Dream cycle tour destinations:
- Africa – west coast
A list scrawled in the back of my diary from our last cycle tour.
After an epic 14-day dash from London to Hirtshals, we were now stood in the line of cars, campervans and motorcycles about to board the Smyril-Line ferry to Seydisfjordur, for a five week romp through Iceland. I had butterflies in my stomach. The type brought on by the excitement and anxiety of embarking on something one has dreamed of, hoping that reality will compare to the dream. 35 days and a few thousand kilometres of cycling on a shoestring budget through the wilderness of Iceland would give me an answer.
It’s a 46-hour ferry ride to Iceland. At times like these our morals (no short haul flights due to their environmental impact) and our budget have a boxing match. As usual our morals threw the winning punch and we opted for the cheapest ferry tickets available – about 700 Euros each, return. For double the budget of our entire time in Iceland, we slept on a plastic mattress in a tiny, stuffy, overheated 6-bed dorm room in the bowels of the boat. Even our bikes had a better deck than we did. In addition to our ‘dungeon’, we could also partake in one meal a day at the Dinner – an all you can eat meat fest with overcooked veggies – a vegan’s bad dream. Then there was the full day of seasickness, which saw me curled up in a corner feeling like I wanted to die. Reality sucks sometimes.
On the third morning, I spotted land. Snow capped peaks crowned grey-green mountains rising out of the deep blue waters. The sun glistened in a clear blue sky and a whale crested in the wake of the ferry. I ran from window to window like an excited child as the Eastern fjords reached out like the fingers of a friend welcoming us. We docked at the colourful port of Seydisfjordur and the relaxed, friendly vibe saw us heading to the campground eager to spend time exploring the surrounding mountains and celebrate mid-summer in this vibrant village. That afternoon we hiked up the Vestdulur Valley in the glorious summer sun. Five vibrant green plateaus were tiered together by gushing waterfalls, and above the snow line a frozen lake awaited us. On our return we celebrated the summer solstice with good tunes, vegan sausages and the last of our duty free, full strength beer. Crawling into bed after midnight we were overjoyed by our first day and the beauty that surrounded us.
Our plan was simple – to circumnavigate Iceland by bicycle for four weeks and then spend a week hiking in the mountains. But which way should we go? After chatting to the locals we were convinced that heading northwards first would be best, both for the better weather (it was pouring in the south and west) and because this was meant to be the less touristy part of Iceland. Hitting the road was delayed by a little thing called the World Cup, as Iceland was playing Nigeria that afternoon and they were showing the match on the big screen in the community hall. As it never gets dark this time of year, we reasoned that we could stay for the match and still cycle for few hours afterwards. So that afternoon, along with the locals, we lived and breathed every excitement and heartbreak of Iceland’s unfortunate defeat by Nigeria. Pulling on our warmer gear we reasoned that a 650-metre ascent with a 10% gradient most of the way, would be the perfect antidote to the loss, and we were right. Sweating and panting, we realised that we were not as hill fit as we used to be. Luckily this changed over the next few weeks.
Reaching the top of the pass a huge valley opened before us, and mountain range after mountain range filled the horizon. We followed this valley northwards as I was determined to fulfill another desire – that of seeing puffins – even if it meant a 70 kilometre detour over another pass. Borgarfjordur Eystri is the home of a 10,000 strong puffin colony. These iconic, funny looking birds, bring so much joy. Especially when they are either taking off or landing. You’d think evolution could have made them a little more graceful but they look so uncoordinated – like they are going to crash at any minute. We spent a couple of hours watching them walk about, leave/return from fishing and posing for the tourists – including us.
