Mental Everest

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Day 1-4: 8 to 12 July 2014
Reykjavik > Ulfljotsvatn > Thingvellir National Park > Hvalfjardarvegur
Distance covered: 175km
“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

At least, so said the inspirational poster plastered among several on the walls of the heated campsite kitchen to which we retreated for a luxurious half a day’s rest after our first day on the bikes.

The quote was from Sir Edmund Hillary, and while he obviously didn’t have access to sealed roads, a laptop or hot showers when he summited Everest, his words still resonate.

Our ‘Everests’ that first day included every 15-degree incline we approached with foreboding, gearing our weighty mountain bikes – as well as ourselves mentally – for the thigh-burning climb ahead. On several occasions I was forced to stop midway (and even Paul had to a couple of times) to push the bike to the top, groaning and feeling sorry for myself.

However, cycle touring, I have come to realise, is a somewhat bipolar (or perhaps amnesiac?) pursuit. Mere minutes after questioning our grasp on reason for taking on this trip, we are flying down the other side, grins spread across our faces, whooping into the vast, volcanic landscape around us. Yes!

We picked up our two, hire Trek mountain bikes from The Bike Company in Reykjavik the day before we set off, entering the office tentatively to find two employees drinking their morning coffee. There was a moment of awkward silence as we stared at each other across the room – them clearly fitting into the cool mountain biker subculture that seems to transcend international borders, us very much the gawky tourists.

“We’re here, um, to pick up some bikes?”
Silence.
“…It’s Chilton. We’re going touring around Iceland!”
Another beat of silence, then, seriously: “Have you done any bike touring before?”
Both Paul and me at once, over the top of each other: “Oh yeah, a bit, kind of, you know. Not really.”

Shit, this guy was on to us. He saw straight through us and brought all of our insecurities and doubts bubbling to the surface like an Icelandic geyser. Except, we soon realised, he really was actually rather pleasant and excited on our behalf. Our penchant for over-the-top pleasantries, we’re learning, doesn’t always cross cultural (or linguistic) borders. What did we want, a pat on the back or a high-five? We collected the bikes and our gear, sat together in his office and looked over some maps and garnered all the advice and tips we could, and left feeling confident and giddy with excitement once again.

We celebrated our last evening in Reykjavik with soup and beer, followed by a second dinner of smoked lamb served up by our generous airbnb hosts, who’d just finished up a family meal when we returned home for our usual jetlag-induced 8:30pm bedtime.

Another small Everest: I had a tiny razor cut on my ankle, and it had turned nasty after our trip the previous day to the tourist mecca of the Blue Lagoon – those sophorific pale-blue, steam-shrouded hot springs where you cake your face with silica mud and drift sleepily among hordes of other tourists (as well as, I now see, their germs thriving in the warm, moist environment…)

My foot was swollen and my ankle felt achy as if it was sprained; all this the night before we were supposed to head off on a 38-day cycle trip around remote, wild Iceland. So I started on a course of general antibiotics we’d packed for an emergency, smeared on antiseptic cream and a clean dressing, and went to bed trying to think healing thoughts.

We woke up at 4:30am, and looked at each other across the bedsheets in our ever-sunlit room. The weather outside was perfect. This was it. How was I feeling? Somewhat better. The antibiotics must have started working fast – the swelling was going down and my ankle bone re-appearing. We’d start our trip, keep an eye on it, and see how we went. (It’s almost completely better now.)

By 6am we were up the hill with my mobile phone in my top-tube bag directing us out of the city. We very soon became accustomed to the weight of the four panniers and satchel on each of our bikes (totally 60kg between us). The traffic was sparse, the air crisp (about 8-10 degrees Celcius), the sun shining and there was almost no wind.

01_Leaving Reykjavik

It was about 25km to the turn off onto Highway 431/5 (an alternative to the busy Ring Road), which would take us straight to the bottom of a big lake called Thingvallavatn. The map showed one long straight line cutting through the country side, followed by a squiggly bit – also known as a million little Everests. An experienced Swiss bike tourer (with thighs like tree trunks) who we met at our campsite that evening and who had ridden that way once before said he imagined that that part of the road must look like honeycomb from above (or Swiss cheese, I thought) – up and down, up and down.

