Well my hunch was correct – Magne did indeed save the best for last. Back in April 2010, Iceland had a massive volcanic eruption that halted all air travel over Europe. I recall it quite well since I had just arrived in the Philippines and I was a little concerned about getting home. The volcano was the barely-pronounceable Eyjafjallajokull and it was the location for our final ride.
One great thing about Iceland is how small the community is. For example, when Magne first picked me from my guesthouse almost a week ago, he had a long friendly chat with the host. It turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of his from almost 20 years back. And on the way to the volcano ride, he ran into a farmer who sold much of her rapeseed oil to his mom for her homemade cosmetics.
Also on the way to the volcano ride, we stopped in at an unassuming building on the side of the road that runs a film about the 2010 eruption. But unlike a standard documentary that just gives you the facts about the event, the film was made from the perspective of the family of farmers who live right at the base of the volcano. They had turned this otherwise destructive event into a tidy little business. The best part was, the farm that was the setting for the film is just across the road. So when we were heading out, we looked into the fields and the star of the film was there on his tractor, tending his fields with his dog, who also made some hilarious cameo appearances in the film.
Calling it a volcano ride is a bit of a misnomer. The volcano itself rests under a massive glacier, and the erupting lava flowed up over the ancient ice, sometimes cutting deep channels into it, and sometimes cooling and hardening on top. So although the hardened lava rock looks stable, no one really knows whats underneath or whether the rock will collapse into hollow chambers where the ice has melted our from beneath. Because of this, the area is off-limits. In 2010 Top Gear drove some highly modified trucks up here to collect a fresh piece of lava, much to the ire of the government. Not only is driving off-road on land is not allowed, but the added weight of the truck could have caused a deadly collapse.
We began our ride with a 10km or so pedal up a gravel road that wound upwards just a few kms west of the volcanic summit, in an area that would’ve been a blackened hell on earth with ash and glowing hot rock raining down, and poisonous sulfuric gases choking your every breath. For us, it was a benign sunny day with great views out to the ocean, making it difficult to grasp such a stark difference. Still, when the winds picked up, the remnants of the fine ash were whipped into the air, making it hazy like a summer day in LA.
When we got to the top we had a quick lunch in the barren lava fields before dropping into a singletrack that followed a raging creek down toward the valley. Like many Icelandic rivers, it tumbled over many falls on the way down, through a deep canyon that offers plenty of photo opportunities. But unlike many Icelandic rivers, the water was dyed a chalky brown color from the high ash content, almost like a river of chocolate milk from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
The eruption wasn’t entirely devastating though. While some areas were buried under tons and tons of freshly formed rubble, other areas were actually quite well fertilized by the mineral-rich ash. The farm at the base of the volcano has had a couple of bumper harvests and the hillsides and meadows on the sides of the canyon, moistened by the constant mist from the falls, are lush with bright green grasses and mosses. This, combined with the stark black lava rock of the canyon, and the bizarre rock formations that erosion has created over centuries, makes for some incredible scenery, the likes of which just don’t exist in north America.
The trail back down was equally incredible, packed smooth by the hikers who frequent the area. We had tough but enviable decisions to make – ripping the singletrack in long unbroken sections, or stopping at every turn of the canyon to ogle the new shapes and scenery as they came into view. Grazing sheep punctuate the hillsides. Green haired troll heads emerge in the canyon where the rock has worn to a narrow spire. Icelandic hikers cheer us on as we speed by, since mountain biking is still a bit of an oddity here. It was a ride so full of win that the group got fairly divided up, all drawn in different directions excitedly like Icelandic kids in a dried fish store.
But all good things must come to an end, such is life. We rolled down the last steep pitch to the flat valley below, where the last waterfall pounds the flat earth and raises a thick spray hundreds of feet into the air. As we rode into the soaking mist, we could barely see the other side and the suns rays created circular rainbows that danced around us in a disorienting but intensely epiphanal way. It really was quite a sublime ending to an amazing week of riding.
Beers were had by all. In fact, we had a few. And just to add one more layer of icing to an already brain cavity inducing ride, there was a small shack selling locally made Icelandic hotdogs – a simple treat that hit the nail on the head. The 1 hour drive back to Reykjavik – with an orange sunset setting the fields of wheat and farmhouses aglow, with a satisfied belly full of beer and meat, with astounding images still being etched into my memory – is yet another fantastic element of this trip that has been a raging success.
I’m back at Magne and Maria’s place right now, sitting by their stream, having to shoo away the ducks and chickens that keep coming by to try to peck at me if I sit still for too long. They have been amazing hosts, welcoming guests into their home like family, and I hope that one day I can return their hospitality. Tomorrow is Menningarnott, the annual culture day in Reykjavik, and it’s just a lucky coincidence that I have a free day tomorrow before I fly home on Sunday.
For me, there’s nothing like going home. But taking with the memories of an amazing trip like this makes it that much sweeter.