Monday, July 22, 2013

Riding through Iceland's lovely Westfjords

Thunder Bay, July 21, 2013

As heavy rains lash down outside, it’s a perfect day not to go for a bicycle ride and instead to try to summarize last month’s three and a half week bike trip around the amazing island of Iceland.  In order to make sure that this actually gets uploaded soon, I will divide up the trip into two sections:  the Westfjords, followed by the north, the central highlands and the south coast.  Today’s installment will be about what for me was the highlight of the trip, the lovely Westfjords.

Terri and I flew to Keflavik airport on Saturday, June 8.  We arrived to grey skies and a cold, searching wind that soon had us seeking shelter as we waited for the shuttle bus from our hideously overpriced motel, Motel Alex, to arrive.  We picked up our bicycles, which we had mailed to Motel Alex from Switzerland two weeks earlier to avoid Lufthansa’s irritating “we can’t guarantee that we can take your bikes” policy on the first leg of the flight, and put them together.  It was hard to fall asleep, despite our travel weariness, with the 24-hour perpetual daylight penetrating the paper-thin gauze curtains, but we eventually nodded off.

Departing the Motel Alex on June 9th
The next day, our first day in the saddle, started out promisingly and ended poorly.  We ate to the point of bursting at the breakfast buffet, trying to get our money’s worth, and then spent some time on the inevitable fine adjustments at the beginning of a trip, particularly on Terri’s bike which had never been ridden with so much luggage on it.  Eventually we got the details right and rode off into a bracing headwind, the story of most of our days in Iceland.

We made our way slowly along the main highway towards Reykjavik before turning south towards the most famous tourist spot in all of Iceland, the Blue Lagoon.  We rolled through a bleak landscape of black lava covered with grey lichen towards a plume of steam visible from Keflavik.  This part of the country lies right on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the European and North American continents are spreading apart at 2 centimetres a year, and the earth’s crust is very thin, leading to lots of volcanic activity (hence the lava) and geothermal hot springs (hence the parade of tour buses passing us).  We got to the Blue Lagoon, parked our bikes, pulled out our swimsuits and headed into the complex. 

The milky white pools of the Blue Lagoon
After paying a truly astronomical sum to enter (over $50 a person; welcome to Iceland!), we found ourselves in a gigantic natural hot pool, where mineral salts made the water an unearthly greenish blue and coated the black lava stones of the bottom with a thick layer of chalky white mineral deposits.  The water was hot enough to make us forget the cold weather and the rain which started up while we were in the pools.  We drifted around the long perimeter of the lagoon, trying out the volcanic mud’s effect on our skin and treating ourselves to a shared beer at a painful price.  It was a beautiful spot, but the high prices and rampant consumerism detracted somewhat from the magic. 

Eventually we summoned up the courage to get out of the pool and get back on the bikes.  The rain had not abated and we pedalled through cold wind and driving rain all the way to Reykjavik, a rather unpleasant 55 km that left us soaked and frozen.  The scenery was unremittingly bleak, the traffic was heavy, the winds got stronger and stronger, and there were no towns or even gas stations in which to feed ourselves.  By the time we hit Hafnafjorthur, the furthest outskirts of the capital, we were ravenous and tucked into some French fries after cleaning out the local supermarket.  With the rain continuing, we abandoned plans to camp and headed to the Reykjavik Youth Hostel for a few hours of sleep and drying out wet clothes.

Very early the next morning we rode our bikes to a distant suburban bus station, Mjodd, in search of a bus to Stykkisholmur.  The bus services out of Reykjavik have changed completely this year, and it had taken lots of phoning around from the helpful woman at the hostel front desk to figure out where the bus would leave from.  We arrived just in time, loaded our bikes and bags in the bottom of the bus and sped off up the west coast.  We changed to a tiny minibus halfway to Stykkisholmur, but it had a luggage trailer the perfect size for taking our bikes.  I’m usually opposed to taking buses during a bike trip, but given our time constraints, we had decided that it was worth it to get directly to the Westfjords and start riding as soon as possible. 

