Published August 22, 2003
If Iceland is, as it often seems, in the middle of nowhere, then the top of a glacier in Iceland must be somewhere right in the middle of the middle of nowhere. This is where Grapevine happened to find itself one foggy Friday morning. In another tribute to boundless entrepreneurship, you can now go snowscooter riding on top of most of Iceland’s glaciers. The glacier in question is Mýrdalsjökull, only a medium sized glacier, apparently not the entrance to the centre of the world, has never been featured in a James Bond film, but a glacier none the less. Grapevine is late as usual, and must drive itself up to the meeting point, somewhere halfway up the mountain. As I look around there’s nothing but rock on both sides, and there’s not much to distinguish the road from the surroundings. As you get used to the sound of stones ricocheting off the hood, the thrill of driving up a glacier is surpassed only by the relief that the car in question belongs to the publisher.
The meeting place is a modern cabin somewhere on the side of the mountain. There is even more rock, but as yet, no sign of ice. Outside stands a vehicle that can best be described as looking like something out of an Icelandic version of Mad Max, like the connoisseurs wheels of choice after the end of civilisation. This might be someway off (or perhaps has long since occurred and no one noticed), but the glacier itself might actually explode any minute. Well, perhaps not any minute. They say there’ll be a six hour warning. Under the glacier itself is a gigantic crater, and eruptions occur about every 80 years or so. The last one took place in 1918, so we’re a bit overdue. The last time this happened, about a quarter of the glacier melted away, resulting in the sea around the Westman Islands temporarily rising by a meter. When asked how this will affect business when it occurs again, our handler says they will have to move to another glacier.
Tourists are herded into the maxmobile, whereas Grapevine gets to sit in a jeep, the king of the Reykjavík road and every aspiring CEO´s dream, but here looking pathetically tiny next to the monster, enough to make any aspiring CEO rethink his penis substitute alternatives. We set upon another road which makes the first look like an autobahn by comparison, and would have finally done the publishers car in. Due to the warm weather of the past year, we have to drive further than was recently the case to get to the place where the ice meets the rock. Once there, we find about a dozen snowscooters waiting. Tourists are mounted, and we set out in single file, not so much to hide our numbers but that if someone falls into a crack in the ice, it will be a single person, and a company employee rather than a hapless journeyman.
The operation of a snowscooter seems pretty straight forward. If I could master the moodswings of the notoriously stubborn Icelandic horse, then surely a mechanized snowscooter would pose no serious problems. There are two handlebars, pressing one makes you go forward, the other makes you stop. Simple enough. I thought of Scott, who set out for the South Pole using the latest in mechanised technology, but his snowscooters froze and so did he, while Amundsen marched on with the tried and tested technique of dogsleighs, winning the game but somehow losing out on the glory.
I pressed the handlebar. The person in front of me sped off into the distance, while behind me I heard the familiar loud cursing of an irate publisher. Looking down at the panel, I saw the letter R blinking relentlessly. With near superhuman speed I made my deductions, and my reaction was quick and studied. “Help!” I shouted to the handler, who strolled over and pressed a button. The R disappeared, I pressed the handlebar, and off I went.
The pace, it must be said, was rather leisurely. The view from the mountain is said to be stunning, but this day, as most days, the view mostly consisted of hail hitting your eyes. Keeping both eyes open was too much of an effort, so I decided upon entrusting the task to my right eye, while saving the left one for better times. As the roughly hour long ride came to an end, it took quite some time before I could get it open and behold the world yet again in all its 20/20 glory. Rock upon rock upon rock.
Off the glacier, and I was already looking forward to lunch, when our handler mentioned a downed US Airforce plane sitting amongst the black dunes down by the sea. This had to be investigated, even at the cost of postponing lunch. The plane had crashed there in ´71, the crew survived, but it was impossible to retrieve the plane due to fierce wind. When the US Army finally came to dispose off the wreck, nearby farmers had already made off with the planes´ fuel supplies. The soldiers blew up the wings and removed all equipment, as protocol dictates, and left the rest in place. In yet another tribute to inexhaustible native entrepreneurship, the landowning farmer sold off the tailpiece as decoration for someone’s summer cottage, but the front half remains for curious onlookers.
The site is not directly accessible by car, so this time our mode of transport was the 4 wheel drive buggy. These were considerably popular about a decade ago, but a high proportion of accidents, as well as the buggy’s habit of destroying whatever land it passes over, led to a reining in of this. The land we were on all belongs to the Arcanum company, so passage was granted. This time our escapade was part of our handler’s extracurricular activities, so the pace was somewhat less leisurely. The four of us sped off, handler, publisher, me and photographer, a girl. The handler raced ahead, followed by publisher. Then the girl passed me too. I weighed the benefits of the possibly more enjoyable ride added speed might bring against the disadvantage of lying bleeding on a rocky hill with a broken neck and decided that caution was the better part of valour.
Our first obstacle, we soon found out, was a river. The handler told us to wait and rode across. Then, as I had feared, he motioned us on. I pressed the handlebar, and tried to cross the river in a straight line at what seemed like the narrowest point. The river, however, carried me downstream somewhat, and when I reached dry land it was at a point not quite parallel to where I had entered.
Our next encounter was with a steep hill we had to surmount. One by one the buggys gathered pace and raced up. I, however, had miscalculated the speed needed, and ground to a halt halfway up. The wheels of the vehicle dug themselves farther into the sand the more I attempted to dislodge myself. Finally the handler came, we pushed the buggy out of the crater I had created, and he drove it up the hill. All attempts at dune buggy cool now finally blown to the considerable wind, I had but two options. To attempt to regain my reputation through daredevilry of hereto unseen proportions, or resign myself irreversibly to my fate as last among dune buggy equals. I looked over my peers, on whose verdict I was dependant; our handler, who was most probably not easily impressed, the publisher, who was never impressed, and the girl, who was dating the publisher and whom it was hence pointless to impress as this would most probably not result in climax anyway. A self-portrait, “Broken-necked and Bleeding on a Hill” entered my mind once more, and I peacefully resigned myself to the back.
We found said plane wreck, described above, right next to the ocean as promised. I watched the tide flow in for a while. Every time the waves crashed in they were somewhat closer than before, and if you weren’t careful it could drag out to sea before you knew what hit you. I felt that these, the livelihood and bane of many a sailor, were best observed from afar.
On our way back we encountered many more perils, none of whom, fortunately, resulted in the breaking of necks, and headed back with a greater understanding of this wondrous and often harsh land we live in, as well as why people most often opt to reside in cities.