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.




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


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.



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.


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.




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






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.)



“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.


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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The north country

Hunting for crocs in northern Iceland, and the light at the end of the tunnel.


Day 15-23
Saudarkrokur (aka sauerkraut) > Hofsos (aka hot sauce) > Siglufjordur (aka Sigmund Freud) > Dalvik (aka Croc country) > Akureyri (aka The Capital of the North)
Distance: approx. 180km

It’s raining that intermittent mist that fills the spaces between downpours and blinding sunshine. We’re running down the main street of a town called Saudarkrokur in northern Iceland, at the base of a peninsular we’re about to spend the next few days riding around.It’s about 3:45pm and we arrived in the town by bus about an hour earlier, having spent our last night in Reykholar at ‘pub trivia’ held in the local museum-cafe-information centre, generously translated into English (sometimes with difficulty, much to the locals’ amusement).

So, having covered a couple of hundred kilometres without breaking a sweat, we set up camp in Saudarkrokur and hit the main street on foot. Paul and his long legs are jogging about 100m ahead, and I am struggling behind with a developing stitch, trying to keep up. We only have 15 minutes. Reykholar pub trivia

The large, grey building and carpark described to us in the tourist information centre comes into view. I run through the sliding doors to find a row of checkouts acting as a gateway to a large general kind of department store. There are clothes, fishing gear, groceries, camping equipment – it looks promising. Red faced and glistening with sweat, I see Paul waiting for me at the checkouts and we enter the store together. I catch my breath and find the nearest shop assistant, who is getting ready for closing time at 4pm (or, as they’d say here, 1600).

“Excuse me…” I pant, looking at her through the haze of fog growing on my glasses. “Do you… sell… crocs?” I take another  breath. “You know, the shoes?” I point a little lamely at Paul’s navy blue pair, which I’d once teased him about. Not anymore.

The shop assistant looks at me, then the shoes, and shakes her head slowly. This could mean “No, we don’t sell those glorious, lightweight slip-on rubber shoes that look stylish on exactly no one,” or it could mean “I have no idea what you’re asking me, strange foreigner”.

There were no crocs. Deflated by the bad news, we retreat to a local pub, me dragging and cursing my heavy stiff bike shoes all the way.

Let me explain. As part of the enormous amount of gear planning and purchasing we undertook ahead of this 38-day bike tour around Iceland, we both included two pairs of shoes each. First and foremost, our cycling shoes (Paul’s a pair of clipless commuting shoes he already owned; mine a new pair of FiveTen mountain bike shoes, which have been great – on the bike).

Secondly, we would both have a pair of around-town/campsite shoes. Crucially, these had to be lightweight, as well as easy to slip on for moving in and out of the tent, etc. Paul packed his existing pair of crocs, while I had a pair of these strange black and pink rubber-soled neoprene/wetsuit booty things I’d once bought from Big W or K-Mart for water crossings on a multi-day hike that never eventuated, and which had therefore sat unused in my wardrobe for about a year. “These will do,” I had thought. Oh no, they wouldn’t. Within days they had fallen to pieces, the inner sole losing all form and function, to reveal a sticky mass of glue that managed to get everywhere and on everything. They were also constantly wet and developed a pretty foul stench before long. I looked forward to putting them on when we arrived at camp after a long day’s ride about as much as I would have looked forward to donning a full-length and damp wetsuit to wear around the streets of Iceland’s quaint villages.

And so, in a fit of disgust and despair, I disposed of the useless booties and resorted to wearing my stiff, heavy bike shoes all day everyday – but I knew that simply would not do for wandering around town on rest days, wearing to communal showers or on 4am dashes from the tent through mud and rain to communal toilets. It might not sound like a big deal, but after three weeks in a tent, the small things you take for granted at home become disproportionate in their potential for discomfort, like a speck of grit caught in your eye.
Crocs and socks
Alas, SaudarKROKur failed to deliver on the croc front (despite the name, which we re-dubbed as sauerkraut anyway). However, I do have some good (or bad?) news: I am now, finally, the proud owner and wearer of a pair of crocs (not the same brand, but the same thing, more or less). Even worse: make that crocs with socks, most of the time. The upside is that I fit right in in most parts of Iceland, as they truly do make a lot of sense here, and they also only cost about A$10. It took another four days, three towns and about 135km riding to find them… but luckily there was plenty to see and do along the way!

We left Sauerkraut at about midday the following day, having slept in that morning after a fitful, broken sleep, thanks to some very drunk and loud campers celebrating a local rally car event that had apparently recently wrapped up. The 35km ride to the next town, Hofsos, was quick and pleasant with clear weather, and the town hosted possibly our favourite swimming pool to date (if a little more crowded than usual, thanks to it being a particularly sunny Sunday). The pool was almost ‘infinity’-style, seeming to spill directly into the adjacent fjord, itself surrounded by misty, snow-covered mountains. We also enjoyed that evening wandering down to the fishing port and along the rocky beach.

Hofsos pool

Oh, and Hofsos also gave us our first experience of the famous Icelandic upside-down icecream. I don’t actually think this is a traditional or even common local dish, to be honest, but maybe it will become one. To be specific, when we ordered two chocolate-dipped soft-serve icecreams – to enjoy after a pannier-packed lunch of egg and remoulade sandwiches – the whole clump of icecream slipped from the waffle cone into the vat of that ‘magic’-style, instant-hardening  (i.e. certainly very unhealthy) chocolate sauce. I watched on in awe as she scooped the whole deformed chocolatey mass out with a spoon, plonked it in a paper cup and stuck the cone upside-down on top, then placed it on the counter next to the correctly formed version and said, straight-faced, “have a nice day”. We did.

Ritually watching the weather radar, we saw a day of rain on its way, and so packed up and set off from Hot sauce by 6.30am the next morning for our next stop, Siglufjorder. This was a 65km ride, and we arrived by midday – something of a personal record. You know you’re in rural Iceland when the biggest risks you face on a long day of riding are nervous sheep darting, inexplicably, in front of your bike during a fast downhill run, and when an Icelandic horse trots along the road beside you for 20-odd metres, with (honestly) an air of guilt and giddy excitement about having somehow escaped its enclosure (evident by the way it whinnied and shook its mane).