The first of many wonderful hot pots, near Kross, on the first evening in the Westfjords
By 11:00 we were in the pretty harbour of Stykkisholmur, where we put on more clothes (it was only 8 degrees with a stiff wind), had some of the fast food that is the only affordable fare in Iceland (burgers and fries are as ubiquitous as huge four-wheel drives; Icelanders have a love affair with US culture) and spent an enjoyable few hours waiting for the afternoon ferry up a small hill by the lighthouse.  The crossing to tiny Brjanslaukur took a few more hours, featuring a number of puffins spotted in the distance, flying by or bobbing in the ocean, and then, finally, we were on the south coast of the Westfjords.  The traffic was non-existent and the scenery was wonderful, with steep cliffs, scattered sheep farms, tumbling waterfalls and iridescent green colours in the evening sun.  We rode south and then west for 14 easy kilometres, relishing the perfect riding conditions and deserted road, to arrive at the first of many geothermally heated pools (hot pots) that would mark our path around the island.  We paid our 500 kronur ($4.50) each and slipped into a 15-metre-long swimming pool that was blissfully warm.  After a long wallow, I got out and got dressed to search for a suitable camping spot.  Terri, more reluctant to emerge, was shown by the lady running the place to the actual hot pot, a tiny stone-lined hot tub behind the swimming pool, surrounded on three sides by the ocean, where she soaked happily for a good while longer.

We camped that night just down the shore, in a beautiful seaside meadow, the first of many great campsites.  As we set up the tent, I made the unwelcome discovery that I didn’t have the right set of tent poles for my tent.  I had brought the Crux mountaineering tent that I had had on Peak Lenin and Muztagh Ata and in Ladakh last summer.  One of the poles had snapped on Muztagh Ata and Crux had kindly sent a complete set of replacement poles.  Unfortunately, since it had been snowing in Leysin right up until my departure, I hadn’t gotten around to putting up the tent and hadn’t realized that Crux had sent me a mismatched set, with one of the long poles replaced with a much shorter pole.  We improvised a solution, but the tent was floppy and loose, which was annoying whenever it was windy (in other words, pretty much every night).  A classic rookie error on my part.

The first big climb between fjords
The next day, our first full day of riding in the Westfjords was a rollercoaster, both physically and (for Terri) psychologically.  We slept well, had a good breakfast of muesli and yoghurt and were rolling along the coast by 9:30 am, although through a headwind.  After an hour, the road turned inland for the first of many crossings between adjacent fjords.  The climb itself was not enormously high (about 425 metres) or hugely steep; Terri had done much longer, higher climbs many times in the Alps on her racing bike.  This was, however, her first time doing a climb like this with full camping gear, four panniers and a sturdy touring bike.  The many extra kilograms, which to me have become so natural as to be barely noticeable, were a tremendous shock to her system and the climb was a long, painful ordeal that exhausted her legs and left her starving.  We descended through beautiful moorland to the blue waters of the next fjord and then turned left, off the asphalt onto the unpaved road leading out to the bird cliffs of Latrabjarg.  

The beautiful beaches heading towards Latrabjarg
At first this went well, with a fairly well-graded gravel road that ran more or less level, but as we progressed, the road began to undulate more and more, while the gravel grew looser.  Trying to make a fully-loaded touring bike climb a loose gravel road when the going gets steep is an acquired skill, and Terri found it to be a baptism by fire.  We pulled into a quirky little museum café in the middle of nowhere to buy expensive cake and soda to fuel Terri up the next big climb, but by the time we reached the top, Terri was mentally and physically done.  Unfortunately, however, we weren’t really anywhere we could camp, so we continued our roller coaster ride up and then down, down, down to the motel at Breithavik, located beside the sea in a beautiful setting some 15 km short of Latrabjarg.  There was a commercial campground there that charged an outrageous 1900 kronur ($18) per person, but with Terri not able to continue, we had little choice.  At least we had access to an excellent indoor kitchen to cook dinner, and were able to do a bit of laundry.  Terri was despondent that evening at the thought of more steep unpaved hills to come, and I could not convince her that she would eventually get used to them.

