Following on from our luvverly ride through Rekjavik, and our subsequent nap, Rich and I headed back into the centre of town for our White Night Hike. I’m a bit of a sucker for Trip Advisor, and in my months of planning and spreadsheeting prior to le world tour, I kept coming back to the White Night Hike because it sounded SO flippin’ weird and wonderful.
We were not disappointed.
Standing outside the tour office, we were greeted by Ymir and Adam, our guides. Ymir is a self-proclaimed ‘Wiking’ (minus the raping, looting and killing bits) who set up his own tour company with a friend about a year ago. Adam, Ymir’s girlfriend’s son, is about to head off to Kansas for uni. He carried our food and wore big steel capped boots (that would certainly come in handy later in the trip).
Piling into a turquoise bus (a colour that seems to be following me everywhere lately!), we were off. Along the highway out of Rekjavik, past steaming pools in an otherwise arid landscape – the countryside here is like being on the moon. Black molten rock, covered in moss, grass and flowers, and no trees anywhere.
Then off the highway and along a rocky road (with not a marshmallow or glace cherry in sight!) – wild, shaggy sheep stood by the road, minding their bizniz, then running shaggedly (yes, shaggedly, it’s a word – IT IS!! No, it’s not) in front of the bus, across fields and down steep hills…
The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. Mountain ranges, grass, and this creepy sulfurous steam everywhere. And those sheep. Baaa.
Ymir was quick to tell us to stick to the path, and not to go too close to the pools of bubbling mud. The banks are pretty unstable and he alleges that last week a French man got too close to the edge and slipped in to the boiling, viscous mud. He suffered third degree burns to his lower leg, but it could have been far worse. We pass steaming pools with sheep bones on the banks – poor schneeps getting cold and attempting to cuddle up to a boiling rock, then getting stuck in the mud and that’s it – they’re chops…
The stink of sulfur in the air is quite hideous, but you get used to it. It seems to get into your clothes though, which is not a nice way to wake up the next day – egg-stink infused jeans, anyone? Bleck.
We pass a marker warning hikers of open pools of bubble. Ymir pulls a bottle of Brennivin from his pocket and proclaims “We each must drink a shot of Schnapps when we pass each warning sign!”
I have decided to say yes to anything offered to me on this trip (within reason), so down the hatch. It’s a vodka-y, caraway seed-y shot that kinda tastes like nothing when you shoot it, then it spreads down your throat and through your sinuses and it’s warming and nice.
Down into a valley, up an incline, down a really steep, rocky path, which I slid most of the way down (damn you Keds), and into a huge, grassy, steaming valley.
“This is where we bathe” Ymir declared, gesturing to a knee-deep section of the stream cutting through the grass.
I looked around. At the huge, majestic, incredible, grassy beauty surrounding me and thought….
“Where the crap am I gonna get into my bathers???”
Rich looked at me and felt my pain. I’m not the greatest at getting my gear off when there’s not a door to close or a rock to crouch behind.
“Hmmm” I said.
“Hmmm” Rich said.
“Follow me!” I said, spying a ditch in the grass that led down to an estuary off the main pool. It was about 3 feet lower than the rest of the valley, and just secluded enough for me to get nekkid and into my bathers without anyone looking (which I’m sure they all were, because why would anyone admire the beauty of nature when my pasty thighs are on display??!).
Bathers on, raincoat on, back to the stream and… INTO IT!!! It was warm and mineral-y and steamy and… shallow… and kinda muddy… but relaxing. And spectacular.
Ymir tumbled in, with his bottle of Brennivin and a small container of something white and a bit stink. Like rotting.
“This”, he said, holding up a piece of white flesh to the group “is Icelandic delicacy. Rotten shark meat. Chew it a few times, swallow, then follow with shot of Brennivin”.
The stink was quite incredible, and had most people turning up their noses and shaking their heads.
“You start”, Ymir handed me the container and the bottle of Schnapps.
When in Rome.
It actually wasn’t as revolting as I expected. It was a bit like an over-cooked scallop, that had a nasty after-taste (hence the Brennivin shot in quick succession).
After the rotten shark entree, we had fish and coriander soup, then salmon and egg sandwiches, and cups of red wine. All in the pool. It feels weird eating and drinking when you’re sitting in a body of water.
