Meet Dori, Iceland’s outdoor adventure guru

It’s been so long since we finished our bike tour of Iceland, it seems like a distant dream. I’ve had this interview with Dori sitting in my recorder all that time, and listening to it immediately transported me back to one of the best experiences of my life. If you’re ever in Reykjavik, be sure to give him a smile and say hello – he’ll appreciate it.

Halldór Hreinsson
Halldór Hreinsson: tent person, family man and smile collector

When we first met Halldor (Dori) Hreinsson, Paul and I were purchasing the final few items we needed at an outdoor shop in Reykjavik, before setting off on a five week bicycle tour around Iceland.

Wielding a series of maps, a set of lightweight cutlery and a couple of midge-proof head nets, we were greeted at the counter by Dori – a larger than life Icelandic man with kind eyes and a ready smile. We placed down our purchases and chatted to him about our plans, to which his face immediately lit up. Having confirmed that we were definitely going to buy the maps, Dori spread them out on the counter between us, grabbed a pen and started marking off must-see spots.

Aware that we needed all the advice we could get, we were pleased with our good fortune at having met this enthusiastic and generous Reykjavik local – but we were also conscious of the growing queue of toe-tapping customers behind us, as well as Dori’s slightly flustered colleague who politely asked more than once if we might shift over so others could be served. It was clear Dori was an outdoor enthusiast first, a checkout clerk second – and we didn’t want him getting in trouble at work, even though Dori himself didn’t seem all that fazed.

As it turned out we were only half right – Dori wasn’t as we’d guessed a local guy funding his passion for adventure with a part-time job behind the counter at an outdoor store. He was a local guy funding and sharing his passion for adventure as the owner of a chain of three outdoor stores in Iceland called Fjallakofinn (literally ‘mountain hut’), along with the associated import business and a boutique European adventure travel agency. On that particular day, he had dropped by his Reykjavik store for a visit and to meet some fellow adventurers – including, thankfully, us.

8 On the road to Akureyri

A month later – with 1200 hard-earned kilometres under our belt, ridden through a spectacular country in an adventure that will stay with us forever – we again joined Dori, this time for a pint of lager at the pub across the road from his store on Reykjavik’s main street.

One of the first things Dori told us – in classic to-the-point Icelandic style that can sometimes seem cocky at first, but is in fact refreshingly honest – was that he expected there to be a lot of people at his funeral. “I have a simple philosophy of life, and that’s why I know the church will be packed when I pass away,” he said, eyes shining with the revelation. “I try to make people smile,” he went on. “To get a smile – whether it’s an Icelandic or English or an Australian smile, it’s the same – that gives me a lot in my heart. I am nourished by making people happy. People like you who are buying their stuff and they come back with their story about how marvellous their adventure was.”

That might sound like the line of a salesman eager to sell more gear to the waves of tourists arriving on Iceland’s shores – a million in the summer of 2014 alone, three times the country’s local population. However, Dori’s sincerity is underscored by his equal candour when it comes to the type of tourism that is less likely to elicit one of his contagious grins.

“I don’t want this precious diamond which Iceland is for me to be flooded by ‘ants’, which is what I call some of the tourists. The ones that are here with their scoreboard to match up with their neighbours,” he said. For example, Dori told us he finds visits to Iceland’s famous Geysir rather depressing nowadays. “For me, Geysir is like a fish factory. When I was younger, it was unbelievable, but I don’t enjoy it anymore. People pass through like fish being processed – they may as well just buy a postcard.”

But it’s not just the “carousel tourists” (another one of Dori’s phrases) – he also laments the growing caravanning culture among Icelanders. Dori says he is proud to call himself a “tent person”, even if he is part of a shrinking community. As an example, Dori told us a story about a recent camping trip he took with his family. They had set up camp early in the day and left to go hiking, only to return to find their tent flanked on all sides by enormous caravans; they had unwittingly erected it near the only power outlet. The worst part was when the caravan occupants all turned up the same TV show at 9pm. “I really don’t understand it, I’ve been trying to figure it out. Why do they bring their living room to the mountains? Why do they need TV?” Disappointed, Dori and his family shortened their stay at that particular site and moved on early. “The caravans are cutting the connection from the earth, from nature,” he said.

