Snæfellsnes and the Westfjords '96

Preparation

In June 1996 I decide to do what I wanted to do for a long time : visit the Westfjords in Iceland. This area is even for Icelanders rather unknown, because of its isolated position outside road number 1. There is only little tourism, because the area is not volcanic, and less spectacular than the rest of Iceland. For me that isn't a problem. I had seen the spectacular part on two earlier tours. This time I was looking for peace and nature.

First I had to arrange the flying tickets. Flights to Iceland are usually fully booked in the tourist season, but I was lucky. The woman from the travelshop got me a ticket. Only my return flight was a little bit of a problem, and I had to stay a week longer than planned. But what's wrong with an extra week in a beautiful country ?

Some days before departure, I checked my bicycle, and put two new tyres on. My tent was a little precarious after my last holiday, but I assumed it would survive this month as well. I got me a travel insurance, and was ready to leave. Why would you plan a tour months in advance, while you can do it in three weeks ?

The route

Routemap

Schiphol - Reykjavik

I'm glad that my bicycle arrived with little damage at Keflavik airport. I use a plastic bag to transport it. Airport personal can see that it is a bicycle, and they might be careful with it. It's just a theory... The ride from Keflavik to Reykjavik is harder than I thought. The last time I was in Iceland, I did it in two hours. Now it takes me three and a half, untrained as I am, and with a stiff wind in front. But I guess my condition will improve the next days. I put up my tent at Reykjavik's campsite, and then it takes more than an hour to solve problems with my petrol stove. The first symptoms of a bad preparation.

Reykjavik - Stykkishólmur

The next morning I rise early to take the (now closed) ferry to Akranes. This way, I want to avoid the busy road out of Reykjavik. And it's a 90 km shortcut to my first destination : Snæfellsnes. During the crossing, I see whales. I thought this were intelligent animals, but why are they swimming so close to the only whale processing factory in Iceland (in Hvalfjördur) ?

My bicycletour starts in Akranes. My first goal is to ride round the Snæfell volcano, situated at the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Because of the bad roads, I want to do about 80 to 100 km a day. This is less than on other holidays, where I do 120 to 140 a day. Luckily the weather is reasonable, sunny with rainclouds. Very Icelandic. Unluckily I have a stiff wind in front. I reckon to be at my first campspot around half past four. But the strong wind and my untrained body make me look desperate for a place to sray at four o' clock and after only 65 km. And the area where I'm cycling is not very suitable for camping, mostly farmland and little fresh water. Almost three hours, and twenty km later I find a nice spot beside a lake, close to a mineral spring.

The next day starts beautiful. Nice sunshine, clean air, a good road with little traffic, and a great view on the volcano. I was here before 9 years ago, but then with a car. Now with a bicycle it's ultimate enjoyment. I do some shopping at the only petrolstation on the south shore of the peninsula. Unfortunately they don't sell bread, but I assume I can buy it later that day, in my destination this day, a village called Arnarstapi. Meanwhile the sun becomes really hot. I put on suntan lotion. But even factor 10 isn't good enough to protect me. The next days I have purple hands and a puffy face.

The scenery isn't spectacular but prettier than I remember. On the right side are farms along a steep slope, on the left is the sea. Occasionally there is a waterfall or a lavafield. The road is good almost until Arnarstapi. When I arrive there, the little shop is still open. Unfortunately it sells only icecream and lemonade. That means I won't have breakfast the next morning. The 35 km to the next village over a bad road will be hard on an empty stomach. Because the weather is still beautiful, I decide to cycle as far as I can this day. Which means, that I miss some attractions like the beach at Dritvik. I still regret it. I camp in the wild at the only point where I can find water, at the west side of the volcano.

The first living creatures I meet the next day, are some ponies that are walking in the wild. You can't call them wild ponies, they belong to someone. But since they can't get of the peninsula, they are allowed to roam free. They beg for food, but I haven't any myself. After some petting we part.

The north side of Snæfellsnes is much rougher than the south side. There are great views like the sight at Kirkjufell a 450m high cathedral shaped hill. When I'm resting after a short but tough climb, I remember why I love Iceland. It's the bizarre landscape. In this case a green/red lavafield named Beserkjahraun. I put up my tent ten km outside Stykkishólmur.

Stykkishólmur - Látrabjarg

It will be a tiring night. My tent isn't fully waterproof. I wake up several times, to clear small puddles in the tent. The next day, the weather is also changeable. Blue skies and dark grey rainclouds make great pictures.

