Well, that didn’t quite go according to plan. I’d love to write a detailed series of posts on the trails, terrain and challenges of exploring Iceland. I’d be overjoyed to show you a collection of impressive photographs of glaciers, lava fields and river crossings. I can’t. In what was intended to be a three week trip I spent a grand total of two days on the trails.
Of Ferries and Ringroads
The route up to Hirtshals, Denmark was largely uneventful. Lena and I had separated shortly before the trip so I was travelling alone to an exceedingly remote location, the fear-factor was higher but I was looking forward to riding at my own pace on the trails. On the second night I was directed to the local Harley Riders campsite and I spent an enjoyable night with the waistcoats and tassels crowd there. The day of the sailing I nearly missed the boat thanks to the long beaches which doubled as public highways. The applause from the kids and the consternation of the sunbathing parents was almost as much fun as the speeds the firm sand permitted!
The Smyril Line ferry crossing from Hirtshals, Denmark to Seydisfjordur, Iceland takes two days and two nights. It wasn’t profoundly enjoyable experience, nor was it entirely unpleasant. I was on the cheap ticket; a bed in a 9 person bunk and one midday meal a day for about 800 euros. That one meal was routinely awful but I wouldn’t recommend any other package; it’s food and the price skyrockets if you add a little luxury. If you’re willing to bend the rules you can get a lot more at no cost. Making friends with someone on the three course ticket secured my bacon and eggs each morning by returning to the buffet. Every evening meal has a kids buffet – usually pizza and chips. If you can avoid the eagle-eyed matron watching out for any and all infractions you’ll get a proper fill. Buy an unlimited refill coffee cup (about 5 euros) and keep hold of it – you’ll have hot drinks for the duration. Bring a few snacks and you’ve got a happy, cheap crossing. You’ll need your pennies for when you land – food and accommodation are ludicrously expensive. I only had one sit-down meal, even the takeaways were pricey. A Subway sandwich, for example, will sting you for 12 euros.
The boat stops at the Faroe Islands, if you decide to get off there your ticket becomes markedly cheaper – even if you continue on to Iceland. The downside is that you have to wait for the boat to sail on to Iceland, back to Faroe, back to Denmark and then back to Faroe to pick you up again – you’ll be there a while and it doesn’t look like a big place! I suspect it’s subsidised by the Faroese authorities, once you’re there you’re going to have to spend a few pennies on food and accommodation until the boat comes back a week or so later to take you on to Iceland. Sadly you can’t just hop off for a a few hours while the boat is in port; it’s all or nothing.
They do put on some entertainment on the evenings, there is a rather expensive cinema for a price and the swimming pool is free; ideal if your idea of fun is puddle full of children’s urine buried in the lower decks. There are stacks of motorcyclists at this time of year, all happy to compare notes – although trail riders planning to head into the highlands are the minority – mostly it’s the GS crowd. It’s a good atmosphere and I don’t think I was truly bored at any point on the crossing. I fixed up my boots – which were in the process of loosing their sole – transcribed routes to GPX and shared them with fellow travellers, cleared my SD cards and the time passed quickly.
Getting off the boat is painless and you’re though the “border” with barely even a glance from the border guards. The scale of things immediately surprised me; I knew it was a wilderness but within no more than a few hundred meters I was out of Seydisfjordur and heading over a chilly mountain pass. Egilsstaðir is the next town you come to and it’s no metropolis. I shunned the other travellers getting supplies from the supermarket there, turned right and headed on – I planned to head around the ring road a little further, fuel up and get some supplies at the petrol station. I got the fuel but it was an unmanned station. I had a couple tins of tuna, some energy bars, some pasta and a most of a Camelback of water. In the finest tradition of British explorers throughout history I headed off half-cocked into the wilderness. What could possibly go wrong?
Of Trails and Tribulations
The F907 was easy-street. Impressive views, occasional waterfalls, glorious views over the glacier – but no sand, no water crossings and nice gravel tracks. The landscape changes as you approach the centre – from verdant green to volcanic wasteland. I didn’t meet another soul until I stopped for lunch (cans of tuna 1 and 2) at a crossroads, where eventually a lone 4×4 trundled past with a friendly wave. After the crossroads things start to get interesting, a few modest water crossings and a little black sand. The tracks are fairly easy, the water crossings manageable and the sand wasn’t deep. I met an incredibly helpful park ranger who was seemed convinced that I knew what I was doing and wouldn’t have any trouble. Mr Ranger suggested I should head south west past Askja, along the glacier road – hard going with deep sand and lots of rivers – but passable. He ran off to shout at some tourists who’d ventured off of the marked path and I journeyed on – immediately wiping out in the sand in front of the only audience for miles around. Never tell me I look like I know what I am doing.
