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Trip Report: Iceland

Ripple Road

Landing in Keflavík, my excitement was palpable. From the plane the island seemed unnaturally flat with infrequent mountain tops peaking out in the horizon. Coming from a toasty +20C in Canada to a +6C in Iceland I was wide awake to begin the adventure upon landing at 0600h.

Static map image

The first hurdle was getting the bike and hoping that it had safely made the trip alongside me. After retrieving the bike box I was directly outside a small shelter that had the words BIKE PIT scrawled across it. This was where the putting together of the bike would take place, with access to a variety of tools to use courtesy of the airport.

Wheeling the box inside I almost ran over 3 cyclists nestled inside their sleeping bags dozing off. Despite it being very early in the morning, the sun was already high in the sky. As I started pulling out my gear I came to a heart-stopping realization. I'm missing a pedal! I started coming up with possible solutions, maybe I could build the bike with one and pedal to the capital which was 40km away. Instead I ran back into the terminal and purchased myself plus the bike a ticket aboard one of the shuttle buses that run 24/7 between Keflavík and Reykjavík (the capital).

I arrived in Reykjavík at around 0800h and left the packed bike at the bus terminal to walk into town and find a bike shop. It's a Saturday morning and no shops open until 1000h. I waited around for an hour and then got impatient. I decided to build the bike and wait with it so I can buy pedals and jet off right away.

As I built up the bike I had my second revelation. I'm a bigger idiot than I thought, the pedal was there all along. It had slid to the opposite side of where I had stored it and wedged itself between two of my bike bags...Now the second hurdle to overcome was my phone had not been able to get a GPS lock. Again I started to worry that I would have to cancel all interior treks since without a GPS lock I'd be completely lost.

At 1100h a shop called ELKO opens and I managed to purchase a Garmin eTrex 20 for almost $400 CAD. They said I have 30 days to return which is perfect because I know I'll be back in roughly 3 weeks.

Reykjavík exposed rock
Exposed earth on the city limits of Reykjavík

At this point I'm itching to start the damn trip already and so I head out on the winding streets of Reykjavík avoiding major roads. On the outskirts of the capital I ran across a fully loaded American from Wisconsin who offers me some words of wisdom. He passes forward the common advice of avoiding the Route 1 anywhere on the west side of the island and warns me that the beer stores close early so I should try to buy in bulk. Once I cross the Route 1 my wheels touched gravel roads and the adventure finally begins.

Jumping onto the 435 I followed a gas pipeline for about 14km. The side of the road was dotted with trios of sheep feeding near and far in the vast emptiness. Just before going east onto the 360 I came across some steep climbs before reaching Lake Þingvallavatn. There were plenty of signs on the side of the road warning cars of the grade percentage of the hills. I saw signs for 15%, 16% and 18%. The climbs were tough but I was still fresh and eager so I made quick work of them and continued around. Looping underneath Úlfljótsvatn and turning north on the 36 I got back on flat and well paved road.

Steep hills
The start of the day with big percent rolling climbs

At this point I became very familiar with the idea of two lane highways which run as the standard road layout throughout Iceland. The roads are not heavily trafficked so the cars could usually move over to the oncoming lane when passing me. The wind starts to pick as I get near my turn east onto the 365. Some large hills mark the intersection and I began my ride on what is dubbed the Golden Circle of Iceland. A hugely popular tourist day loop consisting of the Þingvellir, Gullfoss, Selfoss and back to Reykjavík. I avoided the national park to not have to deal with weekend traffic and instead planned to the end the day at Gullfoss.

On the way under Úlfljótsvatn
Anticipating some climbs in the distance

On the 365 I made excellent time and got to the first large town of the day around 1800h, Laugarvatn. I had mapped a restaurant by the name of Lindin in the area, with food on my mind I was in a hurry to sit down and chow down. I rode by a huge procession of cyclists preparing for what seemed to be a race. I asked a local and he mentions that I was about to see the kick off for the yearly Golden Circle race! I didn't wait but instead kept going, getting some weird looks for the bike bags and mountain bike. The fans alongside the road waiting for the race to start gave me some shouts of encouragement as I passed on through.

Other side of the climbs
The other side of the hill range, more sheep to be found!

