Apologies. This post is a long one, but it’s one that I’ve been piecing together for a while, and it seems that there is rather a lot to say (too much to subject a reader to in a single post). At a glance, it’s an account of a crossing, by bicycle, of the Icelandic interior, which is neither a superhuman feat in itself, nor especially original, as it is a relatively popular off-road touring route. It’s also the story of the time we had a bit of an epic, and the best bit about stories is that you can savour the juicy bits without having actually been subjected to the wind, rain, and suffering that went along with it firsthand. Especially the suffering. So get a cup of tea, sit down and have a read if you’re curious. Or possibly just look at the pretty pictures, if that’s more your thing, that’s fine too.
It’s been a while since Annie and I returned from what was really our first big, self-supported bikepacking trip abroad; the six weeks spent pedalling around and across Iceland were an eye-opener for me, not only to the beauties of a new country (and what a country!) but to the rhythms and small details of life on the move. The contentedness of a daily routine that is reduced to eat, move sleep, repeat; a sudden respect for weather that is no longer confined outside the window; the endless obsession and craving for that night’s rehydrated meal – all instantly familiar to anyone that has caught the touring bug. Life is reduced to the necessary basics, or so the cliché goes.
We brought back hundreds of photos, some clips that I hashed together into this short film of the Laugavegur hiking trail, and heads full of memories. I’ve written down an account of the first part of the trip as we travelled around the southern and eastern coasts of the island – as well as getting to grips with the landscape, we also had to get to grips with the amount of equipment and food that we could carry, not to mention how to coax life back into a protesting bum after a long day stuck in the saddle. That wasn’t what we really went to Iceland for though. What drew us in were the volcanic wastes of interior highlands, and the chance to find ourselves many miles from the nearest road or person (more on the reality of that expectation later). Alastair Humphrey’s crossing of the interior on foot and packraft in 2010 showed us snapshots of a monochrome moonscape that we didn’t quite believe was real. We had to go. So in early September we left the sunny northeast coast and rode inland, taking a diagonal line southwest over the Sprengisandur mountain road, romantically labelled the F26. Given the experiences we had before we reached the campsite at Landmannalaugar on the other side, I’m surprised that it’s taken this long to get them down in writing.
Originally we had wanted to take a completely different route, traversing the empty northeast corner of the interior to the volcano Askja, to peer over its crater and possibly find our inner spiritual beings, who knows. Iceland obviously thought was a little pretentious, and had other ideas. It began to shake its geological fists, and those tremors meant that the entire area was shut off and at least two sheep farmers evacuated due to the imminent risk of an eruption and subsequent massive glacial flood. We were disappointed, but given the outcome if the forecasts turned out to be true we decided it might not be wise to head that way if it all got a bit hot. Instead, we decided to follow our backup plan and cross the interior on the more westerly Sprengisandur. We had reached Myvátn lake in the north on the 7th August, and enjoyed crisp sub-arctic sunshine that gave the water and the scrubby vegetation a late summer glow. Although we were near to sea level, the plants were similar to those that you might find at 1,000m on the Cairngorm plateau at home in Scotland. Just in case we got carried away and started noting other similarities, bulbous protrusions of solidified lava dotted the land beside the road, looking like gigantic, cracked mushrooms. Of course this necessitated an official detour, and we rode over the surfaces of the rockshrooms, hopping over the crevasses that fell away to their centres. Oddities like this need to be documented, and we would be failing the good people back home if we didn’t work out their surface friction coefficient…
A short stretch on the main road brought us to Godafoss, a waterfall that we were dying to meet. Iceland is not short on waterfalls, and in fact you would be justified in saying that they hoard the things, they’re everywhere! If Godafoss had managed to stand out and make a name for itself amongst a clearly saturated market, then it must be good. Having already seen quite a few so far, we thought it might all turn out to be a bit of an anti-climax. No chance though, as the crescent-shaped ‘waterfall of the Gods’ lived up to its name: the glowing evening lit up the churning water, and we lost track of time just watching it fall endlessly. Other tourists in large 4x4s pulled in from time to time, climbed out and took photos for a while before the novelty wore off and they would begin to drift away. At one point a selfie-stick was brought out, and the man wielding it posed awkwardly beneath it for a quick photo. No comment.
