As winter finally ended, photographer Ross Taylor and surfer pal Andrew Douglas sought out a new adventure — a tour around the tundras of Iceland. Here’s what they found.
Words and photos by Ross Taylor.
Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice, due to its mix of volcanic and glacial terrains. The island sits on the hem of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, meaning it'll pick up swells from multiple angles. For many, it's a bucket-list destination. For me and surfer Andrew 'Dougy' Douglas, it was there as our next cold-water fix.
This wasn't Dougy's first time out there. Over the past decade, he's made many trips and convinced me it's worth the mission. With only a few weeks left of the Northern Hemisphere winter, and both us needing to use up our annual leave days from work, we booked the flights from the UK airport of Bristol into Keflavik, which is about a 45 minute drive outside of the capital city of Rejkavik.
Spot Guide: Iceland
We hatched a loose plan which would involve hitting the road in a trusty Dacia Logan we hired from the airport and follow our noses around Iceland's famous ring road, chasing whatever swell came our way. At the time, it felt as good a plan as any.
Luckily, most days we found waves that were worth getting changed for, however cold it was. It almost comes down to; how far are you willing to travel in pursuit of a wave in a foreign country? Over the course of the week, our metal-studded tyres covered more than 1,700 miles.
That much time on the road comes with its own set of rules, in a way. For instance, when you think of dining in Iceland, what do you imagine? Did you think we'd ever be talking about living off service station hot dogs? Iceland is notorious for being expensive, so with us trying to stick to a budget, we even found ourselves using the humble dawg to bulk up our evening pasta dishes.
Our trip coincided with a particularly cold snap hitting most of the island. Day time temps rarely peaked above -10℃. Add into the mix scattered wind and water temps so cold that many parts of the coast were frozen, you can start to see why people pop it on their 'nice-to-do' list and not their 'this-is-an-annual-trip' itenary.
Dougy was smart. He has a custom suit made for these kind of challenging environments, along with thick boots and gloves. If you’re going, maybe think about bringing another suit as well -- there's a real chance one will end up frozen, at some point on your trip.
The big morale booster was geothermal pools around Iceland. They come in all shapes and sizes, from basic offerings at the local leisure centre right through to high-end luxury set ups aimed at the tourist crowd. The Icelandic culture has this hot/cold ritual dialled in. Hot pooling became a daily fixture of life on the road, which went a little bit like: drive, surf, hot dog, hot pool, drive some more, sleep and repeat.
That's a really simplistic way of thinking about the trip though. The scenery is like nothing else across Europe. One minute, you feel as if you're walking on the moon, across stunning black sand beaches, the next you're driving through the Alps. The variety is staggering and Dougy summed it up: “It’s like the craziest place you’ve ever seen but on steroids.”
Towards the tail end of the week all of our exploring and Dougy’s previous knowledge really started to pay off. We gambled on the hint of a potential swell and after 12 hours of driving, it all paid off. What followed was two days of perfect waves enjoyed in all kinds of conditions, from snow blizzards to cloudless sunny skies.
Mostly we had the wave to ourselves, however it was a real pleasure to bump into Icelandic surf legend Steinarr Lár who greeted us warmly and shared some tales of his years pioneering surfing around this coast. Sharing waves with Dougy and Steinarr surrounded by towering mountains covered in a thick winter's blanket was definitely a highlight of the trip for me.
We'd be the first to admit it, but surfing up here is definitely not for everyone, in fact it would be most people’s idea of a nightmare. However, when I ask Dougy what the beauty of Iceland is, and why he keeps getting drawn back he says: “Surfing in Iceland involves lots of time on the road, exposure to the cold and sometimes you can drive for hours and find nothing but it’s something special when it all comes together. Surfing perfect waves in front of mountains and glaciers. It’s a magical moment and it’s just for you.”
And that's the spirit of adventure. You take the good, the bad, realise it's not all about scoring perfect waves. The skunks are part of it. We got caught speeding while panicking to find accommodation for the night, or sleep in the car. Dougy destroyed both his lips and nose from cold exposure. Even with all that, they're part of our story. Iceland is magic.
Related Content: A History of Surfing in Iceland