Imagine coasting down a steep hill on a gravel road approaching 30 MPH, clutching your handlebars with a deathgrip, hoping the bottom of the hill is around the next turn. Imagine being totally alert, focusing very intently on the next 20 feet of the road, trying to avoid potholes and washboard surfaces, loose gravel and big rocks, but also trying to check the steeply sloping downhill side of the road in case your friend had skidded over the edge. Imagine braking every chance you get but still going scary fast. The sky is overcast and windy, the air is crystal clear, there are jumbled lichen-covered rocks everywhere, and you’re really really enjoying yourself. Moments like this happened many times during our 7-day ride through Iceland.
Actually, about half of our trip was on paved roads and flying downhill on the paved surfaces was more enjoyable since you could relax a little and look around at the scenery. Iceland is a hilly country; bicycling there is mostly cranking up long climbs or coasting downhill, there were few flat stretches of road, mostly along the river valleys or across little plateaus. Sometimes there wasn’t much to look at, long vistas of open land, no vegetation except moss and lichen, no habitation or agriculture, just rocks and an enormous sky. Other times were visually delightful with mountains and glaciers in the background, grassy hillsides, occasional farmsteads and Icelandic horses and sheep watching us curiously as we pedaled by.
Trees are uncommon in Iceland; I think we traveled one 40-mile stretch without seeing a single tree. It’s very rare to see trees other than those growing around farms and towns. Sometimes you’ll see short stubby brush-type trees growing wild but no real woods like we’re used to here. There’s not much soil for trees to take root, so much of the country is rocky. The growing season is short and the landscape is very windy, that also inhibits tree growth. There are areas in the interior of the island where nothing grows, everything you see is just rocks, it’s almost like a lunar landscape except for the clouds.
In areas where there is some real soil for vegetation we saw some agricultural activity. There are no farms like we’re used to here in Illinois, with corn, beans and livestock feeder lots, we saw mostly hayfields and grazing land. Some fields looked like they were growing wheat but then I’d see similar fields full of hay bales. We saw some dairy operations but usually the grazing land we saw was for horses and sheep. The fields for horses were fenced pretty well but sheep are allowed to run freely. There are occasional road grates to keep them from wandering too far but they’re not prevented from crossing roads.
The Icelandic horse is a unique breed. No horses are allowed to be imported to Iceland, and once a horse is shipped overseas, it’s not allowed to return, so there’s only one type of horse in the whole country. They’re generally smaller than other breeds but not too small. To my eye, they’re thicker in the chest and thinner in the hindquarters than the horses I’m used to seeing in Illinois. The colors are varied with lots of black and brown and blond variations. They’re attractive animals and the Icelandic people are proud of their horses. We saw numerous equestrian publications, but mostly for show and recreation, we didn’t see any indications that they race their horses.
The sheep are amusing. They run wild and are generally pretty wooly. They have this apparently giant body supported by spindly little legs. They seem fairly intelligent, at least they seem curious, watching us cycle past them. They stay out of the road pretty well, at least when there’s any traffic. You generally see them in groups of three, a mother and two lambs. I’m not used to seeing many sheep in Illinois and I was surprised to see so many black sheep, I thought they were supposed to be rare. The sheep are generally alert but sometimes they’d be grazing along the road and not hear us coming, when I’d get close to the sheep I’d yell “Hya! Hya!” and they’d take off at full speed. I’d yell at the horses sometimes too, but they’re fenced off from the road and they’d just look at me.
It took me a while to realize what was different about Icelandic farms. The houses and barns, outbuildings, fences and gardens are all very similar, but there are no silos. They feed all their livestock on hay, not grain. Also, they don’t have mailboxes along the road; I guess they have to pick up their mail in town. The farms are generally farther off the main road than Illinois farms, with long long driveways. I don’t know how they plow those driveways during the long dark winters, maybe they don’t plow and just snowmobile everyplace.
The weather is cool in Iceland. I guess that’s apparent from the country’s name. August is their warmest month and I think I took off my jacket for about 10 to 20 hours during my 11 days there. Even if the sun is warm, the wind will keep you cool. You have to keep extra clothing with you at all times, jacket, raincoat, rainpants, hat and gloves. The last few days of our trip were pleasant, but the first week had very changeable weather. In preparation for the trip I read online accounts saying that during a 10-day trip you could expect a couple days of rain, a couple days of sun and the rest of the time it would be overcast. I think we were a little luckier with 4 days of sun but that general forecast was pretty accurate. I think I wore my fleece jacket the better part of every day.
The days are very long during August, the sun sets after 10:00 PM and rises before 4:00 AM, and it’s twilight while the sun is down, it’s never really dark. Icelanders are late risers, nothing is open before 9:00 and some businesses don’t open until noon. Even gas stations don’t open until 9:00 or 10:00. Almost everything is shut down during the weekends too; most stores are closed all day Saturday and Sunday. It’s like the whole country is on the 40-hour workweek. There’s very little traffic on the roads before late morning so Don and I would get an early start each day and have the roads to ourselves for a few hours.
The Icelandic people are a little strange. It’s a homogenous country; all the people are from Iceland, going back many generations. Nobody we met had ancestors from someplace else. They’re a good-looking people, healthy and well educated. Almost everybody speaks English. They talk to each other in Icelandic and have a surprisingly strong culture for such a small country. I think they learn 3 languages in school, Icelandic, English and Danish, but nobody speaks much Danish and they forget it pretty quickly. There are a growing number of foreign workers in the country, mostly from Eastern Europe, but there’s no way for them to apply for citizenship, own property or become permanent residents.
The people are pretty well off, there’s not the huge difference between the rich and poor that we have here, most jobs pay a living wage, even waitresses and clerks earn a good buck. Construction workers, even union workers seem lower paid than they are here, a union carpenter told me that he earns ISK 1400/hour, which translates to $23/hour. That’s a good wage but not as much as American carpenters earn. I guess they don’t pay for insurance though; they have national health care, and no income tax either, so maybe it’s equivalent. Iceland claims that there’s only 2% unemployment, that’s pretty good, I think they say (in the USA) that at about 4%, everybody who wants to work can find a job.
