Easter weekend in Romania

A long weekend in Romania left me pondering the nature of time and history, and our place in it.

Damaged  old photo of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on the wall of the revolution museum in Timisoara.

I should start by saying that I’m fully aware a long weekend in any country could barely provide a rough sketch – let alone a full picture – of a nation’s culture, history, environment and people. And yet the feeling I took away from five days in Romania was a glimpse not only of that country’s history, but of the nature of history and of the transience of time itself.

That might sound over the top, but what’s the point of travel if not to build on your ideas about the world, and to shift the foundations beneath your feet just a bit?

We started our Easter long weekend sojourn with Paul’s family in the city of Timișoara in western Romania – one of Romania’s largest cities, and the place where the revolution started on 16 December 1989 (it finished with the execution of Ceausescu and his wife a little over a week later, after 42 years of communist rule).

A piece of the Berlin Wall outside a museum of the Romanian revolution in Timisoara

In Timișoara, we visited a museum of the revolution in an old building, which showcases a piece of the Berlin wall at its entrance. One of the first things that caught my attention entering the building was the concrete staircase, eroded and polished from a century of use – including, among other things, as a military barracks before becoming a museum. (When we asked a staff member about the building’s history, he said drolly that its function might yet change again if the situation in Ukraine accelerates.)

We sat quietly through a documentary about the revolution, in a room wallpapered with posters and propaganda from the communist era – throughout which I couldn’t help imagine the stairs outside trodden with 1940s soldiers’ boots, then the adrenaline-fuelled feet of panicked or angry (or both) civilians from that infamous week in 1989, and now replaced with made-in-China sneakers of a lone group of Australian tourists on a quiet, unseasonably cold spring day in 2015.

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Before the museum, we’d visited Timișoara’s orthodox cathedral with its magnificent gilded chandeliers that look more like floating castles.

However it was only after watching the revolution documentary that I learned of the cathedral’s role as the site of the beginning of the revolution, as well as a place where people sheltered during the fighting, and outside of which thousands eventually knelt and lit candles for the dead. And so, only in hindsight could I wonder what memories or faces must have been in the minds of the people who gathered there during our visit.

Chandeliers like floating castles in the Timisoara Orthodox Cathedral

LIghting candles in the Timisoara Orthodox Cathedral

Later on, we visited Roman ruins in Sarmizegetusa (we were tested on pronunciation by our patient guide, generous host and brother-in-law, Radu). By now I’ve visited several sites of Roman ruins around Europe, and yet these crumbling ornate stone structures with ancient Latin insignia of a long-lost civilisation buried beneath our feet never lose their power.

Roman ruins in Sarmizegetusa, Romania

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However, if the sight of those ruins emerging out of the grassy hills might have given me the impression that history is anything but continuous, I only needed to visit our next stop – a small medieval Catholic church, built perhaps a thousand years after the Romans, using pilfered pylons and stonework from the same ruins we’d just wandered through.

This centuries-old church was not only built with the materials of an even more ancient history, it also held evidence of its future. Rather creepily (no matter your religious or cultural affiliation) the eyes of all of the wall art – mostly murals of various saints and Jesus and Mary – had been scratched out of the stone in some sort of historic persecution of Catholics. Later my sister-in-law Angie also spotted a scratching in the wall (a kind of ‘X was here’) from the late 1800s – made when the church was already ancient, and yet old enough itself to join the ranks of historic interest, which is a fascinating idea in itself.

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We would spend the next couple of days in the countryside with Radu’s kind and generous family, managing through translation and body language to communicate fairly comfortably, and to laugh a lot. The home-made ţuică (a knock-your-socks-off home distilled spirit made from apples) no doubt helped to that end.

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To add more context to my meandering thoughts on the nature of time and history, we visited a local breeding program that is trying to save the critically endangered European bison.

These beasts roamed the wilderness throughout Europe long before we came along with our cathedrals and revolutions and travel blogs, but have since (along with much of their habitat) been pushed to the brink of extinction. Scientists and conservationists have had some success in growing their numbers in recent years and hope to reintroduce a population into the wild in Romania, but the species remains rarer than the Black Rhino.

European bison breeding program

Another day, despite the unexpected spring snow, we managed to steal a couple of hours wandering through a beautiful beech forest in the southern Carpathian Mountains – where grumbling water pipes and airplane engines had us baulking at bear-shadows.

The bison experience and the rare opportunity to spend time in real wilderness on the European continent was a good reminder that history does not belong to humans – like the Romans, and the person who scratched their name into the wall of that Catholic church 100 years ago and the communist dictators of the twentieth century – we are all only passing through.

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Before our flight back to London, we toured the centuries-old Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, where we competed with hordes of young smartphone-wielding, brightly dressed school children as we wandered the halls beneath soaring stone ceilings, read stories of torture chambers and bloody battles – and gazed out through crumbling stone windows onto crumbling communist structures and out to the snow-covered Carpathians in the distance.

We joked about scratching our very un-Romanian names onto the wall to confuse some future historian, but settled with being observers this time – although no less a part of the story of Romania’s history now, even if just a footnote.

Corvin Castle in Hunedoara

 

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My Passport and Plate entry

Passport and plate entryClearly where I went wrong was in failing to kiss the fish. Always kiss the fish.

For the past month or so I’ve been carefully avoiding making plans for the week of June 5-13, in the hope that a recent day spent cooking, photographing and writing up the below recipe might pay off with a food blogging trip to Sri Lanka, courtesy of Intrepid Travel and World Nomads.

Alas, as of today, I became all too free on those dates, as the winners of the ‘Passport & Plate’ competition were announced and my name wasn’t one of the chosen three. As I only later noticed, however, I did make the shortlist, which was enough to give me a little glow of pleasure and the impetus to try again next year.

And besides, time spent cooking, writing and eating is never time wasted and so here is my competition entry reposted below – a recipe of steamed turbot with green papaya salad, along with a story behind the recipe and ‘why I should be chosen’ (the section that is left off the published online entry).

Steamed turbot with green papaya salad (som tam)

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Ingredients
FOR THE FISH
1 fresh whole (1-1.5kg) firm white-fleshed fish (seabass, bream, turbot etc.), gutted, scaled, finned and cleaned
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
6-8 spring onions, skin and ends removed, cut until the beginning of the green part, then chopped in half again
1 lime – half juiced, half sliced
2cm chunk of ginger, finely chopped
2 red chillies, finely chopped
2 tbsp peanut oil
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
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FOR THE GREEN PAPAYA SALAD (SOM TAM)
1 large green papaya, thinly shredded (if you can’t find green papaya, 1-2 green mangoes prepared in the same way will work as an alternative)
Juice of 2 limes
2 red chillies, finely chopped or minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2cm chunk of ginger, minced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar, grated (or use brown sugar as an alternative)
Handful of green beans
1 large ripe tomato, pulp removed, sliced

How to prepare this recipe
FOR THE SALAD
In a large bowl (or use a mortar and pestle if you have one), add all of som tam ingredients (bar the beans and tomato) and ‘pound’ to mix with the pestle, or a wooden spoon. 16673524192_652c72ac44_b
Blanch the beans in lightly salted boiling water for about 2 minutes, or until tender, then refresh under running cold water. Slice them lengthways.
Add the beans and the sliced tomato to the papaya mix, move to desired serving dish. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to eat.

FOR THE FISH
(Note: Exactly how you prepare the fish depends on your catch!)

  1. Pat the prepared fish dry with paper towel and rub it all over with salt.
  2. Place the fish in a bamboo steamer, on a bed of foil (to catch the juices!). If the fish is too big, you can cut it in half (or thirds, as I did with this big-mama turbot).
  3. Mix the garlic, chilli, ginger, oyster sauce, soy sauce, the juice of half the lime and the sesame oil in a small bowl.
  4. Stuff the fish cavity (where the fish was gutted, or otherwise – as in the case of the turbot! – create a cavity using a sharp knife) with most of the contents of the bowl, all of the coriander and a few of the spring onions.
  5. Baste the fish with the rest of the mix, then scatter the rest of the spring onions around it on the foil and place a few slices of lime on the fish.
  6. Place the bamboo steamer over a wok or saucepan filled with about 5cm of boiling water. Tightly fit the lid and reduce the heat slightly.
  7. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the flesh is white and flakes apart easily.
  8. Before serving, heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan until you see smoke, then pour the sizzling oil over the fish skin to make it crispy.
  9. Put the fish and the salad in the middle of the table along with fluffy steamed rice to soak up the juices. Then dig in!

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The story behind the recipe

It’s low tide on the River Torridge; boats lean over on the exposed mudflats, rain has cleared and sunshine peeks through the clouds.

If I close my eyes, lift my face to the sun and breathe in the briny air, I could almost be home – 15,000km away on Australia’s east coast. When I open them, I might find myself crouched by a running tap, scaling freshly caught yellowfin bream or a glistening red morwong – speared by my husband or my brother in the ocean that day. Waves crashing within earshot, the hot sun on my bare shoulders…

I open my eyes and greet the little English town I currently call home. It’s not a bad alternative – it’s unfamiliar and exciting; an adventure. I’m at the farmers’ markets to meet Dan the Fisherman and pick up the catch of the day, turbot. It’s not a fish I grew up eating, but it’ll work with my recipe, Dan assures me with a whiskery grin.

Dan the Fisherman BidefordThe seafood I ate growing up was fresh and simple – pan fried whiting fillets, thin sliced abalone, oysters flipped open and eaten standing knee-deep in an estuary. Over time, my own cooking took on influences from around the world and Sydney’s vibrant multiculturalism – particularly from South East Asia, our exotic neighbour.

In Australia, I often cooked fresh-caught fish as I have in this recipe – in a bamboo steamer bought at a local Thai supermarket, using Asian-inspired ingredients. I’ve served it with a newer discovery, green papaya salad or som tam, from my honeymoon in Thailand last year. For those three weeks I ate it whenever I could – usually under a whirring ceiling fan, sticky with sweat, and blissfully happy. Som tam is fresh and spicy, and like most Thai food it’s about finding the perfect balance between sweet, salty and sour.

This recipe represents things I miss from home – the bounty of the Pacific Ocean, Asia at my doorstep – but it’s also a reminder that food can be the vehicle in which I travel back every now and again, while exploring all the rest of the world has to offer.

‘Why I should be chosen’ (…aka Pick me! Pick me! or shameless self promotion in 2000 characters)

When, last summer, my husband and I took a five-week, 1200km bike tour around Iceland, a lot of friends couldn’t understand how I managed to “fit in” the travel blog I kept to document our adventure. The answer, of course, is simple: sharing the story was as rewarding as the adventure itself.

That’s why I became a journalist – it was the only job that would cater to my insatiable curiosity about the world and its people, and the desire to tell their stories. Since then, I’ve never stopped telling stories – from travel and adventure, to science and engineering, and most recently as writer and editor at a food and tourism publisher.

I’m also an adventurer, and my sense of adventure extends beyond the physical to the culinary. In the past few years alone I have snacked on silkworm larvae at the North/South Korean border; slept under the stars in outback Australia; eaten Pad Thai served wrapped in wax paper on a long, hot train ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok; ridden to the top of an Icelandic glacier; tasted hákarl, Iceland’s infamous rotten shark delicacy; plucked, gutted and roasted a pheasant on a farm in England; and gorged on cheesy tartiflette and local wines in southern France.

Hearing about this opportunity made my heart flutter – it represents all of my passions: travel, adventure, food and writing.

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Ah well, you win some you lose some and there’s always next year! In the meantime, I’m super excited to be heading off to Romania next week for the Easter long weekend, so stay tuned for the next travel post soon.

Meet Dori, Iceland’s outdoor adventure guru

It’s been so long since we finished our bike tour of Iceland, it seems like a distant dream. I’ve had this interview with Dori sitting in my recorder all that time, and listening to it immediately transported me back to one of the best experiences of my life. If you’re ever in Reykjavik, be sure to give him a smile and say hello – he’ll appreciate it.

Halldór Hreinsson
Halldór Hreinsson: tent person, family man and smile collector

When we first met Halldor (Dori) Hreinsson, Paul and I were purchasing the final few items we needed at an outdoor shop in Reykjavik, before setting off on a five week bicycle tour around Iceland.

Wielding a series of maps, a set of lightweight cutlery and a couple of midge-proof head nets, we were greeted at the counter by Dori – a larger than life Icelandic man with kind eyes and a ready smile. We placed down our purchases and chatted to him about our plans, to which his face immediately lit up. Having confirmed that we were definitely going to buy the maps, Dori spread them out on the counter between us, grabbed a pen and started marking off must-see spots.

Aware that we needed all the advice we could get, we were pleased with our good fortune at having met this enthusiastic and generous Reykjavik local – but we were also conscious of the growing queue of toe-tapping customers behind us, as well as Dori’s slightly flustered colleague who politely asked more than once if we might shift over so others could be served. It was clear Dori was an outdoor enthusiast first, a checkout clerk second – and we didn’t want him getting in trouble at work, even though Dori himself didn’t seem all that fazed.

As it turned out we were only half right – Dori wasn’t as we’d guessed a local guy funding his passion for adventure with a part-time job behind the counter at an outdoor store. He was a local guy funding and sharing his passion for adventure as the owner of a chain of three outdoor stores in Iceland called Fjallakofinn (literally ‘mountain hut’), along with the associated import business and a boutique European adventure travel agency. On that particular day, he had dropped by his Reykjavik store for a visit and to meet some fellow adventurers – including, thankfully, us.

8 On the road to Akureyri

A month later – with 1200 hard-earned kilometres under our belt, ridden through a spectacular country in an adventure that will stay with us forever – we again joined Dori, this time for a pint of lager at the pub across the road from his store on Reykjavik’s main street.

One of the first things Dori told us – in classic to-the-point Icelandic style that can sometimes seem cocky at first, but is in fact refreshingly honest – was that he expected there to be a lot of people at his funeral. “I have a simple philosophy of life, and that’s why I know the church will be packed when I pass away,” he said, eyes shining with the revelation. “I try to make people smile,” he went on. “To get a smile – whether it’s an Icelandic or English or an Australian smile, it’s the same – that gives me a lot in my heart. I am nourished by making people happy. People like you who are buying their stuff and they come back with their story about how marvellous their adventure was.”

That might sound like the line of a salesman eager to sell more gear to the waves of tourists arriving on Iceland’s shores – a million in the summer of 2014 alone, three times the country’s local population. However, Dori’s sincerity is underscored by his equal candour when it comes to the type of tourism that is less likely to elicit one of his contagious grins.

“I don’t want this precious diamond which Iceland is for me to be flooded by ‘ants’, which is what I call some of the tourists. The ones that are here with their scoreboard to match up with their neighbours,” he said. For example, Dori told us he finds visits to Iceland’s famous Geysir rather depressing nowadays. “For me, Geysir is like a fish factory. When I was younger, it was unbelievable, but I don’t enjoy it anymore. People pass through like fish being processed – they may as well just buy a postcard.”

But it’s not just the “carousel tourists” (another one of Dori’s phrases) – he also laments the growing caravanning culture among Icelanders. Dori says he is proud to call himself a “tent person”, even if he is part of a shrinking community. As an example, Dori told us a story about a recent camping trip he took with his family. They had set up camp early in the day and left to go hiking, only to return to find their tent flanked on all sides by enormous caravans; they had unwittingly erected it near the only power outlet. The worst part was when the caravan occupants all turned up the same TV show at 9pm. “I really don’t understand it, I’ve been trying to figure it out. Why do they bring their living room to the mountains? Why do they need TV?” Disappointed, Dori and his family shortened their stay at that particular site and moved on early. “The caravans are cutting the connection from the earth, from nature,” he said.

Iceland Westfjords: "Tent People"

Dori’s love for the outdoors has been nurtured since childhood – he grew up skiing, hiking and camping in Iceland’s remote wilderness with his parents. Dori’s father was a member of the Reykjavik rescue team (part of a national volunteer organisation similar to Australia’s SES), which Dori himself has been involved with for over 40 years now – since he was old enough to join at age 16. This was also how Dori came to be working in the outdoor industry.

“The rescue team had the only serious outdoor shop in Iceland,” Dori explained. His father had been on the board of the rescue team, and Dori used to accompany him to outdoor exhibitions in Europe to select skis and outdoor gear for the store. Ten years later, Dori was on the board when the outdoor gear shop was up for sale – and the rest is history. Fjallakofinn has expanded to three stores across Iceland, and Dori also runs a small tour company in which he takes limited numbers of travellers on adventures around Europe. The latter business venture, however, is more for his personal fulfillment than anything else. “We have small groups, we don’t advertise – it’s like those micro farms, we just harvest what we need for ourselves,” he said.

It’s clear that the key to Dori’s success is his contagious enthusiasm and his generosity – his smile collecting philosophy. A great story-teller, he had plenty of anecdotes to share with us over beer. One was about the time he read a public notice in the local paper about a ten-year-old boy who’d lost his treasured Swiss Army Knife. Immediately sympathetic to the boy’s loss – and as the country’s only importer of Victorinox – Dori had contacted the family and replaced it. He then showed us a photo on his phone – it was of the boy, now grown up, on a recent heli-skiing trip they’d taken together. The pair became lifelong friends. Dori never asked for payment for the Swiss Army Knife – only a smile to add to his growing collection, and perhaps another friend to fill a space on a church pew when the time comes.

 

Bonne Annee! New Year’s in France

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Thiou ‘river’ in Annecy, France.

I’ve always felt that wandering the streets of a new city anonymously and alone is the essence of travel and adventure – but a recent week in France reminded me of the wonderful gift of having close friends in faraway places.

There’s no breakfast quite as luxurious as a freshly baked pan au chocolat, croissants and crusty baguette with assorted confiture and a hot coffee – particularly when enjoyed with friends, and the odd flurry of snow outside.

Mont Pilat

Snowy stroll on Mont Pilat

This is how Paul and I started every morning of our recent week-long getaway to France to welcome the arrival of 2015 – mostly in the south-west in Roussillon, near Lyon, but with New Year’s Eve spent in the north-east, in Rouen. Staying with two good friends, Chris and Maud, we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to French food, culture and language.

Our trusty notepad remained at our side as we jotted down new phrases to our previously non-existent French – lessons that were consolidated in the evening over a glass of champagne or vin rouge from grapes grown just down the road. (The wine helped improve our confidence, if not our competence.)

Traboules

Lyon’s hidden passageways, called ‘Traboules’

On our first afternoon staying with Chris and Maud (and their cat Brenda), we took a rather fresh stroll through the snow in nearby Mont Pilat, then ventured out to the city of Lyon the next day. A highlight in Lyon was exploring the city’s hidden passageways, called ‘Traboules’ – originally used to speed up the transport of products and produce, and centuries later used in the local resistance against Nazis during World War II.

On another day out and about in the town of Vienne, we explored Roman ruins, including an enormous Roman amphitheater that is used to this day to hold an annual jazz concert.

This wasn’t, however, a hardcore sight-seeing trip, but a chance to relax with friends. This meant luxurious sleep-ins, strolling down to the bakery to buy breakfast, and maybe heading out to wander and explore around lunchtime until the sun set at 5pm – home in time for a cosy evening in of wine and a regional dishes expertly whipped up by Maud (such as the cheesy, potatoey goodness that is the local dish of tartiflette…).

Roman amphitheater in Vienne

Roman amphitheater in Vienne

Then came New Year’s Eve and a six-hour drive that had us straddling the country from the south-west to north-east to get to Maud’s childhood hometown of Rouen – famous, among other things, as the place where Joan of Arc was executed in 1431.

View over Rouen, France

View over Rouen, France

In Rouen, Paul and I would be crashing the party of Maud’s lovely extended family – 50-odd of the most generous, welcoming and vivacious French people, some of whom spoke English far better than they either let on or realised, while those who spoke less fluently might consolidate a phrase in their mind and then  – slightly tipsy – track you down in the crowd to offer up the unfamiliar words, released delicately like a flock of butterflies: “‘Ello, I am very ‘appy to meet you. ‘Appy new year!”

A typo in Maud’s original email about our plans for New Year’s Eve had told us drinking would start at 8:30am with the main meal usually served at midnight. In hindsight, I’m impressed by how stoically we took this revelation – a slight nod, an exhalation, a recalibration of our body clock’s expectations and then, finally, acceptance. “Yep, okay, sure. We’re up for it,” – only to find out that she had in fact meant 8:30pm. There was, however, no typo about dinner being served at midnight – vive la France, these guys know how to party.

NYE party photo taken by Maud

NYE party photo taken by Maud

Unfortunately Paul ended up being laid up for the evening ill, which left me to hold the fort as the single Australian and one of two native English speakers (including Chris) – but the only one who couldn’t speak French. (Luckily one of the guests was also an English teacher, so I clinged to her side for much of the evening.)

Another cultural experience – I’ve never kissed or been kissed so much in my life… A peck on each cheek for everyone in attendance is customary, both on arrival and after the countdown at midnight (Dix! Neuf! Huit! …) A highlight of this was certainly the little cherub-like faces in the crowd who dutifully sought out any not-yet-kissed grownups and then queued up to offer a polite bonsoir (good evening) or bonne année (happy new year) and then stood on tippy-toes for a peck on the cheek – even for the odd Australian woman whom they didn’t recognise, and who was all misty-eyed and giggly as she tried to gauge if anyone nearby realised how seriously cute these little kids were?!

After initial mingling, we ate at long tables that wound around the edge of the room – a home-cooked starter of cheese fried in pastry and salad at about 10pm (followed by more drinking, dancing, mingling), then – after more drinking, dancing, mingling – a main meal of deer/venison with a mushroom gravy and parsnip purée (at around 1am), followed by bread and cheese and salad (naturally), and finally tiramisu for dessert served up not long before we headed home at about 3:30am – fairly sober, I should point out. The food was just as much a hero of the party as the drink, and there wasn’t a shot glass in sight. Tres chic.

Sunset in Honfleur

Sunset in Honfleur

Before the long drive south again, we spent the following afternoon visiting the town of Honfleur and its picturesque port, and watched the sun set over the English Channel. Then, on our last day we broke up the two-hour drive across the border to Geneva Airport with a few hours in Annecy visiting its famous, pristine lake and clear-water canals. We had lunch at a creperie – accompanied, as is traditional, by bowls of apple cider.

Palais de l'Isle, Annecy, France

The Palais de l’Isle (built 1132) in Annecy, France

While I love getting lost in unfamiliar places around the world, there is so much to be gained from the opportunity to see a new place through the eyes of the locals who have taken you in like family – so, on that note, merci beaucoup to Chris and Maud, and Maud’s family, for making our new year so special and memorable!

Now that we’re back in Bideford and getting into the swing of 2015, we have tentative plans to return to France in summer to hike the Pyrenees – along with a new year’s resolution to have listened to a few French language tapes before then (promise).

Bonne année les amis! Merci for reading.

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The link between Santa Claus and the Sydney siege

Disclaimer, please read: This isn’t my usual travel-themed blogpost. It’s a 3am rant about the link between Santa Claus, the Sydney siege and critical thinking. It may lose me a few followers (even friends), but anyone averse to a bit of tough intellectual honesty probably isn’t worth fighting for anyway. I was nervous about writing this, but the alternative was writing it over and over again in my mind until the alarm went off at 6:30am and I became distracted by the routine of the day. So, in the end, this seemed like a better use of my time. Besides, as a wise person once said (sorry I can’t find the source so I’ll paraphrase) – the only thing worth writing is that which scares you. So here it is. Merry Christmas!

There’s a bit of click-bait circulating Facebook at the moment. It lures you in with classic click-bait style language, promising to offer: “Possibly The Best Parental Explanation Of Santa Claus We’ve Seen”. (Yes, In Title Case Because Internet.)

So, of course, I took the bait and was hooked, mainly because (presumably) like a lot future or present or non-parents, the idea of knowingly taking advantage of my (hypothetical) little child’s unconditional trust in me – that is, by lying to them – has never really sat well, and even left me feeling a little squeamish.

BUT never you mind parents of the world, the good news is that a website called Pyzam (okay I should have known better) has the answer, so I clicked away.

Oh world, why do you keep letting me down?

The crux of the letter to dear, clever little Ryan (as I’ve sneeringly paraphrased it – you can read the full thing here) is this: Alright, Ryan sonny, you got us! Santa isn’t technically real, as in, you know, the facts we told you about him – flying reindeer, Coca-Cola-inspired suit, chimneys and the like. But, our dear impressionable sweet child, you just let all that pesky innate scepticism and healthy curiosity stop right there! You don’t need to ask anymore difficult questions because we have A Life Affirming, Heart Warming Revelation For You. What we really tried to teach you with our stories about a man sneaking into our house at night while you sleep to give you material things you don’t need (along with the houses of all the other rich kids in the first world) was this: believing in things – even when they’re blatantly untrue – Just Feels Good, okay Ryan! #amirite Ryan? …Ryan?!

To quote the letter directly:

“What [Santa] does is teach children to believe in something they can’t see or touch. Throughout your life you will need this capacity to believe: in yourself, in your family, and in God. You’ll need to be able to believe in things you can’t measure or hold in your hands.”

But wait! Santa isn’t real, right, mum and dad? That is what you’re telling me here, underneath all this euphemistic, pseudo-philosophical BS? So there is no Santa, but… but it’s healthy to believe in him because he isn’t real? Because… Because love and Christmas?

Me neither Ryan. Me friggin neither.

You know who wasn’t very good at taking stuff on faith (or authority), but had a dangerous habit of “measuring” things (ew, science) and asking annoying questions? Well loads of awesome people, but for some reason Galileo in particular springs to mind – probably because 500-odd years later so many of us still seem stuck on the idea that we inhabit the centre of the universe.

Had this 16th century Italian had access to Ryan’s mum and dad’s theory on Santa, he might have ignored his beautiful, courageous human curiosity and scepticism in his humble attempt to understand the immense grandeur and complexity of the universe – and instead just, well, goddam believed the Catholic Church doctrine on heliocentrism and kept his doubting-Thomas mouth shut like a good boy. Then he might not have spent his twilight years under house arrest (and the western world would have remained in the Dark Ages a little longer).

While the worst part of this Santa click-bait is that it seems to have given several thousand internet users their warm and fuzzies this season with a celebration of the Crushing Of Reason as early as possible in life; the best part about it is definitely the fact that it equates a belief in Santa with a belief in God right there on page in black and white. You’ve got to take your Christmas miracles where you can get them.

So how does all this link to a criminal madman who held a bunch of innocent people hostage at gunpoint for 16 hours in a chocolate shop in my beloved home city of Sydney 10 days before Christmas? Okay, don’t panic, I’m going to ease you into it. Wait for it… it’s coming: Religion. There, I said it. Didn’t hurt that much, did it?

Because, while critical thinking and scepticism is why most of us no longer die at around 30 years of age from diarrhoea or our teeth, unchallenged, medieval desert-origin belief systems give us the Westboro Baptist Church, ISIS and the Taliban. And Al Shabaab and Boko Haram and the Boston Bombers and the London bombers. And creepy middle-aged virgins, and Fred Nile. And Man Haron Monis.

Now, let’s be clear: I’m the type of global-warming-concerned, social-welfare-loving, Christmas-ruining lefty that usually keeps the likes of Miranda Devine up at night. However, it was seemingly at odds with the dominant opinion within that cultural group that I was becoming frustrated with the desperate need (on my Twitter and Facebook feeds at least) to completely and without question separate Man Haron Monis’ actions in Sydney on 15-16 December 2014 with his explicitly stated religious beliefs. Crimes have motives, and sometimes we don’t need to do much detective work to find out what those motives are – sometimes they are stuck there on the wall or in the window for everyone to see.

Yes, it is important to be nuanced in our interpretation of an event, and yes of course it’s vitally important that innocent people are never harassed or physically intimidated in public places for the way they dress or what they look like. And of course I’ll bloody ride on the bus with you – provided you’re not A: a racist twat or B: wearing a bomb (because, people, the latter does happen and being nervous about that isn’t the delusion here).

My overarching gripe is this: Our healthy aversion to the inadequacy and injustice of stereotypes should not equate with a chilling effect on legitimate, civilised debate about the demonstrable link between belief and behaviour. (I would go further to say that I would want to have anyone who believes that their holy book or dogma is infallible and beyond criticism on my personal keep-a-close-eye-on-that-guy list).

Because while it’s relatively easy to cringe together about otherwise well-meaning parents and their impressive capacity for Doublethink at this time of year – it has somehow, on the other hand, become social suicide in certain groups (and they’re usually my favourites!) to suggest that a strong belief in core religious doctrines such as jihad might have a cause-and-effect relationship with violent crimes against, let’s say, apostates. Because let’s be clear: the one thing that Man Haron Monis, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and members of Boko Haram and the Taliban have in common is certainly not anything as irrelevant as their (differing) race or language or clothes.

We fought and (mostly) won the good fight against crusading Christians – right around the time when Islamic countries were leading the world in cultural and scientific progression – and now for a multitude of reasons the Islamic world has found itself on the wrong side of the sawtooth of human progress: because too many people believe in it too much. And if the best thing you can say about your belief system is that it works better when you don’t follow it all that closely (and that is the case for at least all of the monotheisms that dominate the culture I’m a part of), then you’re not off to the best start.

If we keep closing our eyes to the obvious inadequacies of religion as a moral compass, then every time war and famine and ruthless dictators toss our societies back into the dark ages, we’ll keep falling on those religions for comfort and we’ll keep repeating our mistakes.

Perhaps if the world was as small and connected 500 years ago as it is today, the crusading Christians would have clashed with the progressive muslims of the time, and this all would have come to a head back then and we’d be living in a very different world today. As it stands, this is the world we live in and I just want to play my part by defending one strongly held (and open to debate and criticism) belief: in free speech.

And on that note, even if you haven’t read a word of this diatribe because you can’t stop crying into your mulled wine and mince pies, then at least watch this – an old favourite that says so much of what I wish I could but far more eloquently, such as: “Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus”.

A Cornish Christmas getaway

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In hindsight, when ordering a meal to be eaten at a table for one in a large swanky dining room, I should probably have gone for a less messy option than the mussels… Padstow Christmas Festival

As I’d chosen to eat early that evening on my overnight stay at the St Moritz Hotel in Rock, north Cornwall, the restaurant was mostly empty and I couldn’t help but feel the waiters’ eyes on me as I wrestled with the tasty but stubborn mussels in their fragrant coconut and coriander broth… My previous confidence that yes I’m sure you’re supposed to eat these with your hands and use the first shell to extract the rest of the little suckers was fast waning, but I was in too deep by then to reach for the fork, so my only option was to look confident, whilst occasionally smiling reassuringly over at the attentive row of waiters as I attempted to proceed to the next page of my touch-screen e-book using the knuckle of my pinkie finger.

Mussels at St Moritz

The situation brought a scene in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to mind –when her character Esther Greenwood mistakenly consumes the entire finger bowl at a luncheon “including the crisp little blossoms”. Esther came to learn that when you think you’re doing something incorrect in a dining situation, just do it with “a certain arrogance […] and nobody will think you are bad mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.” So, in short, that’s the effect I was going for – and after a glass of South African sauv blanc and finished off with a warm, spicy mulled wine, I was starting to feel pretty merry and confident again anyway.

The reason I was down in Cornwall was for a two-day work trip to attend the first half of the annual, four-day Padstow Christmas Festival. My employer was invited by one of their clients, Sharp’s Brewery, who was putting staff up at the St Moritz Hotel – which happens to be another client and one who I work with directly, so I was lucky enough to be sent along.

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It’s a two-hour drive down the coast from North Devon through winding, narrow country lanes (saying that, even the A-roads here feel like narrow lanes to me…), and I arrived at around 11am to check in at the hotel then make my way down to the little ferry that crosses the Camel Estuary between the towns of Rock and Padstow – it will drop you off at different points along the beach or harbour depending on the tide.

Black Tor Ferry

The centrepoint of the festival was a big marquee set up with food stalls and craft and Christmas gifts, and of course beer – Sharp’s Brewery was the main sponsor of the event. Highlights were the Chefs Demonstration Theatre, where some of Padstow’s best chefs – including Rick Stein who many joke more or less owns Padstow (he certainly put it on the map) – cooked meals on stage for the audience to watch and learn. Among my personal favourites was the eccentric moustachioed Hugo Woolley who restored my faith in my own prospects as a home-baker when he’d been given the wrong flour and his granola cookies turned into a buttery mess in the oven – it happens to the best of us!

BBQ oysters

The next day I was lucky enough to sit down for coffee at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant to interview former Michelin-starred chef Paul Ripley (Paul was head chef at The Seafood Restaurant after Rick and now works at The Mariners Rock pub), as well as his sous-chef Zack Hawke and Sharp’s Brewery’s beer sommelier Ed Hughes – Ed is passionately trying to elevate beer to the world of fine dining, which is a noble cause, I say.

Sharp’s Brewery also had a clever marketing trick up their sleeve with something called The Secret Bar that took place inside a closed shipping container at the festival… I can’t say too much about what went on inside, except that it involved beer and food and as a visiting journalist I was fortunate enough to have my ‘secret bar’ experience with a group of VIP chefs…

If anything was going to get me into the spirit for my first ‘cold’ Christmas in the northern hemisphere, then this little getaway to Cornwall’s foodie capital was it. Thanks Padstow and now bring on the home-made minced pies and mulled wine, I’m in a festive mood!

Merry Christmas xx

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Expat update: from Bideford, Devon

So I’ve been slack with blogging, I know, I know. You can put that down to the trials and tribulations (and joys!) of setting up life in a new country.

A room with a view, in Bideford, North Devon

After adjusting to the leisurely pace of life on Paul’s family’s farmhouse in the UK’s idyllic west midlands, we ended up spending our first night in our ‘new’ home of North Devon in a tent in the beer garden of a country pub…

Yes, less than a fortnight after finishing our bike tour around Iceland, we were back to our old ways again, pitching tents in unexpected places.

Paul’s furniture making course had been scheduled to start in about a week’s time, and we still had to solve the minor detail of finding somewhere to live for the year. On that weekend ‘reccy’ to North Devon – timed smack-bang in the middle of school holidays – we couldn’t even find accommodation for a night. Thankfully, the pub owner at the Devil’s Stone Inn in Shebbear overheard our quandary and offered a grassy patch out the back, which we gratefully accepted.

A sign on the wall behind the bar proclaimed the pub to be ‘officially haunted’ (as decided by some sort of independent auditor of those kinds of things, apparently). However the only haunting we experienced was from the Rottweiler with which we shared the beer garden, and which left several landmines for us to dodge. There was also the Wifi that didn’t work when the jukebox was plugged in, and vice versa (those ghosts can be oddballs, sometimes). Boat at Instow beach

Eventually, houseshare.co.uk led us to a terrace just outside the town centre of Bideford, in which we now rent a, let’s say… cosy bedroom. That is to say, we’ve had to customise a double futon to make it fit, still leaving really only standing room for one.

Our new home is, however, just a cobble stone’s throw from the high street and the River Torridge, to which we have found ourselves gravitating on these balmy summer evenings to watch the local rowing teams, as well as carefree kids in wetsuits jumping off the ‘old bridge’ at high tide. (At low tide, the boats lean over on their keels on the exposed mudflats.) Our room also has a window looking out on all this, which makes up for the lack of space. We leave the curtains open overnight and are awoken every morning with the walls painted pink from the rising sun.

Accommodation, tick. Next up was to find a job. Paul started his course on the 1st of September, and since then drives the 10 miles there through country lanes in our ‘new’ 1995 Land Rover Discovery. The hedged lanes are so narrow (and the Disco so wide) that he has to fold in the side mirrors.

That left me with the place to myself during the day as I continued the process of becoming established in Bideford and in the UK in general (even grocery shopping was a learning curve – aubergines not eggplants, courgettes not zucchinis, gammon shank not bacon hock, and I made a spinach pie out of something called ‘spring greens’…). I had a couple of freelance jobs to tide me over – including working on a feature article for Australian Geographic Outdoor magazine about our Iceland bike tour – but otherwise I was emailing and phoning anyone and everyone I could to look for work opportunities.Boat on the River Torridge

With several irons in media/publishing-related fires, I still became impatient. It turns out I don’t ‘do’ idle well, so after about a week I responded to an ad in a local cafe, called Cafe Collective, and found myself making coffees and waiting tables for the locals (the Australian accent always made for a great ice-breaker with customers). As a Sydney-sider, I was a little aghast when the cafe owners let me operate the espresso machine without a PhD in latte art, but I got the hang of it and even learnt what the hell an ‘Americano’ is. (If you’re interested, it was invented in Europe during WWII to resemble the filter coffee that American soldiers were used to. It is also what you give someone when they ask for simply a ‘coffee’ and you can tell very clearly that they do not want to be hassled with any further options.)

Alas, however, my days in hospitality were numbered. I am pleased to say instead that I’ve started in a permanent role at a very groovy little boutique publisher and marketing agency called Salt Media, which specialises in gorgeous food publications. I take a double decker bus to work, and always nab the front, top-level seats to enjoy the view. (As these are always empty, and I share the bus with mostly high school kids, I gather this isn’t a particularly cool place to sit – which works out perfectly.)Blackberries

Bideford is starting to feel like home (or home-away-from-home, at least) and Paul and I are diligently conducting our own local research – that is, gradually working our way around all of the local pubs for our Friday night ales. Most of them were built in the 15th/16th centuries, and for a town with a population of about 10,000, there’s plenty to choose from. Most recently, it was the Joiners’ Arms, with old woodworking tools hung on the walls, which felt extremely fitting given the circumstances of our relocation here. It might just become our regular haunt (although we have a few to work through yet).

Another highlight has been taking weekend walks along the Tarka Trail, which covers a total distance of 180 miles through North Devon. We’ve walked about 14 of those miles (~22km) over various weekends – passing under old stone bridges, by unused canal locks and rail lines, and picking blackberries from hedges that are fat with them this time of year. The Tarka Trail might just have to become a future blog post of its own, once we’ve explored a bit more.

It’s all just a bit ridiculously quaint, really. I thought England was supposed to be grey and dreary? We’ve even been swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Without wetsuits. Twice.

Now, I’ll leave you with a few shots from the Bideford Carnival, which took us by surprise when the carnies started rolling in with their amusement rides and fast food vans, and when for one entire evening the town came to life to the soundtrack of the local pipes ‘n’ drums bands. It was a perfect welcoming. Thanks Bideford!

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The gear revolt (and farewell Iceland – until next time!)

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.

Paul riding to Thakgill Iceland

Days 32-38(ish?)
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.*
Tent repair job
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).

Bike repairs on the way to Thakgill Iceland
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.

Gemma riding to Thakgill iceland

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.

Vik Iceland

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.

Gullfoss waterfall iceland
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

The romance of challenge

We’ve spent the past three days riding along the southern coast of Iceland, where Vatnajokull – the country’s biggest glacier – reaches down to the sea.

1 Gemma on the road from Hofn

Day 29-32
Hofn > Kalfafellsstadir > Hofskirkja > Kirkjubaejarklaustur > Vik
Distance 230km (including 20km backtracking, and excluding 70km on the bus to Vik)

There is an old Icelandic proverb: “Kemst þó hægt fari”. It translates, roughly, to “you will reach your destination, even though you travel slowly”. The saying – shared with us by one of Paul’s former colleagues – has provided mental comfort on many occasions as we’ve pushed through headwinds, our destination still seeming impossibly far away. We will get their eventually, I tell myself. And we always have.

Not only is the proverb apt for our own experience over the past month travelling through Iceland (at an overall average speed of about 15km/h), it also speaks to Iceland’s rich tradition and culture of long, arduous journeys through this sparse and often unforgiving landscape. At one museum we learned that Icelandic people once measured distances in ‘boots’ – as in the number of pairs worn out on a journey. Along a similar vein, we’ve heard of an ongoing debate here around farmers allowing access to their roads for travellers. Apparently, traditional Icelandic law prioritises the right of the traveller to pass through farmland over the right of the landowner to restrict access. However, increasingly (we heard) wealthy landowners are building impassable fences with stern signs barring entry – not in  keeping with that old tradition aimed at protecting weary travellers.

I’ve thought a lot on this bike tour about just why we, across cultures, romanticise the challenge and struggle of long journeys. Why do I feel a warm glowing empathy, say, for someone travelling for days on a bike or on foot through difficult conditions, but struggle not to be a bit cynical about the air-conditioned buses that eject hordes of dry, over-fed tourists at guide-book points of interests, before whisking them away again before the weather turns?

Both methods of travel are perfectly legitimate, and rationally speaking there is nothing inherently better or worse about either option. We on our bikes are busy-body tourists contributing to the crowds as much as anyone else, and while one method of travel is safer and more comfortable, we’re not exactly pioneers or soldiers either. Far from it. It’s more like we’re simply dipping into the struggle and endurance that is such an integral part of human history, and which we romanticise so much.

But again, why do we? The conclusion I think I’ve come to is that discomfort and challenge bring out positive qualities in us – tolerance, courage, empathy, gratitude; whereas too much comfort and convenience can sometimes bring out the worst in us – laziness, pettiness, intolerance, greed.

Of course, I write this having penned the last post on a long, sleepy 7.5-hour bus ride down the country’s east coast. In fact, the contrast of that experience with our previous days on the bike probably helped set off this particular train of thought (pardon the pun).

Anyway, enough philosophising: here’s some context.

