Okay, so… We cheated a little for the first time and took a bus – but then we rode around a glacier with a return trip in a fierce headwind and rain, which surely makes up for it?
We try to stay positive as we grind up the first steep climb, wheels slipping over loose gravel. That’s because we know we have another 12km of similar incline ahead of us, so there’s no point commenting on the obvious: this is tough. At least, however, the sun is shining, the wind is low for a change, and our bikes aren’t loaded with their usual luggage. At least, at least, at least. It has become a bit of a mantra of this trip, as we learn to find the positive in sometimes challenging situations. (At least there’s no headwind! At least there are no swarms of midges to swallow! At least we’re not standing on a Sydney bus stuck in traffic! Ha!)
Our tires spit out loose rocks which chink past our wheel spokes, and the sweat is soaking through our layers of jersey, fleece and wind-cheater. As on any steep climb, we take our usual approach – lowest gear possible and fairly regular breaks. We’re riding up road 570 from a small seaside fishing village called Olafsvik to Snaefellsjokull glacier, the latter located at the western tip of Snaeffellsnes peninsular, which juts out between Reykjavik and the Westfjords. The glacier sits at an altitude of 1446m atop an active volcano, which last erupted 1900 years ago and was made famous in Jules Vernes’ 1864 science fiction novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (which neither of us have read yet!)
However, before we reach Snaefessjokull’s moody peak, allow me backtrack a little (not literally, thankfully. Distance is a valuable currency for us at the moment!)
We had spent our final evening back in Bjarteyjarsandur – the sheep farm that doubles as a campsite/accommodation, located by the beautiful Hvalfjordur (literally “whale fjord”) – eating double servings of home-made Icelandic lamb soup and watching the soccer World Cup semi-final. Showered, well-fed and rested, we saddled up the following morning for the 40km ride to our next stop, a town called Borgarnes.
Choosing, as usual, the back country route to avoid the main road, we’d mentally prepared ourselves for the long stretch of ‘yellow’ marked on our cycling map. (Yellow = steep.) The pretty little valley that we were to climb in and out of is surrounded on all sides by the now-familiar but always breathtaking green cliff faces and gushing waterfalls, with the valley floor smattered with colourful little houses and wandering sheep. It had a cosy, protected feel to counter the almost agoraphobia-inducing expanses we’ve passed through at other points of our trip.
We were cautiously optimistic when we reached the top of the valley and it wasn’t all that bad afterall. (I have a rule: never believe the words “all down hill from here!” Ever.) In this case our optimism was well-founded and after a nice, long descent, we rode happily through wide, flat and mostly empty gravel country roads. Our only company were Icelandic horses that would seem to trot enthusiastically to the edges of their enclosures to meet us as we approached, then skittishly away again once we arrived.
Eventually, we reached a small (10km) unavoidable section of main road that would take us on to Borgarnes. It acted as a nice reminder of why we like to avoid the busier sections of the Ring Road or Route 1 where possible. Of course, the vast majority of cars are respectful and leave generous space when overtaking, however the wind-suck of 4WDs towing caravans one after the other is stressful and tiring, and would eat away at us if it was what every day entailed.
Borgarnes is the biggest town we’ve passed through since Reykjavik, and it seems to centre around a massive fast-food/service station (or maybe that was just our perception?). Naturally, we did as the locals do and each ordered a burger-and-fries combo as we waited for the latest unleashing of rain to ease before finding the campsite. Looking at the map, we realised the only route to our next stop, Snaefellsnes peninsular, was via the same kind of busy road without many particularly enticing stop-overs on the way. There was also a bus stop outside our new home at the fast-food joint, so we decided to hang around until the next day’s 7pm bus – after getting Paul’s chain ring fixed and swimming in the local outdoor heated pool. Incredibly (to our minds, and legs) the bus would take us and our bikes in the space of two hours the same distance we’d just covered in about four days, approximately 200km. The plan was to set up camp at Olafsvik for three nights: that night of arrival, the following night after cycling around Snaeffellsjokull (with our luggage left back at camp), and one more night after a day recovering from the previous day’s ride.
So, now back on our way up to the glacier. (I forgot to mention that the very first bit of road towards the glacier is up a small hill past a fish-drying shed, and you can imagine that heavy breathing and drying fish don’t complement each other very well.) As we neared the highest point of road 570, passing to the east behind Snaeffesjokull at about 800m above sea level, the air took on an icy chill and the clouds became decidedly moodier. We took a bunch of excited selfies at one point, thinking we’d made it to the top, only to spot one more steep bit just around the bend. However, once we’d really made it to the top it was obvious – the Atlantic ocean opened up before us to reveal the long cruise back down to sea level, with Snaefellsjokull’s powerful presence at our backs.
Just a touch unfairly, the 10km descent turned out to be almost as slow as the climb, because the rocky gravel was so loose. Hitting the tarmac again was therefore a relief as we sailed into the closest seaside town of Arnarstapi. Ever-disciplined, we rode straight past the barbecue scents wafting from a restaurant/bar there (average restaurant meals here are around $40 – fine dining prices back home) and continued onto a lookout spot, where we unpacked our boiled eggs, rye bread and remoulade lunch. We both agreed there isn’t much point forking out on expensive meals when you’re particularly tired or hungry and the simplest meal tastes like the best lobster or steak anyway. We prefer to save our ‘treat’ meals for rest days, when we are showered and have the energy to really enjoy them (ideally, with a pint of Icelandic beer).
We now had about 40km to cover on the sealed road around the tip of Sneafellsnes back to our camp in Olafsvik. Of course, a headwind and rain had arrived, and dark clouds boiled menacingly to our right over where Snaefellsjokull glacier would have been – if she wasn’t by now completely shrouded. Thanks to the headwind, this last ride would be an endurance test to match the glacier itself, and we were grateful when the weather settled a little once we rounded the tip of the peninsula. We stopped in a village called Hellisandur, which we knew was a mere finger’s width from Olafsvik on the map… (and which apparently meant another 10km). We appeased ourselves with chocolate milk and muffins from the service station, and made it back to camp in Olafsvik by 6pm – still six hours away from any sort of sunset. So, chasing the daylight hours was no issue… at least!
Our rest day in Olafsvik was, we felt, pretty well-earned. We had our first non-porridge breakfast in a week at the bakery (but to be honest, I missed the porridge a little), and we had pizza for dinner. We had also been given free tickets to a local show in a town called Rif, about 8km away. We take our rest days very seriously, so there was no riding. Instead, we tried out an Iceland tourist rite of passage (it seems) and stuck our thumbs out, and were picked up after about 10 minutes by a kind man, who gave us some interesting insight into the area – including explaining that a massive phone tower and abandoned settlement we’d ridden past were relics from a US army base during the Cold War.
We made up a full third of an extremely intimate audience of six at the show, which was called ‘Hero’ – “a one man comedy show based on the saga of Bardur Snaefellsas”, according to the brochure. It genuinely had us in stitches of laughter, as much as anything for the bizarre situation we found ourselves in, being performed to by an extremely energetic young Icelandic actor who apparently does the same show three nights a week!
I’m now writing this from the next town from Olafsvik, called Grundarfjordur, while we wait for a much-needed load of washing to dry in the first laundromat we’ve come across in a while. Tomorrow it’s on to Stykkisholmur, which we expect to look somewhat familiar… (Prepare yourself for more ‘Walter Mitty’ references.)
Until then, once again, takk for reading!