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Iceland (2013)

In the Summer of 2013, Rudi and I cycle on Iceland for the third time. Our route follows the F210/208 (Fjallabaksvegur) to Skaelingar and Landmannalaugar, the F910 to Askja and Snaefell and the F206/207 to Lakagigar. From Egilsstadir to Reykjavík we take the bus. In three weeks’ time we travel about 1.000 kilometers.

Day 1: Airplane to Iceland & Kevlavík > Hafnarfjördur (43 km)

Again we are off to Iceland: the land of rain, wind, volcanoes, lava, moss, and lots of stones. It is the place to be for cyclists who favor unpaved roads and a variety in nature. From the airport we go to Alex in Kevlavík to store our sack with cycle covers and protection stuff and make a camp reservation for the last night of our vacation. It appears that they have closed down the camping, so we decide to book a cabin instead.

The trip on the dull [41] is easy. The weather is excellent: 20 °C and hardly any wind. The bikes are in bad shape though: my back tire is too wide and egg-shaped, and Rudi has stretched his Brooks saddle so often that the adjustment bolt has become loose. We pitch our tent on the fine Hafnarfjordür campsite. At the KFC we order a Giant Bucket, only half-filled with chicken snacks (i.e., half-filled with air) – what a bunch of cheaters!

Day 2: Hafnarfjördur > Hella (102 km)

Rudi’s saddle is priority one. On the Internet we find out that in Reykjavík a few sporting goods stores are open on Sundays, and only after 1 pm. We are lucky to find a shop in a mall with the right assortment of saddles. By then we already went shopping at the grocery store, buying sufficient food for almost two weeks in the interior, where shops are absent – the new Ortieb dry bags prove to be versatile.

The [1] to the east is very boring – as usual. It is a busy road and people drive fast, although they keep distance. Why the hell do we cycle here again? To make things worse, it starts raining. We are glad to arrive in Hella at 9 pm. On the spacious camp site we meet Miha, a Slovenian guy who wants to cycle the Iceland ring road (boring!) and tests us about various Slovenian technology brands we have never heard of (and probably never will either).

Day 3: Hella > Launfitjarsandur (66 km)

From Hella we first follow the [264] before we get at the unpaved [F210]. Soon we are in the Skógshraun lave fields where we gradually climb to the small but prominent volcanic cone Hafrafell. Thereafter the landscape becomes much more diverse.

It gets even more beautiful near the Laufafell, with green moss covering the hills on both sides of the valley. On a few occasions we get a glimpse of the mighty Tindfjallajökull. The whole time we keep the Eystri-Ranga river on our right side. The road condition has become quite good; sometimes we manage to ride over 20 km per hour.

Near the Laufafell (1.164 m) is the watershed: on our left side lies Reykjadalir, but we turn right. Immediately a beautiful valley opens up; this must be one of Iceland’s most scenic areas! We easily cross the same meandering stream several times before we descend to the broad valley of Launfit. The current of the river Markarfljót is too strong for us now; tomorrow morning we will give it a second try.

Day 4: Launfitjarsandur > Skaftárdalur (80 km)

In the early morning the Markarfljót’s current has become less strong allowing us to safely cross it. The bags have to be carried in several stages though. We climb to the next valley. We have wonderful views of a fairytale landscape, certainly in the direction of Faxi and Totfatindar in the south-west. In the north-east somewhere behind the snow-covered mountains lies Landmannalaugar. Until Hvangill the entire area is extremely scenic!

We cross a river over a narrow bridge and arrive at the junction with the [F261]. The Stórasúla looks sturdy – as usual. Just like two years ago we follow the [F210] over the Maelfellsandur plain. A cyclist with a cute little dog in the front basket approaches us at great speed on the jeep track; I am too amazed to ask him to stop for a photo. With a mild back-wind the track through the lava sand is relatively easy, were it not for the lovely little cloud to develop into this gigantic, monstrous thunder cloud that is about to consume us…

Just before the Maelifell we feel the first rain drops. Within a few seconds it is pouring rain, and within a few minutes the temperature drops by 10C. We turn left to a plain flooded with little streams. A large horse herd with some riders approaches at full speed. It’s amazing to see the Icelandic horses at their special gallop in this foul weather; too bad though that the horses have damaged the track now; cycling becomes very difficult.

