Duncan McCallum discovers the best trails of Iceland’s rugged interior
I popped over the rise in the trail, my front wheel light and offline. My rubber momentarily touched down, hitting the soft, black sand in between the 4×4 tyre-impacted trail. Suddenly, it tucked away beneath me, leaving me sprawling and sliding along the dark ash dirt road at 30mph.
The bike and I slid to a graceful stop, its brake lever neatly folding into an ‘S’ shape and my new jacket shredded by the abrasive volcanic fall-out. Lapses in concentration always seem to happen on day three, I thought to myself. The adrenaline of the first two days is gone, replaced by a bit of fatigue, and you’re not quite into the familiar flow that you settle into after extended time on the trail.
A few days before I decided to remodel some of my Husqvarna 701, we touched down in Reykjavik, which seems surprisingly close to the UK for a land that offers such stark contrasts to our wooded trails and heather-matted hillsides. With Easyjet and Icelandair offering affordable flights, the Land of Ice and Fire is as close as Malaga, but unlike travel to Spain, Iceland feels like a whole different world of adventure.
For years I’d been hearing about the trail riding and seemingly endless 4×4 trails that lead to remote huts and bothies, and I had developed a hankering for a trip with a bit more spice to it. Being time-limited, Bolivia and South America were too far away and, given the sensitivities of trail riding in France and Italy at the tail end of mountain biking and walking season, Iceland offered an alternative.
We, Richard and myself, had considered the option of shipping our bikes to Iceland via Denmark and the Faroe Islands, but realistically this would have added nearly a week on to our trip. With food, fuel, ferries and fuss to think about, we decided that hiring locally made a lot more sense for us time-limited riders.
We booked with the Ride With Locals crew who run a fleet of Husqvarna 701s. Whilst I owned one back in the UK, I had yet to test the bike’s limits. For me, the trip was a great chance to ride the perfect trail machine while someone else looked after the fettling and fuelling.
After making our way to Reykjavik and finding our rather random Airbnb for the night, Richard and I decided to sample the evening delights of the city. A quick scan of a few menus was a reminder that things have become quite a bit more expensive here since the banking crash, so instead of spending a fortune eating puffin and horse, we decided to spend our money on beer.
Wandering home, it seemed the entire tourist population of the city was finding it hard to justify the nightlife costs, and instead were walking the streets and taking photos in an effort to remain solvent.
The following morning, we ate a supermarket breakfast and Skuli, one of the owners of Ride With Locals, turned up in his Landcruiser to take us to Selfoss, where the outfitter is based. An ex-hairdresser and fisherman, which seems like an unlikely combination, Skuli’s house is the heart of his operation which sees him running snowboarding tours in the winter and the new enduro venture when the snow melts in the Icelandic summer.
Gearing up in the sun, it was obvious that Icelandic riding gear resembled more a mix of Dakar suit and outdoors clothing than a heavy adventure suit. Smart layering and open-faced helmets were the order of the day, with warm layers and spares being stuffed into the soft saddlebags for a bit of autonomy and convenience. Sandwiches and tubes issued, our small band sparked up the Huskys and set off east along Route 1 to the first trailhead.
Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the turn-off and I tapped the ABS off and prepared to head towards the mountains. Our first morning was spent getting used to the bikes with our guides measuring the capabilities of the group. By 11 am, it seemed as though the gloves had been taken off as the best of the group stretched ahead, leaving high plumes of black trail dust hanging in the warm summer air.
Circling the massive volcanoes, Hekla and the troublesome Eyjafjallajökull, I was constantly reminded that Iceland still shudders, complains and groans with the growing pains of a restless teenage land. Thrusting deep into the volcanic hinterland lies over 13,000 miles of dirt tracks used to access seismic sensors, farms, grazing pastures, and remote fishing spots.
Off-roading in modified trucks and on dirt bikes is in the Icelandic blood, and during the short riding season (late June to late September) the popular trails see a regular stream of hired Dacia Dusters and cranked-up buses crammed with rucksack-laden tourists seeking the heart of this wild land.
