This was not my first visit to Iceland. I came over in the summer of 2014 as trail crew for the Fire and Ice Ultra, my experiences chiefly involving driving a 4x4 along the highland roads, putting out course markers, bivying in and around volcanoes, sitting upon volcanoes guarding the safe passage of racers, and dodging rocks hurled at me during my waking minutes by the race medical officer, Scott. I had visited waterfalls, forded rivers, slept atop old lava fields, and seen some of the best of what Iceland had to offer. The current trip focussed on visiting areas the cruel restraints of Time prevented me seeing on that first visit, by cycling along the southern peninsula and penetrating Iceland's Golden Circle.
Iceland is both welcoming and friendly to the cyclist. I have it on good suspicion that it is one of the friendliest and most welcoming countries for cyclists that there is. Whilst investigating route options I had received oodles of support and ideas from Iceland's 'Safetravel' organization. When liaising with the highways management I was happily informed that, whilst the highland roads were not maintained during the winter months, they were certainly not closed, and I should counsel myself on whether or not to have a bash at them. A plethora of online webpages and blogs were an inspiration regarding sights to see, routes to follow and roads to avoid.
I had only to fall out of the airport's arrivals terminal to find myself in the 'Bike Pit'; a converted container brimming with bike tools, information and space for me to get the bike and all my kit organised for the journey ahead. The people, organisations and facilities of Iceland were, in short, excellent beyond expectation. Even airport security which, in so many countries, might be expected to be cold towards the tourist, here came over for a friendly chat about my ambitions. A warmer welcome could not have been offered, at least not without someone actually sitting me down to a table and having me fed and watered, whilst a team of diligent mechanics put the bike together lovingly and expertly on my behalf.
I left the Bike Pit shortly after ten at night; the temperature a few degrees below zero, the air still, cool and crisp, and the day's rain and snowfall having recently ceased. For a couple of hours I cycled the dark, wet roads to the coast of the southern peninsula, making a wild camp at about half past midnight on the shores of a wetland area, looking out over a flood plain before the sea, in the light of a gibbous moon, as it shone out brightly between passing grey clouds. It was a good night.
Following that I cycled east, through magnificent black lava fields, some matt, and some shining as the low winter sun was reflected across a thin blanket of ice. I occasionally took a detour through a town to purchase supplies, or else to investigate some local area of interest, such a mud pools boiling away at 200 degrees Celsius.
Iceland's landscape is astonishing. At the very least there are beautiful rolling hills, open farmlands and plantations, but towards the most incredible are the vast volcanic plateaus, which tower up with staggeringly impressive waterfalls thundering down. Elsewhere the classic Geysir erupts every few minutes, sending a plume of cloud several metres into the sky, and this is only a few kilometres from Gullfoss, one of the most impressive waterfalls in the world (although I would argue not as impressive as Dettifoss in the north). Hot springs abound, as does the smell of sulphur and the solitary volcanoes that rise up out of flatlands, all constant reminders of this very unique and geologically active land.
Cycling here, particularly in winter, is a character-building experience. The winds are powerful and constant, sometimes not abating for days on end. Rainfall, sleet, snow and hail were daily events, at least for most of the two weeks I was there, but rarely lasted long. The roads are in bad shape, the tourist drivers even worse, and during winter the highways are not gritted or cleared of snow as often as you might expect. The inland, highland roads were not maintained at all. Studded tyres were a must even on the main roads. Away from the main roads the fat bike was essential for progress across deep snow. The added width and traction was extremely useful on all the roads.
Almost everyone on the roads is a tourist, and some had no idea how best to deal with a cyclist, so improvised with something extremely dangerous and inconvenient to everyone in the vicinity. A very pretty Polish girl and her two adorable German friends made a fantastic cheerleading team whenever they drove by. A couple of cheery American women, a lovely Spanish couple and an extremely pleasant Canadian couple stopped to ask if all was well or if I needed anything. A miserable, haggard and extremely boring old German woman stopped to tell me what I was doing was very dangerous, and I suspected she had no exciting stories to tell her grandchildren out of her whole dreary life (except for meeting me, obviously). I had about five exciting stories for mine from that morning alone.
Wild camping away from the towns and national parks is possible, but hard-going in winter. The ground is frozen but only to a degree or so below zero. The first challenge is finding ground that might take a metal peg, and the second is hoping the ground is not so frozen the metal peg will not give up the will to live and snap in two. Some nights I had to improvise with kit on the guylines. The snow is not deep enough for snow pegs, and the ground is often so windswept there is no snow at all. During the night, body heat can thaw out the ground directly beneath the sleeping mat, allowing vapour to form on the mat and underside of the sleeping bag. A protective bivi for the bag would have been a useful addition. My favourite night was spent at below minus fifteen Celsius, because then everything remained frozen and dry.
Iceland is a country where, if you do not like the weather at a particular moment, you should just wait ten minutes. Ten minutes later the weather will be worse and you can reflect back upon that gay, pleasingly less awful weather of ten minutes before with a wistful nostalgia. Still, it seemed to me that the weather existed mostly in 24-hour cycles, so one could endure one day in the comfort that nothing lasts forever, and quite possibly the next day would be a kinder, more forgiving one.
The sights in Iceland are spectacular and unparalleled anywhere in the world. Here there are vast expanses of lava fields, where the ground rises up in mounds with the appearance of loaves of bread with crusty tops that have opened up during baking. The background is of solitary volcanoes or towering volcanic plateaus that expand across the landscape, incredible waterfalls descending from them to the rivers beneath. Small side roads lead off into the volcanic valleys, to bubbling pools of mud and hot springs. Elsewhere crisp spring water flows, warmed by the hot earth, past the black shoreline and out into the sea. Being a solo cyclist here in the winter is a privilege, but with so much to see I leave hungry for more of what Iceland has to offer.
In the second sentence of Paragraph Eight I allude to a "very pretty Polish girl". My proofreader underlined the text, writing in large letters with sufficient force to almost break through the paper (and her desk) "Sexist, irrelevant". Well, I might have written that she was 5'9", but I didn't know if she was. If she was a handsome chap, I could have written that she was a handsome chap, but she was not. Indeed, most of the chaps I encountered were unfathomably ugly and ghastly, and so did not feature in my tales so as not to cause my dear readers to feel ill. You're welcome.