Biking in Iceland
- Submitted by: Axel Pichlmaier
- Submission Date: 11th Feb 2005
We wanted to do something off the beaten track. After having met in the US on a cycling trip, Steve and I had always planned to spend another cycling holiday together. Certainly not an organized one and Iceland was only one possible destination (where can you go to if you have only got two weeks?).
So we met in London on a warm and stormy Friday afternoon in early June and flew to Iceland the next morning. The first small difficulty arose at check-in at Heathrow airport, when we learned that the airlines in their efforts to become more efficient had cancelled the perfect bike boxes and use now only plastic bags. Everybody who has ever profited from these huge cardboard garages knows the advantages: not only that they protect your bike to the maximum possible extent, they also hold all excess luggage and allow you to travel easily with only one pannier (for all heavy equipment) and hand luggage. Since these helpers were now out of service, we had to stuff our bikes in the plastic bags, wrap cloths around the most vulnerable parts and pray that the airline workers will not mistreat them. Luckily we were allowed as many pieces of luggage as we wanted, so at least we did not have to mess around with repacking panniers at the airport. Surprising enough: we were not the only cyclists on the way to Iceland: there were at least 5 bikes on the plane.
It was a quiet flight. The clouds cleared up just in time to allow for a first glimpse at 'our' island. It is pretty impressive to see the huge glaciers from the air. Touch down was not so smooth but we could not blame the Icelandair pilot. I felt slightly uneasy when Steve - he was sitting next to the window - reported that it looked like the wing would hit the ground before the rest of the aircraft. Of course we had a safe landing, but as an infrequent flyer I am just not used to landing in heavy cross winds. And this wind was really strong. Luckily all our luggage arrived; my bike in a good shape, Steve's with damaged handlebar-extensions, but still rideable. Another cyclist was not so happy, all his luggage, including tools and camping equipment, was lost. He could spend a night in a hotel on Icelandair's costs, but I bet he'd rather cycle with us to Reykjavik than having a comfortable hotel-night spoiled by the uncertainty of the rest of his vacations.
In the cosy airport hall we had already forgotten about the wind outside, in fact, the weather looked fine and we were eager to set foot on Icelandic soil. Everything looked easy from inside: sunny and not too cold, so lets go! Reality is often brutal. We had expected an easy afternoon ride to the city of Reykjavik, 45 km away from the airport. In fact, it took us five and a half hours to get there, and there is not a single hill or any other obstacle noticeable on this road: it's only the wind! This wind was the worst we have ever been cycling in and we have already done a lot of biking. Even Icelanders said that we had picked a particularly bad day for arrival, as far as the wind was concerned. As a cross wind, we could hardly pedal since the pedals would always touch the ground, as a headwind it was like a really steep and never ending hill. As a tailwind it would have been great, but this experience we never had.
Additionally of course the wind was not very steady what forces you into strange curves and bends and zigzag. This sure is only a problem if you have to share the road with heavy motorised traffic. About the most dangerous situation probably is when you are passed by a truck, followed by a second one. Once the first one protects you no longer from the wind you are forced into a sharp bend in order to maintain equilibrium, what cannot be expected neither by the first nor by the second truck. Pray that they do not overtake too close.... To sum it all up, Steve and I somehow managed to avoid running into all cars and I was blown off the road only once - never mind, no blood no fun! Certainly after the first 10 km it was everything but fun! We had a short break on a supermarket next to the road to stock us with the most important supplies, especially food, and some stops due to exhaustion. We both agreed on not camping but going to the youth hostel for the night. At almost 22 00 h we arrived, more than tired, and almost lacking the ability for joking. We had been warned that Iceland is a windy country, but who had expected this ?? - Welcome to Iceland!
Of course there were some more cyclists in the hostel but two of them had given up cycling! They said they could no longer enjoy it in this weather - unbelievable only in the enthusiasm of the first day. A week later we would have understood.
In the late evening and morning the wind died and it became almost quiet, in fact so quiet, that you could hear the rain. Yes, the wind had dropped, but it rained and the temperatures were down to not far above freezing.
We had a long and substantial breakfast at the hostel and stayed there until about 10 00 h when it cleared up a bit and we set out to go to the tourist information and to buy some more food for the days to come. So far we had no idea where we could buy supplies and how many stores there were once we had left the Reykjavik area. Soon we found that it was normally sufficient to carry food for only one day.
The Reykjavik Tourist Information is a cosy place and the people are friendly and as willing to help as all Icelanders, the problem only was: we did not know exactly what to ask! We obtained some information about Iceland in general and the road conditions (all pistes in the interior highlands still closed). Finally we also changed some money in the information place. Don't do this! They charge 10 % !
When we finally set out the rain had stopped but it was even colder than in the morning. Never mind, after only a few kilometres, still within the city limits, the rain started again and the wind was picking up. In fact, it was similar to the day before, slightly less stormy but much wetter. After hardly more than an hour's ride we were glad to find an open supermarket (Sunday!) next to the road. We went in for shelter, bought some more supplies and had lunch there. How comfortable! Most supermarkets have some kind of picnic table and provide you with free coffee. Additionally, if you have so good looking women working at the desk, you simply have to shop and hope for a long queue
After a while, the weather was not really better, we felt like we had to carry on. Soon we left the main road and followed a smaller one, still paved and in excellent shape, towards Thingvellir, the historically most important place of Iceland. The wind was picking up more and more, the rain luckily dropped a bit. A steep hill did not make cycling easier. Today it was Steve who was caught by the wind and left the road not deliberately and for him slightly surprisingly. No serious damage happened, but this did remind us that we had to stick to paved surfaces as long as the wind was as bad as this.
