Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 27

21 08 2008

“Now that’s what I call an isolated shower!”   (Seljalandsfoss, Iceland)

Always test water-resistance before starting your travels.


I was to spend two weeks hiking, trekking and camping in Iceland in the middle of summer. Although I wasn’t exactly anticipating tropical conditions, I did think the last week of July and first week of August would be mild and probably sunny despite the island’s northerly location.  Still, taking every precaution I packed a hooded rain jacket, rain trousers, Gore-Tex gloves and boots, thick socks, a woolly-hat, fleeces and long underwear…as well as shorts, sandals, t-shirts and swimsuit. In other words, I was prepared for every eventuality. Or so I thought!


Iceland is a magnificent land of rugged starkness. Its coastline jagged from the timeless assault of the North Atlantic. Its interior chalked grey, brown and black from its volcanic centre. Its lakes and rivers brilliant blue from its pure glacial lifeline and its greens the verdant pulse of a land more geologically alive than any other on earth.


The coast road loops around the entire country, pressed between the sharply-hewn cliffs, the black sand beaches and the crashing waves of the sea. As I gazed up at the cloud-shrouded peaks one morning through the rain-lashed windows of the mini-bus, I mused that it must be a magnificent spot in summer…only to quickly remember that July was as good as it got! By afternoon, strong winds had pushed the clouds away and a flawless blue sky served as a perfect backdrop to the waterfalls, wildflowers and magnificent desolation beneath.


Alas, quicker than you can say Hafnarfjordur, the rains returned with a vengeance soaking the long grasses, pooling in the low-lying areas and driving a drenching fog across the land. I donned my best raingear, pulled the hood’s drawstring tight around my face, zipped up the jacket and tightened my hiking boots before setting off for more spectacular scenery.


The rain belted down but in no way detracted from the pristine views. I have always enjoyed being exposed to the elements when warm, dry and properly protected and Iceland was no exception…until my toes felt their first hint of moisture. I glanced down and the boots were still properly laced with the rain pants over the tops. There were no obvious holes, but there was obviously water around my little digits.


My socks were soon saturated and my toes became chilly and uncomfortable. Like a pin-prick in a balloon, there was no stopping the leak now. My feet began to squelch in the growing wetness. I could feel the warmth flooding from my body as quickly as the water flooded into my boots. The discomfort continued for several more hours and by the time I reached the glorious warmth and dryness of the bus, my toes were white, wrinkled and hell-bent on revenge. I could envisage waking up in the night to wracking bouts of foot cramp for months to come as they got even for their torment.


There was no apparent vent in the seams, no obvious rip in the lining and no holes anywhere. Clearly, my boots had finally expired. The Gore-Tex had died and sucked in the water like a sponge….and it was only the third day of my trip. For the rest of the time I uncomfortably slipped my feet into plastic bags before putting on my boots but the perspiration this quickly generated was almost as wet as the rain it tried to prevent. On the warm, sunny days, I left my boots outside to dry and each night hoped for fine weather the following morning.


The discomfort and inconvenience barely registered compared to the wonders of Iceland, but even now, in the middle of the night when I am fast asleep and dreaming wonderful thoughts of Salma Hayek and sun-drenched desert islands, my toes wrench me back to consciousness with agonising and gut-wrenching cramps. As I hobble to my feet and attempt to end the torture, I can still hear them cackle and taunt as they exact their bitter Icelandic revenge.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan