Ever get those days where you find it difficult to get going, to start something you know you’ll enjoy once you’ve just taken that first step? Ever found you’ve lost sight of what you enjoy in life and you can’t remember how to go about finding it again? I know, welcome to my world… I’m sure we’ve all been there. So what do you do about it? Phone a friend? Ignore it, carry on as before and hope it’ll sort itself out? Bite the bullet and go to therapy? Start drinking? How about setting yourself a challenge that you have to rise to fulfil, so you kick-start your higher synapses again? How about spending two months cycling round Iceland for charity?
There’s nothing like making someone a promise to get me going. So when I said I’d be taking a career break for three months, cycling over 1500 km (it ended up being 3000 km) round Iceland for two charities in August / September and trying to cadge food and bed by singing for my supper each night, most thought I was nuts. Some knew me a bit better and knew damn well I was nuts, but secretly thought I’d manage it anyway. I had come here last year on a choir exchange with Kvennakór Kópavogs (Ladies Choir of Kópavogur) for a wonderful mad weekend of singing, sightseeing, drinking and laughter, but I’d known since I was very young that sometime I was going to explore this strange, remote, exotic world for myself. Coming back also gave me the chance to do something for the people that had helped me—I found out many of Kvennakór had been helped by Ljósið Endurhæfing, one of the charities I was supporting, so I’d be giving something back too. But this was just as much a trip for myself—to see a world I’d spent hours reading, dreaming of; to be cycling, unsupported, for seven weeks through mind-blowing, challenging scenery—and to drive myself to reawaken something asleep within me and give me the boost I needed.
Two months is a long time, and regardless of currency fluctuations this would be an expensive trip. I was going to take a tent, but not only does the wind blow and the rain fall in Iceland, it can also snow in September; I’d need other places to stay, I’d need equipment, spares, food, LOTS of food… I’d be spending a lot of money at a time when I wasn’t actually getting paid for anything. And I thought again about the Kvennakór. Maybe if I was riding for charity, and an Icelandic one at that, people might put me up for the night. What could I give them in return?
Bringing fifty expensive, heavy presents wasn’t an option. How about singing for them? Giving a solo concert in return for room and board… could it work? Would the Kvennakór know enough people around Iceland to get me round? Maybe not, but their friends might… and hey, if I needed a catchy hook to get the media interested (and potential hosts), then www.singaroundiceland.com was it!
Getting started was the hardest part. I had enough on my plate being concert manager for one choir, helping with the Kvennakór’s exchange to Leeds with another, having a day job and a mother who’d only recently come out of hospital and who might never walk again. Apart from setting up a website, a Justgiving page for sponsorship, contacting the two charities, all the websites I could find about what Iceland was like (and what cycling there was like) and all my Icelandic friends, I had to choose and buy camping gear (I’d not camped since I was fifteen), kit for a two-month trip (the longest I’d ever cycled before was two weeks) spares, cycling clothes, a lightweight performance outfit, some way of accompanying my singing (a voice recorder with piano recorded for me and an excellent lightweight speaker)—and do all this from a state of something close to clinical depression. As the choir season ran to the end of June, I wasn’t going to make the best part of the summer. Hey, if I only got to see Iceland in its best clothes, I wouldn’t really be seeing it, right? Fortunately I never had to use my snow tyres.
Now I know this idea won’t work for everyone. It’s not going to work for my next cycle trip, which won’t be for charity and won’t be two months long either. But one great difference between the Brits and the Icelanders is that I’ve found them far more ready to try new things, change things, take chances, and to welcome new people into their lives than maybe we would be. I admit: there was only one door I knocked on unannounced to ask to camp beside the road, and only one place I rang up unannounced and asked for a bed for the night—my friends in the choir were generally one or six steps ahead of me and had rang ahead for me, or their friends had. In total, I camped for thirteen nights, hostelled for three, stayed at eight guesthouses at a discount or free, and twenty-two people gave me a bed for the night. I still spent something like 400.000 ISK on this trip and all that went with it, but Icelandic goodwill for a good cause saved me an awful lot of money.
I’m not going to talk about Iceland’s fabulous scenery: that’s not my place and others can give far more detail than I. Suffice it to say that though you’ll see some incredible places round the ring-road, they’re the ones you already know about: Jökulsárlón, Mývatn, Goðafoss. To see the best parts of Iceland you need to get off the beaten track: the most jaw-dropping scenery was in the West Fjords, East Fjords and Snæfellsnes. You also need to make friends with people who know the places without the big billboard signs for the tourists. The most memorable place I sang was in a secret hot pot in a rock cave, by starlight, for three hotel staff—truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Neither can I thank everyone here that helped me. I know there are many more people who would have been glad to help had they been asked; I couldn’t stay with everyone and really my trip was more about raising money for Ljósið and Carers’ Resource than singing for everyone in Iceland (much as I’d like to). However I must shout out a few people and companies who not only helped me out but did so with a smile—and who also have much to offer any other traveller. What goes around comes around: they helped me, give them your custom and everyone wins.
