The Iceland Divide by Richard Sidey (Video)
This past August, photographer and filmmaker Richard Sidey set out to ride the Iceland Divide, and his solo mission included the full route and some extra credit into the Icelandic backcountry. Watch the film he made from the trip and find his story with a collection of photos here…
Despite it’s incomparable challenges, Iceland holds a special place among intrepid bike travelers. One of the longest and most arduous routes that’s been established on the island is the Iceland Divide, a linear ride that crosses the country from north to south. Back in August, filmmaker Richard Sidey took on the route, adding a couple of variations that made it even more demanding. Along the way, Richard captured some incredible footage of the trip and later made this film. Watch it below, then scroll down to find a detailed account of his ride and a collection of images he captured on route.
“It’s out here, in this state, that I’m at my most creative. Long-forgotten memories become clear. Indecision and anxiety don’t exist.”
Words and photos by Richard Sidey
Heavy rain lashes against my hotel widow, distorting the impressive view of huge swells pummelling into Keflavik’s shoreline, the wind picking up each breaker and firing it far into the city streets. This is not a day to be outdoors in Iceland. Just hauling my bags and disintegrating bike box to the hotel was a mission, yet the thought of camping in this raises my anxiety levels. What makes me even more nervous is the weather warnings that are in place for the highlands right now. Winds of 250 kilometres per hour are currently ripping across the northern edge of Vatnajökull, Europe’s second largest icecap, right where I intend to be in a few days time—alone and unsupported on a bikepacking traverse of this wild, remote, and desolate sub-arctic island nation.
Fortunately, as island weather tends to do, it moves on quickly, and the following morning is calm with the sun even making an effort to break through. My Surly ECR, a steel 29er with 3″ tyres, is built and loaded up with everything I will hopefully need for 12 days in the wilderness, including 36 dehydrated meals, the only food which I’m carrying with me. The weather window looks good, with no major storms predicted for the next five days, at least, and light winds for the time being. It’s time to roll and make good ground while I can. Iceland has already given me a taste of its brutality; there’s no way I want to be stuck in a storm like yesterday’s in the volcanic wastelands that await. While my gear is pretty good, winds like that would easily blow my tent apart and leave me completely exposed to the elements.
Once my tyres are finally turning, any doubts disappear and I quickly settle into that ever-familiar rhythm. It feels so good, and just like that, life becomes simple again. All I need to do for the next couple of weeks is ride, eat, find somewhere to sleep, and repeat.
Fifty kilometres of smooth tarmac in, on the south coast of the volcanic Reykjanes Peninsula, I come over a rise to see many hundreds of vehicles parked in grids in the midst of an old lava field. It’s a surreal sight of shiny new rental vehicles against the dark black lava. A bulldozer is making additional parks for cars as they arrive. A stream of people, five abreast, walk inland on a newly made hiking trail, all off to see Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction right now: the Fagradalsfjall volcano, which started erupting just two weeks ago. From a distance, the trail looks rideable, so I turn off and start weaving through the tourists. None of the many officials managing the crowd seem interested in stopping me, so I carry on pedaling, and before long I’m climbing steadily on the eight-kilometre access trail surrounded by thousands of hikers.
An an hour or so later, after some steep technical riding and rather a lot of pushing over large boulders, the volcano comes into view I can’t help but gasp. Nothing could have prepared me for the scene that lay before me. Neon-orange magma is fountaining into the sky. The intensity of the colour is astounding. I find a spot to myself and absorb the scene over a cup of coffee. This is better than any campfire, and I get lost gazing into the lava for much of the afternoon.
After weaving back down through the still-increasing crowd, I’m back on the coastal road and heading east, eventually finding a quiet and free campsite by the ocean at the end of a long but incredible first day. The sky is red, and having forgotten an eye mask, I wrap my travel towel round my head and go to sleep in the 20ish hours of daylight. My dreams are full of engine noise, and when I awake at 3 a.m., the sun streaming into the tent, I find myself surrounded by nearly 100 vehicles that have arrived during the night. Tents, cars, campers, trucks… these must be volcano tourists who have been up to see Fagradalsfjall in the few hours of darkness, where the glow of the lava makes the scene even more spectacular. The wind is light from the west, so it’s a quick breakfast and back on the traffic-free road before anyone else has even stirred, the start of a pattern I will continue for the rest of my journey.
Late on day two, after following easy backroads along the rural south coast, I finally veer inland on my first of many F-roads, a designation given to interior roads that require a 4×4 vehicle and may require river crossings. Many of these roads are only open a few months of the year during summer, when they are free of snow and ice. Instantly, the masses of tourists are gone, and I’m alone with the road, following the northern banks of the braided Markarfljót River. It’s getting late, my legs are tiring, and the dark clouds inform me a downpour is near, just as I spot an enormous cave to my left. It’s a dream campsite—a surprise find—and I pitch my tent inside the cave as the heavens open.
