Monday, August 5, 2013

Iceland Cycling--The North and the Interior

Frankfurt Airport, August 5th

I managed to write this blog post last week, but only got a chance to upload it today, after a great week more or less unplugged in the mountains of Jasper National Park.  Now I'm off to ride the classic cols of the French Alps, starting tomorrow.  I can't wait for another bike trip, since I had so much fun on the Iceland ride.  Here's what I wrote last week.

On the train from Edmonton to Jasper, July 26

The countryside of the plains of Alberta are sliding by at a frustrating pace after a three-hour delay in departure.  I love the imposed simplicity of being on a train, as it provides few excuses for not reading or writing.  With any luck I will be able to complete this post about the second part of my Iceland trip before we pull into Jasper, and my writing conscience will be clear for a week or two.

It’s been almost a month since I returned from Iceland, and some of the immediacy of my recollections has faded.  This is why I try to keep a decent journal and take lots of photos; re-reading the journal while flipping through the pictures helps organize my memories and stirs up forgotten details from the murky waters of a middle-aged brain.  So, with the aid of these two invaluable crutches, one visual and one written, here goes my best attempt to summarize my impressions of the post-Westfjords part of our cycle trip.

Arriving in Akureyri reminded me of two of the reasons I usually prefer to cycle rather than hop onto and off public transport:  unsociable hours and equipment damage.  We arrived at nearly midnight bleary-eyed and with our brains not working very clearly.  I was probably a bit grumpy with Terri as we put together our bikes, loaded them up and cycled a couple of steep kilometres to the municipal campground.  On the way I found that my cycling computer had stopped working, presumably because the cable leading from the front wheel had gotten snagged on something and pulled.  The campground, once we arrived, was sub-par by Icelandic standards and lacked any sort of shade or wind shelter.  We went to sleep in the twilight of 1 am and woke up to blazing sunshine and howling winds.

Our  evening ritual in camp:  a peg of Scotch
It was one of those days that starts off promisingly and peters out into petty frustrations.  We wandered across the street to the city swimming pool, one of Iceland’s finest.  All of Akureyri seemed to be there soaking up the sun and the warmth of the various hot pots.  Terri’s favourite was the shallow solarium pool, while I found the steam bath and the hottest pool to be just what my tired body wanted.  After a post-bathing hot dog, we went back to the campground to pack up and start riding towards the whale-watching centre of Husavik.  It was then that we discovered that Terri’s bike had fallen over and somehow torn loose the connection between her brake lever and the hydraulic brake housing.  I’ve never had hydraulic brakes on my bikes, in part because of they have always seemed more prone to damage and harder to fix than cable brakes.  I tried my best to fiddle the offending tiny metal ball back into place, but it seemed to require a specialized pair of calipers that I didn’t have.  Terri had the campground receptionist make a few phone calls and we got the address of a bike shop on the outskirts of town.

En route, we passed another bicycle shop which promised to try to fix the issue.  I was looking for a spare cable for my computer and left Terri there while I went off in search of the distant shop.  There were no cables to be had there, but I found the cheapest cycling computer in stock, installed it and cycled back to Terri.  As I set off, I discovered that now my new computer wasn’t working at all, but my old faithful Cat Eye had come back to life, presumably because I had moved the cable in the process of installing the new computer.  Back at the first shop, I found that the mechanic had come back from lunch but didn’t have the fancy calipers either.  Wincing at the loss of an hour, Terri and I cycled back to the distant shop where the mechanic didn’t have the calipers either, and had never repaired hydraulic brakes before.  Luckily, however, he did know where he could find the necessary tools, and by the time we had finished a late lunch of hot lamb subs and the inevitable French fries, Terri’s bike was ready to roll, its brake handles protected by lengths of tape to prevent them being hyperextended in the future. 

It was almost 5 pm by this time, and our prospects of making much progress seemed slim, especially with a strong north wind threatening us with headwinds all the way out of town.  We headed up the shore of the fjord, riding single file to try to minimize the effects of the howling gale.  Dozens of tour buses passed us, ferrying passengers from the cruise liner that dominated Akureyri harbour back to the ship after a day trip to lake Myvatn.  Iceland is not a very populous country, with only 320,000 inhabitants, and in the height of tourist season its main attractions groan under the weight of mass tourism.  The new Lonely Planet has apparently voted the Akureyri the must-see part of the country, and it certainly seemed to be enormously popular, with hundreds of tourist rental cars jostling for space on the Ring Road with the huge tour buses.  I found myself pining for the peace and deserted dirt roads of the Westfjords.  Eventually we turned inland, climbed a small pass between snow-capped peaks and picked up a tailwind for the descent.  A riverbank provided a perfect campsite, and we slept well, lulled to sleep by the sound of rushing water.

