story and photography by Jeremy Bullard[this review of KTM Adventure Tours‘ Iceland adventure motorcycle tour was originally published under the title “Fire and Ice” in the April 2008 issue of Rider]
Riding a wave of euphoria off the ferry from Scotland, upon arriving in Seyisfjrur, Iceland, I turned south toward Reykjavik on my KTM 640 Adventure and got soaked for the next two days. Iceland has the most extraordinary and constantly changing scenery and weather. The other riders on the ferry went north, staying in the sunshine. I hadn’t yet learned to “follow the good weather,” even if it’s not where you originally wanted to go. The locals often choose two places on opposite sides of the country for their vacations, and only decide where to go just before they leave.
It was much greener and warmer than I had hoped. In August, the coldest temperature I experienced was 41 degrees F, but the high was only 64 F, still pretty good for just outside the Arctic Circle and the same latitude as Alaska. Iceland’s total population is only 306,000, but I guess Alaskans might find it a bit crowded, with seven people per square mile against their one. More than 60 percent of Icelanders live in the southwest near Reykjavik, while the rest are dotted around the coast, leaving the interior totally deserted.
Most tourists stick to the one tarred road which encircles the island, the N1, but riders have two other options: Big trailies can take the only two roads across the interior, the Kjölur (F35) and the Sprengisandur (F26), as well as many other dirt roads. The hard-core routes are only possible on light enduro bikes. Although the interior roads are snow-free from mid June, I went in August since this is when the river fords are at their lowest.
KTM Adventure Tours
To gain experience I spent two days with Dri Björnsson and Garar loor Hilmarsson of KTM Adventure Tours, riding tracks around Mount Hekla, a volcano, on a 250 EXC. I have never experienced so many “Wow” moments so fast, as everything changed every five minutes. Riding through the scrub we suddenly emerged beside a beautiful river, meandering between lush green banks while the sun sparkled off the clear blue water. Later, on Hekla, we rode fields of pumice where—like riding in marshmallows—my bike sank whenever we stopped. In such conditions lightness is everything, so the nimble 250 was perfect. I would not have gotten far on my 640 Adventure. Next we rode beside a 20-foot-high lava field and stopped where the old track emerged from the lava like the entrance to the Bat Cave.
“This happened in 1991. We used to watch the lava moving down the hill,” said Dri, “It went slowly past.”
Half an hour later we turned into an eerily white valley and experienced another surreal sight: A sea of multicolored tents. The left side of the valley was bare rock hills, but on the right was a bright green alpine meadow dotted with yellow fellafífill flowers. We stripped to our shorts in the biting wind and quickly slipped into the stream. It was heaven. This was Landmannalaugar, a natural hot spring, one of hundreds all over Iceland. Steam poured off the small feeder stream.
“Don’t get close,” warned Dri, “Today it is hot. Most times we go straight to the top, but today is good here. We come here on snowmobiles in the winter. That is best when everything is covered in snow.” If you plan your trip well you can soak in a different hot pot every night.
Good and Bad News
Unfortunately, Iceland is the most expensive country I have ever been to, and accommodation can be hard to find in the peak months of July and August unless you’ve booked ahead. Even a single room in a youth hostel was $50 a night. Hotels needed a different budget. However, the food was delicious. I love smoked salmon and smoked lamb sandwiches, but avoided good restaurants and only nibbled the tiniest piece of hákarl (putrefied shark) because it reeked of ammonia. How would anything taste if buried and left to decompose for a couple of months? I thought it was disgusting, but Dri and Garar loved it. But don’t let any of this put you off. Neither gas nor cash were a problem as even the tiniest village had a store that combined both, usually with a small supermarket.
Laugafell Hot Pot
Feeling more confident, I rode the Sprengisandur and Kjölur roads across the interior and saw more moonlike landscapes peppered with sudden bursts of color. Many of the best things happen by chance. I met Valgeir at the Hrauneyjar Lodge on the Sprengisandur road because he had a reindeer’s head tied to the roof of his Ford Explorer. After stalking her for six hours, he was elated.
“You must go to Laugafell, it is a 600-year-old hot pool. It is best if you take your clothes off.”
The hot pot was built into the ground where the stream emerged. I sank into the surprisingly hot water and was still there 1 1/2 hours later watching the sun set. My blissful idyll was shattered by the sound of excited high-pitched voices. I slipped on my shorts just as four children appeared. I was initially annoyed by the arrival of Olivier, George and their families, but they turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as you will soon read.
