It was 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted. I went with a group of friends from work (I was working for the biggest private media company in Iceland at the time) and we decided to climb Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest mountain in Iceland, a few weeks after the eruption. We took a bus over there, and Iceland was like always in 2010: dramatic, a little dangerous – there was an active volcano in our way – but what was the most usual sight of it all, and you didn’t really think about at the time – is that there were not many travelling.
You met a car once in a while, most often locals from the area. Often you would pass some sweaty cyclist battling the hills and felt bad for them, for you knew that weather would not be kind. But they have been here since around the 80s and come to Iceland every year like the Arctic tern.
That whole year, 2010, we had 495,000 tourists visiting Iceland. That was the last year of empty streets and few tourists.
Not that high
For hikers, Hvannadalshnjúkur is not that high. It’s around 2,100 meters. The top itself is like a white blimp on the top of the glacier itself and is only 200 meters high. The glacier is the true challenge. You can never be too careful. This is often the trick about our mountains, they are not that high, but they can be risky in various ways. And the glaciers, they can be brutal.
The group made it to the top and in the distance, we saw the roaring Eyjafjallajökull spewing millions of tons of dirt straight up to the sky. Polluting the air and disrupting all air traffic between Europe and North America. The whole world was all of sudden following Iceland closely, in awe, like the rest of us. This was how Iceland’s nature could stop the world just for a moment. It was truly impressive in a majestic way.
There was no wind in the air when we stood at the top, and no clouds above us, only below. It was not only a beautiful day, it was unique to watch this destruction so close, yet so far away. At the time, we didn’t realise that this volcano would change everything.
No more nakedness in the geothermal pools
The effects of having Iceland’s name in the world news every day for some weeks resulted in that a few years later, our tourism had literally exploded, and was over one million per year. Few years later, this number was a little over two million per year. That’s four times the population of Iceland. All of a sudden, our nature was not only ours; the world had finally noticed.
The empty black beaches became crowded by colourful tourists in goretex. Gullfoss and Geysir became a tourist cliché. It was not possible to go to the geothermal pools naked after a refreshing hike, sipping on cognac. And hiking the nature trails of Laugavegurinn, was, well, like walking down our biggest shopping street, Laugavegurinn.
Although Icelanders welcomed tourism, something felt lost. We needed to share our paradise with the world for the first time.
The south revisited
Almost exactly ten years after I climbed Hvannadalshnjúkur, I ventured with my trusty, but quiet photo editor of Reykjavík Grapevine, Art Bicnick, back to the south. We visited Jökulsárslón, Skaftafell and Vík í Mýrdal and made some videos about it, Abandoned Iceland, that you can find on our Youtube channel (if it’s not up yet, then it will be soon). And it was stunning to see this country again in the midst of COVID-19. Nature had taken back it’s land, but this time it was not a volcano that stopped the world, it was (most probably) a single bat on the other side of the earth.
The roads were as empty as in 2010. The only difference was that there were no cyclists. We slept at Fosshotel near Jökulárslón and all of the guests were Icelanders, planning to hike somewhere or just to drive and check out the scenery.
Icelanders love to go abroad. They want to flee the constant wind, the cool summers and the unexpected storms. We have seen enough waterfalls for our lifetime. We have climbed all of these mountains and rafted down the ice-cold glacier rivers. We have been fleeing for ten years now, both nature, and in a way, tourism, although, most of us choose to travel to very tourist-heavy areas in the world.
Expats discover Iceland for the first time
Many of us realised that we haven’t visited Iceland for a decade. What was even more interesting, was that in my travels, I found a lot of expatriates in these places. I met this one lovely woman that moved to Iceland from the Philippines 20 years ago and she hadn’t seen Jökulsárlón at all. She had never travelled around the country and used this opportunity to visit these places everybody had been talking about for so long.
“What have you been doing in Iceland then?” I asked, more in jest than seriousness.
“Working,” she answered. “What have you been doing?” she asked. It was a fair question, I had no excuse.
A quiet destruction
Although travelling by these empty roads was a familiar feeling, it was odd to know that even if the weather was sunny and good, we were stuck in the middle of a storm brewed by nature, once again. Empty roads mean destruction. Around 50,000 Icelanders are, in one way or the other, at the mercy of the Directorate of Labour because of the loss of tourism. We have never seen such steep economical troubles, and we are a country that has faced the complete destruction of the economic system in just a matter of weeks in 2008. We are used to crises. But nothing prepared us to have the whole Icelandic nature back on our hands, the eerie silence filled with the noise of birds and waves splashing on our shores.
To find beauty again
After visiting the quiet Jökulsárlón, we hiked to Svartifoss in Skaftafell. Again we met no one except one couple in the middle age, from Reykjavík, who decided to use the opportunity to revisit places they hadn’t seen for years.
The waterfall fell from the cliff, surrounded by the black basalt rocks, into a small river. The silence was golden, as we sat together and listened to this wonderful waterfall which inspired Iceland’s most famous architects, Guðjón Samúelsson, when building our National Theater downtown Reykjavík.
In this silence, I realised that Icelanders were finally going back out, to nature, to re-experience the beauty of it all. In a way, this is unexpected, but a beautiful side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic; to find beauty again.
It’s clear that Icelanders are not travelling abroad this summer, but around their own country. This could even prove to be vital for the travel industry. Icelanders have a knack for changing disaster into a gold rush. The best example is the collapsing of our financial system, which we rebuilt in four years, and have never been stronger than now. Perhaps the strive to re-experience the wonders of Iceland will soften the economic impact, and get us back on our feet. In brief, the first tourist that visits Iceland will be in for a unique ride.
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