Iceland – Noel Thom (Issue 17)

The warden in the mountain hut at Nyidalur, a refuge at the very centre of this island’s vast interior, told me that “Iceland is actually the same size as Ireland.” I’ve been exploring the endless network of unsurfaced roads for ten days now and the comparison seems unlikely.

Following fifteen hundred miles of volcanic dust, gravel and river crossings, I head for the city, the only city. More as a box-ticking exercise than anything else, I can’t leave without seeing Reykjavik.

Iceland river crossing

After so much jaw dropping wilderness, the urban environment comes as a shock. I find the city’s only campsite and already I’m getting a bad feeling and not just because I dislike campsites. Travelling solo has meant I’ve met and talked to so many people, indigenous and from afar, but here it’s different. Pitching my tent on a patch of land between the football stadium and a housing estate I notice that even making eye contact is viewed as high risk.

 
Later that evening, in the communal kitchen I turn my back on my cooking equipment for five minutes and return to find my gas stove has been stolen by one of my fellow campers. Reykjavik is without doubt one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities in the world, but it also feels like the most expensive place on earth and it’s a betrayal I can do without.

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The following morning, in a pathetic attempt to save the equivalent of five whole British pounds I decide to visit all four of the city’s camping supply shops for the cheapest replacement stove. Walking through the city centre I’m approached from the opposite pavement by a tall man in his seventies. Jim is from California and has been admiring my muddy bike parked further up the street. As a fellow motorcyclist he’s intrigued to find out how I got here and where I’ve been and we enjoy an animated conversation about a shared passion. Jim’s wife, Loretta, appears from an adjacent shop and, recognising two men engrossed in all things two wheeled, kindly invites me to join them for dinner that evening to continue the discussion.

I gladly accept and an hour later I’m sat inside a warm restaurant enjoying a delightful conversation and some delicious Icelandic fish. The restaurant is on the outskirts of town and we are its only customers. Jim and Loretta, having called in for coffee in the morning had been invited back especially by Skuli, the owner and chef, who’d insisted on cooking up a traditional feast, and he comes over to explain the cooking process in every detail.

Over dinner Jim mentions in passing his service during the Vietnam war and I ask him if the movies I’ve grown up with bear any resemblance to his experience. As an officer he was in charge of logistical support and he tells me that for every man fighting at the front, 12 were supporting him from behind the line. “They don’t make movies about that,” he says.

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Loretta jumps in and tells me that Jim was given the Bronze Star after the war but has never told anyone, including her, any of the details surrounding the award. Jim smiles, leans over and whispers “It’s no big deal really. The mystery is far better.”

Riding out of town the following morning I suddenly remember seeing a giant portrait painted on the side of a building out by the docks. I’d seen it yesterday whilst hunting frantically for my replacement stove and I turn back to find it for a photo. It’s nowhere to be seen but as I reach the end of the road and come to the roundabout to return there it is, facing me on the side of a large industrial unit. I position my bike in front of it for the shot when a tall thin figure with a long beard emerges from the building, covered in dust and carrying a portable drill.

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Vinnustofa introduces himself and tells me all about the artist, who’s now travelling the world on the back of the success of this particular piece of stunning graffiti. He then asks if I’d like to join him for coffee. I follow him through a small door and step into a gigantic workshop where I’m greeted by a large polystyrene Spanish bull. As my eyes adjust to my surroundings I’m confronted by other large statues, moulds, machinery and a 1950’s Chevrolet pickup half buried in the chaos.

Vinnustofa, it turns out, is a commercial artist and the extent of his talent and ingenuity is breath-taking. His latest commission has been to design and build the giant centre piece of Reykjavik’s gay pride march, a huge multi-coloured unicorn carried on a low loader at the head of the parade. Made in three parts and lowered into place by a crane, portions of it are still scattered across the workshop.

Keen to create a more permanent piece of art he then tells me he has approached ‘the robbers’ to help fund his next creation. His plan is to build a giant arm reaching up from the sea, its hand clasping a Viking axe in a stunning display of Icelandic defiance.

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I’m confused by ‘the robbers’ part of the plan and Vinnustofa goes on to explain that Iceland’s economic collapse of 2008 was caused by around twenty individuals, some of whom are now in jail. Having stolen the missing millions ‘from the inside’ these people then fled the country and the cash has never been retrieved. He’s hoping to bring some of it back and I believe he’ll succeed.

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He’s also convinced another economic collapse is imminent and is building an off grid house out in the countryside to escape it. His plan is to power the building from a salvaged electric car engine, in turn supplied by batteries powered by a wind turbine. “The wind there blows twice a day” and he shows me the written-off donor car he’s already purchased. Three hours later I’m back on the bike heading out of the city, my head spinning from all I’ve seen and heard.

Suddenly I begin to laugh out loud as it dawns on me that my experiences of the last twenty-four hours were all sparked by the theft of my stove and that I owe the thief a huge debt of gratitude.

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This article was first published in Issue 17 of OVERLAND magazine.

 

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