Crossing Iceland: Nyidalur to Hella

We went to bed for the second night at Nyidalur hut expecting the next day to be a windy one – come morning, I can’t say we were disappointed. One of the main poles of the tent had been bent, and we had a struggle collapsing it without it going airborne. The wind was gusting above 60 miles per hour, and continued to rise as we ate breakfast indoors. Our worries felt justified when Inga positively forbade us to ride anyway that day. Not that we would have gotten anywhere anyway, as the wind was blowing from the southwest, against our direction of travel. All morning the wind rose, moaning in the chimney and the windowpanes, and seemingly trying to wrench the hut apart, one plank at a time. The violence of the storm made our little outpost a desert island among grey waves – it wasn’t safe to drive and so everyone else was as stuck as we were. The busload of elderly tourists seemed to be having a great time, and to be honest we were enjoying the enforced day indoors given that the only cost was occasionally making sure one of the older guests didn’t get blown away on trips to the outdoor toilet. By early afternoon the wind had peaked, we guessed at roughly 90 mph but weren’t sure – the amount of dust blown into the air had dimmed the sun, and the small river beside the hut was mostly airborne and travelling uphill. I learned how to play solitaire, started to love it, and got over it in the space of a morning, but there was a strange enjoyment in simply watching the wind punish the land with an invisible hand; even a sense of camaraderie between inmates in the hut, as we swapped stories and encountered general amazement at our inefficient mode of travel. There were a couple of events to make the day a little more interesting, the first of which was the arrival of a pair of German tourists in a rented Suzuki Jimny. They seemed to have no idea of where they were, why the weather might not have made driving that wise (Jimny’s are not renowned for their off-road ability), and didn’t comprehend that there weren’t any spare beds in the small hut. They absolutely maddened Inga, who seemed to have had quite enough of being cooped up with her enforced collection of bemused and idiotic captives. Still, the Germans were talkative enough, and Inga thawed out enough to share some chocolate cake that she had been saving with us. A friendly atmosphere prevailed. The best part of the day, though, was watching two fatbike riders, travelling south-north, get blown past the hut at mach chicken having obviously elected to crack on and make the most of a meteoric tailwind. They barely made it across the river beside the hut without getting forcibly dunked by the strength of the wind, and we soothed our jealousy by muttering that it was a silly and dangerous thing to do. Inga was furious that anyone would be so stupid, and perhaps had a point. It was hard to picture being able to control a bike in the wild gusts, even if you were travelling with them, and the pair had almost no kit besides a tiny rucksack each. We were approximately 100km from the nearest houses in either direction, and it would be a lonely, wild day to have a mishap. Inga hoped that they would run in to the rescue team stationed down the road and be talked into sense.

There is a very good reason why this large water tank has to be strapped down. It very near
There is a very good reason why this large water tank has to be strapped down. It very nearly came unstrapped!
The river flowed backwards for most of the day, when it wasn't busy trying to fly.
The river flowed backwards for most of the day, when it wasn’t busy trying to fly.

