Trip Report: Iceland

Desolate Highlands

In the morning I walked into the main house to talk with owner. I paid for my night camping and for a one night stay in their farmhouse as well as for some Icelandic Buffet Breakfast . Broken from the night before, I made that day a full rest day. My room became available at 1100h and it ended up being a small house with about 4 rooms, a bathroom, kitchen and dining area with no one else in it but me! I took a shower, rinsed my clothes with soap and then passed out on the extremely cushy beds. I slept for 18+ hours.

I woke at around 0800h, packed up and had another buffet breakfast again before departing from the guesthouse. I biked a few kilometres on the Route 1 going west to pick up the main road that would lead me once again into the heart of the Icelandic highlands. At the beginning of the F88 I saw a man pulling out a touring rig and setting himself up. He is a German man around 50+ years old and he told me his goal was to reach Herðubreið, also known as the Queen of Icelandic Mountains. I wished him luck and sped along the rough gravel roads.

Entrance into interior to Askja
The start of the trail back into the Icelandic highlands to reach Askja

The day is long and sunny but thankfully there was no serious wind. Along the route there are many sand sections ranging from a few meters to a few kilometres long. Thankfully for my light set up and big wheels I could usually ride through most of them but I spent a few kilometres having to push the bike. Many parts of the road are formed from bizarre black volcanic rocks that dot the landscape. Apparently NASA had used this area to train it's astronauts for the moon landings since the terrain was almost identical to what they would face. It definitely felt like I was on an alien world. I had 3 major river crossing that day, carrying the bike over my head with water above my waist, along with maybe 6 other smaller crossings. After ~120km of distance covered I reached Dreki camp around 1900h at the base of the Askja caldera.

Herðubreið, Queen of Icelandic Mountains, keeps me company on my journey to Askja

With no access to any civilization and still only eating from the food I'd bought on my first day on the island, I was starving. My cycle map said there was no place to buy food here but every other stop I've had in the interior had told me otherwise so I was banking my life on it. Walking into the main hut and asking to buy food I was met with a blank stare, 'We do not sell any food here' and I just stared back and let out an 'Uhhh'. The girl at the counter quickly realized my predicament, 'We had a barbecue just yesterday, and we have leftovers you can have those.' She ran into the back and brought back a oven tray overflowing with racks of ribs and grilled sausages and my eyes widen. I refused out of politeness but she insisted so I jumped at the opportunity. I walked into the staff quarters and she set me up with a plate, brought some additional baked potatoes and grilled onions and then let me feast. I ate as if it were my last meal since I doubted there would be anywhere to pick up food on the way out of the desert. I almost ate everything they had leftover but forced myself to stop because I didn't want to abuse the charity. I thanked her profusely and offered money to pay for the food.

The whole point of coming out to this empty place was to climb the caldera and see the lake that was in it. With the day ending I hoped to finish it with a bang. Talking with the staff girl she said it would take two hours to ascend and two hours to descend. She reached saintly status when she offered to drive me up to the top of the caldera. The road up was an atrocious 12km and she let me out on the north side of the formation. This meant that I would have the chance to walk across the base of the caldera to reach the lake(~3km). The walk was tricky as I went over large sections of ice that were beginning to melt with the sun being out all day. Getting to the lake was breathtaking, looking all around to see the craggy edges of the caldera surrounding me(imagine standing inside a shallow bowl). Lake Askja was formed from a volcanic event in the late 1880's and was the sibling to the smaller explosion crater Viti. Viti is still being actively heated from the underground and provided the opportunity to swim in at temperatures above 30C.

Panorama from inside Askja Caldera
Panorama from inside Askja caldera
Lake Askja
Lake Askja within the caldera
The sun shining into Askja caldera at 2100h
Taken on my hike to the lake as I cross the centre of the caldera
Askja Lake from the climb up the caldera wall
Askja Lake view as I look back on my the climb up the caldera wall to get to camp again
Explosion crater Viti
Explosion crater Viti right beside the lake, quite deep in the ground, maybe 50m down

I followed a route around the edge of the lake and then began a steep climb out of the caldera. The marked path was barely visible at times and very narrow, basically consisting only of the footprints of hikers since passed. At the very top the view was stunning offering a 360deg view across the highlands, a desolate vista with stubborn juts of rock rising out in defiance. The climb down was loose and steep with some sections of me breaking into a run going down. It took me just over two hours to descend, just as the staff girl predicted. I walked back into camp, set up and went to sleep.

View from the lip of Askja Caldera
Lip of the caldera hiking back to camp. This is facing the direction where I biked from.

