Moonland to Wonderland – A loop around Iceland

Days in between transits are hectic. We ride out of Cairngorms to summer heat and get stopped in our progress to Edinburgh just the next day by thunderstorms that linger in the valley we happened to cycle through. With not much time left we catch a train connecting Dunkeld and Kirkcaldy in just a couple of hours.

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On the east coast we try to stick to Sustrans cycle trails when getting to Edinburgh, but sometimes they play games and disappear in the cobweb of tight Scottish town streets. Edinburgh is a different thing altogether and seems to have the best signposted network of trails we have ever seen. We write short messages with Marta and Krzysiek, our hosts and friends, and head to city center for a quick tour before setting their address on our GPS. Marta apart of being really cool is the best cook north of the English Channel. The next few days we spend on Marta’s wonder diet of Turkish delights and Indian delicacies, while Krzysiek makes sure our glasses are always moist with whisky. In between reorganizing things, washing clothes, sightseeing, nighttime chatting, writing postcards and letters, checking-in there’s not much time for calm and rest.

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Before heading to Scotland, Saska wrote to her friends Bill and Tom whom she met while walking the 900km Camino de Santiago trail. We were all excited to meet; Saska, Bill and Tom because they have not seen each other for 3 years, me because I’ve heard so much good about this duo and the time they spent together hiking Spain as peregrinos. Being teachers, Bill and Tom take us on a tour of Scottish history and achievements, and we roam the Museum of Modern Art halls and chambers of the National Museum of Scotland. Scottish are proud people, proud of their heritage, their history and their culture, and not without reason. Think bicycle, pneumatic tire, dynamo innovations, telephone, television, Rankine cycle, Walter Scott, A.C. Doyle, Irvine Welsh, Adam Smith, David Byrne, Boards of Canada, Annie Lennox… it goes on and on.  Bill and Tom take great care of us and our education and I’m very pleased they know the story of Wojtek, a fine Polish soldier who fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino and… the only bear ever enlisted to be a regular soldier. We hope to meet Bill and Tome again sometime soon.

Yet the biggest excitement was left for us to enjoy in the last hours of our Edinburgh vacation. It included Marta pouring good-bye whisky shots, two gargantuan bicycle boxes, two taxis that couldn’t fit them, a Turkish delivery man driving cans of Polish beer around Edinburg, Saska convincing him that he needed to deliver us to the airport, having every “random” check possible at the airport and catching the flight to Iceland just because it was delayed. Mister Halil. You. Are. The. Best. Each of our odd pedal strokes in Iceland will be a salute to your awesomeness, the even ones are for Marta and Krzysiek!

Saska wrote a detailed of our encounter with Halil, you can read it here.

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It would be hard to imagine Radek’s wrath if he would have to spend 5 days waiting for us to arrive on the next flight to Keflavik. Luckily he only had to wait 12 hours for us to catch up with his position at the airport.

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The Keflavik airport has a strict no bicycles/no sleeping policy and has security guards trained in executing these rules in the most asshole way. Luckily this year a small container has been erected, just behind the airports car parking, with two fully featured working stands. This makes assembling our bikes a breeze.

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Still, it’s 4 o’clock when we roll far enough from the airport the make camp and fall asleep to the sounds of humming jets taking off above us. It’s June and the days are getting longer and longer. Having 22 hours of sunlight and nights that are barely dim we get thrown out of balance for the first few days. Late starts. Supper breakfasts. It is only when we get to the thermal area of Hveragerdi’s hot river when we decide to recalibrate our clocks and take it easy for half a day. We couldn’t have chosen a better place to arrive late. Most of the place was available for us and a few others how got drawn into the open air spa. This was the best place to finish off our Jura bottle, what normally would seem like a premature extravagance was the only possible way to celebrate this heaven on earth. Soon we get joined by Jason and Alex, two Canadians drinking Polish Belvedere vodka. All the Canadians and Americans we’ve been meeting since Scotland make us really excited about North America. Except of riding trail we really want to meet more of these wonderful people.

