The Yellow Banana Tent

It looks like I’m going to be doing quite a bit of camping this summer and for none of my trips is it really practical to take my “big” two-man tent. We’re travelling to Guide/Ranger tent by ferry this year – what with Ranger equipment and getting everything on and off the boat, I’m going to need to put my tent in my bag, so the big tent is out. Flying to Iceland and then across Iceland, I can’t get my big tent in a suitable flight bag. And we’re required to arrive at Wellies & Wristbands by train, so again, shove everything in the smallest bag I can.

Fortunately, I do own a suitable tent.

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I think you can see where it gets its name from.

I chose that picture because it’s the most flattering, plus it shows off my beautiful view at Skaftafell. It’s a one-man tent, a Blacks Octane One and it’s the smallest tent I’ve ever seen in the flesh. It’ll be perfect for this year’s camping trips although there’s a good chance I’ll loathe it by September.

I decided to spend the summer of 2013, armed with a bus passport, making my way around Iceland. I wanted to go to Laki, so I was more or less required to camp at Skaftafell, I wanted to go up to Mývatn so I had to overnight at Landmannalaugar, where your best bet is camping, and then I got carried away and camped at Mývatn too. In order to do this camping, I had to convey my camping stuff by plane so I had to buy a tent that would fit in a suitable bag and not be too heavy. Much research and budgeting eventually led to this one. I mean, ideally, I’d have a Terra Nova Laser, since that appears to be the uncontested star of the one-man tent competition but it’s way out of my price range. Mine is twice the weight of the Laser but it’s less than half the price and it’s a pretty similar pack size and that was the important bit. My mistake was getting it in yellow. I hadn’t anticipated the effect of 24 hour daylight on yellow tent canvas. I’m not overly bothered about visibility – it’s only ever going to be used on proper campsites, so I have no need to blend in with the scenery.

I did change the guys. I’d heard horror stories about gale force winds at Landmannalaugar in particular so I added a second set of guys and then I didn’t like the way they didn’t match the originals, so I replaced the originals too. And I added a pack of storm pegs. Waste of time and weight. I’ve not yet found a campsite in Iceland where you could dream of knocking in nine inch steel stakes. As it happened, the worst I had was a bit of rain one evening.

Skaftafell was idyllic, as you can see in the picture above. I had blue sky and incredible temperatures, my little home overlooked by the biggest glacier in Europe and the showers were very pleasant – operated by a card that you buy with a credit card from a machine on the wall of the visitor centre for 600kr and you’re best off getting two at a time. Tip from the expert, there. The only critical words I have for Skaftafell are that under that lovely fluffy green grass is a layer of stones and it’s a pig to get your tent pegs in. I think I heard that Skaftafell is the biggest campsite in Iceland. Maybe it is – it has eight separate fields but none of them are very big and none of them are very busy. It doesn’t compare with any of the campsites I ever went to as a child – this is no Castell Montgri. Not that I ever actually went there.

Anyway. Skaftafell was great. I visited the three glaciers that hem it in and I climbed up onto the heath to visit the beautiful Svartifoss. After three wonderful nights there, I moved on to Landmannalaugar. Oh, the business of getting the pegs in! Landmannalaugar’s soil is extremely thin and mostly gravel. That means that it’s hard to get the pegs in and when you finally achieve it, you get half a second’s satisfaction before a crater forms around your peg and the ground falls apart, pinging the peg back out. The rocks lying around, or put back in boxes if the previous occupier was really tidy, are not just for guarding against the infamous gales. I had to use them to hold my pegs in place on a day when there wasn’t a breath of breeze.

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See those two green tents behind mine? They belonged to a German family with exactly the same itinerary as me. They were in my field at Skaftafell, they’re right there now and they were to camp just behind me at Mývatn later before departing Mývatn by the same bus as me three days later.

I stayed two nights in Landmannalaugar. My plan was just one and indeed, I packed up my stuff on the first morning, ready to go. Only, with half an hour before my bus was due to depart on its ten hour journey up north, it struck me that it wasn’t already waiting in the car park. As it had to make a ten hour journey south, it was very suspicious for it to leave less than half an hour before turning back and even more suspicious that it would be departing at about nine at night and travelling the desert overnight.  I got out my timetable and learnt the truth. The bus travels up and down on alternate days. Today was the day for it to come south. It wasn’t going back up north until tomorrow. I made a phone call, to rearrange plans I had for tomorrow and then had to put my tent back up again, with no choice whatsoever but to stay another night in Landmannalaugar. From the point of view of that German family, it must have looked like I packed away my stuff for no other reason than to take this photo:

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See, Landmannalaugar looks like pure gravel but I found a patch of grass the size and shape of my tent to set up camp on.

