‘This one here is where my friend fell in and burnt his leg’ said Uli. ‘He didn’t know how bad it was because it was so hot and he was wearing long trousers.’ Wonderful. We’d only just gone down into the geothermal ‘Hot River’ valley we were going to spend most of the day mountain biking through and already the Icelandic sense of humour and storytelling had me questioning the sanity of it all.
Think of an Icelander and you’d probably think of Uli, or indeed his father, Anders. They’re both tall, blond and have warm, welcoming faces. A stark contrast to the bleak island they call home. Uli had recently been allowed to grow a beard by his girlfriend, completing the Viking look.
They run Iceland Activities, a small outdoor activities company, based out of a unit in Hveragerðer. From which the father and son team, whom have the quiet confidence of people who have clearly spent their entire lives outdoors, take visitors on well-judged adventures into Iceland’s landscape. They do everything from the mountain biking that we did, to hiking, surfing (even in winter!) and horse riding.
As we drove in the smaller of their two ‘super jeeps’ to the head of the valley where our day’s mountain biking would start, Anders regaled us with stories of huge snow storms and the complexities of managing the balance between Iceland’s delicate ecosystem and the growing tourist trade. He, like most Icelanders, has an astonishingly good grasp of the English language and loves to tell stories.
We, the bikes and Uli were deposited at a fairly random point at the top of the valley and off Anders trundled. The super jeep’s happily bouncing away over the dirt track we’d just come along. Now properly kitted out with full sets of waterproofs, helmets, gloves and full suspension mountain bikes we began our adventure.
Once we had wound our way along the edge of the valley and down, we deposited our bikes and explored on foot. Uli was careful to point out the various hot springs that had sprung up in recent years and showed us a little spring at the head of the river that ran hot, despite being surrounded by a cold river. Iceland’s geothermal peculiarities are a constant source of amazement.
Picking up our bikes we rode a little further downriver where it had been dammed at various different points, allowing passers-by to benefit from another geothermal peculiarity and bathe in pools of hot water of varying degrees, from toe-scalding to lukewarm bath. Settling on somewhere between the two, we sat and marvelled at where we were.
Not two hours from the nation’s capital, we were sat in a hot river, with not another person in sight and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. ‘In winter’, Uli mentioned off-hand, ‘when the snow is deep, this river carves out a hidden cave under the snow and we come up here to bathe in an ice cave.’ Thoughts of a winter return trip crept into my mind and have persisted since.
After a quick clamber up the bank of the river to lie on some ice for contrast, standard practice we were assured, we dried off, picked up our bikes and rode the few miles back to the base to shower off and warm up before returning to our hotel, completely enthralled by Iceland’s understated beauty and extraordinary geology.
For more photos from our trip, have a look here: