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