The Spaniard boomed with laughter, I said we’d already camped one night but he just continued to chuckle while complimenting me on my choice of music on the iPod.
Metallica’s live performance with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra boomed out as we watched Thor’s right riffle off under a light offshore wind. Pedro was originally from the Costa Del Sol of all places; he’d got together with an Icelandic chick and the rest, as they say, is history.
Aaron, being the typical hospitable Ozzie offered us the use of his shower whenever we wanted it and the boys also pointed us in the direction of an excellent soup-selling establishment, a food group that was going to become a staple in the next couple of weeks, along with the obligatory Icelandic coffee. Undeterred by the local crew’s amusement at our planned life under canvas we trundled off for our second night in front of a little reef break on the south coast, we were quietly happy, it appeared we’d turned up on the day of the year so far in Iceland, things were looking good.
They did have a point though, why were we camping in Iceland in April? It wasn’t even a question that crossed our minds though, we wanted an experience, a proper surfing adventure, and where better to have it? Iceland is Europe’s only true wilderness rich country, millions of acres of land untouched by man, in fact so inhospitable that man has no chance of touching them in the future either. Most of Iceland’s coastline is also inaccessible making it a surfing wilderness, a true frontier in a world with few frontiers left.
We camped on this bend in a river; mountains lined the skyline to the north, the endless horizon of the North Atlantic to the south, a tranquil moment indeed.
But this wouldn’t be enough for us, we didn’t want to be voyeurs on a wilderness, sitting in an apartment in a fully serviced city for a couple of weeks, no, we wanted to be part of it, hence camping was the only option. With no campsites open for a couple of months we were roughing it, pitching up in front of surf living the, albeit cold, dream. We were prepared, an expidition tent, sleeping bags that could handle -20 to -50 degrees centigrade and a burning desire to find some waves.
We were also hooking up with Californian Timmy Turner who was joining us to continue filming for his next movie Cold Thoughts. With him from the west side of the pond was Josh Mulcoy, mid-town Santa Cruz style master, east coast ripper Sam Hammer, Water magazine staff photog Chris Burkard and Men’s Journal writer Thayer Walker. An eclectic crew to say the least, but appropriate for the location as Iceland is split right down the middle by the North Atlantic ridge leaving the Viking nation straddling North America and Europe.
To score this wave this clean, really was unusual, Ian, Thor’s right.
Camping means getting up early with the light and going to sleep late, good when you’re searching for waves. After the first surf at Thor’s right we spent the first five days scouring the coastline for reefs and slabs. It didn’t take too long before we’d found some either, one we think had been surfed before but a couple more that definitely hadn’t. We spent a few days at these slabs, one right-hander which was a bit random served up a gaping barrel, a left which looked like it needed a bit more swell and a wedgey, bowling right which was one of the most fun set-ups I’ve ever seen.
Some shots just say, damn cold…. Ian after a freezing session a few miles from the Artic Circle.
The boys took on the first slab with little success; the bowly right was a different story though. It was a sweet little wave; sets would swing wide of the top end of the reef then wedge on the inside, providing hollow rip-able bowls. We surfed and camped in front of the waves, a barren spot but even when the drizzle turned to rain we stayed out around a roaring fire roasting potatoes and drying wetties between surfs. Josh, Ian and Sam all got a few good pits over the couple of days but as the swell dropped away we were all left wondering what could be if we had more size on it.
We wanted an experience, a proper surfing adventure, and where better to have it? Iceland is Europe’s only true wilderness rich country.
Being up for 18 hours a day due to the light would be tiring if Iceland didn’t have an obsession with coffee. When you look at the hard facts it’s a wonder the country ever gets any sleep. The average Icelander consumes around 12 kilos of the stuff each year, to put that into perspective the average Brit swills back 1.9 kilos. That’s a serious amount, so why does a nation that is situated miles from the native environment of the bean love it so? It’s not even a new fad, way before Starbucks, of which Iceland has none (its weak mud water would be laughed at up here), coffee was a major part of society. In the 18th century most farmhouses had a coffee grinder, inviting neighbours over for coffee was a big deal. It was a bit of a status symbol back then too, the better the bean you had the better off you were, a good coffee back then equalled respect. Then there’s the light, in winter it never gets properly light so you need it to get going, in the summer it never gets properly dark so you need it to keep going! The third reason is alcohol, the Icelanders had a ban on beer and most other drinks until 1989 and still now it is ridiculously expensive. They have the lowest consumption of alcohol in the whole of Europe because of this, so obviously they had to find another stimulant, and coffee was it.
