Public buses have never had much of a tradition in the western literary canon. One of Steinbeck’s lesser-beloved novels ‘The Wayward Bus’ is a rare example: a story-less tapestry of internal monologues telling the secret passions and the sexual politics between the motley gang of passengers on a small country bus as it wends its way through wildest California.
Bradford-born man of letters J.B. Priestley once took a tour of 1930s Britain and chronicled the voyage in his book ‘An English Journey,’ boarding a series of “motor coaches,” described indulgently as “voluptuous, sybaritic, of doubtful morality.” Locals may have to consult a dictionary for the first two words; the last two shouldn’t be a problem.
Icelanders don’t do public transport
Priestley, of course, never had to take the number 12 from Breiðholt to Hlemmur on a leaden-skied midweek morning. Icelanders do many things better than anyone; however they don’t do public transport.
First of all, this is a land without trains. Back home in Britain, the railways were what helped us take over the world—it was only when we stopped doing them well that we lost everything. Every English train journey is a novel in its own right, replete with characters and stories: the chirpy ticket-stamper, the bookish student girl returning home for the weekend; the lonely thirty-something on business who awkwardly makes eyes at her; the bored single journeying across the country for a weekend with her online romance; the ratty elderly widow holidaying alone.
If I were Mayor of Reykjavík, I’d build a railway track over the urban desert of Vatnsmýri just so young Icelanders might know the thrill of taking the train. It would be an absurd luxury and a massive waste of money—so it would probably suit this city rather well.
Public buses may be a familiar sight, but are still looked down upon: the dominion of early morning minimum wage workers, daytime vodka connoisseurs and carless students. One of many quotes attributed (almost certainly falsely) to Margaret Thatcher goes: “Any man who takes the bus to work after the age of 26 is a failure.” The Icelanders are several degrees less sympathetic.
Taking the new route 57 to Akureyri
So the only good reason I can suggest why the city’s bus operator Strætó has just extended its Route 57 to go all the way up north to Akureyri—Iceland’s “capital of the north,” population 17,000—is because it could make a great novel.
It would however be a novel without too many characters—we would pick up about half a dozen on our way. When I boarded the bus for Akureyri at Mjódd station on a chilly Saturday morning for a prompt 09:00 departure, I was one of only three passengers. I did awkwardly make eyes at the girl one seat ahead and at the other side of the aisle to me, but there were no ratty elderly widows or online romantics—it didn’t look set to be a particularly great novel. But then neither was Steinbeck’s.
The vehicles that take on the temperamental surfaces of Iceland’s northbound ring road are fortunately not the mostly empty municipal yellow city buses that swarm round Reykjavík from morning till night.
That Saturday morning, the bus to the north was a Hópbílar Renault Ilade, over ten metres long, weighing well over 11,000 kilos, decked out with a Euro 3 engine, and packing a walloping punch at 340hp. The only similarity it bears to the metropolitan bus fleet is the red-and-yellow capital S symbol and the electronic sign on board telling the name of the next stop accompanied by the dutiful lady’s voice announcing it.
Taking in the scenic drive
The unpromising dawn gave way to a fresh, sunlit morning as we left the capital area and headed for the centre of Akranes. We travelled almost six kilometres through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel which forges underneath the notorious fjord where folklore has it the Evil Whale Redhead once resided—an amateur fishmonger who drove himself crazy and was transformed into a whale by an angry elf-woman he had impregnated. (You’ve got to be very careful not to get on the wrong side of the elf-women around here.)
In sleepy Akranes, we paused at the feet of the grandiose, great-footed seaman statue on the town’s central roundabout. By 10:00 we were away from the city, and finally pushing ahead on the long drive up Iceland’s Route 1.
When you see the steady stream of traffic coursing through downtown Reykjavík, it is easy to forget just how far the Icelandic wilderness spreads. For miles seemingly unending, the view from the coach window was of a desolate, murky, rugged outback—an occasional farmhouse the only sign of habitation all the way to the rising mountainous horizon. Even on the country’s largest arterial highway, only rarely did another car pass by; somewhere near Varmahlíð, we had to overtake a tractor.
At Bifröst, a small settlement about an hour’s ride from Akranes, a pair of pale, white-blonde youngsters on bikes stopped in their tracks and watched with dropped jaws as our coach drew monstrously into town like a vast warship harbouring at some tiny fishing village.
We stopped for a respite at the Staðarskáli service station nearly three hours into our journey, taking a break for a pylsa and a visit to the restroom (in case the coach’s on-board toilet facilities weren’t to the taste of respectable passengers). From then we carried on towards Hvammstangi, Blönduós and Varmahlíð.
The last chapter of the novel
Along with the mainline coach service, Strætó operates a fleet of private cars, which take passengers from pre-selected stops to destinations out in the country. A couple of teenagers on the coach alit at Hvammstangavegur and took a car marked with the Strætó ‘S’ for their final homebound leg.
The white-dusted peaks and ridges that line up on either side of Road 1 on the final strait towards Akureyri were all that shared the vista for the last hour or so. I was the only passenger that morning to stay the course from Reykjavík all the way to our final destination. I could stay there for a little longer; my chauffeur had to take passengers straight back to Reykjavík for the 15.45 from Akureyri Hof.
The new service, paid for by municipalities in West, Northwest and Northeast Iceland, has attracted critics. Tour company Sterna had previously been charging as much as 11,800 ISK for the one-way journey; now that Strætó, which charges 7,700 ISK, has taken control of the route, some have complained that it doesn’t serve rural areas as well, with time-wasting stops in the Reykjavík suburbs and long waits for buses from Mjódd on to Kringlan or BSÍ where many head. Not to mention, there’s no bus from Akureyri until Saturday afternoon, meaning weekend visitors have to take Friday afternoon off in order to make the trip.
But hey, you could always spend the time on the road writing a novel about the journey instead.
Strætó departs from Reykjavík’s Mjódd station to Akureyri’s Hof station twice daily except for Saturdays when it departs once at 9:00 AM. The one-way fare is 7,700 ISK. See the Stræto website for more information. Accomodation was provided by Akureyri Backpackers: visit their website or call +354-5783700