The spirit of wanderlust has always driven travel writer and photographer Emma Strandberg to explore the world, but when a series of traumatic events left her so stressed and unhappy that she became physically unwell, she realised she needed to embark on a different type of journey – of personal reflection and healing.
Prepared to push herself to the limits to reclaim her confidence, and as vividly recounted in her new book, travel memoir Where the f**k is Blönduós?, she chose the far north of Iceland as her destination, heading to the remote community of Blönduós, a stone’s throw from the Artic Circle, in the depths of winter.
By Emma Strandberg, author of Where the f**k is Blönduós?
I’ve never needed much of an excuse to travel. As a child I remember standing beside the sea, wishing I was taller so that I could see over to the other side.
Four decades later, and a hundred or so countries under my belt, I could honestly say I had seen the world.
When I reached a point in my life where, emotionally, the wounds of yesteryear and injuries of yesterday infected my daily functioning, I could think of only one place to take myself to. A country that I knew well from tales told me in childhood, but which I had never visited: Iceland.
It would be somewhere to escape for a while, leaving behind what had been my home and personal sanctuary in Sweden but which had lately turned into a living hell thanks to a perfect storm of events including the breakdown of my marriage and, the final straw, a terrifying night-time burglary.
I was ready to deliver myself to whatever lay ahead. I would use Iceland’s raw energy and power to contemplate my future.
The time of year was not planned, but with the luck I’d been having it was little wonder that I would end up spending six months alone – unless you count my old two-wheel-drive Volvo – in Iceland in the depths of winter! Why would anything be easy for me when it could be difficult?
Having instructed the estate agent to sell my home in Sweden, I poured a glass of wine and opened my laptop. I googled words like ‘remote’, ‘north’, ‘learning to knit’ and ‘Arctic Circle’ (I really did want to get away from it all!) and found an artist’s residency in the far north of Iceland, in a small town named Blönduós.
I applied, was accepted, and agreed to rent a room as a base for six months. I had no idea where Blönduós was or how I would get there but, despite that, I paid in advance then set about planning my journey.
I packet some warm clothes, a swimsuit, a new tent, and crockery and cutlery for two (just in case), and booked a passage on a ship sailing from Denmark to Iceland via the Faroe Islands.
Arriving in Iceland, it was love at first sight. Not three hours after disembarking the ferry, and driving via Akureyri towards Blönduós, I had stopped to watch humpback whales in a fjord, seen my first gyrfalcon (the largest falcon in the world, and a majestic bird of prey), and eaten smoked Arctic char and pear cake. Delicious!
I must, however, admit that my first impressions of Blönduós were less enthusiastic. Stopping for petrol on the final leg to my chosen destination, the garage attendant asked matter-of-factly why I would go to Blönduós as “it was sh*t”. On a brighter note, he had immediately called his sister as she would be the one teaching me to knit, he said,
By the time I reached the artists’ residency early that evening, having driven past such sights as rusting containers, the local slaughterhouse, and charmless buildings, I feared I had made a mistake.
No sooner had I the room key in my hand, I was reminded by reception that my knitting instructor was awaiting my call so we could start our lessons as soon as possible. Were there no secrets in Iceland?
A benefit of travelling light is that unpacking takes no time at all, but it wouldn’t be so easy to unload the bitter cocktail of emotions that recent events had left me, including fear, anger, resentment, loneliness, and low self-worth. This toxic brew had travelled with me, had been the very catalyst for my journey, and it would take time before, layer by layer, I came to realise its grip was loosening and power subsiding.
The winter weather defined my journey, and the gale force storms, ice, and snow forced me to focus on keeping myself and my car safe. It would be some weeks before I finally built up the courage to unpack my tent, ‘Bothy’ as I called her, and camped for the first time.
Only days before, I had visited a museum of witchcraft and had agreed to have my fortune read. I had been warned that difficulties lay ahead, and I must be strong. Tell me something I don’t know, I thought to myself.
Little did I suspect that later that evening I would receive catastrophic news. A dear friend had died. It was the same friend who had helped me buy Bothy and we had even named her together. How cruel life could be.
This proved to be one of numerous pivotal moments in my journey. Weeks later, looking at the patchwork of knitted squares I had created (one for every night I camped alone), I saw the tangible evidence of my own progress. The colours of the wool had become brighter.
As winter took hold, daylight shortened, and I learned to be more comfortable in the dark. The evenings skies danced their colourful auroras and as I lay back in the warm waters of whichever hot pot I found nearby me, I became braver and let go of my emotional shackles along with my clothes. Bathing naked was a refreshing, exhilarating, experience despite my hair literally freezing, feeling persistently hungry, and suffering from mild hypothermia.