Arriving at Siglufjordur (if you can’t pronounce it, try Sigmund Freud, which is what we went with) typified the feeling we get whenever arriving at a new village or town after a long haul through the remote countryside. Suddenly, the immense soaring mountains, ice caps, steaming streams and lava fields narrow into a cozy valley lined by a smattering of colourful houses, a church steeple, an often respectably hipster ‘kaffihus’ and, of course, a swimming pool and hot tub. Each physically challenging journey between towns truly accentuates that sense of arrival, and of promise, offered by these villages. It’s not exactly wild, remote camping, but it’s the perfect way to balance the trip, and discovering the unique idiosincracies of each town is a highlight.
Herring buffet lunch
Sigmund Freud, for example, was once the ‘herring capital’ of Iceland, we learnt the following day, with most of the then-massive hauls of fish processed into oil and dried meal (the latter for livestock fodder, which seems a bit of a roundabout way for us humans to get protein). So, with our rest day aligned with the forecast period of rain, we spent the morning sheltering in a cafe with refill-coffee and wifi, then had a herring buffet lunch – an assortment of marinated herring (mustard sauce, garlic sauce, curry sauce, etc.), as well as boiled eggs and potatoes, Icelandic brown bread and hashed fish. We ate (more than) our ‘all you can eat’ fill, then wandered into the three adjacent museums dedicated to the town’s ‘herring era’ (which I imagine was a little like the ‘gold rush’ back in Australia). The boom, we learned guiltily as we daintily stifled herring-flavoured indigestion burps behind our hands, ended when herring stocks crashed in 1968, and from which numbers have never fully recovered.
Herring Era Museum Siglufjordur
The museums were genuinely fascinating, like stepping into a different world or era – complete with the Icelandic “she’ll be right” flair that, for an Aussie phrase, is far more fitting here. The dimly lit boathouse, for example, was a massive warehouse filled with actual Icelandic fishing boats fitted out as they would have been at sea. We could wander through them, up jittery ladders, down below decks, into the mess and up to the helm, exploring like kids anywhere and any way we liked, with no warning signs or safety barriers or officials watching over us. We next visited a multi-storey building that had once housed both male and female workers during the herring season, fit out with original bunk beds, original retro kitchen, low ceilings, larder and storage attic, etc. These are the best types of museums – the voyeuristic kind, and the perfect way to spend a rainy day in Iceland.

The rain let up for the next day’s ride out of Siglufjordur to Dalvik, which we’d looked at as simply a kind of half-way stop on the way to Akureyri, the latter the biggest town outside the Reykjavik area, sometimes called ‘the capital of the north’. I had been looking forward to Akureyri’s size and scope for two things: finding crocs (obviously), and eating something colourful and spicy and Asian, food we’ve sorely missed. As it turned out, Dalvik delivered on both fronts. I (joyfully) found and bought a pair of crocs in the supermarket, and – thanks to a communal camp kitchen that took us away from our camp stove for the first time in three weeks – cooked up a stir-fry storm.

The ride to Dalvik was an easy 35 or so kilometres – shortened significantly because, instead of gradually climbing over the mountain as we usually would have, we cut straight through it with 15km of tunnels. I’ll take the hill climb and its wide open spaces over those tunnels any day, please. These tunnels were less like urban traffic tunnels and more like mining tunnels, with unrendered, lumpy walls dripping with groundwater, dim flickering orange lights and shoulderless lanes (or, for the last 4km, a single lane for two-way 70km/h traffic). We donned all our high-vis gear, switched on our previously unused bike lights and let the mountain swallow us hole, hoping for the best.

Into the tunnel, Siglufjordur

Keeping up a high average speed (about 20km/h) and making full use of the regular lay-bys, we made it through the first 11km easily, physically at least. Mentally, we were a little drained, so – thinking the first 11km represented the only ones we’d face – we stopped at a gas station in the adjacent town, called Olafsfjurder, for coffee. We then put our helmets back on, got back on the bikes, panted up a hill and rounded a corner – to be faced by yet another ominous hole-in-a-mountain. This was the 4km single-lane tunnel. Again in typical Icelandic style, there was no real signage explaining just how cars and trucks were supposed to negotiate the narrow tunnel when they inevitably met, although it was long and straight enough that you could usually see lights coming in either direction with enough notice to pull into the nearest lay-by and wait. The trucks in particular were intimidating, roaring past in the dark sounding like earthquakes or thunderstorms, spraying our fluoro jackets with black road-grit.

We exited the final tunnel into the open fresh air and icy northerly wind with a sigh of relief. That icy northerly – blowing down from the Arctic Circle, which is less than 100km from here – would stay put for the following day’s 45km ride to the Capital of the North, Akureyri, which meant we covered the distance in just a little over two hours. We stopped off along the way for smoked herring and cream cheese on rye bread for lunch, eaten in the grounds of a 19th-century church and graveyard, sheltering from the wind.


There’s a festival on here in Akureyri, with nightly open-air concerts and amusement rides and fairy floss (candy floss, if you’re not Australian), so we’re hanging around for a full day of wandering and eating and touristing. Next stop, the north’s Blue Lagoon, Lake Myvatn – but that’s another post.

Until then, as always, takk fyrir!

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Hot dogs and hot tubs

Iceland is popularly known as ‘the land of fire and ice’, but we’re re-branding it ‘the land of hot dogs and hot tubs’. In between enjoying both of these over the past week, we’ve also eaten our best meal so far, seen our first puffins, soaked in a hot spring on the beach, and negotiated a construction zone…

Sweet descent in the Westfjords

We left off last post in a little town called Grundarfjordur, waiting on laundry whilst sheltering in an internet cafe. There we met and spent an hour chatting with a lovely German couple (a journalist and neurologist), who were on the tail-end of their year-long round-the-world backpacking trip, which had included Australia.

