26.07.2013 - 26.08.2013
Since returning from Asia in 2011, Iceland has been top of my ‘To Visit’ list and after managing to talk my sister into cycling round it, it turned into one of the most exhausting but rewarding holidays’ (as opposed to longer travelling stints) I’ve ever had in one of the most visually spectacular country’s’ in the world.
The trip began in slightly challenging circumstances- and that was just trying to get our bikes to Gatwick! Once we did touch down in Iceland and got to Reykjavik we quickly realised transport would be an issue. The plan was to take the bus to Lake Myvatn in the North and spend a week in the North before beginning our cycling odyssey; therefore we bought a load of food shopping then went to the bus station only to find that there’s essentially no public transport in Iceland, only private buses for tourists. They only run during the Summer months, normally only once a day and they aren’t cheap. That 6 hour journey cost over £100 and the first week or so proved to be very expensive as the several short (i.e. half an hour) journeys cost between- £15-£20 on the limited routes. Bus fares aside though, the first week was a wonderful introduction to this incredible land.
We began on a scorchingly hot day which proved to be a huge false dawn (more on that later) whilst cycling round beautiful Lake Myvatn. It lies on the Mid Atlantic ridge which runs through the centre of the country and is a rift lake which basically means it has formed in the hollow between the two continental (North American and Eurasian) plates that are moving away from each other. It’s surrounded by lava fields, a couple of cracking volcanoes and one of the main geothermal plants which supply 90% of the heating/electricity in the country. Walking around the steaming vents of Namafjall and looking out over the lava fields which stretched to the horizon gave an awe inspiring introduction to this land of fire and ice.
After a couple of days on the lake we headed North to the lovely coastal village of Husavik where we both fulfilled something on our wish list by going whale watching. Certainly since the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970’s, whaling is probably the single issue Iceland attracts any international criticism from. When the global moratorium on whaling was established in 1986 Iceland fought it against it briefly before stopping whaling in 1989. However, in 2003 they recommenced the practice and currently kill about 200 whales a year- largely for food. Icelanders are fiercely protective of their independence (they rejected joining the EU in May this year) and bitterly resent being told what to do by other countries. In the past a beached whale was considered the height of luck in Iceland as sales of the ambergris could support entire coastal villages for years at a time and most Icelanders now take the view that as long as whaling is done sustainably the practice should continue. I fundamentally disagree with this for lots of reasons but during my time in Iceland I realised that tourists are much of the problem; whale meat is sold as a ‘delicacy’ in all of the top restaurants in Reykjavik. Apparently it really isn’t that tasty but the novelty factor means tourists do consume it in large numbers and this is helping to sustain the market and keep whaling commercially viable.
At the same time whale watching is one of if not the most popular tourist activity in Iceland as in the plankton rich waters of the North you have a 95%+ chance of seeing humpbacks. It was a pretty memorable (albeit nippy) trip as we were happily given a 3hour break from the rain to look round the beautiful Skjalfandi Bay. After around an hour and a half we’d seen plenty of dolphins but no whales so it was a wonderful relief when we finally spotted a couple in the frigid waters. Their sheer size is amazing to behold up close and certainly seeing them breaching (leaping out the water) would have to go down as one of the most impressive wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. It left me with a warm feeling for a few days afterwards and it did puzzle me why the country would want to jeopardise such a wonderful natural sight (and such a big tourist earner).
From Husavik we then proceeded to Asbyrgi where we did a soggy 2 day hike along the stunning canyon formed by the raging Jokulsa river. It was actually fairly flat for most of the way but was punctuated by incredible basalt rock formations, a terrifying section on a cliff edge and a memorable rope aided climb up a cliff to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. It’s used at the beginning of the Alien prequel Prometheus (far and away the best scene in the film!) and really is something up close as 193 cubic meters of water pound down the 45m high cataract every second. After 2 days hiking in the rain we were both delighted to have a relaxing evening in the northern blue lagoon at the end of it as we went our separate ways the following morning.
The core of the trip was the cycling and it began the next day in ‘challenging’ conditions.
