Thursday, 19 July 2012

Iceland Part 1

I arrived in Iceland the day after midsummer. I had been aboard the MS  Norröna for 2 days, all the way from Denmark.  Finally the Ferry arrived in Seyðisfjörður on the East coast of the country. It seemed like a prison sentence was complete and I was now free again!

My introduction to Iceland was clear skies and warm weather and amazing scenery. I was out on deck to get my first look while the Ferry sailed down Seyðisfjörður and into the harbour.

There’s something about getting to a new country that just excites me. It seemed like an eternity as I waited to get my motorbike off of the Ferry. The motorbikes were right at the front of the Ferry and the exit was right at the back and there were about 800 cars and motorhomes in between me and the door. The car deck was packed. I had made my way squeezing in between cars and motorhomes,  down various dead ends as cars were almost touching in some places, only to realise that I had gone to the wrong end of the ship and had to make my way all the way back again with my bag carefully balanced on my head so not to scratch cars on the way passed.

The town of Seyðisfjörður was unnaturally busy. It felt like the area had just been invaded by tourists. After an immigration officer stuck some weird sticker to my front mudguard I was free to explore Iceland at my own pace…

It felt like some sort of rat race, there were cars everywhere, bumper to bumper, as they waited to pull out onto the main road. I stopped at the first place that I could once I got on the main road. This just happened to be right opposite the junction that I just pulled out of. There was somewhere to park my bike and there was a little piece of grass to look at my map on. I jumped off the bike and began talking with some other bikers that had done the same. A minute later Mila pulled up on her Suzuki Bandit. I had briefly met Mila on the ferry while we were searching for where we were meant to sleep. She was from Holland, that’s all I had learned about her at the time. We both talked to the other bikers for a while before they left. Now it was just the two of us looking at my map spread out on the grass talking about our travel plans. By this time Mila’s chain lube was helping to stop the map from being blown away in the wind. We talked about what we had planned to do in Iceland, I learned that she had almost 1 week to travel before she had to start her summer job and had decided to take the ferry here rather than fly so that she had some transport.

 The small town slowly settled back to its sleepy norm as the tourists slowly dispersed and moved in the direction of their onward destinations. It was all quite relaxed at this time. The warm weather was quite welcome. I had been getting bad weather in my last few days in Norway and the day I had spent in Denmark was terrible! We sat talking about places in Iceland, pointing at the map. I started to draw things on my map so as to remind myself of what was there, rather than just draw a circle then forget what’s there a few days later. It was about at that time that I realised that though I’d planned to come to Iceland for several years, I had not managed to actually make plans on what to do or see once I got there. I knew very little about the place. Mila seemed to have quite a few good ideas.

The day just seemed to be filled with random encounters…. 

On the Ferry
First look at Iceland at Seyðisfjörður

The interview

We must have looked quite interesting sitting on the grass looking at the map, complete with a tin of chain lube and WD40 to hold it down. A man walked up to us and asked us if we would mind getting interviewed about our travel plans for Iceland. Mila and I looked at each other and both shrugged and told him, “Why not”. Minutes later there was a camera on a tripod pointing at us and a man with a South African accent was asking us questions about our travel plans. It was only during the interview that they learned from us that we were not travelling together and that we had only just met on the ferry. It was quite difficult to make the interview interesting when I actually had no plans to tell them!
Once the cameras were off and we were left on our own again we decided that we might as well travel together for a while. We decided to go south to the general direction of where Mila was going to work.

There’s nothing quite like the first few hours in a new country, especially while riding a motorbike. Anything remotely interesting gets a double take as I ride passed as everything feels new. I feel like I have the curiosity of a small child while they learn about this new world they’re in. We stop and take photos of the jagged mountains that seem to all have spires like cathedrals. The sheep, some black, some white and some more like collie dogs with black and white together. We saw gorges, waterfalls and some massive 4x4s that looked like monster trucks.

Mila getting attacked by a horse in Vik

A big 4x4
Mountains in South East Iceland
Africa Twin and Bandit

I’d now been away from home for about 5 weeks. I had left home alone but in the whole time I had only travelled alone for a few days. I had mixed feelings about having a travel buddy again. During my 4 weeks in Norway I had travelled with Peter, who I’d met while waiting for the Ferry in Denmark. At the time Peter and I had also talked about travel plans and both realised we didn’t have any, so decided to make some together. It really is a mixed bag. It always feels amazing to share amazing experiences with people, but from a more selfish point of view you have compromise with your ideas. It works with some and it does not work with others. I was lucky enough that it worked for me both times! The only thing I really had to compromise on with Mila was not sleeping in my tent. We stayed in Guest houses or hostels the entire time.