Lovely riverside campsite
The next morning started under grey skies and spitting rain with bacon and soft-boiled eggs followed by a tedious search for my cycling computer, which had gotten wrapped up in the tent while we were packing up.  It took forever to get going, but once we did, a memorable tailwind blew us the first 17 kilometres of the day through a lovely landscape of sheep farms and high peaks.  When we turned north towards Husavik and off the Ring Road, however, the same wind opposed our progress and made for a slow, tedious and cold ride to Husavik, past an enormous landscape that had buried the highway a few weeks previously.  Lunch, sandwiches consumed in the shelter of a roadside dumpster, didn’t lift our spirits appreciably.  By the time we got to Husavik, we were crawling at barely 10 km/h and both feeling pretty cold and tired.  With more rain in the offing, we splashed out for a room in a guest house at a hefty 8000 kronur (US$ 70).  It was a good move, as it ended up raining most of the night.  After a day of hard riding, we splashed out again on fish and chips in the local grill and were asleep early.

Thar she blows!
Everybody who ever goes whale watching takes a photo like this
We awoke to grey skies again and headed out for Terri’s early birthday present, a whale-watching cruise on one of North Sailing’s restored wooden schooners.  The entire town of Husavik seems to run on whale watching, and unlike southern Iceland, no whaling is permitted in the area, as the whales are worth far more alive than dead.  The boat had 30 or so tourists aboard, and it was one of over a dozen departures that day at 70 euros a head, giving a feel for the economic effect of whale watching on this small town.  Our first stop was at Lundey (Puffin) Island, home to hundreds of thousands of these comical birds.  We cruised through shoals of puffins and had a good laugh at their awkward attempts to take off and fly, many of which ended with an ignominious tail-first splashdown.  Underwater, however, puffins acquire the speed and grace of dolphins, so we forgave them their albatross-like takeoffs and landings.

Happy after the whale watching
After a cruise around the island, admiring the dense network of burrows that turned the grassy slopes into puffin-filled Swiss cheese, we headed west to where other boats had reported whales that day.  It was a spectacular show, with five or six humpbacks feeding right around our boat, sometimes passing directly beneath us, sometimes lunging almost entirely out of the water in pursuit of krill.  The rivers flowing into the bay are very rich in nutrients from volcanic lake Myvatn, and this supports a great density of krill and plankton, humpback whales’ favourite food.  There were three or four smaller minke whales present as well, along with hundreds of seabirds and some white-beaked porpoises in the distance.  For much of the time we spent with the whales it was hard to decide which direction to look, as whales were popping up everywhere.  It was a spectacular show, and we headed back to town at the end of a four-hour cruise satisfied with the glimpse of the great sea mammals.  Terri was more than pleased with her birthday present!

Eurasian golden plover in the highlands near Myvatn
We had a quick lunch at the harbour, then pedalled off towards Myvatn.  We knew we weren’t going to make it all the way, so we stopped off after 20 kilometres of headwinds for a long soak in a tiny roadside hot pot where we were the only patrons.  Across the road an enterprising farmer was using geothermal heat to run a series of greenhouses.  We rode until the road turned unexpectedly to gravel and climbed up onto moorland.  Terri had had enough of steep dirt roads, so we camped beside the road in a rather desolate, waterless spot, glad that we had carried cooking water up from the last stream we had crossed.

Myvatn Midnight
June 22nd found us riding up and down a moorland roller coaster of rough dirt roads until suddenly we dropped down onto pavement and, only an hour and a half after setting out, we rolled into the tourist epicentre of Myvatn and into clouds of its most infamous denizens, the mosquitoes, midges and blackflies that swarm In Biblical proportions around the lake.  We both had bug nets and wore them for most of the next two days to maintain our sanity.  Unlike Canadian blackflies, however, these bugs were annoying without actually biting very often.  We put up our tent in a busy, expensive campground (1500 kronur per person), then went for a long walk around the volcanic landscape that has made Myvatn famous.

