Riding the cauldron

PAR Paul PenzoPosted on

ICELAND’S FIERCE TERRAIN CHALLENGES AND REWARDS

It feels like riding on the moon or some distant planet. We pass through deserted fields of black lava rock with massive boulders sparsely frozen in their rolling steps from long ago, patches of deep sand, and small grease-like lava rock sections—all while rolling through elevation changes and a few water crossings. Constantly changing terrain requires intense focus over long periods of time; yet my mind wanders at an almost subconscious level as the bike works hard beneath me.

We stop for a quick break, look around, and I routinely have difficulty picking out what to focus on. Majestic skies above, glaciers on one side, North Atlantic on another, and volcanoes everywhere. Every direction reveals a spectacular extraterrestrial sort of raw, uninhabited, view of varying landscapes resembling what you might see in a science fiction movie.

Late in 2017, over dinner, Kellee Irwin invited me to join her together with a group of friends on an off-road Iceland Trekking Enduro. She is a third-generation rider and had already completed adventure rides in Baja, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, and Mongolia. Logistics, motorcycle rental, fuel, food, accommodations, and transferswere included. I would just have to pack my gear bag and show up. It took me too long to accept, but I was in. And why not? Having my 49th birthday doing something new with allegedly amazing people sounded great.

RideXpower sent a ball cap and jersey together with an agenda and recommended gear list that made 2018’s July 15th feel like an early Christmas. Early September Icelandic weather called for an average daytime temperature of five to 15 degrees, with high winds and rain. Staying warm and dry would be key to an enjoyable ride, so gear consisted of a base layer plus full protective off-road gear, an adventure outer layer, and a neck warmer with a motocross helmet; plus snowmobile handlebar muffs, and rain gear in a new 25-litre hydration backpack.

The smell of sulfur finally welcomes Kellee and me to Reykjavík, and our first stop is at a public spa. Geothermal activity, once believed to indicate the presence of outlaws and supernatural beings, now heats the country as well as a local beach. Moving between varying levels of heated tubs and a swimming pool, an elderly gentleman explains through a thick Nordic accent that high levels of education, a good health system and recent prosperity go a long way to making Iceland one of the world’s happiest countries; his almost daily visits here also surely help.

The first couple we meet are Lori and Tom Taylor from Washington, the only non-Canadians in our sub-group of 12 or so (there is a similarly sized second group of riders from across the globe). Lori has ridden the International Six Days Enduro while Tom, often at her side, likes the ride and adventure. They enjoy a variety of other adrenalin-inducing activities, and seem okay when our rental car gets airborne on “roads” with rocks hitting our floorboards where 4X4s with oversized tires would be happier. A great taste of new friends and views to come.

Then arrive Dave Millier, James Simzer, and Jay Horner. These are Kellee’s closest friends on the trip, so the five of us head off to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa for facials and drinks. What else is a girl to do? And the stories go exactly as you might imagine between boys. While nursing an almost-healed broken foot, Kellee informs us that, with doctor’s approval, her motocross boots will serve as a cast. Seems odd, but riding with injuries is nothing new to us.

It is Sunday today and, properly dressed or not, the ride finally starts. Shortly into it, coming around a corner through what would become an endless series of varying rocky sections, I see James on the ground in fetal position. Firefighter Tammie Wilson Jordan jumps off her bike to help, and through a grimaced voice, James explains a tennis ball-sized rock hit him in the groin at 100 km/h. So Tammie turns away with arms in the air, and a simple “Nothing I can do.” Dave also offers a hand and James replies with a frisky response; all will be fine.

Our first stop is at a visitor centre where the tectonic plates meet and swimming across the lake means traversing two continents. Kellee has been struggling, grinning, and bearing through it, but the pain is clearly visible, and she has to call it a day at lunch, promising to meet us at the hotel for laughs as she rides off on the pavement. Our first eight-hour day absorbing vast landscapes over the space of 180 kilometres ends where numerous jets of steam can be seen rising from a multi-coloured planet. I stop next to a geyser that erupts every seven minutes.

Earlier in the day, just standing at a short stop while admiring some raw natural beauty, my right knee “pops” out and I am instantly on the ground in pain. Later, the root causes are assessed as a damaged medial meniscus and torn ACL that require surgery. The best part? Extending on your tippy toes a few times a day helps relieve the pain, so standing on pegs with the balls of your feet and using your legs as giant shock absorbers for five days straight seems to be exactly what the doctor would have ordered; it makes all sorts of things better, and should be done more often.