We had seen it a little, but here at the puffin colony we were to have our first real exposure to what I called Tourist Photo Syndrome (TPS). And I must admit it was rife for our whole time in Iceland with the disease becoming more prevalent the closer we got to the Golden Triangle area. It’s basic pathology consists of tourists arriving at a place of beauty or animal life, and instead of taking some time to just be in the moment and enjoy whatever it was that drew them there, they would photograph it for a few minutes and then leave. In extreme cases, after photographing they wouldn’t leave, but instead they would sit and look at the photos they just took, or prepare them then and there for uploading on to social media. And don’t even get me started on people who use drones. When I was feeling particularly annoyed at such behaviour, my favourite thing to do was to sit in a prime position and enjoy the view for about 15 minutes with groups of increasingly frustrated TPS sufferers getting annoyed that I was ruining their perfect photograph by sitting in it. Childish I know, but it did bring me glee, as well as time to enjoy the place I had cycled so far to see.
Interactions with Icelanders.
Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with 335,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in Reykjavik. During that time, 10% of the population were also in Russia watching the World Cup live. One of our favourite things about travelling is meeting and getting to know the people who live there, but so far our interactions with Icelanders had been very limited. Most tourist businesses are staffed with foreign workers over the summer, and at those that weren’t our interactions were limited to fleeting moments of small talk. So when Elissa and her children (who we met at the campground in Seydisfjordur) invited us to visit them on their farm, we jumped at the chance. We arrived late, after 100 kilometres of rough cycling mostly into a headwind. Luckily life in Hrafnabjorg is organised chaos of the best kind, and within moments of arriving we were sat around a table with our new friends and their friends, eating, drinking and learning about life in Iceland. Summers sound glorious but full of hard work, winters sound long and cold, but also beautiful in a different way. Turns out that knitting is best thing to do in times of bad weather. After 5 weeks of spending lots of time sheltering from bad weather, we agree!
We had planned to leave the following morning but were invited to stay an extra day as a yellow weather warning had been declared. Extreme winds were due to arrive overnight and continue the following day. How bad could they be, we though naively. We woke to the sound of a faint howling through the thick brick walls. Everything outside was standing side-wards and when we stepped outdoors the gusts almost blew us over. Humbled, we agreed to stay and leant a hand with the farm work. This mainly involved hugging baby goats (I LOVE goats!) and trying to herd bulls from one barn to another, which is harder than it sounds. Cycle touring provides you with the most random experiences.
Epic, diverse, majestic and spectacular are all adjectives I continually used to describe the scenery in my diary. I hadn’t felt such space and wilderness for years. The sky seemed endless, lakes and glaciers would fill my whole visual field. From the grandeur of the Eastern fjords, up the fertile river valley flanked by the snow capped Dyrfjoll and Smjorfjoll ranges, we climbed up to the lunar landscape of the highlands. Jude and I love such desert landscapes. The subtle differences in colour, the small details of plants and wildlife you would miss if you were in a car, provided delight as the cycling got tougher as the road deteriorated. Volcanoes would rise like solitary sentinels from the earth. The blue Jokulsa river cut like a gash through the brown parched earth. Waterfalls like Detifoss, Godafoss and Gullfoss, would make the earth tremble beneath you, and sitting next to them would be a full sensory experience. You could believe that the canyon at Asbyrgi, was created by the hoof of Odin’s eight legged flying horse Sleipnir, landing on the earth. We watched for whales in the mirror like seas as we rounded peninsulas in north. Grass and moss were slowly reclaiming the cracked lava fields near lake Myvatn. My favourite day of cycling was crossing Trollaskagi along the Lagheidi road. Most people take the tunnels that run under the peaks while we enjoyed the solitude of the lush green valleys that climbed between snow capped mountains with waterfalls gushing down their sides. It reminded us of mountainous places dear to our hearts – especially Kyrgyzstan and the European Alps. As the weather deteriorated, we gave up on our dream of cycling in the Western fjords. Instead we opted for some F roads and Route 35, which cut a path in the desolate highlands between the incredible glaciers Hofsjokull and Langjokull. Steam and boiling water spouted out of the earth in the otherworldly geothermal areas of Hveravellir and Geysir. Due to the weather and the intense amount of tourists, we opted to spend as little time in the Golden Triangle as possible. Making a dash for the southern coast we spent a week with the Atlantic Sea and fields of black sand and lava to our right and a never-ending mass of ancient sea cliffs, waterfalls and glaciers to our left. This wilderness has left a lasting impression deep in my soul and the reality of such natural beauty was far beyond anything I could have ever dreamed of.