Ymir regaled us with stories of tours gone bad – the aforementioned ‘leg in the bubbling mud’ incident. And the time a member of the group complained of feeling light-headed and drunk after one glass of wine, and moments later was facedown in the water, unconscious. This was before Ymir had done his survival and first aid course. And the group were about 3kms away from any form of civilisation. Fortunately for Ymir and the drowning man, two woman in the group jumped in and took over – one was high up the ranks in the Canadian police force, while her partner was a head honcho at the Canadian ambulance service. They pushed Ymir out of the way, resuscitated the drowned man, gave him some chocolate cake, and got the hell outta Dodge.
An American in our group piped up at this point, saying “I’m a surgeon. If anything happens on this trip, I can probably assist. Unless you require surgery. I don’t have my kit here. But anything else – broken limbs, burns – I can help”.
After about an hour in the pool, we all started to get a bit boiled and shrivelled, and one by one, we started to exit the water. Rich and I were among the last to get out, as we finished our wine and admired the scenery.
Mere moments later, like something out of a movie, a Belgium woman, travelling with her 16 year old daughter, cried out “Help help, my daughter has fainted!!”
Whenever I hear that someone has fainted, or see someone faint, I automatically get so choked up that I can’t breathe. And my eyes get so watery and tear-filled that I can’t speak. It’s like if someone says “Do you smell gas?” I immediately retch. And panic. And say “O god, gas??!”. It’s a weird thing I have. Among other things.
[One time, years ago, I was working at a design agency in the city, and a brand manager came into reception and said “What’s that smell? Is that gas?” and I went “bluurrggghhh” and then I said, in a tone that was not at all calm and not at all professional “ITHINKITSCOMINGTHROUGHTHEAIRVENTS, O GOSH O GOSH” and other colleagues came out to reception and sniffed the air and said “It DOES smell like gas” and just before we were about to evacuate the building and call in the fireys, we realised it was the office next door, setting up their new printers, and the smell from their new toners had wafted through the vents… But ever since then, if anyone mentions gas, I’m silently vomming and praying no one lights a match or switches on a faulty light switch.]
Anyhoo, this poor girl had fainted, Ymir was out of the pool pouring water on her face, and Dr America came running across the glade in his checkered shirt and nude-coloured undies, elevating her legs as she came to. Rich kept asking “What’s happening? What’s happening??” but I was so overcome with emotion I couldn’t speak. Sheesh!
She was fine though. Standing up too quickly after sitting in a hot pool can do that to anyone.
After I pulled myself together, Rich and I headed back to our secluded ditch, peeled off our wet bathers in the FREEZING cold air, got dressed, and on we went. My first foray into outdoor nudity. Wahoo!
The combination of red wine, schnapps and hot water made me a little bit tipsy and over-confident. I strode across rocks! Ran down gravel hills! Leapt across streams! I was on top of the world!
Until we got to a wider than leaping distance stream. Everyone else in our group was wearing hardcore hiking boots (read: waterproof), but my Keds would not survive a stroll through the rocky, slippery stream. Nor would my feet, if they walked the remaining distance to the bus with wet shoes on. I panicked. Where was my magical moving rock, ala that scene in Labyrinth where Sarah has to cross the Bog of Eternal Stench and all the rocks come together and she can get to the other side??
And then… my moving rock appeared!! In the form of Adam, and his steel-capped boots. Standing in the middle of the stream, he held out his hand and said “Here, stand on my toe. Then jump to the other side”. I swooned a little, and then over I went, dry shoes and all! Thanks Adam!
An hour or so later, the light starting to fail, the bus in sight. We had walked 6kms through the most incredible landscape I have ever seen… Eaten rotten shark. And followed it with buttery, sugary chocolate cake. Ixney on the Arkshay, but my my, that cake was good…
On the bus, Ymir played us some not-so-good Icelandic music (“This band is called Dicktor, this is the best drum solo I have ever heard… wait for it, wait for it…. DRUM SOLO!!!!”) and then some tres-good Icelandic music (Sigur Ros), as we all rocked back and forth on the bus, Rich’s head on my shoulder, the midnight sun setting in the distance.