A bit further down the road we experience difficulties with the Hólmsá. This river is quite deep, probably caused by a combination of high temperature, rain and bad timing (after noon). Close to our goal of the day, Skaftádalur, I bump onto a small trench in the road: my first flat tire ever during a cycling holiday. We pitch the tent along the impressive raids of the Skaftá, one of Iceland’s biggest rivers.

Day 5: Skaftárdalur > Skaelingar (39 km)

The more than 20 km on the [F208] are easy-going: here and then a steep 18% climb but on a good road surface with few loose rocks and without river crossings,. My lower back aches and I take it easy. This first part of the road to Landmannalaugar is quite boring, even when we are lucky to be able to see anything at all – way different than two years ago. The road becomes more interesting once we arrive at the junction with the [F223]. Hhere we take a loop to the north-east.

After a double river crossing the road climbs very steeply up to Eldgja, to a view point from which one can see a canyon and the waterfall Ofaerufoss. We take the jeep track to Skaelingar and go down all the way to the Skaftá river. (The view of which is less spectacular than one might expect from the map.) After many short climbs on loose rocks we can finally see the Skaelingar hut and campsite. This is a nicely situated and tranquil place.

Day 6: Skaelingar > Landmannalaugar (54 km)

Direct from the camp site we climb more than 300 meters on a very steep road. It is impossible to arrive at the top without pushing. The 180 degree view is quite nice. On top of the hill we cycle through a funny “lava canyon” and slowly descend to Blautulón. Thanks to the sunny weather this deep blue lake is in sharp contrast with the green hills. The jeep track leads right through the shallow part, but we can push the bikes on the path alongside the lake.

Lower in the valley we take the [F235], which is very easy to cycle, in the direction of Landmannalaugar. In particular the part between the Graenafjall and Tindafjall hills is scenic. Two years ago this was a demanding stage for us, with rain and cold throughout the day and also a few difficult river crossings. Today the slopes are of course still as steep and long, but the weather is fine now and there is just one deeper river crossing.

Day 7: Landmannalaugar > Hrauneyjafoss (41 km)

In Landmannalaugar for the third time. In my opinion the camp site is still busy and unpleasant. Big busses unload day trippers as well as backpackers who do the famous trail. But I have to admit: it is very beautiful here. I wash my clothes and check my bike while Rudi dives into a lava field to take pictures.

We cycle to the north on an awful washboard road with lots of loose sand. To make things worse the wind starts blowing harder and harder. Near lake Hrauneyjarlón it is difficult to keep on the bike. Those are the moments at which one thinks: “Iceland is great (not).” We are relieved when we arrive at “our” camp spot behind the trees near Hrauneyjafoss. In the guest house we enjoy Iceland’s best hamburger.

Day 8: Rest day Hrauneyjafoss

Our plan is to cycle the Sprengisandur, but the northeastern wind is fierce. We know from experience – two years ago we got stuck on the [F26] due to the wind – that cycling now is pointless. We would like to take a bus right away – the road is boring anyway – but unfortunately the next one leaves tomorrow. We have no other option but to take a rest day in the tent and hope for the weather to improve.

Day 9: Hrauneyjafoss > Nýidalur (bus) & Nýidalur > Langadrag (26 km)

This morning it is storming. The flagpole at the gas station completely bends. It is a definite “Yes!” for the bus. We are not very eager to fasten the bicycles to the rack at the back of the bus, but we have to since there is no room in the luggage compartment. We put isolation foam between the top tubes and the hooks to prevent the coat to wear off. Half way to Nýadalur at the deserted gas station a cyclist who got stuck here during the storm gets into the bus – just as we did two years ago.

The bumpy trip to Nyídalur takes three hours and is tedious. Having arrived there the temperature dropped to 6 °C. The [F910] – also known as “The road to Askja” or “Iceland’s worst road” – was officially opened only yesterday (August 7th!). The warden is not able to inform us on the status of the route. Close to the camping we cross a river and 5 km further on the road a second one – both knee deep so we get cold feet from the very start. Meanwhile the temperature dropped to 3 °C.

Next there is a junction: Askja. We ask an oncoming ranger for information on water supply, but he can’t help us. The quality of the road surface is pretty good in the beginning but gradually deteriorates. After a few river crossings we find a nice camping spot next to Langadrag river. Inside the tent temperature it is almost freezing. It starts snowing during the night.