Fires kept us going on the cold days and nights; the smoke was the only problem.
Fortunately for us we slotted in well with this, coffee fuelled the goose chase, from early morning starts to hours spent in coffee shops checking the Internet for swell, coffee was the common factor. It is bloody good stuff too, strong, well roasted and almost always with all you can drink refills. It was during one of these prolonged chart checks that we spotted the north swell. The south coast was looking poor, a couple of weak pulses but nothing major. The north of the country though wasn’t a place to be taken lightly, sure we’d been camping in some rocky places and a couple of nights had been a bit chilly, but we were heading into an area that would already be snowy and there was a fair dump forecasted for the next few days.
If someone showed you this line-up and said it was in Indo you’d probably accept it, you couldn’t be much further from the truth though, Thor’s right.
The drive up was a blast, Iceland has damn good roads, even over the final set of mountain passes with thick fog and six feet snow drifts each side the road was good, and blasting along with Pendulum on the stereo and 10 yards’ visibility was intense to say the least. The north was a whole new experience; this was serious frontier country, and not just for surf, but for life. Barren lava fields were puckered with snowdrifts making it uninhabitable for miles; towns and villages cling to little coves where there is only just room for a fishing port. Other than that there are just a few scattered farms, mostly looking after the legendary Viking horses, hardy, beautiful beasts which seem capable of putting up with any weather conditions. The coastline was remote and unforgiving, potential set-ups appear everywhere, but the swell on our arrival, although clean, only had a short period. Sam and Josh had scored one good session already before we arrived on a beach and had started the search finding several good looking points. We met up with them at a gas station which served good coffee and excellent soup. We found a little wave that first night, not too good, but with the odd steep section. We called it Seal Point after the colossal beast that chased Sam, its head alone was the size of a family sofa, we then saw the whole thing launch out of the water, which was enough to get Sam out of the line-up in seconds.
We called it Seal Point after the colossal beast that chased Sam, its head alone was the size of a family sofa.
That night we hunkered down above a little beach, lit a fire and settled in for some yarns just a few miles from the Arctic circle. The terrain was speckled with snowdrifts and as a northerly built there was an air of trepidation. A storm was due to blow in overnight, first bringing rain, then heavy snow and a promised windy but good size swell.
The night didn’t disappoint, and the tents were put to their first test, which they withstood and we awoke to a freezing drizzle but an increase in swell. Although onshore the boys were sure one of the newfound points would be on.
Ian and myself headed into town as the Americans readied for the day, we searched high and low for coffee but nowhere was due to open till nine, it was now eight. Back at the beach and we mustered and headed northeast into the swell and hopefully coffee. The next service station had a sick roasted blend of the finest Columbian the day before but at 9.15am we found that it didn’t open until 11am, argghhh, chasing without coffee is like toast without butter, dry and slow. The next town up the coast was more remote but had two right points according to boys who had been there yesterday and all you could drink coffee in the little shop. The point looked utter rubbish and the shop didn’t open until one, it was now 10. God damn it, no damn coffee, it seemed we had become part Icelandic and our addiction was now full-blown and dangerous. We wanted to check the rest of this peninsula out as we suspected it harboured a couple more waves and so we struck out on a two-hour drive. Three bumpy hours later we rolled in to a little town that seemed like the end of the world. Lifeless it reminded me of one of those places Michael Palin rocks up to and ends up getting drunk on local hooch with an eccentric arms dealer with a fascination for Monty Python. It was grim but it did have a shop with coffee, which didn’t open until four. You had to be friggin kidding, Sam, a fellow coffee addict was now getting angsty too, but with no sign of good surf up here it was back to the last town, where the shop would be open and hopefully the fat right point would be worth a surf.
The temperature was now dropping as we tanked it back at 120kph on the dirt road and it was then we hit the rock, the only rock on the road but it was angled perfectly to rip open our tyre. The tyre hissed the last gushes of air as we got out for inspection, the wind was biting and the first snowflakes fell mixed with the drizzle. To top things off we were the last car in the convoy and the others soon disappeared over the next rise, leaving us alone in a forboding landscape of volcanoes, lava fields and snow. The doughnut of a spare wheel was quick to fit though, in fact we did it at pit team speed and it wasn’t long before we were rendezvousing with the rest of the crew for a coffee. As coffee six slipped down, a solid set hit the little point out front of the garage/shop and it simultaneously started to snow, Josh was in there. Out of his Fox pit coat, which had become one of the beacons of the trip, he was determined to get the first wave on this unsurfed point, now known as Mulcoy’s. It was a bit fat with the odd random sucky section and altogether not that great, Sam still destroyed a couple, pulling one ultra smooth air reverse.