In the distance I saw a massive cloud system pouring rain over what I think was the city of Selfoss to the south. The traffic had died down and I was curious since this was a major tourist route. Checking my phone I realized it was already 2300h! I was so confused with the sun still sitting lazily well above the horizon. Upon reaching Geysir the infamous smell of the sulphur reached my nose, a smell of hard boiled eggs. There were only about 10 people around at this time waiting Geysir to blow and to snap a picture (it erupts roughly every 15 mins).

Geysir erupting
Geysir erupting in the early morning

I have high hopes to reach Gullfoss which is another 25km away before I set up camp. Halfway there I decide not to risk it with the rain clouds looming ever closer. I find a nice spot of the side of the road and make camp with the sounds of sheep and the sun shining happily down on me at 0030h. I got a little rain over night and kept waking up as the bright light made it seem like constant sunrise.

Waking early I packed everything up and made my way to Gullfoss, a popular waterfall and my destination to eat breakfast. Again I had the benefit of traveling at odd times so there was very little traffic. The waterfall is gorgeous but it was hard to make an impression since I had seen Niagara Falls so many times as a child.

A large decision laid ahead of me for the day. It was the beginning of my first cut into the highland interior. My original plans were to follow an unmarked trail to get to Kerlingarfjöll. This trail had many river crossings and I suspected the quality of the track might still be quite damp from last night. I opted to go the safer route and take the popular F35, a gravel road conveniently starting at Gullfoss.

The road begins to disappear
Landscape shot

The quality of the F35 quickly deteriorates as you get away from Gullfoss. From pavement, to gravel, to torn up dirt and rock in a matter of kilometres. There are plenty of signs at the beginning warning tourists not to attempt taking rental cars through the highlands. I did plenty of climbing (on and off the bike) as big wheeled SUVS and tour buses drove by on the wide single lane of the F35. The the whole time I battled a very strong headwind, making little progress. 25km in or so the large and ominous glacier (Langjökull) to the north became visible and stalked me for the next two days. I passed by the beautiful baby blue coloured Lake Hvítárvatn whose opaque water from the rock flour of glacier melt is undrinkable.

Langjökull glacier
The view of Langjökull glacier ahead of me as I traverse the interior

I took a break in the evening at a small shelter which offers coffee and cakes. It's very quaint that such a place exists in the middle of nowhere in the Icelandic desert. This is the only building that I would pass by for the whole day. I briefly meet a French cycle tourist who is preparing to cross the river behind this cafe to reach a supposed mountain hut 3km away. Another passerby helps carry her bike above water as she has a dynamo setup and can't get it wet. The owner and I watch with bated breathe as they almost fall in trying to cross.

The days end quickly approached and I only had managed roughly 60km, no where near Afangi, which was my planned end of day 2. I decided to end the day instead at the Kerlingarfjöll campgrounds. It began to spit rain and a road sign signalled 9km to go. I made the dumb decision to only put on my rain jacket and not pants. Within 20 minutes it was pouring and I got drenched. Cursing loudly I became extremely concerned about hypothermia as the temperature began dropping quickly with nightfall.

Kerlingarfjöll mountain range
Kerlingarfjöll mountains and the promise of the camp grounds. A few 4x4s can be seen heading there.

There are many rolling climbs towards the campsite and I quickly begin to lose the will to continue forward. Going up a particularly steep climb I ended up pushing my bike, feet slipping and sinking into the mud. I checked my GPS and it said the camp site is a half kilometre away. The only thing in my field of view was a massive hill that was easily 200m higher than my current position and I could barely make out a small structure on top with some antennae. There was no way I had the energy to make that final climb. I had past a shed at the start of this current climb and I decided I would try to make camp near it.

I desperately shouted to see if anyone was around but all I heard was the sound of pounding rain. I frantically started trying to find a way inside this decrepit building. A side door seemed to have been left ajar and a flicker of hope appeared. The shed is quite large but is filled to the brim with plywood, pipes and other materials. There was roughly a two person-sized area, at the threshold of the door, free of debris. I pulled my bike inside and rolled a large tire to block the door from swinging open. Shivering, I took off all my clothes and put on a dry pair of boxers. I found a tarp that was lying around, threw my sleeping pad and sleep bag down and then crawled inside. I quickly fell asleep fully wrapped up in my bag trying to stay as warm as possible. The rain pounded on the tin roof all night.

