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Xarene photos Iceland

Driving
at the speed
of the nordic sun

Meet the off-road rally car driver who fought her way across black lava

Xárene Eskander goes where few have been. In this exclusive TOPIA photo essay, the designer, photographer – and off-road rally car driver – documents her journey when stuck for days in a remote part of Iceland and the lessons she learned on ‘Operation Rescue Baxter’

Xarene photos Iceland

Gabríel pointed to an area on the map and told me: ‘Don’t go here’.

The elements in Iceland will kill you.

Icelandic mythology is framed around the physical environment killing people, from being lost in the fog, to plunging into a waterfall, or swept away by a glacier river, with the lure being the distant sound of children that one innocently walks toward.

Everyone, at least once in their life, has to take off into the wilderness.

Gjáfjöll

Gjáfjöll is one of the least known wildernesses in Iceland, and Iceland is one the least known deserts in Europe. I was going there because I wanted to be alone and find inspiration to create new work. Exploring the wilderness is how I find peace and quiet from the noise of my life in Los Angeles.

I’ve always loved exploring the wildernesses of the American Southwest because they give me a sense of profound peace. But Iceland’s another level. It’s a country that’s almost entirely wilderness. The people who settled Iceland survived by a miracle.

I had lived in Reykjavík for a few years on and off and the city scene was getting on my nerves. That’s when I decided it’s time to make the solo journey to the Highlands. It was then, pouring over maps late one night at Gabríel’s kitchen table, that he warned me about going into Gjáföll. “It’s too isolated and rough, no one goes there… and you can get lost.”

That was exactly what I wanted but not exactly on those terms.

Xarene photos Iceland

Iceland’s volcanic landscape is formed by three tectonic plates crashing into each other.

The seismic events are so massive that it’s hard for the human mind to fathom.

The Highlands

I found a vehicle which I knew could handle the terrain, a 1999 Isuzu Trooper on 35” BFG mud terrains. I gave it an oil change and a name, Baxter; packed minimal clothes – all Icelandic wool; down bedding because I refuse to hunker down in a sleeping bag for more than a couple days; and enough food for three weeks. But I didn’t pack much water, knowing I can find springs as they’re everywhere in Iceland. I made a habit of sending my GPS coordinates to three separate friends at the end of each day.

Nothing had prepared me for the magnitude of vast grey space. It stretched to the horizon in all directions and initially they all looked the same.

Xarene photos Iceland

Nothing had prepared me for the magnitude of vast grey space. It stretched to the horizon in all directions and initially they all looked the same.

On my way to Gjáföll, I came upon an oasis in the grey Desert – fishing lakes amidst volcanic craters, remnants of ancient glaciers.

The oasis was the last speck of colour for hundreds of miles.

Xarene photos Iceland

The oasis was the last speck of colour
for hundreds of miles.

The barely used dirt two-tracks leading into the Gjáföll wilderness were inaccessible to all but the hardiest of explorers. I started taking photos of the landscape in front and behind me so that I could find my way back if anything happened. I intended to take this dirt track clear to the other side of the wilderness. They say everything is going great until it’s not.

Two-tracks are what they sound like:
lonely double tyre pressure marks in the dust.

At some point on the fourth day
I came across this junction.

The map told me I should go left. After a moment of hesitation, I decided to go right because left meant a short way out of the wilderness. I thought to myself that I was already where Gabríel told me not to go and everything is going great so why not embed one adventure into the other and take the longer way out.

The trail started to get rough almost immediately past where it was obscured from my view. Faint two-tracks got fainter and the landscape started closing in and getting steeper, rockier, narrower, and looser. I pushed to the crest, stopped and started to read the topography.

It was difficult to place what was happening between what I saw and what I read on the map, so eventually I abandoned it knowing I am lost and will just have to take the two-track and see what happens.

Going back was not an option only because I knew the challenges I just came through and it had been a long day of midnight sun and I just wanted to camp. My big fear was that the two-track was going to cross the lava field, the one landscape I wasn’t mentally equipped to cross. That evening I sent GPS coordinates as usual… only to find there was no service.

In addition, I remarked to myself that I haven’t seen a single spring since entering the wilderness.

I didn’t pack much water, knowing I can find springs as they’re everywhere in Iceland.

That morning I woke to a beautifully clear day.