When meeting people from around the world on my travels my two biggest annoying questions to answer in in conversations is them (presumably influenced by Sherlock Holmes films/novels) saying “Aaah you’re from London, you get lots of fogs don’t you?” and “It rains a lot there doesn’t it”?
To the first statement the short answer is not since 1956, when the Clean Air Act was passed.
To the second question my answer tends to be not really, it’s just grey/overcast much of the time. Indeed London only gets 106 days of rain a year and when you bear in mind that most of them will involve short, non-day ruining showers and London just isn’t that wet a place- the Atlantic rains have largely emptied out over Wales/the West country by the time they reach the ‘Big Smoke’.
In Iceland, in contrast, being located in the middle of the Atlantic water cycle, on any given day there’s a 70-80% chance of rain depending on the time of year. And it would be one of the most memorable/challenging things about spending a month on this incredible island cycling/hiking and sleeping every night in a tent.
I had 4 dry days out of 32 and at times it threatened to be if not quite trip ruining, then it seriously damaged my enjoyment of being there! Iceland has virtually no trees and is 90% empty so there are no bus stops or buildings to shelter under. Peddling away for up to 11 hours a day in the rain can get you down and since I was camping I had no means of drying my clothes so I found at times it was a real challenge to keep myself motivated to keep going.
By far the hardest cycling section was in the first few days as I spent around a week cycling through the notorious interior. The roads are through the volcanic sands which make up the Icelandic desert in the centre of the country and are only open for around 3 months a year. Despite being the driest part of the country I had a terribly wet run of weather when for 6 days it rained pretty solidly and keeping peddling on the slow, painful washboard roads was a real challenge. After an epic first day of 110km (60 of them on the dirt) I arrived at Heroubreidir, the beautiful, crown shaped national mountain. I camped a cold night at its base then tried to climb it the next day only to be gutted by having to turn back only a few hundred meters from the summit. As in the UK it had been a particularly cold winter and the snows still hadn’t melted. It was the first time I’ve ever ‘failed to summit’ a mountain but on a near vertical cliff I knew I had no other option.
Somewhat disgruntled I then cycled on to the amazing Askja stratovolcano. It covers a huge area and has several massive calderas formed by the last big eruption in 1875, despite the rain, hiking around through the snow to the different crater lakes with views out over the desert below triggers up some pretty powerful emotions- as I would feel many times. My final stop in the interior was to a place called Kverkfjoll which is where the desert meets the gigantic Vatnajokull ice sheet above and is famous for geothermal vents melting parts of the glacier forming ice caves. Seeing nobody for hours at a time I was again reminded just how empty this country is and how immense its open spaces are. Ahead of me I had a 160km ride North East out to the ring road but after having already made several repairs on the rocky interior roads eventually my back tyre gave up for the final time.I found myself in quite a lot of trouble around 80km from the nearest town with only about 3 hours of light left. I had no choice but to push the bike for 20km where my road joined another and having not seen a car for so long miraculously one turned up and saved me by giving me a lift into town. A week in the interior had left me shattered so after getting my bike fixed I spent 5 hours the next day doing nothing, just sitting in the variety of hot tubs offered at the local swimming pool!
The next day I cycled South up and over the Oxi pass which in places was a terrifying descent as the incline reached 17% and my loaded bike was much harder to steer but I made it to reach the 20km long Berufjordur. The following days were spent gliding along the South coast zipping round the fjords and just generally loving riding on the empty tarmac ring road which circles the island after struggling through the interior. Whilst the rain was generally tough I was much luckier with the wind as I only had one genuinely bad day with a headwind when it took me over 4 hours to cycle 60km, I then took a left turn and covered 14km in half an hour!
I had a couple of long days of about 130Km and on both days I had calm weather; having calmer weather or even a slight tailwind really does make almost all the difference mentally when cycle touring. Iceland is an amazing place to cycle largely because of the scenery, of the 1000km or so I covered I’d say only around 50 of them were fairly dull as you’re constantly rewarded with fjords, lava fields, waterfalls, mountains, glaciers, and beaches to name just a few of the features you see as you travel. When you’re having to fight the wind however and having to constantly pedal just to keep any momentum going the enjoyment factor drops rapidly, throw in the rain and uphill gradients and cycling becomes quite a depressing experience. It influences your mood so much that I don’t think I’d want to do it for more than a few weeks at a stretch and can’t really understand how people can do it for years on end.