After hiding the tent in an ancient streambed, we struck camp and began what would be a long day of climbing into the highlands. We rode against the flow of the Skjálfandafljót river, going up, away and beyond the reaches of Icelandic modernisation, as the road surface gave way to corrugated gravel and loose stones. The day was a good one, and followed on the tail of many other days of clear skies and light winds. We pondered the likelihood that our luck would hold, and that the weather gods would look kindly on our crossing. In ye olde days, a crossing of the Sprengisandur was considered a risky venture, and most sensible people would take the longer, but more sure-fire long way around the coast if they needed to get to the other side of the country. The lack of good grazing for ponies en route meant that many died of exhaustion, and the interior is riddled with glacial rivers that are no mean feat to safely ford. Given that the mountain roads are often still closed and under snow in late June, we suspected that this wasn’t a place that particularly wanted to be if the weather decided to end its friendly streak.
A campsite on the lip of the high plateau marked the end of our first day, after we nestled the tent in a tiny gulley populated by the smallest of crystal streams. It was a miniature paradise, the only green splodge on an otherwise grey desert. Herðubreið, the ‘queen of mountains’, swam on the edge of a sky that was bruised a deep, hazy blue. Although it was windless, the first chill of autumn had settled into the evening air, so our transition from lowland to highland coincided with the arrival of a new season as autumn came to the north.
The next morning, the going was good. We had gained our height, the weather was holding and the road surface was mostly good, packed dirt, which allowed us to sail along the roof of the country. Our plan changed to reflect our mood, with a 30km detour to the hot springs at Laugafell seeming like a small price to relax in geo-thermally heated pools at the end of the day. For the most part we felt good, and made good time in getting to the Laugafell hut, although not before the first spots of rain, carried on a chill wind, marked the beginning of the end for our spell of good weather. By the time we pulled in the breeze had risen, and the Icelandic flag on the flagpole was cracking and slapping in the wind. The geo-thermal pool turned out to be a little bit of a disappointment. Although its sides were lined with a beautiful, hand-built dry stone wall, it was full of algae and was geo-thermally tepid at best. After a quick swim we admitted defeat and climbed out, pitching the tent in what seemed like the least exposed patch of ground. ‘Least exposed’ was a relative term, as the nearest tree was a day’s ride away, and the undulating ground offered nowhere to hide. That night rain continued to spit on the tent, and the temperature continued to drop. We had an inkling then that the Sprengisandur might prove to be a bit more difficult than it had been so far.
The next day things took an unwelcome turn. We left early, having been told by the hut’s guardians that some weather was on its way, which might not turn out to be friendly. We left early, and made headway for the next hut and island of safety on our route, Nyidalur. Only a kilometre or two from Laugafell, we met a German man on a hybrid-style bike that had been loaded up to look like an HGV. Bursting panniers seemed to be stacked on top of each other; I wouldn’t have been surprised to feel the tug of its own gravitational field. We said hello, and asked how the man was getting on. He looked down at his skinny tyres and said ruefully, “ja it is not so good. The skinny tyres are not the greatest on the soft sand – I left very early but now I turn back because I am walking many kilometres”. We asked where he had come from. “Akureyri. Already I am walking many kilometres because it is too soft for my tyres. Is the way you came any better?” We said yes, it was, just. We didn’t feel that it would help to mention the many corrugations that caused uncomfortable jolting even on our mountain bikes, and so we left him smiling, planning to trace our route in reverse out to Godafoss. Some time later, we had been riding for several hours into a strengthening headwind and persistent drizzle. The landscape had become even more barren, even more monotonous. Black gravel, slick and greasy in the rain, stretched away endlessly in every direction, disappearing over the horizon before the glistening mass of the glaciers of Hofsjökull and Tungnafellsjökull rose up beyond them. Everything was either black or white, apart from the leaden grey sky. It was beyond anything we had ever seen, and suddenly the distances on the map no longer assured us. We could see nothing but the rolling plains of gravel and the ribbon of ‘road’, which by now was no more than the indents made by the tracks of passing 4x4s, which wound its way merrily onwards like the route to some dingy afterlife.