The eastern back country of Reykjavik is quite hilly, but almost no vegetation except grass and some bushes. When Steve asked later on for a campsite with shelter an suggested trees for this purpose, he got an answer in typical Icelandic humour: 'You might have realised that we do not have so many trees in Iceland' - which is perfectly right. We were also told us that we had missed fresh snow in the area by only one day. For us, the temperatures were cold enough even without the snow.
Thingvellir is the place, where the oldest still existing parliament of the world was constituted (in 930), where - in the old times - the laws were announced to the Icelandic people, where the Republic of Iceland was founded in 1944 and, last not least, where geographically America meets Europe. Today, not much more but a church and a hotel can be seen, but the land has a certain beauty with a roaring waterfall and a very quiet, very cold lake.
After not much more then 35 miles as a total ride for the day - remember, we had to fight fierce headwinds, rain and cold temperatures - we were glad to find a nice spot close to the lake. The wind had completely died, it felt almost warm (although less than 10 (C). The sun managed to send some illuminating rays through the tiny gaps in the clouds. We had a walk to warm up, got attacked by some birds intending to defend their nests and went to the bar of the Thingvellir hotel for a drink. The beer was 'so la la', but incredibly expensive (about 500 ISK ~ 5 £ for 0.25 l). In any case we had the chance to talk for a while to one more pretty Icelandic woman, who handled the bar and had no customers but us. Despite the daylight at Midnight, at 11:00 pm we were tired enough to go to the tents.
The next morning was cold, but sunny and calm. What had happened to the wind and the rain? Do not ask, enjoy! Our aim was to see the Geysir area and to come to Gullfoss, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Europe. We left the campsite at about nine, had an easy ride on a good paved road for the first two or three miles and turned left on a much smaller road, no longer paved but gravel and winding over a pass. What really surprised us was the density of traffic. We had expected not more than a car every hour or so, in fact, every couple of minutes we had to give way to a car or, worse, to a coach or lorry. At least it had rained enough so we did not have to bother with clouds of dust - only with flying rocks. It struck us that most drivers either could not imagine what it meant to ride a bike on a gravel road or simply did not care about us: it seemed that only tourists slowed down, even gave us a wave. Locals sometimes gave us a warning horn, but in most cases too late to do anything.
For lunch time, it was still not very warm but the sun was out and we came to a petrol station, where we found a picnic table and had the possibility to restock our supplies. Again, it was no easy pedalling and we were tired after only the short distance of the morning ride.
Again on a good road (don't complain about a road construction, it never lasts longer than a few miles whereas the headwind is more reliable than everything and lasts always all day long) we came to Geysir in the afternoon. Those of you who know Yellowstone park might expect an even bigger area of thermal activity in Iceland. This might be true if you compare the hot-spring-density of Wyoming with the corresponding density in Iceland. This area in the south of Iceland, although world famous, has very human dimensions, so you can walk everywhere in not more than ten minutes. Unfortunately the big Geysir is retired now and Icelanders, for environmental reasons, have stopped to keep it busy by applying huge amounts of soap powder. All what is left is a flat hot lake of maybe 10 m diameter. Nevertheless, its smaller brother is still very active and erupts every one to five minutes in perfect shape, starting with a beautiful bubble and ending in a straight fountain - if the wind allows. We enjoyed the natural beauty of the place quite a while, then went to the nearby cafe to warm up and to write some postcards.
The sun had disappeared again, but it was too windy to expect rain and Gullfoss was only about 10 km away, so at six we set out for the last bit of riding. Different from most waterfalls you approach Gullfoss from the top which is rather spectacular since you do never expect a waterfall once you come to the top of a hill.
The reason for this is simple. In the course of the last couple of 10,000 years the river had washed out a deep crack and continues its way for a while almost 60 m below the level of the surrounding terrain, until it drops and river and meadows are level again. Even today, the waterfall recedes about 30 cm a year. With an average flow of 103 m3 per second there is quite a bit of water coming down from the glaciers. But now it was melting season, so certainly some more water roared over two steps down into the narrow canyon. We pitched our tents as close to the water as the wind, the spray and the cliffs allowed, had dinner, walked around a bit, had a look at the visitor centre and finally had an early night again. Strange: we both are experienced cyclists and used to riding a lot, but if you have to fight cold and storm many hours a day you not only become incredibly hungry (how many calories do you burn under these conditions??) you also are tired enough to sleep long nights.
The next morning was sunny again and of course stormy. Steve was not very happy. Having problems with Icelandic food or water he had to find a toilet several times every hour. Conditions that make it impossible to bike. He decided to rest in our camp and was - as usual - generous enough to encourage me to make a day trip on the still closed road into the interior. In any case, I was not worried about him. Steve is far too experienced to be frightened by digestion problems - he had already had the shit in every country he had visited - and there were enough people around to help if the worse came to the worst. So I set out at ten, equipped only for a day's out and back. It was a weird ride. Soon after the visitor centre the pavement ended and graders had left a terribly dusty dirt road. I know, a road treated like that is excellent for a car, but on two wheels, please, this grading is always downgrading; an upgrade is only achieved by real pavement. Still, bad roads can be found all over the world, a scenery like that is unique. During the eight hour's ride I saw hardly any trace of life: two or three birds, very, very few dots of moss, everything else rocks, sand, snow, crystal clear and icy-cold water. I have never seen a cold desert before, but this made me feel like on the Moon or the Mars. What, if 'Pathfinder' had never touched down on the Mars and NASA had snapped some badly focused shots of the desert in central Iceland? Anyhow, the weather was not too bad and I liked that ride.What a pity I could not share directly my impressions with anybody! Loose sand, storm and water are tough conditions for all greasy or moving parts. Usually I do only the very necessary maintenance on my bike, I want to ride it and not to clean it, but when I came back in the evening I just had to wash it and to re-oil chain and derailleurs, otherwise the next ride might have seriously damaged these components.