Day 10: Langadrag > Fjallsendi (54 km)

We are not sure if the streams that are projected on our map are really there. And according to the same map we won’t be able to find any water after some 40 km for sure. Rudi takes the filled Ortlieb water bag. (In vain, since during the day we see lots of streams and little lakes. What a shithead ranger that he couldn’t tell when we asked.)

Soon we reach Skjálfandafljot river where a bridge connects the steep banks. We take the official northern route of the [F910] – there are quicksands on the southern alternative. Unfortunately we can’t see much of the landscape due to low-hanging clouds. We don’t even get a glimpse of the wide cone-shaped volcano Trölladyngja (1.460 m) even though we cycle on its base for a whole day.

The road leads us to rock and lava fields. There is more variation than the map suggests. Especially near Efribotnar cycling is fun: a fairly good road meanders gently through the high lava. Near the mountain Thrihyrningur we can see very particular splashed and rippled lava structures all around us. After some hard cycling we find the perfect camp spot on the parking site at the Fjallsendi base.

Day 11: Fjallsendi > Askja (45 km)

Last night it was freezing again. The cold came through the floor cover and air bed – my down jacket kept me comfortably warm. Again there is some snow when we open the tent door. Fortunately the temperature rises to 6 °C. We are also lucky to see more of the surroundings: the icecap in the south, the Trölladyngja in the sun and the mighty Askja mountains. This is a nice route with wide views!

The first part to the junction with the southern alternative is fairly easy, but the part of the road to the Holuhraun plain is filled with loose sand. After a bit of “regular” road we continue with 15 km of loose sand. We cycle at great effort next to the road: a very effective training method. Also the last 6 km to Dreki – the hut and camp site – are terrible: very rocky and many loose rocks. Just like anywhere on Iceland this place is invaded by the French, Spaniards, Italians and Russians.

Day 12: Askja > Kreppa (54 km)

Today we visit Askja. The perfect road leads some 8 km up the mountain. We have excellent views of “King Snaefell” in the east and “Queen Herdubreid” in the northeast. At the end of the road we park our bikes and walk to the crater lake. Askja is impressive. The prehistoric crater ring is no less than 50 km2 in size. The highest point Thorvaldstindur (1.510 m) rises very steeply on the southern shore of lake Öskjuvatn.

I had imagined that Askja was traditionally a cone-shaped volcano, but I was wrong there. Under the surface of the mountains there is a huge magma chamber, and once in a while this chamber collapses. As a result of subsequent collapses the big, cold water lake Öskjuvatn and the small, warm water lake Vítí came into existence. The last eruption dates back to 1875 and had a devastating effect on eastern Iceland. Many locals decided to emigrate.

We descend to the crater lake Vítí on a steep snow field that is pretty slippery. High above us on the rim people are watching us while we enter the water... WTF, the water isn’t hot at all, just lukewarm (22 °C). Nevertheless, it is a special moment. It was smart of us to come here so early – around noon there is one long caravan of day tourists arriving here from Mývatn in busses and vans.

We travel eastwards again. After Midfell the excellent gravel road becomes a nasty road with loose sand (and later on: wash board). We pass the light-brown colored hill Upptyppingar (1.084 m) that resembles a gigantic piece of shit. We decide to stop a little further in a bizarre landscape with standing stone “walls”, close to Kreppa canyon. We use Rudi’s trousers to filter the sandy water that we collected from a little lake.

Day 13: Kreppa > Thórisstadir (57 km)

We leave our fine camping spot and ride with tailwind to the north to the bridge spanning the Kreppa river. The first km after the bridge is really scenic. But then it’s over. What follows are 40 km of headwind on a terrible road (loose sand, 80% wash board, many loose rocks). And despite the sunny weather, panoramic views are absent in this monotonous landscape. This part of the [F910] is not recommendable!

On such a day I’d almost give up. I lack motivation and my back aches. However, after we have some hot “Beverontbijt” (dried breakfast sold at the Dutch Bever outdoor company) I totally recover. It’s remarkable how one can cope again with strong wind and bad roads. At Brú we go into the long-stretched Hrafnkelsdalur. We manage to find a nice camp spot between the fenced meadows and the road.

