We arrived back home last week after an interesting month. It had been a hard winter at the point when we left for Iceland, five weeks ago. Well, by ‘hard’ I mean that we had been jollying around Chile and Argentina for a couple of months, followed by six fairly intensive weeks of preparing for a Winter Mountain Leader assessment in the Cairngorms, but weeks on the road and climbing hills most days take a toll eventually, and it’s fair to say we were feeling a bit spent when the leaving date rolled in. As you may have read, not everything went to plan while we were away in Chile – while it was easy to become distracted by everything else that was going on, I have to admit there was a growing voice in my head that kept asking if perhaps there was a reason why people don’t go cycle touring in Iceland in March, or why we found no mentioned record of cyclists having crossed the closed mountain roads while they’re still snowbound (I would love to be corrected though). I began to worry whether the egotistical need to be different, to seek out the unusual and challenging, would ultimately lead us to post-holing across sub-Arctic wastes on rations of dried cod and chocolate raisins, wondering where it had all gone wrong.
As with any trip away, a lot of small stories and experiences went into making a bigger adventure, and you probably have better things to do than sit here and read them all, like reuniting odd socks or getting the crumbs out of the bottom of the toaster, so I’ll begin at the end:
Keflavik airport clearly has a dry ice machine that they cart out whenever the fog looks like lifting: it is greyer than M&S underwear. I stared out of the window a little sadly, possibly even wistfully, and watched the moss-peppered lava drop away and diappear as the cloud enveloped the window. For a little while there was just the muted roar of big, expensive engines, and the rustling of in-flight magazines, before a break in the cloud allowed the first aerial view I’ve ever had of Iceland’s bizarre landscape. Below, I could see lava fields and the craters that they had flowed from, as if it had all happened yesterday. I could see the capital, Reykjavik, which from the air looked like the town that it really is. I could see the few roads joining the few dots of larger settlements, and the great, glacial rivers that dwarfed the human constructions around them.
Did it really take us five days to ride that far? From the air it looked like a short hop and everywhere was just a hand’s breadth from anywhere else. I was fascinated with the view out of the porthole; it was vindication for what I’d felt about Iceland since the first time we visited: that it is simultaneously tiny and enormous, not much bigger than Scotland but with an utterly bottomless landscape at its heart. Leaving Reykjavik to gusty winds and showers, we were soon encased in sleet, and then snow as a day of blizzards set in. Just leaving the city became a task in itself, a post-apocalyptic quest to thread ourselves between highways and industrial estates, with visibility reduced to fifty metres. It would have been surreal if it wasn’t so soggy, but with a little help from some friendly cyclists we did eventually make it to… Mosfellsbaer! In other words, only a stone’s throw from our starting point, but a start nonetheless.
The next four days were a game of patience, waiting for the incessant 25mph headwind to blow itself out like the forecasts suggested it would. We crawled along the ‘Golden Circle’ route, passing the attractions that comprise many people’s experiences of Iceland: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss waterfall. All were beautiful in their way, but I get pretty turned off by ranks of serious tourists marching from their armoured buses with hard stares and zoom lenses set to stun, so we didn’t linger long at those places.
As we exited Reykjavik’s asteroid belt of selfie sticks and 66North jackets, we checked the internet one last time and saw that the stars (or asteroids) had aligned, and we had a weather window. To the north lay the Kjolur road, which crosses the Highlands for over 200km from Gullfoss to the Greenland sea at Blonduos. In truth, both of us had secretly assumed that the weather would prevent us from getting on to the Kjolur, that the nine days of food we were carrying was token preparation for a journey that wouldn’t work, and now we were faced with the plunge… We checked, re-checked and left details of where we were going, and pushed off…
But that’s a big story, and one for another time! You assume, perhaps, that as I was able to write this nothing too bad happened on the journey, and you would be correct. It was as surreal an experience as you would expect in Iceland, and a huge payoff for stepping/pedalling into what for us was an unknown. Needless to say, we saw some things, and some stuff, and I would highly recommend all of them.
Our luck didn’t seem to be exhausted once we had crossed the Kjolur either. Not only did we have relatively little gluggaveður (an Icelandic word meaning ‘window-weather’, i.e. weather that is best enjoyed from the other side of a window!), but to sit in a warm sleeping bag in the tent and watch the whiplash of the aurora crack across the sky was magical.
Not everything worked out smoothly, a few roads were still firmly blocked by soft, drifted snow, and towards the end of the trip increasingly mild conditions forced us back on to the gravel and tar roads as the snow became too soft even for the 5″ tyres of the Salsa Blackborow I was riding. There was wind, there was cold, and there were all the normal tricky bits of touring like hunger that become your existence on the bike. Natural hot tubs do wonders for a tired body though, an area in which Iceland scores highly.
At this point, I’m not sure what the point of this post is: primarily to confirm that I am alive I suppose, and to sum up what happened on that little volcanic island across the sea. There’s plenty of time on the road to think things over, and the main thought in my mind a lot of the time was how I could communicate to people what exactly it is about Iceland that is so captivating. This was the first time that I’ve returned to a place that I’ve travelled to previously, barring France, and although I was a little worried that I might have been remembering it with rose-tinted glasses, that wasn’t the case at all. A proper rumination might have to wait a little while, but for now consider these things:
- Iceland was one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans, but is home to one of its oldest democracies, founded in 930 at Þingvellir.
- It is about 30% bigger than Scotland by area, but its total population is only 60% that of Edinburgh alone – it’s the most sparsely populated country in Europe.
- There’s a lot of gravel road to ride- even Route 1, the main road circumnavigating the island, has a portion of gravel. I can hear your heavy breathing from here.
- 99.9999% of Icelandic sweets contain hidden liquorice doom, even the ones that look like they might be tasty.
- Icelanders love junk food, which for a touring cyclist is excellent. I asked for an ince cream decorated to look like a clown. I was told that they were for children, but if I insisted… It was very awkward when they made choose which sweets I wanted to make his nose, eyes and ears. After collapsing inwardly, I felt a bit embarrassed by my child’s ice cream. A very fat man then waddled past me licking a clown ice cream. It looked a lot better than mine.