It was sand all the way to Askja but only occasionally deep and somewhat moist. I paid for the campsite ran by the ranger service and tried (failed) to blag a little food. Up the trail to the crater was an entertaining ride; a lot rougher than the flat trails so far, with lots of up and down over old lava flows. Doing a small jump while passing a mega-off-road-bus was more satisfying than it should have been. It’s a short hike from the end of the trail to the crater lake, through an aerated lava field – very strange to be walking on what feels like hollow ground. A dip in a sulphur stinking, but warm, lake with some friendly Germans and I was ready to head back to the ranger station. It all took, maybe, three hours.
On the trail back I ran into Helen Lloyd, who I knew was in the area. I had a cup of tea ready for her when she got back from the lake; her left-over lamb became a curry of sorts. I couldn’t face more tuna. After much conversation and some repairs to Lenore’s electrical system it was time for a damn cold night’s sleep. Pro Tip, folks, don’t bring a two season sleeping bag to the highlands of Iceland. There’s a reason it’s called Iceland. Not because it’s warm.
In the morning we said our goodbyes and I headed out on the F910 on the advice of Friendly Mr Ranger. Those boys are not kidding when they say a route might be fun; this was one of the best – although most isolated – days of riding I have experienced. The trail is only a short spur on Google Maps but runs south from the campground and much further on west in reality, eventually meeting up with other routes running north. The first section takes you though deep black sand and over some fairly steep dunes; I wouldn’t suggest doing it on a bigger bike – some serious momentum is required. The flat sections are easy though, keep your speed up and you can glide through when you hit a loose patch. I found 70 did the trick nicely. My first stop was at a very fine waterfall, just off a spur to the south of the trail – the waterfall was noteworthy but my first human contact of the day even more so. On the walk there I saw three figures approaching in the distance. Closer inspection revealed three young ladies stripped to the waist, strolling nonchalantly across the volcanic wastes, enjoying the sunshine. Friendly greetings were exchanged, I tried to keep my eyes pointing in the right direction and they headed off on their naked way; they didn’t seem to think it an odd encounter in the slightest.
It’s worth mentioning that the trail to the waterfall is a dead end; regardless of what I might have hoped. I tried to continue on over a wide river maybe 20cm deep. Easy going but for the big stealthy rock hiding in it. The front wheel made it over but the bashplate did not; Lenore and I found ourselves perched atop the damn thing. Rocking back and forth to dislodge the precarious pair we slid to the side and went down, I instantly found the strength of ten men and hefted her out of the water. Checking your airbox for water while standing wet-booted in freezing glacial water is not something I recommend. Over the other side of the river was nothing but a turning circle, so it was immediately back over this irksome little river – avoiding the rock this time.
A Song of Ice…
Further to the west I found myself approaching the Vatnajökull glacier itself. The wind is bitter; I was riding hard and despite winter gloves and a good fleece I was cold. It’s worth enduring the chill; after lunch (more tuna) the deep sand came to an end and I approached the huge, flat, open crater – with the glacier ahead. In summer the melt water runs into the crater and what starts off as a sandy salt-flat soon becomes a mess of rivers. The rivers soon become the rule and you find yourself riding for kilometres though water up to a foot-deep. Following the track relies on spotting wooden stakes the rangers have put out and trusting your GPS when you can’t see them. Which is much of the time. It’s a wild ride, made all the wilder by the complete absence of any human presence – I spent some hours in the crater and did not see another soul; despite being able to see vast distances. The going is pretty good, but you’re still riding though varying depths of flowing water on sand – it’s probably not a place to go alone unless you’re very confident in your abilities. I’ll freely admit I found it more than a little unnerving.
Eventually good sense (or is that called fear?) got the better of me and I decided to turn around, the water was getting deep and the fuel situation was becoming questionable. I knew the next fuel was in Mývatn some 100km north. It might have been possible to make it further west but that was twice the distance. The route north was so uneven I ejected one of my fuel bottles somewhere on the track; I doubt I would have made the other route – the second bottle and the aux fuel tank were dry well before got to Mývatn and the reserve light had been on for some time. Lenore had also started to behave strangely – her engine seemed to lack it’s usual verve and panache. No warning lights and no visible signs of damage – I had no option but to continue and figured I could have it looked at in Akureyri if needed.