Back in the camp, I was glad to learn that Steve felt better and certainly ready for cycling the next day. The sun came out and allowed for some impressive views on Gullfoss and a series of rainbows in its spray.
Unfortunately the night was wet again so we had to set out with wet tents, the usual headwind. Luckily the sun came out soon and we expected a perfect cycling day. Back to the cafe at Geysir, we had a second breakfast, then turned left on a good gravel road to come to Iceland's south coast. As usual, it needs sweat if you want to get somewhere. This morning we were pedalling through green farm land, over rolling hills, sometimes with a glimpse at the Hella volcano in the background. Obviously we were on a back country road now, since we did not count more than half a dozen cars this morning although it was an ordinary working day.
When the infrastructure is good, and so it is in the south of Iceland, you do not bother with carrying food on a bike. You just shop and eat. That is what we did for lunch. I tried for the fist time the traditional Icelandic 'Skyr', a milk product similar to the French 'fromage blanc' but with zero percent of fat. Well, no fat no taste, as I like to say, but if you add large amounts of milk, granola, honey, fruit and so on, than you can even enjoy the 'Skyr' (so, frankly, it served as an alibi to eat pure granola and honey...).
Finally after 50 km of head- and cross winds we came to the main road and turned left following the south coast. An excellent decision. The 30 km to Hvolsvollur we were flying (in conditions like this you could easily do 200 km a day). How strong the wind was we only realized when we stopped and were freezing immediately and, later on, when we tried to pitch our tents. The problems with the wind are many, but when you try to find shelter for your tent, you like to know at least where the wind is coming from. Sure, this is easy to say for one moment, but in Iceland you can have a completely different direction in the next minute, so in principle you need 360 degrees of shelter, which is not so easy to find. In Hvolsvollur we went to the local campsite.
There was only us and two hikers on the campground. They wanted to cross the glaciers to Landmannalaugar. I doubt that they ever made it, but we wished them luck. Although only a small village with less than 1000 inhabitants, Hvolsvollur has a swimming pool (which is certainly reasonable if you can get free hot water from mother earth). We went there in the evening to have the first shower after four days. They were already closed, but the cleaning woman let us in for a free wash when she realized that we were very dirty: Icelandic hospitality.
The next day was superb. The campground manager arrived in the early morning when we were just about having breakfast. He asked us very kindly to pay for the night, what we of course were willing to do but could not so far as the office had been closed. It was still quite windy but we were happy about this since it was blowing from the west making a perfect tailwind if you go east. Additionally it was sunny and not too cold now - during the night the tents were frozen and Steve had measured - 5 (C, the coldest night of this trip. Even minus 5 is not too cold, as long as you are in your sleeping bag, it is only uncomfortable if you have to pack all you gear with stiff, hurting, chapped fingers and maybe snow or rain and wind. Before we left for Vik, we went to the local supermarket and had a snack there. Again we could profit of the Icelandic habit of providing customers with free coffee. 80 km were foreseen for this day and this is normally an easy task, so we were not in a rush. When we finally set out it was almost eleven. After only a few miles we came to the Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall of pretty impressive height. In fact, we learned later that it looks higher than it is, but never mind, it is not the records that make this waterfall so attractive, it is its setting in green meadows. It does also not stick to the cliffs, but you can walk behind it or - if you are very brave - have a shower right under it in its almost perfectly round pool. We were not brave enough, but still, one more reason to come back one time. We carried on, found even some traces of agriculture and finally came to Skogafoss, one more waterfall. This one is 60 m high and its amount of water, at least at this time of the year, is impressive. But also its beauty fills you with wonder. The combination of spray and sunshine leads to a constant crown of rainbows that make it look like the king of all waterfalls. I must state that we highly profited from the excellent weather conditions of this day. Imagine we had arrived in rain and fog. We probably had thought it is ununderstandable why people describe this waterfall as so beautiful.
While having lunch we experienced once more typical Icelandic behaviour. Somebody was sitting next to us. He had taken a seat without saying a word. No hello, nothing. When we were finally talking about the opening hours of banks, wondering when we could get money, he suddenly turned to us and explained very courteous everything we wanted to know. This seems to be typical for Icelanders. They want to be separate, but they are willing to help whenever they can.
The road stayed in the same excellent conditions for the rest of this day's ride, only the afternoon presented us with two steep hills. Hills and rain are similar: they are only unpleasant if you do not expect them. We did not at all expect the steep slopes at the end of the day. Anyhow, so at least we had a good downhill into Vik. We checked in at the local campsite. It was not very cheap and showers had to be paid extra, but it had a huge friendly room serving as kitchen and room to stay. For this room we were very thankful. The wind was picking up again and it was really cold. Without a shelter we would have gone immediately to our sleeping bags. A travelling magazine has classed Vik's beach as one of the ten most beautiful beaches of the world. Okay, the water looked very clean, the black volcanic sand is something special, the cliffs make a good background and the some tens of meters high rocks in the water, called Dyrholaey, said to be petrified trolls, caught by the sunlight when attempting to steal a three-master, are unusual as well, but among the top ten? Much more interesting for us was the immense number of birds living close to the water and at the cliffs. There were thousands of them chatting, dropping something every now and then or just flying. This was amazing. Before going to bed we could witness a buggy climbing and damaging, spreading terrible noise, some kind of a natural quarry. I cannot support this kind of entertainment, although it is fun to watch and certainly also to drive such a car. But the damage to nature, especially to the fragile nature of the north, cannot be neglected. On the other hand: there are not so many things to do on a Friday evening for the local youth.
