Cycling The Highlands of Iceland
Article for Pannier.cc
When I started cycle touring 3 years ago, I cycled mainly in groups, on well tarmacked roads, between big cities and in relatively hospitable climates. As I became more confident I started planning more exciting routes further from civilization, and as my ambitions (and beard) grew I started planning longer and longer routes, incorporating more off road stretches and less company. As my trips progressed, I realised that my ten-year-old, third hand Dawes touring bike couldn’t handle my new plans, so I invested in a tank of a touring bike, with a 45kg carrying capacity, 2 inch wide tyres and a Rohloff internally geared hub, justifying this purchase, by telling anyone who would listen about all the wilderness adventures I could take it on.
After a couple of successful but wet tours in the UK I decided I would like to go further afield and take the Thorn on the kind of trip it was built for. On the flight back from cycling down Italy I read an article that convinced me to go to Iceland and try out something a little more adventurous: a route between Reykjavik and Askja through the desolate heart of Iceland. This route would take me across tundra, through rivers and over mountains of black volcanic sand. Although I couldn't imagine anything more exciting my friends did not seem so keen and my girlfriend was ‘busy’ so I would be going as a one-man peloton.
As a strong independent man (who don't need nobody else) I initially thought this suited me just fine, but in the week before I was to set off cold feet began to set in, as it dawned on me that I’d be cycling completely unsupported through the toughest and most uninhabited terrain I had ever seen, with up to a week without seeing another living soul. I realised that this was going to require some uncharacteristically airtight planning. Luckily, as a freeloading student, I could commit that week to preparation.
Google maps does not seem overly concerned about the middle of Iceland, so my only source of geographical information, aside from what I’d learnt from Peter Andre and Kerry Katona, was good old fashioned paper maps. I bought as many maps as I could find and a highlighter, and set about planning routes The first was my blue-sky option, a 1000 mile, 12-day trip – the route I would take if everything went to plan. The second, was the ‘tits-up’ escape route – the route I’d take if part way through I realised that supplies, time or my spirits were low, and I’d gone past the point of no return.
Once my route was planned I could plot my water and food stops. I traced my path on the map to work out how far I would most likely get each day, where food could be bought, and how long that would leave me without fresh supplies. I calculated that I would have a maximum of 10 days without anywhere to restock on food and 2 days without a fresh water supply. I planned to eat 3 meals and 4 high-energy snacks a day, getting in enough calories to manage an average of 83 off road miles a day (but still maintain my chiselled physique). Therefore I needed to carry 30 meals, 40 snacks, and a maximum of 12 litres of water on my bike. Food was planned carefully, day by day, keeping in mind weight and volume of food, as well as price and the water and fuel required to cook it. After exhausting the local Asda’s super noodle supply and gathering all my kit, I made the first attempt to fit everything into the 4 panniers and rack-top bag. By using two 20L rear panniers on my front rack, rather than the usual 12.5L front panniers, I was able to get a total of 90 litres of storage. A surprising 30 litres was taken up by food, leaving me 60 litres of space for camping gear, spare parts and clothes. Unlike during my recent cycle through sunny Italy, I needed a sub zero sleeping bag, enormous tent pegs for pitching in sand, and several warm wind- and water-proof layers. Even with my unusual pannier arrangement I only just had room for everything, and getting it all into a bike box and checked baggage for the flight proved even trickier.
Due to inclement weather, by the start of September very few tourists are left in Iceland, and those that are tend not to venture into the treacherous and uninhabited interior of the island. At some points during my trip I would likely be the only person for over 100 miles, which meant I had to take special precautions in case of an emergency. As there is little phone signal outside of populous areas, I bought a SPOT GPS tracker along with the emergency response subscription and made sure as many people as possible were aware of my route and could follow my progress online, watching for anything irregular.
Day 1 - Optimistic
After quickly realising there were no food shops on my way out of Reykjavik. I pulled over at the first service station on the ring road leading east from the capital. After the initial shock of how much everything cost I settled down at the side of the road eating Skyr, the delicious Icelandic take on yogurt that I would crave almost constantly for the rest of my trip.
The sun was shining and my pace was reasonable, so I made my destination in time to buy dinner at the lone diner-cum-supermarket-cum-petrol station: the last shop I would pass for the next 10 days. I stuck to cold food whenever possible since I was rationing cooking fuel, so it was camembert, crackers and Coca Cola for dinner, a nutritious bargain for only £15!