After riding along a mostly straight two-lane road surrounded by vast, green country side and the odd sheep (to which I always say hello out loud – there’s no one around to hear), this steep winding road was bordered by towering bright-green mountains smattered with dark rocky formations. It would make a great place to photograph/film a new car launch – and Land Rover agreed. We were shooed away from one park we tried to stop at by a bunch of English-accented people with two identical red Range Rovers and the enormous truck that had transported them there. It was only once we’d summited (partly on foot) the final incline and came upon, for the second time, a burly man with a walkie-talkie that we realised they’d been waiting for us to clear the road so they could start filming. It must have been frustrating for them to watch on, tapping their feet impatiently no doubt, as I stopped intermittently for breathers or pushed my bike up the hill at about a kilometre an hour. Saying that, they can’t have been in that much of a hurry – they could always have offered us a lift!

There’s was a serious business – we watched from the top of the hill (in sight of the burly man) as they quickly shrouded the vehicle with a black sheet to hide it as another car drove past. To be honest, the Range Rover didn’t look that different on the outside from the current model, but I guess they need to be careful. And two cyclists on the same roads that were meant to look gnarly for a powerful 4WD probably would have ruined their footage, so we mounted our two-wheeled, human-powered steeds and continued on our way.

06_Gemma_Pingvallavatn

By the time we had reached the lake (having to alternate brakes on descent to keep them cool), the road flattened out and turned to gravel, and the weather had also started to turn. We watched the cloud formations over the lake as we lunched at its pumice-gravel banks, which helpfully massaged our saddle-sore behinds. We ate Icelandic flatbread with smoked lamb and cheese, and rinsed our apples in the icy, fresh lake water.

It was only midday and we’d covered about 50km, and a side-wind had just set in. Thankfully, though, the rain remained in the distance and never quite hit us. We trudged through the last 20km at a much lower average speed and with much less conversation between us.

We both felt a rush of relief when we spotted the campsite in the distance as we came to our last descent, stopping at a hill looking over a small, red-roofed church perched beside the lake. That relief turned to joy when we spotted the sign for hot showers.

Feeling clean and warm and exhausted (it was only about 3pm), with a cosy tent and a down-stuffed sleeping bag waiting for us, those hills we’d come from suddenly diminished in size in our memory.

08_Paul_Lunch on the pumice gravel banks of Pingvallavatn

…So much so, that what we’d planned to be a rest day on Day Two turned into a quick (and spectacular) 30km ride up the road to Thingvellir National Park in the late afternoon (it never gets dark, which is handy).

Thingvellir is where the European and North American continents meet (and where we plan on snorkelling in some of the world’s clearest waters once we’re back in Reykjavik at the tail end of our trip). It is also the site of the world’s oldest parliament (as we learned on a friendly, and free, guided tour the next day – our real rest day).

The decision to stay put was helped by the dreadful weather that had set in, particularly bad even for Iceland at this time of year, we were told (rather unhelpfully, really). I slept a little nervously that night as our tent flapped and warped (but otherwise coped well) in the strong winds

Having tentatively planned to miss riding in the rain by hanging around in the rain until a 6pm bus would take us to our next destination in the north-west (a little depressingly, via Reykjavik), we instead bit the bullet at about 11am, downed a hotdog at the tourist centre there, donned our rain gear and toughed it out – and how glad I am that we did.

DSC_0154

After a busy section on the main road for about 15km, we turned off onto a potholed gravel road surrounded by some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve seen so far – rushing waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, steaming geothermal springs and streams, all eventually opening up onto a wide bay just as the sun emerged for a brief show. The rain was no problem – in many ways it’s easier to deal with when you are well and truly out in it rather than trying desperately (and usually failing) to keep dry.

Six hours and 71km later, we are now sitting in an old barn converted to a tourist hangout at a sheep farm. We’ve already booked two nights here.

Tomorrow we will sleep, eat lamb raised on the farm, take photos and maybe even go for a trail ride on a horse.

This really is no Mount Everest after all. And we’re loving it.