When the opportunity to cycle across Iceland came my way, I only had a day and a half to get ready. I guess I had been preparing for a trip like this for over a year but now I was suddenly confronted with the challenge. I had little time to waste, indeed, as I had things to do at my place of work, the University of Iceland, before I could take off and I didn’t have a car to scurry between shops in Reykjavík.
My wife and I had been planning a trip to Akureyri but when she picked me up at work on Monday she said she’d take the kids in the car but I could cycle and meet them there, if I liked to and was feeling up to it. Was I?
I had always assumed that were I to get the chance to cycle from Reykjavík to Akureyri I’d simply take Highway One and overnight at farms along the road. Fast but romantic. I’d ride my prized possession, a Trek X01, cyclocross bike which I have come to love for roughly the same reason Icelanders say they love horses. I refer to the cooperation between rider and bike, although in the case of a bike the rider does the work, as is only appropriate.
“I think you should go Kjölur,” my wife says before I could respond to her surprisingly generous offer. And she is right. Kjölur is a highland route which takes you between Iceland’s second and third largest glaciers and past the colourful mudsprings at Hveravellir. The shortest route between the south and the north region of Iceland, but on account of its poor conditions, it is the road less travelled. But Kjölur means it is unwise and even impossible to ride the cyclocross bike and that, in turn, means I need to get my mountain bike, a Giant XTC, ready in a jiffy. It takes the rest of Monday for this fact to sink in.
Getting a Late Start
When I leave Reykjavík at 4:30 pm on Wednesday I have already cycled 35 kilometres in and around Reykjavík. First to a bike shop for a rack and mudguards. The guy at the shop says he can have the bike ready on Tuesday, roughly three days after I’m supposed to arrive in Akureyri. We negotiate and I give up when I have it down to two days. Instead I borrow the necessary tools from the janitor at the University when I find a free hour between meetings and set up my own little bike shop next to the trash cans, the wheelie bin variety, behind the University’s Main Building. Having five thumbs on each hand, I tend to forget how elevating and enjoyable it is to fix things yourself. After the last meeting, I peddle to an outdoor shop to buy a tent but leave the store with a sleeping bag, a mattress, a stove, a super light titanium pot along with an expensive solo tent. My philosophy is to buy few but good things. I hate it when I stray far from this philosophy which is often enough. The highland interior of Iceland looms large with its desert, glaciers and uncertain weather conditions, and I stick resolutely to my philosophy today.
Eight hundred meters from my home, northbound, I have a flat tire next to the shopping mall in my neighbourhood. After unloading the bike and replacing the tube, I reward myself with greasy junk food from Domino’s across the parking lot. A friend walks by. I eat, we talk. How far I think I’ll make it tonight? “Þingvellir,” I tell him, “Possibly, Laugarvatn.” He is impressed. I scoop up the creamy sauce with a chip. My friend is divorced but he has a lady friend and he thinks their relationship is doomed. He says he’ll treat her to a dinner tonight and tell her it’s all over, he will break off the relationship. As we talk I sense that he is afraid she might be about to leave him for another man and that he is only trying to soften the blow with this pre-emptive strike. I tell him of my suspicion. He nods and says: “You are probably right but I’ll end it anyway.” I ride my bike to Nesjavellir, the hydrothermal plant at lake Þingvellir, and have road 36 pretty much all to myself. I play with the thought that my friend will surprise his lady friend not by dumping her but by asking her to marry him. After all, that is another way of getting the uncertainty out of it.
At Nesjavellir, a sign bluntly announces a 21 kilometre distance to the camping ground in the national park at Þingvellir. Receiving these tidings, my legs become slightly subdued. But the route is scenic and the scent of birch trees, which for me has always indicated the beginning of nature and end of town, is refreshing. The road here is surprisingly easy on the legs. Staying off highway one is paying off. At Þingvellir it rains all night. The tent holds up perfectly but its smallness borders on the ridiculous.
First Glimpse of the Highland
The next leg of my trip takes me to dear old Gullfoss where I’ll get my first view of the highland. The sun is out to warm me and the gravel road through Lyngdalsheiði, a moor between Þingvellir and Laugarvatn, is in poor condition and I’m pleased to discover how the mountain bike soaks up shock-waves from the ungraded road. Arriving at Gullfoss, I’m too tired to continue but too obstinate to give up the idea of seeing some of that highland today.
