Iceland Part 1: Blinded by The Northern Lights (Reykjavik to Stadarskali 13/10/17-28/10/17)

I arrived bleary eyed at Iceland’s Keflavik airport at 4.30am, having picked the word’s most inconvinient flight time. The airport had a fancy ‘bike box’ in the car park (a dedicated space for bicycle assembly) where I hopped to get a little shut eye. I’d managed a grand total of 20 minutes sleep on the flight over from Halifax in Canada so I rolled out my mat and crawled into my sleeping bag. Unfortunately the automatic lights in the unit flicked on at the slightest movement so I gave up, brewed a coffee, put my bike together and twiddled my thumbs waiting for the sun to appear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It rose slowly at around 8am and I was on the road with first light. A little sleep-deprived but wide awake with excitement. I was back in Europe!
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It was a landscape like nothing I’d seen before. Windswept plains and big mountains in the distance. A brisk and salty wind slapped me across the face and I grinned from ear to ear. Iceland is the ‘present’ to myself for having got so far. It is a country that I have dreamed about cycling for a long time and when I plotted this final section of my trip back to the UK I said to myself: “‘I’d better wrap up this holiday in style – what better a place to try and do that than in Iceland”.

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Arctic fox

Iceland’s role in my journey is two fold: not only is it a treat to myself for having got this far, it is also a challenge to be overcome right at the very end. Cycling across North America was a walk in the park. I need to step outside of my comfort zone (which is, admittedly much bigger than it it was three years ago) for one final face off with Mother Nature. I was certain I’d get that challenge in Iceland, in both cold temperatures, stormy weather and long nights.
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I couldn’t help but notice the sound of studded winter tyres on many of the cars driving past me. Already in mid October? That wasn’t a good sign. It was cold and drizzly, enough for me to put my waterproofs on but not enough to damped my spirits.
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I cycled like a zombie into Reykjavik. It took my 5 hours to ride 60km in the head wind – not much fun on zero sleep. I managed to ride a section of the way on back-roads but there was an unavoidable slog into the city on busy roads. In North America the drivers had, on the whole, been very patient with me but here the Icelandic drivers just zoom past annoyingly close. That night I slept for 12 hours. I think my body was trying to tell me something…
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In Reykjavik I stayed with Mikkel, a Dane who’s partner is one of my mum’s old friends. Mikkel is the director of the Nordic House and he invited me to do a talk there on one of the afternoons I was in town. Bjork was in the room next door to where I did my presentation which was vaguely exciting as she is one of only two Icelanders I know of. In case you were wondering, the other is Eidur Gudjohnsen – who played for Chelsea in the early 2000s.
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I liked Reykjavik a lot. It was much bigger than I had expected and it’s Nordic/Scandinavian aesthetic felt vaguely familiar. I was excited to find that they sell lots of Danish stuff in the supermarkets. So I could eat rugbrød and rullepølse for lunch, with a flødeboller for desert. I am easily pleased. The Icelandic only cut the last of their formal ties with Denmark in the 40s (but it was a part of the Kingdom of Denmark in the 19th Century).
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I had planned a route across the country taking in some of the most remote mountain roads I could find on the map. It had not occurred to me that they would all be closed for the winter by the time I arrived. There was just one ‘f-road’ still open leading up onto the Highlands so I headed straight for that.

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I first cycled past Thingvellir, the historic sight of Iceland’s former parliament. It is set by a dramatic rift where two tectonic plates are slowly tearing apart from each other.

I have recounted a number of bizarre ‘small world’ stories in this blog but the next one is the craziest of them all:

If you look at the pic below, you can see a couple of guys walking towards me a little bit back from the steps. There is a white guy in a blue jacket and a black guy in red. As we passed each other the white guy stopped and asked me in a Polish accent: ‘“Excuse me, don’t I know you from somewhere?”
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He certainly did look familiar but I needed him to jog my memory. We had indeed met at a hostel in Batumi, Georgia back in June 2015. I was struck dumb. I didn’t even know what to say. What do you say in such a moment? I was gobsmacked to see him but I think he was mostly surprised to find that I was still cycling after all this time…

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I turned off onto the dirt and rode up onto the highlands where the landscape was sparse and desolate. I pitched my tent and snuggled into my sleeping bag.