Iceland is an expensive country. The exchange rate is about ISK 60 = $1. I know that restaurants and hotels are expensive everywhere, but some pretty basic things seem very expensive. For example: a cup of coffee (free refills) is ISK 250 ($4), an ice cream cone is ISK 200 ($3), a beer is ISK 650 ($10), a hamburger and fries is ISK 950 ($16), a municipal bus fare is ISK 280 ($5), a taxi for a couple miles is ISK 1200 ($20), a half-hour of internet use is ISK350 ($7), a postcard and stamp (for overseas mail) is ISK 205 ($3). The cheapest meal I could find, soup and bread (free refills), is ISK 600 ($10). I never bought an Icelandic newspaper because there’re no English language papers beyond the free ad-papers. Gasoline is very expensive, ISK124/liter ($8/gallon).
Water is free, the bottled water is bottled from the same source as tap water so don’t spend your money on bottled water except maybe for the first one and then refill your bottle from the tap. They claim that 99.5% of the surface water in Iceland can be drunk without filtering or treatment. That only applies to the cold-water tap or surface water. The hot water tap is often from a different water source and is untreated geothermal water cooled to a tolerable temperature. The geothermal water is full of dissolved minerals and has a pretty distinctive sulphur smell. It’s not really dangerous to drink but isn’t pleasant, similar to getting a mouthful of water at a swimming pool.
One more thing that is really expensive in Iceland, is accidentally killing a sheep with your car. By law you’re required to call the police immediately after the accident. A cop will come out to the scene and evaluate the value of the sheep, which you’re required to pay the farmer for. But the cost isn’t just a single sheep; you have to pay for 5 sheep, because each sheep will produce, on average, 4 lambs. So you have to compensate the farmer for the loss of 5 sheep. And then, the cop takes the dead sheep to the farmer. Even though you paid for 5 sheep, the farmer gets the meat, wool and hide, you get nothing. If you don’t have enough money to pay for the 5 sheep, you have to charge it on your credit card, the cops all carry credit card swipers. I heard that if you can’t pay, you’d be prevented from leaving the country until the debt is paid or arrangements are made.
Icelandic people are very clean, it seems like even tiny little towns have very hygienic public swimming pools. And every place that has a swimming pool also has a “hot pot” or hot tub. The swimming pools we went to either had a reciprocal deal with the nearby campsite or you paid a flat fee, about ISK 300 ($5), and another fee to rent a towel, also ISK 300 ($5). It’s really great to soak in a hot pot after a long day of bicycling. Since we’d start our day so early, we’d often be among the first arrivals at our destination and have each place to ourselves.
There are a lot of tourists in Iceland this time of year. They’re mostly Europeans, me met Dutch, German, Swiss, Italian, Israeli, French and Spanish tourists, but very few Americans or British. Luckily almost everyone speaks English. The French and Spanish had a more limited English vocabulary and I got to practice my Spanish with a cyclist from Barcelona. That was fun because his Catalonian Spanish was quite a bit different from my Mexican (Castilian) Spanish. I think he appreciated it too because I gave him some good tips on the road conditions and an off-road coffeehouse in Afangi.
We did have to translate all our units. Iceland doesn’t use miles, gallons or degrees Fahrenheit, so we had an opportunity to do some arithmetic converting their units. They obviously use their own money, Iceland Kronur (ISK), but they use kilometers for distance and KPH for driving speed. They use degrees Celsius for temperature and meters per second for wind speed. They use liters for gasoline and other fluid measures. The road signs are all symbolic so they don’t have to translate regulatory signs. The passing/no passing zone signs confused us for most of the trip, also the bridge height signs. Almost all the others were pretty intuitive.
There were at least two things I saw in Iceland that I thought we should have here. The first one was the toilet flush. The toilets there all have a flush button on top of the toilet tank, but it’s really two buttons and you can choose between half-flush and full flush, which I thought was a cool water saving feature. I saw another device that I thought was excellent. It is a coin-operated 5-foot pedestal with 6 small lockers. Each locker has a key and inside each door are a couple charging cords for electronic hand-held devices. A couple lockers will charge Erickson phones, a couple of the other lockers will charge Motorola phones, a couple others will charge iPods or Blackberrys, etc. So, you would go to a shopping mall, feed some coins into the machine, plug in your phone, lock it up, go shopping, come back an hour or two later, open your locker, and your device is fully charged. Pretty cool huh?
I got my bicycle out early in the season, during a couple warmish days in February. I know from experience that leg strength is not nearly as important as being able to tolerate long hours in the saddle. So I rode as much as I could all spring. I took my bike in to North Central Cyclery in March and paid for their Master Tune-Up which got my bike, a Specialized Rock Hopper, in tip-top condition. I ordered panniers, racks and some odds and ends from BikeNashbar.com. I rode as many miles as I could tolerate, building up my endurance, eventually logging 700 miles before we left. My son Zach, age 28, intended to join us in Iceland and practiced with me but he didn’t get his passport in time for the trip, even though we applied for it in January (f-ing State Dept.).
During the weekends before we left, Zach and I rode about 300 miles with our panniers packed with full loads of kitty litter and bottled water to simulate the expected trip conditions. I also searched out nearby roads and trails with the most hills. Illinois doesn’t have many hills to practice on, so we rode up and down the riverbanks along the Fox River trail system. I also tried to ride during some bad weather, I got in a few miles on gravel roads during a strong storm in April, I dressed in my full rain suit, including hat and gloves, that was tough. Luckily, it turned out that we never had to ride through a real storm in Iceland but I’m glad I prepared for one.
Preparing to ship my bike to Iceland was another chore. Don prepared his bike box months in advance and I felt some time pressure due to my perceived procrastination. Don’s final construction was a top-opening standard bike box wrapped in orange plastic snow fencing and strapped shut so that TSA (Transportation Security Administration) would be able to inspect the contents without damaging the box. Don also packed his bike two weeks before the trip, before I had even acquired my bike box.
I finally obtained a pretty good box from Tobie at North Central Cyclery, it was a box used to ship an expensive road bike. It was an inch or two deeper than a standard bike box and beefier too, with reinforced corners and glued-in foam rubber cushioning. It also included four built in straps to hold the bike frame securely in place. It worked out very well and I was able to pack all my panniers, helmet, extra shoes, spare parts and tools in the box. We both had to disassemble our bikes, taking off wheels, seats, handlebars and pedals in order to fit them in the boxes. I was able to leave my handlebar cabling intact by tie-wrapping the handlebars to the bike frame near the handlebar mount.
