Iceland: The South Coast and Eastern Fjords As we descended through thick cloud, sleepy and dry-throated from the flight, I found myself suddenly very much awake, staring childlike through the tiny EasyJet regulation cabin window, certain that any moment now the plane would break through a misty ceiling and a panoramic view of Iceland would be spread before me to replace the present soggy greyness. There was a teenaged Icelandic couple between the tiny Perspex porthole and me; at this point they were totally occupied by some pretty serious-looking snogging practise, which by the ducking and weaving of their permanently attached heads made any views out of the window fleeting, but still consistently grey. In case it’s not obvious, my inner child still has the final say when I fly, and I love nothing better than sitting in the window seat and staring out. I was getting worried that my first sight of this new country was going to include two tongues tied in a knot. Instead, we continued to travel earthwards until, with a bump, the plane touched down. The view through the window still looked like cotton wool. In fairness, the fingers of mist and steady drizzle that marked our first night in Iceland were far more in line with what I had expected from reading various blogs, guides and other stories of travel by bike in Iceland. It was Annie’s idea really, but the more she had mentioned various pockets of the internet devoted to just how amazing Iceland is, the more I had been swayed, and in March we had sat down and committed ourselves by buying two return tickets to Keflavik airport with five weeks in between the arrival and departure. I was excited. It was the first time I had flown anywhere since 2011, and the first time that I had ever set out on such a long, self-supported trip. Somehow, we had managed to squeeze our two bike boxes through check-in at Edinburgh airport, despite the fact that they weighed very nearly (or possibly slightly more) than the 32kg limit, and were mostly full of equipment, tools, food and clothes. The bikes were mostly just padding out the empty space. Our single hold bag, too, was mostly full of food – nearly 20kg of it. We had been assured by nearly everyone we knew that had travelled to Iceland that food was a heinously expensive thing to buy, and to take as much of it as possible. This turned out not to be the case, but the silver lining was that we at least had 6kg of instant mashed potato, should the zombie apocalypse strike while we were there. Not that all of this food would be coming with us all at the same time. We stayed that first night at a guesthouse a few kilometres from the airport, which would also store our bike boxes for us while we were travelling. In the morning we rebuilt our bikes, spent a very long time turning various things the other way round to try and fit them in our bikepacking bags, and boxed up most of the food to be sent far and wide as food resupply parcels. Then, all of a sudden, six months of vague planning and packing, of travelling and organising, were over. We stood on a small patch of grass at the front of the guesthouse, looking at drizzle falling on plants which, despite that fact that we were at sea level here, would only be found in Britain on the tops of Scotland’s highest mountains. Our bikes, Annie’s in particular, weighed several tonnes, and we looked conspicuously clean. Without much ceremony, we pushed off, clipped in, and began five weeks of pedal-powered excellence.
Given that Annie and me both live in our vans back at home, it was always a given that we probably weren’t going to be splashing out much on such a long trip. We planned to ride due south from Keflavik, the opposite direction to Reykjavik, and ride east along the south coast until we joined the popular Route 1 road that circumnavigates the island. Even our first afternoon of riding was an absorbing one. Leaving the industrial airport-town behind, we turned onto the road that leads to Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon hot pools. It was busy with coach loads of tourists being taken on what I’m sure would be wild adventures of their own, but our attention was diverted by the ancient lava field that we were riding through. The road was a straight line that been bulldozed right through the most convoluted landscape of twisted black rock, covered in cushions of electric-green moss, that looked as though it had cooled from being red hot only last week. Nothing, except the moss toupees, had changed since the eruption that had formed it. This, we thought, was going to be an interesting place. We crossed the rest of the Reykanes peninsula, passing the ugly honey pot of the Blue Lagoon, through rain and mist which cleared magically just in time for us to set up our first camp with a view of the rolling North Atlantic. We even found beds of Arctic Thyme beside the tent, which gave the first of many freeze dried meals at least a bit of freshness.
