I’m used to travelling on my own, and I like it that way. The freedom to do whatever, wherever, and only mix with other travellers if and when I want to, is a winning combination in my book.
The coincidental downside of this is that I’d have to admit to being a pretty selfish traveller now, where the virtue of patience and the willingness to compromise don’t shine through as much as they should.
Nevertheless, I decided to discover Iceland for the first time with Intrepid and to take my mum with me, as it was high on her bucket list. We live quite far apart, and I thought it would be a memorable experience for us to share. Although, while I was looking forward to exploring the land of fire and ice, I was apprehensive about not going it alone.
One of my initial reservations was the fact that it was a group trip. Would I want to mix with them? Would I feel like I had to spend all of my time with my mum rather than everyone else? Would my mum’s very outspoken views about Trump and Brexit cause an irreparable divide?
Things didn’t get off to a great start. My mum had brought porridge for the airport and had no qualms about asking the staff for some boiling water, before sitting down to eat it in their restaurant. She had snacks for every day of the tour, including a couple of bananas that were already battered and bruised, turning an angry shade of brown. Apparently, my repeated protestations that airports and Iceland itself had food shops had fallen on deaf ears.
Carrying three pieces of hand luggage, my mum was surprised and annoyed when the airline staff let her know that she wasn’t allowed to take them onto the plane. As someone accustomed to the over-zealous rules that budget airlines seem to take pleasure in, I rolled my eyes knowingly, and sure enough a few minutes later we were putting bags into bags and donning a few extra layers. Our stressful airport experience completed, we boarded the plane, heading for what I hoped would be a beautiful, serene land, as devoid of visitors as possible.
Whilst I was slightly nervous about the group element before the tour started, it actually proved to be the biggest positive. There were eleven people in our group, from Australia, Canada and the UK, with a volley-ball playing French rocket scientist to top it off. We gelled immediately, turning from strangers to friends within half an hour of the welcome meeting starting. This was thanks in part to two brothers from Darwin, and our local leader, Einar.
Throughout the trip my mum was to be found chatting away to various group members, delighting in telling them about her previous travels, where she planned on going to next and showing everyone plenty of photos of her little dog, Archie. I quickly realised that there’s nothing like everyone sharing dog pictures to bring a group together. Most importantly, it was great to see my mum making meaningful connections with travellers from all over the world and mixing with people that she might otherwise have never had the opportunity to meet.
The small group (Intrepid’s average group size is 10) made it feel like we were a bunch of friends journeying together, and whenever we passed a coach tour there were always a couple of smug comments about being very thankful that we weren’t travelling like that.
Despite plenty of rain and minimal visibility, Iceland showcased a dazzling array of land and seascapes. We were mesmerised at the contrast between the black sand beach and the angry white waves, a brutal wind whipping our faces into a fresh-faced picture of health as we stared in wonder. Iceland’s famous waterfalls thundered, straining under the weight of trying to carry all the rain to its final destination. At the glacial lagoon, the blue icebergs floated silently past in the mist, calved from Iceland’s ever-shrinking glaciers, seemingly mournful about their upcoming contribution to global sea-levels. Sharing these spectacular natural events with the group made them seem even more powerful and seeing my mum’s reaction to sights that she never thought she’d see made them much more meaningful.
Even the three bags-worth of luggage became useful. Begrudgingly, my sense of self-sufficiency eroding like Iceland’s glaciers, I gladly accepted my mum’s spare pair of thermal leggings after the first day of constant cold rain. The next day, I sheepishly asked for her spare pair of gloves too. The bag of chocolate Hobnobs (a British delicacy – think deliciously wholesome oaty chocolate biscuits) were gladly received and greedily devoured after a day hiking on Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier. Maybe mums do know best after all.
Travelling in November meant that we had the country to ourselves, and Iceland was the serene natural wonder-park that I’d hoped it would be. The island has a population of around 300,000 and now receives an incredible two million visitors a year. I think it would’ve been a very different experience had we travelled in peak season. Our local guide, photographer, geology and history professor and driver Einar, ensured that we arrived at waterfalls to find no one else there and that the authentic guesthouses we stayed at had delicious fresh Icelandic meals prepared for our arrival. He made the trip run incredibly smoothly and definitely created experiences that I would never have had the time or knowledge to discover myself.
Visiting a new country with someone that saw everything through such excited eyes made this a much more emotive and unforgettable experience than it would have been on my own. Sharing in that childlike excitement and sense of discovery made me revive and appreciate the small things about travel that I’d probably stopped noticing. Most importantly it became a trip down memory lane, rekindling memories of snow days of my childhood, and strengthening the bonds between us. So, how does the Galapagos sound for next year, mum?