Horned Grebe at Myvatn
Iceland lies directly atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where new basaltic oceanic crust is constantly being extruded to push Europe and North America further apart, and Myvatn is right where this volcanic activity is most prevalent.  It is full of geothermal heat and has frequent volcanic eruptions that spread lava all over the surrounding plains.  We hiked through a landscape of weirdly shaped lava that splashed around during fire-fountaining eruptions in the past to a small cinder cone that last erupted a couple of thousand years ago.  We walked through a series of collapsed magma chambers and a couple of lava arches back to the road and then trudged back along the busy main road, unable to thumb a lift from anyone. 

The latest line in bug-net fashion
That night we took advantage of having a cook tent with a big stove and good frying pans to try some of the local lamb chops.  Terri, as a good Kiwi, is a big fan of lamb, as am I, and the meat was one of the very few food items in the supermarket that wasn’t grossly overpriced.  We dined well on lamb chops garnished with caramelized onions, potatoes and actual vegetables, and then sat out admiring the peaceful lake and its reflections of the barely-set midnight sun.

Myvatn pseudocraters
June 23rd, Terri’s actual birthday, might well have been the most enjoyable day of cycling of the entire summer.  We awoke later than usual, sleeping in until nearly 9 am.  A leisurely breakfast of bacon and eggs followed, with the sky clearing up in the meantime to brilliant sunshine.  We stopped in at the supermarket and the tourist office, where the weather forecast looked dire for Wednesday and Thursday, with southerly gales predicted.  Terri decided then and there that she would skip a couple of days of cycling across the interior in favour of a bus ride and a couple of leisurely days of hiking while she waited for me.  Outside the office we ran into a Canadian couple, Jan and Paul, on nifty collapsing Rodriguez touring bikes.  They were at the start of a15-month world tour, so we swapped information and ideas, before we finally rode off just after noon.  The south side of Lake Myvatn was very pretty, with huge numbers of ducks, including the ornithological signature species of the area, Barrow’s goldeneye, along with lots of well-groomed horses and lovely volcanic scenery.  The pseudocraters in the southeast corner of the lake, formed when a volcano erupted under an icecap, attracted another cruise liner’s worth of tourists, but the landscape was pretty enough that we could forgive them.  Cycling away from the lake was a pure pleasure, not least because the persistent insects finally left us alone and we were able to shed our bug nets.  We passed another smaller lake, Masvatn, with tremendous views across the water to the distant snow-capped thousand-metre peaks beyond.  We climbed over another stretch of highland before plummeting down to the spectacular waterfall at Gothifoss where an Icelandic leader had symbolized the country’s bitterly contested decision to adopt Christianity by tossing his household gods into the falls on his way home from the climactic session of parliament.  Another hour found us at a school-turned-summer hotel with the inevitable hot pot in which we wallowed until a tour bus of German tourists descended upon us.  We rode through perfect early evening light to a riverside campsite not far from where we had been four nights earlier, cooked dinner, toasted Terri’s birthday with Ardbeg whisky and went to sleep after a wonderful day.
Terri crossing yet another pass across the moorlands

Gothafoss, the Falls of the Gods
June 24th was a red-letter day for me in terms of speed and distance.  We awoke late again and our departure was delayed by another half-hour search by me, this time for my Swiss Army knife.  For once we had a strong tailwind, and we flew along back towards Akureyri at a tremendous clip, especially once we had descended to the shore of the fjord.  We found ourselves averaging 30 km/h as we approached the head of the fjord, then suddenly slowing to 13 km/h as we turned back into the wind.  In Akureyri we got Terri squared away for the following day’s bus, installed her in the youth hostel, bought groceries and then had a late, leisurely lunch. 

Not until 3:50 did I ride off towards Varmahlith on my own, arranging that I would meet up with Terri in three days’ time at the highland hot springs of Kerlingarfjoll.  I had 125 kilometres of the Ring Road to go until I turned south onto the dirt road of the Kjolur route, and I was keen to eat up as many of them as  possible that day.  Little did I know that once I had struggled 10 kilometres through a headwind that I would regain the howling tailwinds of the morning.  I raced along for three hours at over 25 km/h, even though I was climbing steadily into the mountains.  Only once I had crossed a 500 metre pass did the winds reverse, and I found myself in the strange situation of going more slowly downhill than I had gone uphill.  Eventually I found a rare piece of unfenced land beside the river that wasn’t completely coated in goose droppings, put up the tent and slept soundly, having done 107 kilometres (the biggest daily total of the entire trip) without too much effort.