If our first day of riding had introduced us to Iceland’s famously wet climate, then on the second day it was time that we made an acquaintance with its notorious winds. We spent a long 7 hours travelling 65km, fully exposed to vicious crosswinds that at several points blew us physically off the side of the road and onto the steep gravel bank beside it. It was exhausting, and the spray of fine grit that hit our faces like shot every time the wind veered around didn’t help either. On the plus side though, if on a wet day Iceland is like being inside a washing machine, then today it was more like a tumble drier, and all of our wet kit from the day before was now comfortably dry as we camped in a grassy hollow at Eyrarbakki, only 10km from Route 1 at Selfoss. A sign beside the sea told us that, if we were to travel due south from that point, then we would cross nothing but open ocean until we hit Antarctica, 9,600 miles away.
The next morning we hit Route 1, and with the help of a tailwind made steady progress eastwards. Our aim was a geothermal outdoor swimming pool tucked into the hills, that Annie had found mentioned in a blog as being ‘virtually unvisited’. That was too much of a temptation to resist – heated outdoor pools being very attractive when you’re living in a tent – so we pushed on and by early evening had arrived at Seljalandsfoss. To our surprise, there were a few people at the pool, but the sun was about to set behind the mountains and we expected that they would be heading back to their cars soon. It was with some concern, then, that we watched a string of other tourists steadily arriving, each with a large DSLR around their necks and an expression that said: “I’ve had to walk 600m from the car for this, it had better be epic”. All too aware that we were already becoming adventure-snobs, we weren’t too happy to share such a secluded spot with all these car travellers, especially as we had begun to notice the amount of litter and suspiciously stained little bits of toilet paper that dotted the grass everywhere. The place was littered with jobbies and empty cans. In what would become a worrying theme, a large proportion of the visitors were taking in the scene mostly through the viewfinder of their cameras. Yes, we were being grumpy, but we had spent all day sweating to get there, and I wanted to wash my socks. Eventually the last of the daytrippers drove away, and we had the place to ourselves at last. After a long-awaited soak (not as warm as you’d think, but lovely nonetheless) we pitched the tent out of sight from the pool, and turned in.
What we were really looking forward to, the reason that we were willing to put in so many miles on tarmac at the start of the trip, was Iceland’s great southern ice sheets. Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest glacier, more than 80km across at its widest point, and contains most of the highest points in Iceland. Apparently, it is on average 300m thick and receives, in a good year, 10 – 15 metres of snowfall. That’s a lot, in case you’re wondering. West of Vatnajökull is the smaller but no less beautiful Myrdalsjökull, and neighbouring that is the even smaller, but still comparatively enormous, Eyjafjallajökull. Come on, you know, Eyjafjallajökull! The one that nobody can pronounce, and which stopped us all from flying anywhere in 2010 when it thoughtlessly erupted. It was this white dome that had been hovering on the horizon in front of us for the last two days, growing impossibly larger by inches. We stopped beneath it Skogafoss, an iconic waterfall that has a campsite beside it. Paying for our night of relative luxury, we unloaded the bikes completely and set off up a landrover track towards the gap in the glacier that the 2010 eruption had melted. Climbing even a little above sea level opened out the view of the expansive southern coastline, and we could see the scale of the glacio-volcanic landscape around us. The black beaches seemed to stretch away limitlessly, and the air quickly chilled as we climber nearer to the glacier. Before we reached it though, we crossed a bridge over one of the many glacial rivers, and started to descend on a hiking trail beside Skogagil, the canyon that eventually feeds the waterfall below. Well, it lived up to our expectations of otherworldly riding, that much is definite. Marked only by posts, the trail was just a line worn into the thin moss and lichen of the sub-arctic soils. It traced the rim of the canyon in a series of whoops and dips, diving without warning off the edge of one layer of ancient rock and returning to a sedate state of flow when it met the one below. Every corner flicked up a little poof of fine dust, and every fifty metres or so the views were punctuated by a series of the most spectacular waterfalls I’ve ever seen, each more astounding than the last. The sign of a really good ride is when you start giggling softly to yourself, disbelieving of the fact that you are simply there and alive. There was a lot of giggling. It felt almost criminal to stop so often to take photos, but we knew that words alone wouldn’t describe it well enough. More than satisfied with the first proper trail ride of the trip, we finished at Skogafoss itself and slept the night at the campsite.