It took me about an hour each time, disassembling and reassembling my bike. Don’s bike required much more attention. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but Don took his old 3-speed Schwinn Traveler on this trip. It’s the same bike he bought with his lawn-mowing money as a teenager. He claims that it’s a 1962 model, which makes it almost as old as he is. Disassembling and reassembling his bike takes substantially longer than my 10-year old bike. His bike has chrome fenders and side-pull brakes, the shift cable running down to the universal gears, and doesn’t have any quick-release features; it’s all screws, nuts and bolts. He’s still using the original style gum-wall tires too so he brought twice as many spare tires and parts as I needed to.
Another difference in our gear was that Don didn’t use racks and panniers. Don has a bicycle trailer. The Burley Nomad is like a backpack on wheels, two wheels, side by side, and attaches to the bike frame near the rear wheel. It’s a neat design, with a swivel, so you can lay your bike down with the trailer still attached, it’s got a pair of reflectors in back, a six-foot fiberglass bike flag, and it tracks behind the bike pretty well. The load sits low on the two wheels so there’s not much weight transferred onto the bicycle, which is probably a good idea considering that he’s using the old gum-wall tires. Both systems, panniers and trailer, worked very well and it’s hard to say which is better.
I booked my travel arrangements through Travelocity.com and that worked out pretty well. I waited much longer than Don to buy my tickets because I didn’t want to buy tickets for Zach until he received his passport. We finally had to accept that his passport wouldn’t arrive in time for the trip and we made a compromise deal which included using his airfare money to pay off some old traffic fines. It wasn’t a perfect deal but it worked out well for me since I felt more comfortable leaving my car with Zach so he could housesit for me and keep an eye on his brothers. He was also able to drop me off and pick me up at the airport, which was no small task considering the luggage and bike box I was bringing.
I flew to Minneapolis first and met Don there and we flew together to Iceland. F-ing Northwest Airlines changed my flight to Minneapolis twice during the two days before departure. Due to their changes, I wound up with a 9-hour layover. I amused myself by leaving the airport and took the Light Rail to the Mall of America. I ate lunch there and saw a movie, The Bourne Ultimatum. I flew to Minneapolis just a couple days after the bridge collapse but never saw anything. I met Don, as planned; when he arrived at the airport and we flew on, overnight, to Iceland.
We flew into Keflavik International Airport. The flight was about 5 hours and we slept a little, arriving at 6:20 AM local time. Getting our visas and baggage claim went pretty smoothly. We changed some money, I used the ATM and Don changed some cash. Keflavik is about 30 miles from Reykjavik and there’s a regular bus schedule. The tickets seemed expensive at $20 but turned out to be pretty reasonable compared to normal Iceland prices. They accepted our bike boxes with no problem and we drove in to the main BSI bus terminal in Reykjavik. We had a meal at the bus station, eggs, bacon and coffee for two, $40, which was a good indication of how expensive things are there.
Don asked the girl at the counter if there was a quiet place where we could assemble our bicycles and she let us take our stuff upstairs into a closed-off upstairs loft part of the bus station. We dragged our stuff up there and spent a couple hours assembling the bikes, organizing our gear and packing the panniers and trailer. We stored our bike boxes and extra luggage at the bus station, they have a storage room and charge ISK 400 ($7) for the first day and ISK 200 ($3) for each additional day. I packed my two suitcases inside the now empty bike box and only paid to store one piece of luggage, Don did the same, packing his duffel bag and trailer travel bag into his bike box.
We finished up around lunchtime and rode over to find the Central Guesthouse, where we had booked a room. Anna, and her dog, Otto, let us check in early. It was way too early for bed even though we were pretty tired. We needed a few things which we weren’t able to transport on the plane, like stove fuel, so we rode to a couple places looking for fuel. It was Sunday and nothing was open. I guess gas stations were open but regular stores and shopping malls were all closed down. Don found some fuel for his Coleman stove at a gas station but I was never able to find fuel for my Jetboil stove and ended up leaving it with my stored luggage.
It was still fairly early so we rode to downtown Reykjavik for a little sightseeing. Reykjavik doesn’t have much of a skyline so the Hallgrimskirkja stands out. This modern Lutheran church dominates the downtown skyline. It’s a striking building, kind of cone shaped in profile, 246 feet tall, with a big plaza and statue of Leifur Eriksson in front.
We didn’t pay to join the organized tour but we did pay to go up in the bell tower, ISK 350 ($7) and found an excellent 360-degree view of the city. Reykjavik is located on a narrowish peninsula and you can see most of the city from up there, at least all of the downtown. The interior of the church is striking too, very large with an enormous organ. They have a gift shop there and I bought a couple postcards and stamps. We were told where a mailbox was but never found it; I ended up sending my postcards from the bus station.
We rode around the downtown area a little, then back to the bus station, got into our stored bags again, loaded our gear and then biked back to the guesthouse. Anna suggested a restaurant nearby, Potturinn und Pannin (Pot and Pan?) and we got some dinner. I had a pasta dish and Don had a fish entrée, I had a couple beers and I think the bill was close to $100, ouch! I guess we tipped the usual 15%, that was before we discovered that Iceland doesn’t have a tipping tradition. They’ll accept a tip but don’t really expect one. We hit the sack soon after and planned to get an early start.
This was our first day bicycling. We got up early, packed up, and got on our bikes. It was a Monday morning but it was also a national holiday and the streets were completely dead. We rode some sidewalk bike trails until we got to the outskirts of Reykjavik and then rode on the highway surface. There were no signs prohibiting bicycles and traffic was almost nonexistent, so we rode north on Highway 1. Our first destination was Thingvellir and we found the turnoff about 10 miles outside the city. The next 20 miles was on very pleasant paved roads.
Traffic continued to be light, there wasn’t much wind, and it was a very pleasant morning. The weather was overcast with peeks of sunshine, and the landscape was mostly pastures or rocky fields. We had several good hills but I never had to shift down to granny-gear. Thingvellir isn’t really spelled with a Th, they use a foreign letter similar to a D or a P and pronounced as Th.
Thingvellir is historic site at a geographically interesting location. The first official parliamentary assembly, or Althing (again using the foreign letter), occurred there in 930. An assembly of Icelandic Vikings met there to settle disputes, trade, compete in sporting events, gossip, etc. It’s pretty significant historically and the site is pretty cool too. The location is a small rift valley, the dividing line along the mid-oceanic ridge between the North American and European tectonic plates. It’s very scenic with beautiful views of cliffs, lakes, rivers and valleys. There are some trees in this area, which also makes it unusual.