From the highs of touring by helicopter over craters and volcanoes and seeing orange and black killer whale calves, watching a glacier calving into the lagoon and spending countless nights chasing the northern lights, to the lows of digging my car out of snow drifts, losing my handbag, and almost losing my life, dragging myself cut and bruised over an icy cliff face and having to limp back and forth to the local hospital to have my fractured ankle x-rayed, I used these experiences to force myself to stay just one more day, and then one more week, before finally giving up on giving up. I’m proud to say that I stayed the course to the bitter end.
The things that I encountered on my trip were magical, but I am no-one special. Truth be told, I embarked on this journey a little past my best-before date. I had a history of asthma and back problems, felt the cold and was in the early stages of the menopause.
The only thing I had, despite a heck of a lot of emotional baggage, was tenacity in spades. I would encourage anyone who feels like stepping out of their comfort zone to take on an adventure like this.
Returning home, I felt stronger. Life continues with or without us, and difficult situations still lay ahead, but how I dealt with those subsequent challenges was proof positive that I had developed personally.
Embarking on my journey I had lost my home, my marriage, my income, and my self-confidence. During it, I came close to losing my life through taking risks.
However, the full circle of events has enabled me to let go of abandonment, loneliness, and abuse. In their place are now happiness, contentment, and love.
I have captured my experiences, which comprise several journeys to Iceland, in my new book, memoir/travel guide Where the f**k is Blönduós?
On each visit I challenged myself in a different way, and grew from those challenges in so many ways. My advice to you is simple: whether you have a fortnight, month, or even a year to invest in yourself, do it. The most difficult step is the first, so start by putting one foot in front of the other and keep on going forward.
Thanks to my Icelandic odyssey, I once again recognise that small girl standing on the beach, full of curiosity and wanderlust, wondering what is over the horizon.
She is the girl ‘of a certain age’ that has her walking boots, passport. and journals packed –and who is on her way to her next writing adventure!
Where the f**k is Blönduós? Driving and Surviving a Winter in Iceland by Emma Strandberg (New Generation Publishing) is out now on Amazon, priced £9.99 in paperback. An eBook version will be available soon, priced £5.99. For more information, visit www.emmastrandbergbooks.com.
From Where The F**k Is Blönduós? By Emma Strandberg
Here is a gripping extract from Where the f**k is Blönduós? by Emma Strandberg, from the chapter ‘ICESAR’, in which she recalls how an ill-advised attempt to scale a cliff went terrifyingly wrong.
Despite the wintry conditions, it had felt good to be outdoors, and I slowly made my way along the rugged beach to the large stack of rock. To my far right, at the mouth of Sigríðarstaðavatn, the seals, which usually hung out on the rocks like giant grey bananas, weren't there. However, the recent weather had brought in all manner of flotsam and jetsam, together with a half-eaten carcass of an enormous ugly fish I couldn't identify.
Eventually, numb with cold, I turned my back to the wind and started to make my way back the way I had come. I knew if I walked briskly, it would take a good 40 minutes. I had little energy despite eating well earlier in the day. The wet sand had made walking difficult, and my injured foot was throbbing painfully. As I walked on, I considered the steep cliffs to my right and wondered if there was a shortcut I could take to reach the car more quickly. The small waterfall that tumbled down the cliff was part frozen, and the rock face was dripping wet. For the love of God, I have no explanation as to why I decided to tackle the cliff, believing it wasn't so very steep and confident I could pick my way up and over it.
I started climbing sure and steady, ensuring I had a good hold with each move. I had progressed a good 9 metres before realising I was stuck. There was simply no foothold or handhold with which to get a secure grip. My large gloves hindered me, and I had frantically shaken them off to remove them, one by one, daring not to let go with my other hand for dear life. My feet were sliding with every movement, and I knew it was impossible to try to crawl back down. To let go meant a certain fatal fall. I mentally lost control and panicked, shaking and sobbing, knowing there was a good chance I wasn't going to survive this. No one could help me now. I couldn't even reach into my jacket pocket for my phone as I knew I couldn't hold on much longer with my frozen fingers.
I tried to work my way left, but it was impossible as there was a wall of solid ice. Somehow through my blind panic, I eased my hand into a razor-sharp slit in the rock to my right. I was terrified to remove my right foot but I knew I had to, and as I did so, I drove my knee against the rocks as hard as I could, allowing my trousers to snag, giving some slight traction, eventually digging my foot into anywhere it could rest.
Quite how, I don't know, but I did find a foothold, then another, and somehow inched my way sidewards and upwards to the top. There was a grassy verge above my head, and I reached up and dug my fingers in and dragged my body up onto terra firma. The nightmare was over. Shaking from both fear and cold, I lay there for some time, barely believing what had happened. I knew I was in a state of shock at how near to dying I had come.