Now of course you’re saying, “that all sounds very well and good, but you could just zip through on your bikes without a problem, being safe and cosy in a hut or tent by nightfall. Well, yes, that was bloody well part of the plan, as the sheer desolation of the place was starting to alter my mood by this point. The only living things we had seen for a few days now were the very tiniest green pinpricks of green which apparently pass for plant life in that part of the world, and the odd family of wandering sheep who had clearly followed the satnav when they shouldn’t have, and were now looking about at all that inedible gravel and thinking the sheep equivalent of “?**!?@”. So we were glad that we would only be passing trade, up until the point that Annie’s rear mech thought it would help matters by disintegrating of its own accord. Things might have looked bad as the rain began to fall in earnest, but luckily I had packed for the occasion. Here was me, in the great wilderness with a chance to wow a damsel in distress using the several kilos of tools and spares that I had lugged with me since the airport at Keflavik. The singlespeed tensioner in my frame bag was quickly put to good use, and we were back on our way. Annie had the choice of about three gears, none of which were quite easy enough to combat the increasing headwind. Just to help, the road suddenly got very sandy, and very bumpy. Adventures don’t happen when everything’s peachy though, and we trucked on.
Several hours and a few adjustments later, the prospect of an ever-nearer Nyidalur helped to dull sore legs and weary heads. Before that was the case though, the third and biggest river crossing that we faced that day presented itself. Although it wasn’t more than six metres across, the river flowed straight from he glacial tongue of Tungnafelsjökull, and the water was swift, brown and above all unfriendly-looking. We could hear boulders crashing against each other in the murky current, and as silly as it seemed the far bank suddenly looked a lot further away than those six metres. Icelandic rivers are not at all like the jingling mountain streams of Scotland. They are cold, dark and they will kill you in you set a foot in the wrong place at the wrong time. We doubted that a failed attempt here would be fatal, but it looked as though it would mean a quick and unpleasant trip downstream, and might easily mean the losing of a bike and its luggage. Luckily for us, help was at hand. A sheep farming couple in a Land Cruiser pulled up as we stood there staring at our new obstacle, and offered us a lift in their trailer, which was also occupied by several quad-bikes. We accepted, and piled in. As they drove off down the bank and into the water, we were very glad that we hadn’t tried to ford it. It was deeper, and faster, than it looked, and filthy water surged at the wheel arches of the Land Cruiser. By the time we entered the water in the wire mesh trailer, the 4×4 was already slewing to on side in the flow, and the water quickly began to flood into the trailer as well. Without the advantage of the truck’s weight, the trailer began to slew even more violently downstream as the water gripped it, and at that point we began to question whether this was any safer. Our feet were under water, and we were wedged tightly against the quads with nowhere to jump to even if we could move. Then we were out, as quickly as we had gone in, as the truck roared up the far bank and back on to the road.
Cold, wet and thoroughly ready to stop for the day, we arrived in Nyidalur. The hut is quite big, but in the tradition of alpine huts in mainland Europe they cost according to the luxury of such a structure in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We decided to camp instead for a more modest sum, and were told by the hut’s guardian that we could use the indoor kitchen to cook and eat. She was lovely, an art student from Reykjavik who had begun to use the long summers to be a hut guardian in Iceland’s wild and empty places. She seemed to be in conflict about the fact that her job allowed her to be in such an isolated spot, but that her foremost duty was to share it with any and every tourist who came that way. She spoke excellent English, like every Icelander that we met, and told us stories about the other huts that she had worked at. Everything seemed like it was going to be great: we had a warm inside kitchen to rest in and shared it with a Canadian couple, who were riding the Sprengisandur in the opposite direction. The only downside came in the fact that the weather was due to deteriorate rapidly, as the tail end of a hurricane gave Iceland a fly-by on its return from North America. At least we had made it to a place of relative safety, as strong winds seemed to be the nemesis of our tent, which hadn’t been living up to our expectations.
Unfortunately, the friendly Canadians weren’t quite as friendly as they seemed to be. After a busload of elderly Icelandic tourists had arrived and filled the bunks around hem in their hut dorm, it seemed to be that they resented our intrusion in the kitchen when we weren’t even paying as much money as them. They complained to Inga and we were told in irritated tones that we weren’t welcome in the kitchen unless we were cooking, as it was upsetting the other guests. A bit stung, we retreated to our tent, which was beginning to suffer in the wind, left it a bit, and went back to the kitchen to cook some more food as slowly as we could. Full, warm and already feeling rested, we were able to see Nyidalur for what it was: an improbable outpost, standing in the shadow of the glacier behind it so as to make it impossible to forget who called the shots here. We settled in and listened to the wind rising, as if on cue. At that point I felt that we were doing pretty well, all things considered, and that the crossing had had just the right amount of ‘adventure’. Unfortunately we all know what happens when you start thinking like that, as we would shortly be reminded!