With only our Volkswagen UP to protect us from the minus 13 chill beyond our anxiously numbing minds, the abominable snowman would've been a welcomed saviour as we trekked through what, at times, seemed unattainable inclement conditions.
A huge focus this preseason down at Shark Park for myself and the East Fremantle players has and will remain: our mental toughness. This comes in many shapes and forms yet continues to perplex even the most courageous of humans. That confidence to stare down an enemy in battle and defeat your inner demons, that little push needed to lean in for that uncomfortable first kiss and even making a childhood dream of kicking a goal under immense pressure to raise your side to an unlikely but historic victory. These are all figments of our wildest imaginations but is a grain in comparison to what I faced today. Now, back in my hotel room, in the warmth of safety, I can relax at ease but let me tell you, just hours ago, I was on the brink of yielding to the tensest and perhaps toughest hour of my life.
Another overnight fluffing of peaceful snow made this morning's dark but highly anticipated journey all the more exciting. 'What photo opportunities were there to come?' I thought, thinking of JustZeusBooks's European tour catalogue on social media and its popularity. The small but reliable VW we have given our love, and come to know as 'Venetta' this past few days has been reciprocal for our needs and was ever-ready for another action packed day. The exit path from Reykjavik and over the hills and far away, was smooth; we even made a phone call to one of our friends to enlighten him of our glorious travels thus far. As the snow slowly whittled down, we entered the higher, more unchartered landscape. It wasn't until about forty-five minutes into the trek, whilst taking the lead from an off turning convoy of five vehicles, including a large and more sturdy tour bus which would've made great use as a clearance plough, when things started to get precarious.
The natural light at this time of year is precious but doesn't acquaint you until around midday, so being 'the early bird' may not have been the wisest move, hitting the road at around nine. The silky white snow cover blanketed our passage, and with no certain predecessors or their tracks, we were entering the morning's virgin route (pardon the pun). For those whom haven't driven over (or through) snow, you might be mistaken to thinking it is similar to that of driving on sand. If that is also unknown, then don't go hiring a tiny match box car to entrust your safety as we did. This was something, although I have previously done on icy and even sleet laden roads, was nothing even remotely routine; in fact it was bordering on foreign. After ten minutes of heaving through six or eight inches of fluffy and innocent snow, Venetta was handling well. The snow joins forces often and drags you one way or the other ever so slightly, keeping you on your toes but this was not cause for concern; my concentration was 'on point' and up to the task. For the local, these conditions would've been done hundreds of times and probably in cruise control.
Like a fearsome Viking battle horn, alerting an oncoming slaughter, the wind howled a worrisome whirl. The ensuing half hour or more would bear no need for a back rest, I was bound for a gut wrenching edge of the seat battle.
The wind picked up and my nerve started to waver; even that incessant tailgater, whom was more than likely sticking close to ensure they could follow our temporarily entrenched tyre tracks, started to pick at my conscience. I had had a chat with an elderly British couple just two days prior that had motioned that I should drive, remarking, "good lad", as I reinforced I was to be the one behind the wheel in Iceland. At this stage, I was glad to know, if we were going to have an unwanted mishap here, I was responsible, not my partner, Natalie. If I could compare this next few minutes to anything it would have to be that of a young boy, trying desperately not to blink whilst on the last level of the hardest gaming console battle ever. I adjusted my jaw, which probably resembled a twitch and my gut was literally churning. But, the worst was yet to come. The snow starting to brew, Venetta had to resort to third gear, sticking to 40, then 50 kilometres under the speed limit. The snow was over the tires and rising dramatically, the wind pushed white flecks and then clumps over the windscreen. The wipers were in overdrive, whipping violently and barely clearing the visibility. All I wanted to do was pull over but if we stopped, bog or a rear end smash was likely; besides, the slower we tended to go, the more the snow thrashed us like a crocodile with its teeth sunk into its prey.
Driving Iceland 1.0.1, 'never stop in the middle of the road; especially if snowing', the Europecar attendant had informed.
The roads were rather narrow up here and the fact that Venetta was small and white was a definite flaw of our hiring judgement. The drop off, which was awaiting beyond the yellow, half engulfed markers, although hardly visible, was steep and perilous. We had seen several unlucky tourists find themselves laden in a ditch, on the clear day we had had yesterday, and on less fickle roads.
Just then a huge swirl of whitewash snow scurried its way over our view and time almost stood still. I knew slamming brakes would send us into a frenzied slippery slide to the unknown so I just opened windows simultaneously with a push on the clutch. Venetta slowed and the wheels levelled out. Safe. The speed we were going was laughable on a more familiar, humbled road but this was intense. The mind goes through much trauma in these situations. Panic was a place just around the corner. It that moment, that inner voice captivated my courage. I had no choice, make or break, I urged myself. Talking to myself is one of my coping strategies in stressful and important moments, I'm happy to admit this; it's when you start unwillingly talking out loud, revealing your fears, that's when you are in true discomfort.
Although thirty kms an hour was all we were travelling at, we could hardly see ahead; my heart pounded to a drum unheard before. More wind and snow circled the VW as we continued this entrancing battle, Natalie had stopped trying to advise, she was speechless, shivering in fear. The car slid this way and jerked that way with each explosion of snow that paved our path. That was when we entered the swamp of snow. By swamp I mean thick, heavy and unforgiving snow; it towered one side of the road, at least three feet of it (and poor old Venetta was only five feet in stature).
In one foul swoop, we hit a thick ridge of snow, coupled with the blizzard like winds, the car was covered like a wave of breaking water. My inner voice broke silence. I spoke in an uncontrolled panic, "I don't like this". And in this unfathomable moment of irrational indecisiveness, I locked the breaks. The windscreen covered in snow, I was conscious of the left hollow beyond the road's ledge and yanked against the snow's pull. Swinging left, but throwing the steering wheel right, I came to an abrupt stop. I took what seemed to be the first breath in minutes. The exhale was greeted with familiar headlights in the rear view mirror. The tailgaters from before pulled along side us, passenger window down. In their American accents, they queried, "all ok? You stuck?" We were bogged and as the front windscreen cleared, we had finished on a forty five degree angle just right of road's centre. Pete, as he introduced himself pushed Venetta out of her bogged state and took the reins, acting as our plough and shepherd. Within minutes, we arrived at a gas station; wintery conditions still blew across the over worked Venneta. Pete and his wife, Gina offered to drive us around the precious natural wonderland to leave Venneta to catch her own breath. As the next few minutes passed, we realised the Minnesotan natives had not only never driven in such formidable conditions, despite being seasoned winter drivers in the US northern snowy lakes region, they also had a more than capable four wheel drive to assist when such weather became tricky. This was the first large dump of snow for the Iceland winter and it nearly claimed its first true victims.
They say you are not made by your upbringing or your education but moreover, your experiences. Both Natalie and I will always remember this experience and enjoy retelling as we bathe in the comfort of self-assurance, for we may not come across another abominable snowman like this one ever again!
If you cannot take anything else from this tale, take these two tips and hold them close for future Icelandic winter holiday plans.
1. Choose hire cars based upon necessity, not cute appearance. And certainly don't name it to match its quaint personality!
2. Be nice to fellow travellers, help out where needed as you'll never know what's over the next ridge.
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