Iceland - the Hard Way
In summer 2010, with the credit crunch still biting, we decided to go road tripping on a budget. Cue two mountain bikes, a tent, and an 850 mile lap of Iceland.
It was our shortest road trip, but it was also our physically most demanding. Two mountain bikes loaded up with camping gear and supplies make for hard-won progress, but really, it was the only way to do a summer trip around Iceland justice - simply driving the ring road would have felt like cheating.
The Credit Crunch road trip took just over three weeks and was our only journey into human-powered trips thus far. It was featured in Adventure Travel Magazine, and you can read how it went, as well as look through some of the photos from the trip, below.
I’m no cyclist. Never have been. I’ve always considered Gore-Tex to be way more stylish than Lycra, and given the choice, never fail to opt for a climbing helmet over its cycling equivalent. Better a day up in the hills rather than one down on the cycle paths, I used to say authoritatively. Or so it was until a few months ago, when I begrudgingly accepted that if the question is ‘four weeks’ and ‘Iceland’, the answer is ‘cycle touring’.
This presented a bit of a problem. I hadn’t ridden a bike in over a decade, and Laura, my travelling companion, had precious little recent experience either. As an additional complication, it had taken us so long to finally accept that the answer was ‘cycle touring’, that we only had three weeks to prepare before our departure.
Those three weeks became a frenzy of activity. Routes were planned optimistically, without the slightest clue as to what we were letting ourselves in for. Websites giving cycling advice were repeatedly read and taken as gospel. Kit lists were made. Fortunately, much of our hiking kit proved perfectly suited to cycle touring, but even so, each of us still had to splash out on a shiny new bike, a couple of panniers, helmet, tools, and - most important of all – padded pants. After blowing away the cobwebs with a somewhat wobbly eight mile ride around the New Forest, the bikes were boxed up and loaded onto a budget flight to the land of fire, ice, midnight sun and expensive beer.
We planned to follow Iceland’s famous Route-1 anti-clockwise around most of the island, before returning through the barren interior, a distance of around 850 miles. It didn’t bode well when our plans were put temporarily on hold at mile zero when I somehow got a puncture on Reykjavík’s immaculate campground; but soon the inner tube was changed, 20kg of kit and supplies were strapped to each bike, and away we went, wobbling through the city traffic.
And so began my first ever day as a cyclist. It wasn’t a gentle introduction, as route one rushed straight into a range of hills to the east of Reykjavík. On more than one occasion as we slogged uphill, both Laura and I wondered why on earth we thought we could pedal around Iceland, and it was a pair of very tired cyclists who coasted down to the town of Hveragerði that evening.
However over the following few days, our fitness improved as we gradually adjusted to life in the saddle. Cycle touring in Iceland was a different world to anything we’d experienced before. A surreal world where it never got dark, the sun merely glancing the horizon for a few hours each night. A primeval world of endless lava flows and bleak oceans of volcanic ash. An angry world of headwinds, cloudbursts and steaming vents. And often, painful world of tortured legs and sore posteriors.
But above all, as we settled into the routine it became a world of glorious simplicity, where the sum of our existence each day was to wake up, pack away the tent, then pedal until we could pedal no more.
During our first few days on the road we made reasonable progress along Iceland’s south coast, passing the infamous Eyjarfjallsjökull volcano – which hid in the clouds, showing no remorse for the chaos it had caused to European air travellers a few months earlier – and crossing endless plains of ash and lava flows.
Five days on the road saw us reaching Vatnajökull – the largest ice cap in Europe. Home of Iceland’s highest peak at 2122m, Vatnajökull is an imposing swathe of ice 80 miles across, beneath which several active volcanoes are buried, and from whose glistening dome countless glaciers tumble down to the road. It took three days for us to cycle past the icecap, during which I made a mental note to return with an ice axe in the future.
Halfway along the icecap, we camped on the shores of the Jökulsárlón Lagoon; in the most stunning location I’ve ever pitched a tent. On the northern edge of the lagoon, the Breiðamerkukjökull glacier flowed down from the ice cap, spilling into the water and choking the lagoon with thousands of densely packed icebergs. We spent the evening of our arrival drinking tea in silence, listening to chunks of ice falling from the distant glacier, as the midnight sun floated just beyond the horizon.
The following day, we completed the 65 miles to the metropolis of Höfn. We’d convinced ourselves it must be a metropolis, as we’d been seeing signs for the place for the previous 400km; but alas, we still had much to learn about Iceland. With somewhat less than 2,000 residents, Höfn turned out to be a pleasant fishing village, which rather sums up how unpopulated Iceland is – a country the size of England, with only 300,000 inhabitants. Blissfully empty.
