As I pedalled head first in to a gale force wind, rain stinging my cheeks, feet sodden, nose running, i asked myself, “why the hell am I doing this!?” I was in Iceland, a bit of rock in the middle of the north Atlantic. It was summer, but it didnt feel like it. Apparently it was 10 degrees celcius but it felt like minus 10. Iceland, ICE-land, LAND OF ICE!!! I should have cycled around Spain i thought. Or Italy, I bet its warm in Italy.
My trip around Iceland was a classic example of type 2 fun. Most of my time there it was incredibly tough and painful, however looking back I can see that I had the most incredible experience. A proper adventure. It may seem like I spend a good portion of this piece moaning (I do) but stay with me for part 2, it gets better.
Of course it didn’t need to be that way. Iceland is a ‘rich’ developed country with a high standard of living. They have Domino’s pizza and McDonald’s. I could have spent most of my time sipping coffee in Starbucks. But I chose not to do that for two reasons; first, it is an incredibly expensive country. I worked really hard to save enough money to get myself and Jen as far around the world as possible, and I was not about to blow a massive hole in my budget. Secondly, I really wanted to test myself. I had been cycling solo through Europe for 6 weeks and although this certainly was not easy, I never truly left my comfort zone. (More about this part of my journey in a future blog!)
So I caught a plane to Reykjavik from Berlin. I had my underused beanie hat and gloves in my carry-on and I had grown a sufficiently thick tramp-like beard for extra warmth. Bring it on.
Of course when you fly to Reykjavik you do not actually fly to Reykjavik. You arrive in Keflavik, about 70km away from the capital. I arrived at 10.30PM and although being so close to the Arctic circle meant it was still light, (‘night time’ is from about 1am to 3am) I didnt fancy the long ride. I realised that it was too late to find an official campsite so I would find a place to wild camp for the evening. As I cycled away from Keflavik I immediately felt the chill on my hands and the gloves went on. It didn’t take too long to find a secluded area away from the road to pitch my tent. I had wild camped before and always felt a little nervous. What if there is an axe wielding maniac on the loose? What about bears? Can bears wield axes? However, I never really felt this sense of trepidation in Iceland. I had read before my journey started about how safe the place was, how there was barely any crime committed outside of the big city. I find it hard to describe, but sometimes a place just ‘feels’ safe. It has a calmness and serenity that put you at ease. I felt this about Japan and I felt this about Iceland. I pitched up and fell straight to sleep.
I woke up early. Lets see what this country is all about! I cant wait to hit the road! I am so excited about what lies ahead! I hurriedly put on my clothes, I frantically stuff my sleeping bag and pillow in their bags, I unzip the tent………. It’s teeming with rain. A dampener in more ways than one. Ahh the Icelandic weather. I don’t know what I was expecting, I am on the edge of the Arctic circle in the middle of the sea. It was never going to be great. I kept telling myself “but it’s summer,” “10 degrees is the perfect cycling temperature,” “I worked outdoors in Scotland for 4 years, this will be a doddle.” As it turns out, the summer in Iceland is still cold and miserable, 10 degrees is not the perfect cycling temperature, this is nothing like Scotland, and this will most certainly not be a doddle. I put the factor 30 at the bottom of my bag.
I will talk later about the wind. Oh my God the wind! But first the rain. It never truly stops raining in Iceland, even when the sun comes out it’s there. It lingers, hovering in the air. It may not always be heavy, but it’s always there. When it did get heavy it combined with the bitter coldness to wreak maximum misery on its victims. My waterproofs were never far away.
I decided that morning that I was not going to go to Reykjavik right away, instead I was going to ride straight along the south coast of the island. The world cup was kicking off soon and I wanted to be in the city for Iceland’s first ever world cup game. My first target would be the town of Selfoss. My first full day of riding happened to be the longest, as I wasn’t sure of what sort of distances I could achieve in these conditions. Iceland is most certainly the land of the 4 wheel drive, it is the only way to get around the island safely, particularly in winter. There are no trains in Iceland, however there is a fairly decent bus network. As for cycling infrastructure, outside of Reykjavik and the surrounding towns, there is none. You can count on one hand the major roads on the island. The biggest and most famous is route 1, which circles the entire country. I was originally planning on following this road all the way, however I most certainly would not have made it in the time I had and so I decided to stick to the south of the island and leave the north for the next trip. The lesser travelled roads in Iceland were a mixed bag. Alot are made of compacted volcanic rock which gives the road a very bumpy ride along the shoulders. Some roads turned in to dirt track and slowed my progress significantly.
I would be following route 1 for a good chunk of my journey. The shoulder on this road was very narrow and I had to be very careful not to swerve. Drivers were generally considerate and left plenty of room. Some did not…..more on that later.
The ride towards Selfoss was uneventful and the scenery, apart from some steaming roadside vents was unremarkable compared to the scenery that was to come. However, there was a fun downhill section in to Hveragerdi which tested my brakes and my nerves. I stopped in this little town to get some supplies. As I mentioned before, this is an expensive country, however there is a supermarket chain called Bonus which was relatively cheap. It is basically a viking Aldi. My staple diet in Iceland consisted of the following;
- Baked beans
- Instant noodles
Selfoss provided my first taste of Iceland’s many campsites. They ranged from good to OK. They are inexpensive and most have a kitchen to use plus warm showers that smell like eggs due to the volcanic activity. But they were respite from the weather and after a long days ride it was like staying in the Ritz.
The next day was when I began to see the rugged beauty of the place. I cycled past vast spiky lava fields, raging rivers and black sand coastline. Stunning. However, nothing comes easy in Iceland, you have to earn it. You want to see incredible natural beauty? Then be prepared to work for it. It was this day that I met my new foe, the Icelandic wind. I had heard about the wind here, it is notorious in the cycle touring community. But nothing truly prepares you for it. I have met windy conditions before, and I am sure that if I checked the weather report I have cycled in stronger winds. But the Iceland wind is different. It is malevolent, hostile, vindictive. It taunts, it mocks you. I pedalled in to a relentless head wind for hours, the energy being sapped from my legs. And then it stops, there is respite, “its all over.” But that’s what it wants you to think. It starts again, this time its a crosswind, i’m swerving, trying to not ride in to the road whilst also trying to not ride in to the ditch on my right. Every-time a truck drives alongside it creates a vacuum, once it passes the wind returns with vengeance, pummelling me as I engage every muscle in my body trying to keep the bike in a straight line. After several hours of this torture, the wind stops. It has probably found another cyclist down the road to play with. I can finally relax, and I feel a strange sense of happiness. I made it! I’m alive! I beat it! I am invincible! Nothing can stop me!………. And it was at this point that I got hit by a campervan.
Nope, you did not misread. The boom in tourism in Iceland has meant a growing number of visitors renting campervans to tour the island (whimps!) and not all drivers are used to driving in these ferocious cross winds. I was so close to my campsite I could see it. I was already planning my dinner and salivating at the though of a warm brew and a pan of noodles. The cabin of the van hit me square in the back, and I swerved off the road in to the loose gravel. Fortunately there was a run off area, 100 metres further on and I would have been flailing around in ice cold water. I waited for the excruciating pain to come, any second now…..but it never came. I was lucky to escape with some bruising. The b***ard (sorry Mum) never even stopped to see if I was OK. What a day.
I though that Iceland wasn’t for me, I hate it here. I started thinking about Jen and my family, and my cozy bed. But I arrived at my camp at Seljalandsfoss and saw the huge waterfall crashing down in to the rocks below, a fine mist descending on the green hillside, a rainbow bursting out of the wall of water. I take it back, I love Iceland.