Everyone knows that Iceland’s weather can be unpredictable. Jude’s and my biggest disagreements prior to going would revolve around the type of weather we would experience while there. I dreamed of mild sunny days and cold nights, like we had experienced in Scotland the previous month. Jude would warn me that we were in for five weeks of cold, wet and windy weather. Even looking at the awful forecast before leaving could not dissuade me to give up on my Icelandic ideal. And the first week or so was glorious. We wore t-shirts and shorts cycling. I got sunburnt. Picnic lunches were followed by naps in the warm afternoon sun. There was the occasional cloud or short-lived rain shower, but to me it was perfect. Even Jude admitted that it far exceeded her expectations.
And then it all changed. The cold, clouds and rain became like annoying, unwanted guests to our cycle touring party. While England and Europe were experiencing the hottest and driest summer in centuries, Iceland was having the worst summer in over 100 years of recorded history. While our friends drank cold beers in parks and rooftop bars, we sheltered for hours, sometimes days, in our tent or anywhere dry that we could find. We would read, knit, write in our diaries and drink copious cups of tea to pass the time. Thankfully almost all supermarkets have a self-serve café style seated section in them where you can sit and eat, charge your devices and wait for the front to pass.
The glorious views disappeared, obscured like grey curtains falling at a theatre – nothing to see here, the show is over, go home. During these days, the only way I knew that I was in Iceland was by the familiar spring flowers that were still blooming on the roadside, the distinctive Icelandic horses in the fields and the birds that would constantly fly alongside us squawking alarms to others at our approach. Occasionally the cloud would lift a little, showing the base of a cliff or a waterfall, but like a woman only showing her ankles, we knew that the best bits were still above.
Some days the weather did not bother us and we rode into the rain and wind singing songs to ourselves, enjoying just being alive. On others, I would be soaked through to my underpants, wearing five layers of clothing just to keep warm while riding uphill, and a mixture of anger and regret would come bubbling to the surface. The fact that my waterproof jacket was no longer waterproof did not help either. Being in the elements makes us feel alive. That is why we love cycle touring so much. But for us there is a limit to how much cold, wet and wind we can tolerate before it sinks in and wears on our souls, and by the end of the forth week we had both reached that point.
The riding and routine.
It takes a few days to figure out the best routine for each country. The elements, traffic and access to water are our biggest considerations when determining how we would structure our days. Quickly we realised that the wind would pick up around 9-10am making riding more difficult and the tourists would come out about the same time putting our sanity and safety in danger with their TPS and driving. As it was light all the time and as cyclists, we could legally camp anywhere on the roadside as long as there was not a campground nearby, stopping time did not need to rely on nightfall as it does in some other countries. Therefore we chose to wake at 4am, have a skinny dip in the nearest body of water (as discussed in the Scotland blog, this is one of the most exhilarating experiences we know of), watch the sun come above the horizon as we drank tea/coffee and ate breakfast (thus also avoiding the hundreds of flies that were still dormant at this hour), and start pedalling just after 5am. We would then have close to four glorious hours of traffic-free cycling and tourist-free exploring. We stopped every two hours for a rest and snack, and by 5pm we were searching for a place to pitch our tent for the night. Each was as spectacular as the next, but the most memorable was by a glacial lake with icebergs floating by, with three glaciers visible from my tent door. Once the tent was set up it was time to drink copious amounts of tea, write our diaries, meditate, sketch, practice headstands, knit/crochet, write to friends, route plan and our favourite activity – eat!
