‘This’, our Icelandic tour guide tells us as he lunges at a hapless American with a sword, ‘is how you stab someone and make it look real’. We’re somewhere near the end of a nine hour Game of Thrones bus tour and things have begun to loosen up. Our tour guide is in full flow, along with his beard, his shaggy locks, and his fur collared cloak. Having been an extra on four seasons of the show, he’s really into it now. Only the fawn socks and worn sneakers don’t quite look the part. But we don’t care.
As a Canadian fellow traveller here for the Icelandic film festival tells me, he chose this tour because of the expectation that it would abandon the beaten track and take him to the places other tourists don’t go. This is a tough call since tourists are everywhere. Three years ago, Iceland had 800,000 tourists, last year there were two million and they are apparently aiming for a turnover of five. Reykjavik is a forest of cranes and craters as an overstretched workforce struggles to beat the weather and construct the hotels that will hopefully house them all.
Having just about recovered from the scandalous collapse of the Icelandic economy in 2008 (at least their bankers went to prison), followed by the eruption of the volcano Eyafjallayokull in 2010 which effectively shut down air traffic over Europe for a number of weeks, Iceland is now reconstructing itself as a theme park with built-in illuminations.
In the lift of my hotel I encounter a Chinese couple, dressed head to snow-booted foot in the kind of expensive outdoor gear that would get them to the Arctic and back. They are off to see the Northern Lights on yet another bus tour. Meanwhile, my Icelandic friends arrive to pick me up for a family dinner in jeans, sneakers and the kind of jacket that would not be amiss in Sydney on a Spring morning. Cold means something different here.
‘It’s a beautiful day’ our Game of Thrones guide tells us as the fog lifts, the barometer hits nine, and the sun peeks through the lowering clouds. Immediately the hills burst into a heart-stopping array of shifting colours, red, yellow, blue and deep purple. We’re heading towards our first ‘scene’, an Icelandic horse farm. There we discover about 140 pocket size woolly steeds stoutly waiting in a muddy field. ‘Go pat them’, the chief wrangler urges. ‘They are very tame. We eat the bad ones’.
This is a pragmatic move on the part of the unsentimental Icelanders, since not only does it ensures the survival of the most amenable stock, but also provides the population with an on-going supply of meat in a country where pasture is limited, the growing season is short and food supplies can be scarce. While my Icelandic hosts offer me smoked dried fish smothered in butter and an Icelandic sheep stew for dinner, a restaurant in the main drag is promising smoked puffin and whale steaks. I’m quietly appalled, but as a failed vegetarian, caught out in my hypocrisy.
‘I hate tourists’ our tour guide cheerfully announces early on with a frankness that indicates just how ambivalent Icelanders are about the endless tour buses and hire cars clogging up the two lane highways that circle the island or lie crashed on the side of the road. The latter is hardly surprising. Iceland has an idiosyncratic set of rules relating to roundabouts, a bit like Melbourne’s hook turns.
Almost every major roundabout near Reykjavik is haunted by a mournful tourist on a mobile phone, desperately trying to summon a tow truck. It would help, one thinks, if the Icelanders changed the road rules. But this may be all part of a cunning plan to stimulate the economy, especially when it comes to tow-trucks and crash repairers.
Stop number two and we’re on the site of that Game of Thrones scene in which a dragon stole a goat. I vaguely remember it, but to help us visualise the moment, our guide holds up the slightly grubby and well worn photographs that illustrate the action. Appraising the view, we note the complete absence of dragons, but are compensated by the presence of an outstanding waterfall and rushing river. It’s spectacular and moving. The landscape is beginning to get to me.
Stop three involves a winding road along the shore of Iceland’s largest lake. To our right are the kinds of expansive summer houses in wood and soaring glass you see on Grand Designs. To our left, sits a modest and traditional wooden house with a yellow roof. ‘That’s Bjork’s place’ our tour guide tells us. Icelanders are remarkably laid back about celebrities, even Justin Bieber was able to wander unmolested in Reykjavik. This does not surprise me.
For the next ‘scene’, we have to get off the bus, climb a relatively unchallenging peak and stand on the place where the Hound and the Amazonian Brienne of Tarth had their hand to hand combat. The photographic images come out again, but now there’s a freezing wind blowing up the canyon and I wander off to find some shelter noting that the actors in the screen shots look as cold as I feel. Maybe those Asian tourists in the lift had a point.
It’s no wonder the actors looked frozen. The GoT costumes, we learn, were designed and made by a team of South Africans. So while they might look effective on screen, they were less than effective on location being largely constructed of cotton. Everybody was cold, our guide tells us, who we now discover, is currently doing an MA about Viking swords, when he’s not tour-guiding, that is.
Our guide, aka Swordbiter, is just a bit miffed by some of the reviews that have come his way. “I didn’t go to Tourist Guide School’, he confesses. ‘And I never shut up’. This has been clear from the start but there’s a randomness to his delivery that is endearing. We learn a lot about the political economy of being an extra, as well as a bit about his ex girlfriends and how not to wash when you are getting into character as a member of the Night Watch.
Given the Vikings ‘discovered’ Iceland sometime around the ninth century, they are everywhere, still. And so we visit Thingvellir, that remarkable site of early democracy where the clans congregated at the Althing to sort out their problems, feast, make laws and make merry. This is followed by a visit to a recently reconstructed Viking long house. Both locations are again the site of memorable scenes in Game of Thrones, including a nasty family massacre. And it’s here that the sword play gets real in a fake kind of a way.
One more spectacular double waterfall later, which has nothing to do with Game of Thrones but is just there, and we are on our way home. Swordbiter is still talking, although most of the passengers up the back are asleep and the microphone appears to be switched off. We’ve entered a wild stream of consciousness phase now. It’s like listening to a late night chat show host on regional radio.
One of his stories includes the tale of a local ice-cream producer who specialised in unusual flavours, including breast milk (‘so wrong and yet so right’). And I’m watching the stalwart female bus driver who has been crashing the gears all the way. Does she, I wonder, have to listen to the same stories, the same jokes, day after day?
The Icelanders are stoic. They have to be to cope with a largely hostile environment that frequently turns on them, whether this be bad weather or a volcanic eruption. It’s a fragile environment too, and one not particularly helped by the massive influx of tourists who are trampling all over it in search of The Game of Thrones experience or something other. Otherness, of course, is exactly what Iceland offers and why it continues to exert a powerful pull.
Back in Reykjavik, it has started to rain. Swordbiter is all business now, making sure we are all dropped off at our hotels. The show is over, but on the long haul back to Australia, I rewatch Game of Thrones in a completely new way, my eyes firmly fixed on the faces in the background. And there, yes, it is. There’s Swordbiter, standing resolutely in the background in his cotton cape looking seriously cold. Only now I know how Game of Thrones really feels.
- My thanks to Mark Allard for his companionship and superb images captured on our memorable tour.