The route north was utterly gorgeous; I left the crater and hit a lot of volcanic rock – the track snaking around lava flows from recent eruptions. It was a dead, albeit dramatic, wasteland and the going was challenging with rivers to cross and very loose terrain. Pulling a wheelie past a group of 20 school children got a round of applause and overtaking the handful of 4x4s heading north was not unpleasant. I was feeling comfortable on the trail and got a little carried away, so much so that I managed to snap my Rade Garage rear carrier completely – necessitating removal and repair with stacks of washers.
I made it to Mývatn with less than a litre of fuel left and bad weather heading in. Lenore wasn’t running right and I couldn’t diagnose the issue, so I hit the ring road to Akureyri where I knew I had a place to stay. Lenore wouldn’t get over 90. Still no warning lights, but with the rain coming down heavy and nowhere to stop I doggedly pressed on to Akureyri. I pulled into the fuel station just over the bridge and let off the throttle – Lenore stopped and wouldn’t start.
I spent a fair portion of the night at the petrol station trying to get the bike running. It never gets dark, so time was my friend. Fuel – check. Spark – check. Compression – check. Filters – clear. Coolant – level in the tank looks good. Nothing worked; the petrol station staff gave me free hot-dogs and coffee to keep me going but eventually I had to admit defeat. I called my contact who picked me up and I got a night’s sleep on their sofa, surrounded by cats. I woke up being poked by a naked child and headed out to the bike; I soon had a diagnosis – the infamous LC4 fuel pump failure. What else could it be? I concluded that it was caused by the luggage strangling the air flow into the tank after the rack failed, causing a vacuum. Everything else seemed good; the spray from the injector seemed weak, it was a fairly logical conclusion. With no pumps available on the island I ordered one from the UK, express delivery, and set about trying to find a way to get the bike to KTM in Reykjavik. The TET community came to the rescue in the shape of Birgir, who was trail riding in the area with his son. He offered offered Lenore and I a place in the back of his van.
Birgir wasn’t ready to go so I spent a couple of days in Akureyri; the thermal pool was warm, relaxing and packed with Icelandic beauties beyond compare. I got hold of a mountain bike and took a day trip out along the fjord; grumbling all the way about the lack of horsepower. Soon enough I was in Birgir’s van with his family and dogs and we were on our way to Reykjavik. The fuel pump arrived, I swapped it out and the bike was no closer to starting. I gave in and accepted the help of the mechanic at KTM, we worked on it for a few hours checking everything we could think of – from voltages to engine smoothness. Eventually established that the bike had overheated; there was no hope of getting it running without a lot of replacement parts. I called in ADAC and they arranged return transport for the bike. In a sense this is the distinctly anticlimactic point at which the story ends.
While I waited for parts ADAC provided a few days of free hire car and accommodation, so I took a couple of day trips like a regular tourist. The hot river at Fluvir was a pleasure to lounge in and I stayed well past midnight chatting with my fellow weirdos. Snæfellsjökull National Park was a mighty fine day trip with stunning views and baking hot thermal springs. I even dragged a young Canadian beauty along for the ride. But it wasn’t what I was looking for from the trip; I was stuck on the blacktop. Motorcycle hire was not an option, 4wd vehicles were neither affordable nor desirable. Once the freebies from ADAC ran out there didn’t seem to be much point in staying.
I arranged a flight back to mainland Europe at ADAC’s expense, Iceland is just too expensive if you’re not doing what you love. My partner was on the road in Norway and hitchhiking with her had more appeal than limited, lonely roads in Iceland. When I tell the story of this trip everyone asks me when I intend to go back; I’m not so sure I will. I’m lucky that the route I took on my first day led me deep into the highlands, I saw the glaciers, the black sand, the deep rivers, the endless wasteland, the waterfalls, the hot rivers and pools. I don’t feel like I need to rush back; despite being there for such a short time. I’d have just seen more of the same. I wouldn’t head back alone; it would be far more enjoyable, not to mention vastly safer with company. I was hugely frustrated at the time but, looking back on it, I feel like I have had my Icelandic adventure. It’s trail riding paradise – I would recommend it to anyone – but I won’t be back for a while.