“In Iceland, we live by a simple philosophy,” said our driver, Bjorn, as he tightened his grip on the wheel. If ever you are presented with a choice between two roads – one simple, the other difficult – you must always choose the latter. Never, ever, refuse a challenge.”
I gulped. We were several hours into our daytrip with Bjorn, a local man with a devilish smile and a monster of a jeep. Already, he had driven us around the country’s famous Golden Circle, but not content with touring the Viking settlements, shifting tectonic plates and bubbling geysers, we were now heading deep into the heart of the Langjökull valley. This, he declared, was where the fun began.
We had been driving off-road for quite some time now, following only the faint outline of a path and our guide’s intuitive sense of direction. Ahead, sharp, irregular mountains jutted out of the ground like shards of glass. At their base, a dusty sea of ice lay etched into the valley.
“Have you guys ever seen a glacier before?” asked Bjorn, as we gazed in wonder from our windows. We shook our heads. He grinned.
“Then you’ve never driven on one either.”
I paused, unsure whether I had just been offered a question or an invitation. My thoughts were interrupted by a sharp jolt. Bjorn swerved to the right, bringing the jeep to an abrupt halt before pulling the keys from the ignition and stepping outside.
“Nothing to worry about, folks,” he smiled, as we shifted uncomfortably in our seats. “Just need to deflate the tires a little. Then I can show you what this thing is really capable of!”
I quickly realised that he hadn’t been joking. We weren’t going to be driving around the glacier; we were going to be driving across it.
“But how?” I wondered, as I gazed, bewildered, at the river of ice below. It was a good couple of kilometres to the base of the glacier, and reaching it would involve a descent over an impenetrable terrain of rocky soil and boulders the size of sheep. It was a drive even Mad Max would be hesitant about.
“Believe me,” grinned Bjorn, as he clambered back into position. “By the time we get back up here, this road will feel like Heaven.”
I didn’t doubt him at all, and couldn’t help but smile as he cranked the volume up on the stereo and roared off to the sound of Queen’s Radio Gaga.
It wasn’t long before we were being tossed around in the back like salmon trying to escape a net. Our bones rattled, our teeth chattered, and the seatbelts began to dig as the jeep tipped to an unnatural angle. Our fate now lay in our driver’s hands – of which, one gripped the wheel, white-knuckled, while the other pressed firmly against the roof.
“The trick,” he called, above the blast of the music. “is to know which rocks to trust. I see a pointy one, I know to move. Everything else, the jeep decides.”
I could only hope that there was method to his madness, for all I could see now was earth and deep, dark stones racing towards the windscreen.
And then, at last, came sky and ice. We had reached flat ground, and were within a few hundred metres from the glacier’s snout.
“Now this is where things get tricky,” said Bjorn, a look of seriousness working its way across his face. I couldn’t help but wonder at the irony of his statement, given the journey we had just made, but as we began to mount the ice, I could understand his concern.
The tires slid nervously over the surface. Below came a faint cracking sound, muffled but distinctive.
“I always get nervous doing this,” our driver confessed. “You can never be entirely sure that you are not driving over a deep crevasse. If it sounds too hollow, I know to move.”
Never before have words filled me with such fear, and yet there was something strangely reassuring about Bjorn’s manner. It was hard to imagine a lifestyle where one could be so casual about driving over a glacier, and yet it was all in a day’s work for Bjorn as he navigated us across the ice, before finding a suitable place to stop. I couldn’t help but be a little envious as we stepped out of the vehicle, and watched as our guide nonchalantly filled his bottle with water from a stream which bubbled up through the ice.
“You should try it,” he smiled. “Freshest water you’ll ever have!”
I looked around, speechless. From above, the glacier had looked quite unassuming, earthy in colour and indistinguishable from the landscape around it. Now, it was a different colour entirely, at times pure white, at others a piercing turquoise. It was easy to forget, from afar, that the glacier was in fact an active thing. Now, perhaps because of the vividness of its colour, or the sound of trickling water which permeated the air, it seemed very much alive.
I gazed out onto the distant crags, each with its own story to tell. I marvelled at this alien landscape, carved by volcanoes and ice. I smiled as icy winds whipped the hair from my face, and the cold brought blood rushing to my cheeks. It was hard to remember a time when I had felt more alive either.
Bjorn handed me the bottle, and I took a sip.
“You see,” he said, as I closed my eyes and savoured the moment. “That is why they call Iceland the land of fire and ice. You drink from our ice, and it puts fire in your belly!”
I nodded, unable to agree more, and watched as he climbed back into the jeep, ready to set off again.
“Now,” he said, the corners of his mouth creeping upwards again. “How about some ACDC?”