A strong sun greeted me as I woke and I found a new tent set up quite near to mine with a bicycle sitting in front. As I packed my tent a Swiss cyclist comes out to chat. He had just done a long trek from Alaska down to the USA. I ask him about the south route around Vatanjkoull. He stressed that I should stop at Jökulsárlón. It's a lake on the edge of the glacier where large chucks break off and slowly wade to sea. I promised him I'll make the journey.

Leaving Askja, going the opposite way, I saw a petite girl with a large mountain bike, pushing it through the sand. She had almost no gear and only 2L of water! She introduced herself as Olga from Poland, and she's spending the summer here in Iceland for an exchange program working at the guesthouse Laugarfell. As coincidence would have it I told her that's exactly where I aimed to end the day. She was ecstatic and told me to seek out a coworker by the name of Francesca who would give me free cake and coffee. Sounds like a deal!

The day of cycling now began in proper and it was rough. Exiting the desert was a lot harder then entering. The amount of sand sections I ran into was absurd. It was so bad that I actually witness a motorcyclist tip over going around a shallow turn. I assisted her and her son to lift it up again. The hours crept by and my water began to dwindle under the immense heat. Around 1900h I began contemplating trying to hitch a ride out but I kept pushing. A German couple driving by stopped and asked if I need help and I quickly said 'Some water would be awesome'. The wife scrambled in the back seat and handed me a 500ml bottle of soda water. I thanked them profusely.

On top of Kárahnjúkar dam
On top of Kárahnjúkar dam

After a few stream crossings and repeated hills climbs it becomes obvious that I didn't have enough steam to reach Laugarfell that night. I decided not to kill myself like I had two days ago and set up camp a few kilometers from the Kárahnjúkar dam. The view is majestic as I had a clear view of the King of Icelandic mountains, Snæfellsjökull. I felt bad that I won't strictly keep my promise to Olga, but I figure the coffee and cake will make a good breakfast tomorrow.

I was about 30 kilometres to ride to reach the Laugarfell guesthouse. Crossing over the dam was truly amazing. The structure is a monolith of concrete overlooking a rift in the earth that snakes off into the distance. It really made me feel small to think that humans are able to coordinate and build something as imposing as the mountains themselves.

The road quality became ideal as it switched to light gravel. The hills keep coming though as I went over 3 large climbs back to back before I levelled out onto a plateau. I reached Laugarfell and as I pulled in a girl passes by me and asks 'Are you Alessandro?', "I sure am and I guess you are Francesca! You're the one with free coffee and cake.'. She laughs and tells me to meet her inside the house.

It's a cozy building all by itself on the edge of the highlands. She told me that Olga had called last night and they were expecting me. I got a slice of double chocolate cake and hot cup of coffee, while thanking her for the kindness. I also ate 2 grilled sandwiches (which I paid for) and decided to stay the night once more in comfort. Much like Hveravellir they had many geothermal spots on the property. Heated from underground volcanic activity, one sits at 30C and the other at 40C. I spent the day in the water until dinner. Dinner was a cut of steak, some salad and some fries. I went once more into the hot pool outside until I decided to sleep.

I awoke in the comfy room and could only see a grey dull fog outside the windows. Going outside the visibility was about 3 meters. I got giddy when I finally realized what's going on, I was inside a cloud! I tagged along with a Swiss cycling couple who were also staying at the guesthouse and we headed out in a brutal headwind and zero visibility. Cars whizzed by, the wind roared, and no one talked as each of us was wrapped in our own thoughts.

We came to the edge of the highlands and there was a 500 meter descent zigzagging down a hill side as we broke from the low hanging clouds. I parted ways with the couple as they lingered to take photos. The rest of the route on the way to the largest town on the east coast, Egilsstaðir, is small rolling hills along side a large river. I saw signs marking Giant Worm sightings. Apparently since ancient times people have reported seeing a large worm creature traveling in the river, large enough that when it raised one hump a fully masted ship could pass underneath without touching. I secretly hoped I'd get to see the beast on my ride but I'd no such luck.

The lonely road
Landscape shot #2

I made great time and got to the town by 1500h. I contemplated camping but first I tried to figure out what the bus schedules looked like. Looking at the cycling map I saw the road to Höfn is riddled with 10%+ climbs. Just my luck there was a bus leaving at 1615h.

