Iceland and the the Jeep Seats

Know the off-road rules in the land of fire and ice
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The Independent Travel

The national highway, Iceland's only paved road, is a ring road running all the way around the perimeter of the island. It's 825 miles long, so it's not much use if you're in a hurry to get from one side of the island to the other. The alternative is driving across a landscape that has produced one third of the world's lava flow in the past 400 years. And land that isn't jagged black rock is probably under one of Iceland's 20 glaciers, which cover 11 per cent of the island.

"Even the best roads in the interior have a surface of loose gravel," warns Ragnar, a stocky, sandy-haired man who looks disconcertingly like Sandi Toksvig: Danes colonised and governed Iceland until the Althing, Europe's oldest parliament, was granted legislative independence from Denmark in 1874, so it's not too fanciful to imagine shared genes somewhere along the line.

River crossings are fraught with danger, mountain roads are closed until the end of June and, should you be unfortunate enough to drive into one, crevasses in glaciers can swallow vehicles whole. So it's hardly surprising that a country as unique and extreme as Iceland has spawned a vehicle as unique and extreme as the superjeep.

To tell the truth, I've never been much of a petrolhead; I've always thought putting a poster of a Ferrari on a bedroom wall indicative of some personality defect. But there is something about the mental image of a Land Rover barrelling across country, jerry cans bouncing on the roof rack, a dust-rimmed windshield, that has always appealed to me - and Iceland's superjeeps kick sand in the face of any Land Rover. Take Ragnar's fire-engine red, military-spec Toyota superjeep. Its 44-inch, balloon-tyred wheels are turned by a 300bhp diesel engine. In the back there is a bed, and the vehicle can heat water for days at a time - not that there is much need for that in a country that has more than 250 natural hot springs.

The superjeep cost Ragnar 16 million kronur (£150,000). His navigation equipment includes GPS, a satellite phone and a laptop (with recharger), all of which plug into the dashboard. During a whiteout on the glaciers, Ragnar simply drives with both eyes fixed on the computer screen, which plots a safe route via satellite using GPS.

"A blizzard is the worst weather," Ragnar explains, "but I've never got into trouble and neither have any of my friends, because we follow a few basic rules, and since we have satellite navigation we don't actually need to see where we're going. In snowstorms I let the tyres down so each wheel has one square metre of surface area and I can float on the snow." Those colossal one-metre-high tyres are inflated to 25psi for the road, 15psi for dirt tracks and just 2psi for glaciers.

"I can easily make a three- or four-day trip, living in the super-jeep," he tells me. "Crevasses are not a problem in winter. The first blizzards of autumn fill them up, and by the time there's two or three feet of snow covering the glaciers they are frozen solid. Only in late summer are they dangerous, but because there's full daylight you can see them."

A Reykjavik-based outfit, Iceland Excursion, allows visitors to get a taste of off-roading Iceland-style with its King for a Day tour. I arrive at the company's headquarters at 8.30am sharp to collect my superjeep, a modified white Toyota with monster truck suspension and 38-inch tyres, and meet my tutor, who, I'm slightly disappointed to discover, isn't a wild-eyed, Erik the Red-type Norseman.

No, instead of Rutger Hauer, I get Roger Cummings - a bus driver from Dorset. Roger has lived in Iceland for 20 years and has picked up a few driving tricks from the locals, as well as an unusual Icelandic-West Country accent.

His first task is to explain an automatic gearbox that has more positions than a manual five-speed: High Low is for cruising, while Low Low uses lower gear ratios for more power off-road. Gearbox explained, we head out of town for Wolf Mountain, which overlooks Reykjavik. We turn left off the main road on to a series of ever-rougher dirt tracks.

I'm aware that this is not even Key Stage One in off-roading, but it's still a few minutes before I realise that rocky roads and steep hills are not going to be a problem in the superjeep. From the top of Wolf Mountain we can see Surtsey Island, created by an undersea eruption that began in 1963. The name of the world's newest island means God of Fire.

"Look around," says Roger. "Every mountain you can see is a volcano. There are more than 200 volcanoes in Iceland, 30 of which are active."

