Earlier this summer, during an otherwise ordinary Sunday evening, blues musician Halldór Bragason was surprised to find a tour bus poised to drive through his living room. Springing to action, he grabbed his phone and recorded how it narrowly missed his windows, later sharing the footage on Facebook. A minor media frenzy followed, inciting a maelstrom of articles and opinion pieces. Meanwhile, concerned locals raised their concerns on social media, voicing fears that their precious 101 streets were turning into a giant hotel thoroughfare
While gargantuan and clunky buses hogged the headlines, a smaller and leaner brand of vehicles, hitherto unseen on the streets of Reykjavík, has been slowly attracting positive interest downtown. Like a wasp, yellow and black, the three-wheeled auto rickshaws known as Tuk Tuks have been zooming elegantly through those same cramped streets, emitting but a soft buzzing sound from their electric motors.
Having just come back from a six week holiday in India, where auto rickshaws play an important part in public transport (see above video), I was intrigued. I had grown used to their loud engines (from whence their nickname “Tuk Tuks” comes), tiny cabins and terrible suspension, which coupled with reckless driving frequently leads to bumpy rides. My experience in Iceland, on the other hand, would prove to be quite the opposite, with smooth driving, six comfortable seats, and plenty of legroom.
At present Tuk Tuk Tours has two different rides on offer. Although the destinations will undoubtedly evolve and change with time, the itinerary we were given is as follows:
30 minute ride
• Old Vesturbær
• Tjörnin pond
• City hall
75 minute ride
• Ten minute stop by the tussock
• Old Vesturbær
• Tjörnin pond
• City hall
• Þingholt neighbourhood
Small operation, big dreams
The General Manager of the new company behind these novelty rides, Tuk Tuk Tours, is Ólafur Björn Guðmundsson, who got the idea on his own trip to India. The rickshaws he brought to Reykjavík were heavily modified along the way, most notably through the installation of electric engines in the Netherlands. This makes them an environmentally friendly mode of public transport—a fact that Ólafur and his staff take every opportunity to bring up, one of their main selling points.
Ólafur started the company with his friend, historian and journalist Kolbeinn Óttarsson Proppé, with the intention of offering tourists an alternative method to get around town. Kolbeinn, who is responsible for writing the script that the guides recite throughout the tours, adds that the smaller, more manoeuvrable vehicles can go to different locations, and offer a different view of the city. After the yearlong legal tangle of registering the vehicles, both are happy that Tuk Tuk Tours is finally open for business.
At present they’re running six vehicles with eleven drivers, offering a choice of either 30- or 75-minute tours. The two businessmen already have different trips in the pipeline, however, such as a pub crawl where visitors are ferried from one bar to the next, and an “Icelander for a day” tour, where foreigners are taken to local pools and get to experience other staples of Icelandic life.
Photographer Art Bicnick and I meet at Harpa for our tour, and after a short chat with the organisers, off we go. Our 41-year-old driver is Gugga Emilsdóttir, who tells us proudly that she’s just moved back to Iceland, and is “a 24-hour mom and multitask queen.” She had worked at a hair salon, but after an accident where she cut her finger badly, she had to look elsewhere for employment while her hand healed. She applied to Tuk Tuk Tours through an ad in the newspaper, and got a phone call the following day asking when she could start.
Gugga relays numerous stories and tidbits about the locations we visit (including revealing where Jónsi of Sigur Rós lives), as well as her own meandering thoughts on Icelandic drivers who “are always impatient, hurrying from place to place.” She says drivers had at first been happy to see the colourful auto rickshaws, but have now learned to try to get ahead of the slow-moving vehicles, which have a top speed of 45 kilometres per hour.
Our 75-minute tour includes a trip through the harbour, the old Grjótaþorpið neighbourhood, the west end, around the pond, through the Þingholt area, and up to Hallgrímskirkja church. These are all sites that are accessible on foot, but even a jaded city rat like myself can see the benefits of seeing it all in one go, particularly for groups or people with mobility issues. It wasn’t a groundbreaking adventure, but it was nice regardless, even with the frequent stops when interested passing tourists asked our driver for brochures.
It’s nice to see new and innovative tour operators shake up what might be becoming a stale sector. I can’t wait to see the pub crawl iteration in action, with drunken locals and foreigners stumbling in and out of tuk tuks at bars, adding a shade of green to their yellow and black colour scheme.
Wait, how did Art Bicnick get those last two shots?!
Those of us who have worked with resident Grapevine photographer Art Bicnick know that he’s not one to shy away from putting himself in difficult positions in order to get the right shot. So when he came along for our Tuk Tuk ride, we really shouldn’t have been surprised to see him wedge himself under his seat and hang out of the side of the vehicle while it was in motion to get a couple of great photos. Check out the video above!