As the tourist buses grew fewer and fewer, the roads turned to gravel tracks and the scenery changed, Gene Lee instinctively knew there’d be a pay-off.
The reward for his persistence emerged in the shape of spectacular fjords and valleys, glacial springs and fields of wildflowers and blueberries in the remote western coast of Iceland.
After flying in to the capital Reykjavik from Canada two days earlier, the West Fjords were Triumph Tiger rider Gene’s first taste of the reality of an island he’d previously known only for its volcanoes and a kid crush on singer Björk.
By the time he and wife Neda left a fortnight later they’d become intoxicated by a nation whose language and scenery has remained unchanged since the first Norse settlers landed in the ninth century.
They’d ridden by gargantuan glaciers along deserted roads, braved suicidal sheep, doors that only open inwards, met people with approved names and even visited the most unusual of museums.
“The only reason why this isn’t a motorcycle travel Mecca is the climate,” said Gene: “The biggest danger here is exposure to the elements, but the benefits outweigh the negatives ten to one.”
‘Why?’ rather than ‘that sounds fantastic’ was usually the first reaction when we told people we were riding around Iceland.
Apart from my ferocious high-school crush on Björk, I didn’t know much about the place or its people. After arriving in Reykjavik at 7am, from the taxi window we watched the cold North Atlantic waves crash on rocky beaches and saw a moonscape of black volcanic rock covered in sparse, pale-green-coloured moss. It was like a surreal TV show.
It was 31˚C in Toronto when we left, but instantly we are down to 11˚C. After collecting the bikes, we take a spin around Reykjavik, covering its breadth in 15 minutes. The riding is typically Euro-polite, as we stop by Hallgrimskirkja church, the capital’s tallest building, designed to resemble the naturally forming basalt lava columns found around the country.
After a day buying fridge magnets, we check out Reykjavik’s Golden Circle: the collection of natural wonders a few hours drive away. First stop was Seljalandsfoss, a 60-metre-tall waterfall you can walk behind. Incredible.
Then it’s on to Sólheimajökull. Kull means glacier in Icelandic and Solheimajokull is the snout of a larger glacier mass called Myrdasjokul, the fourth largest in Iceland. If you imagine a glacier as the size and shape of your hand, what you’re seeing here is just a part of the fingernail.
Up at dawn to hit the West Fjords, it’s about 10˚C and the dark skies look menacing, but the landscape here is breathtaking. So far the roads are paved, but as we get off the main ring road, we’ve been warned to expect gravel.
Borgarnes and the Settlement Centre, a new exhibition of the earliest Viking settlers in Iceland, is well worth a visit if only for the restaurant’s horse steak, a deliciously lean cut of meat with a real tangy taste to it, prepared to perfection.
At points, the road carves through lava fields, their rocks covered in pale green moss, as the temperature slides below sub-zero, thanks to the riding wind chill. Our heated jackets and gloves make it bearable, so it was too bad when my heated glove didn’t work. But what do you need to feel your right hand for on a bike other than the throttle and brakes?
There is amazing riding here in Iceland. The only reason why this isn't another motorcycle travel Mecca is the climateGene Lee
We’re riding in August, one of the three warmest months in Iceland, with June and September, but hypothermia will claim you if you get stranded in the middle of the night; traffic and amenities are so sparse along the deserted roads.
Twisties hug the finger-like coastline of the West Fjords, so we take them with caution as the rain powers down and the temperatures drop significantly. We’re wary about traction and slower reaction times if one of the scores of suicidal sheep decides to jump out.
The region feels like a separate island, utterly remote. But for the adventurous few, the pay-off is great. The adventure aspect of the Tiger means it’s in its element and a great-looking bike. Just a shame there aren’t many people to admire it out here among fierce cross-winds and single-lane roads, with trucks flashing by within inches.
We arrive safe in Ísafjörður and will be here a few days. Locals tell us the West Fjords has a little bit of all of Iceland in one area, so we’ll use Ísafjörður as our base.
Everywhere is pale greens and muted browns beneath overcast skies. The culture is very much the same, with Icelanders fiercely proud of their unchanging heritage.
We meet a New York cinematographer who is setting up an artist’s colony, fostering art in Iceland. He seems really happy to see someone who isn’t blond and blue-eyed.
The restaurant is called Tjoruhusid (in Neðstakaupstað, 400 Ísafjörður). No sign or anything to mark it as such, it was just a really neat log cabin. No menu, just cafeteria-style benches and a buffet-style offering of the best seafood we’ve ever eaten. The staff just cook whatever they catch that day, so I met my new favourite seafood – cod cheeks. So decadent, like a fishy version of KFC chicken skin.
Next day, with Ísafjörður as our base, we head south about 250km and back, almost entirely on gravel, for one of our best riding days ever. Decent weather, beautiful scenery. It really is true what they say: the scenery only gets good when the going gets tough.
The sky reflected in the glacial spring is a rich, almost indigo colour, with the volcanic sediment acting as a natural water purifier, making Icelandic spring water one of the cleanest sources of drinking water in the world.
Dynjandi waterfall is the largest in the West Fjords and consists of six different waterfalls, the result of melting glacial waters. We could see the waterfalls in the distance for over an hour; that’s how massive they are.
We didn’t get too far today, too many scenic breaks, but it was all worth it.
Feeling restless, so we head the 140km to Heydalur and our first hotpot – a naturally occurring hot spring natural spa, where the sulphur is great for your skin. Soaking in the geothermal pools is like nothing else and makes you wonder how Mother Nature knew to provide a natural sauna to those braving the cold, harsh climate of Iceland.