I was woken up with sound of scraping wood and concrete as someone tried to force the shed door open. I heard a voice with an Icelandic accent ask sternly "What's going on here?". I peeked out of my bag and quickly stood up almost nude. I explained what led me to take shelter here and he responded bluntly with a, "Must have been a cold night" and I shook my head in agreement. He offers to drive me to the campsite, so I grab all my still wet clothes and jump into his SUV.

We climbed the same hill I gave up on the night before, travel about 100m then descend and the campsite comes into view. The realization that I was a mere 5 minutes away when I gave up hits me hard. I enter the main building at the site and pay for what I would come to dub the Icelandic Breakfast Buffet . Hardboiled eggs, toast, jams, cut deli meats and slices of cheese all laid out. I started eating ravenously and a tourist jokes, "Don't rush there is always more". I laid my clothes across a heater within the building and watched my saviour work on a broken leaking toilet that was flooding the ground level. Turns out the shed I was in was his maintenance shed and he was the janitor at the campsite. I spent an hour waiting for things to dry, realizing how screwed I was if I hadn't been found in the morning by this man.

Hofsjokull glacier
The smaller Hofsjokull glacier when tails me as I head north along the F35

He drives me back to my bike around noon and I tried to offer him money but he refused. I thanked him again and headed off to try to reach Afangi before midnight. I faced a strong head wind and the road conditions worsen as the F35 turns straight north. I passed a Swiss couple and then a few hours later a Swedish couple. They both mentioned a geothermal pool at Hveravellir. I was going to skip it to reach my destination but I decided that personal enjoyment is more important than trying to kill myself to make arbitrary deadlines.

At Hveravellir I saw the steam billowing from pockets of water that are boiling at the surface. There is a building that serves food and I had a burger and fries. I rented a towel and headed to the pool. It's quite chilly outside but once dipped into the water you get to a comfortable +35C. I stayed in for about 2 hours until I was well pruned.

The sun still lingering as always and the time only being 1900h I decided to continue north. Before I left I chat with 2 French Canadian girls who I remembered seeing that morning at Kerlingarfjöll. They had taken a bus from the campsite to Hveravellir because the road conditions were proving too difficult for them and they mentioned they had two male companions biking up to join them. They offered to let me camp next to them but I tell them my plans. They wished me luck and I headed out.

Emergency hut
Emergency hut in the highlands

I passed tons of idle sheep and a small emergency hut standing firmly in the isolated expanse of the highlands. Continuing on, Afangi creeped nearer and I had flashbacks to last night. The GPS said it was just up ahead but all I saw was a huge climb with a structure and some antenna up top again. To my relief at the base of the climb there is a small complex with a handwritten sign OPID , I turned in.

I walked inside the tiny motel structure and let out a loud "Hello?". A minute later a girl around my age bursted in. The first thing I did was ask for food and thankfully she was selling, even though it was not designated as such on my map.

Her name is Eliza and she is from Reykjavík, spending her summer working in the highlands. She usually works back at Hveravellir but had volunteered to stay at Afangi for a few nights. I bought a Pepsi, a sandwich and a waffle as we chatted the evening away. To my delight they had a jacuzzi so I spent half an hour inside that before camping on the property for the night.

I woke up early and continued my chat with Eliza. I had skyr and a sandwich for breakfast. Time passed with good conversation and as I made myself ready to leave around 1100h I saw a group of cyclists turning onto the Afangi property. It ended up being the 2 french Canadian girls I talked with the night before and their 2 male accomplices. They mention they are just stopping in to eat lunch indoors and I asked if they don't mind me joining them. They eagerly accept and I'm excited to finally have some more permanent company.

Once we get on the bikes we had a decent climb right away. We continue northward skirting along Lake Blöndulón. My new friends told me of their travels in Europe, impossibly long climbs in Romania and a bike across Canada. All four are teachers working at a high school together. The are huge cycling advocates and even planned excursions for groups of 40+ students in Montreal.

The desolate Icelandic desert
The desolate environment of the Iceland highlands. Desert.