Day 2 – Pessimistic
Following a comfortable first day confined safely to tarmac, I headed off into the unknown. I spent the morning on the F32 then snuck across a massive hydroelectric dam, cutting 20 miles off my route for the day, which proved lucky as the head wind started to pick up. The junction with the F225 signalled the beginning of the dirt roads I would be contending with for the remainder of my trip, and I stopped to refuel on couscous and tuna. Unfortunately, the wind had built up significantly and was now strong enough to blow the couscous from my cooking pot back into the box and anywhere else it chose to. Not wanting to hang around and miss the light I skipped the couscous started out towards Landmannalaugar, where I set up camp several hours later.
Day 3 - Tremors
I'm not sure if it was an earthquake or the wind that shook me as I slept as both are equally likely in this area, but despite being woken several times, thankfully the tent was still standing in the morning. The wind seemed to have subsided so I set off on a slight detour to see the multi-coloured hills of Landmannalaugar. Spirits were high as I cycled along in the still and sunny autumn day, however as the morning continued I felt my nemesis, the head wind, start to pick up. This meant my longer out-and-back detour to see the national park was quickly abandoned as I decided to press on with my adventure. I could always come back to see the tourist attractions.
Even with a strong head wind, it felt good to have left the busyness and industrial landscape of Reykjavik behind and set out along the vast open expanses of the Icelandic highlands. From then on it was a battle against the wind and a now patchy and unreliable road.
Day 4 – Getting used to solitude
After a beautiful start to my trip the rain began to start in earnest, lasting all day and ensuring I remained cold and wet.
For the first time since the morning of day 3 I came across another person who looked after the mountain hut at Nyidalur. Given how much she talked I can't imagine she had had many people passing through at that time of year. She looked over my route and spent her evening trying to dissuade me from taking “one of the most extreme roads in the world”, and suggested I take a slightly easier route north, one peppered with remote hot springs. As idyllic as a week spend cycling between geothermal pools sounded, the more she tried to put me off the extreme road, the more I felt I couldn't miss the opportunity to try it, and I fell asleep with her sitting on the end of my bed, still chatting away.
Day 5 – Cold Feet
With my host’s words, “the weather will turn later today” still echoing in my ears as I cycled away, I was met with my first river crossing of the day, I had thought my feet were cold before, but several crossings barefoot through a knee-deep glacial river with my bike and belongings held above my head thoroughly froze them. The cold and (hurricane force?) wind made sure my feet didn't warm up, but just as I was starting to get used to it the rain started falling. Sideways.
No matter what the salesman tells you about your jacket, horizontal rain will always find its way in somehow. I found myself soaked to the bone, despite my waterproof jacket and trousers, and seriously regretting not having brought water- or windproof gloves. The terrain wasn’t helping; the road surface, gradient and wind were so extreme that cycling became impossible and I was forced to get off and push over the loose ground. It took all my strengh to drive my bike up the steep inclines, six inches at a time.
By mid-afternoon I came across multiple cold water crossings: the runoff from a nearby glacier. At this point I was so cold and wet that I decided to just plough through it on my bike.
The trail I had been following was no longer clearly visible. It had been completely washed away by the run off, and the only indications of where it had been were regularly spaced 3-foot-tall yellow poles, which would have run along the side of the road. Ordinarily, spotting these would have been easy, but the rain had reduced visibility to 10m.
I was aiming for an emergency mountain hut, about 80 miles from my starting point. After a few false alarms where, in the fog, I mistook large boulders for the hut, I managed to find it. 30 vertical metres up the side of a hill.
As soon as I got into the shelter of the hut I completely stripped to crawl into the warmth of my sleeping bag, hoping to restore circulation to my extremities. Standing naked, with frost-bitten hands, in my mountain chateau, I simply couldn’t understand why all those mums keep going to Iceland. (and why Peter Andre kept lying about how cheap things were there.)
Day 6 - Darude
For a short while I lost track of the yellow road markers, and took an unintended detour down a mountain. I ended up having to push the bike cross country for a few miles in order to find the road again. Thankfully my compass pointed me back on track, and after an hour of nervous trekking I spied the sacred yellow poles once more. I had a private rocky-esque fist pump in the moment of triumph.
With the wind on my side for the first time in days, and back on the “beaten track”, things started to look up. Spirits were high as I weaved through lava fields full of crumbling razor sharp rocks. Unfortunately the wind got the better of me and, despite my brakes, the gale force blusters forced me uncontrollably downhill over the sharp rocks. I then, of course, had to contend with a sandstorm blowing all my kit away while I struggled to fix a puncture.
With air in my tyres I’d planned to cycle the next 40 miles, however, the boulders were now too big to cycle over. What I thought would have taken a few hours became a 10 hour walk.
Day 007 – Rankin, Jonathan Rankin.
