Iceland – Mission: Impassable

Story by Paddy Tyson// Photos by Paddy Tyson
August 1 2011

Mission: Impassable

What a way to enter a country! After three days at sea in the North Atlantic smelling of fish, any dry land is good, but the tiny village of Seyðisfjörður at the head of one of Iceland’s east coast fjords was particularly welcoming. I’m really not a sailor, and a handful of houses, a church and a gas station are just heaven for me.

The near-freezing temperature and the fog may have been low, but expectations were high as Peggy, my ever-faithful Aprilia, and I rolled down the gangway to start exploring the most volcanically active country on the planet. Iceland is the only part of the Mid-Atlantic tectonic rift that rises above sea level, and it does so with incredibly rugged splendour. However, as it is 66 degrees north, at the same latitude as Baffin Island, the fire of volcanoes is tempered by the surrounding ice. Of its many glaciers, 12% of the country is covered by just one, Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in the world outside of the poles.

I’d taken a gamble on trying to explore the country before the summer, because the great interior doesn’t have many bridges – or roads, come to think of it – meaning that all rivers must be forded, and as the rivers are glacial runoff, the warmer the air temperature, the deeper the water. Battling the snow and crossing glacial rivers can be something of a hypothermic challenge on a 650 dual sport, so I’d brought my very own paramedic, and the adventure started almost immediately.

“Next time I say Morocco and you suggest Iceland, I’ll punch you in the face.” Andy stared at me, exhausted. With freezing fog and a biting wind that was sometimes difficult to stand up in, we were well and truly stuck in the snow, the first vehicles of the year to attempt an inland shortcut across one of Iceland’s many peninsulas. Five kilometres in two hours isn’t rapid progress, but it is proof of my incredible stupidity, or is that optimism? Maybe the “impassable” sign was there for a reason?

There aren’t a lot of people in Iceland (300,000), and the sense of isolation is palpable away from the main road. I say “road” because there is only one – Route 1 – encircling the island, and not all of that is asphalt. Up here there is no phone signal, there’s no one passing by, the weather can change in the blink of an eye, and it can kill you. If I was looking for adventure, it had found me ahead of schedule. This was day one, and throwing the bikes on their sides and digging them out again and again doesn’t leave much room for being overconfident.

I really love this country; it’s like northwest Ireland on steroids, and only a consonant apart. Maybe I’m innately drawn to a place that’s spelled almost the same, but there’s also intertwined history. When Iceland was first discovered around 800 AD, it was by the travelling Irish – fishermen and monks. No doubt the Irish pub opened not long after.

Then the first permanent settler, Ingólfur Arnarson, arrived from Norway in 874 AD and lied through his teeth, telling passersby that it was a great place to live. With the establishment of a monarchy in Norway, all those who felt disinclined to be ruled over set sail for new lands, and from the circumstances of its founding, Iceland retains a sense of freedom from subjugation. However, the new settlers did quite a lot of their own subjugating. Young travelling Norwegian men got a bit of a name for themselves as marauding bandits, which, like all freelance work, can be a bit up and down and not great for stable family life. Norwegian women generally chose reliable farmers, so these young “vikings” visited Ireland and stole women, taking them to a new life in Iceland.

This had three great advantages for the new country, if not for the women themselves: procreation, of course; the Celtic art of storytelling and music, which flourishes today and helped document the early history prior to written reports in the early 1100s; and finally, it made for an extraordinarily attractive people, who for some unfathomable reason eat a phenomenal amount of licorice in rather the same way that North Americans eat peanuts.

We decided to ride the island counterclockwise, making forays into the central highlands whenever we could. The barren northeast, the poorest part of the country, is blessed with an amazing array of bird life, perhaps the most colourful being the puffin. The fishing villages have that concrete brutality prevalent in any frontier land where a harsh climate provides no space for form. Function and strength is king where there isn’t any vegetation to provide shelter and where the wind arrives direct and unbroken from the Arctic. Coastal areas, especially the pristine black sand beaches, are littered with logs washed ashore, which are Canadian in origin, no doubt, as Iceland doesn’t have any trees.

For a short while in the summer, however, this area and the whole north coast can have the best weather, as the warm Caribbean Gulf Stream takes precedence and deposits its moisture along the south coast, leaving the north clear and bright.

For such a small country, the weather fluctuation is remarkable, and as Andy and I did battle in freezing fog in the east, the capital city of Reykjavik received 16 cm (6 in.) of snow, while parts of the north coast basked in blue skies and a heady 11°C (52°F).

