Chasing rainbows and waterfalls

We’ve been bike touring around Iceland for four weeks now – and, after some terrific days riding along the north coast, we’ve had to bite the bullet and take the bus to the south-east for a headstart on the final leg of our trip.

3 Morning ride out of Akureyri

Day 24-28
Akureyri > Laugar > Myvatn >>>>>> Hofn
Distance: ~110km (plus 7.5 hours on a bus…)

The camp warden had warned us, so we had no one to blame but ourselves, of course. But it still felt better to blame the under-dressed, chavvy Icelandic teenagers who kept us awake until 4am with their drunken, inane conversations slurred less than a metre from our (should’ve-been) sleeping heads. (We could tell the conversation was inane, even though it was in Icelandic. There’s a certain cross-lingual rhythm to an annoying, superficial drunken conversation.)

This was still in Akureyri – “the capital of the north” (population 18,000) – where we left off last post. We’d arrived at the campsite in the afternoon ready to settle in for a rest day, when the boy behind the desk told us we’d really be better off camping at the next site, about 8km out of town. There was a festival on that weekend, and “the teenagers were coming” he warned us – more or less in those exact, ominous words. We looked around at the few modest tents and campervans – it was already about 4pm on a Friday, and it didn’t look that bad, we thought. A festival also sounded potentially pretty good, and at that moment the idea of riding an extra 8km then and there – and then a 16km round-trip every time we wanted to go into the town the following day – sounded pretty unattractive. This campsite was also adjacent to the local pool/spa… So we stayed. “How bad can it be?” we thought.

That night, it was fine. We refreshed ourselves at the impressive local pool, doing a few laps to stretch out our aching backs and legs and broiling ourselves in the several different-temperature hot tubs. We even plunged into the icy cold tub and giggled down the water slide a few times. We ate enormous burgers and fries for dinner at the local hostel and slept like babies. So far so good. We booked in for a second night.

Bad idea. Even after having a Chinese food buffet for lunch and beer and chips and a few rounds of our entertainment of choice – the card game Gin Rummy – before bed, we barely slept a wink. The ominous signs had started at about 9pm: car after car rocked up, enormous, cheap tents were haphazardly erected, plastic chairs placed out in circles and cases of beer stacked high. I felt like an old prude, shuffling around in my crocs-‘n’-socks and sensible hiking pants, grimacing at all the girls in their sheer stockings and mini skirts. “It’s six degrees girls! Put some pants on!” I wanted to say, shaking a crooked finger at them.

So, as we lay our heads down, we made the decision that we wouldn’t stew and fester in our tent getting more and more annoyed until a reasonable ‘waking’ hour. If by early morning we hadn’t had much sleep, we’d pack up and hit the road – one of the benefits of 24-hour daylight. And so it was. We ate a no-cook breakfast of granola and skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) before 5am, then packed up our tent to the soundtrack of some guy vomitting on a nearby fence and the by-now familiar, intermittent shouts of laughter from another guy who seemed to have heard a new joke at the same regular interval for the past seven hours.

8 On the road to Akureyri

The sky was wide and blue and clear, but that also meant it was cold. (“Girls! Some pants!”) That northerly wind that had assisted us on our ride into town had also dropped the temperature somewhat, and my gloved hands were so numb they felt detached on the handlebars, like they belonged to someone else. I had to keep clapping them together to try and regain feeling – then we rode past a sign that told us the temperature was one degree Celcius. That explained it.

Luckily, the early hour (about 6am by the time we were on our bikes) meant the Ring Road was very quiet, so we skipped the steep mountain pass we were going to take as our first planned diversion from traffic. By the time we had rounded the first (more gradual) Ring Road climb in its place, our sleep-deprived grumpiness had waned, the sun was warming up and the endorphins had started to trickle in. We crested the first hill and saw before us wide-open lowland country – rolling green fields, a rushing royal-blue river, sky-high mountains and a long empty downhill road. This was the stuff. “Let’s open her up!” we cried and switched into top gear and sped down, leaving seedy, hung-over Akureyri in our wake and ready for the next stop on our adventure.

