It’s time for Karina and I to hit the road. We packed our bags – Karina with surgical precision, me embracing a little more chaos theory – ready for our road trip.
Before I go any further, you really need to understand that although best of friends, Karina and I are pretty much polar opposites in almost every regard – not just our musical tastes and packing styles. She’s summer; I’m winter. She’s minimalist; I’m ‘eclectic’. She’s logical; I’m emotional. She’s savoury; I’m sweet. She snores, I don’t!
Of course we have a few things in common too: we both love Jake Gyllenhaal and neither of us has driven in the ice and snow before. With that in mind, we slipped and slid our way on icy paths over to the head office of SADcars to collect a 4WD with winter tyres that will take us all the way around the country in the next 9 days… or so we hope. For me, SADcars really was the only choice for car hire, not least of all because of the name. Apparently it is made up of the initials of the owners but it appealed to my melancholic streak. Their fleet is made up of well preserved second hand vehicles (aren’t all hire cars really?), and consequently is significantly more affordable than the major companies. That appealed to my budgeting streak. In fact, with the Australian dollar so weak and the Icelandic Kroner fully recovered, SADcars may actually have been the difference in doing the road trip or not.
Our carriage awaited, a snow white RAV4 complete with seat warmers! Unfortunately, our GPS hadn’t yet been returned by its previous user and there was no way I was going to head off without one, not after driving around France with my mum a few years back with a dodgy GPS and no map for back up. In fairness, the road system in Iceland is a little more comprehensive than Frances. Here, there’s one major ring road that circles the country so the chances of getting lost are greatly reduced but I’m yet to meet a person with a worse sense of direction than mine (other than my Mum).
Rather than wait around, Karina and I combined our powers – mine for left-hand driving, hers for map reading – to head back to the apartment to collect our luggage. We then made our way to Kringlan Mall to stock up on supplies for the road. When we returned to SADcars, the GPS still hadn’t materialized so we made ourselves comfortable in the cosy common area of the adjoining BUS hostel to do some much need trip planning. At this point, we’d only just decided what direction we’d head in (clockwise) but everything else was up for grabs. We’d made a non-exhaustive list of ‘must sees’ and now plotted them on the map. We figured that we’d book accommodation around the way, a luxury we could afford since it is the low season.
Our GPS arrived so it was time for us to head out, Karina taking the wheel for the first time on the left-hand side. We agreed that until we fully adjusted to life on the other side of the road, we could use certain key words to help ‘orientate’ the driver. “SIDE!!!” was by far the most common, used to indicate the passenger felt as though they were about to fall off the side of the road. We soon came to a mutual agreement that it was actually harder to be a passenger because at least as driver, you felt as though you had some control.
It wasn’t long before we were out of the city and en route to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula but with the shorter winter days, we were racing against the sun to get to our destination before it set. I was glad Karina was at the wheel because it meant I got to drive the camera as we made our way through constantly changing and yet consistently breathtaking landscape drenched in the last, and most glorious light of the day.
The sun beat us. It was near dark as we neared the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, tiny lights twinkling on in clusters of two or three, punctuating a barely inhabited landscape. The GPS indicated we were near though I couldn’t see any sign of the little town I assumed our guesthouse to be in. It became apparent that the two lights glowing at the edge of the Atlantic were the ‘town’ we were looking for. On my previous trips to Iceland, I’d always looked longingly at these dwellings so far from anything else and dreamed of a day I would stay in one. With the freedom of our own wheels, that dream was about to come true. As best as I can tell, Traðir is made up of the guesthouse and the guesthouse owner’s house. We pulled in alongside the only other car out the front. We unplugged the GPS to stow it in the glovebox only to discover there was already one in there and had been all along!
We dumped our bags in our basic but comfortable room with a low window looking out over the ocean before settling into the wifi zone of the common room. We chatted with our host, asking her advice about the best place to search for the Northern Lights. Her answer was simple: the front doorstep. And she was right. It wasn’t long before the sky seemed to tear open portals to other dimensions and let the spectral light of other worlds shine into ours. Admittedly there’s a little more fiction to that description than pure science but there’s no denying that phenomenon of the Aurora borealis is other worldly and seems to move with intelligence and grace, even if it is just negatively charged particles colliding with our atmosphere.
We were joined in our gawping by a lovely Canadian couple. The four us, like the lights, spreading out, then coming together, moving into our pairs, then off on our own, reveling in natures most awesome spectacle dancing above and all around us. The others made best use of the convenience of our location, popping inside to warm up with cups of tea and back out to marvel at more of the display that just would not quit. I felt impervious to the cold though as I snapped away with far less precision than I would have liked. In my defence, it’s vey difficult to focus a camera in subzero temperatures in pitch-blackness.
As frustrated as I was by the limitations of my skills and equipment, it felt good to be able to share what I had captured with our new friends. While we reviewed the pictures, a pair of sister arrived, desperate to get photos of their own but so far had been unable too. I adjusted the settings on their camera and mounted it on a tripod for them and out the door they flew to snap away at the still undulating lights. They returned, thrilled to have finally been able to get photographic evidence of their adventure. It felt great to have been of service though still disappointed in my own shots. You know what they say, practice makes perfect, so I’ll just have to keep coming back until I get it right!