We got some food at the coffee shop there and continued biking. We rode a few more miles on a paved road but then turned off on our first unpaved road, Route 365. This road challenged us a little, it was in fairly good condition but the grades were steeper than they had been on the paved roads. In fact we had one steep downhill run that was labeled as a 14% grade. The steepest road I’ve seen here was a 10% grade at a mountain pass in Wyoming, so 14% seemed very steep. After about 10 miles of Route 365, we came to Laugarvatn, a lakeside community that reminded me of Minnesota (without the trees). We found a grocery store there with a little café and had a late lunch.
The remaining 20 miles to our destination, Geysir, was all paved road, Route 37, and had gentler grades than the unpaved road. We arrived in Geysir in the late afternoon. We had pedaled about 66 miles on our first day and were pretty worn out. Geysir is another big tourist draw and there’s all the usual hotel, restaurant, gift shop and campground operations there. We got a camping permit and set up the tent. The campsite is within view of the geysir and we could see and smell the steam when it erupted.
As Don was setting up the tent and arranging his gear I walked around a little and introduced myself to a guy there. He turned out to be a German tour guide, his group was off exploring and he was puttering around their 15-person campsite. Jens Hahn spoke excellent English and chatted with us quite a bit, in fact we changed our plans a little based on what he told us. His group of young German professionals was traveling along our proposed route by private bus, to Gullfoss, the big waterfall about 8 miles away. And then they were switching to a commercial 4-wheel drive bus and going to Kerlingarfjoll for hiking and camping. Based on our conversation with Jens, we decided to bike to Gulfoss the following morning and then inquire about taking the 4-wheel drive bus to our next destination, Hveravellir. We had a good conversation with Jens and then went over to see the Geysir.
Geysir is a pretty large area of small geysirs around a really big geysir. There’s no entrance fee and you’re free to wander around except for some fenced off dangerous areas. The geysir isn’t on a regular schedule, like Old Faithful, but it erupts pretty often. You have to have your camera ready though, it only lasts a second or so. There are numerous other geysirs, most of them are very small and just spout steam constantly. Others are little pools of boiling water. I expected a little more crowd control than just some rope fences marking the safer areas, I saw some Germans stepping over and walking right up to the edge of some of the small geysirs and gesturing like they were going to step into or put their hands into the boiling water or steam. There were no rangers present or anybody monitoring the visitors.
The hotel at Geysir has a deal with the campground and we were able to go over to the hotel hot pots for a soak. We talked a chambermaid into giving us a couple towels and had a chance to clean up and relax. After we finished our shower, we met a German woman who had just arrived on her bicycle. We chatted a little and I asked her how far she’d ridden that day. She just looked at me and said, kind of scornfully, “what a typical American question”, and never gave me a real answer. Later on she set up her tent at the campground next to ours and came over to offer us some “all natural bug repellant”, which was nice of her, except that there weren’t any bugs there to repel. Actually I never saw any biting or stinging insects, there were some nuisance bugs which flew around your face but that’s all, they rarely landed on your skin.
Jens told us that the bus would be at Gullfoss from 10:30 to 10:50, so we planned an early departure so we could ride to Gullfoss and see the waterfall before the bus got there. The alarm clock we used was Don’s digital watch, but he’s too sound a sleeper to wake up to the small sound it makes. I think I heard it each time, but on rainy mornings I’d ignore it for a while. It wasn’t raining the next morning though and we got up early again.
We got up early and made our coffee and oatmeal on Don’s camp stove. The morning was overcast and dewy but we got packed up and on the road within an hour and a quarter. The road to Gullfoss was pretty level and paved the whole way, it only took us about 45 minutes to ride there from Geysir so we arrived with plenty of time to wander around before the bus arrived. The weather turned drizzly but we still took the path down to the waterfall and wandered around. The waterfall is pretty impressive, they compare it to Niagara but it’s less than a quarter of the size, but still impressive, and loud. You can climb out on the rocks of the waterfall and get very close to the cascade; it’s cold though in the mist of that glacier water.
We got some good photos and then walked back up to the coffee shop/visitor center and had a coffee and pastry. We were among the first ones there at 9:30 and the employees seemed kind of sleepy. We loitered until the bus came and went out to haggle with the driver. His English was OK and we struck a deal. He opened the luggage compartment farthest back and moved some backpacks out of there and let us cram our bikes and gear in there. The bikes went in OK, lying down, but as we put the Burley Nomad in, I allowed one of Don’s reflectors to hit the doorframe and break. Don got a little upset but he’s a good sport. We found a couple seats on the bus, near our buddy Jens, and settled down for a very bumpy ride.
The road to our destination, Hveravellir, is a gravel road, Route 35, 60 miles along the Kjoler Route. This gravel road was much worse than Route 365, the road we’d taken the day before. Route 35 was mostly up and down, with more up than down since we were going up into the interior of the island, I don’t think there was a straight stretch longer than a couple hundred yards and the road was mostly washboard and horribly potholed. The road material was often very loose gravel and there were big rocks in the road. Apparently they grade the road several times a year but the high-speed jeeps return it to its former surface almost immediately. The bus drove much faster than you’d expect, maybe averaging 40 MPH. The bus is funny looking, it’s a two-axle vehicle with six giant knobby tires, and jacked up like a giant off-road vehicle.
After an hour or so we stopped for 20 minutes at the trailhead to Kerlingarfjoll. Jens and his party got off the bus and stacked their packs near the road sign. They intended to hike the six miles to a little settlement near the mountains and glacier at Kerlingarfjoll, but made arrangements for a truck to haul their gear. We said our goodbyes and got back on the bus. Another half hour took us to the little settlement at Hveravellir, getting there before 1:00. We unloaded our bikes and gear and looked around a little. There’s an office with a couple rangers, which also includes a little camp store and a couple bunkhouse style rooms, a washhouse and another bunkhouse closer to the hot springs.
We talked to a ranger, Gummi, and paid for the room Don had reserved. Gummi was a jokester; he said he’d remember our names by thinking of Miami Vice with Don Johnson. He said we were the first to arrive but that we’d have to share our 8-bunk room with another couple, and that a party of Italians was coming in and they’d take the other two rooms. He unlocked the door and told us to keep it locked because we were right next to the all-natural hot pot and that people would want to come in and use our place for a changing room.
