We’ve spent five weeks in a tent and covered 1200km on bikes, and now we leave behind Iceland with a tinge of melancholy, a lifetime of memories – and incurable bike touring addictions.
Vik > Thakgill (almost!) > Reykjavik >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> London
Total distance cycled: 1200km
In the end, our gear gave up before we did.
We were packing up camp back in Kirkjubaejarklaustur (the pronuncisation of which I believe we’ve finally mastered), when a connection in the main pole of our trustly little tent snapped clean in half.
After almost five full weeks of providing precious shelter and performing admirably through wind beatings and rain batterings, it finally gave in – like a tree branch dropping in the calm after a storm. It was one of those moments when we’d look at each other for a moment, as if to ascertain from the other person’s facial expression that yes, that really did just happen. And yes, we’re going to have to deal with it now.
We packed the broken pole into its pannier, then extracted it that afternoon in the communal campsite shelter in Vik, Paul busying himself engineering a solution while the rain beat down on the corrugated roof, and I read and prepared tea and snacks. The Frankenstein-esque result included pieces of wire coat-hanger, cable ties, gaffer tape, a wool sock and a spare shoelace to wrap the whole thing together. It stuck out like a growth under the tent fly, but we hoped it would do the job for the three final nights of camping.*
The following morning we planned to ride 20km over a hilly country road to a place called Thakgill. It would be the last stint on our bikes before we took the bus back into Reykjavik. We awoke to bright clear skies, almost delirious with optimism as we set off for the first six kilometres on the Ring Road before the turn off towards our destination.
In single file, we rolled along the tarmac belting out songs to which we barely knew the chorus. “ON THE ROAD AGAIN! Just can’t wait to get ON THE ROAD AGAIN! Nah nah nah nah nah nah… something with old friends! AND I CAN’T WAIT TO GET ON THE ROO-OAD AGAIN! … Hit the ROO-OAD JACK! And don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, NO MORE!” Et cetera.
We knew this track would be steep and unsealed, but we’d come so far by now there didn’t seem to be much that could phase us. It wouldn’t be as steep as the day we climbed to the edge of Snaefellsjokull glacier, for example. And there was no rain or wind blowing us sideways – in fact, we’d had to remove layers of clothing and wear sunscreen.
We stood up on our pedals and sailed on. “The ROAD is looo-ooong! With MANY a WIND-ING … something…that keeps us to… something… WHO-O KNOWS WHERE? WHO-OO KNOWS WHEN?!”
The quiet, gravel road to Thakgill winds its way up and around dramatic rocky volcanic landscape, then down towards the glacial floodplains below Myrdalsjokull (‘jokull’ means glacier in Icelandic), which we could see clear and sharp framed by blue sky in the distance.
We’d ridden about 15km when I caught up to Paul, who had pulled off the side of the road. “My tyre just blew,” he said. “Didn’t you hear it? It sounded like a gunshot!”
Still feeling pretty invincible – nothing could spoil this day! – we pulled off the side of the road. We had spare inner tubes and a spare tyre, so Paul set to instigating the repair job… while I took photos and of course prepared snacks (my personal area of expertise).
As it turned out, his inner tube had blown through the sidewall of the worn-out tyre. He replaced the inner tube, but the replacement tyre with which we’d been provided didn’t seem to fit – and, we discovered, it was as worn as the original anyway.
In the end, Paul fitted the old, damaged tyre over the new inner tube, then we considered our options. Ride back to Vik now in case his tyre didn’t last, or try our luck with his semi-repaired bike and finish the five or so last kilometres to Thakgill, then decide what to do from there?
It looked mostly downhill for the rest of the way, and our only commitment was a bus to Reykjavik the following midday, so we rode on, Paul stopping every now and then to check on the Achilles’ heel in his tyre.
We rolled down the long bumpy hill into the vast, dramatic scenery, the sun beating down on our backs.
With just a few kilometres to Thakgill, I commented in passing that I had noticed a rhythmic noise coming from my own bike. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it – was it a scrape, or a flap? Katoosh, katoosh, katoosh, with every pedal. I thought maybe a pannier strap was flicking on the wheel spokes, but couldn’t find the cause. Had I simply never noticed the sound before?
No, the noise was getting louder, and now it was accompanied by a feeling of resistance with every pedal. Something was caught somewhere. I inspected the bike again and spotted it. A big, ugly bulge, like a tumour, sticking out of the front tyre; it had been scraping beneath the mudflap. I tried to roll forward a little, but now it was completely jammed under there – the bulge was growing before my eyes.
Paul and I both had similar responses to the sight: “Yuck, what is that?” Then he quickly let down the tyre pressure and I realised, of course – it was about to blow, just as Paul’s tyre had done less than 20 minutes earlier. Our bikes were like an elderly couple passing away in quick succession at the end of their long lives together. Of course, more likely it had something to do with the unusual heat in the day, tyre pressures set for riding on the sealed Ring Road, and simply old worn out gear.
We made the decision to return to Vik. We figured we’d at least seen the scenery leading to Thakgill – if not the campsite and walking trails – and we didn’t want to risk getting stuck and missing our bus the following day. We started off walking the loaded mountain bikes up the hill we’d just descended but then, realising how unfeasibly hard walking them the entire 15km back would be, we mounted the bikes and rode them slowly and carefully back to Vik – Paul’s sidewall gash growing and my tyre sagging.
We made it in a couple of hours and, this close to the end of the trip, we weren’t overly disappointed in the turn of events. Vik (which means ‘bay’ in Icelandic) is a lovely village and we spent the afternoon at the pool and then enjoying the sunset and full moon – the days were almost two hours shorter now than they had been when we’d arrived over a month earlier.
