A jolt through the bars pulls my focus back as my mind battles between reading the rapidly unfolding terrain and being distracted by the staggering scenery wrapping around me like a never-ending film set. That was close! I grip tighter with my knees as my rented Husqvarna 701 writhes beneath me in the thick volcanic sand. Stones are flinging past from the bike ahead. Everything feels loose and visceral – but I’m in control. I feel alive. And I’m on the stops, pinned across what feels like another planet, rear wheel spinning, hopping and dancing as it scrabbles for traction. That was the moment I realised Iceland with RideWithLocals is pure riding bliss.
‘The terrain rolls beneath my wheels like a conveyor belt of challenges’
Minutes earlier I’d been teetering frantically, working to balance and control the bike across technical jagged rocks. Riding slow, moving, leaning, shifting the weight and searching for traction with the rear wheel, eyes fixed ahead looking for the next obstacle yet constantly flicking about, mesmerised by the lava field around me. I mean, how often do you get to ride on a lava field? Created during the Laki eruption in the late 18th century, it’s a vast 565km2 ocean of jagged rock, soft moss, deep ash, and jaw-dropping scenery. And you can ride right through it. RideWithLocals, was I really still on Earth?
The terrain rolls beneath my wheels like an ever-changing conveyor belt of challenges: Rocky and technical one minute, soft ash fields and rivers the next, then hard lava beds, and ruts, long weight-back full throttle loose surface straights, deep sand, aggressive boulder fields, snow and ice… It’s an off-road playground of every terrain imaginable. Nothing about Iceland is normal. Nothing remains the same as you hop from one extreme to the next.
‘Nothing is normal. How often do you get to ride on a lava field?’
Having lost count of the river crossings I was feeling quietly confident every time a raging torrent blocked our path. Pick a line, stand on the pegs, steady and gentle on the throttle and staying loose to absorb those unseen rocks beneath the surface. But as the group pulls up to the biggest crossing yet I could feel my heart thumping. At least 20 metres wide, it was also deep and flowing fiercely. Our guide, aptly nicknamed Mini Viking, starts depth testing on foot (I can’t help being amused that the person with the shortest legs has been tasked with seeing how deep the water is…). It’s the ultimate way to flood your boots with freezing glacial melt-water, but also the only way ensure a safe crossing. Hundreds of miles from civilisation, a drowned bike is to be avoided at all costs.
Mini Viking gets halfway. The water is gushing well above his knees. I’m still amused, but it’s not looking good for the bikes. Firing up we track parallel to the raging force of nature, searching for a more forgiving crossing point. Then we spot two hikers on the far side of the river, shoes still in hands from having just waded through. If they’ve made it across here, we certainly can. Although I’m bemused by them being here at all – how far have they hiked? It’s been a long way, and hard going on the bikes.
Crossing point chosen, it’s my turn. My heart is racing, the bike’s leaning on me holding ground against the flow. With water right up to the air filter’s limits it’s a three-man job escorting each bike. I’m tense, my legs feel like I’m struggling in wet concrete as I fight the flow, the boulders invisible as the murky water tries to tip me into the flow. Lactic acid builds in my arms as I grapple to hold on, it somehow feels like one of the most demanding manoeuvres ever. Every force being exerted wants to tear the bike from under me. Going under now could be ride ending, but working together sees our party of seven all make it across. That’s some guilt-free beers earned.
The landscapes are like nothing you’ve seen
There is something eerie about riding in such remoteness. The reassurance of the RideWithLocals support truck being on standby is great – but out here, we’re essentially on our own. It’s a novelty when we see a 4×4 bouncing through the landscape, smiles and that nod of mutual respect for being out exploring this unforgiving wilderness bringing a sense of camaraderie. We’re staying in huts mostly only reached by long distance horse riders. They’re fuelled on hay – but we need more appetising food and our bikes need spares and fuel – none of which are available out here. Without our support truck, we’d be walking and hungry in a matter of hours.
Every evening the truck would meet us at our night stop, meaning the luxury of not having to carry luggage and that was key to the pace we rode at. We travelled to our ability, focused, fast and adapting to the terrain. Every crest bringing a new challenge, a new feast for our senses and a test for our skills.
Off-road bikes in their natural environment
“Pack your bikini today…” says our guide as we get set for another day in this lava landscape. Playing it cool, I sip my morning coffee and nod, but I couldn’t even begin to imagine what was coming. Amidst the breath-taking remote mountains we approach an old picket fence, falling apart, paint peeling, abandoned and being reclaimed by nature. Weaving through a tight gap, brushing through overgrown bushes and then my jaw drops. A thermal pool appears before us, a steaming cyan oasis ready to soothe our bike weary bodies. Formerly a pool for the geo-thermal plant workers, it now appears largely disused and is missing the pool-boy, but the water was crystal clear and fed by a natural spring. People say the tourist-soaked Blue Lagoon is a must see but I’d pick an isolated spot like this any day. This is the only situation where bikinis and motorcycles should converge.
Come in, the water is lovely. For once that is really true
Viking pulls to a stop and points to the ground. I’m perplexed and dismount as he crouches down returning with a palm of wild crowberries. Riding with the locals gives insights to the land we’d easily miss. Iceland, with winter weeks of total darkness and short summers, is a unique ecosystem. He explains that damaged flora can take up to 30 years to repair. I’m mesmerised by the realities of the land of fire and ice, and the knowledge that comes from riding with the locals means that a detour from the track into the moss for a photo vanishes from our minds – it could never be worth a 30-year scar to this delicate landscape.
Over 2.5 million tourists visit Iceland each year to see the big sights. Hot spas, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, tectonic plates and lava fields. They pack into coaches or hire cars. But riding here with RideWithLocals on off-road bikes changes your perspective. We can discover the must-see spots from the less trodden tracks, skipping the crowds, and seeing things most tourists might only glimpse from the plane window. We rode up close to Hekla, slept below the Myrdalsjokull Glacier, recharged in an abandoned spa, explored huge craters without a soul in sight, picked across lava fields, crossed valley basins and crested mountains, riding volcanic ash berms. It was riding heaven combined with cultural and geological discovery: A trip only motorcycles can make possible.
There’s always time for a photo
Learn more about Iceland with my 15 facts to know article and video.
Local knowledge RideWithLocals, the only Icelandic enduro company and based just a 2h 45min flight from the UK. A fully-inclusive motorcycle Iceland trip on Husqvarna 701s with a support vehicle, fuel, food, mountain hut accommodation, trail snacks, beer and all the local gen from the Vikings running it. We had six days riding, covered roughly 1400 km doing 9 to 11- hour riding days and got to see the real Iceland – which is unseen by most tourists. Expect to pay around €4400 per person. www.ridewithlocals.is
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