After a couple of hundred km along the fjords I finally made it to the infamous South coast sandurs where the road wasn’t built until as late as 1974 due to the landscape. In Iceland many of the volcanoes are covered under icecaps, when there is an increase in tectonic activity the ice caps can start to melt from the heat causing lakes to form under the ice. If this process continues, eventually the lake will burst out and the water can start moving downhill very rapidly in an outburst flood called a jokulhlaup. Major floods such as in 1996 where everything in the flood’s path was destroyed can leave huge areas with no communications and the glacial melt water flows cause plains to form en route, called sandurs. They’re not really found anywhere else in the world and they’re pretty spectacular as they stretch up to 70km wide and are dead flat. Whilst you can see Vatnajokull above you, on the other 3 sides you can’t see anything but the sands stretching out into the distance and in head winds must be terrible to tackle- I had calm weather and zipped through them!
En route I stopped off to do some hiking at the gorgeous Skafatell national park and the otherworldly and incredibly photogenic ice lagoon. Essentially huge chunks of ice break off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier as it reaches the sea, however many of the chunks are too big to fit through the narrow entrance to the sea so end up floating in the lagoon that’s formed for months on end. The icebergs come in a variety of colours from dirty grey to beautiful azures and in the middle of a 10 hour day on the bike felt like probably the best photo stop I’ll ever make!
After visiting one of the ‘world’s best beaches’ at Vik (volcanic black ash sands) I took the ferry to the Westmann islands which counts Surtsey amongst its members. I was staying on the amazing island of Heimaey which aside from being the Icelandic fishing capital has a series of lovely maroon coloured volcanoes to climb. One of which was home to probably the most memorable campsite I’ve ever stayed in, you could climb the sides of the crater to look out over cliffs full of puffins and the lava fields from a big eruption in 1973 which increased the size of the island by a full 20%.
I then started moving inland to the ‘Golden circle’, an area about 60km East of Reykjavik and home to many of Iceland’s most famous sights including (the original) Geyser. It hasn’t erupted properly since the 1950’s but thankfully Strokkur is right next to it and is probably the most reliable geyser in the world, ejaculating steam and water every few minutes. About 30km down the road is the world heritage site of Pingvellir; aside from being home to the world’s first national parliament (the Althing from 930AD, just 64 years after Iceland was first settled by Norwegian farmers) it’s an 8km rift on the mid- Atlantic ridge and one of the few places in the world where you can actually walk ‘between tectonic plates’. Obviously a pretty significant place but many tourists complain at the fact there are so many other tourists in the area.
In the past Iceland was actually somewhat off the beaten track as a tourist destination as thanks to limited international connections and one of the strongest currencies in the world it was simply too expensive for most people to visit. However, in 2008 the global financial crash hit Iceland harder than almost anywhere as thanks to reckless gambling on global capital markets by the so called ‘Vikings’ (nickname given to aggressive bankers) which led to the collapse of its banking system and many companies around the world (including Woolworths) that were purchased by them. Almost overnight Iceland became around 1/3 cheaper to visit and spurred on by EasyJet/WOW air starting cheaper international flights the tourist sector has rapidly expanded from under 300,000 in 2002 to an estimated 750,000 and contribute 6% of GDP this year. When you consider that most people stay for under a week and don’t venture out past the Golden Circle, at the honeypot sights it can feel the ‘wild nature’ charm of the country, which is why people came in the first place, is lost a bit.
In Iceland the financial crash famously led to around 25,000 or 10% of the country rioting in the ‘Kitchenware Revolution’ (protestors banged pots and pans) as this nation with no army struggled to maintain the peace. Since independence from Denmark in 1944 virtually no country in the world has had a smoother existence with virtually no problems of note to speak of and extremely high social and economic indicators across the whole of society.