The boys gave it an hour or so, by this time the locals had crowded around wondering what the heck was going on. They were all fascinated, and showing a classic bit of Icelandic hospitality insisted on the boys getting in a sauna with them, how could they refuse? Meanwhile Timmy, who had been filming the session, was mad for surfing in the snow and after Ian had force-fed him five coffees, his camera board was being readied as the blizzard set in. Timmy was tripping out in the water, riding a couple and generally just paddling around in the now blizzard conditions, it was what he wanted getting snowed on but the wave was just too fat. He really wanted to get barrelled in the snow, that wasn’t going to happen on this point and we were going to have to head an hour back down the coast to try and find a barrel or two. Now driving away from a surf spot with waves is always a dodgy thing to do and it split the crew a bit. We had little choice though, we had to get back to a main town before the snow got too bad due to our tyre, so we decided to hit the road.
Three bumpy hours later we rolled in to a little town that seemed like the end of the world.
The next hour was spent in a raging blizzard, without much traction the car was all over the place and on several occasions we just drifted across the snow covered roads with little to no control. Driving along a cliff with no landmass between us and Greenland, in a howling gale and heavy snow and little more than a bicycle tyre for grip, was pretty intense. We got there though and wanted to camp out at the beach again, but it was debatable if our car would make it down there, let alone out again in the morning. We settled for a field just out of town, a little more sheltered from the gale and blizzard but nonetheless pretty testing. Pitching in snow is tricky and even with every bit of Ray Meare’s advice it was still going to be a darned cold night despite -50 rated sleeping bags. As we settled in the wind strengthened and the snow fell heavier. I was paranoid about my computer freezing in the car so I wrapped it in a Finisterre body warmer and a jumper and used it as a pillow in my sleeping bag; it worked and was surprisingly comfortable. Snow fell on us all night, whipped along by the strengthening breeze, it was a night of only fitful sleep, the air filled with the sounds that only a blizzard makes, eerie and fierce.
Morning came early, six or seven inches had fallen overnight, the tent was heavy with snow. Everyone got ready and had a light breakfast. The boys decided to get back to the right point, this left Ian and myself with a problem, our get me home tyre couldn’t go over 80kph, it definitely couldn’t handle the snowy hour or two drive to the point and it was a Sunday so all tyre shops were shut. The rest of the crew trundled off along icy streets, we decided to give it a go, but once we’d slid down the first hill with only about 10% control over the car we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and returned to the little town. We had a choice, try and make the point again, although blizzards were still sporadically sweeping the coastline or head to a bigger town 60 kilometres away hoping there would be a tyre place open.
We decided on the latter, and the goose chase pimped up low-rider became the biggest traffic hazard in Iceland. Icelandic roads are damn good as I’ve mentioned and the locals love to drive pretty fast, which is great, until you have a tyre, which when you hit 80kph (that’s 50mph) starts flipping out. The tailback at times was embarrassing; grandmas overtook in their huge four-wheel drives looking down their noses at us, even a horse box overtook us at one point. In town everything was shut, the time was around 11am and we had to decide whether to trundle on to Reykjavik or spend the night in the north again. We trucked on taking a two-mile tailback with us through the mountains and down to the west coast, in the back of our minds all we could think of was the rest of the crew scoring.
This worry lasted a couple of hours until a four-wheel drive Mercedes van passed us with Josh at the wheel laughing his head off at us going so slow. Turns out the boys had been skunked at the point and had decided to get to the south coast for the next swell; only they had got stuck behind some numpty going 80. We met up again a couple of hours later and pitched up on some spongy grass, it was cold, but without a blizzard it was like being in paradise, even the spooky calls of the local bird population whisked us off to sleep.
The belching sulphurous fumes from the local geothermal plant woke us up. Iceland is one of the few countries that has no need for any fossil fuel for energy, this has made it an environmentalist’s dreamland. Geothermal and hydro plants have powered the country cheaply and cleanly for years, but this cheap electricity is causing one of the country’s greatest moral conundrums to date. One of the most power hungry and therefore polluting industries in the world is aluminium smelting, so what are these multinational aluminium giants doing, they are invading Iceland. At first you’d think fine, a couple of aluminium smelters in a land of almost free clean electricity surely helps the world and provides much needed jobs in parts of Iceland away from the main population centre of Reykjavik. This was the case, but now Iceland and the corporate giants are getting greedy, huge tracks of wilderness have been flooded to make way for the Karahnjukar dam in the east of the island. It’s an environmental catastrophe in Europe’s last true wilderness, but for the Icelandic Government it is a way of making jobs for Icelanders in one of the fastest areas of depopulation. There are others planned too, and it’s an issue that regularly bubbles over. As we headed into Reykjavik that morning it was on the front page of the papers, there had been protest about a proposed dam, which had almost ended in a riot, unusual for a country that is usually so passive.