A razorbill auk at Latrabjarg
The spectacular coastline of Latrabjarg
The next morning Terri hitchhiked out to Latrabjarg while I rode my bike.  Given the paucity of traffic, I actually arrived a few minutes before her, enjoying an easy ride with no luggage to slow me down.  The sun came out and the colours of the last little fishing village and the splendid coastal cliffs led to lots of photo stops.  When Terri arrived in the car of a local archaeologist, we set off together on foot to one of the great natural sights of Iceland, the nesting grounds of hundreds of thousands of seabirds in high-density high-rise accommodations.  Razorbill auks and Burrich’s guillemots clustered in their multitudes along tiny shelves in the otherwise sheer basalt cliffs.  Overhead glaucous gulls and northern fulmars cawed and wheeled in dense swarms.  We walked along a path through the grassy meadows, staying away from the very edge of the cliffs where puffin burrows have undercut the earth and left the ground crumbly and dangerous. We hiked along, pausing to take pictures of the birds and searching for puffins.  We knew that there were thousands of these comical seabirds floating offshore in the rough ocean, but we had heard that there were also puffins to be seen up close and personal on the shore.  After an hour of searching, we had almost given up when I suddenly spied one just below the lip of the cliff.  We lay down atop the cliff (to minimize the risk of the ground giving way beneath us) and peered at the elusive bird.  Once we had trained our eyes to see them, they were everywhere, and we had several very close encounters with some very unafraid puffins. 

One of Iceland's 10 million or so puffins
Eventually it was time to drag ourselves away from the amazing birdlife and get going.  Terri got a lift back while I zipped along the road, enjoying the views and the perfect weather.  Back at Breithavik, we packed up our camp and headed back along the road we had followed the day before.  Despite Terri’s misgivings, she found the climb back over the pass towards the main fjord much easier than the day before, even though the sky suddenly clouded over and got cold and unpleasant.  We passed the museum again, warmed ourselves up with some instant soup, then pedalled along the south shore of Patreksfjorthur, almost entirely untroubled by cars.  Eventually, after 35 kilometres of dirt road, we rode onto the pavement and then turned left along the north shore of the fjord toward the little town of Patreksfjorthur. 

An hour’s hard riding through the chilly headwind brought us into town.  We stopped for burgers and fries in a little diner where a friendly local man was pleased to hear that Terri was a Kiwi.  He told us of numerous young New Zealanders that had come to tiny Patreksfjorthur over the years to work in the fish processing plant in the course of working their way around the world.  We found the local campground (almost every village in the country seemed to have one), put up the tent and settled in for a good night’s sleep. 

Terri fleeing the fogs of Patreksfjorthur
Crossing from Patreksfjorthur to Arnarsfjorthur
The best thing about this little campground was that the showers weren’t working yet (the place was still under construction).  That meant that for our 1000 kronurs each, we also got a free pass to the local swimming pool, a state-of-the-art facility that we visited the following morning as soon as we woke up.  We had the piping hot pots to ourselves, and it made for a very civilized start to a foggy, cold day.  After a prolonged breakfast back at the campground, we finally rolled out of town and up the next pass.  After 150 vertical metres, we popped out of the fog into the bright sunshine that would follow us for days through the Westfjords.  An hour’s brisk climbing brought us to the top of the pass, 400 metres or so above the fogs of Patreksfjorthur.  The exhilarating descent down the other side to the next fjord made the long climb worth it, and got the blood pumping for the next climb, straight up another 400 metres across the typical bleak moorland that starts not far above sea level.  Terri climbed slowly but steadily and soon enough we were at the top, looking back at the sinuous path of our road and ahead to the sun-soaked blue and green of the loveliest fjord so far, Arnarsfjorthur (Eagle Fjord). 