In fact, the whole place is a living, belching geography lesson. At a fresh-faced 20 million years old, Iceland is the youngest country in Europe, floating above the mid-Atlantic ridge where the European and North American tectonic plates join. It is three hours' flight-time from Heathrow and three hours from Boston, which explains the large number of elderly Americans broiling themselves in the hot springs of the Blue Lagoon, one of the country's main tourist draws.

Driving down Wolf Mountain is more nerve-racking than driving up it, especially when Roger directs me over a three-foot-high stepdown. Keeping an almost glacially slow speed, I ease the superjeep over the edge and down the rockface. The bonnet seems to disappear before my eyes, but we don't feel a thing: the huge tyres have soaked up the piffling obstacle.

Basic rock-crawling completed, my next lesson is in river crossings. We rejoin the main road and head inland. On the way, Roger gives me some tips for driving in snow and ice. If Britain is to get as cold a winter as forecasters are suggesting, this newly acquired Icelandic know-how could come in handy.

"To improve your grip on icy roads," he tells me, "spray turpentine or white spirit on your car tyres to wash off the oil residue and get back to sticky rubber." One tip I won't be using is the Icelandic method of puncture repair: jack up the superjeep and scoop out the dirt and snow from the collapsed tyre; then smear a bit of Vaseline on the wheel rim. Spray ether or something equally flammable inside the tyre, ignite it - remembering to stand back as you do so - and watch as the explosion pushes the tyre on to the rim. Attach air pump.

Roger guides me down a right turn off the main road to one of the many rivers fed by Iceland's glaciers and prodigious rainfall. Have you ever looked at a wide, fast-flowing river and wondered whether it would be fun to floor a 4x 4 through it? It is. I follow the river downstream, taking a track that weaves in and out of the braided channels, bouncing up the banks and back into the water at 40mph.

My new-found off-roading confidence has one more test, as we arrive at one of the playgrounds of a torfaera (hellfire) club, whose members enjoy a specifically Icelandic sport in which drivers in customised, 800bhp buggies power as far up a near-vertical slope of black volcanic dust as they can before either roaring over the summit or rolling down backwards.

On the beginner slopes, I soon grasp the technique in the super-jeep: stamp the accelerator to the floor and hold on. You want to follow the drift the vehicle makes, but the important thing is not lose your bottle.

Our journey ends at the southernmost point of Iceland, where sulphurous steam from bubbling mud disperses in the bone-chilling breeze. Strange, yes; but after all this is a country where, famously, new roads are routed around communities of huldufolk, invisible pixie-like people believed by many Icelanders to be living among the rocks.

Ragnar emails after I get back from Iceland. He has bought a new superjeep and the Toyota is for sale. Am I tempted? For a split second it seems like a good idea, but then I realise it would be less than satisfied by the lack of glaciers to cross. Or volcanoes, for that matter.

Discover the World (01737 214 214, www.discover-the-world.co.uk) offers three-night city breaks to Reykjavik all year round. Prices from £341 per person based on two sharing, including return flights from Heathrow or Glasgow. The King for a Day superjeep safari costs from £145 based on four people sharing a superjeep

The concept of individual responsibility is deeply ingrained here. After all, Iceland has just 280,000 inhabitants; it's the equivalent of the population of Newcastle living on an island slightly larger than Ireland, with fewer than 700 police officers to keep law and order. Police keep a sharp eye out for drivers going off-road illegally. Torfaera clubs use disused mines, and there are stiff penalties for venturing off existing tracks. For all their gung-ho vehicles, Icelanders care about the natural beauty of their homeland; its volcanic surface is an exceptionally delicate ecosystem, and many areas are protected. Routes on the King for a Day tour are all on designated tracks. When driving on glaciers, convoys comprise at least two 4x4s for safety.

If you are driving without a guide, the Icelandic Road Administration (www.vegagerdin.is) is a helpful resource, providing detailed, up-to-the-minute data on road and weather conditions, as well as maps and advice. Note also that drink-driving laws are strict - save the vodka for later.

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