I left the next morning with that great “on the road again” drug flowing through my veins. A lovely sunny day beckoned as the F752 road sashayed through the river valley and crested a small rise.
“Oh no, another ford.” The track disappeared beneath the milky brown water, emerging on the opposite bank 20 meters away. I’d missed it on my map. It was glacial and the fastest flowing I’d seen.
Iceland has three types of fords: spring fed, runoff and glacial. The first two are clear and drinkable, the latter cloudy. All can be dangerous depending on the depth, speed and sand content. The speed can vary a lot during the day depending on catchment rainfall and temperature. Stories of vehicles swept away abound.
“You must always walk across first,” advised Valgeir, “If it is fast, wait for a vehicle that can take your luggage across.”
The ice-cold water was soon up to my knees and flooded my toes. The current was surprisingly strong so I’d never be able to pick my bike up with so much water flowing over it. Back at the hut I asked Olivier and George if they could help. They drove across with my kit while I watched the depth. They made it look easy but their eyes shone.
“The first for us!”
I’m a wimp on wheels so no manly standing on the pegs for me. First gear, keep the revs up and slip the clutch. I sat down with my legs out. Worryingly, a big rock pushed me into a deep hole, but I kept the revs up and splashed my way across. I emerged on the other side and yelled for joy, elated. I buzzed all the way down to the N1 ring road. Heavy crosswinds were just a breeze after glacial fords, but the worst was yet to come.
Weather or Not?
There were two more interior sites on my list: Askja, a huge volcano with a lake in the middle, and the ice cave at Kverkfjöll. Somewhere under the glacier a hot spring emerged and melted the cave on its way out. I was entranced by a photo of the blue ice. I’d intended to visit Askja first but, after two weeks, had learned to “follow the good weather.” A big storm over the volcano and sun around Kverkfjöll, 28 miles farther south, made the choice easy. It was only 4 p.m. so I figured I had plenty of time to reach Kverkfjöll and return to the Herubreiarlindir hut for the night.
Kverkfjöll Ice Cave
The track to Kverkfjöll just got worse and worse. First it crawled through a black lava field, like a twisted licorice trail. Then it entered a V-shaped gorge that narrowed until the sides rose in sheer black walls, towering over me. It felt like the road to Mordor. It emerged onto a vast black plain where a black cone punctured the surface like a giant wart. You can feel a glacier before you see it and Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest, was near and chilled everything for miles around. It was like meeting Darth Vader—his invisible cloud of deadly cold air sucked the warmth from my soul.
My bike squirmed in patches of soft sand. I was scared of the place and scared of being alone. I finally crested a rise to see Kverkfjöll hut at the head of the valley. Its red roof was pure joy but the alien landscape was completely off my scale. I’m sure NASA brought the Apollo astronauts to Iceland to prepare them for the shock just as much as for the geology lessons.
I did not stay long and was happy to be on my way down until suddenly I was lying on my stomach, my right foot pinned in the sand. I dug the sand away with my right hand and pulled my leg free. I couldn’t pick my bike up because it lay flat on the ground. Spotting a wooden marker post I levered my bike up but couldn’t lift it high enough. Plan B was to wedge rocks underneath, building height one rock at a time. With rock one done, something made me look up. A Mountain Rescue Toyota on huge tires cruised into view and I laughed for joy.
“You were lucky. We come up another way and only decided this way just now.” I was so happy I gave them a bag of nuts.
The red roof of Herubreiarlindir hut was an even greater high, an island of green grass and shrubs fed by a small stream, surrounded by black desert. Herubrei, a flat-topped mountain and source of the stream, rose to 5,000 feet just behind the hut. Eyvindur and his wife Halla, two of Iceland’s most famous outlaws, lived here in a cave beside the stream in 1774-’75. They were the only outlaws to survive 20 years on the run and thus secured a pardon.
The next day I was overjoyed at the easy riding on a tarred road. The sun shone while I reflected on all the extraordinary things I’d seen. Iceland is like no other country on the planet. In some places it is alive, yet in others totally desolate and dead. It’s a land of contrasts, with a type of beauty I’ve never seen before. A lush, green coastal fringe surrounds a cold, black heart dotted with fertile oases and hot springs, continually swept by the capricious weather. And it’s true what they say:
“If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes.”
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