ME Iceland pages

E-postcard from Iceland

Ivan Viehoff

This was to be a tour of contrasts, concentrating on the eastern half of Iceland. I planned to move quickly to Vík i Myrdal, and first explore the South East. The scenery in this area is unique.  The largest glacier outside Greenland and the Antarctic covers some of the most active volcanos on the planet.  The extreme contrasts of glaciation and vulcanism produce extensive sandflats and lava fields. Periodic catastrophic subglacial thermal meltwater floods (jökulhlaup) rearrange the landscape in a matter of a few hours, sending blocks of ice the size of houses out over the wet flats with enormous force. It is the wettest part of Iceland, and, apart from the interior, the least populated. But, apart from the views, one motivation in cycling the area was to have a week or so on “easy” roads to regain some tour fitness. There isn’t much choice as to a route: there is only one road for several hundred km.  But this is only a start.  After this would come contrasting areas of the Eastfjords, a desert crossing via Askja, the volcanic splendours of Myvatn, the canyon of Jökulsárgljúfur, and whatever time left me.

I had spent the first night at the hostel at Innri Njarðvík near Keflavík airport, not quite such a friendly place as on my first visit.  There were several other cyclists there, including a very short Swiss cyclist on one of the smallest adult bikes I have seen.  I stocked up on food in a local supermarket.  I was only going to see small food shops for much of the next week, so I was pleased to get some interesting items in my bags. I cycled into Reykjavík, able to detour for a some way on a road which visits the villages on the north coast of the peninsular.  Next time I'll take the airport bus, though with a bike you may not be able to take the first one.  I was looking forward to owning some more Icelandic woollens, and having left space for them they had become essential purchases.  I found a thick and suitably disreputable jumper in the home-knit shop, and added the compulsory woolly hat, not forgetting the tax refund voucher.  Then I was on the bus to Vík i Myrdal, the southernmost town in Iceland. I went out for a brief puffin watch on the beach.  I was interested to see fulmars nesting on a crag behind the campsite.  I was soon to discover that the fulmar population has been growing rapidly.  A few skuas flew overhead on their way to an inland nest-site.

It rained for much of the first three days. Leaving Vík, it was head down into an appalling wind. With little view, it was pointless hard work, but good for forgetting your troubles and sorrows of which I had plenty.   Indeed I had come here deliberate to endure just such indignity, because I had things to forget.  I would have plenty of opporunity in the next few days.  I caught up with a Flemish cyclist, Baart.  He was on a hire bike, unaccustomed to the saddle, but his part-time semi-professional football career gave him the strength.  After a while I spotted an odd noise on his hire bike. He had four broken spokes, but my spares were the wrong size.  He decided to carry on to Höfn, if necessary on a bus, to see if they could be fixed, as amazingly the wheel was not warping yet.  We also spotted that his tyres were solid, so the hire shop's assertion he would have no punctures was definitely true. We were crossing Myrdalssandur, once the worst place in Iceland for sandstorms. But despite the conditions we had no trouble.  Lupins and carefully chosen grasses have been planted, largely stabilising the sand in the vicinity of the road.

From time to time through breaks in the cloud, we spotted glaciers almost hanging in the sky.  These were around the Skaftafell national park where we would arrive a day and a half ahead.  Even in bad weather, you can see huge distances in the clear air.  We soon came into the Eldhraun lavafield, which is covered in an extraordinary thick layer of moss. The weather improved at the end of the day, and we took a little detour off the main road to visit a scenic gorge.  This is the start of the route to the Laki crater row.  I hear that it is reasonably rideable, but with a dodgy ford.  I wasn't tempted.  Perhaps a journey to make another year in better weather.  On Kirjubærklauster campsite, a Rejkjavik police inspector told me about the alcohol and drugs problem of their isolated community.

It was really throwing it down next morning, so it was a mournful departure to ride across Skeiðarásandur. This enormous and unstable black sandflat is created by the outwash of Vatnajökull glacier.  It was the last part of the ringroad to be built, and from time to time it gets washed away by catastrophic jökulhlaup, or melt-water floods.  This had happened only a year or so earlier, following a sub-glacial eruption.  There are some extended sections on raised wooden bridges with a chicken-wire grip.  Old bits of bridge washed away in the recent flood could still be seen.  Some parts of the sands have been stabilised for farming, and even larger areas were so used in the past.  Some historic farms are now underneath the glacier, which despite recent retreats is still further extended than it was 1000 years ago.  Once again, the sun came out in the evening, and I had a pleasant evening at the Skaftafell national park camp site, though snipe whirred and redwing chirped all through the night.  I camped near a very tall East German cyclist, who was carrying a tiny tent but two pairs of jeans.  He was discovering that tarmac and gravel soon flatten the giant knobbles on your tyres – there’s not much mud in Iceland.

