Iceland’s “Forgotten Coast Route” Part Three: The Route Within

For the final installment of our coverage documenting the Forgotten Coast Route – a bikerafting trip connecting all of Iceland’s southern coast – expedition photographer Ryan Hill writes a series of short stories recounting some memorable moments from the media team’s point of view. Follow along with Ryan and the rest of the team which includes videographers Bryan “Bobcat” Davis, Jeremy Bishop, and Icelander Sigurdur “Sigi’ Petur.

Photographing these types of stories is epic in and of itself. The majority of the time is spent driving from one location to the next catching glimpses of the riders’ experience while on the route. These trips involve late nights, early mornings, and ever-shifting logistics. When the riders are pedaling, we photographers are on the move predicting their next location and trying to be in place for it – attempting to capitalize on any section of the route that is accessible, either by hiking, driving, or droning. We scour over maps that are littered with information assembled through scouting, GPS, and local intel. By the end of this expedition, our map contained over a hundred different pins and notes.

One Chance is Better than None

I hear the car door next to me slam. Behind the curtains of the van I peer out to see the radiant green hillside, slightly muted by the thick clouds that hang low against the mountains. In the distance, the edge of the Svinafell Glacier stands out against the green hills that surround it. We are sleeping outside the childhood house of one of the members of the media crew, Sigi. Immediately, I check the location of the bikers using Chris’ spot locator beacon. Our plan for the day was to fly in to the crew; they are about to enter one of the scariest sections of the whole trip. The cyclists are 50 plus miles from any roads we could possibly use to access the coast. This section of their ride is littered with multiple river crossings, some of them the largest and all of them the most unknown. The only stories from this stretch of the coast are from old tales of shipwrecks and lost travelers.

We frantically load up the van, knowing we need to get in front of the helicopter pilot and see what is happening. I feel the wind moving the van as we drive down the road; the gust batting the sides of our tall vehicle, pushing it closer to the edge. I immediately know we might have issues getting airborne today. We peel into the lot and see the heli parked outside, slowly collecting drops of water as it starts to drizzle. If anything, the clouds look lower than when we woke up.

Our helicopter pilot glances through the front doors of the operation and waves us inside. By the time we enter she is peering over the computer. From the look of concern painted across her face I already know conditions aren’t good. She tells me we’ll have to wait and that she isn’t sure if they’ll be able to fly. The weather is always the biggest question mark. Everyone has a guess about what will happen, but no one ever really knows. I’ve heard it a million times, all she will tell me is we have to wait longer. Just then, one of the other pilots tries to lighten the mood booming across the empty waiting area, “In Iceland, if you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes”.

In the end we waited two hours, and I eventually put up a drone to convince them the cloud cover was at 700ft. Our pilot protested, but admitted we’d be fine, although she left us both with a foreboding proclamation: “No one pukes in my helicopter. If you have to, use your camera bags. Nowhere else”.

Slightly concerned that we are about to have an expensive rollercoaster ride and not even find the team, we’re posed with the decision to go or to stay. There is the possibility we get shut down by weather before capturing anything from this important part of the expedition, or we could save some money and not even try. It’s our only shot to see the team, so we roll the dice on getting to the coast. Turbulence and weather be damned. One chance is better than none.

From 1,000ft up the riders look like little specs across a black background. You would think spotting their neon-colored clothing would be easy, but even when moving at 30mph it’s a hard task; it’s as if they don’t want to be found. Little specks in a landscape of black rippled sand. I’d gotten used to hunting for them on the drone screen and all of a sudden there is a hint of something out of place and you realize it’s the crew!

To be efficient with airtime and fuel costs, we land just on the other side of their next crossing. A whirlwind of shooting commences, we are all trying to capitalize on this short little window of being with the team.

Twenty minutes after landing and they’re pedaling off to examine the emergency hut just a few kilometers away; tucked between sand dunes sprouting tufts of Icelandic brush. It’s an odd scene.

As we’re preparing to follow the riders, I see the pilot talking with the rest of the team ahead. She works her way to me explaining it’s time for us to leave. The winds have increased back at the hangar and they are worried about the clouds moving lower. I try to convince her to let us go to the hut for a little, but she insists that we have to beat the rain before it really starts. All I can do is persuade her to do a lap over the hut before she points us inland towards the hangar. I snap a few photos as we circle, the guys come out to wave and just as fast as we arrived, we’re gone.

They end up deciding to push on and get rained on for the next six hours. Back in the van we hustled down the road and keep testing options that should connect to the ocean. While our success rate was high overall, we’d inevitably get shut down once in every five roads attempted.

Our World is More Pleasant, Although it’s Not Drier

Puddles begin plinking as the rainfall becomes heavier. The windshield of the Land Rover dances with spray and I can hear the murmuring of the rain through the window. It sounds like the buzzing of angry bees. We’re driving through a floodplain of water, if not for the wind I’m sure its surface would look like a mirror only disturbed by the droplets from above. Even now the clouds and water blend together to create an otherworldly landscape; the sky and ground blending into one.

