by Mark Alker
December 26, 2013
On the 2nd day of Christmas Singletrack gave to me…
Throwback Thursday – International Travel: Iceland
Iceland: Four riders and their quest for space.
Words by Jérôme Clémentz, pictures Jérémie Reuiller
Used to riding the hot summer season in bike parks with lots of riders, we had decided to find a place where we could be alone. Iceland looked like the ideal destination but, after a cold and rainy July in Europe, we still had more dreaming to do about beaches and sun before leaving on our trip towards the Arctic Circle.
In order to become local riders, we decided to rename ourselves with Icelandic first names. During the trip, Pauline became Svala; Guillaume, Palmi; Jérôme would be Halldor and our photographer Jérémie became Skuli. The French team had landed in the Viking country! To make the most of our time and go straight to the best places, we asked Opus Adventures, a mountain biking guide agency, to help organise our journey with the help of guides Petur and Siggy. Thanks to their experienced advice and their enormous four-wheel drive car, we hoped to discover the best trails in the south-west area of the island.
After a little flight between Paris and Keflavik of four hours, Petur met us at the airport and took us directly to the capital, Reykjavik. 60% of the island’s residents live here and the rest of the country is spacious, with only 2.8 residents per square kilometre; exactly what we were looking for. During the journey to Reykjavik, we entered a completely new world that looked like the moon. We were amazed, but the guide dismissed it, saying that this was the less interesting part of Iceland, and that we would be more surprised when we made it to the mountainous part. We stopped at Siggy’s place in order to build the bikes and collect his amazing 4×4 car. We really were now in Iceland. We started the three-hour drive towards Landmannalaugar with a little stop to buy food and local beers, necessary because where we were going there were no shops at all. After lowering the air pressure in the car tyres, we entered the heart of the country, with only dirt roads to travel on. The only people living there are farmers, earning a living in the midst of beautiful landscapes.
As soon as we arrived in Iceland, we were already ready to ride our bikes. We started with a nice warm-up: a trail which took us to Haifoss, the second highest waterfall on the island. The guide left us at the top of the valley, and we continued the mainly downhill trail for two hours. We felt like we were alone in the middle of nowhere and the only living things we saw were sheep, which provided us with a new game: the sheep’s race. We tried to follow them as fast as possible to make the funniest pictures… The sheep roam wild and can be found everywhere in Iceland during the spring and summer; when the cold season arrives, the farmers round them up to keep them safe in their farms. Once the descent was over we met up with our guides, who provided beverages for our exhausted bodies – the first day had been a big one. Then we finished our journey to Landmannalaugar to install our camp base.
Everyone we knew who had already travelled to Iceland had told us about this magical place. It’s the finishing point of the famous trek from Thorsmok to Landmannalaugar, which lasts three days and our guides had said that they also organise the crossing by mountain bike. We were so eager to ride there! After climbing the first 40m mound of cold lava, we entered into a new world. Yellow, red, green, orange, black; the colours intertwined, creating a fantastic and unreal landscape. In the middle of this amazing view stood a big, smoking volcano, rising from the ground. We would be staying here for three days exploring the best trails, climbing the different peaks and enjoying the scenery. And, last but not least, we were based in a campsite with crazy hot springs. The water is around 40°C or more, depending where you put your ass; it is an amazing place where you can stay all evening in the midnight sun (darkness doesn’t come until 11pm in August) and meet people from everywhere in the world, drinking beers and discussing their fabulous experiences of Iceland.
After exploring all the trails around the campsite, we continued our trip in the 4×4, heading for Thorsmork. We stopped at the famous (and touristy) waterfall Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind: it makes for an original view when you can see the sky behind the water…
In Thorsmork we discovered a new valley, with brush, glacier, and rivers which we had to cross several times in order to reach our camp base. Fortunately our guides were pros at driving across rivers; the 4x4s were up to it and we had a few lessons on how to do it safely. It’s impressive when the water is at the same height as the window. The guardian of the national park had shown us some amazing pictures of less fortunate cars wedged in the river and the next day we assisted in a rescue operation that was happening right in front of us – Iceland is rock-n-roll.
We also spent two days at the foot of the well-known Eyjafjallajökull volcano – you might recognise the name, because this is the volcano which paralysed international air traffic in 2010. You cannot imagine how much ash has fallen in the area. When the wind blows, an opaque cloud of it appears on the horizon, the glaciers are covered by it and a lake was totally filled in by it, too. No matter what speed you are travelling at, a cloud of dust appears behind your wheels. We felt like we were riding in the Lord of the Rings and it was great to see Palmi taking so much pleasure drifting through the middle of the ash, roosting Skuli’s camera.
After these amazing days with our guides Petur and Siggy, it was time to say goodbye. They really had driven us to the best places, shown us the nicest trails, and provided us a luxury camp base: every dinnertime, we were spoiled with specialities and delicious salmon or lamb barbecues. The trip would have been so much harder without them. We parted ways and switched vehicles, renting a smaller car; with four riders and four bikes, it was no easy task to pack everything inside.
Next was another adventurous trip: first to Skogafoss, another waterfall and an extremely nice one too. We slept at the foot of it in order to make an early start easier for the long day of riding to come. We were aiming to reach the hut situated between two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull (we didn’t choose the names, we promise), a thousand metres higher than our starting point that day. The weather was not the best; it drizzled, it was foggy and we started with a very hard, steep first climb. The singletrack followed a big river and we discovered, one by one, more than 24 waterfalls along its length.
The atmosphere was dark; due to the rain, the grass appeared fluorescent, and we felt like we were riding in the threatening cloud. The tiredness started but the hut didn’t appear. Then Halldor accelerated the pace because he was hungry. Finally, at 3pm, we reached the old hut where we could savour our dishes: smoked trout, sheep’s head terrine and local cheese. We were totally exhausted but still motivated to enjoy the big downhill. Skuli and Palmi started off at top speed and Halldor and Svala followed them not so far behind. The crazy downhill made us forget the hard uphill to get there, and we rediscovered our riding sensations as a reward.
For the last part of our trip, we decided to head north in the car again. We felt like midgets compared to the gigantic four-wheel drives we passed along the way. The guides’ advice was to head for a beautiful trail where you could swim in a hot spring river at the top. Curious, we started the ride with nice sunny weather for an easy hour’s climb. All around us, geysers were rising out of the ground with boiling hot water. Halldor and Palmi found a new stupid game to do: jumping the hot basin to prove they had Viking blood in their veins. We arrived at the hot river: it was so gorgeous! You could find the best temperature depending on your place in the river and pick a spot that was perfect for enjoying the view.
Too soon it was time for us to leave Iceland, and for the last few days we were there we enjoyed leaving the bikes behind to spend some time like proper tourists. We went to the golden circle (Thingvellir national park, Gulfoss falls and the Geysir geyser), we did some snorkelling (in 2°C water…), and sampled the thermal waters of the famous Blue Lagoon. Iceland is a really interesting destination to visit; it provided us with mind-blowing landscapes, rewarded us with the discovery of a culture and gave us some amazing mountain bike riding. It is the best place on earth to make you realise that the force of nature is impressive and everywhere.
As we concluded our travels, we had the chance to spend one night in Reykjavik during the Culture Night. This is the big party of the year, with music and bands everywhere, bars open until the morning, and islanders partying in the streets; one hell of a long last night spent enjoying the young culture of Iceland. Despite the cold nights in the tent, we really enjoyed our journey and took away with us plenty of good memories for sure. Whether with the bike or without, we would advise you to go there and strike up your connection with the nature of the island. As for us, we are already thinking of a new destination for summer 2012…