The hot pot was pretty neat. The hot springs are very close, just a couple hundred feet away and there’s a pipe bringing hot water and another pipe bringing cold water. You can regulate the temperature of the pool by pushing one or the other pipes into or out of the pool. The pool walls and floor were smooth but uneven, with not many places to sit comfortably, but room for 15 or 20 people. There’s a wood deck between the bunkhouse and the pool but the pool is about six feet lower than the deck, and you have to walk down a rock path to get to the pool. We brought our gear into the bunkhouse and locked up the bikes and then got into the hot pot.
There was a Swiss girl there who we talked to for a while and then a Dutch couple came over and we chatted with them for a long time. They bring their own car, a Range Rover, over on a ferry and drive and camp. They said that it was their sixth visit to Iceland, that the weather wasn’t much worse than they were used to in their hometown. After we’d gone back to the bunkhouse a French family begged their way into the entryway to change clothes, softhearted Don gave them the nod. Gummi had told us about some geological feature nearby, six kilometers away, so we hiked in that direction. We had to boot the Frenchies out of the entryway and then locked up the bunkhouse.
There were a few things to see along the way. There was the foundation of a tiny little house nearby where an Icelandic outlaw had lived for a while. He’s said to have cooked his meat by tossing it into the hot springs. There’s also a story of how other outlaws kidnapped his wife but he tracked them down and stole her back, along with all their provisions. We also saw a more recent traditional rock and sod house, that was neat.
Then we found a French woman sitting on the ground. We went over to ask if she was OK and noticed that she was sitting by the entrance of a small cave and that there were other Frenchies inside. They filed out, one by one until all 25 of them came out. It was a tiny little cave too; it was like packing people into a phone booth. They were having such a good time, all chattering away in French, it almost made me wish that I were French. They wandered off and we went into the little cave, but not very far, it really was tiny.
We walked along the trail Gummi had told us about, but we seemed to be walking much farther than he’d described. After we’d walked an hour’s distance, along the path, away from the cave, we gave up and turned around. I think if we’d persevered and gone one more Kilometer, we’d have come to the crater or whatever it was he’d directed us toward. It was a long walk, more than two hours and we were expecting our longest ride the following day. We opened up the bunkhouse and found that the pool was crowded to capacity, with more people waiting on the deck. So we ate some dinner and arranged our gear for an early departure. We only got one neighbor bunking in our room, and the party of Italians turned out to be Czechs. They kept us awake cooking their late dinner and then heading off to the hot pot.
We got up very early, 5:00, ate our breakfast, packed up and got on the road around 6:00, long before anybody else was up. Unfortunately we got on the road heading in the right direction but, a mile down the road, decided it was the wrong direction and turned around. It was about a 4-mile error by the time we got sorted out. I accept responsibility for the mistake, I didn’t want to coast down a long hill since it looked to me that we’d have to ride back up, but if we had gone down, we would have seen the road intersection we were looking for.
That blunder added 4 difficult miles onto our longest day. The road was similar to what we’d driven on the previous day but it improved considerably after about 5 miles. It was still tough; the weather was overcast and windy, wide open, with no vegetation beyond lichen. The area seems to get rainfall but there’s just no soil to support plants. The road improvement was substantial but it was still a rough road for the next 50 miles. It was a 77-mile day with the last 16 miles being paved.
After 20 miles we came to Afangi, a tiny little settlement where you can get coffee and a waffle. That was really nice, to get out of the weather and sit in a chair, it seemed very luxurious. Afangi is at the foot of a hill called Afangafell, which is really high, there’s a sighting pedestal at the top where you can look across an engraved metal plate and sight different landscape features and mountaintops, the engraved text on the plate gives the distance and elevation for each feature. The most distant features we could see were two different mountains, each 50 miles away. The elevation at Afangafell is roughly 700 meters above sea level, or 2300 feet, the riding that day was generally downhill.
After Afangafell we started pedaling past a series of lakes. It was nice but the landscape was pretty bleak, rocks, sky and low hills. We had some good long downhill coasts, a few climbs too but the downhill runs were longer. We came to a couple miles of paved road where we came rapidly down from the interior into a river valley. That was fun, on the paved hills you can just let it loose and fly, but I got scared and had to brake, it was just too big a hill. Don said he’d read an account of a rider reaching a speed greater than 50 MPH on that road, but I’m too chicken to go that fast. The paved road ended at a T intersection, that was kind of scary, if you couldn’t brake, you’d run into a guardrail and then over a cliff. The river valley had some farms and agricultural activity, that made better scenery. It was mid afternoon when we had an opportunity to turn across the river and ride on a connecting road over to Highway 1 for a 16 mile ride into our destination city, Blonduos.
We started facing a pretty serious headwind on the paved road. We thought we’d make better time but crept along at 8 MPH. The traffic wasn’t light either. Blonduos is a very small city but there were a lot of vehicles going that direction. We finally reached Blonduos on the north coast of Iceland. It was the end of our 3rd day and felt like we’d been riding forever. It was a dreary drizzly afternoon but we found a gas station and got some food and rested for a while. The campground was nearby but we were misdirected and rode through town and back before we got settled.
Our campground host, Hathir, collected our fee and directed us to the bathhouse, which did not include a hot pot, only showers. We met a guy from Keflavik who used to work at the US Military base there before it closed in 2006. He was sorry to see the Americans go and wanted to talk American English with us. He was a nice guy but kind of a knucklehead. He’d accidentally put 40 liters of diesel fuel into his car the previous day and then had to have it drained out, so he was at the campground for an extra day. He is the union carpenter I mentioned earlier and also told me about the state run liquor stores. Again we turned in early in preparation for an early start.
It was a wet morning so we packed up and ate at the gas station. We found a phone booth in town and Don tried to make a couple phone calls. I found a post office and mailed a couple more postcards. We got a later start than we had previously. This was one of our shorter days, about 50 miles but it was not an easy day. We left the coast and pedaled across several ridges, there was a lot of up and down. It was overcast and sometimes drizzly but the scenery was quite a bit greener and more pleasant than the interior.
