It was almost noon on a windy weekday at the end of August. A steady stream of Gortex-clad travellers filed into the Arctic Adventures office in Reykjavík, passing by the couch where I sat mindlessly turning the pages of a tourist brochure.
I sometimes wonder why Icelanders are not more avid tourists in their own country. I wonder how many of them have never driven around the island or gone snowmobiling on a glacier. And of those, I wonder how many have instead been to mainland Europe where they’ve done similar trips.
Rafting is perhaps one of the few tourist activities that attract Icelanders. In 1983, long before Iceland’s tourist boom, a rafting company started operating out of the Drumbó base camp on Hvítá River. And since then, 150,000 Icelanders—roughly half of today’s population—have gone rafting. Even now, with Iceland welcoming nearly double its population in visitors—40% of rafters remain locals.
Ever since learning this in an interview with Arctic Adventures founder and CEO Torfi G. Yngvason last year, I had been planning on trying it. And it was about time.
Taking in South Iceland
A few minutes past noon, Grapevine’s photographer Natsha walked in. I put down the magazine and an Arctic Adventures guide led us to a large van parked on nearby Hverfisgata. We picked up a couple of other travellers and made our way out of town.
On our way over the Hellisheiði plateau, we were stuck behind a bus whose driver had left his right blinker on, as if he were going to steer off road at any minute. Meanwhile the Swedes behind me sang along to Jessie J’s “Price Tag”: “…It’s not about the money, money, money…”
We descended into South Iceland, eventually making a left hand turn, past throngs of summerhouses in the direction of Geysir before turning right toward Drumbó. Upon arriving it was clear that we wouldn’t be the only ones rafting that afternoon. Base camp was packed with Icelanders who seemed to be on a company outing.
In a big room full of equipment hanging on racks, we were instructed to put on a sleeveless wetsuit, a splash-proof jacket, a life jacket, booties and a helmet. “To make everyone’s life easier, all of the Velcro closes to the left,” the instructor told the amused crowd. “You laugh, but you’d be surprised…”
All suited up, we piled into a big yellow school bus and were chauffeured to our starting point on Hvítá, a glacial river with class II rapids. A biting wind blew in our faces as we received a short tutorial and were divided up into four boats.
Going down Hvíta River
Once in the water, we were more or less alone with our boat and the fact that we had arrived with a busload of tourists became a non-issue. Grapevine photographer and I wound up with a family of five and unfortunately the little boy in front of me was a bit paddling-challenged, but awkwardly clashing paddles wouldn’t prove to be a big problem.
Our guide Frikki kept things interesting, calling out simple commands like “forward,” back,” “stop” and “down,” and building suspense as we headed into parts of the river called ominous things like “Bad Omen” and “Titanic Turn.”
There was never any real danger though and the chances of falling overboard were slim to none. For those who dared, the most exciting part of the trip was probably jumping off the cliff into the frigid water below. Like a drill sergeant, Frikki sent people over the edge: “Go. Go. Go. Go…” And one by one like lemmings they went.
For those who share my morbid fear of heights, there would still be a chance to get wet. As we approached the last set of rapids before the final calm in the river, Frikki offered us the chance to float down the rapids. As he said, “Why go rafting if you don’t want to be wet and cold, right?”
Shivering back to base camp
I put down my paddle and jumped out of the boat. The glacial water immediately spilled in through my splash-proof jacket and soaked through my suit. I hugged my life jacket and tried to stay in proper form on my back as the water repeatedly splashed me in the face.
After getting back on the boat, the adrenaline wore off and I proceeded to shiver my way back to base camp. I struggled to remove my booties with numb fingers, uncomfortably stripped off the rest of my sopping wet clothes, put on a bathing suit and b-lined for the sauna where my fellow rafters were already packing in like sardines.
We downed cups of hot chocolate and filled up on BBQ lamb while Frikki played guitar in true camp-style fashion. I chatted with one of the other instructors about the rafting operation, which I learned had taken 13,000 people down the river this summer. At some point in our conversation he asked me, “So, why are you doing this?” And I thought for a second before replying: “Well, I guess I just like doing it.”
By the time we arrived in Reykjavík it was late evening and I still hadn’t shaken the cold, but it had nonetheless been another great day at work for me.
Don’t wear cotton because when cotton gets wet it gets cold. That’s what cotton does.
Wear woollen long underwear and socks.
Wear a fleece sweater. If you forget, they have some lost and found ones for loan. But they are apparently smelly and most likely damp from the last person borrowing it.
Jump in and get wet! Because why not? It’s not every day that you get the chance to go swimming in a glacial river.
Bring an underwater camera! Those are always fun!
Don’t forget to bring extra clothes. You will be dearly disappointed if you forget. Despite the post-rafting sauna and hot shower, you will be cold if for instance you don’t have a pair of dry socks.