I had 3 weeks to spend in Iceland. The plans I did manage to make before leaving home where that I should see the more easy to access places around the ring road that circles the country, then later in the trip I’d head inland to the more remote interior. This worked out well as Mila’s motorbike wouldn’t have coped well with the gravel roads and deep river crossings of the interior, whereas my Honda Africa Twin was built for that sort of thing.

After several days we arrived in the area of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that made its name in Europe in 2010 during the eruption that grounded 1000’s of flights around Europe. We planned to walk up the Volcano towards the Glacier to see what we could see. The problem was that I had run out of time. My girlfriend was due to arrive in Reykjavik later that day and I couldn’t have possibly fit in walking up the Volcano and the 4 hour ride to the airport in 1 day.

Skógafoss in Iceland

We packed up our bikes together for the last time, put our helmets on and got ready to go. I looked at Mila and we gave each other a hug. Our helmets banged into each other… It sounds quite clumsy, but it felt quite natural. I was sad to leave as we had a really fun time together.

That day just seemed to go so slowly. I was not quite in the mood to spend time seeing or doing too much. I seem to be such a bad traveller when I have a destination and a deadline to get there. When I’m free to do as I please then I feel like I can make the most of being somewhere. The constraint I had forced me just to ride. I arrived in the area of the airport about 4 hours too early, so I thought I’d use the extra time to find us somewhere nice to stay on that first night together again. The best I managed was a wooden cabin only a few kilometres from the airport. It was small, but it was clean and had everything we needed. 

Of course, me being me, I wanted to sneak up on Kiya at the airport. I had not seen her for about 6 weeks. I just wanted to tap her on the shoulder and give her a chance to smile before she turned around so I’d just see her smiling face looking back at me. When the time came it was the opposite that did happen. She sneaked up on me and I was the one who had to turn around. It was a new relationship. I had met Kiya while travelling in Australia about 9 months before and we only started to see each other in March when we were both back in Scotland. It was now the end of June and I had been away half of the time since March. The only time Kiya had ever been on a motorbike was when I took her for a 30 second ride around a car park a few days after I had finished getting my bike ready for this trip. I had given her careful instructions about what to bring and how to carry it as luggage space was really limited already and it would now be extra limited with two people on the bike. Most importantly Kiya had brought with her the heated grips that the freezing Norway weather forced me to buy. That was a horrible experience, but not horrible enough for me to pay the crazy Norwegian prices for a set of grips while I was there.

The following morning, it took a while to get things organised. I had to leave the off-road tyres that I had been carrying since home at the camp ground with plans to pick them up again when I dropped Kiya off 1 week later. Finally when we managed to work out how to fit our gear and ourselves on the bike we headed back to see Eyjafjallajökull. I really wanted to do the walk now as Mila had told me all about via SMS. 

Kiya was a bit nervous at first on the bike. I could feel her tense up when I leaned the bike into corners. As the day progressed she did ease up a bit and get used to it. It was evening time when we made it to Skógar.
Skógar is a place that’s pretty hard to drive passed. Highway 1, the highway that circles Iceland goes right passed it, but I’m sure most tourists must stop there as there is a huge waterfall that is easily seen from the road. This is the place where Mila and I stayed the night before we said our goodbyes to each other. Kiya and I walked to the waterfall the same as Mila and I had done just days before. It’s hard for me not to feel like a tour guide when I take someone to a place that I’ve been before and they’ve not. I put on a brave face and try to maintain the same excitement that I had about the place when I was there first and try not to reference the fact that I’d been there before so that we’re sharing the same thing. I even took the same panoramic photo too.

The following day we made our way towards the Volcano, it was very relaxed walk. We stopped to take photos quite a lot and we made very slow progress because of that. We didn’t make it as far as the Glacier before we decided to turn back and move west again.

Kiya on our walk up Eyjafjallajökull

We talked about where to go next. I wanted her to see as much as possible in the week she had as I felt bad about leaving her as she spent the 2 months working while I was away enjoying myself. Kiya was quite jealous of my plans to go inland once she was back in Scotland. I told her that I didn’t think I could ride the bike well enough to take it over the rough roads with both of us on it. Despite my arguments and my concern that I wouldn’t be able to handle the bike with the extra weight, she managed to convince me we should go to a place called Laki.

Laki or Lakagígar made itself famous for its 8 month long eruption in 1783 – 84. It’s a major part of Europe’s history. The eruption and the consequences caused by it killed around 25% of Icelanders and around 6 million people around the world. The famine caused is believed to have caused the French revolution. 