The next morning my plans for an early getaway were foiled by my first flat tire of the trip.  As I finished replacing it, I saw a van containing only Terri, her bicycle and the driver stop beside my tent.  She was the only passenger that day and had convinced the driver to stop to say hi.  As they sped off, I set off into the renewed tailwind at a good clip, covering the 18 kilometres into Varmahlith in only 45 minutes.  There progress came to a crashing halt as I wrestled with the annoying credit-card-only gas pump that refused to sell me only half a litre of gasoline (eventually one of the clerks took pity on me and showed me the trick) and then ground uphill into a big headwind that would last for days.  The Kjolur route started off quite pretty, with prosperous-looking sheep and horse farms in a deeply incised valley.  The road climbed steeply to the top of a plateau, past a hydroelectric plant that provided 10% of the country’s electricity, then undulated over a steadily deteriorating dirt surface through unremarkable moorland.  There was no drinkable surface water anywhere, something I hadn’t suspected from the map, so I was pretty dry in the throat by the time I found shelter for the night at a little oasis called Afangi.  The wind had freshened into a near gale over the course of the afternoon, so I was glad to soak in a tiny Jacuzzi, cook up my noodles and climb into my tent.

The wind slackened slightly during the night, but erupted with renewed fury in the morning, to the point that it was a major challenge knocking down the tent without it blowing all the way back to Akureyri.  The entire day was a miserable exercise in mind over matter as I rolled at little more than walking pace, each stroke of the pedals a major effort against a headwind that was probably a steady 70 or 80 km/h with even stronger gusts.  It reminded me, on a greatly reduced scale, of our windswept progress across the Aksai Chin plateau on our way to Tibet in 1998, even to the point of having my Cat Eye cycling computer definitively give up the ghost.  I had lunch in an emergency shelter beside the road, liberally grafittied inside by other cyclists sheltering from similar winds.  By 6:45 I managed to crawl, windburned but still standing, into the hot spring complex at Hveravellir.  There I found a message, a piece of cake and some bottles of soda sent from Terri via the bus driver for me.  I had been meant to make it to Kerlingarfjoll that evening, but the gale had prevented that.  I sent messages ahead as best I could via drivers heading that way, and settled in for a well-earned soak in the nicest hot springs of the trip, piping hot natural rock pools full of Slovak overlanders well provisioned with cold Pilsener Urquell.  Luckily, they shared!

On the Kjolur Route, after the wind had stopped howling
The next day, June 27th, was similar in the ferocity of the winds, but had an extra bonus of driving rain.  It was a tough, miserable day, but at least I managed to crawl the 38 kilometres to Kerlingarfjoll by 3:30, where I found Terri ensconsed in indoor luxury and concerned for my well-being in the ferocity of the storm.  We cooked up more lamb chops and turned in early; it was strange but extremely welcome to be sleeping indoors as the heavens opened again.  The scenery around Kerlingarfjoll was supposed to be spectacular, but all I saw was the inside of a raincloud.

Terri pushing up a hill near Kerlingarfjoll
June 28th found us sharing cycling stories and advice with two Canadian couples. Jan and Paul(whom we had met at Myvatn) had done a Terri and taken the bus through the storm as far as Kerlingarfjoll, while Sandy and Amy had ridden up from the south, propelled by a tailwind.  We cooked up a huge breakfast, helped Jan and Paul polish off their pancakes, and then cycled through the wind, much reduced but still in our faces.  The clouds had parted somewhat, giving great views of the two huge icecaps between which we were cycling.  A little café in the middle of nowhere provided a welcome break from the elements and some delicious cake, while one final climb and then we were descending out of the highlands, finally hitting pavement after 170 bone-jarring kilometres.  As we searched for a sheltered place to pitch the tent, we came across a completely unexpected emergency shelter which was spacious and clean inside and which could not have been a more welcome sight to two wind-swept travellers.  We spread out our Thermarests and sleeping bags, cooked on the concrete floor and slept like the dead, worn out by a day of battling Mother Nature.