Day 14: Thórisstadir > Snaefell (39 km)

The road is excellent until Adalból gas station. And then… what the hell: the road goes almost in a direct line up the hill. What lies in front of us is the most strenuous part of our Iceland vacation: more than 300 m in altitude on a very steep and very bad road. I have to push my bike 80% of the climb, and even Rudi walks more than he cycles. This ridiculous road reminds me of England!

On the top of the hill we are surrounded by clouds so we can’t see much of the landscape. At least the road on the plateau is not so hilly anymore. What is troubling me though are my cold hands. When used for a longer period in rainy weather the expensive “water-proof” Sealskinz gloves become “not really water proof”. After the only river crossing where we have to put on the Teva’s and surf shoes we cross the tarmac road and take the [F909] to Snaefell. This road is not very steep or difficult.

After some 13 km we arrive at the hut. At that moment the weather brightens up a bit, we can even see the lower part of Snaefelll mountain. Although we spend the night in our tent, in the evening we make use of the excellent hut facilities for just a few euros. I recommend this place to everyone! Orri – warden and ranger – gives us a friendly welcome.

In the evening Orri drives us in a Landrover to the Saudahnjúkar. During the walk to the summit he tells us about the Hálslón reservoir. Building the dam, which took place during 2003-2006, has been and is still controversial. The dam generates energy and a thousand jobs for the new aluminum smelter of Alcoa in Reydarfjördur at the cost of losing a unique breeding area. By now some 85% of the country’s energy production is used by aluminum smelters; how much more nature should be sacrificed?

Day 15: Rest day Snaefell

Today we stay in this beautiful area. We plan to climb the “normal route” of the Snaefell. I stop half way at the view point, while Rudi continues through the snow on this cycling shoes to the summit (1.833 m). Meanwhile the weather has improved considerably. From the King’s mountain we can look very far: Asjufjöll in the southwest, “Queen” Herdubreid in the northwest and Kverkökull, Askja, the Trölladyngja and even the Tungnafellsjökull in the far west: a distance of more than 100 km!
In the Summer, Orri is assisted by a part time ranger. She and her visiting sister try to teach us Icelandic. I learn that Icelandic writing has not changed for over a thousand years. Icelandic linguists come up with creative words for modern foreign words such as “coffee”, “banana” and “computer”, though in practice people tend to use the foreign words. In the evening Orri and the ladies have a festive meal – coq au vin – to celebrate the annual Gay Pride.

Day 16: Snaefell > Egilsstadir (94 km)

We say goodbye to Orri and the ladies and head back on the [F909] in the rain. We reach the tarmac road quickly. On the map the next 50 km on the plains look easy, but the road is boring and the tail wind is nasty. My hands get cold and my back hurts. After the descend to Lagarfljöt we have a 600 calories “Beverontbijt” at Hallormsstaduur, after which I recover.

We pitch our tent at the Egilsstadir camp site, which is not cosy but has good facilities. By now we have run out of food. The shops are closed, so we head for the N1. This is “the” place-to-be: half the town is gathered here. After a hamburger and french fries we order an extra pizza. And one liter soft drink each. We feel terrible. We realize that in the U.S. millions of people do this every day.

Day 17: Egilsstadir > Höfn (bus)

We take the bus all the way back to Reykjavík with Kirkjubaejarklaustur (“Kirkyousomething”) as a stopping place for Laki. Two years ago we couldn’t see anything of the eastern fjords due to low-hanging clouds. Today the sun is shining, and we experience that the entire road from Egilsstadir to Höfn is scenic, in particular the first part of the [92] to Reydarfjordur. We can see pyramid-shaped hills, caused by lava erosion. At the Höfn camp site we eat crumbed lamb meatballs.

Day 18: Höfn > Hunkubakkan (bus) & Hunkubakkan > Blágil (37 km)

At 10 am we take the bus and go westwards. We stop for one hour at the Jökullsárlón icelake. Two years ago it was quiet and peaceful when we arrived here in the evening. But now, in the middle of the day it is crowded with tourists and full of busses and rental cars. The same applies to Skaftafell where we have another short break. Why is it so crowded at these spots while and so quiet at other beautiful spots in the interior?