Our destination was a campground in a small town named Stadiskoli and we arrived around 4:00, a short day for a change. It turned out that the campground had closed down and the next one was 60 miles down the road. We were told that we could camp at the old closed down campground so we hauled water down there and set up our camp. There was an old washhouse there, with no running water, but we used it for cooking and hung up some of our wet clothing to dry out. We had dinner at the nearby restaurant, a burger for me and a chicken sandwich for Don. We hit the sack early planning for an early start.
It rained almost all night and we had a wet morning. We ate in the washhouse and then packed the tent up wet. We didn’t start as early as we planned but still beat the traffic for a couple hours. The restaurant was closed but we got in and used the bathroom. We rode past another gas station in Bru, 5 miles away, after 9:00, and it was still closed. Bru is at the south end of the Hrutafjordur, we were leaving the coast and we started a long climb over a plateau. We climbed 370 meters, about 1200 feet. The clouds were low that day and we climbed up into the clouds. That was our coldest wettest day, the closest I came to my practice stormriding. It was cold enough to see your breath and we were bundled up in all our clothing.
The paved roads and some of the major unpaved roads in Iceland have yellow markers at the side of the road every 50 meters (165 feet). Up in the clouds we could only see 2 yellow markers in either direction, that’s 100-meter visibility. I think that might have helped us because we couldn’t see how high these hills are, I knew I was riding uphill but didn’t know how much more I had to climb. I know that when we finally started coasting downhill, on the other side of the plateau, it seemed like the downhill ride just went on forever, and I couldn’t believe that we’d climbed so high.
We got off the paved road and took a series of unpaved roads towards our destination, a campground near Reykholt. The roads here went through an agricultural area, hayfields and horse operations. We even saw a little orchard although I didn’t recognize the type of tree; they were short and bushy but not fruit trees. This was a nice ride, some small hills and the weather was improving.
We arrived at our destination midafternoon; it had been another 50+ mile day. We ate at a roadside restaurant and set up our camp. Then we rode over to a nearby public swimming pool, paid the ISK 300 fee and cleaned up and soaked in their hot pot. It was still fairly early so we rode 3 miles to Reykholt, a historic town.
Reykholt was the home of Snorri Sturlusson, the author of the Book of Settlement and some translations of traditional spoken sagas to the written word. He wrote some of the most historically important and accurate accounts of the old Norwegian kings. There’s a modern church at the site now, and a museum, there’s a Seminary of some type and also the Snorralaug, or Snorri’s pool, his own hot pot where he would bathe and receive visitors. There are also the foundations of a stone tunnel leading from his house to the pool. Snorri fell out of favor with a Norwegian king and was assassinated in 1241.
The government of Norway has financed some modern improvements at Reykholt because they consider Snorri to be an important historical figure and one of their own countrymen, a claim which Iceland disputes. It was a very pleasant afternoon, the sun came out after several overcast days as we toured Reykholt, we even took off our jackets for a while for the ride back to our campsite. We had that campsite almost to ourselves. It was a very small town, off the beaten track, and we were camped in the grassy field behind a small restaurant. Another party of 4 Europeans did arrive later but they set up their camp a good distance away.
We rose early again and prepared for our last big day on the road. The Europeans also got up early and I think they dodged the restaurant owner and snuck out without paying the camping fee. We cooked and ate our oatmeal and coffee at an outdoor table near the little restaurant. Don and I had settled into a comfortable routine and we ate, cleaned up, packed our gear and got on the road in good time but without hurrying. It’s usually difficult to spend less than an hour on these tasks; some campers take two hours or more before they finally get moving. The secret to a rapid departure is stowing your sleeping bag and air mattress immediately and pushing all the other gear towards the door. If everything is out of the tent early in the process, packing goes much faster.
Reykholt is about 70 miles from Reykjavik. It was our intention to wake up early the following morning and ride just a few miles to the bus station, arriving early enough to meet Don’s wife, Paula, who would be arriving at 8:30. The 60 miles we planned for the day turned out to be very ambitious. On the map it looked like an easy ride but the route included crossing several high steep ridges on gravel roads.
We started the day off with a flat and pleasant 10 miles on a paved road, but then we had our first and only breakdown. Don first noticed a wobble in his tire and after inspecting it, found a bubble growing along the side of his rear tire. Don wanted to ride it out and fix the tire when it finally burst, but I argued for choosing a convenient location for the repair. Don had all the parts and tools so he could have replaced the tire anywhere but we came upon a very scenic campground.
Fossatun is a very nice campground, that’s probably why we had the other campground to ourselves. It’s very clean and well organized and has an attractive restaurant and store. Most of the people camping there were still sleeping and the restaurant/shop was still hours away from opening for business. We took the bikes behind the restaurant and found a very pleasant outdoor dining area overlooking a beautiful stream. There is a giant chessboard painted on the concrete patio with plastic chessmen the size of small children. Alongside the chessboard is a painted bowling alley with wooden pins and small bowling balls. Don set up at a table and began his repair; I got out the stove and prepared a second breakfast.
Disassembling and reassembling Don’s bike took quite a while, probably twice the time it would have taken on my modern bike. While we were working some kids came along and played chess and bowled and a couple older kids rode their skateboards. The site was very scenic and we took some of the best photos of the trip, setting the bikes on the patio with the stream in the background.
Don’s repair was successful and we got back on the road. We had another mile or two before we had to turn off the paved road onto gravel roads and the route deteriorated quickly. The paved route actually continues on to Reykjavik but passes through a tunnel that is closed to bicycles. So we had to ride an extra 25 miles around a long fjord. The only shortcuts available are the unpaved roads leaving the coastal plains and crossing some high ridges. Half a mile after we left Route 1, we came to a high hill so steep that we had to walk the bikes up. We probably walked a mile, that’s how far it was up to the crest of the ridge. The road surface was very rough; once we started riding down the other side of the ridge it got scary. The road is just as steep on the other side of the ridge and covered with long stretches of loose gravel containing fist-sized and head-sized stones. I had to brake almost all the way down and pay close attention, turning from one side of the track to the other, trying to avoid the worst obstacles.
After that ridge we had a few miles of fairly easy going but then came to another ridge just as high, maybe even higher. The surface condition was very similar and we walked our bikes up another mile and then had another white-knuckle decent. The bottom of this hill ended back at the coastline. The gravel road actually ended with a very steep decent at a T-intersection with a paved road. I don’t know how the residents manage that road in the winter when the roads are icy; it seemed pretty dangerous in good weather. There is a gas station near the intersection and we got a late lunch there.