That bag, by the way, is ridiculous. It’s 100 litres, I think – it does look suspiciously small next to my 45 litre backpack, though. It swallows up tent and sleeping bag and mat and clothes and ten 500g bagpacks of giant Coco Pops that I brought home from work and thought would be a good idea to take with me (it’s not! Coco Pops everywhere and that’s from the one of the ten that I opened) and assorted other bits of pieces. I could carry it maybe fifty yards and there really wasn’t room in the Yellow Banana Tent for me and the bag. Maybe it was the bag I got sick of more than the tent. I might replace it with a 70 litre one this year – big enough to fit my stuff in but not overwhelmingly heavy. Except that now I’ve put doubt in my own mind as to the size of the one I already have. I swear it’s 100 litres but it just doesn’t look big enough.

Landmannalaugar’s showers are coin-operated and since I wasn’t planning to spend long there, and spent my precious pennies on an unexpected extra night’s fees, I didn’t have the right change for the shower when I wanted it (400kr in the form of four 100kr coins) and although you can change money at the warden’s hut, no one was in at the time. The hot spring is amazing but you do ideally want a shower afterwards. I felt filthy until I got to my next campsite. However, the Fjallabuð, the Mountain Mall, the pair of school buses converted into a tiny shop, sold hot chocolate – or they sold you a cup and the right to make yourself some hot chocolate and that was a joy, to sit out on a bench, under endless daylight, drinking nice milky hot chocolate made your favourite way after a day exploring the lava field and the floodplain and declaring yourself king of everything the sun touches. Landmannalaugar is magical.

My third stop was at Mývatn, at Bjarg campsite, right opposite the bus stop. I staggered a couple of hundred yards down the road to the hotel but they were full and utterly unwilling to even try to help – not so much as a “there’s another hotel at the other end of the village, they might have a room free” and certainly no “would you like us to ring them and find out, instead of making you walk down there with that bag?” It was far easier to just give in and go back to the tent.

But Bjarg is a delight. Soft grass, soft soil, pegs go in super-easy. The showers are free and hot and no one has ever needed a shower as desperately as I did that evening or appreciated one so much either. You have to move your tent after three nights so as to not damage the grass and there was a special building for cooking in if you wanted and a drying shed for hanging your towel. I really can’t fault Bjarg in any way. Plus it overlooks a lake and a beautiful conical mountain and it has sunsets like this:

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There’s that German family again, on the left.

10/10, would go back. Especially for the purposes of visiting Mývatn Nature Baths, which are amazing. Plus, this site is in civilisation! I mean, Reykjahlíð is a teeny-tiny village of three hundred souls, an hour and a half from the nearest big town but it’s an urban dream in comparison with Skaftafell and Landmannalaugar. There’s a main road running right by the campsite and on the other side of the road is a supermarket and visitor centre. The last supermarket I saw was when I was stranded at Kirkjubæjarklaustur on the way back from Laki and the last supermarket that was actually of much use to me was right back at Reykjavik, before I set out on my camping adventure. I celebrated with a proper steel butter knife, apple and pear and strawberry juices and a packet of bourbon biscuits. And just up the road was the local pool – not the Nature Baths, the pool that the locals go to, but it’s such a tiny place and such is the pull of the Nature Baths that I only saw three other people the whole time I was in there and none of them stayed long. It’s not a huge pool but it’s outside and it’s warm and there are two hot pots. That’s pretty standard for a teeny-tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere in Iceland. 10/10 also, would also recommend.

So that’s the story of me and the Yellow Banana Tent and our trip across Iceland in 2013. I went back last year, spent one night in it at Laugarvatn (for free; I just couldn’t find a single soul to pay) and three nights at Fossatún, a few miles outside Borgarnes (my favourite campsite ever!) before having to abandon the enterprise due to what I can only conclude was an ear infection – lying in a tent watching it whirl round and round in circles is not an enjoyable experience, so I threw it in the back of my car – I hired a car last year! – and ran back to the hotel in Borgarnes.

I like taking the tent to Iceland because sometimes camping is just the best way of doing things. I like having it there as a backup, so I can have total freedom over what I do. Right up until I arrived last year, I intended to go to the Westfjords and instead I ended up roaming the west and the north, turning up at hotels and asking for a room for the night – which I achieved but the tent was always there in case I didn’t. And also, it’s hellishly expensive for a solo traveller to hire a car so camping helped offset that a bit. So my Yellow Banana Tent shall go in my bag to take the ferry to Ranger camp, it shall fly to Iceland with me and then it shall go in a bag and get on a train to Wellies & Wristbands because a tent that’s truly portable is a joy indeed.