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The Looniness of the Icelandic Bus Driver

The most common reaction when you tell someone that you are going on holiday to Iceland is “Why?!” accompanied by a look indicating that there is something wrong with you. Given that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, and that part of its landscape was described as the “gateway to Hell”, perhaps this should not have come as a surprise! The country: Iceland can be a cheap and fascinating stop-over if you are heading to North America from Europe by air. Apparently there is also a sea crossing from the north of Scotland, but given that it includes a three day stop-over in the Faroe Islands and is painfully slow, it is not enthusiastically recommended! Iceland has no shortage of travellers, with people coming from all over the world. As many of tourists we came across seemed to have lost all sense of reasoning when encountering the more rugged parts of Iceland’s landscape, we struggled to prove that you can visit this fascinating country without turning strange! Goldenfalls The first thing you notice about Iceland is its unique, wild landscape. Iceland features a wealth of natural beauty in the form of waterfalls, green valleys, glaciers, geysers, volcanoes and fjords. Yet the vast majority of the country is barren. The whole of the central plateau of the island is uninhabitable and resembles the moon; so much so that the first American astronauts were sent there for pre-mission training. The Icelandic consider themselves the true descendants of the Vikings, speaking a language which differs little from that of the original settlers. Norse seafarers settled in Iceland in the 9th century, and the Icelandic are fiercely proud of their Viking history. Everywhere in Iceland, there are also frequent reminders that is one of their own and not Christopher Columbus who discovered America. Given that Leifur Eiriksson´s voyage to Newfoundland, in what is now Canada, happened about a 1000 years ago I felt that they did have a valid point. Iceland has a population of around 270,000, with about half of the inhabitants living in the capital, Reykjavik. Fortunately, Reykjavik is small and you can easily see the major sites in an afternoon. Reykjavik has an unusual combination of old-fashioned wooden architecture and very modern buildings. It is a surprisingly busy city and during the rush hour there are large traffic jams. At night there are numerous bars and clubs you can visit, however, the nightlife really seemed to kick off when most people would consider going to sleep! It did make us wonder what state people were in when they went into work next morning. Miserable weather, miserable people: To say that the weather in Iceland is variable is an understatement. In fact the Icelanders themselves have several sayings about their weather. Sayings such as “There is no weather in Iceland, only samples” or “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes,” indicate the variability of the Icelandic climate. Travelling around the island, you soon get into a routine of being able to change from winter clothes to summer clothes and back with little effort. I was amazed to come across people who were prepared to camp in such bad conditions. In the uninhabited central areas of Iceland there are a number of huts, owned by the touring club of Iceland, where travellers can stay overnight. As far as I was concerned, sitting in my warm hotel, camping in this terrain was not something I would have even considered, but there were numerous crazy tourists willing brave the Icelandic extremes of weather. With such miserable weather it came as little surprise to see that the locals rarely smiled. They are helpful people when you get talking to them, but without the benefit of alcohol many certainly lack a “joie de vivre”. Somewhere I read that the Icelandic have a wacky sense of humour, similar to that of the English. I can only assume that you need to learn Icelandic to discover this. We did meet some very nice people but often some of the locals looked so unapproachable that we took it in turns if we had to ask directions! Another shock in Iceland is how expensive everything is. You soon learn to downgrade your expectations from a three course meal to a cheap burger or hotdog – and to ignore your rumbling stomach. We even found the local Chinese takeaways on the expensive side. The local supermarket became our first port of call and I survived mostly on drinking yoghurt during our travels. As a guide, things in Iceland tend to be two to three-times those of London (which itself can hardly be considered cheap). As Iceland is so expensive, it can limit your options for travelling around the island. If you have plenty of money to spare, you can reach some places by plane. Fortunately, if you are on a budget, the local buses reach most of the places of interest. By the way, if you ask for details of local trains, you may get funny looks as Iceland does not have a rail network. I never felt brave enough to ask why though. Crazy bus drivers: For us, the Iceland bus driver was the star of the holiday and provided us with hours of entertainment as well as terror. For a start, the buses reminded us more of vehicles we had travelled on in Latin America