AM to PM: Spending the longest day in Iceland

Summer Solstice in June means loads of warm weather and daylight to go riding in. But what happens when you go to a place where the sun never sets? 24hrs of non-stop riding in Iceland

You know when you’re tired when you’re hallucinating while you ride. And right now I’m far too tired to be sliding a dirtbike sideways at 80mph on cinder roads in the absolute middle of nowhere. To my left is a glacier, a mountainous sheet of ice some 20 miles across. To my right, as far as the eye can see, is a lava field, craggy, endless and unforgiving. It’s 1am, and from under storm clouds the reddish-pink of the sun is visible. If there were birds on this Martian landscape, they’d be singing.

But nothing lives up here apart from the odd hardy plant and the moss that covers most things in Iceland. So as I look to my right and see horses and sheep grazing on 3,000 year-old lava crops, I smile inside. “Silly horses,” I say. “You’re not there. I know you’re not.” I blink and the horses turn into rocks the size of a Mini and the sheep into dirty lumps of snow. After 10 hours in the saddle and a hideously drunken night before, it would appear this country’s finally getting to me.

Getting to Iceland (population: 300,000) is simplicity itself. Hop on a plane in London and get off just three hours later. Everyone speaks English and, as I make my way through Keflavik airport, I’m amazed at how light it is at 11pm. It’s not even twilight. I’m met by Njall Gunnlaugsson and Eythor Orlygsson from Biking Viking (pronounced Wyking), one of Iceland’s leading bike adventure outfits. “Good timing,” says Njall, shaking my hand enthusiastically. “We had a good earthquake just yesterday – 4.6 on the Richter scale – and are looking forward to more. Tomorrow we will go earthquake hunting!” Not having experienced the ground moving before, this sounds bang up my street. I change £200 at the travel exchange and they give me 30,000KR in return. This sounds like a lot; I am soon to learn that it isn’t.

Get to my hotel for 12.30am, close the curtains, hop into bed and close my eyes. 30 minutes later I’m back up out of bed and using anything I can lay my hands on to board-up the windows. The feeble yellow curtains do nothing to stop the sunlight streaming into the room. I shower, get dressed, go for a walk – and then realise there’s another five hours before even breakfast is served.

From Biking Wyking’s HQ in an industrial estate in downtown Reykjavik we thread through town on a mix of BMWs; Eythor (our guide) on the tiddly 650X Cross Country, myself on Njall’s gloriously light and outrageous HP2 and Hjortur Jonsson on a F650GS. Even after three days and despite endless attempts I couldn’t remember or pronounce Hjortur’s first name. Lovely bloke with a pipe clamped almost permanently between crooked teeth and a 1961 leather motorcycling helmet as his favourite hat, but I had to circumnavigate his name at all times. It’s 12 degrees as we head off for our adventure at precisely 2km/h under the speed limit. “We’re pretty relaxed over here,” says Eythor. “There’s not many police but we’re in no rush, we just take things easy until we get to the good roads.” As an 18-wheeler grinds past uphill I set my jaw, resist the temptation to give the Beemer a handful and do as I’m told.

They filmed the invasion scenes of Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers on Iceland’s beaches due to its black, volcanic sand. That’s where we’re headed today as we split off the main road and onto the rough stuff. The HP2 pricks its ears up and gets stuck in, blasting its rear tyre sideways at every opportunity while the long-travel suspension makes a mockery of the rocks and potholes.

To cut a lap of the island is 1,000 miles, but we’re on a tight schedule and our playground is the south-west corner. The scenery is vast, flat and open, dotted with purple flowers in the odd place and lava rocks everywhere else. “All our hot water comes from underground,” says Eythor as we pass steaming sulphuric holes in the ground. “It bubbles up at 300 degrees, is cooled down to 81 degrees, and is pumped to all the houses.” How much is your monthly heating bill? “Less than £150 for the whole year.” Bloody hell – no wonder everything else is so expensive.

The parts of Iceland that aren’t icy are generally smoking and smell of eggs. I rather like eggs, even stinky ones, and therefore ride around with ravenous hunger in my belly. We reach Clint’s beach and – joy of joys – are allowed to blast up and down on the deep black sand. Only it’s so deep and so black that the bikes’ trail tyres are fighting a losing battle and, like the US Marines who fought and died in February 1945, one by one we drop like flies. Difference being that for us it’s all just a bit of harmless fun.

Riding on the 417 past the Blafjoll mountains, the side-wind is like nothing else I’ve ridden through. The winds are horizontal and easily over 60mph as they blast bike and rider off the road. I had to stop twice as I headed straight for the 20ft embankment, laughing insanely in my helmet as the gusts got their shoulder right into the HP2 and tried their best to derail us. Stopping for pictures, I had to lean back with my full weight on the BMW to stop it being blown over its sidestand. The trick to riding in these conditions is to stick your knee out and hang off like you’re about to boss a roundabout, and lean the bike into the wind. We cap the day by watching the start of a six-hour enduro that doesn’t finish until midnight. It’s a peculiar sight, 100 motocross bikes carving up the side of a melted glacier. When it comes to off-road, these guys have got it covered.

That Saturday night Reykjavik wrecks us. Charged by the power of Jagermeister (not my idea) we wind up in a nightclub and get stuck in. Matilda, the barmaid, is outrageously pretty and with three Jagers in my stomach, I crack onto her in confident spirits. The force is strong within me, and I go dancing with a couple of blondes. Then another shot, and perhaps a few more, to build upon the warm base of confidence flowing through my veins. But the trouble with Jagermeister is that it takes you up to the top of the mountain, makes you feel king of the hill, and then pushes you straight over the edge. Laughing. My hosts watch in horror as I’m transformed from an engaging Englishman rediscovering his way with the ladies into a slavering, sweating wreck incapable of speaking normally and showering people in spittle and nonsense.

