Learning How To Drive a Dinosaur In Iceland
By Luke Armstrong

To explore the magical landscapes of Iceland, a traveler must first face down a mechanical beast.

Iceland travel

Our Kuku camper in the lot was the size of a dinosaur and just as lethal. I looked at it with the reserved terror a gladiator feels as he peers at a looming lion—Ave, Cæsar, morituri, te salutant.

My stomach-strangling fear was reserved and not fleeing only because 4,000 years of civilization had crafted me into an impractical human unwilling to run into the woods and find a cave to wait out his fear's abatement. My fright begged for flight, but the voice of my civilized inner bastard insisted I stay and conquer this stick shifting Jurassic beast that I could only drive in theory.

The guys at the rental shop in downtown Reykjavík—Lárus and Steinarr—joked lightly as Candice and I filled out the paperwork. They were the incarnations of the humor coursing through their webpage, which leads with:

Welcome to Kuku camper rental! If you are looking for a traditional motorhome rental for a "tourist around tourists" kind of trip in Iceland, then close this window immediately, burn your computer and throw yourself off a cliff.

The cliff part could still happen. Iceland's two-lane highways are unforgiving, and this was Crazy Season. The rental shop's calendar divided the year based on weather into three seasons—Juicy Season, Sexy Season and Crazy Season. It being Crazy Season, we managed to rent the camper at a rock-bottom price. Splitting gas between the four passengers meant that Iceland was about to give itself up to us at prices as magical as the elves.

Iceland countryside

Lárus and Steinarr dished out jokes while I tried to maneuver a smile on a face stuck in an expression one reserves for witnessing puppies burnt at the stake.

"You know how to drive one of these?" Lárus asked with his elfish grin.

"It has been a while, but I got it." I responded without making eye contact.

Born and raised on automatic transmissions, this was debatable. In the last five years, I had spent maybe ten hours behind the wheel of automatic cars. Here was this manual two-ton dinosaur, eight feet tall, fifteen feet long, windowless in the back, looking like it wanted to eat me alive.

In my previous country of Guatemala a friend had spent thirty minutes with me in his Jeep to show me how to drive a manual transmission. The lesson had ended with him saying, "you basically got it."

Now, a week later, "basically" no longer seemed the triumphant adjective it had then. You basically just crashed your camper into the ditch. Our insurance had a two thousand euro deductible, and I had to do better than basically manage not to crash.

Forced Learning, in Traffic
There were four of us who would be calling this camper home for the next three days—Candice, Shaun, and Steffe. Candice and Shaun could not drive manual cars and Steffe had had a single lesson in anticipation of the trip. She was reluctant to try her hand and feet in city traffic, leaving me as the driver for day one of our adventures. I kicked one of the tires of The Kuku Beast and Candice asked me how I was feeling. People do not ask this when you are feeling fine.

I told her I was fine, that we would do this. She let me know that we could still back out of renting the camper and find other ways to get around the country if need be. But no. This was unacceptable. I was twenty-eight and still could not drive a stick shift. My time had come. I wore flannel on a regular basis, sported a beard most days, and considered Indiana Jones to be mostly a true story—a guy like this should know how to drive stick. What had I been doing these past three decades that was more important than learning something that surely every potato farmer in Idaho knew how to do?

Cursing the sinking anxiety, I decided that The Land of Fire and Ice was the place to have my birth of fire on the stick shift.


Resolve can lead to ability, but they are not the same. In a move I will be forever grateful for, Lárus backed the camper out of the tight lot into the thin downtown streets and left Candice and I alone on the side of Lækjargata, one of Reyjavik's wider streets. The light was red. Candice and I exchanged a significant glance. Whether or not we were idiots for doing this, we were about to do it.

The lessons of the Jeep in Guatemala seemed vague and removed. I engaged the clutch, jammed the gear into first, and the camper lurched forward and died. I tried to restart it, but—oh yeah—such vehicles don't start in gear. I returned to neutral, engaged the clutch and brake, not sure if I was supposed to do either. The ignition cranked to life.

Traffic moved. We lurched left and forward. I released the clutch and the camper died. This time we had lurched enough to block the right lane of traffic. A bus, its driver giving me the look of indignant animosity, passed using half of my lane, inches from the camper. Cars waited behind me on the incline we had lurched up upon. Surely our 2,000 Euro deductible would soon be met.

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Read this article online at: http://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/0414/iceland.html

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2014. All rights reserved.

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Books from the Author:

The Nomad's Nomad

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The Expeditioner's Guide to the World

Buy The Expeditioner's Guide to the World at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Fishpond (Australia)

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