“Just go in," said the woman’s voice, “There’s nobody there at the moment but the house is open. Yours is room two, upstairs.”
I was calling ahead to the small guesthouse where we had booked a room. Slightly bewildered, I looked across at my travelling buddy, Martín. “It’s cool man, aquí no roban” he said, in his usual mix of Argentine Spanish and South African English.
This place was nothing like the streets of Cape Town Martín had just come from, or the Buenos Aires he had grown up in. This was officially the safest country in the world, where the most serious violent crime might be a pub brawl between two drunken fishermen.
Area Guide: Iceland
We were on the Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland; driving along a stretch of coast containing a number of quality surf spots. We were on the south shore, equivalent to the north shore in many other places. You see, Iceland is further north than the storm track, so the storms pump swell from below, not from above.
There was a huge swell running, with storm-force winds and horizontal rain. It was late summer and the temperature was about 8 Celsius, but the chill factor made it feel much colder. Uneven lava fields covered in bright green moss stretched out between the road and the coast, not a tree in sight. I spotted a few potential surf spots that might warrant a closer look, and wondered how long it would take to walk or clamber across all that lava.
"Why didn’t I go to Indonesia," they said, where I could be guaranteed constant, perfect surf in tropical conditions for a fraction of the cost? Yes, I thought, but with hundreds of other surfers.
Most of Iceland’s landscape is barren and treeless like that, and you might be forgiven for thinking that it had always been that way. However, before the first Viking settlers arrived around the ninth century, Iceland contained lush forest and fertile soil. Just like what the rest of us are doing to the whole planet right now, those settlers deforested and eroded their new home, ruining in a matter of decades what had taken thousands of years to develop.
Of course, they weren’t to know. At first sight, it looked the same as the lands they had already conquered, such as Britain and Ireland. They didn’t realise that in Iceland, the soil was much thinner and more susceptible to erosion. Once they had chopped down most of the trees and brought in thousands of grazing animals, things started looking dismal.
Uniquely, and before it was too late, those first Icelanders saw the error of their ways. They evolved a culture of resilience, cooperation and solidarity. This made life very hard, but it stopped them over-using the resources they had, and enabled them to survive until the present day.
I had come to Iceland because I wanted to do something different. People back home in Spain told me I was crazy to go somewhere cold, expensive and unknown. "Why didn’t I go to Indonesia," they said, where I could be guaranteed constant, perfect surf in tropical conditions for a fraction of the cost? Yes, I thought, along with hundreds of other surfers.
I did a lot of homework. Geological maps, bathymetric charts, swell and wind archives, videos, pictures and articles. I spoke to people who had been there before. Some had failed to find any surf, but they all told me how the place held such amazing potential for world-class breaks. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
I also wanted to go to Iceland because I was curious. If it really did have world-class surf, would it go the same way as so many other surfing destinations in the last few decades, with crowded line-ups, aggressive locals, surf camps, surf shops and contests? Or did it have enough built-in protection to remain uncrowded and unexploited forever?
The answer was not clear. For one thing, it’s cold, and most surfers would never dream of going on a surf trip somewhere colder than home. But on the other hand, wetsuit technology is more advanced than ever, so the cold is not the problem it was 20 years ago. Then, it’s expensive, and most surfing destinations are in poor countries where we first-worlders can live like kings. But then again, it’s probably not as expensive as some exclusive surf camps in Fiji or the Maldives.
The next day, the swell dropped but the wind was still blowing gale force. I decided the best option would be to meet up with the locals; Elli Thor Magnusson, and Ingó Olsen.
Elli Thor was a tall, wiry man, quietly-spoken and full of secrets, gathered through years of surfing and photographing Iceland’s best waves. He was (and still is) the official photographer accompanying groups of snowboarders, skiers and pro surfers. “Most groups of pros who have come here haven’t been lucky,” he said. “You really can’t expect to find epic surf in a few days without local knowledge”.
I asked him how many surfers there were in Iceland. “Around 15 who surf on a regular basis all the year round,” he said, “with a few others who fade in and out, but certainly no more than about 40 altogether.” Also, as far as Elli knew, we were the only travelling surfers in Iceland at that time. That blew me away. Imagine going to Portugal and asking some local how many travelling surfers there were in Portugal at the time. And then discovering that you were the only ones.
Elli’s friend Ingó was a stocky, instantly-likeable man with elf-like features and a quick mind. He had been exploring his own country for the last 15 years and had more knowledge of Icelandic surf than anybody in the world. Since 2010, Ingó and three friends have been running Arctic Surfers, a kind of surf camp that gets people to the best spots at the best time.
Ingó insists on keeping things discreet with Arctic Surfers. With a maximum of four people at any given time, he is already conscious of possible overcrowding. “If there are other surfers in the water at a spot we go to, I won’t take my clients out there”, he says, “I’ll drive away and look for an empty spot."
