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

Hot dogs and hot tubs

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…

Sweet descent in the Westfjords

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. Abandoned house Grundarfjordur

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.

Stykkisholmur

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.

Flatey island

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!

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. Mussels on Flatey. The best.

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.

Hot pool in the Westfjords near Flokalundur campsiteIt 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.)

Cycling through the Westfjords Iceland

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. Killer gravel

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!

Free camping in the Westfjords

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. If you need us, we'll be in the hot tub

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.

Paul on the road Wesfjords Iceland

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.

 

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