When I popped my head out a couple of hours later I saw a green smear across the horizon. It caught me by surprise, not expecting to see any light in the sky. The sun had now set a few hours ago and not in that direction. I then realised I was looking at the northern lights, only it looked nothing like I had expected. I had not occurred to me that there different levels to the aurora. When you see pictures of it you only see the lights at their very finest. Sometimes they do not look very impressive at all and this was one of those nights. It simply looked like someone had smudged a bit of green on the horizon. I gave it a full minute of my attention before deciding it was the most underwhelming thing I had ever seen and returning to bed.
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The Kaldidalur Valley was a wild place to cycle. As I pedalled higher the landscape became even more surreal. Patches of snow lined the road but the mountains were blanketed white. There was barely any traffic at all and the ‘road’ was ridiculously lumpy. Sadly, this was the last I saw of my Danish flag – it bounced right out the pannier after bouncing about on the rocky track.
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When I’d arrived in Reykjavik I’d complained about the winds to Mikkel. “Winds?” He asked. “This is just a little breeze!” He was right – it had been nothing at all. Now the winds were really blasting and it was hard to stay upright on the bicycle. I had to hold on to a sign to balance when I needed to go for a piss and I swear my wee blew 5 meters before hitting the ground…
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In the afternoon I dropped down from the highlands and I was back in farmland. The fields were privately owned and fenced off. There was no where to camp so I went into stealth-camping mode and slipped into the forest by the village Reykholt.
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Camping has become a touchy subject in Iceland. It’s quite a fascinating case study for ‘attempted’ sustainable tourism in a place where the industry has exploded in recent years. In many ways it is a similar situation as in New Zealand. You may recall my comments (and complaints) on the camping rhetoric among the Kiwis when I was there. Basically, there are far too many people visiting one place.

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This little country with a population of 330,000 people will have received about 2 million tourists this year. That’s 4 times more than in 2010. Even in the time I have been cycling, tourism has pretty much doubled here. Now imagine the strain all these visitors put on the environment, especially as the vast majority of them visit exactly the same places.

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Years ago, camping was easy here. You could sleep almost anywhere without trouble but now the Icelandic people are fed up with tourists parking by the side of the road. I think they are mostly annoyed because those visitors don’t treat the land with respect, so it is understandable that they have become strict on free camping. This was the same in NZ. The Icelanders are even having a national discussion about tourists pooing everywhere. I’m not making this up. It is a problem on some long stretches  – between services I’ve nipped down from the road to get out of the wind only to find someone has taken a shit there. But the problem is not the tourists, it is the lack of infrastructure. Tourism pretty much saved this country’s economy after the 2008 crisis and now makes up half of the nation’s foreign income. If more than £3 million are coming in a year then I think you can afford to put some portaloos up at the rest areas.
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Rules are slightly more relaxed for hikers and cyclists which is fortunate. The other good news is that there are a lot of official campsites. The bad news is that almost all of them are already closed this time of year, so I don’t have much choice.
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I headed up towards the sparsely populated Westfjords. I stocked up on supplies in Budardalur because from there it was a full 3 days without seeing a single shop. I did pass two hotels/petrol stations but they were closed for the winter.
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I loved that part of Iceland. Very few of the zillions of tourists come up this way and peak season is well and truly over now anyway. I had the place to myself and there was remarkably little traffic. Occasionally I’d pass a lonely farm tucked in at the inside of a long fjord but not much else worth noting.

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A hidden hot spring among the rock pools. These spots were one of my favourite thing in Iceland and often my only chance for a wash!

It was gorgeous riding. Sometimes the road would snake all the way around a narrow fjord and other times it would just climb up and over the mountains. I preferred the latter because then I’d get a good view from the top. They were real workouts though – straight up to around 300m and back down the other side in very few miles.
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The weather was volatile, to say the least. Some moments the wind would drop and all would be calm. Then the next minute it would blast and I’d fly in one direction or be reduced to a walk in the other. It was always a few degrees above freezing and only just below some nights. The rain was pretty miserable when it came, but I won’t start complaining about the elements just yet…

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Dynjandi waterfall

I was relieved that the road to Pingyeri was still open as soon it will close for the winter. Had it been blocked off before I made it up there I’d have had a very long ride only to reach a dead end!
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I camped beside the tunnel to Isafjordur. The concrete made a nice discreet spot for me to camp and the wall was so thick I couldn’t hear the cars. In the morning I rode through the 6km tunnel to the next fjord. I think that must be the longest tunnel I have ever cycled through and it is the only tunnel I have ever cycled through that has a junction inside it!

