What’s it like to tour Iceland on a motorcycle?

Lennart Andreas and his wife Maia travel to Iceland and discover an unforgiving yet spectacular island of natural wonders. And you can meet the Lennart and Maia at the ABR Festival (23-25 June, Ragley Hall Estate, Warwichshire) where they’ll be showcasing their work at the  Adventure Photography Exhibition. Get your tickets today at www.abrfestival.com.

For millions of years, volcanic and geothermal activity on Iceland has forged a landscape where fire and ice collide with spectacular consequences. It is rugged, unforgiving and not for the faint of heart.

Motorcyclists willing to take on the challenge are rewarded with unrivalled landscapes featuring some of the best adventure motorcycling our plant has to offer.

My wife Maia and I knew travelling through Iceland would be a big challenge, especially on two fully loaded Triumph Tiger Rally Pros. Between us we had limited off-road experience, so we knew we were in for a bumpy ride.

But we were excited to experience the country for ourselves, a country that seemed to have all the ingredients for the perfect motorcycle getaway.

A land of geothermal and volcanic activity

Ocean crossing

Visiting Iceland requires a lot of time, not only to explore the island but also getting there to begin with. Flying in is easy but options to rent a suitable motorcycle are extremely limited and rather expensive. The most common way to enter the country with your own bike is by ferry. Smyril Line sails regularly from Hirtshals, in Denmark, to Seydisfjordur, Iceland.

Our adventure began as we rode onto the MS Norröna, ready to spend three relaxing nights at sea, or so we thought.

During the ferry crossing, we felt the full force of Mother Nature. The weather was fierce and the ocean rough with high winds and towering waves pounding on the vessel. It made for a spectacular sight as water crashed over the bow. We weren’t too worried about our own safety as the MS Norröna was tossed around by the ocean (although Maia admittedly had seen better times).

No, we were much more concerned about our motorcycles on the lower decks. We’d strapped them down as well as we could but we couldn’t help but worry about them being knocked over as the ship rolled, or even that the cars below might start moving around and hit the bikes.

However, after three long days at sea, our Tigers were in the exact same positions that we’d left them in. We were ready to explore Iceland, well almost.

A waiting game

Our travels coincided with the global COVID-19 pandemic. This meant we were required to undergo a week of isolation on entering the country and take two coronavirus tests during that time. Only after the second negative result came in were we allowed to continue our journey.

Despite spending our isolation period relaxing on a beautiful farm, our excitement was through the roof when we were finally allowed to head out and start riding.

So where to go? One option was to ride Iceland’s Ring Road which circumnavigates the island and is a popular choice among motorcycle travellers. In theory, you can ride its 850 miles of entirely paved road comfortably in four days or so.

In reality, Iceland is going to slap you in the face with high winds and occasionally bad weather, slowing you down considerably. But, as the locals like to say, if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes.

An alternative to the Ring Road is to explore Iceland’s Highlands in the interior of the island. Much of this sparsely populated area is only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles and motorcycles with off-road prowess along what’s known as F-roads, which are unpaved gravel tracks.

They are a test of man and machine and offer steep inclines, sandy sections, rocks that are easily the size of footballs, and river crossings. Iceland will not give its beauty away for free, you’ll have to work for it.

But, with the right approach, anyone can ride here considering even we made it with limited off-road experience.

Lennart tackles an F road

Our plan was to ride along some of Iceland’s Ring Road counterclockwise in the north of the country to begin with, before crossing through the unforgiving Highlands area to explore the natural wonders in the south. As we followed a gravel road away from the farm that had been our home for the past week, we soon realised what the next couple of weeks had in store for us.

Within a few miles, the road started to climb steeply, taking us up and over hills overlooking an endless, black, sandy beach on one side, and a pristine, green valley on the other.

Only a short distance after leaving the comfort of the farm, we knew this was going to be a very impressive country.

A land of wonder

It didn’t take long before we found ourselves screaming out of pure joy and excitement. No matter where we went, the views that Iceland offered were mind-blowing. We were just getting started and already we lost track of the “wows” we were shouting through our intercoms.

The forces carving out all this natural beauty come from the active volcanoes, glaciers, and high levels of geothermal activity on the island. Combined with the high latitude, the whole country becomes a place of epic proportions with a landscape in full Technicolor. Or, as Maia likes to put it, Iceland looks like it has been Photoshopped.

No wonder so many movies and television series have been filmed here, especially during the autumn when the colours all around pop in a way that we had never seen before.

We continued along the Ring Road northward aiming for a lake called Mývatn. This beautiful large body of water is located in an area of volcanic and geothermal activity which has resulted in a landscape that wouldn’t look out of place in the brightly coloured pages of National Geographic magazine.

Fancy visiting vast lava fields full of rock sculptures? Check. How about volcanic craters to walk upon? Check. Caves with the bluest water you’ve ever seen? Check. Lots of geothermal activity (smelling horribly by the way)? Check. And, as if this wasn’t enough natural wonderment for you, there was also a selection of spectacular waterfalls to be found.

Wrenching ourselves away from Mývatn, we then faced our first F-Road of our journey which would take us to Aldeyjarfoss waterfall. We took it slow and easy to begin with on our fully-loaded and rather heavy adventure bikes, but we quickly figured out that going faster is actually the way to go on the gravel and rocky surface. However, this was easier said than done.

With big rocks and large ruts, it was quite the challenge and certainly a taste of things to come. The waterfall itself? It was magnificent, of course. This is Iceland after all. We felt like we were in a different world.

Natural wonder

Crossing the Highlands

Being September, bad weather in the form of snow and high winds were due any time. Since we wanted to cross to the South of the island via the Highlands, we had to hustle. It was a shame considering the many beautiful sights we were passing, but the route we wanted to take southwards could become impassable at any time now.