Changing the tyre wasted time, enough for us to miss one of the better sessions of the trip at a little beachie wedge on the exposed edge of the island. We blasted across the southern flatlands beneath great volcanoes and glistening ice sheets, a truly inspiring landscape in blazing sunshine. It was all the better as flocks of migratory birds were pouring in from the Atlantic to their summer homes. It was like being in an episode of Spring Watch, minus Bill Odie thankfully, although Kate Humble would have been a welcome sight. The beachie was fun and that night we spent a cold night overlooking an incredible piece of country. Mountains circled us from one side, the sea the other and we were surrounded by puffin burrows. When the sun rose the next morning it was a dawn as good as you’d ever see, although the swell was small. It was a moment of calm before the storm though and the start of two very windy days. A northerly was due to whip off the ice sheets and was likely to destroy what swell was left. We all opted to head east to the glaciers in the hope of finding a small wave and seeing the Icebergs in sunshine.
The sandur beneath Europe’s biggest ice sheet is a bloody inhospitable place, criss-crossed with little rivers it is actually very dry and when the wind blows from the north off the ice sheets the temperature gradient increases the wind speed and creates raging sandstorms, the like of which are more associated with the Sahara. Today was one of those days, as one hit visibility reduced to 10 yards and it became a wrestling match to keep the car on the road. This went on for some 30 or so kilometres before a much welcomed all you could drink coffee stop, the soup was disappointingly expensive though, but more on that later. The second sandur crossing was even worse, with the windiest storm hitting while we were on a single lane bridge, there were barriers but I’m sure if we’d connected with one the wind would have just flipped us anyway, then out to sea in a freezing glacial river. We made it through to the glaciers and a small river mouth sandbar. Mini icebergs littered the impact zone but we got in anyway for small high tide waves. It was fun with the odd gem, then the tide turned and something unique to Iceland happened, we had to get out of the surf due to icebergs, yep no shit. It was just too dangerous, six-feet tall lumps of ice were now being pitched onto the sandbar. We got out and got down with Timmy and the boys filming on the icebergs themselves, fun, but a novelty at best.
We decided to head back along the south coast and hang back at the beach for the next couple of days, it would be the only place with any hope of swell although with the strong wind it wasn’t looking that appealing. Josh explained the soup situation at the service station we passed and in fact for six quid it was all you could eat soup and bread. We were in the car before the yanks knew what was happening, Josh shouted something like “don’t eat it all,” but he was already in a cloud of dust in the wing mirror. We arrived a whole five bowls and three quarters of a loaf of home-made bread before them. The restaurateurs didn’t know what had hit them. Josh, Chris and Sam, now also soup connoisseurs arrived to find the veggie broth still intact but the home-made bread had run low, they were less than pleased.
The following couple of nights were windy and we had the tent tucked in under a big cliff to hide from the raging gale. Still violent downdrafts would cause the tent to momentarily collapse before popping back into shape every now and again, making for an interesting night’s sleep. The swell though failed to show and with only a couple of days left we headed back to the far west and a hopeful long range swell that was due to hit just before we left.
We sat on the rocky beach with Josh, Chris and Timmy watching a tiny swell build, huddled round a raging fire its embers hiding baking potatoes. The night was clear and cold with a brisk offshore and Timmy cracked out some interviews for his movie. The rest of the time we talked story, reflecting on the trip and what might have been if we’d had more swell. In the sky as the glow from the sun finally disappeared at about 11pm, white streaks formed, they looked like they were dancing in the upper atmosphere. This went on for about an hour as we gazed skyward in anticipation, then wham! One finger turned green and beams of light fluttered downwards, then more, and before we knew it the heavens were a swirling mass of greens and purples. There were shrieks of joy from the boys; it was almost enough to bring a grown man to his knees as the northern lights danced before us for the next 12 minutes. I’d never been that bothered about seeing the aurora borealis but now I’m an addict, it was a truly moving experience to say the least and capped off an incredible trip.
We got no more surf, we did drink more coffee and soup and had another excellent campfire but that was pretty much that. The chase ended in a blaze of glory, the trip had been everything we’d wanted, an adventure both in and out of the surf in a land that is as beautiful as is it rugged.