I was treading, staring at the horizon and the butterflies, I stepped on what I think was a Giant Reef Ray (Taeniura meyeni). The ray was huge, about 1.8 metres (about 6ft) across and about 3 metres long (about 9ft). As I stepped on the stingray, I barely had time to feel the ground move from away from under my feet, all I saw was an enormous mottled disc shape fly up out of the water with a tremendous splash, landing back in the water about 3 or 4 metres away with another big splash and then off it flew away under water. It frightened me so much that I just about rin over the top of the water all the way back to the boat without stopping or gasping for breath. It was a real son of mammoth hunter meets monster of the deep, adrenaline moment.
Back safely in boat we waited for night to fall and the tide to come in. As soon as the water got deep enough to put the propeller in the water we tried to start the motor.
Yep! You guessed it. The motor wouldn’t start and in our continued efforts to get the engine going we succeeded in flooding it. By this time we were both hungry and thirsty so we decided to take turns rowing back to Airlie Beach, which was quite a way off. On we rowed into the night, occasionally trying out the motor. This went on for what seemed to be hours and hours. During my turn at rowing we hit a large soft floating object, which jumped up out of the water creating a gigantic splash, drenching us and almost tipping over the boat. Needless to say it scared the heck out of both of us. We didn’t know what is was but we assumed it was either a dolphin or a dugong.
By this time I was a shattered nervous wreck and Karl wasn’t a happy camper either, but probability snapped back like an overworked waitress and we finally had some good luck, the motor started. Within about an hour we were back in Airlie beach dining on fast food.
Since the night was warm and the water was calm we decided, for a change to sleep in the boat while it was in the water. We usually dragged the boat up onto the beach (which is made up of finger sized pieces of coral in that part of the world). It was a beautiful balmy night, I felt safe, fed and comfortable. As I was lying in the boat enjoying the night, it came to me that a spot of night fishing would go down well. We rowed out a little further into deeper water and baited up our hand lines.
Both of us weren’t having any luck until I felt a weight on my line. Usually when you get a bite you feel the fish through the line take the bait. This felt like I’d snagged on old boot or something like it, so I reeled it in. As I got it close to the surface I could dimly see that it was a fish, a decent sized one at that, but it wasn’t fighting the way that fish usually fought and we didn’t have light so I couldn’t see what it was clearly. The only option was to lift it into the boat. As soon I lifted the fish out of the water I could see it was a small shark (cool!) about 50cm (about 20″) long, but it wasn’t moving around much like hooked fish usually do. So I lifted the shark with the line into the boat and as soon as I did, it bit through the line and all pandemonium broke loose.
It was dark, and we had this small shark that had suddenly sprung into action snapping at us from the bilge. Both Karl and I fell over our benches backwards; Karl into the bow and me into the stern and the shark had the middle. The shark was going berserk, jumping and snapping all over the place. It took me awhile, but I finally located my diving knife and stabbed the shark. That only annoyed it and the jumping and snapping were getting much more frantic. The situation quickly degenerated into a jumping, snapping, stabbing frenzy. The shark just didn’t seem to want to die (strangely enough), so I eventually ended up pinning the shark down with the knife and we waited for what felt like an eternity for it to stop moving.
The middle of the boat was now covered in shark blood and guts so we ended up dragging the boat onto shore and having an unpleasant sleep on the beach. In the morning when it was light we got a good look at the shark that was still in the boat. There, in the bloody bilge, lay a poor little shark that had been rendered inedible by my panicky ministrations. One side of the fish looked fine, the other side was a mixture of bilge, fish mince and guts.
I didn’t go into the water again for the rest of the trip.
This post was first posted on the 19th of April 2007