The tent survived another night, albeit with a few more bent poles, and the next morning dawned with a rain-laden wind still blowing. We both had cabin fever by that point, and elected to set off anyway towards the next hut down the line, Versalir, 60km away. It would be a tall order in the headwind, still blowing around 35mph. What emerged was the worst day I’ve ever had on a bike up until that point (more on that later). The rain began in earnest as we set out, the wind blew steadily in our faces, and we had learned from a phone conversation with the campsite in Landmannalaugar that our food package hadn’t made it. Instead, it was 150km away in Hella. The Icelandic post service didn’t go as far as Landmannalaugar, but instead of telling us that they had just gotten in it as far as they could. Not so helpful, and the upshot was that we were no longer riding towards a package of delicious treats to get us through the endless oatcakes and instant potato. Not that we had much chance to dwell on it; we fought the bikes up hills, crested them, and then fought them down the other side, pedalling hard even with gravity on our side. The temperature was in single digits and the water, as it does, quickly found its way past whatever expensive clothes we put in its way. This was it: we had found the land of wild adventure that we set out for, and it had suddenly lost its appeal. We made progress at around 5km/h, stopping every two hours or so for a break from the mental battle with the wind. Doubting we would make Versalir, we began to cast about for camp spots, but there were none. The damaged tent didn’t seem up to taking another battering, and there was zero shelter on offer from the wind, no folds or wrinkles in the land to snuggle in to, not even any decent dirt among the gravel. At one point a rental 4×4 pulled up silently behind is, giving us a shock when it slid alongside us. The window wound down suddenly, and I thought we were about to be offered a lift or some help, given that it must have been visibly obvious that we were having a crap time. I opened my mouth to say hi, but a camera was pointed at it, the shutter clicked. I caught a glimpse of a woman wearing smart clothes and lipstick, and then nothing but my own bemused reflection as the window was wound up, and the jeep sped past. If I ever seem grumpy about the other tourists we met in Iceland, then here is the answer. It was not the last time that this happened. The best was possibly when a bus disgorged its payload of fat American holidaymakers on the top of a hill. As we crested it, sweaty and generally looking disgusting, fifty lenses swivelled in our direction and began to reel off spools of photos. The only person to actually make eye contact with us before turning to new distractions was a very large woman, who said simply, “you guys are just the bravest!” We assumed that the bravery stemmed from the fact that we were doing exercise without being in walking distance of the nearest McDonalds, but didn’t have time to check. Back on the long road to Versalir, we had no choice but to truck on, and so began mental fantasies about what I would eat first when we got to the warm, dry hut. We agreed to splash out and pay for a night indoors, away from a damp and broken tent. The line in the dark gravel seemed endless, but we knew that somewhere along it was our salvation. Hungry, wet and tired, we counted out the remaining few kilometres as they eked past, and after 10 hours on the road we crossed the final river and saw the hut. It seemed quiet and unwelcoming, set as it was beside another angry brown river amidst the endless gravel plains. There were no lights, and no vehicles; given where we were we got a sinking feeling, which was confirmed when we tried the door. It was early September, the beginning of the Icelandic autumn. Soon the snow would be here in the mountains, and the hut had been locked up and left for the winter. Too wet and tired to be angry, we resigned ourselves back to the tent. As a last shot though, we tried the door to the stables where trekking ponies stay. It was unlocked, and the only occupant was a large RIB on a trailer. Excellent! Half an hour later we had moved in, with the tent inner pitched among the dirty straw, and a hot drink production line on the go. We even found a rusty, half-empty can of gas on an upper shelf, so the hot drink good times could roll all night, or at least for an hour until we fell asleep.

Not 5*, but very welcome none the less.
Not 5*, but very welcome none the less.
Home sweet home!
Home sweet home!

Our food situation was becoming a little short, so we had another day to ride out the roadhead at Hrauneyjar. The best thing to do seemed to be for Annie to hitchhike out to Hella (Lone-travelling girls get lifts more easily, we figured), and Annie is the experienced hitchhiker of the partnership, anyway. Also the idea of a massive lie-in appealed to me, I won’t lie. We got the greasiest, most disgusting burger and ice cream that you ever saw at the service station there, and Annie’s food mission was over in just a morning. From there it was a quick half-day pedal to the volcanic hills of Landmannalaugar, which we were gagging to see.

Snow caves! You could ride into one entrance, meet a junction in the darkness and come out of another. Magic!
Snow caves! You could ride into one entrance, meet a junction in the darkness and come out of another. Magic!
this incredible canyon was only 400m from the track, but toally invisible if you didn;t follow the little trail of stone piles...
this incredible canyon was only 400m from the track, but toally invisible if you didn;t follow the little trail of stone piles…
One of many icy river crossings.
One of many icy river crossings.

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The Laugahraun lava field, with the campsite beneath it on the left.
The Laugahraun lava field, with the campsite beneath it on the left.

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Finally, some sign of life emerged from the gravel. I had never been so happy to see the colour green!
Finally, some sign of life emerged from the gravel. I had never been so happy to see the colour green!

In short, Landmannalaugar was exactly as good as we hoped. Beyond the busy campsite (more tourist grumping), the rainbow of brightly coloured hills was so improbable that we had no choice but to accept it and crack on. After a couple of exploratory rides, we decided to make for a break in the weather and ride the Laugavegur hiking trail as an out-and-back. If you haven’t seen it, we made a short film while we were out on the trail:

The dirt road to Landmannalaugar
The dirt road to Landmannalaugar

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Green lightning
Green lightning
The long push out of the Laugahraun lava field on the Laugavegur trail.
The long push out of the Laugahraun lava field on the Laugavegur trail.