After a short climb on day three, I’m surrounded by epic volcanic scenery and the vibrant contrasting colours Iceland is renowned for. Fluorescent green mosses cover dark volcanic peaks topped with white snow; it’s a captivating mix that entices photographers to Iceland from all over the world. Besides an arctic fox crossing the road, I see no other wildlife. I pass a deep river canyon lined with these mosses before joining the Laugavegur Trail, a popular four-day trek, and once again humans appear amongst the landscape. All this foot traffic appears to be heading south, so I am going against the flow. I get a lot of comments, mostly along the lines of “You’re crazy to bike this!” but for now the meandering singletrack is great riding. I cross my first glacial river, which is only thigh deep but extremely cold, and a friendly French hiker films my crossing before air-dropping the file to me across the river so I can include it in my film. A fine use of technology in this remote wilderness.
30km’s in the trail soon becomes an epic. It heads straight up the side of a steep valley and I’m pushing, pulling, heaving my heavy bike up the loose and slippery surface. Three steps up, slide two steps back, it’s slow progress but it’s still progress and the thirst for adventure is ramping up. Bemused hikers stare at me and there are many humorous interactions. Even though it’s painful progress at no stage is this Type 2, I’m loving every minute. The landscape becomes more actively volcanic and the colours become more varied. Steam pours from the ground and the warm, clammy silt clogs my chain to make riding almost impossible and multiple cleaning stops are required. At the top of the pass there’s a hikers hut but no water is available, which I need to make a much needed and very late lunch, so I roll off down the the other side on steep, technical single-track into Landmannalaugar, hungry and exhausted after a massive day.
It’s another 3 a.m. start as I roll quietly out of another busy campground as the sun breaks the horizon. The combination of light winds and the golden hour in this magnificent landscape make this some of the most spectacular riding I have ever experienced. Despite the hundreds of vehicles parked at Landmannalaugar, I don’t see another vehicle for the next five hours. When I hit the Sprengisandsleið Road (F26), one of two main routes across the interior, a northerly starts building, which won’t stop until long after my ride is complete. Heading into the wind across some of the most desolate, flat terrain I’ve ever seen, my progress becomes slower and slower until I’m in my granny gear grinding away at six kilometres per hour for hours on end. There’s nothing to hide behind, no escape from the wind, and a constant roar in my ears. Late in the afternoon, I see my first humans for the day, two British hikers crossing the country on foot. With the wind on their backs, they were doing an impressive 30-mile day. They shared their experience of the recent storm, during which they took refuge for a few hours in a small emergency shelter during the peak of it to avoid getting sandblasted.
The early morning starts are essential now as it seems the wind is somewhat lighter in the first few hours of daylight. I make good ground when I can and rest when it gets too much. The Icelandic dictionary has 156 entries for describing wind, so I always expected wind would be a major factor on this adventure. It’s in the midst of day five, at perhaps the most remote point of my adventure, on the northern edge of Vatnajökull, that I meet the only other bikepackers I will meet on this journey, a friendly couple from Germany riding south at a more moderate pace. It’s really nice to talk to people again, and we share our experiences of the river crossings to come, one of the big unknowns on these routes, that can quickly change your plans.
I’ve transitioned now from a rocky desert to landscape of old lava, with a sandy track weaving through. It’s dark, desolate, and utterly spectacular, like a moonscape but forever changing every few minutes. The lava forms an endless array of sculptures. I’m armed with only my iPhone for photography, but probably just as well, as should I have had my SLR, I fear my progress would stall. I would get completely lost in my art here. When the rain starts falling again I’m already at Kistufell Hut, removing the large wooden shutters and firing up the gasoline stove. Iceland SAR provide and maintain this basic shelter in this remote wilderness for anyone passing through. It’s a fantastic opportunity to dry out, escape the wind, and enjoy a comfortable a night’s sleep.
A fog has descended overnight, and visibility is only a few metres as I leave the warmth of Kistufell behind me. It’s a technical descent from the hut over rocky moraine and progress is slow. I lose the trail several times in the fog, and my GPS becomes essential for finding it again. After an hour, the moraine transitions to sand flats. It’s great riding! Thick fog and smooth, hardpacked flat sand. There’s been a lot of rain in the north recently, so this may have compacted the sand more than usual. I decide to alter my route and head northwest across more sand to pass east of Askja volcano and depart the highlands on F88, which runs north.
After an eerie four hours of smooth riding on sand, much to my surprise a police truck appears out of the fog. The truck stops and two young women get out.
“How are you?” One of the officers asks in perfect English.
“Tired,” I reply.
“I’m not surprised. Where are you from?”
“New Zealand,” I say. “A long way from home.”
“What on earth are you doing here?” She laughs as the other joins in.
It’s a question I thought about a lot as I carried on riding on progressively softer sand. What am I doing here? Why do something like this? Eventually I realised there was not one answer to that question, but a number of reasons. For an adventure, a physical challenge, a test of survival, to plan, peruse maps and navigate, reconnect with nature, enjoy the fun of photography, and to spend time alone in the wilderness.