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Finding Icelandic gems like that is easy with the excellent Cycling Iceland map issued by HjolaFaerni. It has all the information a cyclist can desire and more. All information centers and campgrounds in Iceland are swarming with these maps and we don’t even bother taking out the road map we bought back in Poland. 2016 version of the map can be found on CyclingIceland.is website.

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Radek is riding his trusty Giant Talon 29er that got him through our Wales Spine trip < https://inbetweenspokes.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/welsh-spine-1-a-very-wet-start/ > a few years back. Not embarking on cycle tours on a regular basis Radek’s bikepacking setup is a patchwork of things borrowed, improvised or bought for cheap. In the back he’s using an older Revelate Designs Viscacha I had laying around, backed up by some drybags impro-strapped to the saddlebag. In the front he carries a 20L Alpkit drybag supported by Alpkit’s own Joey harness. I’ve always been quite fond of Alpkit drybags as they seem to be durable enough for regular bikepacking duties and have webbing attachment already sew in, which means they can be used as an impromptu handlebar bag. The harness leaves us unimpressed. To make up for the lack of a framebag, Radek’s carrying a rather enormous backpack. Just after the first day of cycling it is clear that cycling with a backpack is not Radek’s thing. We quickly come up with an improvised handlebar bag system using spare webbing straps me and Saska are carrying. Radek’s handlebar system quickly gets nicknamed “The Rihnodoron”, for obvious reasons. Radek’s very much happy not having to carry weight on his back.

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Rested and reset we rejoin the road to Geysir and Gulfoss where we camp for the night before heading to Iceland’s interior via Kjolur F35. We make it our goal to visit a hot spring every couple of days and in the heart of this route there is Hveravellir waiting for us. The mountain road itself is a straightforward gravel track, very well maintained and easy to cycle in good weather which we’re lucky to have. And, it opened just 2 days before we got the gravel part. One day without any signs of wind and another one with strong tail winds was all it took to finish Kjolur.

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As the winds pick up we find shelter in a roadside hut and take a break to cook a quick meal.

The tiny stretch of the ring road we had to cycle between Varmahlid and Akureyri didn’t let us pass so easily and had us cycling into a headwind for all of the 90 kilometers to the city. Akureyri left us mostly unimpressed with it’s cheap, fast and disposable architecture. The biggest attraction seems to be the “Old Town” to which Radek says “…looks kind of new to me…”. Still it is a good place to restock and having a public library with good access to WiFi we spend a day catching up with weather reports and mountain road closure information.

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We were in luck with the F35, but all the other roads are still closed and looking at the past records we are looking at least at another week until something might change. The forecast looks great for the next 5 days and we decide to take our chances and take road F821 leading straight south out of Akureyri and into the interior’s desert. You never know what happens on Icelandic road’s, you might just as well end up visiting Santa’s house.

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The ride into the valley is short of amazing. Vast space and, green mountain sides with white snowy tops remind us of Alpine regions back on mainland Europe.

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We pass signs warning of impassable tracks and road closures, but everything we encounter ahead proves to be no match for our bikes. There are some minor fords to cross but at the time of our ride none of them where problematic and we reach the top plateau dry-footed. The way the Icelandic landscape changes is very different to how things tend to run on the continent. Whereas mainland scenery can dramatically change during a half days ride over a high mountain pass going from lush green to desert dry, here in Iceland the terrain seems to be in constant flow, fading in and out, like a well-played record.

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It is evident that the winter just finished in the highlands as we cross several patches of snow with soft ground all around them. The road is definitely not passable for cars, not for the vehicle’s sake, but for the road – a heavy 4×4 car would erode the wet and still soft volcanic ash road surface. Bike are a different thing and for most of the time our 2.4 tires are enough to keep us afloat. We follow a series of fatbike tracks which, although still well imprinted, seem to be quite old as they had cut much deeper into the trail than ours.

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Iceland’s interior has the appearance of outer space with the addition of a breathable atmosphere. It appears to be Moonland up here and there is really nothing in the interior that would provide even the slightest protection from elements, should the weather take a turn for the worse. Just endless dunes of volcanic ash.

