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…
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
It 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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.