The sand was really soft now, and riding is becoming hard work. My three-inch tyres are paying dividends, and fortunately I am never forced to walk. When I pull up at Dreki, a hut and ranger station under the Dyngjufjöll Mountains, I am exhausted yet again. I lean my bike against a picnic table, set up my stove, and begin boiling some water for lunch. Sometime during this, a 4×4 bus turns up and around 15 Italians disembark and line up at the toilet. One man ventures over to me, generally interested in my bike and where I’d come from. When he learns that I’ve almost crossed Iceland, he becomes rather animated.
“Would you like a banana!?” He asks excitedly. “I have one on the bus, I will get it for you!” he says and runs off towards the vehicle. His speed catches the attention of the group, and they all witness his presentation and addition of a banana to my small bag of food. “He’s a Kiwi and biking across Iceland!” the man shouts. Soon all the Italians are fossicking around in the bus for any spare food they can find, and before long the picnic table is covered in cookies, crackers, chocolate bars, chocolate and a big wheel of cheese! A lot of ‘grazie’s and few minutes later, the Italians are gone and I am once again alone in the desert. Needless to say I enjoy a long lunch.
The weather was worsening, and the headwind and fog are now joined by heavy rain. Halfway along the bony F88 is a small unattended campground, and I roll in, wet and cold, past the only vehicle in sight, an RV on enormous tyres. I wave at the two kids smiling at me through the window and set off to pitch my tent. Shortly afterwards, a young man approaches and invites me into the RV for a home-cooked dinner with his family. Wet, cold, and shower-less for a week now, I step into their beautiful self-made vehicle and share stories with these complete strangers over a delicious dinner. This young couple had recently arrived in Iceland and planned to be here for a few months of exploration with their two young children. From their large solar array, they charge my devices while feeding me endless hot cups of tea. This was certainly a day of enjoying the interactions and generosity of fellow travellers.
The final 60 kilometers of the rocky F88 were pretty grueling. I had to negotiate a couple of deep river crossings, and the wet north wind was still persisting and progress was slow. There was no elation when I intersected the sealed Ring Road six hours after packing up camp, technically completing my crossing. I was just cold, wet, and exhausted.
My intended route was to cross over the Ring Road, the busy highway that circumnavigates Iceland, and head north to the coast pass Dettifoss, a spectacular and powerful waterfall I’ve visited a couple of times on past travels, following another dirt track. I contemplate this as I cook lunch on the side of the highway in the heavy rain and strong gale, sheltering behind a large road sign and nestled between piles of toilet paper as an endless line of cars belted past (this is my rock-bottom moment). I look up at the sign, which read “Mývatn – 24km”. Mývatn… the name sounded familiar. I let my mind wander back through the years and my past travels in Iceland, where I’ve worked on small ships along the north coast. Mývatn… that’s a thermal area with incredible hot pools! Dettifoss was officially cancelled. I wolf down my lunch and head west on the silky-smooth tarmac before plunging into the 40˚C turquoise waters of the Mývatn nature baths where I remain immersed for the rest of the afternoon.
I awake to the haunting call of a loon across Lake Mývatn, a sound I had not heard for many years but have always remembered well. It’s raining lightly and there is little wind. It’s 3 a.m. again, time to go. With only 100 kilometres of tarmac left to my final destination of Akureyri, the capital of the north, I’m hopeful this could be a relatively easy day.
I spend the first 40 kilometres in a gloomy fog, without seeing a car or any of the landscape around me. When I pull up at Goðafoss, yet another one of Iceland’s spectacular waterfalls, I’m equally interested in the Goðafoss Cafe that is just about to open. After a quick visit to the waterfall’s viewing platform, I am devouring multiple chocolate donuts and hot-chocolates adorned with whipped-cream. I can’t have been in there too long, but the scene outside changed dramatically. When I roll back onto the highway, it is directly into yet another gale and heavy horizontal rain.
The final push to Akureyri was the only time I entered Type-2 fun on the crossing. While I didn’t mind all the grinding into the gales, the crosswinds on a mountain pass near the end were terrifying. On more than one occasion, I was blown completely across the highway into the path of oncoming traffic, narrowly avoiding an accident. The final run into Akureyri was 20 kilometres with the wind along the southern shores of Eyjafjörður fjord. It was exhilarating, and I was absolutely flying in the strongest tail wind of my life. Needless to say, I was relieved to finally pull into Akureyri, check into a guesthouse, dry out everything I had with me, and spend the evening soaking in another hot spring.
All country busses in Iceland have bike racks, so the following day I caught a ride back to Reykjavik for a few sunny days in the capital before heading home. These quiet days were helpful to process the journey. Extremely tough but incredibly rewarding, this 777-kilometre ride was a grand adventure and one that I’ll always look back on with a smile on my face. To spend a week alone in a vast wilderness by oneself is something I would recommend to everyone, and I feel immersed in an overwhelming pool of gratitude for having the opportunity to complete this spectacular journey.
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