The town of Grundarfjordur was quaint, but the campsite one of the worst so far, with limited facilities and located away from the village centre in a kind of sunken quarry. However, we weren’t there for long: the weather radar showed heavy rain coming by midday the following day (we wondered what ‘heavy’ must have meant, if it didn’t apply to what we’d previously experienced?). So, a little eccentrically perhaps, we got ourselves out of bed, breakfasted and packed by 5am and arrived at our next destination, Stykkisholmur, by 9am. Abandoned house Grundarfjordur

The early-morning ride was on almost deserted (thanks to the time of day) long, winding roads through scenery including the most expansive lava fields we’ve come across so far. It was easy to imagine them spewing from the Earth orange and glowing millions of years ago, then crackling and solidifying into the form they now take.

The town of Stykkisholmur is where we would catch the ferry to the Westfjords, stopping over via a tiny, remote island called Flatey. The Westfjords splay out like fingers from Iceland’s northwest, and are geologically the oldest part of the country, as well as the most rural region. (Fjords are U-shaped, flooded glacial valleys.) We hadn’t fully planned that part of the trip, but it was next on the list, and it was where the ferry would take us – that much we knew. The rest would be decided over our enormous, unwieldy paper maps spread out in a cafe or in the green interior of our tent, as usual.

For fans of the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Stykkisholmur is also the setting for the scene in which Walter Mitty drinks a beer out of a shoe in a pub, then envisions Kristen Wiig singing Space Oddity as he jumps onto a helicopter driven by a drunken Icelandic man.

Before even setting up camp in Stykkisholmur, we had a couple of hot dogs in the local gas station, eaten standing in our dripping-wet bike gear next to some sort of farmers’/men’s meeting. These Icelandic delicacies (the hot dogs, not the farmers) are made up of toasted white buns, lined with diced raw onion, a sprinkling of dried-fried onions (aka ‘cronions’), a frankfurter and three types of sauce – tomato, maybe mayonnaise, and some sort of delicious, anonymous yet compulsory brown sauce. They are addictive, available everywhere, and cheap (usually around 350 kroner, or about AU$3.50). We also once had a special version in which the frankfurter was wrapped in bacon and topped with melted cheese… But I diverge.


We spent the rest of the day in Stykkisholmur swimming in the local geothermally heated pool (and soaking in the adjacent 42°C hot tubs), grocery shopping and generally wandering about being tourists. By evening it was hard to fathom we’d ridden 45km that morning, and the ‘heavy rain’ never seemed to get much worse than the on/off showers we were by now used to.

The ferry the next morning left Stykkisholmur at 9am, and we would have about five hours over lunchtime on Flatey before being picked up again and taken to our first stop in the Westfjords for the evening.

The ferry also accommodates cars, so we hoped we might be able to ride our over-loaded mountain bikes up the ramp with them. Instead, however, it was onto the gangplank to make a bit of a spectacle among all the other foot traffic, the officials offering a non-committal shrug and a look that simply implied “good luck with that”. That was, until they realised we’d parked our bikes in a loading zone and directed us to find somewhere else (still of our choosing) to leave them for the trip.

Flatey is a tiny, remote island, about two square kilometres covered with colourful 19th- and early 20th-century (mostly holiday) houses. It is also home to the requisite wandering, curious goats and sheep, an old church and graveyard, a hotel/restaurant and a cafe/shop/information centre. The whole town emits a bit of an eccentric and creative air, and indeed according to Wikipedia was an Icelandic artistic and cultural centre up until the mid 19th-century. It would be the perfect place to hole up for six months and write a novel.

Flatey island

We disembarked the ferry from Stykkisholmur with the holidaying families (and their jubilant dogs), who loaded their luggage onto wheelbarrows left at the harbour – there are no cars on the island. Then, we all marched together down the single dirt road into the town centre, where they scattered into their respective houses, leaving us tourists milling like lost sheep, cameras hanging like pendulums around our necks.

We’d already ‘booked’ in lunch at the hotel restaurant from our mental ‘treat’ allowance, so we spent a few hours wandering around the island beforehand. Somewhat unexpectedly, we almost immediately spotted our first puffins – loads of them, in fact (a flock? a school, maybe?). Puffins!

Puffins are those clownish-looking seabirds, with big, bright orange beaks and orange feet that stick out behind their little black bodies when they fly like slightly clumsy (but very cute) bullets, barely above the water’s surface. They almost look like flying fish. We spent a while trying to get close-but-not-too-close with our inadequate lens to take a photo, and eventually decided it was near enough to lunchtime to head to the hotel – I think it was midday on the dot. We ordered blue mussels and Viking beer and cried little tears of joy as we soaked up the buttery broth with hot-from-the-oven bread.

We’d explored almost every square-metre of the island and were ready for the ferry by the time it arrived that afternoon to take us onto the Westfjords. By then we had also planned our next few days route – over chocolate digestive biscuits and instant coffee brewed on our camp stove by the ferry port. We realised that to take the one road that winds around (and over and over and over) the entire span of the Westfjords could take us well over a week, and as there were was only one road around and no regular or reliable buses, once we started we would have no choice but to either turn back or keep on going until we came out the other side – and we still had (and have) so much more of Iceland to see. Mussels on Flatey. The best.

Instead, we decided to head east from our first night’s campsite, which would be 6km from the ferry port. We’d ride over and around two of the fjords, before continuing on to the north of the country.

Part of our decision to take this particular route was also influenced by a desire to follow the little symbols on our maps that indicate swimming pools and hot springs (natural or pump-fed). We found our first one that evening, about 500m from our campsite – a hot pool built into rocks right on the beachfront, with a view of the surrounding mountains dotted with ice. The pool was overrun with another group of tourists that night, so we got up at 6am for a ‘bath’ the next morning before breakfast, and thankfully then we had it all to ourselves… Paul having rather conveniently forgotten to pack our swimsuits!

