Boarding a plane at the Reykjavík airport has all the pomp and ceremony of catching a city bus: no gates, no magic wands, no taking my belt or shoes off. After a few minutes of waiting in the lobby with other red-eyed passengers, an attendant simply points outside and we all trudge out towards the prop plane waiting at the door. Within minutes we’re seated in a plane cramped with over-sized luggage, businessmen and their newspapers, children and their cries. “So many people going to Mývatn,” I thought to myself. Oh, how wrong I was.
A flight between Reykjavík and Akureyri is like losing your virginity: a slightly terrifying and surprisingly short experience. Bouncing and dipping, the blue and gold plane hardly had time to reach cruising altitude before starting its descent.
Rabbi, Air Iceland’s Lake Mývatn day tour guide, met us on arrival, introduced himself warmly, and guided us toward the minivan which would be our trusted chariot for the rest of the day. A couple stops later our fellowship was complete: the photographer and I, an Italian couple, a German couple, an American mother and daughter and a lone Japanese tourist.
After enjoying the sight of Akureyri by night, Rabbi sped the van along to our first serious destination: Goðafoss. By the time we arrived the sun was just rising and the view was impressive: 12 metres of cascading water cradled between snowy banks with a silver moon to top it all off.
From Goðafoss Rabbi headed towards Lake Mývatn on practically deserted roads. Named for the billions of flies that hatch here every summer, the lake attracts dozens of different bird species that come here to feast yearly. Those birds, in turn, attract thousands of tourists. But during our visit the region was entirely devoid of pesky flies, annoying tourists, or gorging birds.
A well-deserved lunch followed at a nearby restaurant overlooking a vast volcanic landscape. Here too it seemed as if our 10-person party made up the majority that day’s patrons. As the meal wound down, Rabbi pointed out the window at a lone figure stretching his legs on a rocky crag. We quickly paid our bill and made our way down the hill where, to our surprise, we found Stekkjastaur, one of the Yule Lads, tinkering around. During each of the twelve days before Christmas a different Yule Lad keeps vigil here, waiting for neighbourhood children to come by and chat. But during our visit there were no children in sight and as far as I could tell there was no neighbourhood either. This didn’t seem to bother Stekkjastaur, who busied himself with pulling women from our group on to his lap and posing for pictures.
Next stop: Hverarönd, a highly active geological area with bubbling sulphur mounds as far as the eye can see. Here too we were alone, strolling through the steam with red mud caking thickly on our shoes.
At this point Rabbi was hurrying us along. There were only a couple hours left and we’d yet to see the star attraction: the Lake Mývatn Nature Baths. The single employee at the reception table smiled as we pulled in: we were his only customers. For an hour and a half the ten of us steamed, swam, bathed, showered, relaxed and chatted in perfect serenity as if we’d rented the complex for a private party.
I asked Rabbi why, given the natural beauty and attractions of the area, we’d seen so few other visitors.
“Tourists don’t realise that there are more things to do here in the winter, not less,” he said. “It’s beautiful here in the winter. It’d be great to see more visitors come.”
Driving back to the Akureyri airport I had to agree with Rabbi, it was beautiful here. But I couldn’t help wondering if more visitors might shatter that special experience of bundling up with a group of perfect strangers and trucking around a barren landscape without another soul for hundreds of kilometres around.
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