Tuesday, 13 June 2017

the maddening crowd

It's a glorious sunny day.  Our dampened spirits have been lifted by Margot's kindness and now the weather is perfect for our visit to Jokulsarlon a.k.a. the Iceberg Lagoon.  This is a place where one of the huge glaciers coming off the ice cap here ends in a lagoon.  Huge pieces of the ice break off and float about before heading for the exit out to sea.  And the waves then wash the icebergs up onto the shore.  It's quite a dramatic sight, on the beach, because the sand is black from lava.



We arrive mid morning and there's plenty of activity around.  We realise that for many people flying into Iceland this is probably the most eaterly point they will come to.  And the place is quite a drawcard.  We spend a little time walking around the shore of the lagoon and away from the carpark where there are less visitors.  The beach scene is fabulous.  



When we return to the road we become aware of an increase in the traffic.  This is definitely the endpoint for the majority of tourists.  Thankfully there is a nice easterly tailwind pushing us along, as this is also the stretch of ring road with no communities (shops).   We get a good long close up of some of the glaciers pouring off Vatnajokull.  We turn a corner and ride onto an enormous fluvial plain - a rocky landscape formed by the glaciers carrying rock debris out of the mountains and the huge rivers sweeping out to sea.  It's impressive but quite boring to cycle.  Happily we have some distractions- such as the turf-roofed church in a little hamlet.   And then we meet a chatty Italian cyclist coming the other way.  He looks frazzled and he tells us he's been fighting a headwind all day.  We do our introductions "I'm a man you welly" he tells me.  I look askance.  "Emmanuel" he explains for me with the English pronunciation.  As we have the wind with us we crack on.  The road has been built up on a raised dyke along a large part of this coastline.  It's flat but there's not much of a hard shoulder.  The flatness means we can see quite a long way ahead but even we are surprised that the bridge we see in the distance turns out to be over five kilometres away.

Eventually we get across the fluvial plain and come to another turf-roofed church.  But this one is on a farm and the gates are closed. We leave our bikes anyway and go for a look around.  The farm is abandoned.  Back at the gates an Icelandic family turn up.  The man cries out "What's this nonsense!"when he sees the 'private property' sign. "This is a national historic site!" he declares, before they all troop up the track.  Just along the road we find another abandoned building and a footpath that leads us to a little rocky alcove that is perfectly sheltered from the wind that has pushed us over the 100km limit today.  This spot is one of Gayle's typical finds.  It's an ideal location but it requires a little more effort - in this case lifting our panniers and bikes over an old fence before pushing up a rocky escarpment to reach it.  Worth the bother?  Of course it is.  There's not a soul for miles.

Monday, 12 June 2017

a warming moment

It's a lousy day - the road crosses a large featureless bay sitting under a grey sky.  The rivers we cross are black and menacing, the mountains seem harsh and unwelcoming.  It's cold, very cold. To our left is the sea, sometimes close, sometimes far away.  There's no respite from the elements.  We put on our wet weather gear before we stop for lunch at a roadside picnic table.  Tourists in a four-weel drive pull in but don't get out, don't say hello.  We gobble down the cheap tasteless bread smothered in, and this is the brightest spark of the day so far, delicious blackcurrant jam. 

but the winner is .... mcvitie's dark chocolate digestives


On we go, the road pushed back out to the coast and around yet another grassy and rocky headland.   We wave to the sheep.  It starts to rain.  And then, the Vatnajokull ice cap comes into view - a large snowy white expanse layered over the mountains on the horizon.  We pause at a pull-in where there are some stunted firs - the first we've seen for a while.  Gayle goes off to explore the lay of the land and reports that it would do for the night, even though it's only mid-afternoon.  Down below us is a farm, hotel, restaurant and museum.  We decide to wheel down to the restaurant and see if we can get dry there.  Inside a coachload of Chinese tourists are finishing off their late lunch.  We pretend to look at the postcards for sale and check the weather forecast displayed on a TV screen.  A young woman asks if we need any help.  We ask her a question, she divines we are cyclists (perhaps the helmets give us away, or the drowned-rat look), and tells us that she too is a cyclist.  Margot arrived here with her partner from Poland exactly as we have done, and stayed to work ever since.  She is now running the restaurant and kindly offers us a hot drink, invites us to sit down at a table and then brings us cake too.  Such a sweetie.  She knows what it's like.  


this is why Gayle usually takes the photos

After drying off we check out the museum, which is a small but fascinating display about the life and work of Þórbergur Þórðarson (in Icelandic the letter Þ = Th), a man who grew up on this isolated farm and then left to become one of Iceland's greatest writers and thinkers.   Around the usual heritage stuff such as the old wooden house he lived in and a model of his study are many quotes from Thordarson's books.  These have been translated briliantly.  It turns out to be a real gem of a place.  Thank you, Margot.