In Stykkishólmur I take the boat to the Westfjords. But I will spent the night halfway, at an island called Flatey. This is one of the oldest communities in Iceland, consisting of about 20 houses and 40 people. And it's a birds paradise. While I fear a night full of rain, I stay in the only pension of the island. It stays dry, but a good night of sleep is always welcome. The island isn't big. In the evening and the morning I can explore it entirely. It's very quiet there as long as you stay out of the neighborhood of the Artic tern, a beautiful, brave but noisy bird.

The next day I ship in again at m.s. Baldur, that brings me to the other site of the fjord. My next goal is Látrabjarg. This is a birdcliff on the most western tip of Iceland and Europe. The first part of the tour is a flat gravelroad. I pass some uninhabited farms. Lots of people left this region the past decades, for a better life in less harsh circumstances. After 40 km I have my first climb to the next fjord. I try to cycle it, but I know immediately that the slope is too steep for my lowest gear (42x28). So I have to walk and push. And this will be the same for all the other slopes in the Westfjords. Luckily it's nice weather and a gorgeous environment.

After the descend, I have a flat ride along the fjord. The hills are bald and four to sixhundred meters high. There are only a few farms here. I put up my tent in a riverbed when I get my first puncture. To my surprise I see two cyclers on the road. During my stay in the Westfjords I count only four.

My next stop is Breidavik a youth hostel at 12 km from Látrabjarg. I drop my luggage and tent here and go without them to the cape. I hope to take a shower in the youth hostel, the first since Reykjavik. Látrabjarg is less deserted than I thought it would be. Even in this remote part of the island is a parkinglot with a few cars, a bus with French tourists and a bicycle ! And not one of the cyclers I saw yesterday. But I won't meet the owner until the next morning. He's a student from Germany and traveling two months in Iceland. Like any cycling single German he wants to go through the Sprengisandur, the desert in the middle of Iceland. I think a rather boring ride (I did it by car), but cyclers I met told me it was an unforgettable experience. Oh well, it's their thrill.

To avoid the tourists at Látrabjarg I walk uphill along the cliffs. I want to make a photo from a puffin (a bird). But, the higher I climb, the fewer birds I see. When I return I notice, that most of the tourist are gone. Left are three girls, leaning over the edges of the cliff, making videotapes of themselves and the puffins when they try to touch them. I believe they are successful. I also make a great picture of a bird with my simple compact camera, by almost putting it in the birds face. For an hour I watch how the birds are flying around, and then return to Breidavik.

Látrabjarg - Isafjördur

The next day I have to hurry, to do shopping. It's Saturday, so shops close at 14.00 hour. And the nearest shop is 50 km from Breidavik. Halfway the ride I meet the previous mentioned student. We protect each other for the wind, do shopping, exchange traveltips and say goodbye.

The rest of the day I travel along several fjords until I put up my tent close to a small swimmingpool. It seems strange, a swimmingpool 30 km from the nearest village. But the reason is practical. Near the pool are hot springs. What Icelanders do, is mix the water from the spring with a cold stream, lead it in a concrete tank, and put a changing room with it. Voilá, a pool with self refreshing water.

I go to sleep in peace. But then, at four in the morning it starts. An Icelandic storm. My tent fiercely shakes, and streams of water drip into my tent. I'm immediately awake. The first thing I do is bring everything that shouldn't become wet in a save place. The state of my tent is much worse than I thought. The rain beats its way through the canvas. Luckily it stays upright in the wind, because otherwise I would've blown in the fjord. But it shows again, that an equipment that's sufficient for other countries isn't suitable for Iceland. I hide in the plastic bicyclecover that I used for the flight to Iceland. I forgot to leave it at the airport, and now I'm glad I did. Around noon the storm seems to lie down. Then I get the idea to put the plastic cover between inner- and outer sheet of the tent. It works. I forget the plan to take the bus to Isafjördur (if any...) and buy a new tent there (if possible...). While the storm continues, I try to repair my bicycle. Two spokes are gone and two are broken. At seven in the evening the sky is blue again. I cycled no meter this day, but I have the idea, that my vacation is saved.

The next morning I start with a blue sky and nice sunshine. The student had warned me for the next stage of the tour. He had had mist, rain and a muddy road. I had a blue sky and a heath like Icelandic heaths are, with great views over deep fjords, deep black and snowy-white hilltops, bright green moss cut-through by deep blue streams and deserts of stones in a million colors, types and sizes. And as a bonus I get the mighty Dynjandifoss, a beautiful 100 meter high waterfall, that drops into 5 other smaller but also beautiful waterfalls. The day would have been perfect when I had not hurried my head off to the next village before the shops closed.