It was sunny the next morning, but the views were in the clouds, so I decided to cycle on rather than visit the sights.  I soon caught up with the German and also a Swiss couple.  The Swiss woman was cycling in full make-up.  It was a shame that we had such lovely light, but the glaciers remained in the clouds.  The road was heading south to  Fagurhólmsmyri, from where it would bend round to the left and carry on East.  At the bend, we came out of the lee of the mountains and were blasted by the worst wind yet, bringing with it cloud, rain and mist.  There is a cafe and a small shop, the last one until Höfn.  Inside was a Canadian couple with bikes waiting for a bus.  They only cycled when the wind was not too bad, and so far they had given up every day.  I bought some milk and left before I got too warm.  The wind was so strong I could only manage 7km/h. There were plenty of skuas in evidence, both Arctic and Great, though thankfully none took too much interest in me.  Here was utter wilderness, gravels too hard even to admit a tent-peg, so I didn't fancy an unscheduled wildcamp.  I calculated I could just about get somewhere sensible by the end of the day at this speed.  While I was lunching, shivering behind an embankment, Baart caught up with me.  He had now broken more spokes, and the wheel was now warped and rubbing.  Somehow he carried on.  Taking turns on the front, our speed increased, and we came to the famous Jölkulsárlón glacial lagoon with its icebergs.  Today, they were emerging out of the mist.  The great glaciers were invisible, but it was a haunting sight nonetheless.  Once again the weather improved in the evening, and encouraged I cycled on to a youth hostel, a pleasant luxury after the day's hardship.

Finally a beautiful day, and amazing views of glaciers as I cycled on to Höfn for some shopping.  I bumped into Baart again.  Finally he had 7 broken spokes, but had found someone who could mend them, and make suitable protests to the hire shop on his behalf.  I decided to use the rest of the afternoon to cycle on to Stafafell, as Mike Erens said it is a special place.  There is a killer of a hill just past Höfn, and once again passing a headland brings me into bad weather.  No rain, but wind and very cold.  I was absolutely shattered on getting to Stafafell.  But they have a great free hot shower at the campsite.  There was an interesting Dutch girl camping nearby.  Her trousers were too long, and she kept them rolled up with clothes pegs.  I felt I had earned a day off, and went on a great walk, and found some fascinating areas, though route-finding was challenging.

The next three days were spent going back and forth throught the Eastfjords.  I took the longer route through Fáskruðsfjörður, and it was worth it. It was often cold, but mainly dry and sunny, with plenty of the kind of views I had come to see.  One morning, I had problems with a sheep-dog. At the campsite, it rolled over to have its tummy tickled. But when I tried to leave it chased after me and wanted to round me up. It would run in front of me to force me to stop, and try to bite me when I tried to go on. In fact, it got its teeth round my leg in a warning snap before I worked out its game. It would get bored after a while and let me carry on, only to repeat the game a little later. Distracted by a dead sheep near the top of a small hill, I thought I would make my escape. But it managed to overtake me quite easily even though I was doing 60 km/h. After half-an-hour of this, I stopped a passing local, who kindly took the dog home, in which time I made only 4km.  I feel I should also mention Iceland's dirty secret, fish processing factories.  That's what those little towns exist for.  And those factories smell, sometimes 20km away.

In Egilsstaðir, I loaded up with a week’s food for my desert trip. I didn’t dare follow my original plan to visit the Snæfell area – not the Jules Verne volcano, but a tall pointy mountain in the eastern central area, the best place to see reindeer – as the roads in the area were still closed following heavy snowfalls in early June. It meant missing the woods and waterfalls along lake Logurinn, but this was a small loss.  In fact the last 15km to the Dreki hut near Askja was also still closed, but as all adjacent roads were open, I decided to risk it. As I cycled out of Egilsstaðir I saw my first ravens of the tour.  They were being escorted out of the area by some black-tailed godwits.  This was the first time I positively identified the godwits, though I had probably seen them before.  I would see them quite regularly from here on, and their insistent calling made me think that their name should be slightly altered.  I came into the Jökuldal valley.  Progress was slowed first by roadworks, which had me off and wheeling for quite a long way, and then strong sidewinds which forced me to wheel on a good gravel road, because I couldn’t maintain a straight course.  There were plenty of brown ploughed fields, and the dust was being blown around by the wind.   To me it seemed a mournful place under the low clouds, though Zdenek Horcik, a Czech cyclist who came this way a few years ago, took a stunning photo in good light. Many of the streams were dry, and I had the sense to load up with some water when I found some, so I could choose a sheltered campsite. I was just thinking how in Patagonia I used to look for road-workers’ depots in these situations, when a road-workers’ gravel quarry came into view. Even in that sheltered location, my tent pegs were lifted out of the weak ground by a strong gust, and I piled rocks on the guy-ropes.