It's about to start raining when we leave, and we quickly ride back to the road and then push into the trees to camp - trying to preserve that bit of warmth Margot has filled us with.

in the morning

Sunday, 11 June 2017

where there's hofn

Iceland has one main road - the ring road - route 1.  There are other roads crossing the island and sprouting off to the coastal extremities and these are the ones we want to find.  We are starting southwards and Nadine wrote to us about a dirt road that shaves off a hundred kilometres, misses a tunnel and more importantly, gets us off route 1, if only for a day.  The downside is it takes us over another high pass.  Are we ready after yesterday's traumatic experience?  Yes, of course.  Now we think nothing will be as bad that.

Just after setting off Davide catches up with us.  He stayed at the campsite last night after stocking up at the supermarket, although he observes that another supermarket is only a day's ride away.  We ask him how the prices compare with those of Switzerland.  We remember that many Swiss drive into Germany to stock up on groceries.  Same prices, he tells us, but lower quality here.  We realise that our currency has weakened since the Brexit referendum whilst the Icelandic Krona is strengthening on the back of their tourist boom.  In one year, the pound has dropped a third in value in direct comparison.  No wonder the bread's so expensive.  After reflecting on the egregious state of Sterling Davide whizzes off down the valley and we follow at a more leisurely pace.  

The valley is wide and we circuit around one side of a large and distant lake.   We're surprised at the number of conifer trees but this region turns out to have the most forest of the island.  We read that the government is trying to reforest Iceland and return it to the state it was before the Vikings arrived.  Or was it to before the last Ice Age?  It seems that it's wrong to blame the Vikings for stripping the island of trees - although it's possible they finished off what little was left.  
looking back
Up ahead the valley narrows and the peaks of the surrounding mountains seem to close in.  They are capped in dark clouds and we can see rain in the sky in the side valleys and all ahead of us.  Happily it moves away as we get nearer and when we hit the dirt road and start climbing the sun comes out.  It's a gentle climb but the dirt road is being 'groomed' by a young lad in a big machine.  Basically he is tipping a huge amount of fresh earth over the road and then scraping it flat, thereby filling in all the potholes and leaving a beautiful carpet of thick soft soil.  I'm sure he knows what he's doing, despite his young age, but it makes for a crap cycling surface.  


At the pass a shower catches us and then we have the most incredible descent through a valley with wonderful rock formations.  On both sides the cliff faces of the mountains are tiered in great waves of rock. It looks like petrified lasagne.  And the road drops vertiginously at times like a washboard, pot-holed luge run.  I don't know whether to look up or down.  At the foot of the climb we find an unused track and camp with a view of the fjord we have arrived in.  Easy and thrilling - what more could we want today?
 
the picnic sign is very misleading - there is never a tree, just a single windswept table

Riding on to the next village in the morning and we find the road is rollercoasting rather steeply.  It takes us all morning to ride only 25km.  Are we so unfit, or just not used to that kind of up and down?  We find David at the supermarket brandishing some brocoli. Already we have decided we can't afford meat, cheese, butter, chocolate, beer, wine and most vegetables.  Our lunches consist of bread and jam with crisps and biscuits - a binge-eater's feast.  Dinner is pasta and a simple sauce with onions and One Other Veg. 

crap food, great views

Now we're back on the ring road and following the south-eastern coastline.  This consists of a series of fjords and wide bays with big mountains coming down to the coast.  Sadly the tops are always wrapped in cloud and this makes them featureless and uniform.  If only the cloud would lift.  During the day there's wind and showers but in the evenings the wind tails off.  We find some nice camp spots off the road, out of sight of the regular traffic.  It's permissible for cyclists to camp wild but not for car or van drivers.  Most of the traffic seems to be tourists in small rented vans and these are legally obliged to use campsites.  The campsites we see usually resemble grassy carparks with little shelter from the wind.  They're often by the road and look rather unpleasant.  And it costs £30 to camp. As Gayle puts it "that's an expensive shower".  
 