After a lazy day, we say goodbye to the West Fjords and head into the north-eastern part of the island. About 600km. The past couple of days have been cold, gloomy and overcast, but we’re still having an icy-cold blast!
We stop at a gas station/cafe on the main ring road for a rest and bite to eat, but when a busload of tourists come through the door, it’s our cue to leave.
We ride east towards Akureyri, Iceland’s second city. After the remoteness of West Fjords, this bustling fishing town, with its own thriving cultural scene, has an almost festive vibe, with lots of young people and tourists in its pedestrian walkways, cafes, shops and fine restaurants.
About 100km away from Akureyri on the north coast is Husavik, the whale-watching capital of Iceland and once home to the Icelandic Phallological Museum (it has since moved to the capital) boasting a collection of 235 mammalian male members – yes, a penis museum!
The fog is pea-soup thick and my left hand is like a windshield wiper on the highest setting, wiping away the fog droplets building up on my visor.
We line up nervously at the ticket booth to buy a ticket for the whale watching as thick fog envelopes everything. We can barely see 20 metres but take the three-hour tour on an old whaling ship anyway. The fog lifts the further we get from the shore and we spot a 60-metre-long humpback whale off the port side of the boat, spouting water from its blowhole before giving everyone a dorsal fin-to-tail view as it dived underwater.
We meet two Italian riders, Massimo and Sylvano, on the boat, conspicuous by their helmets in hand. There are lots of Italians in Iceland. It’s their month-long vacation (called Ferrogosto) and it seems most of them came here. It was so nice to talk to other motorcyclists on the trip.
We move on to the motorcycle museum of Iceland in Akureyri. There’s a large motorcycle community in the town, and all night long we hear bikes rip up and down the only curvy road in town in front of our hotel. I discover my new favourite motorcycle, Zundapp from Germany. Unfortunately, they stopped making bikes in the ’60s. Note the suicide shifter. Right throttle grip was the accelerator. Left throttle grip adjusted the ignition timing. Cool.
Next morning we ride out to the Myvatn Lake area. Sounds lovely but isn’t. Vatn means lake, but, unfortunately, my means midge, a very annoying fly found in abundance around the lake. They don’t bite, but they are attracted to carbon dioxide, and tend to fly right up into your nose and mouth.
We were going to buy a head-net to keep them out, but they were sold out. Shame, as there’s a nice dual track around Myvatn. Volcanic rocks strewn all around are a reminder of how geologically active Iceland was and still is.
Myvatn is part of the greater Krafla volcanic system – a collection of faults and fissures in an 80km radius surrounding the Krafla caldera.
We stop at Hvarir, a large geothermal field riddled with bubbling mud pits and steaming vents spewing foul-smelling plumes of smoke. The whiff of rotten eggs is so strong you can practically taste it. Bubbling grey mud flows through mineral-rich sands, fed by boiling hot gases and water heated from the earth’s core. Out-of-this-world surreal.
We’re rapidly realising that if you just stay on the pavement, you won’t see anything that Iceland has to offer.
Seyðisfjorður in the east is a sleepy-looking town that centres around the ferry schedule. People rarely stay long, arriving by boat from Europe and migrating west. We have dinner at an art-themed bistro that serves dishes such as reindeer pizza and lamb stews. Reindeer live wild here and are hunted for their meat, antlers, hides and milk.
We’ve covered 600km in the last couple of days south to Vik, most of it in the rain. We pass the Vatnajökull glacier and its vast tendrils before the spectacular sight of Jökulsárlón or ‘Glacier Lagoon’, where the Vatnajokull glacier is pushed out into a lagoon, giant pieces of ice regularly breaking off to create huge 20-metre-tall icebergs (and that’s above the water!) as we look on in awe. There are tonnes of these sights all along the south of Iceland.
After circumnavigating the island, we take our first F-road up the interior of Iceland. The road is recommended only for four-wheel drive vehicles because of the terrain and potential water crossings, but I managed it with my Triumph one-wheel drive. A website run by the Icelandic government shows the status of the F-Roads at any moment. In spring, bulldozers remove the snow from the roads, but leave the surface rutted with washboard, making them tough to ride without losing your fillings, as I give the suspension on my Tiger quite a workout.
Access to fuel and lodging is limited in the rugged interior, so it’s important to measure fuel stops and pre-book mountain huts, which we did when we booked a cabin in Kerlingarfjöll – a volcanic system near Hofsjökull – nestled among spectacular mountain ranges.
It’s like a hippie commune, with no hot water or Wi-Fi, but it was probably one of our favourite places to stay in Iceland, surrounded by mountains on three sides.
After an early breakfast, we scrape the frost off our seats and ride north to Kerlingarfjöll, before cutting west to the Snaefellsnes peninsula.
As we park up, a couple approach us and ask if anything is wrong. We thought they were being helpful to a couple of motorcyclists, but when we talk further we find out they think we’re two Icelandic motorcycle police officers because of our white bikes. They were expecting us to give them a fine for stopping at the side of the road!
After riding through the peninsula we re-enter the Greater Reykjavik Area and the transition to urbanisation is quite noticeable, compared to the desolation of the rest of Iceland. Around two thirds of the 330,000 population live in the areas surrounding Reykjavik.
We weren’t mobbed, had no problems communicating and didn’t ride through floods or any other natural disaster, even though we were surrounded by volcanoes. In fact, it was all fantastic, with most days’ diary entries reading: ‘Woke up, it’s cold, but the scenery is amazing’.
Iceland is really all about the scenery, from the jagged coasts of the West Fjords to the lush, green farmlands of the north-east, the geologically hyperactive Myvatn area and the tendrils of Glacier Alley in the south.
But remember, don’t stick to the pavement.