Iceland’s Highlands are a no-man’s land. Ranging between 300m and 600m in height, the weather is unpredictable, and the conditions are tough and changeable. The feeling of remoteness is alluring and frightening at the same time. We both felt a sense of trepidation at the 110 miles of trails ahead of us. We knew our journey was going to get tougher, but this was what riding adventure bikes is all about.

It was just our luck that as soon as we started crossing the Highlands, the wind picked up and a light drizzle set in, but we kept pushing on slowly but steadily. Road conditions varied from moderate to bad. Loose gravel at times, rocks or sand at others. The landscape we rode through had a desolate beauty that reminded us of a moonscape.

It was not until the wind direction turned to come at us from a perfect 90-degree angle with fierce gusts that we started to question what on earth we were doing. On numerous occasions, the wind literally blew us off the road. On top of that, temperatures were dropping to just above freezing and the rain was lashing down. Iceland was hitting us hard with no mercy.

Crossing the highlands

Hot springs

“We are at Hveravellir!” I said to Maia over the intercom. This little geothermally active nature reserve marked the halfway point of our Highlands crossing. It also featured a very welcome hot spring. Maia jumped in to warm up and didn’t want to leave. I finally managed to coax her out with the promise of lunch in the small restaurant nearby.

We ate waffles which were delicious. When we asked the owner how the second half of the road was, he simply replied: “This is where the hard part starts.” It’s not what we wanted to hear, and so with little motivation, we dragged ourselves back to our motorcycles.

We rode for 50 more miles of sand, rocks, and flooded roads, in the rain, and wind. Despite this, the landscape remained stunning but at this point it was more about surviving than soaking up the scenery. With visibility dropping as daylight faded, we felt like we were riding on autopilot. Our hands were freezing despite our heated grips being on the highest setting and our feet were even colder.

The rain felt like razor blades hitting us in the face and the road was so slippery we barely made it up some hills. We felt totally alone in the world but had no choice but to continue. There was no one else around.

Just when we thought there was no end in sight, I saw a strip of tarmac in front of us. What a relief. It came just in time. We were drained of energy and I was beginning to worry that we were so tired, we had become unsafe. But that all changed as soon as we joined the tarmac.

We suddenly felt like we were invincible. We had crossed the Highlands! Iceland had given us a reality check though, and we suddenly realised how small and powerless we actually are on this planet. Despite being a very tough day, this was by far one of our most memorable experiences on motorcycles. Overcoming such harsh conditions and exploring this exquisite island felt so rewarding.

The caves at Myvatn

Southern Iceland

We soon realised that the south of Iceland is full of just as many natural wonders as the north. No matter where we went, we were met by a mesmerising sight. It was sensory overload and the series of magnificent landscapes we encountered began to blur together in my mind. Want to walk behind a waterfall? Go visit Seljalandsfoss, and don’t forget to visit the nearby Gljufrabui falls as well.

Then there’s the fairy tale landscape of Gjáin Valley and the black sandy beaches of Reynisfjara with its towering cliffs. Reykjadalur is a hot thermal river where you can go bathing even though it is freezing outside. Jökulsárlón is a lake filled with icebergs carved from a glacier. And, if you want to see a man-made attraction, there is the Solheimasandur plane wreck site where an American Navy C-117D crashed in 1973.

There is so much to see and do, and all of these sights are connected by perfect roads in the south. But if by some slim chance we hadn’t yet been convinced that Iceland is truly spectacular, then the magical northern lights sealed the deal.

We were dumbstruck by the beauty as we looked up and saw a symphony of light dance across the sky one night. Iceland had worked its magic and we were under its spell.

All too soon, our time in this magnificent country came to an end and we found ourselves back in Seydisfjordur ready to board a ferry back to Denmark. All in all, Iceland had proved to be an adventure biking paradise.

No matter where we went, it spoilt us with its raw, natural beauty and brilliant biking roads and trails. Iceland made us work hard to experience its wonders, but ultimately, it conquered our hearts and left us with memories that will last for a lifetime.

The mesmerising Northern lights

Want to ride in Iceland?

When travelling to Iceland, there are a few important things to take into account. Firstly, the weather. Pack for unpredictable weather or Iceland will quickly show you who’s boss. Follow the weather forecast via the Iceland MET office and check it a few times a day.

Financially, daily life in Iceland can be very expensive. Avoiding the high season and making use of the many guesthouses available, instead of more expensive hotels, keeps it manageable. A one-night stay in a guesthouse starts at around £40. Luckily, most, if not all, natural tourism highlights are free of charge. Fuel costs are on the high side at around £1.32 per litre.

When it comes to choosing a route to ride, you can make it as easy or as tough as you want it to be. Many of the main attraction are easily accessible by paved roads, but towards the Highlands, you’ll come across F roads. Rocky, sandy terrain and river crossings are common, which adds to the fun.

The Bikes

Our trip formed part of a six-month motorcycle journey, so we needed bikes that were both capable and comfortable. The Triumph Tiger 900 Rally Pro offers both. When going on such a demanding trip with a new bike, reliability is always a bit of a gamble. But after riding Triumphs for more than 10 years, our experience taught us that this would not be an issue.

The Tiger 900 performed far above expectations. We travelled through weather conditions ranging from below zero with snowstorms, to 43C and sandstorms, but nothing could stop these machines. Two flat tyres were the worst that happened.

Besides a few accessories, the Tigers were not modified and dealt with road surfaces ranging from good to very bad, and even non-existent. The bikes simply kept on going, getting us safely up, over and through all that we encountered. We are only average riders but Tiger 900 is so capable it enabled us to follow our dreams.