I weigh my options. A cloud of dust is blowing from West to East, across road F35, called Kjalvegur. I decide to rest over a small bowl of Icelandic meat soup at Café Gullfoss. It is surprisingly authentic although the ingredients are diced too neatly into small equal cubes for my taste. I like my jaw to have something more rugged to work on. When I come out again I see that the cloud isn’t really blowing anywhere, it just hangs there. I strike up a conversation with a man in the parking lot who looks like he knows Kjölur. He thinks I needn’t worry too much about the dust. We talk about the huts I could stay at tonight. The one I’m interested in is at Hvítárvatn, a 30 km² glacier lake some 420 meters above sea level with “the most beautiful mountain-view in Iceland”, as I read in one brochure. My problem tonight will be Bláfellsháls, he says, a long mountain ridge with a considerable elevation (600 meters). I buy more chocolate. As the meat-soup begins to kick in, I decide to cycle into the night and aim for Hvítárvatn.
An hour later, some 9 kilometres from Gullfoss, I run out of energy. I pull out my sleeping bag, make few phone calls – my last in forty eight hours – and fall asleep. The nap gives me enough energy to open my food bag. No dried fruits, noodles, soups and such like stuff here. Apparently, I’ve packed nothing but traditional Icelandic food, mostly lifrarpylsa (liver sausage), sviðasulta (a confit of singed sheep-head), along with some Icelandic and Danish cheeses, whole grain bread and chocolate. What true and tried cyclists would say about this stuff I can only guess but it tastes delicious to me, and amazingly refreshing. Plus, this is the grazing land of the sheep that will supply the ingredients for next year’s sviðasulta and lifrarpylsa.
A second time in one afternoon I resolve to cycle to Hvítárvatn. It begins to rain for real and the wind picks up. After an hour in the rain the worries about the dust cloud are as good as gone. My spirits are soaring. Two more hours in the rain, fighting a strong headwind, and my mood has changed. A car hasn’t come this way in half an hour. When your spirits begin to sink up here and you are alone there is nothing to stop it. You just continue to sink. The rocks, the grey sand, the gravel and the grey sky massed with sombre clouds, are of little help. Should I ever be inclined to believe in a death instinct it will probably be in this kind of setting. Finally, a van with foreign plates passes by and as it has two mountain bikes on its bike stand I pause for a moment and turn my head. This proves to be enough to stop the car some 30 meters down the road.
The passenger door opens and I can see the face of a young woman holding a map in the soft yellow light. I turn my bike and discover I don’t have to peddle to the car in the strong wind. “Could you tell me how far I’m from Hvítárvatn?”, I ask. The woman looks at the map and points to a spot she has circled with a blue pen. “Yes,” I say. “It’s too far,” she says, “you’ll never make it that far tonight.” “Never,” her boyfriend chimes in. “And the weather isn’t any better over there. It’s the same rain as here,” he adds. I tell them it’s good to know. In that case I shall probably pitch my tent somewhere around here. “Good luck,” they say and drive on. But I have no intention of pitching a tent out here. These friendly and warm voices have somehow given me enough energy to cycle to Akureyri tonight. I peddle on and on, but eventually my spirits begin to sink again.
At midnight I come to the cross road to Hvítárnes and discover it is still 8 kilometres to the hut. My memory had said 5 kilometres – a difference of twenty minutes in this terrain. Shadows are forming in the landscape now and every other rock looks like a hut. I’ve calculated my average speed over the last four hours and know full well that I am only managing 8 kilometres an hour. Still, I fool myself and begin to look for the hut after only fifteen minutes. The sand seems littered with huts and I have to make an effort to see things for what they are. I have been following fresh footprints in the dirt road but I can’t see them anymore.
When I’ve pretty much convinced myself I’ve cycled past the hut – an awful prospect – I come to a sloping sign pointing straight to the ground. It looks like a scythe someone has carelessly stuck to the ground before deserting the place but it reads “Hvítárnes (hut)” and that’s all that matters now. Hvítárnes is a sublime spot on earth but for some reason the 8 kilometres have always seemed too much of a detour when I have travelled Kjölur by car. The sweat, the aching muscles, wet feet, overworked lungs, stiff limbs and strained joints add to the immense pleasure of arriving unaided in this woodless area late at night.
I’m alone in the Touring Club hut at Hvítárnes – built in 1930 it is the oldest of its kind in Iceland – and vaguely remember stories about the place. There is supposed to be at least one ghost up here. But I’m too tired to entertain notions or look for supernatural meaning behind the serene sounds here. Besides, nothing can break the stillness of this mighty glacier world. Not even a ghost. Should I ever become a ghost myself I wouldn’t mind spending some days here, especially in early July.
The still lake, the glacier that seems to slope right into the lake in one place, the black hills, the green pastures around the white hut, the geese and the ducks and birds I have never heard from before – not to mention again the sand and the rocks and that clear blue river north east of here. Can you ask for a cooler resting place, dead or alive?
Róbert H. Haraldsson is a 47 year old University teacher who has recently taken up cycling. The second half of Haraldsson’s story will be printed in the next issue of the Reykjavík Grapevine and available at www.grapevine.is.