The next morning the wind was still unhelpful, but rather more reasonable. At Brú, I said goodbye to the decent gravel road and was onto a rough earth road climbing up over some passes onto the central plains. The road was OK-ish, but frequently too steep to ride, even going down, so I was pushing a lot of the time. And I started meeting those shoes-off-sandals-on foot-numbing fords. At first I was on heathland, with scattered alpines, but after lunch descended to the central desert plain, where vegetation was limited to the sides of the few streams and snow-melt courses. Why does a shower always appear the instant you sit down to eat your lunch? Everything became predominantly black, with patches of cream-coloured pumice lying on the surface and mountain snow-patches. What was interesting was the variety of surface textures, and the strange isolated hills sticking out of the plain. Herðubreið, a large round table mountain which looked like a birthday cake in its half-melted snow cover, came into view – it would be visible most of the time for the next week.

At a ford I met a couple of older Spanish cyclists coming the other way, at the same time as the only car of the day. They advised me what I suspected – that the next ford in 2 km was the last decent drinking water until Dreki. They also confirmed that though the road was still officially closed, it was passable. Since it had taken them 9 hours from Dreki to where I stood, with a helpful wind and more down than up, it suggested that the next 55km were not going to be the easiest for me. They had been rather surprised by their inability to cover 100km a day in the interior, and were running very short of food. They had to get to Egilsstaðir by the following evening, and I felt they had a good chance of achieving that, especially if my headwind was a tailwind for them.  The next ford was a luggage off, half way up the thigh, carry everything in 7 crossings, ford, and I added 10 litres of water to my load so I had water for the next 24 hours. As I approached the Kreppa bridge – “the Gripper” – a huge glacial river running along a basalt crack, I came through a strange area of flat rocks and little canyons where I camped the night. (The water in the big glacial rivers isn’t drinkable.) I was frightened out of my tent at midnight by a loud noise I feared might be a flood or something – not that I would have had the faintest chance had it really been a flood - but actually it was a big yellow road-digger driving by. Why do Icelandic workmen drive their machines around at midnight?

At the Kreppa bridge, I was only 1km away from the equally large Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, contained in a similar basalt crack. Moreover the main road to Askja from the north, which I have to join, is only about 5km away. But the road has to wind about 20km south to find a suitable bridge crossing point, and then head back 12km north to join the main road, almost entirely circumnavigating a large pointy mountain on the way. I started off with steep little ups and downs through the lava, with occasional little soft bits that had me off and pushing. Gradually I entered sandier realms. I soon got the hang of the fact that when there was a nice thick layer of pale pumice on top of the black sand, then typically the sand was easily rideable – indeed you could speed along rather fast until you hit a soft bit. But as the pumice got thinner, or absent, then you would break through into the soft stuff. As the sand got even softer, even wheeling gets hard, it becomes dragging. I started looking forward to the increasingly scarce lumpy rocky bits. Normally the lumpy rocky bits are the stretches you dread when you are on a nice gravel road, but anything rideable was better than this. Eventually the rocks ran out, and I wheeled and dragged continuously for about 3 hours to gain only 10km. Moreover the weather was, for once, rather warm and I was wilting.

Over the Jökulsá bridge, I came into the unpromisingly named Vikursandur area. This started as a rather weird gravelly plain covered with scattered small rocks, and occasional larger outcrops, easily rideable for quite a way, despite some short heavy downpours making it a bit sticky and my bike getting covered in sand. The sun glinting on the wet black stones all looked rather weird. There wasn’t a plant in sight, but flies would appear from nowhere and bother me. Then it got softer and softer, and I was pushing and dragging the bike for another hour or two. It was with considerable relief that I reached the road junction with only 13km to go, just before 6pm. Even 13km could be three or four hours if it was sandy, and I was worn out.  So far I had made 32km in 8 hours.  And after the first km, I would be in the giant Ódaðahraun lava-field, another unknown quantity. Fortunately, after the first km, the road became lumpy but mostly rideable. The new excitement was snowdrifts. It appeared that the road itself, sunk into the terrain, attracted snowdrifts, because away from the road there was no snow. With the bike, it was straightforward to go around them, and some naughty 4wd drivers had obviously been doing the same thing. I was overtaken by a family of Germans doing just that as I approached the hut.

