Iceland, September 1996
When we arrived in Iceland, the customs officials in the airport seemed bemused that anyone should come to Iceland for a cycling holiday, especially in september. But it turned out to be a great two weeks, and we could happily have stayed much much longer. Here are some things that we liked about cycling in Iceland:
- It would be the place to come on a geography field trip. Everywhere you go there are stunning geological features. The south coast in particular has waterfalls exposing huge basalt columns, hexagonal floors of sheared basalt columns, spectacular cliffs, and volcanic plugs looming out of the otherwise flat plains.
- Lava. There are lava fields all over the place. In some areas it stretches out as far as the horizon. Some of it is relatively new and deep black in colour. We explored one near Mývatn that was still warm to the touch and smoking in places. The older fields are less black, getting progressively lighter as they age. And some fields have been totally colonised by spongy light green moss, looking like the result of an out of control foam rubber factory.
- Also in the more volcanically active areas there are large areas of sulphur-rich bright yellow landscape, with bubbling mud pools, and steaming vents.
- Another consequence of the volcanic activity is the number of hot springs that turn up all over the place. Some of them are a pleasant temperature and popular for bathing, other are too hot to even touch.
- The roads are very low on traffic. Rekyavík is quite busy, and especially the road to the airport (see later), but once you get away from Rekyavík things are incredibly quiet. Rush hour is one car every 20 minutes.
- Iceland is home to a number of huge glaciers. Crossing the south coast you skirt the edge of the largest, Vatnajökull, with constant views of its many snouts. And from the camp site at Skaftafell, it is only a short walk right up to the snout. A month after we were there, a volcano erupted under the the glacier, causing a huge amount of trapped meltwater, which eventually broke free causing a huge flood across the Skeidarsandur and washing away the bridges and the road.
- Apart from the landscape, keen photographers will love the incredible skies that seem to appear day after day. Moody dark clouds, huge cloud formations in the distance, vivid sunsets, layers upon layers of cloud. These constantly set off the landscape, and make buildings and other man-made features look small and exposed.
- Iceland is circled by Route 1. Given a few weeks, a great trip would be to start in Rekyavík and circle the whole island on route 1, with occasional branches out into places of interest. The road varies from smooth tarmac, to rougher tarmac, to long stretches of dirt and gravel. There is also a good bus service that regularly does the whole circuit, can be flagged down nearly anywhere, and can carry bikes.
- The Aurora Borealis. We first saw this when we camped at Reykjahlið on lake Mývatn (pronounced Mee-va). It was one of the most incredible things we had ever seen. At first it looked like the milky way, just a faint white band stretching across the night sky. But as we watched it got sharper and started moving and changing form. The edges were tinged with colours. We lay cocooned in our sleeping bags, only our faces showing, watching it for an hour until it faded away. The rest of the campsite quietly slept on, unaware of the great spectacle taking place overhead. Our second sighting was in Höfn, where we were the only people on the campsite, and we only spotted it by chance due to a toilet trip in the middle of the night. Again we lay with our heads sticking out the tent watching it until it faded away.
There are also a few things that are not so good:
- The road between the airport and Rekyavík is a bit of a nightmare. Traffic is heavy, much of it lorries, shoulders come and go, and often there is a strongy and gusty sidewind making it difficult to stay on course. For some of it there is no alternative route. However nearer the airport it is possible to get off on to a quieter road, and there is also an excellent campsite near the airport.
- It is often claimed that everything costs a lot in Iceland. We didn't find it too bad. Alcohol is tremendously expensive of course, but apart from that our main costs were food from supermarkets, and camp sites, neither of which seemed that different to the UK.
- Mývatn especially has a reputation for annoying insects. Its probably not surprising given that the translation of Mývatn is 'Midge lake'. Although I have read in a few places that the midges are vegetarian! The worst months are apparently june and august. We had no problems at all in early september.
- The sharp volcanic rock and gravel can apparently wreak havoc on bike tyres and tubes. We played safe and between us we had 2 spare tyres, 7 spare inner tubes, 4 puncture repair kits, and a bundle of spare spokes. Needless to say with all that lot we didn't get a single puncture in two weeks of riding.
Note that the list of bad things is a lot shorter than the list of good things! Overall its an awesome place to go bike touring. Convinced yet? Take a look at the pictures below (click on any of them for a large version) and then try and stop yourself from planning a trip there.