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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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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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