That day, and indeed much of the previous afternoon, I had been passing over mostly rather flat, sandy ground, mostly in just one colour – black – and one would expect this to be rather boring. But in fact what was amazing was the great variety of different landscape textures I passed through.

The water system at the hut hadn’t been reinstated after the winter, so I had to take water from the stream, carefully avoiding the floating rocks. After dinner, Baart appeared in the hut to the amazement of both of us. He had abandoned the bike and was now in a 4wd with some friends, and had just come down from Askja. He revealed that about 2km above the hut, the mountain was almost entirely covered in snow, and it was about a 5 hour walk there and back, rather than the quick bike-ride it ought to be. So that is what I did the next day, mostly in dazzling sunshine. I thought I would be on my own, because the Germans were still in bed, but I was eventually overtaken by a small tour-group in a special vehicle with enormous wheels.

Askja is a caldera which formed in 1875, by internal collapse of a magma chamber under a volcano. It is filled with water, and the lake Öskjuvatn covers over 20 sq km, with its surface at about 1100m altitude. The walls climb to about 1600m on one side, but the caldera actually sits within the nested walls of two or three previous and much larger calderas, formed several tens of thousands of years ago. I suppose it is rather amazing that such a large area of high ground isn’t permanently glaciated, though the lake only unfreezes for a short period late each summer. It was mostly ice-covered when I arrived. Near the lake is a small explosion crater, about 60m deep and perhaps 300m across, with brightly coloured walls, which contains a naturally heated lake suitable for swimming. It is one of the many places in Iceland called Víti, which means Hell. Originally the whole of Öskjuvatn was warm enough for swimming, but the heat providing that has now dissipated. I climbed down into the crater - a steep, slippery, muddy descent - for my swim. Most of the tour-group didn’t dare. It was a sun-trap, so not having a towel (or swimming costume) didn’t bother me, and I dried off in the sun while eating my lunch. If that’s what hell is like, I don’t mind. Mind you, the walk over the snow to get there resulted in very stiff legs the next few days.  In the middle of the night the big yellow digger turned up at the hut, having cleared the drifts on the way, and its driver turned out to be a champion snorer.

The road to Dreki officially opened the next morning, and suddenly there were loadsatourists on the road. I had an easy ride to Herðubreiðarlinndir, arriving at lunchtime. This is a reserve next to Herðubreið mountain, comprising meadows, lakes and streams, fed by melt-water from the mountain after passing under the lava. I spent an afternoon getting lost on the nature-trail walks, while the wind became so strong the ducks were blown backwards if they tried to fly. What was amazing was that far from whipping up sand-storms, the air became ultra-clear. It was quite intoxicating for the views in the evening. The area is allegedly the most important breeding site on the planet for the rare pink-footed goose, but I didn’t see any geese, of any foot colour. But I did see harlequin ducks and purple sandpipers. In fact, the purple sandpipers come and see you. I spent the evening helping people to put their tents up, and laughing at the attempts of others.

I put my tent next to someone else's parked bicycle, and in the evening its owner appeared.  He had spent the day attempting to climb the mountain, but he was frightened off by some rock-falls. I gave him some sun lotion and chocolate, as he was in dire need of both. He was an Ulsterman working as a cycle courier in Oslo, just skin and bone.  For someone who had been to Iceland before and ought to know the conditions, I was astonished he had allowed himself to become so badly sunburnt.  He was riding the fattest tyres I have ever seen, and kept almost entirely to desert interior roads. He claimed to be carrying 2 or 3 weeks of food, which comprised little more than pasta, muesli, sugar and butter.  Last year he had crossed Gæsavatnleið, the route connecting Askja to Sprengisandur, using the old route. He thought it not too bad, having pushed his bike only 30km or so.  Others have told of pushing their bike 60km.  I think it depends how wet it has been, as the sand firms up after rain.  This year he had crossed Sprengisandur three weeks before it was “open”, taking 5 hours to cover 5km because of snow-drifts at one point.  Later three Belgian cyclists appeared having cycled down from the ringroad in the strengthening headwind.  They were covered in dust from head to toe. They discovered their cheap tent got flattened in strong winds, but it didn’t break or blow away, so who needs a good tent?