The last stage to Isafjördur is easy, only 50 km. Well, there is a little obstruction, called Breidadalsheidi, an over 610 meter high pass. A 10% slope isn't easy with wind in front, even not when you push your bike uphill. It costs me 2,5 hour. Luckily there is little traffic. The top of the hill looks most like a stone quarry. The only things that are not grey, are snowpatches and a bright red emergency shelter. A chilling polarwind blows the clouds over the top of the hills. This must be a very bad place in bad weather. The Icelanders thought this as well because the next day a tunnel was opened under the pass.

Isafjördur and Hornstrandir

Isafjördur is not big, but at least you get the idea that you are in a little town instead of an arctic bungalowpark. The main infrastructure is all there, hotels, a hospital and an airport. Apart from some older streets and a interesting museum there's a harbour and even an outdoor shop where they sell bicycle stuff. I put up my tent at the campsite at three km from the towncentre.

I stay several days in Isafjördur, making trips in the surrounding area. One is to Sudavik, twenty km along the fjord. This village was hit by an avalanche the year before, and the traces are still there. In the centre of the village are the remains of several houses, painted with slogans. "Avalanches kill" I guess. On the way back I see huge ravens flying. Later I see some in Isafjördur where they scare the cardrivers by flying close in front of their cars.

Another trip I make is to Hornstrandir. This is an uninhabited area in the north of the Westfjords. That weekend, it's "Bankaholiday", a weekend that Icelandic people use to party like beasts. I'm not very much of a party animal, so I want to avoid the festive terrains as much as possible. Hornstrandir seems like the right place. So I leave my bicycle and bicyclebags at the campsite and ship in at the m.s. Fagranes for a 5 hour long boattrip. The closer we come to Hornstrandir the more imposing the cliffs become. In the end we look at an 500 meter high wall of stone.

There is no landing-stage in Hornstrandir. We are brought to the beach in small rubber boats. This is fun in clear weather and luckily it was (and unluckily it wasn't on the return day). I won't tell very much about my three days in Hornstrandir except that it was very wet, windy, and that I got lost in the fog. It must be a great place for hiking when you're well prepared. I wasn't.

Isafjördur - Thingvellir

On Tuesday m.s. Fagranes brings me to the end of the fjord for my return journey. The 3 hour boatride saves me a bicycleride of 180 km. The southside of the fjord has deep inlets, that makes cycling rather depressing. At some stage there is a place, where you can see where you were eight hours and 100 km before. And the fjord isn't as beautiful as the southern Westfjords.

After the disembarkment I have to climb to the top of Thórskafjardarheidi. In contrast with the past days the weather is quite good, with a bleak sun but no rain. Later that day a chilling polar wind starts blowing in my face. I'm looking forward to the end of Gilsfjördur, where I will have the wind in the back for 15 km. But when I'm nearly there I see something that I could avoid for two weeks : a road repair machine. These machines flatten the roadsurface, by scraping of the toplayer. This is nice for cars, but for cyclers it means, that the small path you use for cycling disappears, that you can't see the stones, and that you have to cycle in 5 cm of sand. And when it rains, it's 5 cm of sludge. And that's what happening now. I'm furious, and forget to look on the road. A puncture is my reward. I'm sick of it, and decide to make camp there. I'm getting fed up with the rain, the wind and the roads.

The next two days I ride mainly through a landscape dominated by farming activity. It's not ugly, but neither is it interesting. The few mountainpasses look more Scottish than Icelandic. The weather is dreary, with dark clouds and occasional showers. My bicycle is scattered with mud. I clean it at the carwash installation of a petrolstation. A drop of oil on tactical places and it looks like new.

The first rays of sun appears again near Husafell. This is a famous holiday resort for people from Reykjavik. Scattered in the lavafield you see holiday houses. Near Husafell is the beautiful Hraunfoss. I've seen it before and decide to view two lavatunnels. They look like a huge hole in the ground. You can enter one of them (Surtshellir), but it's not recommendable to do it without a torch. The day could have ended bad when I stepped in a hole in the ground. I was unhurt, so lucky.

At the campsite from Husafell happens what I feared. I've just put up my tent when 6 cars covered in loud music enter the campground. About twenty teenagers jump out of it, and with a lot of noise they start putting up tents and barbecues. When this is finished it becomes quieter. The boys start a game of soccer. The girls roam the campsite in groups, armed with vodkabottles. Their party starts when they spot a tent with French guys. Contact is made fast, so they can practice the French lessons they must have had in school. At least that's what I think they are doing because I hear them saying "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi". The evening ends not as bad as I feared. Until one o' clock they sing round the campfire, but then it's quiet.