no services, no charge

The wild camping turns out to be one of the best parts of the day.  It's hardly getting dark at night - the sunset is between 11 and 12 at night - and the weather always seems to improve in the evening.  We seem to get showers frequently in the morning but can wait for the tent to dry out - a short wait if our sheltered spot is not so sheltered.  The worst part is lunch - with absolutely no shelter to be found from the elements - we often eat our jam sandwiches sat on the grass next to the road.  In between there's some cycling - which is quite enjoyable as the traffic is not heavy and the coastline is rather dramatic and beautiful.  We pass lonely sheep farms, some of which advertise accommodation.  It seems an isolated part of the country and we like it.


no drivers spotted these reindeer when we stopped to watch them
Icelandic B'n'B - demand outstrips supply these days
After a short wet day we awake to big clear skies and a gusting easterly wind.  It blows us along towards Hofn with the last shop for 200 km.  There's a busy supermarket where all the staff look about 14 years old.  There's also a quiet tourist office where we can get on-line and check the weather forecast. The fifteen year-old boy working there tells us "Tomorrow there'll be sun and showers." What about the wind?  He taps his keyboard and then pulls a face.  "The wind will be strong and...er...here, have a look yourself."  The wind map on the weather website shows the region covered in a series of randomly pointing arrows.....

After a bit of surreptitious laundry in the bathroom we set off down the road with the wind on our backs trundling us along easily.  It's our first sunny day and the mountains are all clear.  And to top it off we find a great little spot to camp. After a rocky start Iceland is feeling good.


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

the proof is in the pudding

The ferry glides up the fjord.  The hillsides are green.  The sun is shining. There are occasional, isolated, cottages. So far, so tourist brochure.  On the quayside we pedal to the front of the queue at the customs post.  A nice customs officer stops us only to say hello and give us some words of advice.  It snowed last night on the hills and it's a little bit windy on the tops.  Have a nice time in Iceland. 


The ship is still disgorging all shapes and size of vehicle as we head off.  There are bikers, car drivers, VW campers, bigger camper vans, overland vehicles all belching black fumes, and more camper vans.  Davide is a young Swiss guy riding a bicycle.  He disappears quickly.  We pause at an atm and then join the merry throng which is convoying up the road and out of Seydisfjordur.  We pass by an electronic display board which we don't really understand.  It says -2C  and SA8.  We'll learn.

the board shows weather conditions on the pass ahead

Very soon we have left the pretty village and are climbing.  We expect this. We have to cross a pass of 640 metres to reach the next town.  The road starts to switchback.  There is a steady stream of vehicles that pass us after coming off the boat.  There's a gushing waterfall off to one side.  As we ascend the clouds descend to meet us halfway.  It seems like a fair deal.  Drizzling, mizzling. 
looking back
 And then we're at the top at last where it starts to snow. And the wind howls in our ears.  But at least we can start heading down.  Except the road just continues straight ahead, neither climbing, nor descending.  Ahh, the infamous Icelandic heidi - a high plateau pass. A bloke on the ship warned us about heidis - he told us to make sure we don't get caught on them in bad weather.  We look about us.  There are frozen lakes and fresh and old snow.  The road stays clear.  We pedal on.  And finally the view of the next valley opens up before us and we are looking down on Egilstaddir.  We quickly put on more layers.  The snow has stopped, but the wind is buffeting us.  Gayle quickly disappears down the switchbacks, but I'm finding it hard to brake with frozen fingers, and have to stop to warm them up.  We drop down into clumps of dwarf pine trees and purple lupins.  It starts to rain.  We pedal hard until we reach the town and make a bee-line for the tourist information office.  It's a perfect haven, a port in a storm.  Warm, dry, with seats and tables to eat at, toilets.  Did I mention it's warm?  Outside it's cold.  We start glowing almost as soon as we get inside.