We’ve spent the past three days riding a little over 200km along southern edge of Iceland’s (and one of Europe’s) biggest glacier, the magnificent Vatnajokull. At 8100 square kilometres, she makes up eight percent of the entire country’s land area.

3 Vatnajokull glacier outlet

We set off from Hofn after our day on the bus at around 9am. It was raining, so we donned our full set of wet weather gear – waterproof pants (over padded bike shorts), rain jacket and warm (water resistant-ish) gloves, then hit the Ring Road. We had a comfortable tail wind, and the terrain down here is mostly flat, so we were managing, comfortably, average speeds of about 20-25km/h.

Very soon, Vatnajokull came into sight – her outlets reaching down to sea level in ‘tongues’, looking a bit like torrents of rushing whitewater frozen in suspended animation, which I suppose in some ways they are. I kept expecting someone to press ‘play’ and the scenery to turn from peaceful countryside to Hollywood disaster movie. The rain eased off after a couple of hours, leaving clean, clear fresh air, and the tail wind was marvellous – we were making great time. We found a road sign showing local villages and picked a place called Gerdi, which featured a tent symbol and was about 70km from where we’d started that morning – and another 80km from our next night’s destination. With this tail wind expected to remain, that would be easy, we thought.

It was about 1pm by the time we turned off the Ring Road, both our stomachs grumbling for lunch, ready to set up camp for the afternoon. We rode through the little ‘village’ (two farms, a couple of associated guesthouses and a restaurant/museum) to the place called ‘Gerdi’ which was in fact a guesthouse on a farm. There was a caravan on the grass, which looked promising. We dismounted, removed our gloves, helmets and sunglasses, and went inside to be greeted by a small crowd milling in the middle of a big dining room, with seats upside down on the tables. In what is becoming a common occurance, we all stared at each other for a beat of uncomfortable silence, until someone emerged from an adjacent room wearing an official-looking polo shirt.

“Hello, we’ve just arrived and we’d like to camp here, please.”

“Sorry, we don’t have any facilities for camping.” (I refrained from gesturing outside to the fields of grass.)

“Nothing?”

“No.”

“Is there anywhere to camp in this area?”

“Sure, there is a campsite 10km east of here.” In other words, back in the direction we’d come, but this time facing straight into the strong wind that had carried us here so helpfully. We’d ridden 70km that day and had another 70km ahead of us the next day, so going back 10km on ourselves into a headwind felt too unfair, surely.

Having ascertained that all of the silent-starers crowding the dining room were in fact staff with terrible customer service skills, we managed to gain permission to have our home-packed lunch in the empty dining room while we looked over the map and worked out our options.

Just 13km further west, the direction in which we would rather use up our energy heading, was the famous glacial lagoon Jokulsarlon, where icebergs drift out to sea. It’s a must-do, apparently, and we’d looked forward to getting their early the following morning en-route to our next stop. Continuing in that direction also meant we would be passing through the kind of terrain least suited to ‘free’ camping (if we resorted to that) – desert lava fields, icebergs, not to mention zero protection from the growing winds and incoming rain.

We finished our lunch and rode back up to the restaurant/museum to see if they could help. No camping, the girl at the counter told us, and all of the accommodation was booked out anyway (not that we could quite justify forking out on a room rate in place of a 10km ride – we knew that much). We even asked if she thought we’d have luck knocking on the farmers’ doors and asking to camp on their property, but as they own the adjacent guesthouses she said certainly not (and she had good insight, as she lived on one of the farms with her grandmother, she told us).

And so, to soften the blow a little, we had coffee in the restaurant then got back on our bikes to retrace our steps back 10km, which would ‘only’ take about 45 minutes in this wind. (It took about 15 minutes in the other direction). Not much, in the scheme of things. Just a little learning curve.

The campsite, on another farm, was indeed worth it. There was an enormous, rambling building which provided communal facilities and dorm accommodation, with camping on the grounds. The showers were buried in a basement, but were more than adequate. The dorm room layout, which I snooped around and explored as we sheltered from the rain, was like a rabbit warren – leading down hallways, through a storage room with boxes and an old piano, into the bunk rooms with double-height rain-slashed windows.

The next morning we were heading for Skaftafell, a kind of national park at another one of Vatnajokull’s outlets. The tail wind had reached unprecedented speeds, so we covered the 23km to the glacier lagoon in about 45 minutes. We could tell the direction of the wind by the rainwater lifting off the road in sheets, then writhing and twisting ahead of us as we sped along at up to 35km/h, often freewheeling in top gear.

The glacier lagoon was as impressive as we’d predicted and as its popularity would suggest (there was at least a dozen tour buses parked at the entrance). We were soaked through from the rain so first gravitated towards the cafe, which, as it turned out, lacked even standing room. We pulled out the camera whilst sheltering under a narrow eave then wandered down to the lagoon’s edge.

This was the first time either of us have seen anything like this – jagged, transparent blue icebergs, some flowing down the lagoon towards the Ring Road bridge, at which point they pick up speed and rush towards the beach and out to sea. We also saw our first seals here – about three or four of them ducking in and out of the water playfully.

We had to keep warm, so after about half an hour checking out the lagoon (the cafe entrance still impenetrable), we got back on our bikes to continue on our way. There was a gas station 30km from there, where we thought we might shelter and have lunch before the final 23km to our destination.

The wind was so strong by now that it was difficult to ride out of the lagoon driveway with it blowing at our side (perhaps this should have been a warning of things to come?). It pushed us diagonally across the gravel until we could finally face our bikes west at the main road and then fly off at astounding speeds. One strong gust had us speed-peddling in top gear up to 55km/h (according to Paul’s bike computer – and I was right behind him).

We reached the gas station, which was actually just a fuel pump on the side of the road and an empty building. Still, we pulled in to check it out and met another couple of French bike tourers also sheltering under the empty building’s inadequate eaves. When they told us they were heading in the opposite direction, against this wind rather than with it, I think Paul and I both simply cried, simultaneously, “No!”

They were only three days into their tour, they explained with sad, resigned faces. (Hadn’t they read the same blog we had that suggested travelling clockwise?) That morning they’d ridden the 23km from Skaftafell (our planned destination), but they couldn’t face much more – they’d been blown all over the road, they said. We guiltily told them we’d travelled 60km in less than two hours already. We could barely believe it ourselves.

Having found no shelter or respite at the gas station, we wished them heartfelt good luck, then skidded sideways across the gas station lay-by until we faced our bikes west again and let the wind carry us up a slight incline at our average speed of about 35km/h. I can only imagine how they must have felt watching our frames shrink into the distance in minutes.

8 Glacier

With this wind, we imagined we’d be in Skaftafell in less than an hour. However, the road after the gas station changed direction slightly as we rounded the base of Iceland’s tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur (2110m). This was a terrible combination. Looking at the radar later, we realised that we’d turned into flukey windstorm with minimum 70km/h gusts crashing down from the mountain and hitting us in unpredictable savage bursts. We didn’t know the exact windspeed then, but we knew it was scary. I had to keep slamming my brakes as the bike veered wildly of its own accord across the road, towards the other side and potentially on-coming traffic. All I could do was shout over the roaring wind to Paul “I don’t like this!” He didn’t like it either, as he was trying to ride double abreast with me in a gallant attempt to act as a block between my possessed bike and the centre road marking.