There was no official campsite within a day’s ride in the direction we were headed that day, so it would be our first night ‘free’ camping in Iceland. It would also be one of our toughest days, but to be followed by one of our best, to make up for it.

Hot pool in the Westfjords near Flokalundur campsiteIt was about midday when we hit the road again, starting off with our first long hill climb – about 8km long, 400m high. These climbs over the fjords are hard slogs and we averaged about, well, 8km an hour taht day. As usual, this is with plenty of brief stops, usually to make odd comments about some non-sequitur topic that we’d been thinking about while riding.

(Slog, slog, slog. Stop. “I was just thinking about Ian Thorpe. He’s really been through a lot, hasn’t he?” “Yeah, but things should get better for him now.” “Hmm.” Slog, slog, slog. Stop. “You know, those doughnut things we ate are called Kleiners. With a ‘K’.” “They’re best fresh, don’t you think? Those last ones we had were a bit dry.” “Maybe they’d be nice with butter?” “Hmm.” Slog, slog, slog. Stop. “My hay-fever’s been better here. Less dust…” …And so on, until we reach the top.)

Cycling through the Westfjords Iceland

The up-side of these climbs is actually the down-side – every long ascent is matched with another long, steep descent. This first was the only one on a sealed road and we flew down the other side in no time at all. Paul’s bike computer said he reached a maximum speed of 65km/h! I couldn’t help but massage the brakes a little more and hung behind at a more stately speed, maybe about 45-50km/h. But, hey, I would still have been speeding in a School Zone, so… watch out, kids!

About half way through the ride, the road condition changed from smooth tarmac, to gravel… to something truly ungodly. Enormous, loose, sharp rocks about the size of tennis balls covered the road, and they were at times simply impossible to ride over. Even the cars were taking it very slow over this stuff. We seemed to be passing through a long stretch of road under construction – as in, being built then and there. Killer gravel

Suddenly, we seemed to shrink down to miniature size as we rode up on a handful of 50-tonne steam rollers, diggers and dump trucks, with tyres alone at least twice our size, churning and dumping rocks right in front of us. We looked behind us and wondered if we’d missed a ‘road closed’ sign, but there was no other road to take. We managed to weave a little out of the way to the left, where some women milled about in front of some workers’ quarters, looking slightly amused but otherwise not that interested in our predicament. We then managed to make eye contact with the machine operators up in their yellow towers and get past them eventually (no OH&S over here…).

Before long, thankfully, the road surface returned to normal, but there was still the matter of finding that night’s campsite. Every other place we’ve travelled through in Iceland so far has had ample space for free camping had we wanted it, but we’ve always stayed at designated sites where available – to make use of showers and toilets, etc. Now, we rode along a two-lane road with rocky cliff to one side, and swampy marshland to the other. At one point we pulled into a potentially promising unoccupied summer house and knocked and called out (“Hello..? …Goden dag…?”). No one home, and no grassy yard anyway, even if we’d wanted to sneakily pitch a tent there for the night. We kept riding.

It had been a long day, and I may or may not have thrown a small (tiny, miniscule) tantrum over the sharp rocks and the diggers and the headwind, etc.

Eventually, Paul found a grassy spot down by the water. It would just mean leaving our bikes up closer to the road and ferrying our panniers in separate trips down a steep, rocky trail to get there. Despite the effort, the campsite turned out to be stunning, and we could properly appreciate it once we’d had ‘wet-wipe’ showers and brewed a cup of tea and then filled ourselves up with yet more packet-pasta, followed by chocolate. We even had our own constant-flowing stream of clear water in which to refill our bottles and wash our dishes and faces in. And the sun was shining bright and clear – and it stayed that way not only into the night, but for two full days!

Free camping in the Westfjords

The next day’s ride was much, much better. We rode over two more fjords, with long climbs and the complementary exhilarating, winding descents, surrounded by the biggest scenery you could imagine. We could see the road in either direction, winding around the water’s edge, for kilometres (so much so that we knew when the next car would pass us with at least five minutes notice).

That evening’s camp was on a farm marked on the map with that same tantalising water symbol. It isn’t officially a campsite, but a public pool/hot tub and a guesthouse. However, the owner kindly let us pitch our tent on her property for free and we payed the 300 kroner (about AU$3) each to use the pool and showers. She also showed us some local edible berries, and lamented that the other tent we saw pitched on her property had turned up the previous day and moved in without asking, then cooked their food on the guesthouse balcony, like squatters. We felt annoyed on her behalf, too – it’s people like that who give travellers a bad name.

This had been our second day of approximately 60km ride through the fjords, so it’s difficult to overstate just how good it felt lying back in that scalding hot tub, watching its source steam down the side of the mountain towering in front of us. If you need us, we'll be in the hot tub

A note about Icelandic public pools and hot tubs. It is compulsory everywhere here to shower thoroughly, and naked, before entering the shared pool. This is usually in communal (gender-segregated) shower rooms without cubicles – and enforced by the locals. It is an extremely practical, utilitarian – nay, genius – concept, of which Paul and I are both dedicated fans. I first experienced this a few years ago at a pool in Denmark, when the signs weren’t in English (as they are here, along with big pictures of cartoon people with highlighted red sections over their ‘pits and bits’). Back then, a kind but stern Danish woman shook her head at me as I showered in my swimming costume, and basically gestured the Danish version of “drop your dacks”, then nodded approvingly along with a few other onlookers as I obeyed and showered again. Doing this makes so much sense, and the pools are all the cleaner for it – without the bandaid fish and oilslick you’ll find in most public pools back home in Australia, and far less chlorinated, too. Also, you become so accustomed to swanning around the changeroom starkers that it almost feels silly putting on a swimsuit to go outside to the main pool area!