A unique feature of Iceland is the glacial rivers. As temperatures plummet overnight the glaciers stop melting and freeze solid, as downstream the melt water drains off the plains. During the day, however, the glaciers slowly thaw and the glacial planes will gradually fill up with water. I arrived on the edge of a plain as it slowly became more waterlogged. At this point I was in a race against time to cross the plain, as the water level rose steadily, slowly cutting me off from my next checkpoint. I felt like James Bond trying to escape a devious trap. (Much like the one where Piers Brosnan kite surfs away from a tsunami, which was coincidently also set in Iceland.)
Again, much like Bond, I made it across just in the nick of time. Enthused by my narrow escape, I was ready to cycle the final stretch to Askja.
Another unusual feature of the Icelandic landscape is, of course, the volcanoes. Eruptions are commonplace, and cause new layers of lava to form on a regular basis. I was lucky enough to encounter a fresh layer of lava, (only a few weeks old) which was still steaming as I walked across it. Slightly unexpectedly, the ground here was extremely rough and crumbling, often giving way beneath my feet. In my mind it resembled a rough block of parmesan. Hungry, I was reminded of how much I missed spaghetti Bolognese.
Spurred on by the thrill of a true Icelandic experience, and fascinated by the unique scenery, dragging my bike through the next 10 miles of soft sand seemed almost enjoyable.
Day 8 - Calderon
I spent the first hour of the day praying for a lift, waiting to see if a passing car would drive me up the hill and into the Askja Cauldron – a dormant volcanic crater lake. Sadly, with winter just around the corner, tourists had long since abandoned Iceland, so I decided to brave the hour long cycle up the side of the volcano, hoping for rewarding views.
Though the feeling of entering the crater was spectacular, and the views incredible, the cycle back down the hill and along the road was not. Fighting the wind and the rain, just as I had done for the past 5 days, I struggled through the next 12 hours of cycling, only making it about 60 miles before I had to turn in for the night.
Day 9 – Dale’s Magnus Ver Magnusson’s Supermarket Sweep
As I closed in on civilization and joined back up with the N1 (the circular road that winds around the perimeter of the country), cars started to pass by more regularly. As the road-safety conscious Londoner that I am, it was at this point I realised that my helmet had been accidentally sacrificed to the Norse gods at some point during the last 8 days. Arriving at Myvatn, I spotted a supermarket and gleefully bought all the things I had been craving for days. Digestives, coke, cheese, bread, chocolate and, most importantly, Skyr.
Day 10 – F*** you Odin
I had dry clothes for the first time in days, and I was keen to keep them that way. I woke up early but bided my time until the rain looked like it was stopping. As soon as I set off I realised that the Norse gods hadn’t accepted my gracious sacrifice of the helmet, and the rain started again with a vengeance. The strongest crosswind I have ever experienced accompanied me for the next 20 miles to the next service station. Soaked to the bone and frozen through, I pulled over for a hearty lunch of knock-off dairy lea and yet more Skyr. At this point I was so cold I couldn’t get my fingers straight enough to put them back into my gloves, and they had turned a worrying shade of grey.
I rewarded myself for the day’s hard work with a stay in a B&B, which I had completely to myself. I stole their WiFi and tried to get online for the first time in 10 days, only to discover that my phone had been fried by the constant damp. After it made some worrying crackling noises I gave up and settled down for the night.
Day 11 – City boy
Having a solid roof over my head made me instantly soft. Reluctant to head back out into the cold I had a lazy start to the day, ruined by an experimental meal of couscous and milk. I set off in dry weather with a headwind, which turned into wet weather, still with a headwind.
I had another route choice to make, I could either set out on a short route with a guaranteed hill climb, or commit to a longer route with a possible hill climb. Hoping to avoid the brunt of more bad weather I chose the shorter route, but exhausted after the 5th or 6th hairpin, I started to wonder whether I’d made the right choice.
Over the hill was Akureyri, the final destination on my tour of Iceland. A long downhill stretch past beautiful houses, spectacular scenery and smiling locals completed the final stage of my epic journey.
Day 12 – Commuter
As I got comfortable sat on the bus back to Reykjavik, I got several funny looks for wearing (and probably smelling of) 12 day old clothes.
Overall, although I was relieved to have finished my trip, I was proud to have achieved what I had set out to do: I’d been on an unsupported adventure through inhospitable territory across a beautiful island. Although the wind and rain had been a much greater challenge than I had anticipated, I felt the trip was worthwhile. On reflection, if I’d taken winter-proof cycling shoes and warmer, more weather proof gloves perhaps I would have had an easier time.
Iceland is an incredible place, wherever you choose to visit, and although I probably wouldn’t recommend cycling through it (unless you’re glutton for punishment), I would highly recommend visiting the interior of the island. Renting an all-terrain vehicle (for the modest price of £300 a day) offers an opportunity to investigate this fascinating, ever changing country in relative comfort.