Thankfully, after about three kilometres of this, we spotted a turn-off to a hotel and restaurant. We turned off initially with the aim to have lunch and decide on a plan of action, but that plan almost immediately turned into staying at the hotel itself – the wind by now rushing down the mountain with such force we could hear it barrelling towards us before it hit. We could barely walk through it, let alone ride, and the rain was still ‘falling’ in solid, sideways sheets. We’d discussed the kind of conditions in which we might spend a night in four-wall accommodation. Yesterday’s experience in Gerdi didn’t cut it, but this did.

We had to adjust our demeanour as we entered the muted, sophisticated interior of the hotel lobby. We must have looked a sight in our dripping-wet, hi-vis bike gear and pink wind-burned faces. Also, having spent the past couple of hours shouting at each other over the elements, it  was difficult to find an appropriate indoor volume.

“HI CAN WE PLEASE HAVE A ROOM HERE!”

Apparently, they were completely booked out and suggested another guesthouse a couple of hundred metres down the road. We warned/informed her we’d be back for lunch, and wrestled our bikes through the weather to the other guesthouse. We entered to find an old lady knitting on an armchair in a homely olive-green living room. She said something in Icelandic and another woman emerged. All booked out, she told us. “Nothing at all?” I asked, trying to sound as desperate as possible, and to make clear that we would not be getting back on that road, almost adding – “a laundry floor, basement, anything?” She told us there was another guesthouse, the last one in the same village, another couple of hundred metres away – “a little white house with blue windows”.

Paul got there before I did and emerged shaking his head. Booked out. No, that wouldn’t do. I barged in after him and (surely in vain) asked again. “Are you sure? Nothing at all?”

Finally, my brain switched into gear and I asked if we could please at least pitch our tent in their yard, and make use of the communal facilities (this place looked less hotel, more hostel). Fully expecting a ‘no’, as we’d experienced in Gerdi, the lady (who happened, like some cruel joke, to be baking cookies at the time) looked at me as if she’d only just then noticed what a drowned, windswept mess I was. She then smiled with pity, and nodded. I could have hugged her. Instead, inexplicably, I put my hands together and bowed like we’d once learned on a holiday in Thailand. “Thank you! Thank you!” I said, bowing low as I reversed out of the kitchen like a crazy person to inform Paul of the good news – which included the fact that she had also refused to charge us anything for the night’s stay, camped among her children’s toys in the tiny front garden. Perfect!

We left our bikes in the rain leaning up against the white wall and below the blue windows, and walked to the hotel – re-adjusting to “posh hotel lobby” mode as best we could, whilst forming a small pool of rainwater on the tiles around our table. One of the first things I noticed was that the other groups of patrons in the restaurant – in their dry, warm, clean clothes – looked positively miserable. All dead silent, every last individual staring at his or her smartphone with slightly slack jaw and lifeless eyes. And there we were, trying not to burst into bouts of hysterical laughter.

After lunch, we set up our tent in the wind and rain with renewed vigour, toweling down the tent interior before ejecting into it the contents of our dry duffel bag – sleeping bag, wool thermals, down-stuffed pillows, bed socks, beanies and scarves and sleeping mats.

12 Kirk campsite
Before we set off to Iceland, we had a few people cringe at the idea of sleeping in a tent every night for 38 days, predicting that we’d soon become utterly tired of it. Yet, in this moment, that attitude – or the notion that this was the hard part – seemed ridiculous. We had shelter! And a warm, comfortable place to sleep! What a luxury and a joy!

Paul used some extra rope we’d packed to help secure the tent in the strong winds. Even in the lee of the little white house, the tent poles warped and buckled disconcertingly. That night, the wind sounded as if we’d pitched our tent on a shoreline next to crashing waves.

After a slightly fitful sleep, we woke up to calm conditions and blue-sky gaps in the cloud cover. We wandered through the calm village (toward the hotel buffet breakfast – our grocery supplies by now dwindled), startled at the effect of the changed weather on our perception of the place. Well wasn’t this a lovely little quaint place! And the road down there, long and winding and flat through green fields. Not intimidating at all! Just near us was a refurbished 18th-century turf chapel surrounded by a lumpy, ancient graveyard, which we wandered through in fascination, before packing up camp and getting back on our bikes by about 10am.

We later learned that the weather in this particular region at the edge of the glacier can be so localised that a storm can tear off roofs and smash windows at one farm, while mild conditions reign at the neighbouring property. We’d ridden straight into a windstorm, but at Skaftafell, in a more protected position, was likely calm and pleasant (if we could have just made it there).

We did make it there eventually, by midday that day. There was a slight headwind, which was a bit of an effort, but at least we retained control of our bikes! We spent two hours at Skaftafell, firstly hiking to the base of the glacier outlet there, and then up to the waterfall. We ate a packed lunch and were back on our bikes at 2pm – with 70km still ahead of us.

10 Skaftafell svinafoss

The road was long and straight through lava fields and vast gravel glacial floodplain. The headwind was relatively gentle, but enough to gnaw away at you over time. Eventually I made Paul inform me every time we covered another 10km, but in return I was forbidden from asking “are you sure we haven’t done another 10km yet?” “Are we at 30km yet?” “How many kilometres?”

Our destination was our first fully-fledged town in a couple of days, called (wait for it): Kirkjubaejarklaustur. We made it there (as we always do – the proverb rings true!). We showered and used the hot tubs at the local pool, then went straight to the restaurant/pub for a feast before setting up camp. We’d ridden over 90km and spent two hours walking around Skaftafell – all personal records smashed. Next day was to be a rest day, obviously.

I am now writing this from a town called Vik, 70km west of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. We woke up this morning, after our pleasant rest day (which included another trip to the pool, and a stroll up a sheep trail to a plateau that overlooked the area and the glacier in the distance), to the sound of more wind and rain. We’d expected this from the radar forecast, and it hadn’t looked quite as bad as what we’d faced previously – in numerical terms, at least. However, then and there, in our sleeping bags listening to the familiar rhythm of rain on tent fabric, we were having second thoughts.

13 Paul flat bum waterfall
Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and calm, so usually we’d have simply waited until then to ride the 70km to Vik. However, we are running out of days and our generous cookie-baking hostess who let us camp in her garden (in true old-Icelandic style) suggested we ride to a place called Thakgill. It’s a 20km ride (mostly up hill, on loose gravel with a couple of water crossings) out of Vik – but it’s the style of touring we prefer to long days on the Ring Road, and it’s supposed to be beautiful. So we’ve prioritised it. We spent an hour on a public bus to get here, feeling fully vindicated as we watched the angry weather pass by outside.

Perhaps we had had enough of the romance of challenging journeys for that one day? Either way, its back on the bikes tomorrow, and we’re looking forward to it.

Until then, from another old proverb – may the road rise up to meet you and the wind be at your back!

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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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