My demise is as pathetic as it is woeful. I remember snogging some bird up against the wall, trying to sweet talk her back to mine, and sliding off the edge of my seat. I ask Matilda where I can buy some weed, who just looks at me with the most disgusted expression I’ve seen in five years. I get into an argument with one of the bouncers who says he was stationed in Ramadi, Iraq.

Having spent five weeks there as a photo-journalist in 2007 I challenge his claims and an excruciating game of “prove you were there, then” takes place in front of his chums. Who then ask me to leave. By the time I get into a cab at 5am, I have no idea where I am or what the name of the hotel is. “Itsh by a lake, big bashtard lake,” I gurgle, slumped in the back seat and spinning out. “Ah – Kriunes!” says the taxi driver. I hand over my last £40 and she drives me the seven minute ride home.

I come round at 2pm with a fire alarm hammering nails into the back of my head, sprawled on the floor fully clothed. That was a bloody good night. Shower, hold down a sandwich, and call Njall. “Hallo?” says a broken voice on the phone. “I am very unwell. I cannot move.” Njall’s out of the game, it would seem. Up to Biking Wyking where Eythor and Hjortur openly laugh. “This evening we ride all night,” says Eythor. “Are you sure you can do this?” We strap on our gear and prepare to head out for a 400km loop; we don’t even start until 5pm, but in the country where it never gets dark, time really isn’t an issue.

It’s cold, seven degrees and spitting rain as we head out on June 21st, Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. The cold air cuts through my hangover like a knife and in no time my head clears. We ride in a silent column on the road, passing geysers, hot springs, boiling mud and crashing waterfalls. Strangely, these do not interest me today; it’s the purifying fix of riding exhausted all night that I’m looking for. At Pingvellir people are scuba-diving between the American and European continental plates in the clearest waters in the world.

“Lake Pingvallavatn’s waters are filtered for 30 years,” says Eythor as we chat to two girls battling with the complexities of a drysuit for the first time. Consequently, the water is completely pure and visibility is in excess of 120 metres as you dive to 25 metres between us and the USA. “We dive all year round,” says the divemaster, “except in winter it’s actually warmer in the water than it is out here. And the water’s only 2 degrees!” It’s 8pm as we sweep northwards towards the sleeping ice giant that is Langjokull glacier, our goal for the night. Storm clouds bubble ominously overhead. But the weather changes so quick in Iceland that we pay them no heed.

From Pingvellir to Haukadalur is easy going, winding past open grasslands on the right and mountain ranges on the left. I’m desperate to get stuck into some gravel roads, and a vertical hill-climb beckons just off the road, but the lads are reticent. “People think of Iceland as a giant off-road playground where you can ride and drive where you want,” says Hjortur. “But the environment here is very fragile and we are careful of where we tread.” But it’s just rock, I counter. What’s so delicate about that? “Things take a long time to grow here. Such a long time.” And with that we wheel north-west, off the tarmac and into black volcanic gravel.

It’s like the dirty brown deserts of the Middle East, except without the rubbish. It’s 10pm and we could be on the surface of another planet, a mix of black sand, black skies and brown rocks giving it an otherworldly feel. It feels like we’re at 15,000ft in the Himalayas but we’re only 750 metres above sea level as we stop to rest at a hiking shelter full of dead flies and empty Brennevin bottles. I read the guest book; “been here for two days now…snow and ice…Iceland is amazing.” I write an entry of my own. The silence around us is oppressive, there’s nothing here but the wind. And the curious sucking noise of Hjortur’s pipe. If you had a battered Mitsubishi Evo on long-travel suspension you could rip through this moonscape in excess of 100mph; we progress at a more sedate 40.

The track ends abruptly in the most barren snowmobile station I’ve ever seen, two-dozen Ski-doos parked next to an empty Nissen hut on the edge of Langjokull glacier. It’s like Ice Station Zebra. With just minutes to midnight, the clouds lift and the sky is flooded with blue light. The compacted snow stretches away into the cloudbase and I’ve never been more anxious to ride into the unknown.

I’m not a religious man, but if the stairway to heaven looks something like this then that’s alright by me. It’s calling, I need to be up there. But the HP2’s slick trail tyres have all the bite of a gumless puppy on the broken ice and it’s a lost cause. The Lord will have to wait. At 12.05am I’m stood in freezing temperatures on the longest day of the year in broad daylight on the side of a glacier. As the icy wind tries to blast through our riding gear, I take pictures (no flash required) and the three of us pose to commemorate the moment. It’s not quite like conquering Everest, but it’s peculiarly satisfying nonetheless.

A three-hour ride awaits as we prepare to head off the glacier and back through the Mercurian landscape. The others wait as I strap my camera gear back on. “Don’t wait, I’ll catch you up” I yell over the wind. They nod their consent and disappear into the lava. All alone in the absolute middle of nowhere – fantastic. 10 minutes later I climb aboard the HP2 and, for the next half-hour, ride as fast as bloody possible across the cinder. It’s lonely, dangerous and thrilling, the bike sliding and leaping as my exhaustion fades. What a unique, wonderful place this is...

How to get there

My BMW HP2 was supplied by the excellent chaps at Biking Viking. Their website contains prices and details of all their organised tours. They have seven bikes to rent, all new-spec Beemers, and have been operating for 10 years so know every corner of this bizarre place. Best times of year to visit are May and August, when the weather is at its best. Icelandair fly twice a day out of Heathrow, and a return flight typically costs £350. Expect to pay £60 per night for accommodation. Check out: