Ovegur: A Journey to Iceland

Jan 10, 2013
by Bryce Borlick  
 
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Words by Bryce Borlick
Photos by Dan Stewart


Views: 21,487    Faves: 62    Comments: 6


My pursuer had caught me. The angry mass of cloud that I was trying to stay ahead of spewed hordes of fat rain drops into the volcanic dirt and lashed at my rain gear. The once idyllic day had turned quite dismal, quite fast, with the obscured horizon only adding to the feeling of exposure and remoteness in this unsheltered land. But I pedaled on, head down, hoping it would pass. And it did. And when it did, I couldn't believe my eyes. Rolling treeless hills faded into the distance, with their electric-green mosses posing a striking contrast to the black lava rock outcroppings, darkened from the fresh rain. Ahead of me in the distance steam rose lazily from an azure hot pool, ringed by white silica mud and surrounded by jagged pumice. And when the sun’s rays finally broke through, a huge rainbow framed it all as if I was dreaming. But this was no dream, no little blue wonderland pill that I‘d swallowed: this was Iceland.

  That's a thousand words right there, all saying "Iceland is rad, Iceland is rad, Iceland is rad..."

To understand Iceland, you really have to start at the beginning. Iceland sits directly on top of the Atlantic Ridge, which is the seam on the ocean floor where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. 70 million years ago, this seam allowed magma to erupt from the ocean floor and accumulate until the island was formed. This seam is still active today and although volcanic activity has slowed considerably, there is still enough volcanic energy to produce an occasional eruption and to fuel a massive geothermal power industry. It's also not unheard of for new islands to emerge off the coast in a dramatic tryst of fire and water.

  The original. Geysir.

But we didn’t come to Iceland for geology lessons, we came to ride mountain bikes through sensory-overloading terrain. And so it only made sense to contract Icebike Adventures to do the guiding, lead by Magne Kvam. Magne’s trail knowledge is unsurpassed in Iceland, and he’s the go-to guy for film crews, visiting pro riders, and even other international tour companies like Big Mountain Adventures. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s got a couple of seriously kick-ass trucks and a wicked home on the outskirts of Reykjavik that we used as a base for the first couple of days. There is fantastic riding just outside the city and we didn’t need much cajoling to hit it up.

  OK, this isn't actually in Reykjavik. It rained that day. If you come to Iceland and don't get some rain, then it's probably winter.

There’s a valley, east of Reykjavik, where the mud boils and black gargoyle peaks loom overhead. Innumerable steam vents send giant columns skyward and your nostrils fill with a pungent sulfuric door. It was here that our tires hit the dirt on a well-trodden and narrow singletrack that winds through the highlands, offering stunning vistas of the lush valleys below before plunging downward to get the goods. We pedaled in awe with only silence conveying our collective wonder for this enchanting place. Through the fertile green hills we weaved, stopping periodically to sample some of the many hot springs that pepper the area and to gawk at the bizarre mud pots.

  It was tough to keep the lenses dry that day. Props to Dan for getting some great shots and for lugging a full camera pack all day, every day.

Eventually the trail turned downward and we picked up momentum on the twisting turning rolling singletrack, trying to focus on the trail ahead with all this mind-bending scenery pulling our attention in all directions. We threaded through technical sections of ultra-grippy volcanic rock, blasting blindly through clouds of steam, and we followed ancient lava rivers that provided smooth sections of slickrock, complete with centuries-old shepherd pens. Everything was just so different from anything we had ridden, so otherworldly, that we felt like children exploring the world by bicycle all over again. When we crossed creeks, we’d be doused with hot water, something that’s entirely unexpected. In fact, some of the innocuous-looking trailside streams are hot enough to scald - in Canada you get baked; in Iceland you get boiled. Kilometer after kilometer of this astounding landscape left permanent impressions on us, and for the cherry on top, we ended the ride with a soak at the developed hot springs at the bottom.

  This trip marked the end of a long and loving relationship with my well-traveled 2006 Blur 4x. Great job buddy, thanks for the memories!

This brings me to another aspect of riding in the Reykjavik area; the abundant public spas that are used daily by quite a lot of locals. They have a lot to offer - hot pools, cold pools, big pools, small pools, steam baths, and waterslides. In other words, they’re fantastic and it was hard to not take a shine this post-ride ritual, especially with a nice cold Viking beer in hand. And to top it off, when we emerged from the hot tubs, all limber and mellow, we’d roll back to Magne’s place for a gourmet dinner, courtesy of Maria and Johanna. Every meal on the tour was a culinary delight, showcasing a wide variety of fresh local ingredients. Rumours of bad food in Iceland are entirely unfounded... although it is true that the most popular dining establishment in all of Iceland is a hot dog stand in central Reykjavik called Baejarins Beztu Plysur.

  Joel was the foodie on our trip - he was thrilled when he saw what Maria and Johanna could whip up. This was dinner at Magne's.

But we couldn’t stay in Reykjavik forever, so after breakfast the next morning we packed up and took a half-day scenic drive north. The coastal town of Akureyri, dubbed the Capital of Northern Iceland, is a busy harbour, with fishing trawlers and other small vessels vying for space amongst the massive summer cruise ships. For a population of seventeen thousand, the urban center is surprisingly elegant with a cosy European feel to the architecture. On the edges of town, green hillsides rise steeply to 1500m and roll away into the virtually uninhabited and wild Icelandic backcountry.

  In the background is Akureyri's ski hill, one of the surprisingly few in Iceland.

Naturally we headed for the hills and, after a short climb, we were overlooking the valley and the serpentine layer of fog that was slowly burning off. Wildflowers dotted the open meadows around us and we tried our best to avoid them as we each picked our own route through the trail-less alpine. After a while we reached a cliff edge and skirted along the rim on fast sections of slickrock that again offered myriad possibilities for technical roll downs and little rollers to pop off. The infectious giddiness got the best of all of us and we ended up scattered all over the place with no idea who was ahead and who was behind. Magne eventually reeled us in and then guided us down a blazing forest descent that never seemed to go straight for more than a few feet. Although the ride had only taken a few hours, I was beat from the intensity of all the spirited pedaling and I was happy to crack a cold one back at the trucks.

  Just one of the many many 4x4's you'll see in Iceland. Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland so they're built mainly for driving on snow and for fording the deep rivers.

Its just not humanly possible to return from Iceland without a photo of a waterfall. They come in all shapes and sizes, some blue, some green, others chalky brown like chocolate milk. Some you can walk behind, others crash at odd angles and almost seem to disappear into the earth. A few are controlled by trolls. All of them seem to be completely mesmerizing. So we spent the next morning touring some of Iceland’s biggest hydraulic giants on the way to the trailhead, thinking this would surely be the highlight of the day. Wrong.

  After mice came to Iceland as stowaways, it took them hundreds of years to make their way across the relatively small country, due to raging rivers like this one.

Bryce Borlick riding along the canyon rim of the J kuls Fj llum River
  Flowing down from the massive waterfall, Dettifoss.

After a late lunch we picked up a trail headed downstream over barren lunar landscape that rocked and rolled its way downhill at a steady pitch. The canyon just to the side provided scenery the whole way, with the constant roar of the river echoing off bizarrely shaped cliffs. Gradually, the terrain gave way to grasslands, but the pace remained fast on a narrow sinew of hard packed singletrack. The tall grass and shrubs immediately to the side of the trail left little room for error - clipping a pedal almost always caused awkward bobbles and hilarious OTB moments. We raced against the fading light of the day, still taking time though to stop at scenic spots to absorb as much of this immense beauty as we could. After reaching the trucks and packing up, we motored along the coastal roads as the suns rays glittered on the water and provided an almost surreal golden sunset over the fjords. It was a scene, a feeling, a moment, that I will always remember when I think of Iceland.

Bryce Borlick riding at sbyrgi Iceland
  Bringing a little freeride style from the Great White North to the Land of Fire and Ice.

  It's tough to get a photo of Magne without him making a funny face. Gotcha buddy.

On our way southward the next day we passed some of the electric blue overflow ponds from nearby geothermal energy plants. With geothermal energy filling roughly one quarter of the country’s power demands and hydro filling the other three quarters, Iceland runs almost entirely on clean energy. Furthermore, the hot water by-product from power generation is pumped directly into urban areas to provide free heat and hot water to residents. And even the excess from that is released into inlets, warming the frigid ocean water enough for swimming. Its safe to say that water, both cold and hot, is well-utilized. Even large energy-intensive industries like aluminum smelting are expanding into Iceland, attracted by the abundant green power and the clean image that goes with it.

Of course, no one can truly harness volcanic power, and in April of 2010 a massive eruption of Eyjafjallajökull reminded us of this as it forced local residents to evacuate and grounded air travel over Europe for 6 days. As the lava erupted up through the glaciated peak, melt water gushed to the valleys below, washing out bridges and other critical infrastructure in its destructive passage. The malevolent black sky rained hot ash and lava rock and violent electrical storms raged in the dark clouds above. In short - it was hell on earth. This is where Magne brought us for our last ride.

Bryce Borlick and Ray in the South of Iceland
  It's not that hard to say. Eye, ya. Fee-Allah. Yoke L. Ray Fernandes and I climb.

Things have cooled down a bit since then but the effects of the eruption still linger. The east side of the volcano, where most of the debris fell, is a vast field of black pumice, and light ash is still visible in the air as a distant haze. Amazingly, you can dig into the earth and literally feel the volcanic heat as the rocks get warmer and warmer as you get deeper. New grasses and electric green mosses have sprouted up all around, thriving on the nutrients brought by the ash. Needless to say, the anticipation was huge as we saddled up and hit the ascent with the fresh pumice crunching under our tires. Behind us, the North Atlantic surf pounded the coastline and cooled us with a light breeze. When we reached the top of the ridge, Eyjafjallajökull came into view a few kilometers to our west, with its benign snow-capped peak belying its potential. But as mesmerizing as it all was, we had singletrack awaiting.

  The most memorable discussion of the trip was Alison explaining to a couple of doctors what a queef is. I guess they don't teach that in med school.

As we pedaled off toward a lush green canyon, the thunder of the falls grew louder and louder, until the tension was almost unbearable. A sinuous singletrack wound down a narrow ridge and delivered us smack dab into the jaws of the beast, with a waterfall crashing just next to us and sending a soaking mist into the air. The rocky landscape of the plateau had given way to lush emerald meadows and plentiful wildflowers, fed by the moist environs and the long days of the northern summer. The singletrack was packed smooth with natural rollers and berms that pulled us faster and faster toward the bottom. However, at every turn new scenery emerged forcing us to stop to take it all in. Green-haired trolls peered up from the canyon floor where the tumultuous water has worn the rock to narrow spires. Sheep dotted the hillsides above and grazed peacefully. We continued onward, down and down, until we reached the final pitch and were spat out at the foot of a massive waterfall, with circular rainbows dancing around us in a disorienting but intensely epiphanal kind of way.

  Top Gear drove onto cooled magma in this area for their Icelandic Special. They weren't permitted to go off the snow, simply because the magma sits on top of glacial ice, which may not have been intact enough to support a vehicle. They did it anyway because, ya know, POWER!

Our final ride ended on a high note, but it wasn't the last note of the trip. Music, and the arts in general, thrive in Iceland and we were lucky enough to be in Reykjavik for Menningarnött, the annual arts festival. We headed downtown at the crack of 11am as the city was starting to come alive with street performers, live theater, photography exhibitions and just about any other art form you can think of. With the streets closed to motor traffic, we spent the day meandering the quaint lanes and wandering in and out of beer gardens. As evening wore on, temporary stages came alive and we moved from one block to another, pulled in whatever direction had the best music pumpin’. When it finally got dark around 11, the fireworks in the harbour bid us farewell with a final display of beauty and fire.

  Central Reykjavik. Some say it's a relatively boring town. Others say that boredom is a symptom of a weak mind. We all enjoyed our time there.

  I really wanted to work in a comment about the plethora of beautiful women in Iceland. I guess this is it.

If this all sounds a little bit unreal, it's because, well, it is. The contrasts that this land presents are almost things of folklore: volcanic glaciers, inviting but deadly coastline, and a rich history of violent civility. Enlightened artists and dark winters. Economic wealth turned to uncertainty. An urbane society that still holds a hint of belief in primeval trolls. It's all quite enchanting. But the real attraction, the single thing that makes this the trip of a lifetime, is the stunning beauty of this magnificent land. Regardless of where you come from, you will be simply awestruck by unique treasures that you just won’t find anywhere else on this planet. And you don’t need Alice’s little blue pill, you just need to get yourself to Iceland.

Bryce Borlick South Iceland
  Following the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, local farmers had bumper crop years. Looks like everything else is doing just fine as well.

  At the end of the tour, the little Defender had some vibration up front. While everyone else rested, Magne pulled it apart and got it sorted out. He's a true renaissance man with an impeccable work ethic.

www.icebikeadventures.com
www.arcteryx.com
www.danielstewartphoto.com
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75 Comments

  • + 56
 One of the best Pinkbike articles ever written. Magnificent. You nailed the place with detail and a real talented wordsmith skill to convey just how Iceland is and what a visit feels like. If anyone gets chance, please go explore this fascinating little country. We went in January 2002 and it was an amazing vacation. Best ever. We still talk about it to this day. Saw much of what you covered, less the MTB stuff. One of the highlights; getting in to the amazing music of Sigur Ros before anyone had even heard of them. A band that I have remained "spiritually connected to", for some reason, for over a decade.

If you go, be advised to take a good camera. You'll see landscapes like no other.

Iceland exposed me to dark long winter nights, winter temps of -38, crazy mind numbing brain freezing windchills, the northern lights, mad off road driving, and barren unforgiving terrain and hostile inhospitable landscapes.

Humbling, as a small insignificant human being in a land that has no real right to support human life. Rocks, moss, endless tundra, various bubbling gaseous formations spewing out at people, smoke and steam billowing at you, plumes of scalding liquids, and a barren treeless vista in every direction. Iceland feels almost alien.

No surprise that I would later move to Canada, helped and possibly guided by the physical and psychological experiences in Iceland.

In a bland homogenized fake world, Iceland offers something unique, challenging, different and in some ways, inaccessible to all but the most ardent traveller. Maybe it should stay that way, maybe some secret gems should be preserved. But the masses won't be drawn there. It's too random, too abstract, too challenging. Too boring for the modern consumer.

Oh and they told the EU and the European banks to piss off. And took control of their economic destiny after their financial meltdown. This little isolated country might just be on to something after all.

Iceland: fascinating.
  • - 12
 Doing so well until that second to last paragraph...
  • - 6
 Last paragraph is the comment an uninformed person would make, stick to biking related stuff, not economics u know nothing about Smile
  • + 2
 Beautiful place, and it may be harsh there, but there's more "green" in Iceland than in Greenland, which is all ice!
Small place, big wonders!
  • + 3
 You can't blame the population for not wanting to pay the banks debts off,it's a shame we didn't do the same with our US WW2 debt
  • + 0
 iceland? psshhh how about niceland! eh eh see what I did there?
  • + 1
 It seems like Iceland is a hotspot for riding right now. It wasnt to long ago that there was a fantastic photo epic of Sam pilgrims trip there!
  • + 1
 I've said it on here before in an article about Sam Pilgrim's trip last year, but Iceland is, like gnarbar said, a completely alien landscape. Reykjavik is the home of well over half of the country's total population and the town is very small! The picture above is taken at the top of the church at the town's centre and the image shows literally half of the town, behind the camera is the other half - small to say the least. All the roads across the country are surrounded by just wilderness, barely touched by humans. It is a welcoming and refreshing change to what the rest of the world has become. Where there is human activity, it's mainly for tourists, yet visitor centres and walkways across some of the natural park areas are all built with care to not change the feel of the natural beauty. The only things that are doing any sort of environmental damage are the huge four-by-four trucks, and there are loads of them! You'd definitely need one though if you lived outside of Reykjavik though! I wouldn't choose to live there, as there isn't a lot going on, but I would highly recommend visiting it - it is a very unique place to go to and you won't be short of photos by the end of it! Check out the Blue Lagoon natural springs as well!
  • + 1
 Iceland: F*ckin expensive!!!! 14 quid for eggs n bacon...
  • + 1
 but it's bacon. worth the money
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  • + 14
 Iceland is so underrated... Such a beautiful country!
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  • + 4
 That's it, I'm quitting my job (I'm unemployed), moving somewhere beautiful (I just moved back to SE PA two weeks ago) and starting an adventure tour company (I've got no money).

Back to reality...
  • + 1
 Where in PA? We have some fun trails in this little corner of the Mid-Atlantic! I live in Media...hoping to sell our town house and head a little west of here this summer...Downingtown-ish
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  • + 2
 A few of us have been looking to book a trip for the upcoming year, Patagonia is one option, and iceland is up there as well. I have always wanted to visit the country riding would be such a massive bonus. After the BIKE mag article came out we were sold but later found many of those shots weren't actually part of trail networks. This article has me re-interested in doing an iceland trip. Great shots, great read.
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  • + 2
 I was there this summer during 5 weeks. Me, my bike and my tent ! I recognized some trails that you've done. It's a really great remember ! West fjords and Landmannalaugar are also areas which must be done ! I so much love this nature, these landscapes, this country ! Nice article !
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  • + 2
 Being a lucky one to been in this trip last summer (2012), it is one of the best thing I have done in my life so far. It is truly epic. I am also glad that I finished this trip on a hardtail too. Magne is the man.
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  • + 1
 Awesome piece. I went to Iceland in '04 with my band as part of a Scandinavian/Russian tour and all I could think while there was "I wish I had my bike, I wish I had my bike, I wish I had my bike..." Reading this made me want to revisit the beautiful country again for a vacation more than I did to begin with.
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  • + 1
 I never/almost never read this articles, I'm more into video, but I have to say this is one of the best if not the best trip report ever, for me it easily tops even thee Hunting For Vert one, this was absolutely amazing, outstanding doesn't make it justice.

And one photo in particular made my jaw drop: Reykjavik city center. As soon as I saw it I wanted to be there. Yes, the riding ones too, definitely, but that one had something special to it.

Thanks a lot for the article, yet another reason I have to visit Iceland some time.
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  • + 1
 I've been all over Iceland (In proper Toyotas Wink ) and it is a pretty amazing but desolate place. Reminds me of the Moors aye. Beautiful country though. Driving a Diesel Hilux on giant tires over snow that deep and spanning cracks that seem to go to the center of the earth is truly amazing. I'd highly suggest anyone who's interested go to Iceland cause it's really remarkable and something every adventurer should experience. Great article aye.
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  • + 2
 There's nothing like wandering up and down Laugavegir at 5 am drunk as fuck in the midnight sun trying to find the entrance to the Room With A View apartments
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  • + 4
 i had to google what a queef was... it was slightly distirbing
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  • + 3
 I just faved three photos from this article, and two of them don't even show bikes.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 geysir didn't errupt for a long time but gave the name for all of the hot fountains. the one featured in the article is called strokkur. nevertheless a great piece of article, I can't wait to get back there this summer.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 I've just booked flights there for this summer. if anyone has any ride/trail advice please feel free to message me as all information would be appreciated. great write up and photos, thanks so much for the insight.
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  • + 2
 Excellent article! I love Iceland to. Would love to bring my bike next time. Was there with my Land Rover y2k, an amazing vacation.
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  • + 2
 You should have to pay to get content this good, well done PB. Now how much are those plane tickets going to cost me...
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  • + 1
 When I was in New York, Iceland had this big tourism ad campaign. I was tempted to go but.....things happened.... I regret it soooo much now. LOOK AT THOSE VIEWS!~
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  • + 1
 I was there a few years ago on bike, 10 amazing days, landscapes are so unique ! recommends strongly. Photos perfectly show the beauty of iceland, want to go back !
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  • + 2
 If I only wokred for a company that travels. Frown Oh wait, the Army does travel!
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  • + 1
 I have wanted to go 4x4ing in Iceland for years. but putting my Landrover in a container is kinda pricy. Screw whistler, I know where I am going riding next summer vacation.
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  • + 1
 Definately on my vacation list of place to visit. How do they afford to keep gas in that Ford Super Duty? They get under 10 miles per gallon here in stock form.
[Reply]
  • + 3
 Great article and stunning photos. This is why I love PB.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Finally a country where big trucks like that are justified.. whereas in the US they're just making up for the shortage of personal peen.
[Reply]
  • + 3
 What happened to the beloved Blur? Why did it get retired?
  • + 1
 The 4x was just such a fun bike to ride, miss mine Frown
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  • + 2
 PROMETHEUS! great article bryce, stellar scenery!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 I just can't wait for the next biking season to start again, Iceland is a MTB paradise. You're welcome to visit Wink
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Sick riding and an awesome edit. Didn't like the song totally but the shots were awesome and the scenery was incredible.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 After going to Iceland before, its defiantly somewhere I'd love to go there with my bike!
[Reply]
  • + 2
 Well done Bryce - especially for spelling Eyjafjallajokull
[Reply]
  • + 2
 probally got better weather than us an all Frown
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Amazing article and photos, definitely gonna add this to the ever growing bucket list ( thanks to pinkbike )
[Reply]
  • + 1
 should of ridden down the eldfell crater, that would be been insane to watch
[Reply]
  • + 1
 I totally LOVE the Iceland modiefied off road cars!! And nice article guys, well done!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Bucket listing Iceland....
[Reply]
  • + 1
 That FORD is so SICK!!!!!!!!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Explaining what a queef is too doctors...
WHY?!?!?!?
  • + 2
 maybe there was alcohol involved Smile
  • + 2
 or someone missed the fact that he is standing over a geysir - then a deep penetration has been issued... geysir - it's Elton John for fks sake!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Loved the article and vid. Great work!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Stunning Place and Pictures. I hope to visit there and ride some day.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 I can't find the 'favourite this article' button!
  • + 1
 Actually it's there, "Add to my Favorites" at the top. But 2nd hand only, I already used it.
  • + 1
 Aha! thanks Smile i couldn't find it on the mobile version (perhaps i just wasn't looking hard enough). Sorted tar!
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  • + 1
 The video should have used a song from Of Monsters And Men
[Reply]
  • + 1
 I am just looking at flight s there right now!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 no offroading in Iceland! Its like perfect for that.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Iceland's where it's at Smile
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  • + 1
 great article bryce, got me drooling and scheming
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Unforgettable Iceland!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 To much fish eye
[Reply]
  • - 1
 omg, Where is that?
I have to go there! Smile
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  • - 3
 I just decided... I want to visit Iceland! Ah, btw... Norbs and McCaul got ROBBED!!! I can't forget that!!!
  • + 5
 That was over months ago, just drop it.
  • + 0
 yeah... what the hell.....?
  • + 2
 The man has a point.
  • + 1
 The point is... Norb and McCaul didn't get the points!!! That's the point!!!
  • + 1
 yeah but it was ages ago
  • + 2
 And now . Helibiking is a possibility in iceland ; )

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[Reply]

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