Our emergency shelter, a welcome sight on a windy night
Our little home away from home in an emergency shelter
The last three days of the ride were almost an anticlimax after the rigours of the Kjolur route.  We had a short ride to the spectacular waterfall at Gulfoss.  The water plunged over two separate drops in a huge cloud of spray, and we managed to enjoy it before the parking lot completely filled with daytripping tour buses from Reykjavik.  We moved on to Geysir, where the tourist tide was in full flood, so we had lunch and a soak in a hot pot before moving across the road to see the geyser after which all others around the world are named.  Sadly the great Geysir no longer erupts, but nearby Strokkur goes off every few minutes, so we were able to satisfy my shutterbug instincts easily.  The rest of the area is full of steaming water, brilliant blue algal blooms and ominous warnings not to stray off the path.  We finally hit the road at 4:00, turned away from the heavy tourist traffic and rolled through a pretty, bucolic landscape until a river provided us with lovely camping and good birdwatching.

Stunning Gulfoss
June 30th saw us ride down to the southern branch of the Ring Road at the strangely unattractive town of Selfoss, passing an absolute epidemic of weekend cottages spread over the bleak volcanic landscape in some fairly strange spots.  In the distance loomed two of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes, the frequently erupting Hekla and  Eyjafjallajokull, the one that shut down European air travel back in 2010.  We rode down to the coast and explored the old houses of Eyrarbakki before wasting a couple of hours searching out an out-of-the-way bird sanctuary that was almost bereft of birds.  At least we got to see lots of elegant Icelandic horses up close along the way.  We turned up our noses at the municipal campground at Thorlakshofn, and after wallowing in their hot pot rode out to a fairly desolate campground beside the sea where it proved almost impossible to find flat ground for the tent, much to Terri’s dismay.

Beautiful Icelandic horses
July 1st, our last full day of riding, was a bit bleak, following a new paved road along the almost uninhabited south coast of the Reykjanes peninsula.  The two highlights of the ride were meeting a man with one arm cycling a recumbent tricycle at great speed the other way, and having a nap beside the road on a natural bed of soft lichen.  Pulling into the fishing port of Grindavik after a grey, uninspiring day we found by far the nicest campground in all of Iceland, with brand new state of the art cooking facilities, laundry machines and much-needed windbreaks.  We met a German couple in an overland Land Rover that we checked out, keeping in mind our plan to go around Africa in a similar machine in a few years’ time.  He is a doctor but designs bicycles in hisspare time; I got to try out one of his fat tire specials.  Terri and I cooked up another meat feast and slept well, knowing that we were almost finished the hard work.

After a prolonged brunch the next morning, we packed up and headed north, past the Blue Lagoon towards Keflavik.  We made surprisingly good time across the bleak lava plain despite a strong headwind, and then, sooner than we had anticipated, we were back in the expensive surroundings of the Motel Alex, where we took a little stand-alone chalet, boxed up our bicycles for the plane (the bike room, in our absence, had accumulated over 100 bike boxes waiting for their owners to return from their bike trips), cooked up our leftover food for lunch and had a princely fish and chips feast in (of all places) the local Thai restaurant. 

As we caught our ride to the airport the next morning, we reflected on the past three and a half weeks.  The scenery was good most of the time and spectacular at times, particularly in the W

estfjords.  The trip was expensive, even though we slept rough most of the time, but we had known that in advance.  The bird life was spectacular, the whale watching was a special treat, the hot pots made even the hardest days bearable, the locals we met seemed remarkably friendly given the tourist tsunami sweeping over their island, and the cycling was challenging.  I’m not sure I would go back to Iceland, having seen quite a bit of the island, but if I did I would concentrate on the north and east.  I thought the Kjolur track was perhaps a bit disappointing in terms of scenery, although the storm might have skewed my judgment.  To anyone contemplating riding Iceland, I would recommend spending as little time as possible on the very busy Ring Road (Highway 1) and as much time as possible on the small roads of the Westfjords and the northern peninsulas.

My next bike trip starts in a week, but this one will be a new experience for me, a lightweight trip on a racing bike through the legendary cols of the Alps that the Tour de France ride every year.  I’ll be sleeping indoors and carrying almost nothing other than lots of money.  It will be a great physical challenge and lots of fun, but I bet it will struggle to compete with Iceland for sheer adventure.  Already I’m planning next summer’s cycling/hiking trip to Madagascar:  I can’t wait!

Perfect timing; we’re pulling into Jasper as I type this.  I love it when I manage to meet an arbitrary self-imposed deadline!

Peace and Tailwinds

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