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More than 2,000 people live in Isafjordur. After days seeing nothing but little villages it felt like quite an urban overload! I did my food shopping in Bonus and picked up supplies for another 3 days. Greenland is only 350km away from this corner of Iceland and it was time for me to start moving east…
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It was frustrating cycling at times. On this side of the Westfjords the road stayed by the sea rather than cutting over the mountains. The fjords were long and thin and so it was tedious to ride around all of them. One day I cycled 75km and ended the day only 15km from where I had started.

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Isafjordur

After a glorious ride around the Westfjords I ended up camping just 20km from where I had been admiring the sunrise from my campsite a week ago. I pitched up on the top of the mountain – the type of spot that had become my favourite place to sleep. Up there there are never any farms and no fences to worry about. Finding a spot to camp is easy (but finding somewhere to get out of the wind is not). The nights are getting longer and longer so I try to set up my tent with the last light. I still have to kill 2-3 hours before going to sleep (otherwise I’ll wake up hours before dawn) so I usually read in my tent before popping out for a wee before I go to sleep. On this particular night I got out and this is what I saw:
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This was the Northern Lights in its full glory. What an extraordinary sight! There were no clouds at all and I was alone on top of the mountain with zero light pollution. The aurora lit up the sky in incredible fashion. I’d seen the lights a couple of times since that first night but both times they’d been equally rubbish. Now I had goosebumps all over. A big tick had been marked off my bucket list and it was more magical than I’d ever imagined. I nipped back inside my tent to get my camera. When I came back out the aurora had taken an entirely different pattern. It doesn’t move fast but every time you look away for a moment and then back it has morphed into another pattern. Sometimes it swirls above you and the next minute it streaks across the night sky like daggers.
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In the morning I rode down the mountain and stopped in Holmavik to try and source a new gas canister. My useless Wal-mart stove doesn’t want to burn my half-empty canister and it had taken about 45 minutes to boil water for my coffee and porridge in the morning. It was lucky that the shop had some.
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In the store the lady warned me about the storm coming in that evening. Apparently there would be winds up to 30m/s which meant nothing to me. She said there had been weather warning on TV and that people were being advised against travel.

 

All afternoon the winds grew stronger and stronger. I was reduced to a walking pace as I cycled into the inner part of the fjord. As I switched to start riding back out the other side of the fjord I had to deal with such an outrageous wind that I was actually blown off the bicycle. I could barely stand up.
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I was starting to get a little nervous about the storm. It was getting a bit hairy out there. At the edge of the fjord’s eastern side there was a HI hostel. I knew it would be closed but I rode over anyway to see if I could pitch my tent behind it. All I needed was a good wind shield to protect me from the southerly winds and all would be OK.

 

They were indeed closed, but luckily there was someone inside because they had a private group coming the next day. The guy took pity on me and said I could sleep inside. He’d seen the weather warnings too and joked that he could hardly have let me camp outside. I was over the moon! It was my first night indoors since leaving Reykjavik, I was safe from the storm and it hadn’t even cost me a penny.
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The winds were still blasting when I left in the morning. From Brodannes there is a small mountain pass. It is really very small, perhaps 200m above sea level but it ended up being the hardest pass of my trip. Someone in Reykjavik had said that some days in Iceland it might not actually be possible to cycle and I’d not taken them seriously. I figured that after all I’d been through on this trip a bit of wind couldn’t possibly stop me. I was wrong!

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It took me about 3 hours to cover 10km. Multiple times I was blown off the bike. Even when I was standing I was blown over. I took my helmet off to put my hat on and it almost blew off the mountain. I have never been in winds that can blow a helmet around! By the time I neared the top I was exhausted from pushing all that weight uphill against the wind. After one switch back I had a brief tailwind and suddenly I was riding up a 12% gradient dirt road without even pedalling. Imagine that!

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The winds were frightening. At one point I just had to cling on to a sign post with my bike in between me and the metal. Literally hanging on for dear life. It was a relief when I made it down the other side but it was still hard work heading south. I think it took me about 6 hours to cover 50km that day.

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By the late afternoon the winds finally dropped. A dairy farmer let me camp on one of his fields – all the land was fenced off again. The following morning I reached the Stardarskali at the inside of Hrutafjordur, which is the divide between the Westfjords and Northern Iceland. I think that’s a good spot to wrap up this blog!

Iceland had been a tough ride but the real hard stuff was still to come…

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