It was a rather long boring ride back north to the ring road, particularly after the immediate area of the reserve had been passed. A minibus-driver waiting for the return of a walking party photgraphed me fording the Lindaá.  He offered to carry my luggage until he caught up with me. As a result I made excellent progress for a while. When he did catch up, he offered to carry my luggage further, but I felt this was too much of a risk as I needed access to it in case of difficulty.  Later I had an hour wheeling in the sand. I made the 60km to the ring road by tea-time. Then I had the indignity of having to wheel my bike for 30 mins on a busy main road because of roadworks, only making the 30km to Myvatn, into a headwind, just before the shop shut.

I was knackered. So I had a day off seeing the sights of lake Myvatn and only did 50km…. There were plenty of Barrow’s Goldeneyes to be seen on the lake, and plenty of dull unidentifiable female ducks, but on the whole not much evidence of many of the other diverse duck species for which the lake is famous. I did spot a single Great Northern Diver, which drew attention to itself by making the noises for which it is famous. It turned out that the famous (biting) midges only appear for very short periods in great swarms, and I missed them, though there was no shortage of other annoying flies. But I was glad for my head-net, as the flies seem to like drinking from your tear-ducts. Most of the other scheduled touristical sites are of a volcanic nature. The area really does give a good impression of being torn apart by tectonic forces, with its numerous fissures, volcanoes, lavafields, hot springs and sulphur deposits. It has some rather unusual formations, such as pseudo-craters and lava towers, which arise when lava spreads over water-logged ground; this causes steam explosions up through the setting lava. In Icelandic mythology, Myvatn is the devil’s piss.

And so onto Jökulsárgljúfur national park, Iceland’s “grand canyon”, with Europe’s most powerful waterfalls formed by the joint force of the Kreppa and Jökulsá rivers. The road is perfectly rideable, but otherwise awful, and has no views whatever – you have to take a variety of turn-offs, and typically walk a further 20 mins to see the sights. And of course after several good days a thunderstorm complete with nose-pinging hail arrived a few minutes before I got to Dettifoss, the biggest waterfall and first scheduled sight (taken in this direction). Fortunately I was able to camp there, a fact deliberately under-publicised as the park admin have to deliver drinking water. I got politely told off in the morning for not having camped in precisely the correct location. It rained most of the next day, but it was quite nice pottering around the viewpoints and spotting orchids, even in the rain, even if I have no photographic evidence of it. I was sufficiently chilled and wet through to feel like sitting in a warm café for the first time in over a fortnight, and fortunately there was one at the petrol station near the Ásbyrgi camp-site. Ásbyrgi is a weirdly round “canyon” which just looks too regular with its utterly vertical walls to be real. In nicer weather, I might have been tempted to stay around and go for some walks.

On my way to Húsavík, I had my coldest lunch-stop – only 4C in windy, drizzley conditions. I put on all my clothes and went on a freezing cold whale-spotting boat trip in the sun the following morning, the previous evening’s departures having been cancelled due to rough weather. In our small refurbished wooden fishing boat, I felt quite sick enough in a light sea. We only saw a few small Minke whales, but plenty of dolphins and tiny dolphin calves. I learned it’s better to go on a trip in the west of Iceland to see big whales.

I camped at Góðafoss and a couple of Italian cyclists arrived. They were astonished I had ridden the Jökulsárgljúfur road on my tourer, as they had found it rather more than they bargained for on their mountain bikes.  One of them had broken his Blackburn low-rider front rack, a common problem on bad Icelandic roads.  It is a good idea to use tubular steel for both your pannier racks for extended periods on bad roads.

Passing Akureyri in a hurry, I went round the large Trollskagi peninsular over a couple of days, battling a ferocious wind on my way north. This is a lovely mountainous area with snow-capped jagged peaks and little fjords, and a very scenic mountain pass. Dalvík must be just about the most scenically situated village in Iceland, and I had the fortune of a sunny evening to camp there. It also has a free camp-site better equipped than many paid-for sites, with heated loo-block, hot water taps, hot shower, etc, and I was the only person there! I couldn’t get my front light to work for the 3.5km single-track tunnel to Ólafsvík, but fortunately it was well-lit and had regular passing places. Later I learned that the old road is passable by bike, despite the warning signs.  On a bright sunny day, the views were amazing. I could make out Grimsey – the island on the Arctic circle - and in the afternoon there was a fata morgana effect – a mirage of islands with snow-capped peaks appears out at sea. Finally I cycled through Sauðakrókur and took a rough interior road across a peninsular, in good time to take the evening bus back to Reykjavík from Blönduós.

Ivan Viehoff - 2001

RSF LogoMore Iceland reports by Ivan Viehoff can be found at the site of the Rough Stuff Journal