From Above




What inspires you? What moves you to wake up one day, and say: “That’s it. I’m doing it!”

And I’m not talking about the easy stuff. I’m talking about the hard stuff. The stuff that stretches you. The things that take EFFORT. But you’re inspired to reach, and face the humiliation of failure, but maybe… just maybe… pluck the fruits of success. And you know there’s a chance to get it done, because hey: Someone else has shown you the way.

I think that’s the crucial thing, hey. Mentors. Role models. The ones who inspire you, who light your way, who show you that not only it is possible, but that you can do it too. In our society, it’s well documented how people with strong family structures, solid financial footing and access to lots of accomplished people will by and large do ok in life. Whether said people always acknowledge all those massive helping hands right out of the starting blocks – that’s another story.

But this is not a discourse on entitlement. I’m actually here to talk about, at the junction of 2021 and 2022, to talk about Ben Stiller and Iceland.

Last night, maybe for the fifth time, I watched the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s a fantastic movie about a guy who never does anything, but lives through the exploits of his hero, a rugged photographer played by Sean Penn. He is also an Olympian-level daydreamer, and the initial cutouts to explore his fantasy world are mint.

But a few things happen in Walter’s life. He meets a girl, and to win her, he will need to show her what kind of man he is. He is also faced with a bigger existential problem (getting fired), and if he doesn’t resolve it, his safe little world will crumble. And, finally, he is asked to do a small task by his hero, the said photographer. Only he can’t do it, because he doesn’t have all the tools he needs. Or does he?

I started watching this movie on the plane to somewhere years ago (I suppose it must have been 2014), back when jumping on planes was simple and fun. And, as often would happen with movies on planes, I watched the first 20 minutes, decided it would be more fun to doze off (I do this quite easily too, my wife will tell you) and woke up with a start a little while later.

Our hero was somewhere else than his dark basement office in New York. He was skateboarding like a champion down an incredible vista of waterfalls and mountains and then had to escape an erupting volcano. Ok, so he is still in his fantasy land, I surmised. Good visuals, though. And promptly went back to sleep.

That amazing fantasy piece on the skateboard stayed with me. I went where ever I was going, did whatever I was doing, and flew back home. But the movie – or at least the part of it I watched – stayed in my head. So I watched it again on the way home, and this time, I tuned in for the whole thing.

The place he went to, it turned out, wasn’t a dream. Over the course of the movie, Walter visits Greenland, Iceland, and goes trekking in Nepal. He BECOMES the sun-tanned rugged adventurer of his daydreams, completes the quest and gets the girl. It’s a highly underrated piece of filmmaking with an incredible soundtrack.

Most of it is shot in Iceland. The charming Greenland town, the skateboarding volcano stuff, even the trekking in Nepal. All Iceland. And I became obsessed with the place. The rugged beauty, the colours of everything there just seemed to pop. It couldn’t be a real place, could it? I had to find out.

Now, I didn’t get into a helicopter with a drunken Scandinavian or almost get covered in an ash cloud by a volcano, but I did have to jump through a few hoops to have the experience I wanted.

To get there, you need a Schengen Visa as a South African. They want you to prove where you will be every single day of your visit, which isn’t really the stuff wild adventure is made of. But I sorted out the admin (often my personal Everest) and I was on my way.

My favourite scene in the movie is the biking scene just as he gets to Iceland. I love to cycle, and I wanted to go there. The spot where those scenes were shot was about 2 hours outside of Reykjavik, and could be reached by bus.

Only it wasn’t one bus. It was three. I rented a bike, and made my way to the main bus station in the centre of town at 5 am to catch the first one. It took me halfway, where I was handed off to a smaller bus. This bus took me to a barren junction in the middle of nowhere, where I was handed off to an even smaller vehicle – the one that did the peninsula circuit. He, in turn (and on request), dropped me in the small town of Stykkisholmur (they shot the helicopter scene there) and my cycling adventure began.

By myself. Three layers of clothing (it’s a cold place, Iceland), some water and a Mars Bar. But it was enough. Oh, and I also had my iPhone, with the Monsters and Men soundtrack from the movie loaded.

I redid all those famous scenes. It was cold and lonely and amazing, and I ended up in another town 40km’s onwards for a wonderful seafood lunch and some local wine, before being picked up by my friendly first bus driver and redoing the gauntlet of bus handoffs to get back to Reykjavik.

I did some other stuff in Iceland, but not even the Northern Lights compared with that one day of epic, lonely exploration.

As I sit here, rewatching it, I am struck by how travel has become more complicated. More uncertain. The Pandemic has taken a lot of the fun out of it, really.

But it’s still worth it. John F Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Maybe we got too comfy. Maybe we got too entitled. I definitely did. Jumping on a plane, going somewhere, was relatively easy. Now it’s not. It comes with risks. Cancellations, difficulties, health concerns, countries changing their entry and access rules all the time.

And yet. And yet.

The greatest rewards come from the greatest effort. Taking some risks, putting in some work, and acceptance of failure as a possibility.

Ben Stiller has given me a lot in life. There’s Something About Mary, the circle of trust from Meet the Parents, and let me not get started on Zoolander. The man, as a thespian, has contributed laughs, language and many happy memories with friends and family.

But I reckon him, on a bike, by himself, doing the hard thing in Iceland. That, my friend. That inspired me. THAT got me moving. And he just did it for me again.

I wish you to be inspired and choose the hard thing in 2022. Me? I’m going to go hike the Amatola Trail in the rugged Eastern Cape mountains. It will be hard. But it will be worth it.

Have an amazing new year!


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