The track out to Laki was not as bad as had been described to me. It did slowly get more and more rough the closer we got. The river crossings were the part that I really was not looking forward to. I remember them from when I rode a Motorbike around and through Australia, but I knew that Iceland would not be quite the same. Often in Australia I was quite glad to cool my feet off as I walked through to check the depth and the best route. With Iceland this was certainly something that didn’t have the same appeal. I made the first crossing with Kiya still on the back. It was quite difficult to keep the bike going in the direction I wanted it to because of the river bed being uneven. There was a cheer from the back as the wheels rolled onto the opposite side and accelerated up the track again.

It had started to rain by this time and my feet were getting cold from walking through the river. On the rougher sections of the road the bike’s suspension would bottom out and sometimes I’d hit the engine’s sump guard off of rocks. It was not a fun ride, but I still enjoyed it for the challenge. We arrived at the base of Mount Laki, where you can get a good view of all 130 craters that opened up during the eruption, though we couldn’t get motivated to climb it as the top was covered in cloud and we’d likely have seen nothing if we went to the top. Instead we found a lookout that was not in cloud but not as high as Mount Laki, that we could ride the motorbike up. A friendly German couple that had arrived in a 4x4 took one look at us and offered us hot tea and asked how we made it over the rivers. I told them about me walking first before riding them… then before we knew it our cups were full again with fresh tea. I had wished that I had spent the morning putting on the heated grips that Kiya brought from Scotland, but I just didn’t want to waste the time while she was there. The elevation made the weather far colder than it had been in the morning. My feet felt numb with the cold as they were soaking wet from the river crossings. After taking a photo from the lookout we continued on around the track which circles the area. I was glad to be on the bike again as I could wedge my feet in between the petrol tank and the engine. It took a while, but they started to feel a little warmer.

Lakagígar. Iceland in iceland

My vision felt like something was broken. Everything felt so black and white. The clouds were grey and the ground was black from the volcanic ash. The surface of the track was just ash from the volcano eruption. Sometimes it was hard and sometimes it was a bit soft. A small stream crossing that I didn’t bother to walk across almost made us fall. There was a sharp right hand corner after the crossing that almost swallowed my front wheel. We managed to stay on the bike, but only just. The final river crossing before we headed back was the worst. I stood on the side looking down on the river trying to guess the depth.  Kiya was scouting around looking for a shallow place that she could cross so she didn’t have to stay on the bike. A little way upstream the river was faster and had small islands that she thought she could get over without getting her feet too wet. By this time I was pretty cold and just starting to wish my feet were dry again, I really didn’t like the thought of having to wade through again to check the depth and route, but I knew I had to as the river looked to be about border line with what I was willing to risk riding over. Kiya told me about her plan to cross up steam. I said that I could take her over at the crossing as I had to walk over anyway. She insisted that I didn’t have to as she could make it over herself. 

Kiya on the Africa Twin at Laki

I cast my mind back to when I was talking to Kiya’s family about motorbikes, which they forwardly told me that they hated and thought they were one of the most dangerous things ever invented. The day had stressed me out enough already. My mind kept flashing back to Kiya’s family and what they would say if we had fallen of the bike and injured ourselves. I felt totally responsible for everything that was happening that day. I told Kiya that she had to come down and cross the river with me. I didn’t see the sense in both of us having wet feet. She took a bit of convincing, but only because she felt bad that I had to take her, whereas I looked at it from a more logical point of view. The water was right enough, up to my knees as I crossed with Kiya on my back. I double checked my route on the way back to the bike before I started the bike and slowly let go of the clutch to drive it into the river. The water came well over my feet as they stood on the foot rests and I started to feel the drag on the panniers as they entered the water too. The crossing was not very wide, but it seemed to take a long time to get to the other side. I had read so much about how to restart a drowned motorbike… Things like standing the bike up on its back to drain the exhaust and taking the spark plugs out to get the water out of the cylinders. I just couldn’t face doing something like that while I was this cold. So much went through my head in that short space of time… The front wheel started making its way onto the high and dry and I was out! I just hoped that there were no more deeper crossings before we were back on the main track again.

Our week together really flew in. We managed to make our way up another inland road and see the sunset over a glacier. We saw “Geysir”, the original Geysir which Geysir’s got their name from and saw huge waterfalls.

A Geysir at Geysir

I dropped Kiya off at the airport safe and sound and I was back on my own again. I was glad I managed not to make it into the bad books of her family and proud that I’d managed to take her into the highlands of Iceland on the bike. There was so much still to see, but not that much time to see it in now.

Navigation on road F35 in iceland

 I only had 9 days before I had to leave head for home...


  1. Hi David,
    Great shots and panoramas. Where's your next rip?

  2. Hi Martin, Thanks for that. Not sure where after New Zealand, it's still too soon to confirm anything, but I've got 2 ideas in my head and 1 of them is not quite the normal tourist destination. I don't think I'll be breaking my habit of being in the far north during northern summer though.

    Glad to see you're out and about taking panoramas in the new location too. Good work!