At around 3 pm we leave the bus. The chauffeur helps us unload the bicycles after we take the [F206] in the direction of Laki. After one and a half day of sunshine, it starts raining. And just like two years ago we can see little of the surroundings. On the positive side it is not very cold (8 to 11 °C) and it’s less than 40 km to our destination. Bearing the cosy and well-equipped Snaefell hut in mind, Blágil’s hut is a bummer.

Day 19: Lakagigar tour (44 km)

At half past 4 the sheep wake us up. We don’t feel like getting up though: it has been raining continuously since we got out of the bus. Just before noon we can’t stand it any longer: rain gear on and go into the mist! We do the Laki loop [F207] clockwise. After some 15 km we can see something around us, and halfway after the information point the weather brightens up a little.

At our right the craters are positioned in a row all the way up to Laki. To our left are the moss-covered hills behind lake Lambavatn. A little further at the most northwestern part of the loop we have the most spectacular view. At this moment the sun starts to shine, illuminating the Lakagigar lava fields in the northwest direction, and behind the plain the river Skaftá and the green hills of Fögruufjöll that are in sharp contrast with the intense dark clouds. A very special moment.
Next we cycle to the Laki volcano. The system erupted between 1783 and 1784 from the Laki fissure and the adjoining Grímsvötn volcano, pouring out an estimated 14 km3 of basalt lava and clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide compounds that killed over 50% of Iceland's livestock population, leading to a famine that killed approximately 25% of the island's human population. The lava dust and acid rain caused a drop in global temperatures, crop failures in Europe and may have caused droughts elsewhere. The eruption has been estimated to have killed over six million people globally, an all-time world record. (Source: Wikipedia.) Today Laki keeps quiet.

Day 20: Blágil > Kirkjubaejarklaustur (44 km)

Since yesterday evening it has been raining non-stop. The area between Kirkyousomething, Laki, Landmannalaugar and Vík is perhaps Iceland’s wettest place. No wonder that the hills are so intense green. But it is hard to see this when these hills are covered in the mist... Anyway, this is the wettest day in three years on this island. All tracks are filled with water and we cycle through many 10 m long puddles. The Kirkyousomething camp site is excellent. We eat lamb meatballs and pommes parisienne.

Day 21: Kirkjubaejarklaustur > Reykjavík (bus) & Reykjavík > Hafnarfjördur (14 km)

For the fourth and last time we cheat by taking the bus. The driver is a lunatic. He is telling us and our German neighbors things about touristic places – in Icelandic, since he has no command of English. He also drives well above the speed limit, wrecks bicycles and makes disgusting noises all the time. We are glad that we can leave the bus in Reykjavík at the municipal camp site, after which we cycle to the fine camp site in Hafnarfjördur.

Day 22: Hafnarfjördur > Kevlavík (82 km)

We avoid the dull [41] and take the alternative route via Grindavík. The [42] brings us to Sveifluháls, one of the active volcanic areas on the southwestern peninsula. We visit Krýsuvíkur where we see boiling mud surrounded by weird colors, and where steam hisses between lava rocks. It reminds me of Hverir near Myvatn. Next we take a relatively new road along the south coast to Grindavík, and after having a hamburger at the N1 we fight against the strong north wind on our last 20 km to Kevlavík.

Day 23: Airplane to the Netherlands

After an excellent stay in one of the Alex’ cabins we leave at 4.15 am to the airport. After one hour we start queuing. Queuing very slowly, as most of today’s flights are scheduled in the early morning. After another hour we have finally checked in. We have very litttle time left for boarding. At Schiphol Airport Marieke and Loes welcome us. They buy us a beer and we toast on a successful vacation!

Epilogue

After three Iceland trips I summarize my findings. I am really impressed by the area situated between the Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull, Lándmannahellir and Laki. So much variation – ranging from moss-covered green hills, lava fields and icecaps to canyons and meandering rivers – is unique on Iceland, and rare elsewhere on earth. Askja, Lónsörafi, Kerlingarfjöll and the east coast are beautiful as well, as is the ice lake Jökullsárlón – as long as tourist crowds are avoided. Not recommendable are the boring long-distance routes Kjolur, Sprengissandur and the [F26] east of Askja, as well as the roads in the southwest of Iceland, which are wide and busy – sufficient reasons for taking the bus.