In 1871, the famed poet and socialist William Morris decided to leave London behind for what the English then considered simply ‘the edge of the map.’ Morris and a few comrades packed their bags, caught a train, and set out for Iceland.
In his now-famous travel diary, he notes that, if we travel to escape ourselves, we find it difficult to leave ourselves behind. This is especially true of the British. Upon his arrival in Reykjavík, Morris encountered a fellow Englishman who, after three weeks sailing to get there, wandered around downtown in the rain and then took the next boat back to England.
I, too, am guilty of this. Despite having visited the country eight times in five years, I’ve never travelled north of Bifröst or east of Jökulsárlón. Because in Iceland, the car is king, and without wheels, I found it hard to leave Reykjavík.
Not this time. This time, I would go beyond cars.
All aboard the 57
When the Stræto 57 bus to Akureyri rolls into Mjódd, its majesty is near-blinding. Big, yellow, and blue in all the right places: now this is a BUS, here to eclipse you with its massive headlights and its all-caps. The Stræto #57 is a beast, ready to huff and puff you to Akranes and beyond.
It is also glacially slow. Serving as a public ‘country bus,’ it takes six and a half hours to get to Akureyri, versus four hours by car. This makes for an authentic cultural experience, in which one can witness firsthand precisely how unimpressed locals are by the jaw-dropping landscapes outside the windows.
Without needing to pay attention to the road, though, one can lose oneself as a passenger in the land. The lava fields steer you effortlessly towards those distant mountains, growing ever closer until finally, the fjords rise up around you.
Four legs good, two legs bad
It’s hard to see how anyone could have ever survived on this island before cars—and without horses, they wouldn’t have. Before the roads and engines took over, Iceland was conquered by horses. They’re still one of the more reliable modes of transport available today, capable of traversing the terrain better than any 4×4.
Our crisp morning ride through the valley surrounding Akureyri is the polar opposite of the bus journey. You become a rider instead of a passenger, navigating the land in dialogue with another sentient being. In my case, it’s a wobbly dialogue.
“I’ve been riding Icelandic horses for years,” says Elena, our guide. “They’re pretty… special.” A lifelong horserider, she moved here from Germany to work for Hestaleigan Kátur, a horseback tour company based in the valley by Akureyri.
Elena explains that the horses share an important connection with the land, and that their riders follow them through the seasons. Every Autumn, Elena packs beers into her saddlesack and joins 3,000 other riders for the annual Laufskálarétt round-up—by all accounts, a rather debaucherous weekend spent rounding up herds of wild horses from their Highland pastures, and one I am resolutely unqualified to ever participate in.
Settled in the 9th century, Akureyri is built around the natural harbour at the end of Eyjafjörður. With 60km of water, the fjord is vast, lined by mountains that run all the way to the ocean. It‘s exactly the kind of place that is begging to be sliced up by a speedboat.
The express tour, with local guides Elding Whale Watching Akureyri, gives you the opportunity to do exactly that. Steered by Iceland‘s first female whale-watching captain, the Sólfar is a small, high-speed RIB boat designed specifically to get up close and personal with the local whale and cetacean population. Encounters with humpbacks and porpoises are frequent, while minke and even blue whales are known to swing by on occasion.
The boat shoots towards the mouth of the fjord like a bullet, riding over the waves. When we’re far enough out, the engine is switched off, and we fall into searching silence. A flash of a fin turns out to be a wave in the corner of my eye. It‘s a waiting game, until finally…
Training wheels off
They say that progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle. They’ve clearly never fallen off a fat bike into a snowdrift.
Situated between Lake Myvatn and the geothermal area of Hverir, Reykjahlíð—population 300—boasts the infrastructure of a much larger town. Along with several hotels, a school, nature baths, and a municipal pool, the villagers rarely get bored. That’s partly thanks to the presence of tour groups like Myvatn Activity, who in their own words, get to “do all the fun stuff.”
The fun stuff, it turns out, includes ‘fat bikes’. These are mountain bikes with wide tyres and reinforced frames, specially constructed with the goal of allowing riders to basically cycle over anything. Once in the saddle, our guide Ragnar leads us through the nearby lava fields—home to an underground bakery, the Myvatn Nature Baths, and Iceland’s first geothermal power generator. Pointing toward the lineage of saunas and steam baths, Ragnar explains that without geothermal power it would be “impossible” to live here.
The fat bikes handle the black, steaming terrain with ease, but on the way back, an overambitious move sends me head-over-heels into a snowdrift. “Are you okay?” asks Ragnar, laughing. “Good thing we got you to sign those liability forms.”
Final flight: chariots of fire
“If you’ve driven a car before, it’s more or less the same thing,” says Dori of Amazing North as he hands me the keys to a bright red, Mad Max-style monstrosity. With a roar of the engine, we race down into the rift valley, kicking up clouds of black dust in our wake.
Life without a car can make you feel powerless in this landscape. As you venture deeper and deeper into the volcanic ridge that stretches 60km from the ocean, through Myvatn, and into the Highlands, a 4×4 dune buggy gives you an acute power over the land. Behind the wheel, nothing can best you.
The motorcar is, and perhaps always will be, the undisputed king of this island. It’s with this bittersweet sense of scale and freedom that my pentathlon across the North came to a juddering halt.
On his homeward train journey, Morris remarked on ‘what a little way it is’ from Edinburgh to London. “I thought the houses and the horses looked so disproportionately big for the landscape that it all looked like a scene at a theatre.” As I roll along the rails back to London, like Morris, all I feel is a sense of disproportion.