Some had failed to find any surf, but they all told me how the place held such amazing potential for world-class breaks. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Ironically, Elli and Ingó seem to be the people who are most concerned about surf spots being ruined by the surfers themselves. They have travelled and have been around for longer than most. But other Icelanders see their approach as selfish and unnecessary.
I asked Ingó what he thought of this dilemma: “Of course, all the local surfers, me included, would like to hide Iceland from the world and have it for ourselves as long as possible, but that is arrogant, selfish and naïve,” he said, “The world already knows about Iceland but they don’t know the whole story. It will come down to how the rest of the tale is told and who it reaches.”
We didn’t have to wait long before another swell arrived. It came with the usual gale-force winds, but I had my eye on a wrap-around spot that would be offshore. It turned out to be a text-book cobblestone pointbreak: perfect lines wrapping around a headland. It had a clean peak with a long, fast right and a shorter, bowlier left, which peeled into a perfect paddling channel.
A bit more size would have been better. But that wasn’t really the issue. When we arrived there were already about six surfers out and another three or four getting changed. This was half the surfing population of Iceland, all at one spot at one time.
There was nobody on the left, so I decided to surf there rather than make a nuisance of myself on the right. A tall surfer with a huge red beard paddled over and joined me, smiling. Then two other surfers left the main break and paddled up the point to another wave just near the headland. It was refreshing to see people using their ingenuity.
Ingenuity was in the blood of the Icelanders. Eleven hundred years earlier, when the Viking settlers saw what was happening to their land, they realised it would die and take them with it if they didn’t try to control the erosion they were causing. The only option was to cooperate, agree amongst all the farmers to slow things down a bit; stop using up all that wood, reduce the number of sheep and get rid of those highly-destructive pigs and goats.
According to Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, a degree of cooperation between clans was a major factor in the survival of those first Icelanders. Diamond contrasts this with the stubborn competitiveness that led to the failure of society on Easter Island.
I wondered whether modern Icelandic surfers had inherited some of that culture. Perhaps somewhere in their subconscious was the idea that the surf in Iceland wasn’t as limitless as it seemed. Perhaps they know that the surf has the same kind of fragility and is just as susceptible to ‘erosion’ as the land that those first Vikings found around 900 AD.
The swell dropped just as quickly as it had picked up. I started thinking about where to look for surf during the next couple of days. The southern tip of Iceland was a few hours’ drive away and would be sure to pick up any trace of remaining swell. My geological map revealed a large area containing ‘Holocene sediments’. In other words, beachbreaks.
What looked quite promising on the map turned out to be a vast expanse of shifting dunes and quicksand, sometimes stretching many kilometres between the road and the sea. It might take days of hiking across the dunes to get there.
We pulled into a town just before dark, and we stumbled across an excellent beachbreak, right there out in front. There were A-frame peaks breaking hard and close to the shore, with a light offshore wind and probably not another surfer within 200 kilometres. I couldn’t really imagine a spot that would make better use of those swell conditions, even if we’d hiked all day across those dunes to find it.
I noticed that the town was quite touristy. There were gift shops and expensive guest houses and hotels. It was a picturesque place, on the main ring-road and easy to get to from the capital, Reykjavik. The place was overflowing with tourists; almost every single one holding a camera or smartphone in front of them.
There were already about six surfers out and another three or four getting changed. This was half the surfing population of Iceland, all at one spot at one time.
Tourism is booming in Iceland. Which is great in a way, because Iceland’s economy has been struggling after the Kreppa – the famous financial meltdown of 2008. The Kreppa turned Iceland from an unknown backwater to one of the most talked-about countries in the world. Then, in 2010, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano put Iceland firmly on the map. Instead of being a disaster that an already struggling country didn’t need, it was a free advert, a blessing for the developing tourist trade. Now, tourism is fast becoming Iceland’s most lucrative industry.
But will the influx of tourists spoil the Iceland that is so pristine and wild? Will Iceland become another Benidorm or Copacabana? Probably not, but tourism could still have negative effects. Ultimately, it will be up to the Icelanders themselves to choose the right moment to slow down before Iceland’s unique features, so attractive to the rest of the world, start to erode away.
The south coast went totally flat. So we travelled up north, where lava fields and black shifting sands gave way to fjords and snow-patched mountains with icy streams flowing down to the sea. The wind had picked up again, but this time from the north. It was cold. When I looked north the raindrops firing into my face felt like shards of glass.
But I couldn’t complain. The northerly wind we were experiencing was generating a large, wind-driven swell. The north of Iceland relies mainly on swells generated close to the coast, but the convoluted, mountainous coastline acts as a filter, transforming a large, uncontrolled sea into smooth, ruler-edged lines. Well, that was the theory anyway.
We decided to keep things simple to begin with. We headed for the most well-known spot in the north of Iceland – the right-hand pointbreak you’ve probably seen in videos and photographs. The spot is nestled between two large mountains at the top of a fjord. Martín and I managed to surf small but long and perfect waves in breathtaking surroundings with not another surfer in sight.