After a hotdog in possibly the loneliest gas station in the world, we headed for Dettifoss, a waterfall reputed to be the most powerful in Europe. At 44 metres (140 feet) high and one of a series of mighty waterfalls on the river Jökulsá, it flows into a 24 km (15 mile) gorge, in some places 400 metres (a quarter mile) deep, that sees sediment-rich water plummeting over very geologically young crevices in grey rock, old lava and basalt. Dettifoss, like all of the waterfalls in Iceland, is breathtaking. It would be cliché to say thundering, but it really is. There are no signs to tell you it’s dangerous to jump in.

Time and again we tried “impassables,” only to be turned back, defeated by the mud or the snow, or both. The gorge was closer to the tourist zone, so the “impassable” sign on the road had a different meaning, so it was much less of a struggle for a couple of battle-hardened bikers covered in drying mud and dust. Day three and we finally completed an “impassable,” which also gave us a taste of just how the great centre of the country really looks. Black lava fields or grey/black ash is all there is.

Occasionally, a brightly coloured mound of a different mineral has been thrown out of the centre of the earth in a previous eruption, but otherwise the only relief from monochrome is vegetation in the form of tiny mosses or lichens clinging precariously to rock, or helping to bind the black ash in the earliest stage of soil creation.

We rejoined Route 1 for the ride to the geologically active area around Lake Mývatn, where boiling mud bubbles to the surface, mountainsides steam and the landscape is a rich palette of greys, browns, yellows and reds. Riding here is like nowhere else on earth, and the new road surface (a welcome relief from the dirt), gave us time to marvel at the lava formations as well as the route of the old single-track road, and the oldest route beside that again, which was simply marked by 1.5 metre (5 ft.) pyramid stacks of stones to guide the traveller, especially in the snow.

Staying in the city of Akureyri (city is a relative term), we were surprised at the number of motorcycles in the town. This northern outpost, with only one paved road in and out, was full of cruisers and sportbike riders out enjoying the long evenings as summer approached. Daytime temperatures of 6°C (43°F) seemed to be plenty to entice these hardy riders to the open road.

Next morning dawned clear and bright at about 2 a.m., as it does in these parts, but we stayed in bed until 8, building our strength for another assault on the interior highlands. The route started promisingly enough, as we ignored the “impassable” sign and enjoyed the reasonably fast gravel riding up a valley between the mountains. The first few river crossings were simple enough affairs, maybe only as deep as the engine’s sump, but the route rapidly deteriorated as it climbed. Deep mud and shale coated the track, as no vehicles had yet been this way to compact what had washed down all winter.

Boulders from landslides, huge crevices and washouts all added to the challenge. Andy’s big BMW 1150GS kept sinking, and I’d either push him out or we’d have to throw the bike on its side and drag it. At one point, the track beside the river had actually become the river itself, and although we were only riding around boulders in a few inches of fast-flowing water, to our left was a torrent, and the steep angle of the climb meant that any mishaps could rapidly become disasters.
I laughed when I came back for Andy once more as he held the bike upright, stuck fast in the mud at a precarious angle, with a drop-off of 50 metres (164 feet) to one side.

“Ever done anything like this before, Andy?”

“Oh yes, I’ve been shit-scared loads of times!”

Our joy came to an end at 470 metres (1541 feet) above sea level, where a snow avalanche had crossed the track. We considered digging our way through it, as it appeared to be only 20 metres (66 feet) wide, but it didn’t seem stable, and if we got it wrong, the downward slope was all the way to the valley floor. There was nothing we could do but execute a 15-point turn on a narrow ledge and return the way we’d come.

The bikes had taken a real beating on the way up, the bash plate often grounding out on the bigger stones as we sank in shale mud holes, or as we climbed out of washouts. On the way back down, Andy managed to flip upside-down in a shallow part of the river. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but . . . I even got it on video. Glacial river water down the back of your neck makes you jump, apparently.

The number of bird species in Iceland is astounding, but some of the most common are geese, and while putting up the tent, I noted that if goose poo has any merit, it is that its dryness makes it easy to move. It’s a different matter with the 10,000 Icelandic horses, bred to withstand the harsh climate.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful peninsulas is the Snæfellsnes on the western side of the island. A long line of sub-1000 metre snow-covered peaks jutting into the ocean, are dwarfed by Snaefells itself, a volcano currently capped by its own glacier – Snæfellsjökull. It is said to be one of the seven centres of energy on the globe, and has been the inspiration for many poets and writers. According to my map, a road once climbed across the peninsula directly beneath the glacier. Track number F570 was an “impassable” that held a special challenge, because this was the setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and there are perhaps few trips quite as extreme. I thought Peggy and I should give it a go, as it’s not every day you get to ride to the centre of the earth. I may not be Indiana Jones, but I’d come prepared with a paramedic in case I incurred any burns from molten lava.