This night was the only time we met a cyclist from Iceland. He was from Reykjavik, touring around Iceland. He also had taken advantage of the tailwind and done the same distance we had done, only about 5 hours later. Before falling asleep I heard Steve shouting: do you realize we could have gone to Crete or some other warm Mediterranean island? - Yes, but then we would have missed Iceland!
The next morning the weather had changed. We now had to deal with a headwind, not too strong, and colder temperatures. It was overcast, but in principle a good day for cycling. When we set out at about nine, there was nobody else up at the campsite so far. Soon the scenery changed. Enormous fields of black ashes, some kilometres wide, stretched from the sea to the mountains, reminding a bit of a beach but somehow not inviting for swimming. These black surfaces must become very hot if the sun is out and the wind ever drops. Luckily a rarely or never encountered coincidence. We had a tough cycle this morning but we knew where we wanted to go to: the hot springs and polychrome mountains of Landmannalaugar. We were optimistic enough to think we could do it in a day (170 km, more than half of it gravel or worse). Superfluous to say that we ended up no where near this aim in the evening. When we left the paved road, we had done not much more than 50 km, felt already tired, ready for lunch.
It is a bit uncomfortable that you do not realize the cold as long as you are working hard. Sometimes you might even sweat, but once you stop, you must hurry to find shelter from the wind or you will be freezing within a minute. Our search for shelter was not too successful and therefore the lunch break everything but comfortable. Who cares, hot springs are waiting! Although the fist bit of the gravel road was comparably good, it is always slower going than on tarmac, especially when you hit some steep grades.
The more difficult part began when we came to the junction with the highland piste. The road now was really rough, the grades even steeper and the wind told us very clearly who had the power. The land looked a bit like the prairies: not exactly a desert but very little vegetation, no cattle but only sheep. After averaging not more than 6 km per hour we finally had to admit that Landmannalaugar was out of reach for this day. We decided to carry on for maximum one hour and trying to find a nice spot for the night. After some more kilometres, we came to a hut. Being a stable in the ground floor it looked like some kind of private house with sleeping bag accommodation on the first floor. We were too early in the season, so everything was closed, but round the corner there was also a meadow, presumably serving as a campground during high tourist season, a river and shelter by some rocks - and the sun had just come out to convince us that we had found the best possible spot for the night.
After having set camp, we followed the river a bit upstream. It came out of a little canyon and someone had marked a trail to the top. Surprising enough, we did not walk far when we heard the typical rumour of a waterfall and saw the accompanying spray. Here it was, and it was not a small one that we had encountered so unexpectedly.
I think it is time to confess that it was me who had talked Steve into the adventure of riding to Landmannalaugar. Sure, we both had seen the pictures of this site and were eager to see it ourselves, but on the one hand officially the road was still 'closed due to snow' and riding on more or less unimproved gravel, on the other hand, is never really fun: you have a combination of all the negative aspects of cycling and cannot enjoy its benefits like having the freedom to look around because you have to watch out for potholes, loose sand and all kind of other obstacles on the road all the time. I was convinced that the sign 'closed' was an exaggeration since I had ridden the equally closed road in the Gullfoss area and there were hardly any traces of snow left. To me the purpose of the sign seemed to be to keep tourists out to make it easier to do some necessary work on the road. In any case, even if there was snow left, you cannot get stuck on a bike (But riding can be nevertheless quite difficult. I remember several passes I crossed on my bike although they were closed due to winter conditions. Ride, walk and carry! Have you ever tried to carry your bike, loaded to more than 40 kg, through knee deep, wind packed snow?) Anyway, Steve is the last person to complain about anything. Once a decision is taken, he makes the best out of every situation and never loses his refreshing humour. He finds a joke under all circumstances.
When we carried on the next morning, the road was a mess. You could have walked faster than we could cycle, a constant fight against sand, wind, rocks, hills. Still, we were optimistic as we thought it was now only a question of some hours to reach Landmannalaugar: hot springs for lunch! Again, we were wrong. After about an hour of struggling we came to the first ford. A ford cannot stop a mountain bike, but if you are on a longer trip you try to avoid getting too wet. This time we were lucky: they had built a bridge for pedestrians nearby. Later we encountered some more river crossings, but they were hardly worth mentioning. A more serious obstacle was a very steep hill - unridable for us - ornated with a barricade of snow. This was certainly unridable for all bikers of the world, but we still could push, so it was not too bad. After that, the slope became slightly more gentle and at least we could mix walking and riding the bikes. The area was now completely without any trace of vegetation, only black sandy hills. Pretty impressive, especially the contrast to Steve's bright yellow Goretex jacket. Finally we reached the top. Like all cyclists we normally like to have a break at the summit. This time we were doing without it because we lacked every kind of shelter against the wind, although the view would have deserved more than our hurried stopover.
