x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Get past the cold, and Iceland has much to offer Biking Vikings

Iceland's bleak but stunning terrain eases Neil Vorano's pain as he conquers the terrain in one-degree Celsius weather aboard a BMW F 650 GS motorbike.

Iceland boasts a rugged landscape with stunning vistas of volcanic rock and glacial mountains. Neil Vorano / The National
Iceland boasts a rugged landscape with stunning vistas of volcanic rock and glacial mountains. Neil Vorano / The National

"You're very unlucky," says Eythor Örlygsson calmly and in abrupt English, as he puffs languidly on a cigarette. "The reading on my motorcycle says 1° Celsius; it is usually about 10°C or 15°C in May."

I observe that his hand holding the cigarette is steady; I only notice this because my entire body is shaking uncontrollably in the bitter, windy cold.

Then again, this is Iceland; if you don't expect it to be cold, then what are you thinking? But besides being known for having the most northerly capital city (Reykjavik) and for its inconveniently exploding volcanoes (the latest going off just two weeks ago), Iceland has some of the best motorcycling roads in the world, and I just couldn't pass up a bit of exploring this rugged land on a recent trip here.

But at this moment, after about five hours of running over twisting tarmac and dirt roads, battling bitter, gale-force northern winds that threatened to blow my bike off the road, I was having second thoughts about the trip. Our group of eight riders had stopped for a break at a small cafe on the shores of the Hvalfjörour fjord, north of Reykjavik; we had expected to warm up with a hot coffee and something to eat but, dispiritingly, the cafe was closed. I hadn't eaten in more than six hours, I was chilled to the bone and suddenly wishing that I was back at the hotel under the characteristic sulphur-smelling hot water in the shower.

Örlygsson is our tour guide and the general manager of Biking Viking in Reykjavik, a shop that organises bike tours and rents motorcycles to those who want to go it alone. Apparently, Iceland isn't such a secret spot for bike trips; Örlygsson tells me that much of the summer season is already booked, and the few weeks that aren't are filling up fast.

Biking Viking, as well as other tour shops in the country, offers multiple-day motorcycle trips with camping or hotel stops along the way that can take a rider all around the island nation, but today we're only out for a six-hour ride. As Iceland is situated so close to the Arctic Circle, sunlight fills much of the summer days (the summer solstice in June has 24-hour daylight), and we can leave the capital at 5pm to start our journey in full light. Örlygsson has given me a BMW F 650 GS for the trip that will take us more than 250km east and north of the city along some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable.

Before we mount up, I have to borrow a thicker pair of gloves from Örlygsson, who looks at my own thin motocross gloves with a wry grin before handing me a thick leather pair. Then our group heads off, travelling east out of town towards the mountains that loom just on the outskirts over Reykjavik. But we'll be skirting those to go out further, staying on tarmac roads for a while.

As the road opens, the wind is starting to be a problem; at least for me. What feels like a nippy breeze in the sheltered city suddenly becomes a freezing blast on the back of a bike; sometimes constant, sometimes blowing like an unexpected cannon shot. The small windscreen on the BMW helps, but nothing can stop this northerly wind from blowing through my thick jacket and trousers. At one point, on a straight stretch of road, our motorcycles are leaned over as if in a turn, just to counteract the wind.

Outside the city, we're following a large pipeline just off the side of the road; it's not for oil, it's filled with hot water that is pumped right from the ground, heated by geothermal activity - the same activity responsible for the volcanoes. Geothermal hot water accounts for almost all the hot water used in Reykjavik, but it's also why the hot water coming out of the tap smells like sulphur.

The pipeline takes us to its source: Nesjavallavirkjun. We stop at a spot overlooking a large valley; it's green, but bleak with grasses growing on volcanic rock and soil; mountains roll in the distance and, strangely, large plumes of white steam rise from small buildings and the valley floor itself. Iceland is a very different place, I'm finding out.

We continue, travelling on winding tarmac roads around a large lake; I'm finding the F 650 GS perfect for the road, with good power and a comfortable, upright seating position, though its thin seat is starting to get a little tiring on my backside; frequent stops help that, along with helping me to warm up.

Our next stop is both historic and geographic in nature; we arrive at Pingvellir and take a walk down through a narrow ridge. The ridge is actually where the two separate tectonic plates of Europe and the Americas meet, and its natural amphitheatre is where the world's first parliament met in 930AD. But the fact that I was standing between two moving earth plates made me feel a little uneasy.

We move on and finally hit a dirt road, though it's almost as good quality as the tarmac we left. I lift up out of the saddle and stand on the pegs for a bit of grip on the sliding turns, and despite the cold wind blasting my torso, I can't help but look around in awe at the landscape surrounding me; long grasses on plains with snow-capped mountains and glaciers off in the distance, all in perfect sunlight with blue skies - even at 8pm.

On the dirt, though, I longed more for my older, single-cylinder F 650; the parallel-twin-cylinder BMW, which though named a 650, is in reality an 800cc with 71hp, is torquey and with a very touchy throttle, necessitating an easy and steady wrist lest the bike starts to feel more like a bucking bronco.

Njall Gunnlaugsson, the president of Biking Viking, is out with us on the trip. He is also a tour guide and is a certified BMW rider trainer. He takes us slightly off the road next to a running brook, set in a barren, rocky plain. "Do you want to try a river crossing?" he asks me earnestly. "Maybe next time," I smile politely; next time meaning when I don't have to worry about ice forming in my trousers if I happen to fall in.

I notice at my feet that the rocks are set in sand; black sand. I bend down to pick up a handful of it and let it run through my fingers. It's like fine powder, and like nothing I've ever seen before.

Our tour continues north, along low plains with the constant white-tipped mountains in the background. We're travelling in a circle, and the route turns east, then dips down south again on our return leg, where we're back on the tarmac. It's here that I was hoping desperately for a coffee and maybe a hot dog as we reached the cafe on the edge of the Hvalfjörour fjord, to no avail.

But as the sun just begins to move down in the sky, we hit the road again - a winding, rolling, roller coaster of a road circling the fjord. Its tarmac is perfect, its traffic is light and its scenery is unparalleled; unfortunately, it's also open to that constant northern blast, and I can't shake the chill that has seeped down deep into my bones. I realise at one point that even my eyeballs are cold. I'm taking in everything, but I can't wait to get home.

Finally, we are home; back in the capital. It's past 11pm, but the sun is just starting to disappear behind the mountains. Our group finds a restaurant - a Pakistani place, I notice with amusement - and enjoys a well-deserved meal. "You've only seen a little bit of Iceland," says Örlygsson. "My favourite is the northern highlands, on a longer trip; it's unspoilt wilderness. Early September is the best time for that."

After dinner, we bring our bikes back to the shop and, after some handshakes and brief conversation, I'm back at the hotel. The first thing I do is put the shower on and smell that hot sulphur water.

Biking Viking offers trips ranging from a seven-day tour of Iceland for €3,990 (Dh21,100) to a day trip for €100 (Dh529). For more information visit www.bikingviking.is