The North Atlantic Passage

Every year I shoot a music festival in Paris. I like to spend some time traveling around Europe while I’m away. I’ve spent time crashing on couches with friends in London, Prague, Rome, and Berlin. This time I decided to check out Iceland. A one hundred Euro flight from Paris, a bottle of duty-free Havana Club rum (contraband to us Americans), and I get to sit staring out of my window watching the Northern Lights over the Atlantic Ocean as we fly over Northern Scotland. It’s an incredible way to spend my Halloween.

I have my doubts about Iceland. I know it will be insanely beautiful, but it’s been covered by everyone. I’m a little apprehensive about retracing every photographer’s steps and getting the same photos as the rest of the world. I’m also taking a tour with Iceland Travel. I’m not the type of person who typically takes tours. I don’t like a bunch of people piling into a giant bus and hitting the pricy tourist restaurants along the most well-traveled route known to man. But this tour is different. It’s not a tour in the traditional sense. I’m given a rental car and some hotels that are booked along the way, while I am free to stop at my leisure and see the country at my own pace. It’s a tour for people who hate tours.

I spend my evenings seeking the elusive Northern Lights, mapping my routes, charging my batteries, and getting ready to wake before sunrise to start my day.

I have no issue taking advantage of the incredible hotels along the way. I’m used to camping, sleeping in cars, and staying in 12-bunkbed hostel rooms. Instead, I spend my nights in nice rooms and get to swim in various hotel geothermal pools. I spend my evenings seeking the elusive Northern Lights, mapping my routes, charging my batteries, and getting ready to wake before sunrise to start my day.

It’s a country with a spirit of independence and resilience. And they have recovered in an incredible way. The country is booming, people have jobs, and they are happy. I think the rest of the world could benefit from the ideals of this remote North Atlantic island.

My trip starts in Reykjavik. I like the feel of the place. Everyone is coming or going. It’s busy and people are in a hurry. It doesn’t feel like a typical laid-back European city. From my hotel room window, I can see mountain ranges and the Atlantic coast through the Icelandic fog in every direction. I stop in at an Icelandic coffee roasters where they are playing Angel Olsen and Kraftwerk while gearing up for a big festival called Iceland Air Waves. There is a bearded local man speaking to a German girl about politics, and I eavesdrop because I’m an American and it’s been on my mind constantly over the last few months. Our election is a week away, and I have recently cast my absentee ballot. The man is saying that the world needs to rise up and fight together against racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. I’m interested because Iceland is a small, but very strong and endearing country politically. They suffered from a financial collapse a decade prior. While America and the rest of the world endured a similar crisis and bailed out our banks and financial institutions, Iceland didn’t use it’s tax money to pay off banks and debts to the Netherlands and UK. Iceland decided to abandon its campaign to get into the European Union. I really like that about Iceland. It’s a country with a spirit of independence and resilience. And they have recovered in an incredible way. The country is booming, people have jobs, and they are happy. I think the rest of the world could benefit from the ideals of this remote North Atlantic island.

I leave the Reykjavik city center and, within a few miles, I am already surrounded by incredible landscapes in every direction. Giant rocky, mossy, and green terrain hugs the winding road to my right and the Atlantic Ocean to my left, while dozens of horses and sheep appear through the low-hanging fog up ahead. I pull over several times to fly my drone before arriving at my hotel in Husafell. It’s a perfect home base for my next few days exploring the nearby giant glacier of Langjokull.

The Icelandic days are short, so I leave immediately for the glacier. I utilize my four-wheel drive and metal-studded tires through a pothole-filled road and intense blizzard en route to the glacier. I have the entire place to myself for miles and miles. In the four hours I spend driving to and from the glacier I only pass a giant eight-wheeled vehicle transporting people to and from the glacier. The blizzard subsides to a steady snowfall, and I sit in the car listening to music. I watch the snow accumulate on my windshield while enjoying a lukewarm coffee and ham sandwich that I picked up from a convenience store near my hotel. The following day, I wake up early and board the eight-wheeled all-terrain vehicle to explore a recently completed tunnel that takes us deep into the glacier. The glacial tunnel is a collaboration among several engineers, scientists, glaciologists, and conservationists. We slap some crampons on our feet and make our way through the incredible aqua blue ice caves before emerging out into a blizzard on top of the ice.