Now comes the downhill! Well, not really. Yes, we lost some elevation, but not too much and do not ask how. Soon the piste was covered again and again by last winter's leftovers and we were pushing hard to come down. This was not too bad yet. Unfortunately we came to a plane soon, perhaps a riverbed, several hundred meters wide. It was all packed with snow, not a trace of our road - well, yes, luckily some kind of vehicle had crossed it and we could guess by its tire marks where to push.
Somewhere in the middle of this snow field a signpost confirmed that we were still on the correct way. It was pretty wet, the sun was already doing a good job in melting all the white stuff and when we came to cross the river, there were not too many passable snow-bridges left. Steve was not surprised that his good old cycling shoes got wet, I was slightly disappointed that my brand new Goretex boots became soaked as well. One more proof for my thesis that all these fairy tales of waterproof and breathable are nothing but lies (at least on the field, it might work in the lab). The one and only wearable waterproof material is rubber (those who have ever been wearing a rubber jacket when biking know that this is no solution either: the rain cannot get in, but you become wet from yourself. My advice: wear as little as possible (and always quickly drying fibres); you are not freezing when actually biking - if so, push harder! Change for warm and dry clothes as soon as you stop. Dare to do so and you will see it works as good as Goretex or better!). In the end we reached the other side of the snow and found a bit of open road - again not rideable as the melting water had transformed it into a swamp. I am not sure if it is easier to push through almost melted snow or through mud, both is quite ugly. We continued for a while, pushing through snow or swamp, lost the track of the vehicle, turned, came to a hill again, saw an even bigger snowfield and in the very distance traces of the road. It was already early afternoon, we had enough, a look at the map showed that in the best case we would have to push another 20 km, in the worst almost 70 to the next ploughed road. 70 km of pushing equals some days. The only reasonable way out of this we knew was the way back, and I think it was a wise decision to go back. Although I would not class it dangerous to carry on we did not attempt to make a survival trip. So we took a farewell-picture, had a Snickers bar and turned. I am glad we did so, because I felt responsible for the mess we were in. But as I said, Steve would never complain.
The way out of the snow was very similar to the way in. We had the advantage that we could follow our own tracks but the disadvantage that the snow now was really soft and that the uphills clearly outnumbered the downhills. Anyway, finally we came to the last snow barrier and had lunch therer. Surprisingly enough the place was sunny as well as completely sheltered from the wind - what a relief! Steve, ready to joke again, took a rock and wrote in man high letters in the snow: 'DON'T CYCLE NORTH! YOU WILL REGRET IT! WE DID!' I wonder if anybody could read this warning before the sun had sent it to nirvana.
We had to take a decision again: where could we go next? With hardly more than a week left we had no choice but to catch a bus at some stage. We decided to try to make it back to Vik the next day, take a bus to Reykjavik and cycle to the north-western Snaefellsness peninsula then. The rest of the day was easy. We had a tailwind and many downhills. By six o'clock we had come to the junction with the old main road where we had had lunch the other day, followed this old road about two km towards Vik and found a good place to camp. We were sheltered from the wind, had a fresh river nearby and as the only little drop of bitterness loads of sheep shit, well hidden in the grass but not so nice under your tent. When the sun came out later and the wind dropped, we did a short walk as a quiet ending for an exciting day.
It rained a bit in the night and we had an early start, because you never now what the wind is doing and we knew from the first day that even 40 km can be extremely long with an Icelandic headwind. There was only one bus to Reykjavik this day and we did not want to miss it. There was no sun, but the wind was not worse than in continental Europe and we had a relatively easy cycle to Vik. Only on the last 10 km the wind had obviously realized where we were going, changed to a headwind and blew with a remarkable power (again for Europe, not necessarily for Iceland). We arrived at Vik much too early what gave us the chance for one or two hot coffees, writing postcards and doing some shopping. We were making fun of the tourists in cars. They were wearing high-tech jackets, fleece shirts and boots only to make it the five meters from the car to the shop. I had arrived in shorts and a T-shirt ... It is not a problem to take a bike on a bus in Iceland. We had a very comfortable ride back to Reykjavik. What a difference if you sit in a well insulated metal container and watch the country go past like in a movie! We checked in at the Youth Hostel, did our laundry and enjoyed a warm and cosy evening.
The next morning we had a relatively early start. As already mentioned we were slightly short on time and wanted to save a day by taking the ferry over an inlet of the sea, saving more than 100 km on our way to the Snaefellsness peninsula. The first ferry left Reykjavik for Akranes at 9:30 h. We were on this ferry. About an hour later we arrived at Akranes. It was a sunny but again cold and windy day and, superfluous to mention, the wind was not blowing the way we were going but in the opposite direction.
Although Akranes is proud to have the biggest cement factory in Iceland, around this little town you find green meadows and an inviting countryside. More in the background, some 500 m high, sandy black mountains, bare of vegetation, rise. We wanted to go to Borgarnes first, have some lunch there and to continue as far north as possible. Despite of the wind it was not too difficult to come to Borgarness, in fact I really enjoyed this ride. Unfortunately the sun disappeared behind heavy clouds soon and temperatures dropped even further. We did have lunch in Borgarnes, but only quickly and made it just in time before heavy rain to a petrol-station.