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We make it an effort to frog leap between campsites and huts we noted on the map. Not that we expect anything to be open on an otherwise closed road, but having a hut as wind break is always welcome. Our first stop is the hot springs area of Laugafell.

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Once there we notice that the WC door is open and the whole place, being constantly heated by thermal water, is cozy and warm we make an instant decision to camp in the changing rooms. WC stands for Welcome Cyclists after all. After a climbing for one half of the day and roaming volcanic deserts for the other a hot spring bath brings instant relief. Laugafell is an oasis of green in an otherwise bleak and grey emptiness and long mid-June days provide endless sunsets.

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We follow this pattern for the rest of our interior crossing, moonland to wonderland, there is a treat waiting at us at the end of each day. Whether it is an open mountain hut with comfy bunk beds or a night sleeping on hay in a barn – each night we are well protected from the elements and sometimes we get a hot bath added. Having the interior for ourselves is part of riding out of season and being a bit lucky. The glacial rivers are cold though, millions of hot needles piercing our skin as we carry bikes over; we leave each ford screaming with pain even if the water is just ankle deep.

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On our last day the weather starts changing for worse and we ride zigzag in between rain and mist, but finally get pinned down amongst Nootka Lupine for a 24-hour downpour. Resting for such a long time is great for finding new exciting hobbies and my helmet’s slowly fading colors from being too much in the sun.

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In Hraunejar we get updated on the latest weather forecast. A week of rain and temperatures dropping to 4 degrees Celsius. It’s not the perfect setting to explore Landmannalaugar and we ride the road down to Selfoss somehow heavy-hearted.

To keep us occupied we all come up with different plans on how to spend the last few days that Radek is with us. After all, even the best laid plans are there for being bent, adjusted, twisted and reversed. We came to Iceland to cycle and so renting a car for a couple of days to explore the famous ring road seemed like a great alternative to getting pissed on with cold rain for the next week.

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Driving all around the ring road just strengthen my belief that it’s not a place I would like to spend touring for a month. Although the south and east parts are simply wonderful everything between Reykjahlid and Reykjavik we found to be bleak, empty and unexciting, and it goes on for hundreds of kilometers. Think Green Desert of Wales on steroids and without the great Welsh dirt tracks. In hindsight, if on a tour around Iceland I’d opt for riding the south coast crossing the interior starting somewhere in the east and heading back to Reykjavik or, if off-road travel would not be on the menu, skip everything west of Myvatn on a bus in favor of riding in the western fjords.

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It’s sad to let Radek go after traveling together for the past three weeks and having a great time. We make for a pretty good trio where grumpiness gets ridiculed and hardships are shared equally. We’ll be back to touring together in Poland, or maybe Slovenia, or maybe wherever.

The last week in Reykjavik we spend doing chores. Washing clothes, researching route options in Canada and the general rules of enjoying Canadian wilderness. And meeting other cyclist. There’s a lot of people coming to Iceland from Canada and US; Dan, Brian, Helena and Mocha, Max and Kelley (thanks for the great Tito party!), they all make us really excited to be cycling in North America soon and we silently hope our paths will cross again at some point and that we can share the trail with these guys, even if for a short while.

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Having our last trip to the airport in Edinburgh we decide to play it safe and get to Keflavik the evening before out scheduled departure. We call up Virgil, an Icelandic native we met while waiting for our delayed flight to Keflavik, he promised to help us out with transportation in case we needed that. We meet again at the camping site. Virgil comes with his beaten up Suzuki Swift, trailer ready to be packed with bike boxes, orange beacon flashing on the roof, steering wheel on the right. Virgil takes us on a tour around his farm where he was born and tells us stories of his life and time spent working at the American military base in Keflavik.

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These chance encounters where strangers become friends are I believe the best part of our travels and having Virgil escort us out of the country is the best way to say god-bye to Iceland. After 2 months in the north we miss star gazing, being surrounded by trees and green, and having warm weather. It’s 26 degrees Celsius in Edmonton and we heard it’s pretty green down there. We’re excited.

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