When we first saw it, we had thought that Myrdalsjökull was unfeasibly huge – a colossal skyline of ice far bigger than glaciers we had seen in the Alps. What no-one had thought to mention to us, and what we discovered as we rounded the enormous shoulder of the glacier the next morning, is that Vatnajökull makes Myrdalsjökull look like a poor impersonation. It was hard to avoid the sight of it, crossing fifty miles of deathly flat glacial outwash plain with the soaring heights of icy pinnacles foreshortened on the horizon. Unlike alpine glaciers, the ice didn’t stop at a sharp skyline – beyond the steep glacier tongues there was simply a backdrop of sheer white, inaccessible and aloof. It seemed like an elevated world up there, of which we could only wander haplessly around the edge, so we pedalled on. Jokulsarlon is an immensely popular tourist stop. It is where the largest of glacier tongues unfurls itself from the main body of ice and reaches almost, but not quite, to the sea, where its snout melts into a glacial lagoon. During colder historical climates it had been larger, and the scouring ice has left the lagoon 190 metres deep in places. We waited out the crowds, and eventually found a quiet spot to camp, tucked well in to the endless maze of moraines around the glacier margins. With water filtered from the lagoon itself, we rested, slept, and looked forward to the long ride to what felt like the first town in a long time, Höfn, nearly 100km away.
In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson describes the small pleasures that being on the move leads you to savour. Things like fresh milk, clean socks, taps. On our arrival in Höfn we looked forward to nothing more than eating some fresh food that hadn’t been cooked in a pot containing the ghostly flavours of seemingly every other meal that had ever been cooked in it (at one remote petrol station I paid £3.50 for an enormous pear, and it was worth every penny). We got a pizza, ate all the unhealthy things we could find at the supermarket, and marvelled at the miracle of clean socks. Höfn was a small town in the middle of a series of small, very green peninsulas that jutted out from the south coast, surrounded by bays and bordered by craggy hills. The weather remained incredibly good, all things considered, and the hills reminded us strongly of Torridon – same height, same coastal setting, an even the same familiar stepped terraces on their flanks.
We spent the next few days heading north up the east coast, following the indents and headlands of the fjords and remarking every few minutes how much like home it felt (this was mostly me). The only low point was an aborted attempt to get into Lonsaraefi nature reserve to explore some more hiking trails. The entrance to this long upland valley is guarded by a glacial river crossing, and we attempted it early in the morning, before meltwater could swell its channel. It felt dicey; the muddy brown water was swift, and came up to just below my waist. What had looked like quite a benign, little river, only 10 metres or so wide, very quickly felt very dangerous, especially if we got stranded on one side with the majority of our gear on the other, so we swallowed our pride, turned around and continued our tarmac trundle northwards to Hallormstadur, and our first resupply parcel. This was an exciting event; ten days into the trip, all our little luxuries like hot chocolate and sweets were long, and we spent the best part of an afternoon just looking at, rearranging, and mostly eating a lot of food. We even tried to make Jetboil falafel using a dried mix, with mixed but tasty results.
Bad news arrived. We had intended at this point to make a beeline for Askja, an enormous volcano in the interior highlands, and a spot that we both desperately wanted to visit. We were told, though, that an eruption beneath the glacier was imminent, and the entire area had been closed and evacuated for fear of the enormous flood that an eruption beneath so much ice would inevitably cause. We were sorely disappointed to be forbidden from reaching what had been one of the main goals of the trip, but we had no choice but to reconsider. In the end, feeling that we’d had enough of tarmac for now, we skipped two days ride over a windswept plateau by getting one of Iceland’s cheap public buses to Myvatn Lake with the bikes in the hold. The night before we caught our bus, we bivvied under a starry sky and felt the first tingles of frost in the air. Annie woke me at around 1am, pointing over my shoulder. The first northern lights that I had ever seen shimmered behind me, just a faint curtain of green light hanging wisp-like over the snow-capped mountains behind. If it was an omen for the next leg of the journey through Iceland’s utterly empty interior, then I assumed it was a good one.