I want to taste a little of the Icelandic desert, so I take the Kaldidalur route to Thingvellir. I rode the 45 km before, but then with a car. It looked pretty cyclable then. But the first part is bad. After a climb I land on a road consisting mainly of stones. I decide to walk. luckily. after a couple of kilometers the road becomes better, and finally even good. A difference with other mountain roads I had this vacation is that you have a permanent view on one of Iceland's big glaciers Langjökull. The scenery varies between empty plains, plains with big stones and plains with only stones. When I've reached the highest point of the road, I get a nice descend that continues till the next official road. Unfortunately this one is worse than the Kaldidalur. It costs a lot of energy to advance. When I'm resting on top of a hill near Thingvellir, 6 cars pass me by, honking cheerfully. They are the kids from the campsite. Two minutes later I pass them again because one of their cars missed a turn and landed beside the road. It takes an hour before I hear an ambulance. And even then they are lucky, that it happened close to an urban area. How bad would it be when this happened halfway the Kaldidalur. Or worse, halfway the Sprengisandur. Iceland has bad places to get an accident.

Thingvellir - Vik -Reykjavik

Because I've a week more than expected, I want to ride along the south coast to Skaftafell. This is a green oasis at the south edge of the glacier Vatnajökull. I've been there before with a car, but I want to do it on the bicycle now. Going along the southcoast also means taking the circle road, that I enter near Selfoss. The circle road is here a wide asphalt road with a lot of traffic. I could have moved fast if I hadn't had the wind in front. And with the next flat tyre I lose the rhythm completely. When I inspect the outer tyre I notice that there's a small hole on the tread, through which you can see the inner tyre. The new, expensive, Keflar-layered tyre has held only three weeks on Icelandic roads. I decide to swap front and back tyre so I'll have the weak one on the front. It costs me an hour. Later I tell this story to a German cycler. He tells that he had to swap front and backrim because of a crack. It cost him almost two days, because he had to respoke both wheels. Some problems are relative.

After Hvolsvöller there's less traffic on the road. The bad thing is that it starts to rain rather bad. I'm sick of the weather and want to go home. I decide to spent the night in Skogar, and end my tour in the most southern point from Iceland : Vik. From there I'll take the bus back to Reykjavik.

Skogar is a nice point. It's not a village, only a school and a (very interesting) museum. It also has one of the most photographed waterfalls in Iceland, the 60m high Skogafoss. In Skogar also ends the hiking path to Thórsmörk and Landmannalaugar. It must be crowded up there, because in the evening at the campsite I see at least fifty people coming from the slopes.

I start my last cycling day with a visit to the museum. The warden takes me (literally) by the hand to show ancient Icelandic farm and fishing equipment like spinningwheels, whalehooks en sheep's condoms. Then I cycle the last 25 km with wind in the back to Vik. The glacier Myrdallsjökull shines in the sun. The thought to continue the tour tickles my mind, but it flows away half an hour later, when drops of rain start falling again. Before going to Vik I visit the Dyrholaey. This peninsula is famous for a rock with a hole so big, that a ship can sail through it. I prefer the nearby black sands beach with the strange rockformations. When I've pushed my bicycle for the last time uphill I arrive in Vik, where I stay for the night.

The campsite in Vik is luxurious for Icelandic standards, and has even a community room. In Vik I visit a birdrock with lots of puffins. At two o' clock I take the bus to Reykjavik. I'm lucky, there's room in the bus for my bicycle. They only have space for about 10 bicycles max. But the weather is good, so cyclers are cycling. At five I arrive in Reykjavik.

Reykjavik - Keflavik - Schiphol

I stay two days in Reykjavik to explore town and museums. The day before my flight back, I go to Keflavik. I can't do it on the last day, because my plain leaves at eight in the morning. But I also have a plan to see a little more of the Reykjanes peninsula. So instead of going straight to Keflavik, I first go to the Blue Lagoon. This isn't a movie, but a weird swimmingpool with lightblue, milklike water. The water is the wasteproduct of a near by powerstation. It's full of healthy salts. I don't go swimming (I never do), but make pictures of this strange steaming pool with a stainless steel factory in the background. To continue the ride, I take the coastal road to the west. This is mainly lavaland. At the southernmost point is a lighthouse in the middle of a lavafield. Nearby are bubbling mudpools, sulphurepools and screaming birds. A nice ride to end my vacation.

But the best had still to come, on the next day. When the airplane climbs in the cloudless sky, we fly along the coast, and have a devastating and unforgettable view over Iceland's land, glaciers and rivers.