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Proceed at your own risk?

As this is written, a massive search is underway for two Germans who were reported missing a few days ago, but who have not been heard from for about three weeks. Their relatives got in touch with the Icelandic authorities when they didn’t return home on their booked flights last week.

Sadly, foreign tourists going missing or being gravely injured is not an uncommon occurrence here.* This is a dangerous place – the weather is unpredictable and up in the highlands can turn savage in an instant, the roads can turn from paved to gravel without warning, glacial ice forms deep and dangerous crevices in the summer, the interior is vast and it’s easy to lose your way, crossing rivers in vehicles is subject to very specialized guidelines, and a only slightly misplaced foot on the banks of a river can mean sudden death. The list goes on.

The Iceland Tourist Board distributes very clear guidelines for tourists, including rule number one: Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Still, it’s amazing how many people neglect this simple procedure. One of the two German men now missing reportedly told his girlfriend that they were going ice climbing on a glacier, and then provided a description that could apply to several different locations here. The area currently being searched is 70 km2 and it may not even be the right place – it’s considered likely, because one of their cell phones registered a signal near that place at the end of last month, but really it’s all speculation.**

There was a very apt editorial in Morgunblaðið today, about the increasing number of tour groups coming to Iceland from abroad, with their own buses and their own guides that often are not even qualified guides, but rather ‘group organizers’. The paper pointed out how brazen and foolhardy this is – Icelandic tour guides, by contrast, must undergo intensive training for a full year in order to become qualified. They must know not only about the popular tourist sights, history, geology, etc., but also about the inherent risks of traveling in this country, what equipment to take along, and how to respond should emergencies arise. The paper cites a recent case in which an Icelandic tour guide happened to be in the vicinity of a foreign group when it was hit by falling rocks and a woman was injured. The tour guide was able to assist the woman and call for help – fortunately, since the rest of the group was completely at a loss and had no idea what to do. The paper didn’t elaborate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was no cell phone reception in that area – in such a sparsely populated country there are many areas only accessible for a few weeks each year – and generally there is no reception there.

That incident had a fortuitous ending – but there have been many that did not. I recall the case of an Italian man a few years ago who went hiking by himself up north and simply vanished. And a couple of years ago – just after I started blogging – I got an email from a brother of someone who had been killed here in Iceland under adverse circumstances on which he didn’t elaborate. He’d seen his brother’s name on an Icelandic website, and wanted to ask me to kindly translate and let him know what it said. I was moved.

Today’s editorial goes so far as to suggest that perhaps tour groups from abroad should be banned from traveling through certain regions of the country unless a qualified Icelandic guide goes along. That would surely enhance the safety of our foreign visitors. Personally I think it’s a fantastic idea that should be implemented pronto.

One more thing: the Icelandic search and rescue teams that operate all over the country consistently fill me with awe. These are people working under severe and difficult conditions and putting life and limb at risk – and all on a volunteer basis. They fund their activities through donations and fundraising efforts like selling fireworks at New Year’s. As soon as there’s an emergency, or the threat of an emergency, they’re out there performing deeds that can only be described as immensely heroic.

Very rare here in Niceland, where we’re more prone to getting drizzle and fog. Anyway, it’s rained buckets – looks like we’re finally being delivered the rain we didn’t get earlier in the summer. Which is fine because it’s conducive to staying inside and working, which is what my life pretty much revolves around right about now. Temps 12°C [55F] and the sun came up this morning at
5:39 and set at 9:20 this evening.

* I don’t want to suggest that only foreign travelers get caught up in dangerous situations – Icelanders are definitely not exempt.
** I realize I may sound insensitive to the case of these two men, but truly I’m not. I sincerely hope they’re found alive – but I have to say that, all things considered, it’s not very likely.



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