Iceland Westfjords: "Tent People"

Dori’s love for the outdoors has been nurtured since childhood – he grew up skiing, hiking and camping in Iceland’s remote wilderness with his parents. Dori’s father was a member of the Reykjavik rescue team (part of a national volunteer organisation similar to Australia’s SES), which Dori himself has been involved with for over 40 years now – since he was old enough to join at age 16. This was also how Dori came to be working in the outdoor industry.

“The rescue team had the only serious outdoor shop in Iceland,” Dori explained. His father had been on the board of the rescue team, and Dori used to accompany him to outdoor exhibitions in Europe to select skis and outdoor gear for the store. Ten years later, Dori was on the board when the outdoor gear shop was up for sale – and the rest is history. Fjallakofinn has expanded to three stores across Iceland, and Dori also runs a small tour company in which he takes limited numbers of travellers on adventures around Europe. The latter business venture, however, is more for his personal fulfillment than anything else. “We have small groups, we don’t advertise – it’s like those micro farms, we just harvest what we need for ourselves,” he said.

It’s clear that the key to Dori’s success is his contagious enthusiasm and his generosity – his smile collecting philosophy. A great story-teller, he had plenty of anecdotes to share with us over beer. One was about the time he read a public notice in the local paper about a ten-year-old boy who’d lost his treasured Swiss Army Knife. Immediately sympathetic to the boy’s loss – and as the country’s only importer of Victorinox – Dori had contacted the family and replaced it. He then showed us a photo on his phone – it was of the boy, now grown up, on a recent heli-skiing trip they’d taken together. The pair became lifelong friends. Dori never asked for payment for the Swiss Army Knife – only a smile to add to his growing collection, and perhaps another friend to fill a space on a church pew when the time comes.



The gear revolt (and farewell Iceland – until next time!)

We’ve spent five weeks in a tent and covered 1200km on bikes, and now we leave behind Iceland with a tinge of melancholy, a lifetime of memories – and incurable bike touring addictions.

Paul riding to Thakgill Iceland

Days 32-38(ish?)
Vik > Thakgill (almost!) > Reykjavik >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> London
Total distance cycled: 1200km

In the end, our gear gave up before we did.

We were packing up camp back in Kirkjubaejarklaustur (the pronuncisation of which I believe we’ve finally mastered), when a connection in the main pole of our trustly little tent snapped clean in half.

After almost five full weeks of providing precious shelter and performing admirably through wind beatings and rain batterings, it finally gave in – like a tree branch dropping in the calm after a storm. It was one of those moments when we’d look at each other for a moment, as if to ascertain from the other person’s facial expression that yes, that really did just happen. And yes, we’re going to have to deal with it now.

We packed the broken pole into its pannier, then extracted it that afternoon in the communal campsite shelter in Vik, Paul busying himself engineering a solution while the rain beat down on the corrugated roof, and I read and prepared tea and snacks. The Frankenstein-esque result included pieces of wire coat-hanger, cable ties, gaffer tape, a wool sock and a spare shoelace to wrap the whole thing together. It stuck out like a growth under the tent fly, but we hoped it would do the job for the three final nights of camping.*
Tent repair job
The following morning we planned to ride 20km over a hilly country road to a place called Thakgill. It would be the last stint on our bikes before we took the bus back into Reykjavik. We awoke to bright clear skies, almost delirious with optimism as we set off for the first six kilometres on the Ring Road before the turn off towards our destination.

In single file, we rolled along the tarmac belting out songs to which we barely knew the chorus. “ON THE ROAD AGAIN! Just can’t wait to get ON THE ROAD AGAIN! Nah nah nah nah nah nah… something with old friends! AND I CAN’T WAIT TO GET ON THE ROO-OAD AGAIN! … Hit the ROO-OAD JACK! And don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, NO MORE!” Et cetera.

We knew this track would be steep and unsealed, but we’d come so far by now there didn’t seem to be much that could phase us. It wouldn’t be as steep as the day we climbed to the edge of Snaefellsjokull glacier, for example. And there was no rain or wind blowing us sideways  in fact, we’d had to remove layers of clothing and wear sunscreen.

We stood up on our pedals and sailed on. “The ROAD is looo-ooong! With MANY a WIND-ING … something…that keeps us to… something… WHO-O KNOWS WHERE? WHO-OO KNOWS WHEN?!”

The quiet, gravel road to Thakgill winds its way up and around dramatic rocky volcanic landscape, then down towards the glacial floodplains below Myrdalsjokull (‘jokull’ means glacier in Icelandic), which we could see clear and sharp framed by blue sky in the distance.