Day three of our ride out of the Westfjords took us to a bigger ‘town’ called Reykholar, which boasts none other than the country’s smallest grocery store. It was a 40km ride there, and we stopped at a roadside hotel at lunch time, before the last 13km leg – for a couple of hot dogs for lunch, of course. We were rained on for the last hilly section into town, and were starting to feel the cold set in. However, by the time we arrived, the weather seemed to take a full about-turn. The skies cleared and we suddenly felt ridiculous that we’d changed into thermals and fleeces, and switched to shorts and t-shirts.

Paul on the road Wesfjords Iceland

Of course, the campsite is located next to the swimming pool (pools in Iceland are like pubs in Australia – every town, no matter how small, has at least one ‘watering hole’). Our plan was to spend the night here, then take a bus a little way into the north of Iceland, skipping a bit of the Ring Road and giving ourselves a head start on the next leg of our trip. That’s still the plan, but we’d overestimated how regular or reliable the buses would be. It looks like we’ll be here an additional night and afternoon, before we ride 30km to the nearest bus stop, then take two separate two-hour bus trips over two days to our next stop – a place called Sauderkrokur on the north coast, where we’ll arrive Saturday afternoon no doubt eager to get back on our bikes. The pull of the road is becoming stronger.

For now, I’ve rather enjoyed writing this as we wait for the local cafe to open at 11am, then the pool at 3pm. Also, Iceland’s smallest supermarket sells hot dogs. So, we’re sorted for the next day or two. At least.


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Journey to the centre of the Earth (and onwards)

Paul and Gemma cycling to SnaefessjokullDay 5 – 7
Hvalfjorur > Borgarnes > Olafsvik > Grundarfjordur (via Snaeffellsjokull glacier)

Distance: Approx. 340km (including 200km by bus!)

Okay, so… We cheated a little for the first time and took a bus – but then we rode around a glacier with a return trip in a fierce headwind and rain, which surely makes up for it?

We try to stay positive as we grind up the first steep climb, wheels slipping over loose gravel. That’s because we know we have another 12km of similar incline ahead of us, so there’s no point commenting on the obvious: this is tough. At least, however, the sun is shining, the wind is low for a change, and our bikes aren’t loaded with their usual luggage. At least, at least, at least. It has become a bit of a mantra of this trip, as we learn to find the positive in sometimes challenging situations. (At least there’s no headwind! At least there are no swarms of midges to swallow! At least we’re not standing on a Sydney bus stuck in traffic! Ha!)

Our tires spit out loose rocks which chink past our wheel spokes, and the sweat is soaking through our layers of jersey, fleece and wind-cheater. As on any steep climb, we take our usual approach – lowest gear possible and fairly regular breaks. We’re riding up road 570 from a small seaside fishing village called Olafsvik to Snaefellsjokull glacier, the latter located at the western tip of Snaeffellsnes peninsular, which juts out between Reykjavik and the Westfjords. The glacier sits at an altitude of 1446m atop an active volcano, which last erupted 1900 years ago and was made famous in Jules Vernes’ 1864 science fiction novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (which neither of us have read yet!)


However, before we reach Snaefessjokull’s moody peak, allow me backtrack a little (not literally, thankfully. Distance is a valuable currency for us at the moment!)

We had spent our final evening back in Bjarteyjarsandur – the sheep farm that doubles as a campsite/accommodation, located by the beautiful Hvalfjordur (literally “whale fjord”) – eating double servings of home-made Icelandic lamb soup and watching the soccer World Cup semi-final. Showered, well-fed and rested, we saddled up the following morning for the 40km ride to our next stop, a town called Borgarnes.

DSC_0200Choosing, as usual, the back country route to avoid the main road, we’d mentally prepared ourselves for the long stretch of ‘yellow’ marked on our cycling map. (Yellow = steep.) The pretty little valley that we were to climb in and out of is surrounded on all sides by the now-familiar but always breathtaking green cliff faces and gushing waterfalls, with the valley floor smattered with colourful little houses and wandering sheep. It had a cosy, protected feel to counter the almost agoraphobia-inducing expanses we’ve passed through at other points of our trip.

We were cautiously optimistic when we reached the top of the valley and it wasn’t all that bad afterall. (I have a rule: never believe the words “all down hill from here!” Ever.) In this case our optimism was well-founded and after a nice, long descent, we rode happily through wide, flat and mostly empty gravel country roads. Our only company were Icelandic horses that would seem to trot enthusiastically to the edges of their enclosures to meet us as we approached, then skittishly away again once we arrived.


Eventually, we reached a small (10km) unavoidable section of main road that would take us on to Borgarnes. It acted as a nice reminder of why we like to avoid the busier sections of the Ring Road or Route 1 where possible. Of course, the vast majority of cars are respectful and leave generous space when overtaking, however the wind-suck of 4WDs towing caravans one after the other is stressful and tiring, and would eat away at us if it was what every day entailed.

Borgarnes is the biggest town we’ve passed through since Reykjavik, and it seems to centre around a massive fast-food/service station (or maybe that was just our perception?). Naturally, we did as the locals do and each ordered a burger-and-fries combo as we waited for the latest unleashing of rain to ease before finding the campsite. Looking at the map, we realised the only route to our next stop, Snaefellsnes peninsular, was via the same kind of busy road without many particularly enticing stop-overs on the way. There was also a bus stop outside our new home at the fast-food joint, so we decided to hang around until the next day’s 7pm bus – after getting Paul’s chain ring fixed and swimming in the local outdoor heated pool. Incredibly (to our minds, and legs) the bus would take us and our bikes in the space of two hours the same distance we’d just covered in about four days, approximately 200km. The plan was to set up camp at Olafsvik for three nights: that night of arrival, the following night after cycling around Snaeffellsjokull (with our luggage left back at camp), and one more night after a day recovering from the previous day’s ride.

