Facing Iceland Reality

IMG_5411-1“Don’t let the sun fool you,” the waiter at Reykjavik’s fish house told me. “In the shade, you feel the real temperature.” He explains that for the few days I’ve been in the island nation’s capital, I’ve been lucky, perhaps “blessed,” as they say. The strong sun with its pounding heat is deceiving, but walk on the shady side of the street and I’m wishing I had long sleeves and a coat. Feeling slightly naive or stupid and looking at the locals clad in classic Icelandic sheep’s wood sweaters. Ahhh, if only I wasn’t riding a bike—I’d buy one.

As I gaze at the calendar, the reality I face is not only the cold—it’s July—but that my time in Iceland is limited. Because I’m traveling the high season, hotels, cars, restaurants and such are booked—often months in advance. This is especially true for the Smyrill Line ferry ship, Noronna, that leaves once a week from the eastern part of the Island. As I ponder the map of Iceland and the relatively short distances, I realize I’ve got to make a choice. Go north, or go south.

Happy to find Biking Viking shop to install my new K60 Scout Heidenau tires

Happy to find Biking Viking shop to install my new K60 Scout Heidenau tires

For me, it’s an easy decision. With more history and population to the north, I’ll choose that over some of the amazing natural beauty of the south. As the producer of our show, Border to Border, realized as we did our research on Iceland, said “every blog, picture or story online looks the same.” I am aiming to see a different side of Iceland than most travelers who end up here. Having already connected with Andri Snaer and Siggi of The Sugarcubes, I’ve had a good start. So I travel north.


Cruising out of Reykjavik (photo by Panayioti Yannitsos)

The first hour or so of the ride is easy enough, then just as we’re approaching the Hvalfjörður tunnel, the wind kicks in and the temperature seems to drop suddenly. The 3.5 mile tunnel crosses the Hvalfjörður fjord, and about half way inside, drops to more than 500 feet below the sea level. As I exit the tunnel in the north, the wind hits me with the power of a firehose. It’s cold. I realize the vents in my jacket are open. I’m tense, and cold as I hunch over my handlebars, trying to tuck behind the tiny windscreen of my BMW F650GS. This is futile, and though I don’t want to stop—rather push on, the cold is unbearable. So is the wind.

Johnny A bundles up for the cold ride.

Johnny A bundles up for the cold ride.

It starts raining while I’m stopped, adding layers to my riding gear and zipping in my Gore•tex liner. The wind nearly grabs my Gore•tex liner as I try to zip it in. I see the camera crew pulled over behind me, cozy in their car. They’re following and filming me for a new travel television show, tentatively titled “Border to Border.” They’re supposed to be invisible. But I can’t help thinking how warm they are. But Pan and Jamie jump out and start filming me and my frustration in getting geared up for warm and wet weather. They’re dressed in even less layers. They’ll do anything to get the shot. Even freeze. They get it.

So does Johnny A, as he hops into the back of the car and layers up. John is traveling with me on his BMW R1150GS, a larger bike with a bigger windscreen. Yet we’re both just as cold—and now getting wet.

Pan braves the cold, filming me as I try to layer and bundle up.

Pan braves the cold, filming me as I try to layer and bundle up. (photo by Johnny A)

We last traveled together as young twenty-somethings throughout Indonesia—on rented motorcycles. After many years of talking, and John handling logistics during my initial three-year WorldRider expedition, we were able to connect for a couple months of riding Iceland and Scandinavia.

The two lane road that roars up toward Iceland’s western Fjords is narrow, with no shoulders. Cars, large trucks and the lone bicyclist or two share the road. The gusty winds often push me into the opposing lane or toss me around the road like sagebrush in the wild west of America. This isn’t new I’ve been tossed around in Patagonia in Argentina and pushed off the road in the Andes and through the deserts of California.

The never-setting sun fools me, as I know that in this remote part of Iceland, finding food after 8pm will be impossible. With my sites set on a campsite, as there are no hotels in this part of the country and any guests houses have been booked for months, I eat some basic food at an N1 gas station and look for camp—preferably one with a hot pot.

Hot pots are part of Icelandic culture. With a landscape littered with geothermal activity, most everyone has access to steaming sulphuric hot water—the kind we call hot springs in the US. Except here, it’s a communal activity. Everyone takes a hot pot and there are always rules and etiquette. That is, don’t get into one without taking a shower; and don’t go naked.

While wild camping is available throughout Iceland, I wanted the campsite with the hot pot I’d been referred to. I knew the name of the town, but when I got there, I found only house—on a farm. So I wandered around the desolate place and found only one person, an elderly man driving a tractor and loading hay into a barn. He didn’t speak english and simply pointed toward the horizon.

This farmer had no idea what I was talking about , but still pointed me toward the horizon.

This farmer had no idea what I was talking about , but still pointed me toward the horizon.

Finally, out of the cold and into the hot pot-Reykir Iceland, Jamie, Pan and me.

Finally, out of the cold and into the hot pot-Reykir Iceland, Jamie, Pan & Me. (photo by Johnny A)

I found the camp after wandering around different driveways and gravel roads. Setting up camp in near 60+ mph winds is no fun. Yet, I manage to set up camp, only to realize that I put my rain fly on backwards. I can’t let it stand, so I have to battle the wind again. The site is barren, beautiful, and overlooks the fjord. I’m alone, save the crew and Johnny A. A lone cyclist from Israel, decides against setting his tent up in the wind, and instead rolls out his bedroll in the small service building that houses the toilets and a small kitchen. He’s smart, I’m thinking later as the rain comes pouring down.

The Hot Pot here is wonderful, just the perfect temperature after a long, cold and windy day. Hey, but this is Iceland. What did I expect?

On location with Panayioti Yannitsos, Jamie Spittal, John Angus in north western Iceland filming the next episode of “border to border”

Posted by Allan Karl on Thursday, July 7, 2016

The next morning everything is wet. It’s cold. At least it’s easy to wake up, harder to get out of my sleeping bag. But I pack up and roll on.

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