Water crossings and waterfalls

As the Ring Road picked up traffic that morning, we took our second planned diversion onto a dotted (on the map) ‘country road’ that ran parallel to the main road. The gravel was loose and there were several gates to open and close behind us as we climbed away from the tarmac and up on to a parallel plateau. If we wanted to avoid the traffic, then we’d done a great job – it didn’t look like this road had been used in a long time. The grass either side of the tyre tracks was higher than our knees. We also encountered our first water-crossing, or ford. Then another one, and another one.

5 Riding through long grass back roads

On the first one, Paul rode his bike through the 10cm-deep icy water, a little wobbly over the loose rocks but otherwise successful and dry. I envisioned myself losing balance and plunging (at least my shoes) into the water, so decided instead to take my shoes and socks off, roll up my pants and walk across. Freezing cold, but easy enough. I dried off my feet and put my shoes back on (“Hey! Now we can say we’ve done a water crossing!”), then rode on a little more – to where the stream crossed the track once again. This time, we managed to keep our feet dry by boulder hopping across, while wheeling our bikes through the water.

The final water crossing offered no such dry boulders, and it was a little too deep and fast-flowing to ride across. There was only one option, to take our shoes off again (which sounded a little annoying) and roll up our pants and brave the icy water. Or…

Feet cozy and dry, I nuzzled my face into the back of Paul’s warm neck, as we made our way across the final ford… together. Yes. A piggy back ride. Thanks Paul. It reminded me of riding a horse – I could feel through his hips as he balanced and progressed through the water over slippery boulders. I knew I’d brought along a husband on this trip for a reason.
6 Gemma water crossing
We emerged from our rural sidetrip to cross the Ring Road for a short stint before our next diversion – 10km around the back of a pretty lake, which was also where we ate our packed lunch. More smoked herring on rye bread with cream cheese and red onion, followed by half a block of chocolate shared between us and a very specific rationing of wine gum lollies.

Our next stop was a place called Godafoss, which translates more or less to “the waterfall of the Gods”. Here, in around the year 1000 after a pagan ‘lawspeaker’ made Christianity the official religion of Iceland, he threw his statues of the Norse gods over the falls.

We had considered staying the night at Godafoss, but there was a slightly bigger village (with a pool!) – about 10km over a long hill into a headwind – and there was still enough time in the day, thanks to having set off at the crack of dawn. Anyway, we reasoned, we’d still have to ride over that hill first thing in the morning if we didn’t do it now.

We regained energy with coffee and carrot cake at the cafe near the falls, then joined the other tourists wandering down the pathway to the cliff edge. It’s easy to see why the falls have been afforded spiritual significance – they are awesome in the truest sense of the word; incalculable torrents of water gushing over an almost semi-circular cliff-face into the river, sending up boiling clouds of mist and fleeting rainbows.

9 Paul on the edge at Godafoss
The final climb to the little town of Laugar, despite the headwind, was worth it. The campsite there was tiny and quiet, and the swimming pool perfect – which was just what we needed after Akureyri to properly recharge for the following day’s 40km ride to Myvatn. Myvatn is a tourist hotspot (literally…) in Iceland’s north, where we would spend a full day after arriving in order to do the place justice.

The ride around lake Myvatn itself that led us to our destination – the area’s main town, Reykahild – was long, flat and very pretty. Except, that is, for the bugs (midges) that hit your face in swarms, like rain, as well as occasionally the back of your throat, or worse – your eyeball, managing to infiltrate the space between your sunglasses and eyes, where you would inevitably blink at the wrong time, trapping them horrifically between eyelids. We were forced to pull over and retract from our panniers our best investment ever – our full-face bug nets – for the last leg of the ride. We later learned that these midges fertilise the volcanic plains when they die, helping the spectacular bright green flora to thrive. But they’re still annoying – it seems fitting that they’re most useful dead.

