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

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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