DSC_0350So, now back on our way up to the glacier. (I forgot to mention that the very first bit of road towards the glacier is up a small hill past a fish-drying shed, and you can imagine that heavy breathing and drying fish don’t complement each other very well.) As we neared the highest point of road 570, passing to the east behind Snaeffesjokull at about 800m above sea level, the air took on an icy chill and the clouds became decidedly moodier. We took a bunch of excited selfies at one point, thinking we’d made it to the top, only to spot one more steep bit just around the bend. However, once we’d really made it to the top it was obvious – the Atlantic ocean opened up before us to reveal the long cruise back down to sea level, with Snaefellsjokull’s powerful presence at our backs.

Just a touch unfairly, the 10km descent turned out to be almost as slow as the climb, because the rocky gravel was so loose. Hitting the tarmac again was therefore a relief as we sailed into the closest seaside town of Arnarstapi. Ever-disciplined, we rode straight past the barbecue scents wafting from a restaurant/bar there (average restaurant meals here are around $40 – fine dining prices back home) and continued onto a lookout spot, where we unpacked our boiled eggs, rye bread and remoulade lunch. We both agreed there isn’t much point forking out on expensive meals when you’re particularly tired or hungry and the simplest meal tastes like the best lobster or steak anyway. We prefer to save our ‘treat’ meals for rest days, when we are showered and have the energy to really enjoy them (ideally, with a pint of Icelandic beer).

DSC_0337We now had about 40km to cover on the sealed road around the tip of Sneafellsnes back to our camp in Olafsvik. Of course, a headwind and rain had arrived, and dark clouds boiled menacingly to our right over where Snaefellsjokull glacier would have been – if she wasn’t by now completely shrouded. Thanks to the headwind, this last ride would be an endurance test to match the glacier itself, and we were grateful when the weather settled a little once we rounded the tip of the peninsula. We stopped in a village called Hellisandur, which we knew was a mere finger’s width from Olafsvik on the map… (and which apparently meant another 10km). We appeased ourselves with chocolate milk and muffins from the service station, and made it back to camp in Olafsvik by 6pm – still six hours away from any sort of sunset. So, chasing the daylight hours was no issue… at least!

Our rest day in Olafsvik was, we felt, pretty well-earned. We had our first non-porridge breakfast in a week at the bakery (but to be honest, I missed the porridge a little), and we had pizza for dinner. We had also been given free tickets to a local show in a town called Rif, about 8km away. We take our rest days very seriously, so there was no riding. Instead, we tried out an Iceland tourist rite of passage (it seems) and stuck our thumbs out, and were picked up after about 10 minutes by a kind man, who gave us some interesting insight into the area – including explaining that a massive phone tower and abandoned settlement we’d ridden past were relics from a US army base during the Cold War.

We made up a full third of an extremely intimate audience of six at the show, which was called ‘Hero’ – “a one man comedy show based on the saga of Bardur Snaefellsas”, according to the brochure. It genuinely had us in stitches of laughter, as much as anything for the bizarre situation we found ourselves in, being performed to by an extremely energetic young Icelandic actor who apparently does the same show three nights a week!

I’m now writing this from the next town from Olafsvik, called Grundarfjordur, while we wait for a much-needed load of washing to dry in the first laundromat we’ve come across in a while. Tomorrow it’s on to Stykkisholmur, which we expect to look somewhat familiar… (Prepare yourself for more ‘Walter Mitty’ references.)

Until then, once again, takk for reading!

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Mental Everest

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Day 1-4: 8 to 12 July 2014
Reykjavik > Ulfljotsvatn > Thingvellir National Park > Hvalfjardarvegur
Distance covered: 175km
“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

At least, so said the inspirational poster plastered among several on the walls of the heated campsite kitchen to which we retreated for a luxurious half a day’s rest after our first day on the bikes.

The quote was from Sir Edmund Hillary, and while he obviously didn’t have access to sealed roads, a laptop or hot showers when he summited Everest, his words still resonate.

Our ‘Everests’ that first day included every 15-degree incline we approached with foreboding, gearing our weighty mountain bikes – as well as ourselves mentally – for the thigh-burning climb ahead. On several occasions I was forced to stop midway (and even Paul had to a couple of times) to push the bike to the top, groaning and feeling sorry for myself.

However, cycle touring, I have come to realise, is a somewhat bipolar (or perhaps amnesiac?) pursuit. Mere minutes after questioning our grasp on reason for taking on this trip, we are flying down the other side, grins spread across our faces, whooping into the vast, volcanic landscape around us. Yes!

We picked up our two, hire Trek mountain bikes from The Bike Company in Reykjavik the day before we set off, entering the office tentatively to find two employees drinking their morning coffee. There was a moment of awkward silence as we stared at each other across the room – them clearly fitting into the cool mountain biker subculture that seems to transcend international borders, us very much the gawky tourists.

“We’re here, um, to pick up some bikes?”
“…It’s Chilton. We’re going touring around Iceland!”
Another beat of silence, then, seriously: “Have you done any bike touring before?”
Both Paul and me at once, over the top of each other: “Oh yeah, a bit, kind of, you know. Not really.”

Shit, this guy was on to us. He saw straight through us and brought all of our insecurities and doubts bubbling to the surface like an Icelandic geyser. Except, we soon realised, he really was actually rather pleasant and excited on our behalf. Our penchant for over-the-top pleasantries, we’re learning, doesn’t always cross cultural (or linguistic) borders. What did we want, a pat on the back or a high-five? We collected the bikes and our gear, sat together in his office and looked over some maps and garnered all the advice and tips we could, and left feeling confident and giddy with excitement once again.

We celebrated our last evening in Reykjavik with soup and beer, followed by a second dinner of smoked lamb served up by our generous airbnb hosts, who’d just finished up a family meal when we returned home for our usual jetlag-induced 8:30pm bedtime.

Another small Everest: I had a tiny razor cut on my ankle, and it had turned nasty after our trip the previous day to the tourist mecca of the Blue Lagoon – those sophorific pale-blue, steam-shrouded hot springs where you cake your face with silica mud and drift sleepily among hordes of other tourists (as well as, I now see, their germs thriving in the warm, moist environment…)

My foot was swollen and my ankle felt achy as if it was sprained; all this the night before we were supposed to head off on a 38-day cycle trip around remote, wild Iceland. So I started on a course of general antibiotics we’d packed for an emergency, smeared on antiseptic cream and a clean dressing, and went to bed trying to think healing thoughts.