After we ate, we rode around the fjord on a paved road, the surface was much smoother and the hills weren’t as steep but the wind had turned against us and it was slow going. The ins and outs of the fjord didn’t help my mood, twice I thought we were almost at the end and could cross over to the other side but then saw that there were still miles left to go and I got tired and cranky. Traffic increased too and with the wind whistling past my ears, I couldn’t hear the cars very well, that stretch may have been the low point of the trip for me.
We finally came to the end of the fjord and crossed a small river and started riding back the other direction. That was great! We finally had a strong wind at our back and could ride almost effortlessly. My mood improved and Don said that it was some of the finest riding of the whole trip. We rode along at least double the speed we had ridden on the other side of the fjord, 15 MPH vs. 7 MPH. The climbs were much easier too, climbing the high hills seemed easy and the downhills were exhilarating. We had at least an hour of this type of riding before the road turned and the wind became a crosswind.
The crosswind is not so bad, you can make good time but you’re constantly compensating for the wind gusts. The traffic made it a little difficult, not too bad; you just have to pay attention. But once we returned to Route 1, traffic became much heavier. It was approaching rush hour and the vehicles that had been delayed a bit by the tunnel traffic and were trying to make up lost time. The crosswind was very strong now; Don’s little orange flag was bending over with each wind gust. The road shoulder, which seemed adequate when we were riding with the wind, now seemed very narrow. We had about 6 miles of heavy traffic until we reached a little rest area near our destination.
The rest area wasn’t crowded but there was a bus there, a group of Icelandic women on a holiday were gathered at the median talking and laughing. They called Don over and asked him to take their picture. I think they liked Don, in his bike shorts, because when he turned around with their camera, two of the women started making obscene sexual gestures behind his back. I found it very amusing and Don was oblivious. I tried to get the picture but I was too late, the women were acting normal again.
The remaining couple miles to the suburb, Mossfellbaer went pretty smoothly, there was road construction for a mile or so, then we arrived in town, tired and hoping for a hot pot. Our maps and the big information signs we’d seen, including the one near the bus stop women, had all shown a campground at the edge of town. But the site is presently a construction area, for a new soccer field. Don asked a couple passers-by where we could camp, and a gentleman said we could camp in a nearby city park. We went out to get some dinner, at a KFC, and then set up the tent in the park.
We planned an early departure, so we could meet Paula’s bus, in downtown Reykjavik at the BSI Bus Terminal. The tent was wet from an overnight shower, so we dragged it into some early morning sun to dry out a little and cook some breakfast. We packed up quickly and got back onto Route 1 into the city. It was pretty early, maybe 7:00 and there was light traffic. Route 1 coming into Reykjavik is similar to our 6-lane expressways, except without paved shoulders. Traffic was still light but it was a relief when we got into town and we were able to start riding on a series of bike paths. We arrived at BSI in time to meet Paula’s bus, but she wasn’t there. After a couple phones calls we found that she’d be delayed until the following day.
Don disassembled his bike and re-packed it in his bike box, stored there at BSI. I left my bike intact, planning to ride it around until the night before my departure. While Don was busy, I found a computer and paid ISK 350 ($7) for a half-hour of Internet use. I read a week’s worth of email and wrote a couple short notes, to family and girlfriend, declaring victory. I got into my stored luggage and swapped out my camping gear and dirty laundry for a couple panniers of clean clothes. Even though it was only late morning, Don called Anna, at the Central Guesthouse, and she said our room was ready. So we walked over, Don with his suitcase and me with my still-loaded bike. I didn’t witness it, but Don talked Anna into washing all his clothes, he’d been expecting a load of clean clothes to arrive with Paula. I had fresh clothing and even a clean shirt for Don, so we went out walking around Reykjavik.
First we found the Floki-Inn, the guesthouse I expected to stay at the next two nights. We visited a couple tourist and cultural attractions and had dinner in a downtown restaurant. On the way back to the Central Guesthouse, we also found Don’s hotel, Cabin Hotel, where he expected to stay with Paula when she arrived.
It was another early morning for us; we had a prepaid tour, bird watching on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We went online using Anna’s computer and checked Paula’s arrival time, to make sure she’d be at BSI on time for the tour. I checked both the Travelocity and IcelandAir websites and found nothing regarding her incoming flight. It turns out that we left Paula waiting at BSI, because her flight really was on time and she caught the early bus. Well, she was able to book her own bus tour, one which left a little later and visited Geysir, the Gullfoss waterfall and a couple other popular sites.
Our tour took us on a two-hour drive, driving through the tunnel we’d bypassed two days previously. There’s an ancient volcano, capped by year-round snow, at the end of a long rocky peninsula. We stopped the small 24-person bus at a couple sites for photos and then went to the town of Olafsvik. That’s where we divided into 3 separate tours; one group went out immediately on a small ship for a whale watching tour. Another group of 3 continued on by bus, with the tour guide, to a more distant destination. About 5 of us got in a minivan and the only two people in Iceland who did not speak English, drove us to some bird watching sites, generally at the tops of cliffs along the ocean. I got some nice landscape photos but the birds were just black dots, you don’t even notice them unless I point them out.
The most interesting site they took us to was a private museum. The museum is located at a working farm and it’s a long bumpy ride down their driveway from the main road. This is one of the places where they prepare and distribute “fermented shark”. They don’t hunt Greenland sharks anymore but the ones, which accidentally die in fishing nets, are brought to this place for preparation. Approximately 100 of the 6 to 10 foot sharks per year.
Greenland sharks have some type of naturally occurring toxin in the meat so traditionally the Icelandic people would bury it for a couple months until the toxins break down. The finished product is kind of gelatinous and chewy; it also has a very strong fishy flavor. We only ate a small cube on a toothpick, and we only ate it because we’re not likely to get another chance to eat rotten shark. The museum had a couple semi-interesting exhibits, the one I liked best was pieces of animals they’d retrieved from sharks stomachs. They had a piece of polar bear hide tacked up on the wall along with ordinary stuff like seal and birds.