We’d ridden about 15km when I caught up to Paul, who had pulled off the side of the road. “My tyre just blew,” he said. “Didn’t you hear it? It sounded like a gunshot!”

Still feeling pretty invincible  nothing could spoil this day!  we pulled off the side of the road. We had spare inner tubes and a spare tyre, so Paul set to instigating the repair job… while I took photos and of course prepared snacks (my personal area of expertise).

Bike repairs on the way to Thakgill Iceland
As it turned out, his inner tube had blown through the sidewall of the worn-out tyre. He replaced the inner tube, but the replacement tyre with which we’d been provided didn’t seem to fit  and, we discovered, it was as worn as the original anyway.

In the end, Paul fitted the old, damaged tyre over the new inner tube, then we considered our options. Ride back to Vik now in case his tyre didn’t last, or try our luck with his semi-repaired bike and finish the five or so last kilometres to Thakgill, then decide what to do from there?

It looked mostly downhill for the rest of the way, and our only commitment was a bus to Reykjavik the following midday, so we rode on, Paul stopping every now and then to check on the Achilles’ heel in his tyre.

We rolled down the long bumpy hill into the vast, dramatic scenery, the sun beating down on our backs.

Gemma riding to Thakgill iceland

With just a few kilometres to Thakgill, I commented in passing that I had noticed a rhythmic noise coming from my own bike. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it – was it a scrape, or a flap? Katoosh, katoosh, katoosh, with every pedal. I thought maybe a pannier strap was flicking on the wheel spokes, but couldn’t find the cause. Had I simply never noticed the sound before?

No, the noise was getting louder, and now it was accompanied by a feeling of resistance with every pedal. Something was caught somewhere. I inspected the bike again and spotted it. A big, ugly bulge, like a tumour, sticking out of the front tyre; it had been scraping beneath the mudflap. I tried to roll forward a little, but now it was completely jammed under there – the bulge was growing before my eyes.

Paul and I both had similar responses to the sight: “Yuck, what is that?” Then he quickly let down the tyre pressure and I realised, of course  it was about to blow, just as Paul’s tyre had done less than 20 minutes earlier. Our bikes were like an elderly couple passing away in quick succession at the end of their long lives together. Of course, more likely it had something to do with the unusual heat in the day, tyre pressures set for riding on the sealed Ring Road, and simply old worn out gear.

We made the decision to return to Vik. We figured we’d at least seen the scenery leading to Thakgill  if not the campsite and walking trails – and we didn’t want to risk getting stuck and missing our bus the following day. We started off walking the loaded mountain bikes up the hill we’d just descended but then, realising how unfeasibly hard walking them the entire 15km back would be, we mounted the bikes and rode them slowly and carefully back to Vik  Paul’s sidewall gash growing and my tyre sagging.

We made it in a couple of hours and, this close to the end of the trip, we weren’t overly disappointed in the turn of events. Vik (which means ‘bay’ in Icelandic) is a lovely village and we spent the afternoon at the pool and then enjoying the sunset and full moon  the days were almost two hours shorter now than they had been when we’d arrived over a month earlier.

The following sunny morning, we walked along the black sand beach, down to the headland to spot massive circling gulls and darting little puffins, and then boarded the bus to Reykjavik at midday.

Vik Iceland

On the bus, we met another tourer  Miguel from Barcelona  who had ridden around Iceland for his first bike tour six year ago, and has since toured through Nepal, Mozambique, Mongolia and Alaska. He was now returning to his original (and favourite but, he tells us, much changed) destination to explore more of the highlands and the Westfjords. Needless to say we were inspired and a little jealous, particularly of his impressive, reliable-looking steed. We’d spent the past couple of days planning how we’ll build up our own perfect tourers for the next trip…

Together the three of us negotiated several bus changes, ferrying our combined total of 15 bags and panniers plus three bikes on and off the crowded aisles of public buses  pedals and spokes tangling, bags stacked precariously on seats, each of us sweating and rushing at the short bus changeovers.

Our last night spent in our hanging-in-there tent would be at the Reykjavik campsite, celebrating at a restaurant called the Hamburger Factory which has delicious hearty food but also the strange practice of keeping a running total of Iceland’s population on a wall-mounted scoreboard. Someone was born (with a cheer from the room of diners) while we ate, and we wondered what happens when someone dies? It must be slightly awkward.