Whilst the main arteries may see one car in a busy hour, if you want to get into the wild places, you need to ride with locals who know. Contrast, colour, rain, and sun; I had never been in a place like it. In the distance, a vast ice cap leaks cold air into the valley, feeding a breeze that reminded all sun-worshipping life that, at 66 degrees north, you have to make the best use of the summer days before it’s closed down and snowbound in just a few weeks’ time.
The black and copper-tinted hillsides are a patchwork of vibrant, almost fluorescent green moss and lichen, interspersed with zebra-striped snow patches. They hide from the sun all day, clinging on to winter’s memory, eking out their northerly existence towards another snow season.
The trail in front of me was flat and fast when I touched the magic 60mph. Oncoming bends and self-preservation reigned me back in a little to avoid the potential of another rocky overshoot but rolling on to flick out the 701’s rear was predictable, addictive, and so much fun. When riding with the sons of the Vikings, thoughts of Valhalla are only a distant shadow under the brooding, sleeping mountains.
As we careened deeper into the locals’ domain, on tracks sometimes barely discernible, I began to get a sense of what a rare privilege this was, to explore under the guidance of people who know these lands. Skuli and Olaf swapped guide roles on day two, and suddenly the pace stretched a wrist twist.
Skuli, who was riding the spare KTM EXC 400, knew the trails like the back of his glove, and it was important that I didn’t get suckered into trying to keep up with him. Deeper into the volcanic wastelands we rode, the softer trails of the day before had given way to a series of high hill climbs and river crossings which got more insane as the day unfolded.
Just as I began to reach a convergence of skill max-out, terrain and ability, Skuli, whose name means ‘protector’, pulled over to explain the next section of riding to us. We were now over 60 miles from the nearest road and were on a set of trails that standard 4x4s couldn’t reach.
A mishap out here would have serious consequences. A feature of riding in Iceland is river crossings. To this point, we had ridden through a load, all with relative ease, but we were faced with a different challenge.
We were riding into a lake, the road emerging on the other side of the water some 200m ahead. We had to walk the bikes through the cloudy silt suspension of ice-cold glacial meltwater. As the water rose above our knees, the thought of getting stranded by drowning a bike was in the forefront of my mind as I chugged the Husqvarna into the water. Cold rivulets slowly penetrated my waterproof boots, socks, and trousers.
Beyond the lake shore was a wide, black, ash desert, which peeled off northwards. The riding picked up in pace again, it felt fast but, in the incoming cloud and rain showers, it paid to keep focused, blipping over the natural meltwater drainage ditches that bisected the faint trail.
No sooner than 15 minutes later, we came to a deep, steep-sided gorge, with a river running through it. It appeared that there was no way through. Our ‘protector’ rode straight into the river and proceeded to follow its path upstream into the gorge.
The river, it appeared, was the road. It was the most unlikely and extraordinary route. We rode upstream, shoulders and arms over gripping in an effort not to lose the front end on a submerged boulder. I couldn’t help but admire the gall of the first Viking nutter who risked taking his 4×4 up such an unlikely passage.
Rain doesn’t ‘fall’ in Iceland. It comes at you horizontally. With 25 miles still to go to our food and lodging for the night, I shrugged my helmet deeper into my collar as we climbed and descended, skirting another dormant volcano. Late into the evening, the trail ran into another lake.
Skirting the shoreline but riding in the water, we paddled with our feet ready to correct any imbalances as the bikes steamed and rocked their way towards a series of steep hill climbs and a long, rocky ridge ride to our accommodation for the evening – a remote mountain hut. Olaf, son of kings, handed us each a tin of Viking (what else?) beer as we stood draining our boots besides a roasting haunch of barbecued lamb.
In front of us, a vast silt plain of slippery, deep, sodden volcanic vomit, just three weeks old at the time, stretched 10 miles southwards towards the failed ice dam which finally released its load. It was eroded from below by steam and lava, an ever-present threat under the huge southern ice cap.