We woke up at 4:30am, and looked at each other across the bedsheets in our ever-sunlit room. The weather outside was perfect. This was it. How was I feeling? Somewhat better. The antibiotics must have started working fast – the swelling was going down and my ankle bone re-appearing. We’d start our trip, keep an eye on it, and see how we went. (It’s almost completely better now.)

By 6am we were up the hill with my mobile phone in my top-tube bag directing us out of the city. We very soon became accustomed to the weight of the four panniers and satchel on each of our bikes (totally 60kg between us). The traffic was sparse, the air crisp (about 8-10 degrees Celcius), the sun shining and there was almost no wind.

01_Leaving Reykjavik

It was about 25km to the turn off onto Highway 431/5 (an alternative to the busy Ring Road), which would take us straight to the bottom of a big lake called Thingvallavatn. The map showed one long straight line cutting through the country side, followed by a squiggly bit – also known as a million little Everests. An experienced Swiss bike tourer (with thighs like tree trunks) who we met at our campsite that evening and who had ridden that way once before said he imagined that that part of the road must look like honeycomb from above (or Swiss cheese, I thought) – up and down, up and down.

After riding along a mostly straight two-lane road surrounded by vast, green country side and the odd sheep (to which I always say hello out loud – there’s no one around to hear), this steep winding road was bordered by towering bright-green mountains smattered with dark rocky formations. It would make a great place to photograph/film a new car launch – and Land Rover agreed. We were shooed away from one park we tried to stop at by a bunch of English-accented people with two identical red Range Rovers and the enormous truck that had transported them there. It was only once we’d summited (partly on foot) the final incline and came upon, for the second time, a burly man with a walkie-talkie that we realised they’d been waiting for us to clear the road so they could start filming. It must have been frustrating for them to watch on, tapping their feet impatiently no doubt, as I stopped intermittently for breathers or pushed my bike up the hill at about a kilometre an hour. Saying that, they can’t have been in that much of a hurry – they could always have offered us a lift!

There’s was a serious business – we watched from the top of the hill (in sight of the burly man) as they quickly shrouded the vehicle with a black sheet to hide it as another car drove past. To be honest, the Range Rover didn’t look that different on the outside from the current model, but I guess they need to be careful. And two cyclists on the same roads that were meant to look gnarly for a powerful 4WD probably would have ruined their footage, so we mounted our two-wheeled, human-powered steeds and continued on our way.


By the time we had reached the lake (having to alternate brakes on descent to keep them cool), the road flattened out and turned to gravel, and the weather had also started to turn. We watched the cloud formations over the lake as we lunched at its pumice-gravel banks, which helpfully massaged our saddle-sore behinds. We ate Icelandic flatbread with smoked lamb and cheese, and rinsed our apples in the icy, fresh lake water.

It was only midday and we’d covered about 50km, and a side-wind had just set in. Thankfully, though, the rain remained in the distance and never quite hit us. We trudged through the last 20km at a much lower average speed and with much less conversation between us.

We both felt a rush of relief when we spotted the campsite in the distance as we came to our last descent, stopping at a hill looking over a small, red-roofed church perched beside the lake. That relief turned to joy when we spotted the sign for hot showers.

Feeling clean and warm and exhausted (it was only about 3pm), with a cosy tent and a down-stuffed sleeping bag waiting for us, those hills we’d come from suddenly diminished in size in our memory.

08_Paul_Lunch on the pumice gravel banks of Pingvallavatn

…So much so, that what we’d planned to be a rest day on Day Two turned into a quick (and spectacular) 30km ride up the road to Thingvellir National Park in the late afternoon (it never gets dark, which is handy).

Thingvellir is where the European and North American continents meet (and where we plan on snorkelling in some of the world’s clearest waters once we’re back in Reykjavik at the tail end of our trip). It is also the site of the world’s oldest parliament (as we learned on a friendly, and free, guided tour the next day – our real rest day).

The decision to stay put was helped by the dreadful weather that had set in, particularly bad even for Iceland at this time of year, we were told (rather unhelpfully, really). I slept a little nervously that night as our tent flapped and warped (but otherwise coped well) in the strong winds

Having tentatively planned to miss riding in the rain by hanging around in the rain until a 6pm bus would take us to our next destination in the north-west (a little depressingly, via Reykjavik), we instead bit the bullet at about 11am, downed a hotdog at the tourist centre there, donned our rain gear and toughed it out – and how glad I am that we did.


After a busy section on the main road for about 15km, we turned off onto a potholed gravel road surrounded by some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve seen so far – rushing waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, steaming geothermal springs and streams, all eventually opening up onto a wide bay just as the sun emerged for a brief show. The rain was no problem – in many ways it’s easier to deal with when you are well and truly out in it rather than trying desperately (and usually failing) to keep dry.

Six hours and 71km later, we are now sitting in an old barn converted to a tourist hangout at a sheep farm. We’ve already booked two nights here.

Tomorrow we will sleep, eat lamb raised on the farm, take photos and maybe even go for a trail ride on a horse.

This really is no Mount Everest after all. And we’re loving it.



Elephant Nature Park

An overnight visit to the Elephant Nature Park – a sanctuary for domesticated Asian elephants – in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

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During our honeymoon in Thailand, in March 2014, my (brand-new!) husband Paul and I visited the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai in the country’s north, thanks to the sound advice of a wonderful friend (and US expat living in Bangkok), Anne Shifley.

It would have been so easy to tick a box and ride an elephant at one of the countless tourist parks, so we were immensely grateful that she pointed us in the direction of this magical place, where elephants are rescued from mistreatment, or taken in as orphaned calves or with injuries from land mines. There is no riding elephants at the park, instead visitors can feed and wash – or simply observe and learn about them.

