Kim & Jules: Iceland Storm Chasers

Arriving in Iceland was seamless. We had a tailwind that pushed us into duty free an hour early. Our car rental dude was waiting with a “Kenny” sign in the wings and handed over the keys to our mighty Suzuki Jimny 4×4 as promised. The air had that crisp clarity that shakes the jet lag out of your brains. The Ring Road and its 800-plus miles of unknown opened up before us. We found palatable coffee at the first gas station and settled in to the immediate sensory assault of South Iceland. Our itinerary was loose but semi-rigid. The Ring Road circumnavigates Iceland—and, at some point, in two weeks time, we would also have to circumnavigate back towards Reykjavik for our September 25th return flight to Toronto. We decided to be semi-footloose and not book any hotels prior to leaving. We tried this in Egypt, and sometimes the elements have other ideas for you. The barometer was hovering around a fresh eight degrees—we were ready in our rain repellant wear and attitude. There was relief in travelling to Iceland versus a sunny hot spot. When you book a beach vacation, your mood becomes inherently attached to the temperature and high expectations of the sun. For me, Iceland was like visiting Costa Rica or Ireland. I fully expected rain and battleship grey skies—it would make the experience even more authentic. What we didn’t expect were the gale force winds that blew out the windows of over a dozen cars. But first— ICELAND 2013 933 It’s difficult to condition your eyes to such immediate hyper stimulation. Iceland is a land of severe contrasts—it’s like driving head-long into 800 miles of postcard. Stretches of desolate black sand beaches give way to glaciers and sheer basalt cliffs. Waterfalls pummel into snaking rivers, sea stacks tower out of white-capped oceans. ICELAND 2013 787 Our jet-lag jitters were soothed by a rejuvenating huff of a climb up the stairs to view Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. We were like bobbleheads back in the Jimny trying to take in the whirling terns riding thermals and the lunar landscape. Geothermals spewed out of steam vents in the verdant hills, Icelandic horses ambled about—yes, cue up a non-stop pastoral scene of chubby sheep and darling horses. Our saving grace came in the form of pizza from Halldorskaffe in Vik. The tall boys of Viking and Gull beer were well-chilled just from being in the back of the Jimny. Not feeling brave enough for the neglected pastel quarters of the Puffin Hostel or the equally frightening 70s throwback with panelling that smelled like last week’s composting fish and chips, we bargained with Hotel Edda. The cute cabins I had spied on for $140 were fully booked and a double room in the hotel was $175. A special off-season price, just for us. ICELAND 2013 868 ICELAND 2013 832 The former Hotel Vik I Myrdal had been recently snapped up by the Hotel Edda chain. The lower, original level was sterile and pastel. Even at $75 we weren’t interested. However, the new addition—which was available at the same price tag was full-on modern, masculine and Scandinavian stylish. I sweet-talked us into a room for $140 because we had really (originally) wanted to sleep in the private cabins. We had a view of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks and were minutes from the black sand beaches that put Vik on the map. ICELAND 2013 867 But, after being wired from 24 hours of non-stop (moving my parents that morning, cutting grass, painting the front door, anxiously sitting in stopped traffic on the 401 and an overnight flight with zero sleep), we could barely stay awake in our posh room. We swallowed the salami pizza slices whole and chugged Viking, bleary-eyed as we struggled to enjoy our sea stack view. ICELAND 2013 810 By 8:30pm Kim and I were both cross-eyed with elation and exhaustion. Tomorrow we’d get an early start and tackle the trails at Skaftafell National Park—a solid two hour drive from Vik. I hadn’t driven standard in a few years and offered to take the helm. I felt like I was leaning left the entire time, fighting off the wind. After maybe 45 minutes I asked Kim if she wanted to take over—maybe it was just me, but, I felt like I was being pushed off the road by the wind. Kim is hands-down the more experienced driver out of the two of us-she’s been driving since I was six. I wimped out early—the wind had upped its ante as soon as we switched hot seats. The Jimny felt like it was travelling on two wheels—it was the kind of cartoon tin can vehicle that would be prone to being blown over completely. Sheep hunkered down in the ditches, their wool looked teased-up and back-combed with the wind. We passed Foss a Siou—the waterfall chute was being carried away by the wind before it could even reach the ground. Arriving at Skaftafell still eager to do a glacier walk with a guide we were told the tours had been cancelled due to the weather. We watched a group of women take pictures of the car in front of us—a Suzuki as well. We later realized that the Suzuki no longer had a passenger door—a victim to the wind! We sat in our Jimny silently eating the unusual sandwiches we’d bought at the gas station. I