Following a rather modest night on the town, we pedalled our way through the Eastfjords, battling a stiff, demoralising headwind for two days running. Still, the scenery made up for it – rugged mountains that would put the Isle of Skye to shame tumbled down to the scudding ocean, while further inland, the occasional glacier still edged its way into our vision.
The halfway point of our lap of the island was the town of Egilsstaðir, and we reached it with a long day on the saddle – 55 miles into the wind, with a 540m high gravel pass thrown in for good measure. Satisfied with how much our fitness had improved after 400 miles in the saddle, we threw caution to the wind and celebrated extravagantly that evening, dining out on pizza at the town’s petrol station.
From Egilsstaðir, we continued to circumnavigate the island, looping back through the north towards Reykjavík. The Northern Highlands were next, and the overcast skies, biting wind and rolling winds initially felt like Dartmoor on a bad day. Fortunately, the biting wind was coming from behind us for once, enabling us to cover 30 miles without pedalling before the road took a turn to the north, resulting in a crosswind which blew us clean off our bikes. Unable to ride, we were forced to walk the bikes for miles until we found a spot where we could pitch the tent.
The active volcano at Krafla was next on our route, and the chance to explore the still-steaming lava flows, and take a stroll around the Viti crater, which houses a 220m deep pool of the sharpest turquoise. After 15 days in the saddle, we had our first rest day of the trip at Lake Mývaten - home to more species of duck than you can shake a pair of binoculars at - then another few days pedalling took us to Varmahlíð, a small settlement which watches over the river Héraðsvötn as it flows into the Arctic Ocean. The town campsite was an exposed affair on the river’s flood plain, a fact which made the biting 30 knot wind sweeping down from the Arctic most unwelcome. The crosswind made it impossible to cycle, and pinned us in camp for a day and a half. We eventually outwitted it by walking the bikes until route one became sufficiently sheltered for to ride once again. And so, with five days worth of supplies strapped to our steeds, we got to grips with the meat of our expedition.
Rising 700m above the coastal plains, Iceland’s barren interior plateau is the very epitome of the remote; a stark landscape of empty plains, brooding icecaps and geological turmoil into which the 21st century has yet to intrude. The harsh sub-arctic climate has kept the interior uninhabited, save for a few hardy sheep, and humanity’s only permanent mark on the landscape is provided by a few rough gravel tracks crisscrossing the epic swathe of desolation. It was along one of these – the Kjölur route – along which we aimed to make our crossing.
Feeling fit from so long in the saddle, we climbed the 700m onto the plateau easily, forsaking the green farmlands of the coast for a barren plain, dotted with lakes. Our first night in the interior was spent camping on a lakeshore, the only people for miles around.
We cycled onwards through a barren wilderness, the track rising and falling with the landscape as the two mighty icecaps on the horizon drifted towards us. There was little conventional beauty in our empty surroundings, no points of interest to draw the eye and provide perspective. But the appeal of the landscape stemmed directly from its emptiness; in the overcluttered, fussy world we live in, there is a magnificent drama to be found in infinite desolation.
The end of our second day in the interior saw us halfway across the wilderness, and we pitched our tent next to the hot springs at Hveravellir, between the Langjökull and Hofsjökull icecaps.
The following morning brought – just for a change – a biting wind and heavy showers. Our attempt to press on was brought to an end about twenty miles down the rough gravel track, when we became sufficiently soaked and cold that pitching the tent and drinking tea seemed the only rational option. Fortunately, with supplies running low, our fourth day at the interior’s mercy offered some respite, enabling us to pass Lake Hvítarvatn and reach the first tarmac in 120 miles.
We coasted down to the stunning waterfall at Gullfoss, and then on to the geothermal dramas of Geysir – the site after which all geysers are named - all the time feeling a little disorientated by our sudden return to the tourist trail.
Our final run into Reykjavík was the islands last opportunity to prevent us from completing our mission, and it tried its best, for two days straight blocking our way with mushrooming thunderstorms which unleashed torrents of rain upon us, and pumped lightning bolts into the ground less than half a kilometre away as we pedalled along nervously, willing our month long ordeal to end.
And then end it did, as we joined the dual carriageway for the final run into Reykjavík, and returned to the campsite where it had all began, 23 days before.
Sitting in an immaculate bar a day later, we reflected on the trip over a well-earned beer. It had been tough. We’d found there was no such thing as an easy days cycling in Iceland; the terrain and weather somehow always conspired to find a way of make things difficult. Especially in the beginning when our fitness was lacking, it had often taken all our willpower and determination to keep pushing on, day after day, against it all.
But from the comfort of the bar, the bad memories were already fading as the warm glow of achievement grew. Iceland hadn’t disappointed us. We’d come looking for an adventure, and we’d certainly found what we were looking for.