Controversially the government elected to preserve its massive welfare state rather than pay back foreign debtors (such as Barnet council) and as the country has rebounded strongly since, some suggest it offers an alternative to the austerity programmes followed by most of Europe since 2008. From my own point of view whilst there is much to admire about the social welfare system in the country, I think it's ultimately too small/isolated to try to extrapolate too much from their experiences and if bigger countries started ignoring their debts then global trade would decline considerably and that would probably lead us to be worse off ultimately.
After 56 straight hours of spirit crushing rain in the Golden Circle it finally stopped on my way back Reykjavik and the endorphins started to kick in as I realised I’d completed the cycling part of the trip. However, I wasn’t done there as after resting up for a night I headed back out the next day to hike Icelands most famous trek, the 90km from Landmannalaugur in the interior to Skogar on the coast.
For such a short trek the variety of landscape we passed through was out of this world; in Landmannalaugur the landscape began amidst geothermal pools and lava fields. The various gases and chemicals being emitted from the Earth gave the mountainous landscape a beautiful polychromatic sheen with orange, dark blue and red cliffs being topped off with lime green heads of grass which would grow on the tops of the mountain peaks. For the first night I had to dig a trench to set my tent in to prevent it being blown away by the wind but with the long hours of daylight I was able to get out of the cold quite early and visit a couple of glacial caves before continuing gradually onwards. As we continued through the lava fields by far the biggest hazard was having to ford the streams. Whilst I had to do plenty over the course of the month in Iceland the hardest overall were on the second day of the trek as the already brown water was raised thigh high thanks to a storm 2 hours earlier making them genuinely quite scary. The knowledge that you’re balancing pretty precariously in freezing cold water in your socks whilst carrying all your important documents with no idea what you’re stepping on is not a great feeling! But I got through them and an atrocious third day of constant rain to the oasis of Porsmork just before the final stretch of the hike. Whilst my luck generally with rain wasn’t great I found myself saying a short prayer of thanks to Freyr- the Norse God of Weather when I woke up the next day. Grey rain was replaced by beautiful blue skies and I gleefully took advantage on the 1000m climb up to the pass between 2 glaciers, which coincidentally happened to be the eruption site of the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption. It wasn’t the easiest of climbs but after having eaten most of my food by this stage and buoyed by the outstanding weather I was a happy boy when I reached the top.
The eruption site is just a bit amazing- like a giant ashtray. Much of the landscape is still smouldering away and is still (memorably) very black. You can’t pick up many of the rocks as they’re still too hot and 2 of the worlds newest mountains, Modi and Magni have been created which you can climb giving incredible views out over the landscape as well as indescribable feelings of a)this is an unbelievably cool experience and b) nature is just amazing. After enjoying but having to fight through some aspects of the adventurous trip it really did feel like I’d been rewarded…and the rewards kept coming as I finally saw the sea and took ‘the route of the waterfalls’ down to it. I passed no less than 26 smaller falls as I descended before finally reaching the 60m high Skogarfoss just before the sea. A cracking ending to an exhausting, but stunning trek.
Iceland was the first country I’ve been to which I can categorically say is more expensive than England and unfortunately this did limit my activities in the last few days a little bit. The Blue Lagoon cost 40Euros to go to and even things like museums cost a tenner so the last few days in Reykjavik were somewhat quiet. I had planned to run the marathon on the final day but various injuries picked up hiking/cycling put an end to that plan and I’m not sure I would have had the energy anyway as the month had left me fairly drained. Instead I found myself enjoying the coffee shops, pubs and swimming pools of the small city quietly although I was lucky enough to be there for the national day at the end of August so there were lots of free concerts and cultural performances to enjoy.
Somewhat surprisingly Iceland is a global arts centre with a thriving arts and music scene but it in it's literature where Iceland can claim to be one of the world's leaders. Home to some of medieval Europes finest writing- the sagas from the 13th century through Nobel winning Halldor Laxness to the situation today where no less than 1/10 of the population are published authors! All over Rejkjavik are statues are rocks and statues which read out poetry to you and having spent 95% of my time on the country’s natural attractions it was quite nice to get a bit more of a feel for the human side to country.
All in all an exhausting but unforgettable month, I left feeling a) I would definitely like to come back in the Winter and b) this travelling lark never gets boring…..