After the rough terrain in the highlands, the path finally became semi-paved. I decided to follow the Canadians till the end of the day instead of taking my planned route. From desert to lush valleys, the landscape changed drastically within a few kilometres as farms started popping up alongside the road. I got my first view of the famous Icelandic horses. We ended up spooking a bunch that a young girl was trying to corral down the road. It felt like a scene from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind with the mountains walls hiding us from the rest of the world.

We end the day together just before another massive climb at Hunaver a few kilometres east of where the F35 reconnects to the Route 1. We camp on the property.

The day started with me slicing my left index finger on a can tuna. We begin cycling up a 6km long climb. At this point we were on the Route 1 and the difference was noticeable. Lots of noise with cars and trucks passing by.

We got to Varmahlíð without much excitement and I bought a bunch of food from the grocery store for a cook-less lunch. There was a French girl there who tells us she came by ferry from Denmark on her grandmother's bicycle! She was riding the opposite way to us and wanted to enter the highlands on F35 going south. We swapped advice on the route conditions ahead. I left again with the Canadians and about 5km east of Varmahlíð we parted ways. They continued north while I stuck to the Route 1 hoping to reach Akureyri by end of day.

Looking at the Norwegian Sea
Spying on the Norwegian Sea, where Iceland meets water on it's northern side

I made good time along the highway and got to ride down some massive hills. I pass 3 cycle tourists: a Spaniard and two Germans. We chatted about the interior and I asked them how the south coast winds were. I continued on and around 1700h I stopped at a hotel/restaurant on the side of the road looking for a warm meal. I ordered an expensive fish 'n chips plate and was severely disappointed. I got 4 small deep fried, what looks like microwavable, fish sticks; some fries and a very light salad.

As I attempted that last 35km or so until Akureyri I began a steady ascent. To complicate matters birds in the area happened to be very aggressive. As I pedalled along I heard the sharp cries of the birds as they raced out to meet me. Their strategy is to fly back and forth over my head chirping whilst trying to hit me with feces. Some came very close and I even managed to swat at one's feet as it dropped in. This continued for what seems to be at least 10km. As one bird would give up and another would appear to join in as I ended up doing shorts sprints to lose the tailing animals.

After that ordeal I came around a bend and Akureyri was in view. A large (in Icelandic standards) city sitting in the a valley alongside a river awaited. I found a campsite in the centre of the city and spent the night.

Leaving the city and crossing the river I began my morning ascent. It was peaceful as I strolled by a few houses until my only companions were roaming sheep. I passed by some ice tracts on the side of the hill that refused to melt. Once I reached the top I was breathless taking in the view. The sun shone brightly on the valleys down below and I let out a wild scream and began my descent. There were a ton of switch-backs and the road condition deteriorated quickly but nothing slowed me as I blazed down standing in my pedals.

Akureyri nestled in the valley
Looking back at Akureyri as I climb the mountain pass to its east side

At the bottom I turned south onto the 833 hoping to cut across below the Route 1 and once again set my wheels on some Icelandic highland gravel. I stop briefly at Illugastaðir to buy a banana and some cookies, then made my way to the supposed trail head. Three small stream crossings happen and at this moment I came to realize that I was missing one of my crocs. They were supposed to be my river crossing shoes, so instead now I had only the left one on and my right foot had the pleasure of being poked and prodded by all the sharp rocks. Then a huge disappoint came to face me, the path snaked off into loose sand. I spot some small animal footprints that were fresh. Someone had recently laid down all this sand...maybe to discourage use by cyclists? I was perplexed, the trail was clearly marked on the 2016 cycling guide but there was no way I was making it through even with my largish tires and ultralight setup. I would have to double back and take the Route 1, an extra 20km.

I took the opposite side of river going north on 836. Pushing hard as I rode the Route 1 east was far from exciting. I made a point of stopping at Goðafoss, another popular waterfall that I would have avoided had my original plans worked out. The area was packed with tour buses and I spoke with a few Americans from Pennsylvania. The waterfall was indeed water falling. As I turned to continue onwards a old woman approached me with 1000 ISK, "Take this and buy a soda. I have a grandson your age." I told her that the gesture was more than enough and politely refused the money. She told me to be safe and reaches over giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I blushed and thanked her for the kindness.

Mountain ranges on the way to Myvatn
Up high on the mountain pass from Akureyri looking at the river below. I would end up going south and north along it because my route was blocked.

