Wind whipping through the open visor of my crash helmet, a woman’s arms wrapped tightly around me, while I nonchalantly caress our machine through the open landscape, nothing audible above the whir of the engine between our legs. This was the ultimate Harley-Davidson fantasy – but for a few minor details.
My ‘woman’ is Susan, a middle-aged stranger from my tour group, the scenery whizzing past isn’t the vast American desert but Iceland in winter, and the wind flapping in through my open visor is bloody cold. We’re not biking but snowmobiling and, despite these details, it’s bloody good fun.
Our voyage began when our 4WD minibus pulled up to a lonely truck in a field of white. I was half expecting Karl, our guide, to pull out some tow ropes – the 4WD had already struggled a couple of times to find grip on the slippery terrain, and I expected the truck was stranded. It was parked purposefully, however, and we were soon climbing into its trailer to find a giant wardrobe. Containing far more quantity than glamorous quality, it was full of padded blue jumpsuits, crash helmets and thick gloves. Pulling the getup on over already numerous layers of clothing, I walked out feeling like the love child of Neil Armstrong and the Michelin Man.
Armstrong’s moon-walking experience could have been useful in this lunar landscape. There was no other life in sight; all we could see in all directions was white. As we were soon to learn, this can be extremely disorienting. Every year a couple of people die driving them off cliffs,” said Karl as we approached our snowmobiles.
Like a bobsled with a small ski on either side of the front for stability, snowmobiles run on a tank-like tread, and some models can reach speeds of up to 150km/h. Despite their obvious use in a country where winter sees roads closed for days, if not weeks, on end, they’re still a luxury. With Iceland’s high taxes, a snowmobile costs about £7000, and they don’t even last that long. “Having one last 5000km is like getting a car that lasts 500,000km,” says Karl. These days, specially modified jeeps are more common in Iceland, but snowmobiles can still cross terrain that wouldn’t otherwise be traversable.
As our group split into pairs, Susan kindly offered to let me drive first. Although I knew she was just being polite, I was quick to take up a place behind the handlebars. Tentative at first, it wasn’t long before I was envisaging myself as an all-weather Easy Rider.
We travel in single file so as not to get lost, like members of an exploratory Arctic expedition. Steering the beasts can be tricky; it’s like riding a pushbike with a front wheel that’s a foot wide. It’s quickly apparent that the best option is to stick to the tracks of the vehicle in front, as slipping in and out of them makes for a bumpy ride. The wind flapping our clothes is icy, but with my helmet fogging up there’s no option but to lift the visor. My teeth are chattering, and my hands seem frozen in a permanently handlebar-curled position, yet all I’m thinking about is the road ahead.
As I get more confident behind the handlebars, I soon realise the advantage of being at the rear of the line, dropping off the pace to give the others a headstart before cranking the throttle and zooming up behind them. I’m exhilarated; Susan holds on that little bit tighter.
But when, eventually, I hand over control, things quickly get a lot scarier as Susan’s conservative driving results in us losing sight of our group ahead. It’s then we realise just how lonely and disorientating this formerly wondrous landscape is. With nothing but white in all directions, you lose all sense of 3D – you can’t tell if that’s a hill 50m in front of you, or just the landscape continuing to the horizon. It’s even tough distinguishing where the ground stops and the sky begins.
As Susan voluntarily relinquishes the reins, I soon have us scooting along in search of the group. Thankfully, it’s not long before we catch a glimpse of colour in the white. Now comes the fun part: catching them. Revving our steed towards top speed, I lean forward and into the turns, struggling to concentrate among thoughts of just how cool this is. We make up the gap in no time, and I ease off the accelerator and coast back into formation. Just as my ego begins to inflate with the decreasing adrenaline, I’m snapped out of my fantasy by the sight of the pair directly in front of us attempting a turn too sharply and suddenly, yet seemingly in slow motion, careering off their snowmobile. But instead of a nasty case of gravel rash, they rise from the soft snow with grins on their faces. Who needs a motorbike?”