I’m surprised Einar, a nearby landowner of this section of coast, was so keen given the horrid conditions. But he seemed excited to see the guys and be a part of what we were doing. Sigi had contacted the farmer and, after meeting him at a random two-track off the freeway, we loaded into his Land Rover for the hour-long 4×4 commute to the coast.

Before we know it, we’re driving just feet from the ocean, jumping out of the van, testing river crossings by foot, before plunging into them in the Rover. Einar was attacking the task of finding the guys with a fervor I wouldn’t even have felt comfortable asking for, especially from someone doing us a favor. We’re so lucky. Two crossings down and before we know it we are upon the guys… all told, a four-hour endeavor.

We try to shoot from the car when possible, because the second you stand outside you are soaked to the bone. All my bags wet through their rain covers in minutes. Cameras are soaked. When you’re outside the Landrover you are attacked by the elements. It seems the riders have given up trying to remain dry, opting to just plunge themselves into the smaller rivers without any preparation or changing of gear. The rain is almost comical at this point, a state of existence for them, but we’re only just getting a taste of their world. When they eventually ride beyond Einar’s property and we’re forced to turn around, I think we were all relieved. I know our world is more pleasant, although not at all dry.

It is Better One Time to See Things

It’s eight in the morning and I’m biking out to the coast on a loaner fatbike to meet the team for a quick section along the water when my phone buzzes. It’s a text from the pilot friend, Arnar, whom I’ve been communicating with: “I have this day for flying, looks like the wind will go down a little during the day. So I will take a look at the boys, do you want to come?”

There is only one way to respond to such an opportunity: yes. There is an airstrip not too far. I tell him I can meet him there, but I also send him my pin in case he knows of somewhere closer. Sure enough he says he’ll land right next to us in about 15 minutes.

Before we know it we can hear the dull hum of a single-engine plane churning up the coast. It does a wide circle and an inspection pass and lands at a speed closer to a helicopter then an airplane; seeming to hover at a speed we could run at before touching the beach a few hundred yards from where we are parked and stopping nearly instantly.

In a mad sequence of events we are airborne and searching the black sands for faint specks. A flash of blue and yellow — We found them! As luck would have it, they’re approaching a river crossing and Arnar puts the plane down on the sand just ahead of them. There are hugs, catching up and general questions from Chris and Steve to Arnar. Most seem to be centered around whether the headwind will subside further up the coast. I’m snapping away, trying to let them have their moment, but knowing I have a few things I need. More than anything, I know the plane and Arnar is what is special. A meeting of two friends in the most unlikely of places, both doing what they love. Arnar says he wants to follow them back to where he met me and then has to continue on to meet his family up north where they are camping.

I opt to remain out of the plane and instead hop on the radio with Arnar and try to document the plane as it flies by the team on its way down the coast. The little rafts crossing the river and the red bush plane skimming above; the plane’s shadow visible on the river below. These are some of my favorite images from the trip so far. The whole sequence went down in under 10 minutes.. But sometimes that’s how it goes.

Arnar picks me back up and drops me off along the coast a little ways from where we had left our van and the rest of the team. When we land another Icelandic friend from past trips is there. Reynir, a legendary guide and 4×4 driver, in his stark white Patrol. It seems like all of Iceland has come out for the rest of the trip. After so many days figuring out roads, nearly getting stuck in our AWD van, and on one occasion doing so, it’s a relief to have someone with real local knowledge accompanying us.

We rearrange gear and hop in the car with Reynir, blasting ahead to meet up with the cyclists. The beauty now being with Reynir in his 4×4 with 40” wheels, we could drive along the sand with them for key sections of the ride, making life way easier. After so many days of late nights, early mornings, hours of scouring roads and testing pins left on our google maps; Reynir’s expertise makes it so much simpler.

I hop in the car with Sigi and remark that “all of Iceland seems to be showing up for this ride”. We had already been generously given a meal by some friends of friends in Vik the day before and they allowed us to basecamp with our vans outside their house for two days. Sigi said something that stuck with me after this, “Its cool what Chris is doing, and people want to be a part of it. There is an old Icelandic saying: ‘It is better one time to see things than one hundred times to hear about them’. People want to see it for themselves and help make it happen.”

Thank you to everyone who came together to make this ride possible. To Chris for creating the route and being the mastermind behind its execution. To the rest of the cycling team, Steve Fassbender and Cameron Lawson for their continued excitement after all the long days on bikes. To Jeremy, Bobcat, and Sigi for being constant sources of excitement and optimism in the face of always questionable circumstances. To Sigi for always being willing to call a “friend of a friend” to open a gate that would have otherwise remained closed. To the amazing group of Icelanders who came forward to help make access a little bit easier; Reynir and Benjamin Hardman in their vehicles, Einar for graciously opening up his land and taking time out of his day to run around black sand beaches with us. And to Arnar and the amazing group of pilots for continuously lifting the team’s spirits with fly-bys and on one occasion even offering myself a lift to document some of the fun.