There we had coffee. This rain to me looked only like a short shower, Steve was not as optimistic. Especially when it became more and more mixed with snow it was everything but clear if we would ever carry on furthermore north. Instead, we had a look at the visitor centre - hardly any interesting information, only a typically Icelandic joke: 'Tomorrow is our national holiday, so this weather will last until the day after tomorrow!' the lady behind the counter claimed, and she looked very serious. Finally we went back to the station and were killing some more time by having another cup of coffee.- It cleared up a bit, even stopped to pour down. 'Let's go!' said I and Steve agreed. Before we had everything set for riding, the small sunny slot was gone and rain and snow started again but we were off, not wanting to go back in. It was just pissing down, traffic on the main road was heavy and you could hardly see because of the spray of all the trucks. Consequently we almost lost each other at a junction, invisible for Steve due to the meteorological conditions. I was in front and luckily realised soon that I had lost my friend, otherwise I do not know... Once off the main road, traffic was much less and even the rain felt pity for us and stopped for a while. Steve and I have different attitudes to riding in the rain. I have already explained that I prefer to wear as little as possible whereas Steve likes better his Goretex suit. Such a suit is not very comfortable to ride in, so he only uses it when it is really raining cats and dogs. This time, he must have felt a bit like heaven was making fun on him: every time he had put on his suit, the rain stopped, only to restart five minutes after Steve had taken off his raingear. Riding was not much fun in those conditions, but we had one useful piece of information from the Borgarnes' Tourist Information: There was a hot spring waiting for us about 60 km away. I think it was basically the perspective of having a hot pool for the night that kept us going (there also was nothing in terms of a shelter on the road, so it did not make much difference or to carry on or to set camp somewhere). Virtually we arrived at the hot spring after the last shower of the day, the last kilometres even with a tailwind.
This hot spring was an unusual place: a pretty deserted plane, a hotel in the middle of nowhere, some building that looked like a gym, a campsite belonging to the hotel and a fenced in area with a hut, apparently the pool and the showers. I highly recommend this place: it has got perfect facilities and the people who run it are very friendly. The campsite had just opened, we were the first visitors this year and the only ones this very night. Good! So we could use all facilities, especially the radiators in both, the ladies' and the gents', to dry our cloths. While cooking and eating, the sun came out, presented us with several rainbows and some warming up rays. We finished the day with a very relaxing bath in a very nice and hot pool. What a gift mother nature gave to the Icelanders providing them with free hot water!
As usual, the next morning was a very stormy one, but we did not mind since the wind seemed to blow right in our direction. It was still sunny and we expected a gorgeous day. Nevertheless, the very morning and breakfast was still cold as we had only the choice between freezing shade or sun without protection from the wind. Finally we found ourselves in the washing room where it was both, warm and sheltered. When we started, the first few kilometres were still tough. The direction was back to the main road, that means also face in the wind. On this main road, cycling was wonderful. The sun was out, the wind served as a strong and helpful friend, the road was flat, mountains on the right hand side, the sea to the left. It was also Iceland's national holiday, so there was even less traffic than the day before, in fact, not much but two or three tourist coaches came past us. After a while we came to a gas station where we had coffee and bought some more food for the night and the next morning. And on we went and it was still easy - till we came to a long area of road construction. The wind still wanted to make us fly, but unfortunately the rough road made us hit the brakes. Once more it turned out that such a road does not slow down four-wheeled vehicles very much, they even overtook us without significantly slowing down, providing an avalanche of flying rocks and a cloud of dust simultaneously. The road construction was not over yet when it became lunchtime and we were hungry enough for a meal. When cycling, it seems to me necessary to 'refuel' yourself at least every two hours. But where to shelter from the wind? Despite of the sun it was really cold when you had to face it. A riverbed was the solution. It gave us not only shelter but also some water. Steve even managed to sunbathe for a short while - in his Goretex suit, typically Icelandic. Now it was not very far anymore to our final destination, Arnarstapi. I would not call it a village, but there are some huts, a fishing port, a cafT/restaurant, a campground and millions of birds. We pitched our tents and went for a walk.
The scenery is spectacular: you have the Snaefellsness in the background (well, it was practically always covered in clouds: what a pity, such a perfectly shaped volcano) and steep black cliffs on the seafront. These cliffs are loved by the birds. They are nesting there in thousands later in the year. Amazing how they are sitting on the rocks, preferring some cliffs without any apparent reason to others, cheating, eating, having a good time. When watching the water, we could observe a seal, presumably catching fish. Unfortunately the wind was blowing so hard, leading to an always uneven surface of the water. If it only had dropped, the water there is so clear that we could have seen to the bottom and maybe observed the seal's fishing business. Yes, what a dangerous place for being a fish! If you manage to escape the fishing nets and the hungry birds than you have still got a fair chance of being eaten by a seal. Walking back to our tents we crossed accidentally a colony of birds sitting in the grass. They defended their territory fiercely and attacked us. Since Steve is taller than myself it was more inconvenient for him and his head got picked by an especially brave one of the flying warriors. They are almost as big as ducks and when they fly at you at full speed, it makes you slightly nervous. Finally Steve held up his backpack. So this was now the highest spot and the birds liked to attack it. We wondered how the locals would deal with the aggressive birds: how unpleasant if you cannot leave your house without some 'bird-protection'!
When we were cooking that night we met the first and only unfriendly Icelander on this trip. He was the owner of the campsite/restaurant. First he wanted us to move our tents which we had pitched as close as possible to his house to get some shelter against the wind, but the worst thing was when he smelled our petrol. He ran out of his hut, shouting angrily as if his house was already burning. This danger in fact was especially low not only because a fuel stove, when reasonably operated, is a quite safe device, but also because his house had got grass-covered walls and roof (living and growing grass!). How could you set fire to fresh green vegetation? Anyway, this time he was serious enough and we moved the tents. In the end, this was maybe not so bad: there were a couple of horse-shoe-shaped grass-walls on the campsite, each large enough for one tent. Those gave very good 270( shelter, even better than the hut. Since it was a freezing cold evening with rain coming up soon, we had no possibility but to go to the only cosy place around: our tents with the sleeping bags.