The final part of the tour was a boat ride from Stykkisholmur. We met up with a couple other tours and about 30 of us rode around in the nearby bay. They took us to several sites to see sea birds like cormorants and puffins. The rocky islands are pretty vertical and the boat goes right up to the islands for good photos. The best part of the boat ride, actually the best part of the day, was when they dragged the bottom of the bay for shellfish. They lowered a contraption that mostly looked like chain-link fence, and dragged it on the bottom to catch all the critters. When they hauled it up, they dumped out a pretty big pile of scallops, starfish, sea urchins and little crabs.
A couple of the crew stood behind the little platform and opened scallop shells with butter knives. They’d force the shell open, use the knife to scrape off the goo and then give someone the little dice-sized scallop meat on a half shell. It was delicious!!! I had several, after everyone had a taste, they just kept opening them and you could have as much as you wanted. I also had some sea urchin goo and some crab goo (caviar?), which tasted OK but I didn’t like the texture.
The boat ride only lasted an hour or two but the whale watching tour had about 4 hours on a pretty rough open ocean. Quite a few of them got seasick but they did see a couple small whales and some porpoises. I talked to an Israeli girl later on the bus and she said the porpoises put on a good show for a little while. Our bus ride back to Reykjavik seemed to take a long time; about half the people went to sleep. I talked to the Israeli girl and another guy, Rafal, from Poland. There was an Irish guy who wanted to talk but it hurt my neck to turn around and talk to him so I gave up.
We were taken back to the BSI terminal and Don made another call and found out that Paula really had arrived as planned but didn’t get picked up there for our tour. She was waiting at their hotel so Don and I walked over with her luggage, which she’d left at BSI. It was only a mile or two but the cabdriver wanted ISK 1200 ($20), so we decided to walk. We renamed some streets; the Icelandic names weren’t memorable so we renamed the streets to Burgertown and Snorribrow (Borgartun, and Snorrabraut). We met Paula and got the luggage up to their room and talked a little about going out but it had been a long day. We made plans to get a rental car and go to the Blue Lagoon the following day.
I accidentally left my map in Don and Paula’s room and when I tried to take a shortcut back to the Floki-Inn, I got pretty lost. I was never in trouble but I walked a long way. As I mentioned, the city is on a peninsula, if you go too far West, you’ll see the tall church, Hallgrimskirkja, and if you go too far East, you’ll come to a river valley. I made a pretty good tour of the residential part of the city. But I made it back to Floki and got a fair night’s sleep.
Don was going to pick up his rental car during the late morning so I had a free morning to look for bicycle souvenirs. I visited two bike shops and a bike rental place but they didn’t have any touristy stuff. I thought I’d find T-Shirts, hats, key chains, etc. but they didn’t carry any of that stuff. They actually seemed surprised that I asked for it. There’s lots of horse stuff, they’re very proud of their Icelandic horses and there’s a ton of keepsake stuff with horses on it.
The last bike shop I visited was near the rental place so I went there on my bike and waited for Don and Paula. We made plans to meet at 2:00 and drive out about 30 miles to the Blue Lagoon. I had a chance to charge up my iPod in the rental car, my battery was almost exhausted after 10 days of sparing use. We stopped to climb down a wooden ladder into a little cave along the way, Paula collected some rocks and we took a couple pictures.
The Blue Lagoon is remote but it’s a major tourist attraction. We each paid our ISK 1800 ($30) entrance fee and got our wristband. The locker room lockers are controlled with a chip in the wristband. You put all your stuff in a locker, close it, wave your wristband in front of a sensor and it records your unique wristband code and locks the locker. When you return, wave your wristband again and your locker pops open. It was pretty neat. You walk through a lobby area, with an indoor pool, to get to the outdoor lagoon. I think the lobby is warm enough, from the geothermal activity, to stay open most of the winter. The Blue Lagoon is probably twice the size of a football field with rocks around the edge forming numerous nooks and crannies. The water is warm to hot, shallow and saturated with minerals, the water is blue-white, and not very transparent, you can’t see more than a foot or two in the water. Its a little like seawater too since it’s very easy to float in the mineral-rich water. People also reach down to the lagoon floor and scoop up the white mud from the bottom of the lagoon and spread it all over their skin. I tried some on my arms and my skin did feel younger and smoother, but I wasn’t brave enough to put it on my face.
There were a lot of people there but it wasn’t crowded. There were some very hot bikini-babes and even more old-timers. It’s a family place but so expensive that you wouldn’t want to bring a large family. Near the lobby and locker building there is a deck with sun chairs and a couple other neat features. There’s a waterfall, which is about 12 feet high, the falling water feels like a heavy-handed massage, it’s relaxing in a, kind of painful, way. There’s a cave-like steam room, with room for about 10 people. There’s a cave-like grotto you can swim through too. I felt like I was getting a lot of sun on my very white torso and lingered in these special areas after the first hour. Don and Paula stayed longer than I did. I showered, dressed and hung out in the coffee shop for a while waiting for them.
We returned to Reykjavik and I went to the Floki Inn and rode my bike to the BSI terminal. I spent an hour or so breaking down and packing my bike and luggage for an early bus to the airport the following morning. Don and Paula picked me up at a pre-arranged time and we went out for dinner. We went back to the Pot and Pan restaurant. It was good but very expensive. Don picked up the bill but I think it was $200. And that only included 4? beers. Paula got some lobster bisque soup, it was very good, I had a taste, but the soup cost ISK 1500 ($25), ouch. We were the last party in the restaurant and the two waitresses came over and talked with us for quite a while. It was fun.
We drove to the bar area, parked and walked around, looking for some live music. We heard some American folk music coming out of one door, Horse with no Name, by America, and went in. It was a weeknight so it was a small crowd, 15 people listening to a pair of guitar playing folk singers. We had a couple beers and Brennivins and relaxed and enjoyed ourselves. They played mostly American songs but mixed in a couple Icelandic tunes too. It was a late night but I intended to sleep on the plane.
I got my wake up call, got up and walked a mile or so over to the BSI terminal where I caught a bus to the airport. I picked up my stored luggage all right and got it loaded onto the bus. I got a cart at the airport for the giant bike box and my two suitcases. Check-in and customs went smoothly and I had an uneventful breakfast and nap near my gate. I flew to Boston this time, not Minneapolis; I was fed up with Northwest Airlines anyway. I took an American Airlines flight back to O’Hare from Boston. American did make me pick up all my luggage and cart it over to a different terminal, but I had plenty of time. Zach picked me up at the Terminal, as we had planned, and I was home an hour after that.