The team at RideXPower spent three years working with the Icelandic government designing a route that protects the environment while providing a true off-road adventure. It is carefully planned and organized with a fleet of 27 bikes, two vehicles plus trailers, guides and transfers to prearranged accommodations. Land-owners grant us access to otherwise prohibited areas, and I am experiencing a life-altering adventure aboard a well-used yet highly competent off-road but street-legal 2017 Husqvarna FE 350 with mousse inserts mounted in both tires to avoid flats.

This is a full-service global operation with tours in 18 locations across eight countries including Italy, Romania, and Dubai. Their trip in dunes of the Sahara in Tunisia riding where the original Star Wars was filmed sounds pretty cool too. Here in Iceland, two “cooks” prepare all meals with their mobile barbeque and E-Z UP tents, clean bikes, and take care of our luggage. We sleep at each hotel twice at different ends of the trip except at the most remote in the middle. Daniel leads the crew and globetrots seeking similar adventures as a tax-deductible expense; I envy his job.

Monday, and this will be a long nine-hour day, spanning over 200 kilometres with countless river crossings before reaching the National Resort of Kerlingarfjöll, where hot springs cause minerals to paint the earth yellow, red, and green. Our first stop is on the less-travelled east bank hiking trail at Gullfoss, which means “gold waterfall” in Icelandic, and it feels like I’m chasing the base of a rainbow without ever reaching it. Yet the picture later clearly depicts me as a leprechaun incarnate. Had I noticed, that pot of gold would be mine. Life lesson?

We arrive at our “hotel” for the night, and Dave is beside himself. Fourteen men are expected to sleep narrowly side-by-each on a row of bunkbeds in one large room. The women, plus Tom, have a cottage with similar but less cramped arrangements. This is supposedly normal in remote Iceland, and an upgrade option is not available. Ours is a somewhat affluent group composed of entrepreneurs, senior executives, and professionals; Jay invited me into his private room the night before to avoid having me bunk with two strangers, so this comes as a surprise to us all.

RideXpower has varying routes to match skill levels, but this is not for the faint of heart or those uncomfortable with a bike squirming around. A couple of BMW Adventure riders with decades of experience start the tour but allegedly call it quits after just two days due to the level of difficulty, since to do this requires more extensive off-road experience. It was either that or the accommodations.

The ride on Tuesday past the stratovolcano of Hekla, nicknamed “the Gateway to Hell” in the Middle Ages, turns out to be the best yet; extraterrestrial views of an alien landscape like I have never seen. We’re scheduled for eight hours over an easier 110 kilometres, and Kellee decides to join us, determined to ride on what we now know to be a still-broken foot. She toughs it out until our stop at a geothermically heated river for a steamy—but not steamy—nature dip to relax, enjoy the scenery with friends, and have a quick lunch, lasting longer than most could ever hope.

In the afternoon, I uncork it with our guide Jake in the lead and a similarly gutsy Spaniard in tow for a short but memorable blast. A Zen-like experience of two-wheeled drifts over varying ground cover with feedback similar to riding on ice; slippery at first, and lateral traction improving with throttle or speed. Not that there is much attention left over, but my peripheral vision and subconscious note that the scenery is likely fantastic too. The group caught up after a stop to soak it all in.

Once back at “bunkbed nirvana,” I am asleep before all but one, and out cold for the night. Up early, the group seems tired but relaxed, the stress of daily life present only through electronic devices. And although conversations are deeper than normal, Dave begins razzing Tammie’s husband to the entire group. He was touring the island in a car rather than with us due to a recent thumb injury, and sharing things online better suited for his diary or maybe wife. How Dave read those accounts aloud in that big room and the laughs enjoyed still makes me smile months later.

Muscles aching, the thought of spending time at another hot spring at day’s end sounds appealing. It is Wednesday with Mount Hekla, the Háifoss waterfall and trails along the Hvíta River on this 180 kilometre, eight-hour agenda. But the best part is that today involves a volcano mountain climb of small black lava rock. Run at it in fourth on the rev limiter and, as it begins to bog, downshift to third while bouncing on the pegs for traction. Also cool is playing in the field doing mini-freestyle bunny hops over lava boulders we are not allowed to take pictures of.

Thursday is our final ride day, and talks about the next trip have already started. We ask Daniel questions over breakfast and are told the Iceland Enduro is an easy level one in terms of terrain, but a medium level two in terms of endurance due to the long days. Regardless of what might come of it, I think we should all be quicker to say “Sure—why not?” the next time a buddy casually asks us out on some adventure of a lifetime. No retreat, no regrets. We arrived as strangers and left as friends after a series of laughs and outstanding memories.

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