Myvatn is best known for its geological activity, centred around its version of the ‘Blue Lagoon’ hot springs, like the ones we’d visited earlier on in our trip, just outside Reykjavik. At about A$35 entry, they’re pricey but still less than half the price of entry to the Reykjavik version. We decided to save our visit until the following day, and instead made our usual way to the local pool and hot tub for a shower and swim, then a rest before dinner (lamb green curry and quinoa on the communal stove tops!).

Our tourist day in Myvatn started with a rare sleep in, porridge and coffee for breakfast, more coffee at the local cafe over a wifi-fix, then a bus ride out to Dettifoss. We had considered riding to Dettifoss, but it was more than 50km distant, one-way, in the middle of sparse, rocky nowhere. We had also already planned that from Myvatn, we would have to take a long bus trip to the south-east of the country, to finish off our last week of riding along the south coast. This means missing out on riding through the entire east of the country, unfortunately, but many of the places we still really want to see are down south, so we have had to reach a compromise. Somehow, already, we’re running out of time! It could have something to do with the fact that instead of following the conventional Ring Road, our route looks a bit more like a schizophrenic dog hell-bent on chasing new scents around a park. Or something.

15 Dettifoss rainbow

It might have been the weather and the sparse surroundings, but Dettifoss had a far less light, spiritual feel to Godafoss and more of a dramatic, even menacing air – it is reputed to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The dark grey water rushed over the cliff-edge in a noisy, broiling mess, and the wind blew black volcanic dust and grit onto everything, including our hastily arranged sandwiches. Dettifoss actually featured in the film ‘Promethius’, in which an alien ‘engineer’ seeds life on Earth by tossing DNA over the falls. We watched on nervously as some other tourists on the other side of the falls seemed to risk throwing their own DNA in too, as they moved insanely close to the sheer cliff edge, climbing down onto rocks to get better photos – all the while ignoring signs that warned the rocks were unstable and often fell, and seemingly unfazed by the fierce wind and Dettifoss’s warning roar.

After a hot dog fix back in Reykahild and a rest that afternoon, we rode our bikes the 4km to the Myvatn ‘nature baths’, but first took a 6km round-trip walk from the site of the baths up to the edge of the crater of a nearby volcano called Hverfell. The track over bleak, charred landscape to the volcano looked almost like walking through a coal mine – but this place hasn’t been dug up. This is nascent Earth: volcanic rocks laying where they must have landed during the last eruption just 2500 years ago. Holes in the ground still spilled out scalding steam from the hot rocks below.
16 Hike up to Hverfell volcano
Returning to the baths after our hike, we found them just as we’d remembered in Reykjavik – a big, warm, pale blue, fairly shallow, mineral-rich lagoon. Unlike the public pool hot tubs we’ve been frequenting (which draw on the same geothermal sources for heat), the lagoons are less controlled (and, I’ll add, more expensive and crowded) – this means that rather than a consistent 42 degree heat, the water is often more like in the early-to-mid 30s, with the odd almost disconcerting ‘hot spot’. One of these in Myvatn welled up and seemed to form an impenetrable wall between bathers, who had circled around it like a campfire. We watched as unwitting swimmers drifted past peacefully, only to seem to seize up and start to twitch in pain as they retreated back, suddenly becoming aware of the invisible space everyone else was avoiding. I suddenly wished I’d never seen that movie ‘Dante’s Peak’.

We packed up the next morning for a 10am bus that would take us, in 7.5 hours, to a town called Hofn, on the south-east corner of the country and to the edge of Europe’s biggest glacier, Vatnajokull. I’m writing this from the bus, watching the incredible scenery of the east fjords fly by – still stunning out the window, but so fleeting, which is a foreign sensation to us now. No fresh wind in our face or sounds of birds or sheep to say hello to, or sense of anticipation with each new town that we skip through at high speed.

But all that begins again tomorrow – as does a new, incoming wave of heavy rain, according to the radar…

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