We tried as much as possible to avoid riding on the Ring Road, Route 1, as this was the one most tourists, buses, trucks and pretty much everyone in a car would use. This found us consulting our free cycling map and chatting to locals for the best alternative routes and we found some brilliant back roads. Some were paved, some gravel, some newly graded, others in a state of washboard disrepair. The roads climbed steadily, with the occasional white-knuckle descent, which added to the pleasure of cycling after a fortnight of flat riding. Being used to European styles of driving, we abhorred the total disregard for cyclist’s safety by the drivers in Iceland. Basically the driving was shit. Too fast, too close and way too aggressive, especially when we had to ride on Route 1 as there was no other alternative. Our sanity saver was our music blasted through a portable speaker that one of us would attach to our bikes for the afternoon. You can’t get that upset bopping along, singing full voiced to Cindy Lauper, Crowded House or Belle & Sebastian.
The hot springs.
As much as I complained about the bad weather, our first hot spring experience was brought about by it. We were cycling out of Husavik and due to the cold, spotted steam rising from a lake just behind some bushes next to the road. We pulled over, put our frozen hands in, and within seconds we were stripping off to get the rest of our bodies warm. Happy at having located our first free thermal pool, we pedaled on in the rain oblivious until later that we had just swam in the outlet of the town’s heating. The rest of our experiences were in actual geothermal springs. The hot tub and infinity pool overlooking the sea in Hofsos, the natural pool next to a waterfall near Varmahlid, the superhot pool at Hveravellir and the random tub on the side of the road that the universe guided me to when I was almost in tears from cold and frustration one particularly bleak afternoon. Most towns also have swimming pools and hot tubs that can be accessed for a small fee. It’s amazing how on the road hot water can change a shit day to a great one. And before you ask, no we didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon. You now us: too commercial, too expensive and just not our style.
The emotional stuff.
Cycle touring is life amplified. Being constantly exposed to so much stimuli, the highs feel higher and the lows, lower. I found this even more so in Iceland, which is a country of such extremes. Extremes of beauty, and unfortunately for us, the extremes of weather. In most countries the saving grace is the kindness of people and the interactions that you have. Iceland was the first country we have cycled to where I felt mostly uncared for and isolated. Almost everyone we met was a tourist, there for short trip, only interested in ticking off the next thing on their list of things to see/do. Iceland is expensive, so people seemed more loath to share in what they had. We would get looks of confusion when we offered to share our tea and biscuits with others, and such small things like this that are abundant elsewhere in the world were not forthcoming here. That is not to say that there weren’t moments and people whose kindness was a saving grace. Elissa and her family, Bee who pulled over and offered to cook us dinner and stocked us up on food and coffee the next time we ran into her, the kind lady at the café in the highlands, the couple who offered us shelter when our tent ripped and broke in a storm, the Icelandic man who chatted for an hour with me in the hot tub in Vik, the other cycle tourists that we met and shared experiences and a laugh with. You will all be etched in my heart forever – thank you. But in the end the bad weather, the terrible driving, the millions of tourists, the cost of things, the grey curtain hiding the scenery, it all slowly wore us down. Despite moments of joy and beauty in the last week, we felt trapped there. We longed to get to Europe and the sunshine.
Writing about Iceland has been difficult. I couldn’t do it straight after we left, as the experience and my emotions were so immense. As you read, by the end we just wanted to get out of there and to write in such a mindset would not be fair to the reality of our cycle through Iceland. It took a few weeks for the brilliance of this trip to shine through again. I now sit here fondly recalling our time, the people, the landscape, the camping, the early mornings, the freedom and the immense impact that Iceland had on my soul.
More scenery if you so wish….
As usual a fantastic blog post and and all the more for being so honest and insightful. It’s so easy to always make things sound wonderful and positive and much harder to admit to the disappointments. I am not at all put off going to Iceland , in fact I think it has made me keener than ever. Your writing brought it alive and made it sound awesomely beautiful, despite the weather. Thank you ! Xx