Terri and Jan relaxing in Reykjanesfjorthur's natural hot pot
Another screaming downhill brought us back to sea level and after a roadside sandwich on the outskirts of the lone settlement, we rode for a couple of hours along the fjord, past occasional isolated farmsteads, fluffy sheep, big flocks of white and black eider ducks and imposing basalt cliffs.  We passed an impressive waterfall at Foss, then rolled a bit further to probably the best campsite of the entire trip, at Reykjanesfjorthur.  We had seen an intriguing hot spring sign on the map, but hadn’t found anything about it in our guidebooks.  We found an old, abandoned geothermal swimming pool that had seen better days, but behind it was a natural hot potl in a river that steamed at 38 degrees.  A farm had once occupied the fertile meadow behind but was now abandoned, and a sign announced that the hot springs were free for anyone to enjoy.  We set up our tent on the shore, cooked dinner and then set about enjoying the magnificent setting.  A couple of other sets of travellers dropped in:  a South African couple on a motorcycle, and a pair of German guys in a car, along with an older Icelandic guy with whom we struck up a conversation as we sat in the swirling steam.  Jan worked as a tour guide in Arnarsfjorthur, doing whale-watching, hiking and sailing in a replica Viking longboat.  Chatting with him, we watched the hot water of the river steam its way towards the frigid waters of the fjord as the shadows lengthened.  Iceland in June is perfect midnight sun country; the sun actually does set, but only for a couple of hours, and the sun remains close enough to the horizon that you can read a book outside at 1:00 am. 

Our perfect campsite at Reykjanesfjorthur
Leaving the fogs behind
In the morning, we awoke to morning sea fog again, and as we cooked breakfast, we spotted Iceland’s lone species of indigenous land mammal.  An Arctic fox, its pelt an incongruous grey, looking squatter than most types of fox, wandered down from the high moorlands and poked around, probably looking for bird eggs.  With no other mammals to eat, the foxes of Iceland survive largely on sea birds.  We watched through binoculars until it disappeared in the distance, then packed up and set off for what promised to be a challenging day of riding.  We trundled along the lovely fjord for a while, past endless flocks of eiders and a few tufted ducks, then turned resolutely inland and began to climb.  This time the climb wasn’t a simple up-and-down crossing to an adjacent fjord.  Instead we climbed fairly high (500 metres) to a road junction where we found ourselves, after all these days, only 14 kilometres from where we had started at Brjanslaukur, then undulated for a few hours across an endless bleak moorland, still dotted with leftover snow.  The road eventually dropped 200 metres, then immediately climbed again to 500 metres, passing a plethora of tiny lakes and a couple of pretty large rivers draining this soggy landscape.  Terri rode well and made the top easily, but was glad when we finally started the long, curving descent down a very pretty river valley.  Near the bottom, our destination for the day finally came into view:  one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland, Dynjandi falls.  There was another free campsite at the bottom where we set up our tent and settled in for a lazy late afternoon. 

The descent to Dynjandi waterfalls
Terri was tired after the day’s climbing, and more or less passed out in her sleeping bag on the grass, her Kindle perched unopened on her chest.  I fed her soup, whisky and a big supper, pleased that she had not cracked on the tough climbs and was getting into climbing shape.  The falls were spectacular, but after a long day in the saddle, we decided to defer the hike to the top until the morning.  As we lounged on the grass, we had a long conversation with a pair of Canadian sisters who were on a hiking trip.  The problem with hiking Iceland this June was that everything was under much more snow than usual at this time of year, and a lot of trails were completely or partially closed.  Terri also made friends with the inhabitants of a couple of huge camper vans that were sharing the campground with us.

One tired cyclist relaxes at Dynjandi
The decision to hike in the morning looked pretty foolish when we woke up to morning fog again; the falls were more or less invisible from the bottom, so we decided to cycle onwards towards Thingeyri.  Terri had heard horror stories from drivers coming from there about how much higher and steeper this road was than any other pass in the Westfjords, so she decided to try to hitch a ride.  Luckily a camper rolled up behind us after a few minutes and picked her up, leaving me to ride over the top.  As it proved, the pass was only a bit higher than usual (550 metres, instead of the usual 500) and the road was no steeper, despite alarming signs at the bottom.  I was over in little more than an hour and then had a wonderful sweeping downhill (interrupted by a misplaced and annoying brief uphill) to Thingeyri.  I found Terri in the care of the campers, a hospitable retired French couple named Titou and Giraud who had fed her lunch.  With difficulty I got her back on her bike and we rode along the fjord, stopping for a hot dog (Iceland’s national dish) in town and a cheese sandwich and beer (thanks to the campers the night before).  We had another pass to cross before supper, but this one proved to be easy and Terri, with her legs fresh, zipped over the top in good time.  We coasted down into the most populated fjord yet, dotted with farms that seemed to specialize in the stocky, beautiful horses that are a symbol of Iceland.  We found a great campsite on the shore of the fjord and settled in for the night, well satisfied with another good day in the saddle.

