I already knew it to be fascinating from the stories I’ve heard, and mesmerising from the pictures I’ve seen, so little did I expect Iceland to still surprise in more ways than one. Traversing through a vast open space in one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, I found it to be peacefully devoid of cars and throngs in the middle of April. Yet those stretches of seemingly emptiness were not merely a beautiful blank. Instead, I saw spaces full of majestic landscapes, rich in diversity and holding in store surprises for the brave, curious traveller.
It was so easy to lose myself in that infinite expanse of beauty, yet not once in all the more than 3,000 km we covered did I ever feel truly lost. In those moments of tranquility, any fears of being almost alone in foreign territory were calmed. The stillness and silence of the lands were jarring reminders of life in another constantly cacophonous world where fast is always never fast enough.
The land of frost and fire, as it is commonly called, may sound contradictory but is actually far more accurate than its misleading frigid-sounding name because this island nation’s unique geological DNA has resulted in the unlikely coexistence of two extremities in close proximity – glaciers and volcanoes. Thus, it was completely normal on one day to be perspiring while walking on a frozen glacier tongue under rare sunshine, and the next to tiptoe past bubbling mud pools to bathe in a natural thermal river with snow flying into our half numb faces.
In the space of several minutes, we could drive through all four seasons, alternating between stark black lava fields and blinding white snowscapes. I fell in love with the dramatically contrasting scenery but its unpredictability was perplexing. I went to Iceland with a meticulous itinerary detailed to the minute, but realised it just didn’t work in that capricious climate. But if there’s one great reason why Iceland makes the ultimate adventure road trip, it is because it inspires spontaneity.
On the fourth day, we woke up to a steady snowfall causing the roads to be temporarily impassable thereby disrupting our morning plans. Stuck in our cosy guesthouse, we decided to take a long relaxing breakfast instead, during which the property’s energetic Border Collie bounced his way into our room and invited us for a game of fetch. Things weren’t going according to plan but it was a pretty wonderful start to the day. With that, I conceded to the forces of nature to guide us towards more serendipitous encounters.
Driving along the Ring Road, we took chances on signboards we couldn’t decipher, turning into off roads to get a closer look. Once, a spur-of-the-moment decision to hike to the top of a little-known waterfall led to an extraordinary discovery. But the unexpected doesn’t always come in the most pleasant of forms. I won’t ever forget the time we stopped our car in the middle of a deserted road after being waylaid by Icelandic horses on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The friendly creatures seemed to be overly fond of licking our bonnet while we enjoyed petting them. Later we realised to our horror all that enthusiastic licking had somehow left deep scratches on the rental car, causing us much anxiety over the potential wallet damage.
Despite being a progressive and well-informed society, many Icelandic superstitions are intriguingly centred around mythical creatures like elves, fairies and trolls which I had only known existed in the world of Enid Blyton, and they go as far as influencing major construction projects in the country. As we helicoptered over the magnificent meringue-like peaks of Landmannalaugar, I couldn’t help posing a curious question to our pilot, “Do you believe in elves?”
At first he laughed it off but after some hesitation replied that he respected the magical beings whether they actually existed or not. Later, I read somewhere that it is considered bad luck to deny the existence of huldufólk (hidden people). Be it fact or fiction, I believe in the importance of the occasional disengage from reality, just like how many of us typically unwind with a good book or movie. Iceland, with its fantastical fairytale-esque environment, is no better place for imaginations to run wild. So that was how I found myself at Álfaborg, a sacred rock fortress in the far-flung east where the queen elf is believed to reside, half-hoping for a chance encounter with a mythical being.
As I made my way up, I felt a similar sense of anticipation as a child on Christmas Eve, tucked in bed but willing myself to stay awake for Santa Claus. Regrettably I did not meet an elf, but I came home with weird and wonderful memories from our road trip – probably the best present the magical beings could grant me.