We got stuck innumerable times, but the setting was so beautiful and the sky so blue that it was an inconvenience I was happy to experience. Andy vowed again and again that he’d get a smaller bike when he got back to the UK, as the big GS repeatedly sank to its cylinders.

We never made it. The route really was impassable, so the centre of the earth will just have to wait for a summer assault sometime when the snow line has risen a couple of hundred metres. Instead, we maintained a steady 120 km/h on the flatter dirt highway for the 200 km to Reykjavík, where we’d agreed to have dinner with a couple of Dutch riders on Yamaha 660 Ténérés. We’d met them in Denmark on the way to the boat, and because we were travelling in different directions around the island, we’d decided to get together for a beer in the country’s capital.

What a crazy city! There is one single-track main street, named Lagavegur, in the heart of the city, which is a constant traffic jam all night. The weather was good, and apparently the balmy 11°C (52°F) experienced that day meant it was time to celebrate, pose and cruise. I watched all the hot young things from the window of Dillon, a great little rock bar, before heading to a club. But when we came out of the club at 6 a.m., there was a queue of people still waiting to get in and the traffic was still all backed up the street.

Beer was only made legal in 1989, and March 1 is still celebrated as Beer Day in suitable style. We were just witnessing a normal Saturday night, and I’ve never seen anything like it, but as crazy as it was, I didn’t see a single fight, which is perhaps the most incredible thing.

If you think illegal beer is mad when spirits were always available, what about no TV on Thursdays in an attempt to ensure families had at least one evening together free from distraction, and in addition to that, no public broadcasting at all in July when the 24-hour daylight is great for farming and travelling? It was thought best that no one should miss an episode of their favourite programmes, so none were broadcast. Alas, times have changed, 24-hour TV is now available, like fast food, and Iceland has become the world’s greatest consumer of antidepressants. I’m not sure if the two are connected, but 24-hour darkness for part of the year can’t help, though it has spawned a thriving lingerie and sex-aid market.

The famous Geysir is always worth visiting, having lent its name to geysers all over the world, and on the way to it is Þingvellir, an almost sacred site in Iceland and the site of the world’s first parliament, established in 930 AD. It is within the rift valley that is expanding 2 cm per year and next to the largest freshwater, spring-fed lake in the world.

The rain stayed away so that we could head east toward Hekla, one of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes. Unfortunately, the road was being regraded, and if you’ve ever ridden on soil and gravel six inches deep, you’ll know it’s not the most relaxing experience.

There is only one road on the south coast, caught precariously between the Atlantic and the glacier-topped volcanoes. As these regularly erupt, they melt the glaciers from below, generating periodic sudden outbursts of water that increase the usual river flows from about 25 cubic meters per second to 9000 cubic metres per second. In 1996, an outburst saw peak flows of 30,000 cubic metres per second which, not surprisingly, destroyed everything in the south of the country over about a 70 km wide zone, including the road.

Riding across what is now a massive gravel desert, I looked at the glacial fingers coming down between the mountains and really hoped that today wasn’t going to be another outburst day, even if the new bridges are apparently specially designed to withstand the flood waters. There is one area on the south coast where the glaciers almost reach the coast, but recent retreating has created the Jökulsárlón lagoon where icebergs break away and slowly make their way to the sea. It’s the sight of real icebergs, with seals swimming around them, that brings you back to your senses and reminds you exactly why your fingers and toes are feeling a bit nippy.

Wild reindeer, who don’t look at all like Rudolf, are scattered all over the southeast fjordland area, where the remoteness and beauty of the landscape left me awestruck while I wondered why I could hear greatly increased induction roar from Peggy. I carried on toward the boat, as there is only one sailing a week and missing it would be really inconvenient. As we approached the port, Peggy refused to idle, stalling between downshifts and finally coughing and dying completely as I rode up the gangway onto the boat. I pushed her to where she would be strapped in for the next three days of high seas, and while tying her down and trying to ignore the smell of fish, I noticed with horror that the airbox had been completely smashed by a big rock from one of the dirt tracks.
A quick investigation found everything under the seat, including the throttle bodies, full of mud. It’s a wonder she was running at all, but as always she carried me to my destination. Who says bikes don’t have a soul?

I take all my responsibilities seriously, so I drank enough beer to ensure that I could fashion a new airbox out of beer cans, gaffer tape and self-tapping screws.

Adventure riding: better than sex? Just maybe, in a country as beautiful and challenging as Iceland.


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