Heading out of Thingeyri
We had now ridden five full days in the Westfjords, and only now were we approaching the regional hub, Isafjorthur.  The next morning found us climbing up to the mouth of the all-season tunnel that has replaced the old road over the pass.  Luckily, in practical Icelandic fashion, bicycles can easily traverse the tunnel as it’s well lit, with passing bays at regular intervals.  It’s still spooky, but with very scant traffic and our lights on we felt pretty secure, although very cold.  It was a relief to poke our heads out of the other end and see the metropolis of Isafjorthur (population 3000) sprawling picturesquely into the calm waters of the fjord.

Our first priority was a good meal.  We had heard tales of good, affordable fish at one of the local restaurants, and it proved to be the best meal of the trip.  We tucked into cod and potatoes in a stylish little pub, fueling us up for the lean kilometres ahead.  We had originally planned to spend the night in town, but the local campgrounds were either closed or dismal, so instead we looked into bus schedules, had a prolonged soak in the hot tubs at the local swimming pool, stocked up on groceries at the supermarket and rode 25 km along the shore to the fishing hamlet of Suthavik.  On the way we spent most of the trip gazing north towards the snow-choked slopes of the Hornstrandir peninsula.  This is usually a hiking mecca, with no permanent habitation and no road access, but the record snows of the past winter had left half the peninsula closed to hikers, while the other half had tiny paths worn between towering snowbanks.  Terri and I had originally toyed with the idea of hiking there, and were glad that we had eventually decided against it.

Gazing north towards the Hornstrandir peninsula
Suthavik has a brand new municipal campground, and we were the only inhabitants that evening.  We first dropped by the Arctic fox centre, a little museum detailing the research being done on Hornstrandir into the habits of this little creature.  Foxes were ferociously hunted and poisoned over the centuries, and farmers still try to rid their lands of them.  Only on Hornstrandir are they completely protected.  Since my sister Saakje spent a summer in the Canadian Arctic studying lemmings (Arctic foxes’ prey of choice wherever they’re available, but not present in Iceland), I was intrigued to see what scientists have found about the foxes.  After the museum, we retreated to a café for the inevitable burgers and then to our tent to escape the brisk wind that had sprung up.

Bleak weather as we cycle toward Ogur
The next day, June 17th, proved to be the last full day of cycling we did in the Westfjords.  After days of sunshine and relative warmth, Iceland’s latitude reasserted itself with cloud and cold southerly winds.  Since we spent the day going up and down fjords oriented north-south, this made for Jeckyll and Hyde riding.  Going south we gritted our teeth, put our heads down and rode in close formation, Terri drafting behind me, struggling to keep the speed at 13 km/h.  At the head of the fjord we would turn downwind, pass a stunning waterfall or three and suddenly accelerate to close to 30 km/h, letting the wind blow us along like sailboats under a spinnaker.  At the end of an 86-kilometre day we found a perfect campsite below the road near Ogur, looking back towards Isafjorthur and the series of inlets we had traversed.  The wind abated a bit and we lay on the shore, sipping our evening glass of whisky and admiring the views.  It had been a great week, and it was hard to see how the rest of Iceland was going to compete with the emptiness, views, nature and good weather.
Yet another dramatic waterfall
June 18th saw our farewell to the Westfjords.  Since we were hundreds of not-so-exciting kilometres from Akureyri, and since we had decided to go whale watching at Husavik and mosquito-feeding at Myvatn, it made sense to use a bus to get to Akureyri.  We rode 30 km through biting winds and intermittent rain to the hot spring hotel of Reykjanes, gobbled down burgers and fries and suddenly were loading our bikes into an overstuffed and outrageously overpriced bus.  Another bus, less crowded but equally expensive, followed as we backtracked more than halfway to Reykjavik before finally catching the more reasonably priced government Straeto bus to Akureyri, arriving at almost midnight.  It was time for the second part of our adventure to begin.

Looking back towards Isafjorthur from our last campsite near Ogur