Welcome to Iceland.  It's the 6th of June and we've just endured minus temperatures and a taste of the Icelandic wind.  But we've survived!  We feel triumphant after this baptism of ice.  After a very long lunch we go to the supermarket.  The shop has been gutted by the gannets in the campervans.  There's one loaf of bread left on the shelf.  It costs about £4.  Ooof.  It's not often I openly weep in public, I can tell you.  After walking around in a haze for a while we emerge with a couple of bags of food and an overdraft. We cycle off along the road past the campsite and find a little spot behind some trees off the road.

cheap but cheerful

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Stone

At the ferry terminal we quickly unpack our stuff and take it in turns to burn out the hand dryers in the toilets to get our socks and underwear dry.  So many people think we are brave, setting off on bikes to travel around the world.  If only they knew..........

Well, as it turns out, some of them do.  


After checking in we are directed to the front of the queue outside where the cars and camper vans await the go ahead to board the ship.  Freight is being loaded rapidly and we are all waiting on one side out of the way.  We start chatting to Willemijn and Tom, who are in a small VW van, and who we met in the hold of the ship on the morning we all alighted here.  

And then a man walks past carrying a plastic shopping bag.  We are not sure if he's a passenger or not.  He pauses, looks us over and then approaches.  He quietly asks us a few questions, finds out what our plans are.  When we mention Cuba his eyes light up.  Oh, we'll like it there, he assures us.  He's cycled there.  He's cycled in many countries.   His name is Steyn.  "It means stone, in English."  He pauses and reflects for what seems like an uncomfortably long moment.  Then, looking right into our eyes, he says "You have chosen this life."  We are struck deeply by this observation from a man who we have only just met.  It's a comment that possibly says as much about him as it does about us.  Or is it simply that he knows.  He understands us.  It's a very special moment for us.  


The last couple of nights have been spent 'commando' camping in the town in shitty weather and left us feeling flat.  Gayle isn't feeling well.  We are outdoors so much and sometimes the outdoors is not a welcoming environment.  We can't wait to board this ship so that we can shower and wash our sweaty clothes.  And yet this is what we want.  We want to be here.  Steyn understands us.
Clearly he is barking mad too. 


Monday, 5 June 2017

the quiet life

We quite enjoy taking a break from the cycling and decide to take the rest of the week quite easily, so it's quite a shock to then realise that our onward road winds high into the mountains and between the two highest peaks of all the islands.  The views, like the road, are breathtaking.  We can look along the dramatic coast and over to distant islands.  While we pause for lunch the clouds drift in and around the peaks and over the col, obscuring and then revealing the view.  Now you see it.  Now you don't.


   


We hurtle down the other side and along into the fjord and back out again to the village of Elduvik at the end of a quiet road.  There's a clutch of houses, a few farms, a church and cemetery, and a wooden sloped landing curving in a semi-circle around a pebble beach.  Sat around the edge of the landing are a row of boathouses.  A footpath goes around the headland and over to the next village in the next fjord.  We retrace our route to a piece of land below the road that juts out and gives us a lovely view of the fjord and headlands around us.  In the bay boats are tending to fish farms.  It's a great spot to watch the sun go down and the hills to change colour.





from Elduvik village



Eider

a perfect spot

 Clouds and rain the next day and we are thinking about where we can go.  After a lot of dithering we head back towards Torshavn, taking the tunnel through the mountains of Eysturoy and watching bemused as a whole crowd of
honestly, there aren't any cyclists in the Faroes
cyclists pass us going the other way - on a local charity ride.  The weather is alternating windy/rainy/sunny but we plod back along the main road and steel ourselves for the steep but quieter mountain road back to Torshavn.  And then we discover that all the traffic is being diverted this way.  There's a marathon run in the capital and the road up to the tunnel is closed until 6pm.  We check our watches - it's 5.15pm.  Quickly we backtrack and take the empty main road through the tunnel and the easy coastal road back towards Torshavn.  What luck.  The road is deserted.  At the edge of town we find a little wooded nook and stick the tent in between a few stunted fir trees.

bringing the geese home

It rains in the night and continues the next day, which is a Sunday.  Gayle is not feeling too well - a cold? - and neither of us are inclined to go anywhere.  Which is fortunate as there is absolutely nothing to do in the town.  We cycle down the hill to the museum (closed), have lunch in a smoker's shelter behind the local telecoms office building and then eventually pitch the wet tent behind a portacabin.  And that was another exciting day for us.
 
chaos in the porch


Tomorrow we board the same ship as before which will take us to Iceland.  I fall asleep listening to old soul music and mulling over how much more of this lousy weather I can take.  After all, Iceland ain't no beach holiday.......


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