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Crossing the snowfields before reaching the hut at Hraftinusker.
Crossing the snowfields before reaching the hut at Hraftinusker.
It was exactly as good as it looked!
It was exactly as good as it looked!

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I don't understand either, but that's what it looked like!
I don’t understand either, but that’s what it looked like!

After three days out on the trail, we were knackered. The long days and constant hauling of kit had caught up with us, and in reality what we really wanted was to be out of the mountains, preferably somewhere with lots of food. That though, meant one more long ride, 100km out to Hella. It also meant a new high score for the ‘worst ride ever’ record sheet. The wind blew all day, a steady gale in our faces. In theory we were descending 800m, but in reality it felt like 100km of pure climbing. With no more anticipation of an amazing destination to motivate us, just a wish to rest and eat, the mental side of things went out of the window. Several times I dropped back a long way from Annie so that I could swear and grumble out loud. Annie’s choice of singlespeed gear didn’t extend to strong headwinds though, and most of the time she needed to draft behind me just to be able to turn the pedals. I took the brunt of the wind, with her stuck in too hard a gear behind me anyway. Both of us suffering, neither of us getting any respite from the strain on the pedals. Tourists with cameras made their appearance again, and an unfortunate Italian lady broke the camel’s back as she pointed a lens in our faces on a particularly long, crap straight as we began to get hangry (hungry + angry). I can see the twisted logic in there somewhere: “Tourist stops at scenic viewpoint, needs some foreground interest to make that holiday snap a bit jazzier. Aha! These sweaty cyclists give a gritty, survivalist edge to my art; I’ll get them nice and close before I hop back in the jeep. No time to ask them if it’s alright, art cannot wait! If only they could look a bit more miserable, ah yes! There we go, gorgeous.”   Except the sweaty cyclists take offence at being treated like props to someone’s crappy holiday snaps, especially as the overweight lady in question hasn’t just spent all morning grinding her knees in a windy world of futile pedal-mashing. Hence, the lady in question now has several photos of the beautiful Icelandic landscape, each with a foreground containing two cyclists making internationally recognised hand gestures to tell her where she should put her camera. That did help a little. Some kilometres down the road, the hallucination became stronger. For the first time in a while, I had bonked. Knowing that there was nothing to welcome us before Hella, I embraced it and just tried to focus on the first thing I was going to buy if the supermarket was still open when we got there. It had to be open. I couldn’t keep on the front anymore, so we swapped about and just tried to keep moving. Both of us were practically mute by the time that we could see the smudge on the horizon that was Hella. The wind began to drop, perhaps sensing that we were broken, that we had done our time. The supermarket was open! Really, you’d be amazed at the restorative effects of many thousands of calories when they’re ingested in the form of jelly sweets and drinking yoghurt. Iceland may be the second fattest nation on earth (no prizes for guessing the winner, y’all), but man, they’ve got comfort food down to an absolute art. We scored a second stroke of luck by getting there just in time for the last bus to Reykjavik that night. Having no desire to spend another three days riding on main roads to get there, we climbed gratefully aboard and retraced the route we took in our first few days in the country. By midnight were happily asleep in a campsite in the capital. It felt like a week ago that we had wearily stepped off the bikes after another 11 hour day in the saddle, not 4 hours. Before I slept I thought to myself that it would be a very long time before I had any wish to traverse such an empty, maddening place again, but that at the same time I was immensely glad that we had. Proud, even, that we had come close to finding the limit of what we could put up with, and that we had come through it knowing that each could trust the other to see them through. A little bit of cultural tourism in Iceland’s capital seemed like just the right thing to take some time out from pedalling – type 2 fun is tiring stuff! And that, good people, is the story of the time we had an epic, or several epics, in the mountains in Iceland.

The most welcome sight a pair of hungry eyes ever did see. Here be edibles...
The most welcome sight a pair of hungry eyes ever did see. Here be edibles…

One Comment Add yours

  1. Love your telling of this adventure, tourists really can be infuriating can’t they! Not quite sure I want the same excitement on my own up coming trip, but it certainly gives me an idea of what I could be up for!

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