Before starting I hiked out a bit on the trail in front of me and my heart sank; as far as I could see, there was a black field of lava ready to shred the tyres.

Half-heartedly I decided to hike over the lava to see if I could identify the trail and to gauge whether I can drive Baxter over it. I couldn’t see the trail and disconsolate, around noon, I turned around. It’s actually difficult to say how I felt at this moment – disconsolate, embarrassed, disappointed, chicken shit. Basically I didn’t feel great about myself and I’m pretty sure I fooled myself into not seeing the trail and to instead turn around. But I was also aware of how little water I had and decided it probably is best to backtrack and gather water from a distant snowmelt I had driven past, then find my way back to the short trail out.

That morning I woke to a beautifully clear day.

On attempting to climb a steep, rocky, narrow, and loose hill from the direction I had come from, I lost control and nearly rolled off the side of the hill, backwards. Baffled, I sat there wondering why I lost control. Walking around Baxter, it became clear: the front wheels should not be pointing in different directions. It was a broken control arm from a hairline rust fracture.

Everyone has stories of terrible accidents that have befallen people in the wilderness and it’s these stories That hold many back from exploring their potentials. I had gotten lost and taken a trail I hadn’t wanted to, I ran out of water, I had no cell service, and now my truck was broken down in the middle of nowhere. I took in my surroundings. There was nothing and no one for hundreds of miles.

Just one of these is someone’s worst nightmare, let alone all within 18 hours.

What you do in these scenarios is to stick with your vehicle until someone finds you, so I hiked up the nearest mountain with an old GSM phone and repeatedly attempted calls for Search and Rescue.

Thankfully dispatch was the same guy so he could piece together my individual broken calls, hoping that they got my correct GPS coordinates. (Spoiler: they did not).

The thing that I had been dreading, and many dread, had actually happened and all I felt was… a sense of calm. The wave of panic I had expected, failed to materialise and five hours later when SAR found me, I was chilling in the back of my lopsided truck, listening to an audiobook while knitting (when I first started listening to audiobooks I had to train my mind, and knitting was a way to keep my hands busy on an automated action so my mind could focus on listening).

‘We’ve never been out here,’ said the rescue team as I guided them back out to the main trail.

Few days later, I came back with Gabríel on ‘Operation Rescue Baxter’. After getting lost again even with my photographs of the trail guiding us, I decided the map wasn’t updated.

We finally found Baxter at 2am.

This event marked my first very truck repair which put me on a track of being my own mechanic ever since.

Once we fixed the truck, Gabríel said to me, “now we cross the lava field; this is what you should have done in the first place”. He was right. The two-track crossed over the lava field and reached the main trail barely a few miles away. My fear had blinded me. I felt defeated, even embarrassed. I was so close but my own hesitation had forced me back. It’s a lesson I had already learned early in life but re-learned in the landscape of the Highlands at a turning point in my life, that fear is the thing that causes you to make mistakes.

We finally found Baxter at 2am.

I’ve been on numerous wilderness trips since then, breaking and fixing my truck, never turning around, still making bad decisions, but now, I cross lava fields and whatever all the fucking time.

Xarene photos Iceland

Inspired by  Xárene Eskander ?

Hear more from the pioneering designer as she philosophises about utopia


What’s so good about this?

“Everyone, at least once in their life, has to take off into the wilderness.”

Xárene Eskandar chose this photo essay to feature in TOPIA because it represents a breakthrough. She got out there, did it and faced everything that came – and nothing happened other than a great adventure. The designer wants people to be inspired to follow their curiosity….

“Wake up sweating at 3am and question your status quo.”

Meet the writer

Designer, photographer – and anarcho utopian – Xárene Eskandar lives between Reykjavik, Iceland and Los Angeles, California, founded an AI company in Tokyo, and is one of the few female off-road rally drivers building a race car for the Dakar Rally. In 2009 she pioneered a new aesthetic of photography, Time Slice, and a methodology for data visualisation called Realtime Lapse. Eskandar’s award-winning work and film Driving at the speed of the Nordic sun came on top of a decade of successful design work. She also regularly organises The Gambler 500 rally in New Mexico, off-roading in the wilderness with her white Cadillac, Dreki Blanco. Follow her world on xarene.la, and at @xarene.la on Instagram and on Twitter @xarene. (Profile photo by Jeaneen Lund.)

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