I spend the next day taking a long route to my new hotel. There are several times that I encounter roads with warning signs reading “Ófært” (Impassable). I decide to proceed with caution and get into some extremely hairy situations through the central part of the country. I never have to turn around and find an alternative route. The Icelandic terrain is brilliant. It’s one of those countries that doesn’t have any particular homogeneity or uniformity. Every twist and turn brings you a new horizon to gawk at and stop your car for a photo. Iceland constantly reminds you that this planet is ever-changing and unpredictable. There are steaming vents in the ground reeking of sulphur, boiling aqua blue pools, fields of ice, lakes filled with glaciers, meadows of lava rocks from recent eruptions, grass, peat, black sand, ocean waves, glowing green skies, and an endless variety of precipitation.

I call it an early night because my wife, Sandra, is flying into Iceland to join me for the rest of my trip. I am two hours away from the airport, and her scheduled arrival time is 4 a.m. I awake at 1:30 a.m., fill my thermos with hot water, toss in a few bags of tea and set the GPS for Reykjavik. The dim green sky keeps me motivated, and I roll into the airport right as she lands. We make our way back to the hotel before sunrise for a nap and hit the road for the south coast.

We make a few stops for gas and food, the black sand beach, and a waterfall that we have to ourselves for more than an hour. Sandra likes to stop for animals. Her trip highlights include petting goats and horses. We make it to our incredible hotel and set off at midnight for Jökulsárlón, a glacier lagoon, where we watch the Northern Lights reflect over the icebergs. The only sound comes from thunderous glacial chunks splintering into the water with a loud splash and an occasional wave lit by the bright emerald night sky. It’s eerie to actually hear the crack and splash of global warming. Even with the melting ice in mind, it is impossible to ruin the experience we have on the shore of this lake of icebergs, watching the dancing light over the horizon.

I wake up the next day and board a van that drives us onto Vatnajökull Glacier where I am handed a helmet, ice axe, and crampons. We take a short hike across the black glacier colored by volcanic ash from a recent eruption and ascend into natural Crystal Ice Caves cut from water flowing from the melted ice. It’s one of most unique places I’ve ever visited, but it’s melting at an extremely rapid pace and won’t be around for long – Iceland’s glaciers are melting at a rate of more than 11 billion tons of ice per year. I spend the rest of the day back at the glacier lagoon. The south coast is extremely special. I’ve done a lot of traveling, and it ranks among some of the most amazing places that I’ve ever visited. We leave the next day for Reykjavik, making a dozen stops along the way, including Fjardrárgljúfur, which is a giant green canyon. It’s a touristy spot, but thanks to some rain and sleet, we pretty much have the whole place to ourselves for a hike along the giant ravine. We make it to Reykjavik and call it an early night so that we can wake up early and get to the Blue Lagoon.

I am stunned by the place. Its aqua blue sulphuric water is something I have never experienced before. I know that nothing else will ever compare. We spend all day navigating the warm steaming aqua baths with mud cleansers on our face and champagne glasses in our hands. That night, I sleep like a baby.

I have to drop off Sandra at the airport so that she can fly back in time for work. We take the long way to the airport passing by some incredible places, like Krýsuvík and Kleifarvatn. We navigate the roads through a highly volcanic territory during an intense white-out blizzard, past signs warning us to turn around. I manage to make it to the airport alive and we say our goodbyes.

My last full day in Iceland is an incredible one. I had gone through a week of intense training before I left my home in Austin so that I can dive the Silfra Fissure, the gap between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe. We put our dry suits on and are briefed by the dive master about what to expect. I approach the descension point with a nervous anticipation because I have never used a dry suit before and am a little apprehensive about the freezing cold water. It’s a shock to the system because your face isn’t entirely covered, and you still feel the frigid water through your suit, especially on your hands. But as soon as I get the regulator in my mouth and start descending into the water, everything changes. It’s like putting a mute button on all of my problems. I am swimming through crystal clear glacial waters with some of the best visibility of any dive on earth. Diving is an incredible thing. Our planet is covered by 70% water, yet we’ve only explored about 5%. I find that really motivating.

Iceland is a very special place. It’s a small country that packs an insane amount of beauty into every inch. I’ve only seen a fraction of the country and experienced what it has to offer. I’m already making plans for round two.

Words and Imagery by Matt Lief Anderson for The Adventure Handbook