I eventually loaded up on a very small bus, and with many bikes in the cargo there was almost no room for me. The scenery is haunting with the craggy mountain tops and imposing climbs, I reflected on how good of an idea taking the bus was, not to mention that it started to rain quite a bit. We went through a tunnel in the mountain for 9 kilometres and I got the first taste of darkness since landing here. It was pitch black and instinctively I fell asleep. I was rudely awaken when we exit the tunnel and the light poured in again. What a strange feeling it was to miss the darkness of night.

At Djúpivogur, we transferred to a proper coach bus. My bike was set the farthest on the rack while getting here and it got covered in a layer of sand and mud. Before leaving 3 more cyclists showed up and the driver has a fun time getting all bikes to fit. At Höfn everything was unloaded right at the town's main campsite. I decided to stay at the site as the rain continued to drop down. My first time setting up the tent in rain and it went surprisingly smooth, no water entered the tent.

From Höfn I planned on cycling so that my promise with the Swiss fellow at Askja was fulfilled, seeing the glaciers floating off to the sea. The rain fell on and off all day as I raced along the mostly flat and empty south coast. On my right hand side were steep cliff sides which their true height was never revealed to me as the clouds linger low. Nothing at all is along the south coasts other than the jet black beaches, and with the paved road I started to get bored pretty quickly.

Jökulsárlón lake
Glacier run off from Vatnajökull into Lake Jökulsárlón

Once I get near Jökulsárlón I realized I was entering prime tourist territory. My suspicions were confirmed as I roll into the official site and there were roughly a hundred people wandering around. I got a bite to eat then climbed a 10 meter hilltop to get a vantage point of the lake. The bright blue icebergs are gorgeous as they slowly rotate around invisible axis' and drift towards the ocean at a snail's pace.

Jökulsárlón lake ice field
Lake Jökulsárlón ice field #1
Jökulsárlón lake ice field
Lake Jökulsárlón ice field #2
Jökulsárlón lake ice field
Lake Jökulsárlón ice field #3
Jökulsárlón lake ice field
Lake Jökulsárlón ice field #4

Almost immediately after leaving the lake, I ran into many more such bodies of water with huge chunks of glacier visible only a few kilometres away. I make a few stops at some of these and peacefully enjoy the view. In the late evening I got hit by a huge rain storm. I made a stop at a gas station diner in Freysnes.

Another glacier melt formed lake
Another glacier melt formed lake #1
Another glacier melt formed lake
Another glacier melt formed lake #2

After filling up on calories I rode about five minutes, hung a sharp right off the road for two minutes and set up camp. The rain stopped briefly as I pitched the tent. I faced a huge tendril of the glacier snaking down just south of Skaftafell and fell sleep for the night.

The race was on, the bus arrived at the Kirkjubæjarklaustur pickup point at 1300h and I had 70 kilometres to kick or else I had to wait until the next day. I got on the road by 0900h and the elements came out to play as the hours rolled by. The only time I stopped was to either put on my rain gear as storm cloud passed over or to take it off when the sun made me start to sweat again. I briefly played around with some horses by the side of the road, feeding them long grass that was just out of their reach. I passed over many bridges that span across flows that trickle away from Vatankojull.

Small cottage on southern edge of Iceland
Cottage on southern edge of Iceland dwarfed by the highland plateau

As the clock ticked towards 1240h I got passed by the bus that I knew I was supposed to get on and I was still about 10 kilometres away from the pickup spot with a heavy headwind. I pushed forward and put all my energy into the ride. As the station came into view I breathed a sigh of relief as the bus was still there idling. I saw the bus driver from the day before who took us on the transfer to Höfn and I shouted at him 'Hello friend, I hope you still have room for one more!'. He laughed and we caught up with what had happened in the two days since. I got a warm and dry seat and the six hour long bus drive began to Reykjavík.

Southern Black Beaches of Iceland
I climb up to a waterfall at look at the southern coast. Black beaches in the distance.
The waterfall dripping over from the plateau

Once I got into the city I scrambled to find a place to stay. Hostels were the only thing on my mind as I already payed the steep price of hotels in the highlands and didn't want to find out the cost to stay in the tourist packed city. I biked back and forth getting denied at 3 different hostels as they were all at capacity. Finally I found one that was good enough and vacant. With a hard day of cycling behind me I made friends with a Brit, an Aussie and a handful of American girls to spend the night drinking in the capital.

Fishing boats in Vik
A short bus stop in the town of Vik. Overrun by tourists.
Reykjavík cityscape
Reykjavík ☺

And so ended the journey on bike across Iceland. I'd end up spending 3 more days lounging in that hostel, meeting new travellers and exploring the city until I flew out again back home to Toronto.

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