had a curious blend of smoked lamb with peas, carrots and mayo. Kim wasn’t even sure what was inside hers, but the mayo quotient made her happy. Mine tasted like swallowing campfire—the lamb was that smoky. It looked atrocious—like a barf after Thanksgiving dinner. Finishing our beers and remarking how much we lived up to the Bob and Doug stereotype, drinkin’ beer in our toques, we decided to brave the wilds and hike up to the Svartifoss falls. Lonely Planet said it was an hour and a half, return. And, Lonely Planet is gospel! Okay, add 160km wind gusts to that hour and a half. (*According to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, this wind speed is indicative of a Category 2 hurricane. By the time we reached the east fjords, the winds were at 180km/hour–or, Category 3.) And by gusts, I mean like a huge slap from Mother Nature across your body that pulls your feet from underneath you. I couldn’t even see the falls because my eyes were tearing so much from the wind. Sand whipped off the rocks as well, and, add some dodgy footing, a massive basalt cliff, and a good gust in there. It was harrowing at the top—the gales pushed Kim and I along the path towards the edge so unexpectedly that we grabbed on to a human anchor to save ourselves from going over the edge. Really, if it weren’t for that Russian climber acting as a blockade… We had deadly grips on his mighty windbreaker-clad arms and legs—all of us crouched low to ride out the gust. Yes, Jesus! Kim and I praised the lord and the Russian and decided to get the hell off the postcard-famous cliff to the safety of flat ground. When we blew into the visitor’s centre to use the washroom facilities and look at postcards of the falls that we could barely see with our own eyes at that elevation we learned that the Ring Road had been closed. Impassable due to the winds.The Skaftafell Parks employee told us the winds were at 40 meters per second—which we had to have translated from European-speak. 160km/hour indeed! A motley crew of European travellers had banded together and refused to leave the visitor’s centre which closed at 7. The staff called the rescue team and the group was notified that a TANK would evacuate and transport them to a local school for the night. ICELAND 2013 945 We were not part of the motley crew. It wasn’t that bad out, right? Two Suzuki Jimny’s sat in the parking lot with windows blown-out from the wind and ensuing sandstorm. Hmmm, maybe. ICELAND 2013 959 Eager to get on with our travels in the south the next morning, Kim and I decided we would ride it out and sleep in the Jimny—surely the winds would die in the night and we’d take off at first light. We had sleeping bags, hot cocoa, Kahula, Icelandic vodka, four bottles of wine, trail mix, starry-eyed love and hearty Canadiana coursing through our veins! Steely nerves or stubbornness, call it as you will. We joked about the money we were saving by bunking in our 4×4—money that we had already spent on parking at the Toronto airport instead! (Please refer to previous post: Iceland–Against All Odds). The tank rolled up and half the disgruntled group disappeared—I had a rush of goosebumps. Had we made the right decision? Should we be overreacting too? We bought extra sandwiches from the cafe and banded together with two German pals and a brazen Mexican who called his car rental company to add on extra insurance. They were going to sleep in their vehicles too. We had our United Nations coalition. But, did we have coverage for weather-induced blown-out windows? The tank had to make two trips—which allowed us to stay holed up and warm in the center for another hour while it went to and fro. The centre itself seemed like it was ready to pick up and fly off into the horizon like Dorothy and Toto. Kim parked the Jimny behind a weenie treeline (dwarf birch trees are as tall as it gets in these parts) in the campground area of the park. We filled our mugs with hot water before the centre was locked for the night. And what a night it was. We slept with our hands covering our heads in case the windows suddenly shattered. There was not enough Kahlua to put us in a boozy coma to sleep through the howling—and our vehicle actually lifting with the gusts. I nervously wrote postcards to those at home by the ambient light of a trusty headlamp—spinning out the thin humour in our predicament. From our posh sleep at Hotel Edda to being folded up in sleeping bags nursing Kahlua in the wind storm of the century. I found sleep eventually, but Kim was wide-eyed all night. The trailer parked behind us had flipped over at some point, but the winds were so deafening we didn’t even notice. ICELAND 2013 958 Obviously we survived the night and carried on only to face bigger winds. Oh, and a “sandfoki” (sandstorm) on the east fjords. And how ‘bout that blizzard that shut down the #92 shortcut to Egilstaddir after we fish-tailed through it? Again, stay tuned. Also, please note that Kim and I are not professional or interested storm-chasers. Do not try this at home, or abroad. ICELAND 2013 819

Categories: Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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