Coffee and Public Toilets
A flashback to a feature that originally appeared in Transworld Surf, it was on this trip The Plastic Project really began.
Iceland survives on coffee.
It’s what gets you up on those dark winter days and keeps you going on those light short nights of summer.
Ian Battrick and Timmy Turner were sat in a small hotel, the owner had taken to us, after all surfers in this remote part of Iceland were rare, especially surfers that insisted on camping in a couple of feet of snow. We were not just doing it for fun or for effect for Timmy’s movie. Iceland is pricey, and this being our sixth trip up here and having never slept in anything but a tent, or just outside, it seemed the natural thing to do. We sheltered in the hotel though as the wind built, drinking way too much coffee and checking the internet, the swell was due to go through the roof in the next few hours, all be it with a bad wind, then back off to give us a couple of days on the fickle reefs and points in the area. We left after a couple of hours, caffeined out of our minds to go back to the beach where we had pitched the tent. This tent had been everywhere with Timmy, it was like a constant in travelling life for Cold Thoughts, a bomb proof shelter, it never leaked, it never failed us, and now as we pulled up to the beach it was not there. We all jumped from the car, nothing, just a patch on the icy ground and one peg, it appeared some Icelandic pikey had stolen it. Ian and Timmy were a little dazed, we ran to the top of the dune in case our Viking thieves were still in sight, but no sign. It was freezing, a wind chill way below zero, the ground solid with three day old icy snow. We had another tent, but it wasn’t up for an Icelandic gale. In the distance though, about half a mile away we could see material flapping, in what looked like a frozen ditch. We skidded back along the snow-covered track and pulled up next to the frozen waterway and there it was, half submerged. A blast of wind, not thieves, had removed the tent clean from the icy ground and dumped her, our home, in a freezing ditch a half mile away. It was a grim scene, the one thing that kept us dry and, with three grown men in, warm at night was now drenched. It then started to snow.
What happened next was a little bit mental. Exploring Iceland involves crazy amounts of driving, swells rise and fall so quickly that you have to be perpetually on the move to chase it down, along with keeping up with continually changing weather conditions. We had nowhere to sleep, we were already in the teeth of a gale that originated over the ice pack of the Arctic, so we opted to drive. It was early afternoon on a Sunday. Our car was packed with boards, camera gear, a soaking tent and a couple of crates of duty-free ‘viking’ beer. Ian drove, he doesn’t drink much anyway, and just egged Timmy and myself to keep fuelling up. We checked an area in the failing light, it was swamped under a big storm swell. Checking the map we noted that the next promising area was a good six to eight hours drive away, along what looked like a combination of sealed and unsealed roads. Ian was driving so it was his call, “if you’ve got enough beer, I’m good to do the driving for ya”. As we drove the rain turned to sleet and then snow as we crested ridges before dropping down to sea level, where there were fleeting glimpses of white-water, mountains of the stuff under a hideous onshore storm. Six hours later and countless piss stops and attempted surf checks in the dark, we arrived at a little fishing village. Snow filled the air, our tent was still soaking. Offshore waves ran along a little reef just inside the harbour, howling offshore waves. We were all resigned to a night in the car, three guys sleeping upright after a few beers was not going to be great. Ian jumped out and ran into the public lavatory, then sprang out with a smile on his face and jumped back in. “You are not going to believe this, the toilet is huge, it has a shower and heated floors”. Turned out it was the changing room for the local hot spring.
We grabbed the tent and bundled in. A better night’s sleep we had not had in ages, the floor heated by geothermal water, and a brief sanctuary from the storm outside. Morning, we woke early and showered for the one and only time in three weeks. Outside and we were still in the teeth of a gale, snow flurries whipped up out of the semi darkness. We loaded and started driving further, dirt tracks through a broken lava landscape. Setups were under mountains of white-water and onshore and as the snow increased we turned round. A little over seven hours after getting here we reversed the whole journey, this time through way more snow. We checked a lot on the way as the wind steadily started to ease and the swell held. By nightfall we were almost back at our starting place, the wind was dropping fast on a freezing starlit night. The ground at the beach was rock solid, no way we were getting pegs in here, options were short. After an hour or so of checking out other frozen camping spots we opted to drive inside a nearby road tunnel, pull off in a little side cave and just bed down. It wasn’t warm, and fortunately the lack of traffic meant there were no real problems with fumes – turned out to be a good night’s sleep again. The next few days the wind calmed, the swell pumped and we scored a few waves with local surfer and school teacher Oliver, nothing epic but all fun. Then it was back on the road, like I said Iceland is all about keeping moving and chasing swells down, which doesn’t always pay off, but it’s worth it just to see the place. One minute you’re on vast open plains, next, you’re beneath erupting volcanoes, then huge glaciers all to finally surf amongst icebergs, sure it ‘aint Indo but as a whole it’s an experience that blows other surf trips away.
Half of Iceland’s coast is vast glacial outwash plains stretching for miles, backed by ice-covered volcanic domes. Access is minimal, just following random tracks down to tiny coastal communities, at the end often just a surging shore-break, but find a chink in the coast and there is a chance of banks. We spent days searching for these, and found them. One bank would work on an approaching swell and then as the low pressure system swept under Iceland to change the angle, another bank up the beach would fire up. Iceland is a place that is in a constant dynamic flux, whether it is swell direction, wind direction, geology or just the weather you’ve got to be on it, ready to move and never settle in one place.
Nights down here were easier than the week before, the dense volcanic outwash sediment made it easy to pitch up the tent, in hollows behind beaches, or just sheltered beneath cliffs, the dramas of further north were a thing of the past. Nights would clear out to reveal the clearest sky, what looked like really high level cloud would start to spread from the north. This would then start to dance with vertical and horizontal movement, before exploding into greens and purples dancing across the night sky. Every night we’d just lay on the ground in our sleeping bags and enjoy the natural light show provided by the Aurora, totally mesmerising despite the temperatures being well below zero. Like anything that happens all the time though, you start to take it for granted, by the end of the next few weeks we became totally used to it. In fact, on our last morning, after an early start to catch a plane, the sky was blazing green as we checked in for our flights. Out on the taxi ways life went on as normal despite the sky being green, baggage handlers loaded baggage, taxi men guided in planes as if nothing was going on. It was a surreal moment, but that’s Iceland, a constant bombardment of fresh experiences that you simply don’t get anywhere else. It keeps you on your toes, which you need to be if you have any hope of scoring waves along the country’s ever changing coastline.