The romance of challenge

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

1 Gemma on the road from Hofn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, enough philosophising: here’s some context.

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

3 Vatnajokull glacier outlet

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing?”

“No.”

“Is there anywhere to camp in this area?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Glacier

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

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

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

“HI CAN WE PLEASE HAVE A ROOM HERE!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Skaftafell svinafoss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?”
Silence.
“…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.

06_Gemma_Pingvallavatn

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.

DSC_0154

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.