The following morning we walked our bikes to our original airbnb accommodation in the city centre, ahead of a bus day trip we’d booked to do the ‘Golden Circle’ a series of points of interest near Reykjavik, and often the only thing a tourist will see when visiting Iceland as a quick stopover between Europe and the USA. Ironically, after our five week adventure, we still hadn’t seen two of these: Gullfoss and Geysir.

Geysir  the world-famous geyser from which the geological term derives  was our first stop. Still fresh from our bike tour, we felt decidedly strange looking around at our dozing fellow travellers, many wearing headphones, sometimes with curtains drawn to block the bright sun. We all exited together at our first stop, having been told to return to the bus in 25 minutes flat, and made our way to the rope barrier around the exploding geyser, each taking the same photos before checking out the visitors centre.

Geysir is, of course, a sight to see and more than deserving of its popularity. We watched in awe as the hot water bubbled and pulsed, seeming to build up energy before releasing it in a burst of water and spray 20-30 metres into the sky. Unfortunately, however, our 25 minutes quickly ran out, so we returned to doze on the hot, stuffy bus again before arriving at Gullfoss seemingly moments later. We hurried to the two-tier waterfall’s edge (Gullfoss means ‘golden waterfall’) to try and adequately absorb the immensity of it, the spray on our faces, take a few photos, then scuttle back to the bus before it left without us.

Our final stop was a return to what had been our second day’s ride destination, Thingvellir. Five weeks earlier, we’d spent two days here, arriving on our bikes from the base of the lake, Thingvallavatn, feeling utterly remote and filled with anticipation. We’d spent a long rest-day morning in the drizzling rain on a free tour with a park ranger learning about the history of the site, and camped overnight. This time, we had 20 minutes at one lookout and, of course, the visitors centre.

In the end, the entire six hour tour, which cost about A$60, included just over one hour actually outside the bus  mostly, it seemed, for selfie-opps. For the rest, most people were either sleeping, engaging in small talk, or enthralled by their smartphones.

Gullfoss waterfall iceland
In other words, we’re converts to bike touring as the best way to really see a country; to actually be in it. The contrast of our Golden Circle day tour had us sorely missing our daily routine on the bikes.

The feeling was compounded when we were finally reacquainted with the rest of our luggage that afternoon. I’d imagined it would feel like a huge relief finally having access to more than one pair of pants and shoes, a big bag of toiletries, a bathroom three steps from our bedside, etc. And it was nice, but it also felt as though we’d gained a burden, and when I buried my reliable ‘town clothes’ of hiking pants and polar fleece in the bottom of our suitcase, it felt almost like a betrayal. In revisiting ‘civilisation’, it was as though, in return, we’d lost something less tangible  a kind of freedom. We both of course enjoyed the feeling of fresh clothes and long hot showers, but couldn’t quite shake a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia.

We were helped, though, by the friendly familiarity of Reykjavik (which had felt much more alien when we’d first arrived five weeks earlier) and the kind people we’d met and regained contact with. Our generous airbnb hosts, the larger-than-life local outdoor adventure guru and owner of a chain of outdoor gear shops, Fjallakoffin, Halldor Hreinsson (who I interviewed for an article), and of course the bike hire company, where we returned our weary old steeds.

We leaned them up against the wall outside the store and swaggered in, 1200 hard-earned kilometres under our belt this time.

“Hello!” we said, enthusiastically and familiarly.

Silence. We looked at each other for a beat, shifted on our feet a little.

“Um, hello? Do you remember us? We’re here to return our bikes. We, um, we’ve been around Iceland.” I drew a little circle in the air.

The uber-cool mountain biker swivelled around in his chair and eventually greeted us. We were experts at this now. He was of course interested in hearing about our trip (and I also interviewed him for an article), but we knew we’d have to wait until we spoke to our parents before we got that pat on the back or high five. This guy had, after all, recently ridden around Iceland’s 1300km Ring Road in 42 hours, versus our five weeks… so I suppose that was fine.

[I now write this from a hotel room in London, next stop Devon where we will be setting up a home for the next year or so. Stay tuned!]

* This is a note for one Ms Amy Russell (if you’re reading this!) – the tent really has been excellent! We’ve bonded with the little green grasshopper, and have been amazed at how well he’s stood up to everything we’ve put him through. We’re extremely grateful to you for providing our home for the past five weeks. xx