and Asia rather than in Europe. Many of the bus drivers also seemed to be specially trained to drive their vehicles in a suicidal fashion and viewed other traffic (particularly driving head-on) as a minor nuisance. Given that some of roads are fairly basic, you can enjoy a bumpy ride into the middle of the surreal `lunar’ landscape. If the bus itself looks dilapidated, the onboard communication systems are state of the art. Each bus driver has an onboard telephone and also carries his mobile phone with him. The only problem is that these drivers tend to use them as they are driving. None of the drivers we saw showed any hesitation in picking up the onboard phone or answering their mobile whilst driving at high speeds. One driver was talking on his onboard phone and decided to answer his mobile whilst he drove. Thankfully, there was no traffic coming around that particular bend of the road… If that is not enough for you, expect the bus driver to stop where he wants to pick up various friends along the route and their bulky belongings. You know you are in safe hands, when the bus driver has his friend’s suitcase jammed up against the gears, is carrying on a conversation with him, and is ready at any moment to take those calls on his phone(s)… Attractions: After a brief stop at an extinct volcano our bus driver took us to the Gullfoss, the so-called Golden Falls. The source of these magnificent falls was a huge glacier which was slowly melting. There are numerous waterfalls in Iceland and many glacial streams and rivers in the country are among the largest in Europe. At Gullfoss there were several signs telling people to keep to the path alongside the falls. We were therefore amazed to find some people willing to risk going off these tracks to try and take photos closer to the edge ! I can only assume that these were the same lunatics who were prepared to brave camping in the inhospitable centre of the island. Geyser Another attraction was the hot springs. Hot springs are found all over Iceland and the geothermal hot springs provide much of the population with a natural central heating system and pollution-free hot water source. There are about 250 low-temperature geothermal areas with a total of about 800 hot springs. Most resemble the contents of a witches’ cauldron, being characterised by steam vents, mud pools, and precipitations of (smelly !) sulphur. Some of the hot springs are spouting springs or “geysers”, the most famous being Geysir in Haukadalur in south Iceland, from which the international word geyser is derived. It ejects a water column to a height of about 180 feet, and this happens about every five to ten minutes. Trying to take a photo of this is difficult, because the geyser seems to time itself with the moment that you lose your concentration, which means you have to wait all over again. We needed about five attempts to get a really good photo. The average temperature of the geyser water is not far off 100° C – and not surprisingly there were enough mad tourists willing to ignore warnings and be scalded by getting close to the hot water. Several times when these idiots rushed like lemmings to the edge as the hot water column emerged, a nasty thought crossed my mind regarding a change in the wind direction. The absolute highlight of the trip for me was the Blue Lagoon, which lies about 50km outside Reykjavik. The Blue Lagoon is a unique natural pool of mineral-rich geothermal water located in the middle of a lava field. It is one of Iceland’s top attractions and really should not be missed! Blue Lagoon The lagoon consists of hot mineral-rich geothermal seawater which is a milky blue colour. Here you can really relax and forget all about the hectic bustle of daily life. It really is an amazing feeling to soak there in the hot water (approximately 35ºC) for a few hours because the air around you is quite cold. For the die hards there’s even a sauna to try out – though you’ll be hard pushed to challenge the heat-resistant locals. I have to admit I would have been quite prepared to forget about the rest of my holiday and stay in the Blue Lagoon forever. Unfortunately, staying longer than three hours incurred an extra charge and that would have impacted on my yoghurt budget! The Blue Lagoon was a fitting end to an amazing holiday, which gave us lots to talk about. Even our final bus journey to the airport was incident packed. Most of the passengers on our bus got off at the stop before the airport and so the bus driver decided to end the journey there too. When we realised that the bus was not going any further we ran after the bus driver and showed him that he had sold us tickets to the airport. He looked at us as if we were being very unreasonable and reluctantly got back on the bus for the remainder of the journey! For all those who initially doubted my sanity in visiting Iceland, the photos from my brief visit spoke for themselves. Hopefully, I convinced a few friends to try Iceland out, at least as a stop-over to North America. This maybe a country which you rarely hear about, but for anyone who likes to travel to places “just because they exist on the map”, Iceland is unmissable. Do not let the expense and the weather, let alone the doubters, put you off!

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