We chose the overnight stay option (which included dinner – all vegetarian). I’d recommend this at a minimum for the opportunity to hang back after the day trippers have left and watch (and hear) the elephants as the sun sets over the surrounding forests.

South of the border

Throwback Thursday flashback to a guided tour of the North/South Korean Demilitarised Zone, back in January 2011.

DMZ 2011 messages of peace and reconciliation

Messages of hope left by South Koreans for their kin beyond the border.

The bus windows were speckled with a flaky substance our bubbly tour guide explained was disinfectant spray to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease. It hampered our view and sounded alarmingly carcinogenic, but we could still make out the white fields and surrounding hills she was in the process of telling us about.

“You can tell which hills are ours and which are theirs by the number of trees,” she said. “Theirs are bare, because they’ve chopped down all the trees for heating. They don’t have coal, like us.”

I hated to think of the North Koreans living through this winter in particular – the coldest South Korea had seen in 40 years, with temperatures as low as -17°C and only dropping as we trundled north in our tour bus. I wasn’t unique in this musing – whenever the weather turns bad in the south, the uncomfortable thought lingers in many South Koreans’ minds as their eyes flicker guiltily northward: How much worse must this be for them?

Enigmatic Seoul

Enigmatic Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

Forty kilometres south of the North/South Korea border, Seoul is a vibrant, enigmatic city. Vats of silk worm larvae from street food stalls waft pungent steam in the direction of westernised nightclubs and coffee houses.

Planning a stopover trip to Seoul from the safety of our home in Sydney, Australia, the idea of visiting its border with North Korea, also known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), sounded a bit too risky, so we hadn’t included it on our itinerary. However, reality has a tendency to tilt on its axis when you arrive in a foreign country, and soon the idea of being within reach of the most secretive totalitarian regime in the world seemed too alluring to pass up.

In the rare event that a journalist sneaks footage from across the North Korean border (usually via its communist cousin, China), the product is stories and images of desperate and dirty-faced citizens, and the occasional appearance of Kim Jong-il’s (or nowadays, Kim Jong-un’s) smugly plump jowls. And when North Koreans do occasionally make it to the south (also usually via China), they take a long time to assimilate. This is generally because they speak and act as if they’ve come from a different era. They have never heard of concepts considered Western, such as jeans, or ‘diet’, our tour guide tells us. The direct translation of their old-world terminology for the latter, for example, is to ‘cut the flesh’.

DMZ 2011 tour bus passport check

Passport check on the way to the border.

So I expect this day-trip to the DMZ to be tense, fraught with sadness and poignant, and when an armed soldier boards our bus to check passports (I managed to steal a photo before our guide nervously translated his clipped order that this was not allowed), it was exactly as expected.

Having successfully navigated our way through tank traps scattered across the road like a kid’s game of jacks, we arrived at the DMZ theme park (closed for the winter) complete with a frozen-over swimming pool and inoperative amusement rides.

Bracing ourselves against the northern chill, we left the bus and followed our guide to the first tourist stop, the so-called Bridge of Freedom (also known, paradoxically, as the Bridge of No Return). This is the only bridge crossing the Imjin River and therefore connecting the north and south. It was here the two sides exchanged prisoners at the end of the Korean War, with the signing of an armistice in 1953.

The tourists milled gingerly around the ice-crystal-swathed bridge, shivering and eyeing each other sideways. Whitney Houston was belting “I-eee-I will always love you-ooo-uuu” over the PA speakers lining the bridge. The razor-wire fence at the end of the bridge was covered with colourful ribbons bearing Korean messages of peace and reconciliation to their long lost ancestors and family members on the other side.

DMZ 2011 theme park

‘DMZ Disney Land’ closed for winter.

The idea, I gathered, behind this bizarre dichotomy of quiet poignancy and, well, cheese at the tourist site was that, post-unification, the DMZ would be rendered little more than an historic monument to the bad-old-days. North and South Koreans alike could become teary-eyed to the vocal refrains of Céline Dion, and then enjoy a ride together on a merry-go-round. Instead this DMZ Disney Land gives a surreal, tawdry effect to a place that is otherwise one of the saddest I’ve ever visited.

Herded like school children into what I want to call the DMZ Discovery Centre, we shuffled through a museum of Korean War photos and educational displays, before entering a cramped cinema where we were shown a propaganda film. As the lights switched back on and curtains drew back over the screen, I had an uncanny sense of experiencing a Cold War I thought I’d been born too late for, but which never ended at this 250km-long by 4km-wide slash at the 38th parallel, separating two peninsulas populated by otherwise racially, culturally and linguistically identical people.

DMZ 2011 the bridge of freedom or no return

Sadly, the Bridge of No Return remains a more fitting name that the ‘Bridge of Freedom’.

Our final destination before being shipped back to the relative normalcy of Seoul was Dorasan Station, a modern train station in all its digitally timetabled, air-conditioned grandeur, bar one glaring absence: passengers. A couple of giggly tourists made snow angels near the unused tracks pointing north – tracks ready in every way, except politically, to transport imaginary commuters to Pyongyang. If it ever gets up and running, it will connect Korea to the rest of Asia and Europe – a backpackers’ rite of passage waiting to happen.

Adjacent to the train station was a small shop marketing the DMZ in a very unusual way – for its organic produce. Think about it: around 1000 square kilometres of fertile land relatively untouched (bar the odd land mine) for almost 50 years.

Albeit, after a breakfast of steamed silk worm pupae, the fruity biscuits we purchased were indeed tasty. The bottle of made-in-North-Korea soju (Korean vodka) was less so, but I’ve kept it as a memento of my weird trip into no-mans land. It serves as a reminder that, until things change, on the other side of that tacky border theme park exists an almost invisible population of suppressed, desperate people who are, among other things, fast running out of trees to burn for warmth.

Note: My husband, Paul, and I travelled to Seoul, South Korea, and visited the North Korean border back in 2011, which was when I originally wrote this piece.


DMZ 2011 unification

Dreaming of unification.