The following sunny morning, we walked along the black sand beach, down to the headland to spot massive circling gulls and darting little puffins, and then boarded the bus to Reykjavik at midday.
On the bus, we met another tourer – Miguel from Barcelona – who had ridden around Iceland for his first bike tour six year ago, and has since toured through Nepal, Mozambique, Mongolia and Alaska. He was now returning to his original (and favourite – but, he tells us, much changed) destination to explore more of the highlands and the Westfjords. Needless to say we were inspired and a little jealous, particularly of his impressive, reliable-looking steed. We’d spent the past couple of days planning how we’ll build up our own perfect tourers for the next trip…
Together the three of us negotiated several bus changes, ferrying our combined total of 15 bags and panniers plus three bikes on and off the crowded aisles of public buses – pedals and spokes tangling, bags stacked precariously on seats, each of us sweating and rushing at the short bus changeovers.
Our last night spent in our hanging-in-there tent would be at the Reykjavik campsite, celebrating at a restaurant called the Hamburger Factory – which has delicious hearty food but also the strange practice of keeping a running total of Iceland’s population on a wall-mounted scoreboard. Someone was born (with a cheer from the room of diners) while we ate, and we wondered what happens when someone dies? It must be slightly awkward.
The following morning we walked our bikes to our original airbnb accommodation in the city centre, ahead of a bus day trip we’d booked to do the ‘Golden Circle’ – a series of points of interest near Reykjavik, and often the only thing a tourist will see when visiting Iceland as a quick stopover between Europe and the USA. Ironically, after our five week adventure, we still hadn’t seen two of these: Gullfoss and Geysir.
Geysir – the world-famous geyser from which the geological term derives – was our first stop. Still fresh from our bike tour, we felt decidedly strange looking around at our dozing fellow travellers, many wearing headphones, sometimes with curtains drawn to block the bright sun. We all exited together at our first stop, having been told to return to the bus in 25 minutes flat, and made our way to the rope barrier around the exploding geyser, each taking the same photos before checking out the visitors centre.
Geysir is, of course, a sight to see and more than deserving of its popularity. We watched in awe as the hot water bubbled and pulsed, seeming to build up energy before releasing it in a burst of water and spray 20-30 metres into the sky. Unfortunately, however, our 25 minutes quickly ran out, so we returned to doze on the hot, stuffy bus again before arriving at Gullfoss seemingly moments later. We hurried to the two-tier waterfall’s edge (Gullfoss means ‘golden waterfall’) to try and adequately absorb the immensity of it, the spray on our faces, take a few photos, then scuttle back to the bus before it left without us.
Our final stop was a return to what had been our second day’s ride destination, Thingvellir. Five weeks earlier, we’d spent two days here, arriving on our bikes from the base of the lake, Thingvallavatn, feeling utterly remote and filled with anticipation. We’d spent a long rest-day morning in the drizzling rain on a free tour with a park ranger learning about the history of the site, and camped overnight. This time, we had 20 minutes at one lookout and, of course, the visitors centre.
In the end, the entire six hour tour, which cost about A$60, included just over one hour actually outside the bus – mostly, it seemed, for selfie-opps. For the rest, most people were either sleeping, engaging in small talk, or enthralled by their smartphones.
In other words, we’re converts to bike touring as the best way to really see a country; to actually be in it. The contrast of our Golden Circle day tour had us sorely missing our daily routine on the bikes.
The feeling was compounded when we were finally reacquainted with the rest of our luggage that afternoon. I’d imagined it would feel like a huge relief finally having access to more than one pair of pants and shoes, a big bag of toiletries, a bathroom three steps from our bedside, etc. And it was nice, but it also felt as though we’d gained a burden, and when I buried my reliable ‘town clothes’ of hiking pants and polar fleece in the bottom of our suitcase, it felt almost like a betrayal. In revisiting ‘civilisation’, it was as though, in return, we’d lost something less tangible – a kind of freedom. We both of course enjoyed the feeling of fresh clothes and long hot showers, but couldn’t quite shake a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia.
We were helped, though, by the friendly familiarity of Reykjavik (which had felt much more alien when we’d first arrived five weeks earlier) and the kind people we’d met and regained contact with. Our generous airbnb hosts, the larger-than-life local outdoor adventure guru and owner of a chain of outdoor gear shops, Fjallakoffin, Halldor Hreinsson (who I interviewed for an article), and of course the bike hire company, where we returned our weary old steeds.
We leaned them up against the wall outside the store and swaggered in, 1200 hard-earned kilometres under our belt this time.
“Hello!” we said, enthusiastically and familiarly.
Silence. We looked at each other for a beat, shifted on our feet a little.
“Um, hello? Do you remember us? We’re here to return our bikes. We, um, we’ve been around Iceland.” I drew a little circle in the air.
The uber-cool mountain biker swivelled around in his chair and eventually greeted us. We were experts at this now. He was of course interested in hearing about our trip (and I also interviewed him for an article), but we knew we’d have to wait until we spoke to our parents before we got that pat on the back or high five. This guy had, after all, recently ridden around Iceland’s 1300km Ring Road in 42 hours, versus our five weeks… so I suppose that was fine.
[I now write this from a hotel room in London, next stop Devon where we will be setting up a home for the next year or so. Stay tuned!]
* This is a note for one Ms Amy Russell (if you’re reading this!) – the tent really has been excellent! We’ve bonded with the little green grasshopper, and have been amazed at how well he’s stood up to everything we’ve put him through. We’re extremely grateful to you for providing our home for the past five weeks. xx