To me, this seemed catastrophic, but to the locals who live with it every day, it is a constant reminder of the transient nature of life, and a reminder to get out and enjoy it when you can. Brooding, swelling, and under increasing pressure to release, is a huge crater which has remained still for 400 years. When this goes, the worldwide disruption will be much greater than the flight-grounding ash cloud of 2010.
Historic eruptions have been sited as major factors in precipitating the French revolution and the ash summers of 1914, which both brought famine and civil unrest throughout Europe. You have not heard the last from these tetchy mountain monsters.
It was hard not to be amazed by the landscape besides our mountain hut. Strange basalt intrusions rose into the air like gargoyles and frozen trolls; the source of many legends and much amazement for all who come to Iceland, and the subjects of our night’s storytelling and laughter.
With Skuli relegated to backup 4×4 driver, Olaf took over for a day of drowned bikes, punctures and intermittent rain. Luckily, the water-logged 701, drained and dried, started with its oil remaining clear, and it fired away happily ‘till the end of the day.
After a morning of hard riding, we found ourselves near Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls, on a short section of hardtop heading west along the coast back to Selfoss. We were nearing the end of our trip, but there was still time to nip back inland onto a few bonus trails that led us into the wild interior.
Riding in Iceland is a unique experience. Sand, rivers, rocks, and all. It is not for those who like warm, soft beds, dry feet and comfortable, easy trails. It is for the trail riding big boys and girls, it is both fun and fast, demanding and sometimes slow, tough, rocky and often wet, endless and exciting.
It is a trip for those who like to muck in, participate and work for their pleasure. It demands a degree of fitness and riding ability that will see you ride up to 130 miles a day on dirt trails and through rivers while pushing and lifting bikes. It’s not a hard pannier bimble on a gravel track, but an enduro exploration of your limits in a majestic, ever-changing landscape that will take your breath away at every turn.
Riding with locals in a landscape that they know, in a climate that they understand and respect, is a magnificent challenge and one worth preparing for and savouring. Like all other guided motorcycle trips, especially off-road ones, it is possible that you may suffer the frustration of being herded like sheep, or the guiding is so relaxed you might as well be there on your own.
In Iceland, however, as the logistics and cost of getting your own machines, there are lengthy and complex, there is not really a practical alternative for the time-poor traveller.
It was therefore a huge relief that the Ride With Locals crew were on it. The mix of local trail knowledge, which led us into some unlikely trails and valleys, fantastic food, huts and laughs with the sons of Vikings is an unbeatable experience and one that I hope to repeat soon.
Want to ride in Iceland? Here’s how you can…
If you want to ride your own bike in Iceland, the only way to do it is to get the ferry to the Hook of Holland and then ride to Denmark where you can get the ferry from Hirtshals to Iceland via the Faroe Islands.
The route, which is operated by Smyril Line, takes around 55 hours and will cost you from €480. Head to www.smyrilline.com for more information. Alternatively, there are a handful of airlines that fly between the UK and Iceland, with Wizz Air offering return flights for around £100 depending on when you intend to fly.
When to go
The riding season in Iceland is short due to the weather and lack of daylight in the winter months. Between June and September is advised if the purpose of your trip is to ride, but if you’re going to see the northern lights head over between September and January.
Duncan rode on a Ride With Locals (www.ridewithlocals.is) tour. Ride With Locals run three-seven day tours throughout Iceland where bike hire is included in the cost (from €2,500). Alternatively, Biking Viking (www.bikingviking.is) offers motorcycle hire and guided tours on BMW motorcycles, with five and seven-day options available.
The weather in Iceland can change in an instant. You can set off in bright sunshine, only to be riding in heavy rain or even snow a few hours later. With this in mind, versatile kit is ideal. Well-ventilated but waterproof textiles are most suitable, while it’d be sensible to pack summer and winter gloves.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Iceland is an expensive place to travel in, especially if you want to tour the country by motorcycle while you’re there. Food is expensive, hotels are expensive, and fuel will set you back around £1.45 per litre (price correct at time of writing). That being said, if you’re willing to forego luxuries, camp rather than stay in hotels, and buy your food from supermarkets rather than eating in restaurants, you can keep your costs down.