Almost everywhere I looked, I could see cobblestone pointbreaks, reef breaks, rivermouths and beachbreaks, just waiting for the right swell.
We pulled into a café. The way they roll here is that you just help yourself to soup, bread, coffee or whatever else is on offer, and go back for refills as many times as you like. Then you just pay the same price, like a flat-rate phone contract. Many things in Iceland are like this – you pay once and then just take as much as you need. The Icelanders don’t abuse this system, so it works perfectly. I couldn’t help thinking what would probably happen if somebody tried to do this in Spain or England.
The owner of the café seemed to know we were surfers. “This is one of the most famous surf spots in the world,” she said, enthusiastically. “We regularly get groups of professionals here to make videos and write magazine articles.” Then she told me that some of the Icelandic surfers from the south didn’t want to name the spot or make too much publicity about it. She thought this was a stupid and selfish attitude. I wasn’t so sure.
The next day we set off looking for new surf. We found endless coastlines of cobblestone pointbreaks, reefs, rivermouths and beachbreaks – literally hundreds of potential surf spots. Unfortunately, they were too small to surf. The swell direction had changed, and, as we found out later, we should have headed for a different peninsula, six hours’ drive in the opposite direction. I figured this sort of thing probably happens quite often in Iceland.
So, along with the harsh conditions, another factor that might put people off is that you need to really, really know what you are doing to be in the right place at the right time. With such a convoluted coastline and sometimes no road access, it takes time and planning to get to each spot. Swell and wind conditions change extremely quickly, and, in the winter, there are barely three or four hours of light.
Check the forecast: Vik
You need to know where you are headed and stick to it. Otherwise, you will end up driving round in circles until you run out of light. I had experienced this on some of my early trips around Galicia and Ireland, many years before. But in Iceland it was probably much worse.
After a few days we headed south again. This was partly because we hadn’t yet paid the rent at the guesthouse. During our initial seven-day stay at the house we hadn’t seen another soul. Maybe the house was inhabited by Iceland’s famous Huldufólk: those small, mythical creatures that lived in the rocks and were almost never seen in real life.
When our landlord eventually appeared, he was anything but one of the ‘hidden folk’. Big Jon Arason was a quintessential Icelander: a giant of a man with short blonde hair, a large chin and a hearty laugh. He told us that he had been on a fishing trip for 23 days, which was why there had been nobody in the house.
Jon was sitting at the breakfast table eating three pieces of fish: two huge slabs of cod or haddock, and one smaller piece that I couldn’t identify. He offered me some, so I took a small slither of each. The first two were very nice, but when tried the third I got a big surprise. A cloud of rancid gas shot up my nose and down my throat. It was like biting into a nuclear holocaust.
Jon told me that I was eating hákarl: a national dish that Icelanders are proud of. He explained that it was rotten shark meat, sealed-up in an airtight bag and left for about five months. The meat contains a large amount of uric acid and ammonia, which explains the explosive taste.
You need to know where you are headed and stick to it. Otherwise, you will end up driving round in circles until you run out of light.
Hákarl is something uniquely Icelandic. Along with other more palatable foods, it is one of the traditions that Iceland really doesn’t want to lose. The locals are especially worried about the constant threat of fast-food and Americanisation that could accompany the current boom in tourism.
Jon was extremely interested in the fact that we were surfers. I told him that if I knew of any more surfers coming to Iceland I would send them to him. He thought that was a great idea. He even talked about turning his guesthouse into a surf camp. However, at the same time, he also confessed that some of the neighbours were already complaining about his guests’ cars parked along the street, which could reach about nine during peak season.
I wondered if Iceland would soon become overcrowded with surfers. Would it become a regular surf-tour destination like Morocco or would it become heavily localised like the Canary Islands? Or would it stay the same as it was now, with just a few hardy travellers and a few friendly locals?
Iceland really does contain a huge number of quality set-ups. There were one or two areas with cliffs or some other bad coastal geology, but most of Iceland’s coastline has great potential for surf. Almost everywhere I looked, I could see cobblestone pointbreaks, reef breaks, rivermouths and beachbreaks, just waiting for the right swell.
You might think that there is nothing stopping Iceland becoming a major surfing destination in the future. But that last point – the fact that all those perfect reefs and points don’t often get the right swell – could be a key factor. Most surfers would prefer to park off in front of a known spot and surf there every day without having to worry about complicated swell patterns and coastal geology. In Iceland you have to chase swells around the country, and you always risk not being in the right place at the right time. And the vast majority of surfers just don’t have the patience for that.
Hopefully, most of the surfers who go to Iceland in the future will be those who prioritise solitude and a pristine environment over maximum tube time and minimum effort. By definition, they will be the kind of surfers who understand that surf spots, just like the trees and the soil that were so abundant when those first settlers arrived over a thousand years ago, are a limited ‘resource’ that will erode away fast if we don’t use it wisely.
Thinking about a trip somewhere a bit warmer? Come see how the rest of Europe is looking: Supertubos | Fistral | Mundaka | Nazare |