So, for accommodation, an official recommendation from me for: Þormóður at langaholt.is, Garðar, for a great meal and good company at a top-notch place to stay in Snæfellsnes; Dóra and the team at skriduland.is, Dalir (great food, fuel and soon a guesthouse too); Sigrún and Villi at Ferðaþjónustan Dæli (daeli.is) in Viðidal—everything from camping to hotel rooms, and horse trekking, and a wonderful suite of delightful chambermaids. In the north, a thumbs-up to Lilja and Gísli at Hlíð in Reykjahlíð, Mývatn (hlidmyv.is—a magical place to stay; fjalladyrd.is at Möðrudalur—your choice is limited up there so it’s fortunate that the restaurant, campsite and accommodation are all top-notch. Oh yes, and the views are breathtaking. Big thanks to Eðvald and Boggi at Randaberg (hotels-iceland-en.ghix.com/egilsstair/gistiheimili_randaberg_2106040en.html) for getting me back in the saddle; to Marleen at Hjá Marlin in Reyðarfjörður (en.bakkagerdi.net), a very sociable hostel and cosy restaurant, personally endorsed by a Mr Andri Freyr of Rás 2; as was hotelframtid.com in Djúpivogur—truly excellent service, food, and the warmest of welcomes from Ævar, Auður, Berta and Alexandra. Thank you!
(While you’re there you should really check out the Eggs of Merry Bay down by the harbour, an installation of 34 massive stone birds’ eggs, complete with species name in Icelandic and Latin—and you won’t then miss the museum (Craft shop? Home?) of Willi (Hvarf), furniture maker-turned-sculptor and collector of all things natural—stones, crystals, animal skeletons—all of which he presents as works of art in a real Aladdin´s cave of natural history. He’s also truly fascinating.)
Further south, Magnus Guðjonsson and Guðjón Magnussson run the Hólmur Farm Zoo and Gisting (eldhorn.is/mg/gisting)—exotic Icelandic animals and a comfortable place to sleep; Sveinn Jensson at the Icelandair Hotel at Kirkjubæjarklaustur (Klaustur) – icelandairhotels.com/hotels/klaustureldhorn.is/mg/gisting; and the wonderful staff, Björgvin, Halla Rós and Solveig at Hotel Höfðabrekka at Vík (delicious meals as well as a great hotel). I got to sing for them while live on air with Andri Freyr on Rás 2 (weekdays 9-12.15)—you want a decent mix of older tunes in with your playlist stuff, Rás 2 is the station you should be listening to—and thanks once again to Andri and Gunna Dís for supporting me and looking out for me during my trip, you were a great comfort guys! (And you all know by now which paper you should be reading in Iceland—they’re a cool bunch at grapevine.is.)
For tourist info and visitor attractions: Freyja at Leifsbúð tourist info, café and campsite in Búðurdalur; Sigurður Atlason at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Holmavík, galdrasyning.is, where I had the best hákarl I’ve ever tasted; and Hákon Þór Sindrason who writes a mean travel guide: the excellent visitorsguide.is. Heimir at isafjordur.is/tourist_information_centre; Jón who drives a great bus tour to Látrabjarg or Hólmavik from Isafjörður, for sterna.is; and Ester at the Arctic Fox Centre in Súðavík, melrakki.is—a lovely way to find out more about the only native mammal in Iceland. Thank you also to Hallur at Stell Printing in Akureyri (stell.is), who did a wonderful job of my thank you cards; and Regina at the Skaftafell Visitor Centre—base camp for glacier trekking and waterfall walks (vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is/english/operation/visitor-centre/skaftafellsstofa). Big up to the girls and boys to the University of Iceland Choir—if you appreciate good music, they may party like demons but they sing like angels. Finally, a huge plug for the delightful Berglind Ósk Guttormsdóttir from extremeiceland.is, for having mercy on a desperate hitchhiker who badly needed a weekend off—250km away. If you are wanting a top-tier tour guide with an engaging manner, there are plenty of good reasons you should ask for her by name.
What has this all taught me? Talk to people. They’ll probably be fun, friendly, and might just know something you don’t. Take your time: there’s so much I still have to see here, but it’s gonna have to wait ’til I come back. And take a leaf out of the Icelander’s sagas: work hard, play hard, but don’t take life too seriously or fix your plans too firmly—you might just miss out on something better. THANK YOU ICELAND: I was already a convert but I’m now carrying a candle for you. Take care!
So far I’ve raised around 600.000 ISK for Ljósið and Carers’ Resource (which helps people like my mum) and counting; one million ISK sounds like a nice round number. If anyone wants to find out more about my trip, or the charities I’m supporting, hear me sing—or donate—all the links you need are at www.singaroundiceland.com.