I turned south this time onto the 844 and the wind completely died down. I stopped in the early afternoon at the Kidagil Guesthouse for lunch. I had a bacon cheeseburger with a fried sunny side egg on top with fries and a desert of a rhubarb pie. The 844 turns into the 843 and starts to sweep eastward. Along the side of the road opposite to my direction I see a man hunched over with an 80L pack. I asked him desperately if he needed food or water and he gave me a wide smile, "I've got everything I need", whilst patting his pack. The next few kilometres he stayed on my mind, putting into contrast what I was doing on the island. I ran into another backpacker, with a similarly large pack. He was unaware that he was only a few kilometres behind another fellow adventurer. He was German (like 80% of the people I met on the island) and we swapped information about the routes ahead. I finally turned north, traveling through large agricultural cuts and heard cows mooing off in the distance.

I reconnect with the Route 1 around 2130h and turn east to pass under Lake Myvatn. As I neared the body of water I began to attract a harem of bugs and the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky. I reached the west edge of the lake and setup up camp right on it's border.

Waking up, the sky has gone from clear blue to dark stormy clouds. About half an hour into the ride I met yet another intrepid German backpacker. We shared some stories and he told me of his goal to walk from the northern most point to the southern most point of the island. I asked him about how he planned such a trip and he details for me the use of post offices to organize his food and water. He is able to carry about 9 days of supplies with him, so he has to make it to another supply point that he has schedule ahead of himself.

Continuing forward I entered the largest town alongside Lake Myvatn, Reykjahlíð with a population of about 300. I got a bunch of food from a grocery store and chatted with a Spanish cycling couple. They had recently come from Askja but had gone via bus. I ask why they didn't just cycle in and if they think I could do so. The give me an encouraging thumbs up that with the mountain bike I should be fine . I continued east along the Route 1 very slowly with wind roaring in my face. I risked taking an unnamed road going to north because there seemed to be no wind that way. I make great time to Dettifoss but once I reconnected to the main road the wind was back and vicious. The walk to Dettifoss had me spitting out black sand and holding down my hood as the wind ripped by. The waterfall roared and I spent about half an hour staring into it whilst eating lunch, some potato salad.

I take the 862 north and headed towards Asbrygi canyon. The ride passed by uneventfully and before entering the 4km to get to inside the canyon I stopped at a diner and got a burger and some fries. Entering the canyon was a magical experience. Surrounded on all sides by 100m walls of rock it felt like I stepped into Helms Deep. The canyon end is a horseshoe shaped cut, thought to have been the carved by Odin's horse taking a step on the island. I took about an hour to walk through the small forest and enjoy the view. Around 1900h I decided that I would try to end the night at Grímsstaðir which is 56km away.

Asbrygi canyon
Within Asbrygi canyon

Taking the road this time on the east side of Dettifoss the wind became even more brutal. From where I was I could see a massive storm system rolling directly from the east as low dark clouds roll over the mountaintops and pass over above me at a quick rate. The road quickly deteriorated into what would become the worst conditions I faced on the entire trip. Marked by a road sign, the next 44km would be the harshest washboard roads. Sweeping 2inch ripples across the road with no smooth sections, my teeth and body rattled on for hours. Then came the rain. I had to stand in my seat for the entire ride to maintain some dampening of the constant bumps. I considered giving up many times to the point of tears and swearing to the empty landscape but I managed to find something within me to push forward.

At about 0200h, with 6 hours of riding the hellish washboards I managed to reach the Grímsstaðir farm. I knocked on a few doors but of course everyone was fast asleep. I set up my tent and promptly collapsed.

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. Thankfully for my light setup 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 I had to do, 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
Herðubreið, Queen of Icelandic Mountains, keeps me coming on my journey to Askja

With no access to any civilization and still only eating from the food I had 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 2 hours to ascend and 2 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 had the chance to walk across the base of the caldera to reach the lake (~3km walk). The walk was tricky as I had to go 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 360 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 2 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 is 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 had 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 had 3 large climbs back to back before I levelled out onto a plateau. I reached Laugarfell and as I pulled in 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 would get to see the beast on my ride but I had 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 side which true height is 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 5 minutes, hung a sharp right off the road for 2 minutes and setup 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 6 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.
Waterfall
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 would 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 Canada.

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