Since the financial crisis everyone in Iceland has taken a step back to enjoy life more. Steinar Lár from KúKú Campers tells us how you can too
Strolling the streets of Reykjavik on a bright summer's morning you don't feel like you're wandering through a post-financial crash apocalypse. The sound of the latest Icelander to pick up a guitar and strum it floats on the air. And the cafes are buzzing with beardy blokes in hipster clothes and girls sporting the latest in angular haircuts. It's like the crash never happened.
It did happen of course, with the National Stock Exchange dropping 90% and the country's three largest banks collapsing. But the general vibe in the capital is one of chilled contentment. The accepted view, it seems, is that the financial crisis of 2008 purged the country of some very un-Icelandic ways and brought it back to the way it should always have been.
It has also created new opportunities, especially in the tourism sector. One person to spot one such opportunity was Steinarr Lár, from KúKú Campers. He speaks to Peter Moore about how he was able to start his quirky campervan company thanks to the crash. And why he thinks Iceland is a much better place since things went belly up.
Tell us about KúKú Campers and how it started.
Unemployment rose quite dramatically in Iceland post crash, levels were specially high in the construction sector. Subsequently a lot of blue collar workers migrated to Norway for jobs. 7% of the Icelandic population left for Norway. The Renault Kangoo was the number one carpenter/plumber car in Iceland pre-crash but these poor guys had to leave their cars behind when leaving for Norway. The market was now filled with Kangoos and no one wanted them. We spotted the opportunity and the rest is history.
Your office is right in the centre of Reykjavik, right next to an abandoned block, festooned with graffiti murals. What is the the story behind that abandoned block?
Some big money contractors had spent several years pre-crash purchasing buildings around the area with big dreams of building a large shopping mall. But their plans were flushed due to the crisis. Due to this there are a lot of buildings in the area whom hadn't got any love for years. This changed after the crisis when local artists took the area into their own hands and created a unique area which is today referred to as the "hearts garden".
It´s the coolest hang out in Reykjavik with several grass root music/fashion/cultural events thrown weekly. I personally enjoy this crisis we had, the people of Iceland are not as money orientated afterwards, more focused on things of real value.
Your vans are very distinctive, with graffiti artwork, often of celebrities. What was the idea behind that? Any bad reactions?
We wanted to create something that could bring people together. The car acts as a conversation breaker where ever you take it, thereby connecting our customers with both locals and fellow tourists. We use internationally know characters on our cars. Chuck Norris is our most popular car. But we've had some issues with political figures. For example, there was a guy from Japan who refused to take Kim Jong Il. He said: "Kim Jong Il very bad man, this very bad joke." We thought it was hilarious and gave him Whitney Houston instead.
How many graffiti artists do you use? Do you tell them what to paint or do you let them decide?
We briefed our artists to create something relative to a international crowd, something upbeat and funny. They choose the characters themselves. They own the artwork. It has become a local standard for spray artists to decorate our cars. You have to be super qualified to access this small circle of eight persons. We have recently received internationally known artists that have come to Iceland specially to create a KúKú. One example is Monsieur Plum who created our Lóiseau de glace – half snake, half bird – van.
What would you say the KúKú philosophy is?
Being KúKú is being free. A lot of phone/banks/insurance companies will state that they are selling freedom. They aren't, we are! In a KúKú camper you can go anywhere sleep anywhere and do anything (without going bankrupt). The KúKú mindset is being your ultimate relaxed self. The freedom to say anything that comes to mind. You know those moments you have with your oldest friend. When you goof around without worrying what anyone else thinks. In a politically correct world of rules and regulations we need to act KúKú ever so often.
How do customers react to the KúKú philosophy?
Great question! Consumers in general are fed up by unfriendly big corporations that are trying to make us believe that they care about us. Our customers quickly understand that we are a very different company with different approaches. For example, we give every customer an hour of conversation when they come to our office. We love to assist people to create the ultimate intimate road trip. What we do is we gather the most recent weather report and mix it up with main interests of our Kúkú client. Through this process we create a tailor made trip plan for every customer maximising their trip potential. We´ll send you places that even Icelanders don´t know about.
You champion a 'back-to-basics' style of travel. Is that the key to enjoying Iceland?
The less quality of life you have with you on a road trip, the closer you will feel to nature. The Icelandic mountains and coastline are an endless source of energy and inspiration. In KúKú campers you can basically stop anywhere and decide that's your home for the night. This is the ultimate experience nature experience, being completely alone in a magical setting with 50km radius of nothing but untouched pure nature.
Are there any idiosyncratic Icelandic ways that people should be aware of before coming to Iceland?
People here are extremely friendly, I notice quite often when people are picking up their campers that they actually think this is some kind of a scam. That we as Icelanders are nice to other human beings to gain something from them. We actually just love to share our life and experiences with pure hearts. If there is any advice I can give you it´s to open up as a human being and drop all guards before coming here, you won´t need them.
Your vans have CD players. What CD do you think would make the perfect soundtrack for an Icelandic road trip?
I would recommend something mellow, something down beat. Sigur Rós is a good travelling partner. But personally I prefer to listen to the silence. The Icelandic nature is visually strong enough for my brain work overtime.
What does the future hold for KúKú?
Good vibes, happy customers and lots of sex outdoors.
KúKú Campers offer an affordable way to tour Iceland and put a smile on the face of everyone you meet in the process. Drop by their website to choose who you want to travel around Iceland with – Dolly Parton, Chuck Norris or Whitney Houston, to name but a few.
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