The night was unexpectedly dry and not too cold. It rained quite a bit later on but luckily was overcast only when we got up at about seven. Independently, we both had breakfast in the tents. This is one advantage when you are travelling in a country without potentially hazardous animals such as bears: you can do everything you want in your tent, including eating. We got our gear packed. then Steve followed me to the nearby restaurant for a hot coffee. I think normally Steve would not go for a coffee so often. But since it is part of the holidays for me to have a cup of coffee whenever I want to - and I am not very much concerned about any physically consequences (so far ??) - he is a good fellow and follows me. In addition, I have a great travel cup. It contains almost half a liter but looks much smaller. In all countries I know you can get your cup filled, maybe except for Germany where authorities are too much concerned about health risks, and I normally only have to pay for a small cup. Anyway, after the hot drink I felt much better and ready to attack the storm. Our plan was to come to the very west of the peninsula today, maybe to catch some good view on the Snaefellsness volcano and then to carry on as far as possible on its northern coast back towards Reykjavik. The first bit was easy. Despite of a loose gravel road and some uphills, most of it felt more like a downhill due to the help of the wind. When we approached the north-western corner, everything changed. We had a long hill, a very bad road and the wind was against us or form the left hand side. Like on the first day, we sometimes could but stop as it was impossible to keep the heavy bike on the dirt road against the ideas of the wind. The landscape there, on the other hand, is by far not as spectacular as what we had expected. Again only little vegetation, rocks and mosses, no view neither of the volcano nor of the sea because of the low clouds and the misty atmosphere. We made it somehow, but were really tired when we were back on the tarmac after about 30 km in not much less than 4 hours. On the place where gravel and asphalt join, there is also the highest manmade structure of Iceland. An antenna, 412 m of height. Its top was hidden in the clouds, but we admired the effort to built this thing and to keep it in an upright position in Icelandic weather conditions. What we did not understand: if international air-and sea traffic needs such a device, why was it not built on top of one of the numerous mountains?
The first village then is Hellissandur. A very small one, but with a service station where they provide you with hot water and instant coffee. This time I did not care about what to drink, as long as it was only hot. We did not stay very long but went on to Olafsvik where we had a very unpleasant lunch break. No, not the food. It was excellent, but we were sitting on a concrete bank without any shelter or heating or sun. Impossible to stay warm! Therefore we went inside one more service station for a hot drink for dessert. There we met Jacky, a Belgian cyclist. He told us some strange stories concerning his equipment, for example that he had brought 10 kg of food from Belgium and that his loaded bike weighed more than 50 kg. What a burden to travel with so much gear! Even my bike is lighter, and Steve is something like world champion in saving weight on a bike tour. Jacky recommended a campsite in Grudarfjordur, only about 30 km away and we decided to go there for the night.
It was an easy cycle to Grundarfjordur, it almost seemed that the wind was now a tailwind for us and a headwind for Jacky, giving him some extra difficulties on the gravel sections. Grundarfjordur is excellently sheltered against all weather evils by some perfectly placed mountains. In wonderfully symmetric shape, covered with fresh green grass, the mountains rise out of the sea to an elevation of about 500 m. The village itself is pretty to look at and offers everything of infrastructure a traveller needs. Although the campsite was slightly different than described to us, we were happy since it was a comfortable one. Free showers in the private house of the owners and a meadows to pitch the tents. What else can you expect? Yes, it was also warm (for Iceland), only a slight but steady rain prevented us from staying outside too long or to profit from the picnic tables provided.
The next morning we stocked some supplies and headed east. The whole day long we had hardly any pavement but a soft road, or due to the rain of the last night or to the work of the water trucks. Unfortunately they use in Iceland not only water as a means of dust control but also Calcium which might improve the roads but unfortunately also affects finally everything.
The coast is very fjordy what means in order to make two or three kilometres in a straight line you have to go a long way around some water inlet. Usually there is no bridge. In normal conditions we would not care about this: when touring, always the way itself is the aim. Today we were not so happy since Reykjavik was still far and there were only a few days left. God knows why, at lunchtime we were quite exhausted, in fact tired enough that Steve suggested to prepare some hot tea. What an excellent idea! When travelling by myself I am always to lazy to use the stove during the daytime, but once you are two, you encourage each other and you both have the benefits. Also at this part of the coast, steep hills, several hundred meters in height, come right to the water. They are light green, covered only with traces of grass and mosses, but sometimes there is even enough vegetation to feed some sheep. We did not come to any village during the hole day and saw only some - deserted ? - houses in a distance. When the map and a road sign announced a service station in the late afternoon we were ready for some refreshment. Unfortunately it had not opened yet. - Too early in the season!
We turned right, heading south now and back to Borgarnes, of course out of reach for the day. Over a small pass we were pushed by a strong tailwind. Even the sun came out, the land looked immediately more fertile, there were several small lakes and we had the strong feeling it was time to find a place for the night. But the wind was too perfect a tailwind to stop! There is daylight 24 hours, so why not carry on? We could not really finish these thoughts when the wind turned and the road started slightly to climb again. This reminded us of the long day we had had. No problem. Not the first lake, but a little lively river with grass on the banks made a perfect place to camp. We had some shelter from the wind, and fresh water, to cook, to wash, to swim - everybody according to his wishes.
