The Abyss Stares Back Into You

‘There are a few rules I must tell you before we go down to the beach,’ said our tour guide as the coach rumbled into the rocky car park.

Usual rules for the beach involve little more than sun tan lotion and ensuring something unpleasant doesn’t slip out of your bathing suit. But this was Iceland, where the usual rules of nature didn’t seem to apply.

‘Do not go close to the water,’ said our guide. ‘Do not turn your back on the water. The wind is very strong, and you cannot trust this sea. If it takes you, there will be no rescue.’

So, nothing to worry about! We filed out of the bus, making noises like punch-drunk boxers as the bitter wind made short work of our many layers. The car park more closely resembled an exhausted quarry than a beach, stones and scree strewn like unimaginative flotsam, but the nearby sound of crashing waves assured me we were in the right place.

Our guide pulled on a lurid orange jacket. ‘Stay close to me,’ she said.

I ran ahead like an excited child.

Beatific black sand

Over a slight rise the rocks and pebbledash gave way to sand. Sand as black as caviar. Sand that looked like it had been borne here from the depths of space and burned to a cinder in our atmosphere. I immediately regretted not bringing a bucket and spade to make death metal sand castles.

The sea came into view, grey waves crashing starkly onto the blackened shore. There was no other noise but the wind that chased away the reverent chatter of my tour group behind me. It was immediately clear that we had arrived in a special place.

Across the turbulent water the spectral shape of an island tried to make itself known through the haze. Further along, around the curve of a cliff-face, a snaggle-toothed spire rose defiantly from the swell, like a monument from another world.

Freezing spray made my face go numb. The cold scraped its nails against my bones. This was the bleakest place I had ever been.

I spent a mandatory ten minutes making the usual futile attempts to capture the soul of this place in my camera, posing in front of the water (ignoring instructions, like a badass, and turning my back on it), the sand, a bizarre rock formation that looked like nature’s attempt to sculpt a gigantic wallet full of McDonald’s fries.

Painfully earnest epiphany

And then I stood as close to the seething water’s edge as I dared, erected my hood to block out the people around me, and gazed out over the waves. I’m not usually one to talk about travel epiphanies. In fact I am one to actively scoff at any person who talks in hushed tones about how travel has changed their life.

But I have rarely found myself as profoundly, implacably affected as I was by that beach. Never has a place so brazenly embodied my perpetual state of mind. Never has bleakness been so beautiful. It felt like this country had melted down my years of existential despair and fear of the abyss and cast it to form this place. It felt like I was at the edge of the world. For that half hour standing on the beach, my life, in its own bizarre way, made a little more sense. I wanted to build a house there, write poetry about darkness and dead cats, and never leave.

I didn’t move when the wind battered me. I didn’t move (like a badass) when an overzealous wave careened up the beach and soaked my boots. The added discomfort seemed apt. I only relented when the tour guide sidled her ugly orange jacket into my sightline and all but hauled me away.

The sound of the waves faded in my ears. My boots squelched in the black sand.

It feels like I left more of me behind on that beach than just footprints.