Thieving Santas And Priest-Driven Volcanoes: Hitchhiking To Skaftafell - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Thieving Santas And Priest-Driven Volcanoes: Hitchhiking To Skaftafell

Thieving Santas And Priest-Driven Volcanoes: Hitchhiking To Skaftafell

Published September 16, 2014

Photos by
Magnús Andersen

Fists clenched, a middle aged bald man sits torn between frustration and amusement. “But Iceland is so ordinary. Nothing exciting happens here,” he says before walking off into the un-setting sun. It’s 6:30 am and I’m on a busy street corner with a crowd of friendly strangers. Sitting in a circle of borrowed patio chairs, we finish our post-bar sandwiches and exchange tales.

Apparently the fascinating strangeness I found in this foreign country surprised even Icelandic natives. Like most people, they called me crazy for doing what I’ve done, but I don’t blame them.

In order to find yourself, you must first lose yourself

Forty-eight hours preceding my trip I purchase a one-way ticket and pack my life into boxes. Equipped with a 17kg backpack, a handful of money and a mind for adventure, I set off.

On the Keflavík bound plane, I plug into the Icelandic in-flight radio. Intrigued by my first tastes of the foreign culture, I am told the President’s phone number is listed in the phonebook and more than half the nation believes in elves.

Beyond the narrow windowpane layers of sapphire, emerald and topaz burst through darkness, while a scarlet sea merges with mountains of shadowed clouds. A sense of beauty I’ve never felt before comes on like a revolution.

A whole new town with a whole new way

The streets of Reykjavík are sleeping as I venture through the downtown core. Finding a cafe I sit armed with a book of tourist attractions. I should know better than to expect my excursion to be found in a travel guidebook.

After a grassy afternoon behind city hall and a long night of duty free gin, the glowing pink sky reads early morning. But it’s only twelve o’clock. Mesmerised, I stand in awe of the midnight sun and city of asymmetrical buildings.

The next morning I’m determined to see Icelandic landscapes. Considering my small budget I decide on the cheapest method of transportation: hitchhiking.

Into the unknown

Destined for Skaftafell National Park, I stroll down Route 1 with a cardboard sign in hand. Before long a beat up Volvo pulls over. Inside a man with shaggy brown hair and an inviting grin gestures to hop in.

Too extreme for seatbelts or speed limits, he carves country roads, ranting about daily annoyances. Trying to ignore the missing rear-view mirror and gasoline-stained seats, I focus on volcanic craters and the turquoise water reflecting clouds above. Unloading his opinions on current affairs and French hookers, he invites me to dinner. When I insist on travelling onward, he says it’s impossible.

His property resembles a junkyard. Decaying greenhouses, broken down cars and roaming dogs swamp the property. Inside, living room walls list names painted in childish script, dried meat hangs from kitchen shelves, cereal boxes act as lamp shades and dead critters lay on the storage room floor.

“A violent wind storm shakes the car as we cross metallic bridges towards distant mountains mimicking Tolkien’s Middle Earth.”

As he demands I make dinner, I sort through the fridge to find most items have long since expired. The rotten food coincides with his bizarre idea to collect ten years worth of trash for consumer awareness. Relaxed, he sips beer from a teacup and chain-smokes cigarettes, all the while threatening to behead his dogs. In a mix of rage and endearment, he orders me to hang from a workout bar where he can bind me with neck ties. I refuse, he chuckles. Moments later I’m locked in the bathroom, banging to be let out. “Animals don’t even have doors to go to the washroom, why should we close ours,” he lectures.

The rest of the evening I spend biting my tongue as I listen to his sexist views and master-mind inventions. Asking me to share strange Canadian ways, I’m lost for words after hearing tales of thieving Santa Clauses and priest driven volcanoes. All I know is this man has an absurd sense of humour and although seems insane, he’s harmless and remarkably, hospitable.

After spending the night, I leave a note on the kitchen table and walk down the dirt driveway, looking back only once to take in the scenery of my unorthodox experience.

Purgatory to paradise  

As I stand on the side of a lonely highway, a white Suzuki rental car pulls over. The solo travelling Australian fire-fighter is also heading eastbound. Stopping at each passing waterfall, we snap photographs, attempting to capture the sweeping presence. Rocky hillsides complete with elf-sized doors and mossy green fields evoke fairytale imagery.

The scenery quickly switches to Greek mythology with ash smeared glaciers and dried lava fields—a place for lost souls. A violent wind storm shakes the car as we cross metallic bridges towards distant mountains mimicking Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Onward through treeless landscapes and uprising cyclones, we’re as solemn as survivors of an unearthly apocalypse. Eventually the storm takes us hostage to a nearby motel.

Quick to rise, we’re anxious to reach the park. Before us mountains peak into the sky, glaciers dip below the sun and the land stretches for miles. Forsaking the tracked path we blaze our own trails around the glacier playground, careful to avoid stepping on shifting stones or sinking sand. The park is the perfect mania of waterfalls and flowing streams.

Reaching Svartifoss, the mother of waterfalls, she appears hand crafted in the shell rock resembling bamboo. After moments of blissful wonder, I retreat to the parking lot in hopes of hitching a ride. Then the rain comes.

All good things must come to an end

Returning to the city where I began my journey, the peculiar atmosphere continues with costumed protesters and stilt walking street performers. By nightfall people flood the streets like ants, flowing from bar to bar and singing for all to hear. Night becomes morning and my patio conversations must end. Reluctant to leave the bizarre city my heart has embraced, I head to the airport.

On the runaway the plane speeds towards the sea. As I hold my breath, we quickly switch direction, veering into the sky. I exhale deep and smile, “I’ll be back.”

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