The sun woke me up at three, four five. At six I decided to get up and could hardly believe it: Not a cloud in the sky, no immediate shivering and freezing when you leave the sleeping bag and, yes, I got it right from inside the tent, a powerful tailwind waiting for us. Steve got up early as well and before eight we were back on the road. We were flying - to the junction with the main road, back to asphalt. Now, in the distance, we could clearly see the Snaefellsjokull rise. What a perfectly shaped volcano! What majesty! Pretty impressive. On such a day you can really get the feeling that the whole peninsula is dominated by this volcano. Of course, the main road soon changed direction and there was not much left of the tailwind, but the weather was still so fine, the first T-shirt day of this trip! In the late morning we came to Borgarnes, had a first lunch break and then carried on to Akranes where we caught the ferry to Reykjavik. So we were back in the capital on a warm Friday afternoon at four o'clock.
We walked our bikes through the main shopping street. There is nothing you cannot buy in Reykjavik, but the prices are fantastic. Not too surprising if you consider that virtually everything has to be imported from the other end of the world. Since the weather was so nice there was no need to go to the youth hostel. We checked in at the campsite which is very comfortable and made in a quite attractive way with hedges, fat green grass, nice hot washing facilities - and they certainly know what they can charge for that. Without any immediate reason, I found that I had a flat rear tire. Finally a puncture! I was almost happy, because a cycling holiday without a puncture is not a real one, and Steve, anticipating the worst, had brought scores of patches. At least I had the chance to use one!
After dinner we had a walk through the city again. The center is really worth going to. Small houses and shops, almost everything in a good shape, sometimes a glimpse of the mountains, sometimes a view on the sea, and the never setting sun to illuminate all the scenery. Back at the campsite I had some supper and then went out again to see the sun set. It was the longest day of the year, but what difference does it make if it does not get dark anyway? Sunset at 00:05, sunrise at 02:35, and in between enough light to read in your tent without any additional artificial light. Now, a sunrise at the seashore is always pleasant to look at, but frankly, it does not make a big difference if the sun sets at eight or at midnight. So this sunset was not too spectacular, but it gave me the good feeling that I had at least once seen it in Iceland.
The next morning was by far not as pleasant. Overcast again and much colder than the other day. It was the day to go back to the Keflavik region to prepare for the flight out the next day. Steve managed to organize two bike boxes from a bike shop in Keflavik just by giving them a ring. Since the shop was closed when we arrived there, the owners had left the boxes outside What a good proof again for Icelandic hospitality! One more friendly encounter only some minutes later: when we had difficulties to ride with the boxes to the campsite - did you ever try to cycle in strong wind with several square meters of cardboard in your hand on a heavy bike? - a car not only took the boxes for us but also served as a guide to the campground. To come to Keflavik, on the other hand, had not been so easy. Although the wind was by far not as bad as the day when we had arrived, it was strong enough not to have an easy ride. Luckily it did not rain much and the sun came out sometimes, so all in all we could almost enjoy this ride. There was no chance buying some souvenirs in Keflavik since all shops were closed on a Saturday afternoon what Steve could hardly believe and what made me feel almost like in Germany.
Since I did not want do spend all the afternoon only on the campsite I set out once more to have a look at the Reykjanes peninsula. Past the American Air Force base you come to the very remote and tiny village of Hafnir, where a few souls still make their living from fishing. If you carry on the scenery becomes even more lonely until, after a small geothermal power station, the road turns to hardly more than a small gravel path. I stopped to admire the rocky hills, the steam coming up from a crack in the ground, the lighthouse in a distance. It could have been such an interesting place to look at, if there had not been these aggressive birds again. I was really happy to have my helmet, got picked upon several times and finally could not help taking off on my bike. The birds obviously did not like anybody to enter their territories and I had to give way. Strange experience. In Grindavik I was back to civilisation. On an excellent road I passed the famous 'Blue Lagoon', once only a geothermal power station, now because of its blue shining mineral water lakes a famous swimming pool with all necessary infrastructure. It looked like rain from almost everywhere so I did not stop for a swim. Strong winds pushed me back to the campsite. It was not a busy place: except us this evening there were only a hiker from Meran/Italy and two German girls, all of them flying out the next morning, like us. With Icelandic beer we enjoyed the last evening in the combined kitchen/living room of the campsite
It started to rain during the night. This sort of very fine rain that penetrates everything and gets you soaked quickly. Who cares anymore much about such minor events on the last day of a trip? There is a scheduled bus to the airport, that operates in a slightly unusual way: you have to call it like a taxi otherwise the company assumes there are no customers and does not operate the service. Much too early we arrived at the airport. What a perfect day to leave! Even at lunchtime it was not really light due to the heavy clouds and the spray of rain just would not stop. Once more I asked Icelandair if they could change my ticket from London to Paris and suddenly it was possible without any problems. So my final impression of Icelandair is only the very best.
Since I was going to Paris and Steve to London, we had to say good bye in Reykjavik, hopefully not for too long, both looking forward for the next holiday on two wheels.
Let's sum it all up. You could certainly say: Sore chapped hands and lips, pneumonia and hypothermia, giardia and flatus, constant headwinds and snow in June, go to Iceland! But more than that: Unspoiled nature, friendly people, breathtaking views! Take your bike there and enjoy!
Grenoble, Sept 21, 1997
Steve and Axel