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Sunday, May 27, 2012

The beginning continues to the end of Iceland


This blog post is from the beginning of our trip, that is, two years ago. The second part of Iceland in June 2010.

June 8, 2010 - June 23, 2010

The weather is good. So good, that I fear we will pay for it later. For now, we hitch a ride on the strongest tailwind we've ever had: flying east along the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula all the way to the next campground where horses are easy to excite.



Michèle writes: Not only the horses, the birds are also easily excitable. Especially the dive bombing birds that attack you on your bicycle. I guess they like nesting near the road.
- Get away from my young 'uns, they screech in bird speak.
They didn't detract from the spectacular experience that is the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Just when you think you've seen THE scenery that takes your breath away, Iceland presents you with one better. I read that as much as one third of the population here believes in trolls and faeries and the like. After descending into the misty valleys, often feeling an other-worldly presence, I could understand that belief. The mists transformed to rain when we reached Stykkishólmur. For us, this would have been the excuse for taking a day off.  But there was a really strong wind in the direction that we wanted to go, and in Iceland, not taking advantage of a stiff tailwind seemed unthinkable.




We are inching our way around Iceland by taking the north route. If you are not on the Number 1 highway (The Ring Road as it is sometimes called) chances are you're on a dirt road. They will have to wait. Today, we have no choice but to be on the Number 1: the Ring Road is very busy between Reykjavík and Akureyri. We take a break at a roadside restaurant to have something to eat. Inside is another cyclist: a tough looking man from Poland who has no problems with the traffic on the Ring Road.
- Tonight I catch plane, at home I sleep he tells us.
The man is a machinist and if you didn't believe him, you could inch yourself closer to the truth by looking at one of his hands: there are two fingers missing. The man tells us about his trips to Russia and Ukraine.
- Isn't Ukraine dangerous? I ask him.
- No problem Ukraine he tells me.
- How about Russia?
- No problem Russia.
- How about Kazakhstan?
His eyebrows go up and he makes a quick slicing motion across his throat. Back on his bike he vanishes into the mist that engulfs the Ring Road. We do the same but in the opposite direction.

Kazakhstan is a long ways away I thought: besides, I think the Polish guy is exaggerating. So, we continue our ride on the Number 1 to end up at another campground. This time, however, there are other campers. The site is equipped with a common area where you can get out of the wind and cold. This is where we meet Robert and Delphine who are hitch hiking around Iceland. Funny how you can meet people and have nothing to say them, whereas with others, you develop a deep relationship in five minutes.

Michèle writes: Up to this point, we'd been getting coffee the Roland way (Roland was that cyclist who gave us tips for Iceland on the cheap). That is, at gas stations where you pay for one and get unlimited refills. Often that meant just handing over the thermos and they'd fill 'er up for the price of one coffee. Then Robert offered to show us how to make coffee on a camp stove. Benoit was suspicious. He knows that I am a coffee snob.
- Is it instant coffee?
- No! shouted Robert, offended by the suggestion.
It would be turkish style coffee and it would change our coffee drinking lives. Another thing would change our lives that day. We spent the entire morning with Robert and Delphine doing yoga stretches in the sun. Things creaked and popped and loosened like never before. I had been getting neck cricks and headaches from the tension in my shoulders. Benoit had had a recurrent pain between his shoulder blades for so long that he gave it a name: The Spot. With those stretches, it was bye-bye to the aches and the tension. Bye-bye to the Spot. Soon it was the early afternoon. We should be on our way, I kept thinking, but neither of us wanted to leave.




Every town seems to have a campground around here. One evening we get to one just as the wind starts howling: It looked as if we were trying to set up our tent while skydiving. Luckily for us, there is a thick hedge of pine trees acting as the perfect wind shield. Later that night, we meet Sebastian, a German grad student out collecting data for his Masters. This entails hitching around Iceland all summer interviewing fishermen: could be worse. He says that once the fall rolls around, he should have enough information to write something up. The only thing to avoid in his interviews is the whaling issue because it could result in being thrown in boiling mud. More on the later.

Michèle writes: People thought we were crazy to cycle Iceland. One of the first comments on our blog said something like,
- L'Islande en vélo? Respect!
The strong winds can be an issue. We haven’t wild camped yet in Iceland. Not that we haven’t looked, but it’s hard to find a spot sheltered from the wind in a place devoid of trees, and our tent is not what you would call windstrong. Besides, campgrounds aren’t so bad when it's early in the tourist season and no-one is around. At one of the campgrounds, we met Daniel from Norway, also on bicycle.  He was all smiles after doing 120 kilometres in 5 hours with the help of a powerful  tailwind. He told us to come to Norway. You can put your tent up anywhere he said. We were enjoying Iceland by bike, if you could follow the wind and stay off the main road. But like Benoit said, sometimes we were forced to take the Number 1 highway. One of those times, we met two snobby young Brits on bicycle. They were riding with all their stuff in huge hiking style knapsacks on their backs, and they were taking the Number 1, all the way. When we asked where they were from, they didn’t even look at us. One answered, London, in monotone. I didn’t dare suggest that they consider a bike rack and panniers for next time. There was no telling them whatfor, they knew it all.


Many young men in Iceland seem to have bred with the north american redneck. In Sauðarkrókur, one of them is a little too eager to show off his new novelty muffler that makes his car sound like it's going 150 km/h when only doing about 40. He goes back and forth in front of the campground for about two hours, driving everyone crazy. Like all morons, he eventually gets bored and fucks off somewhere else, just in time for us to enjoy the four hour sunset.



We cycle to Varmahlíd where we ride up a hill to find an overpriced campground. Down the hill is a much cheaper one ... and it has a hot tub! The only other person there is a German guy with a van converted into a DIY camper: it is covered in stickers and flags and the owner is about as weird as his vehicle. He doesn't speak a word of English but assumes that we speak fluent German. As he rambles on about something, I manage to make out the words "... drei Tage". I take a wild guess and imagine that, because the campground is so cheap, he wants to stay for three days. He is very nice and tries to help us set up camp but ends up being annoying instead.
- Nein, nein, nein! he tells me as I put up a line to hang some clothes.
With the little German she knows, Michèle asks him where the hot tub is. He shows us, but cautions that we will catch a skin disease if we go in. Skin disease or not, it is impossible to refuse a hot tub if you are touring by bike.

The next day it's back onto the Number 1 where most people between the age of 20 and 30 are going to the annual Akureyri car festival: Oh boy! Lucky for us, we are heading to the same town. At a rest stop we meet Bertus, a dutch cyclist on a three month tour of Iceland. We chat for a few hours and during that time, we tell him that we are on a world tour by bicycle. He tells us that he hopes to do that one day.
He also tells us to avoid the main campground in Akureyri as it is full of knuckle-heads looking for attention. Instead, we should use the one that is on the outskirts of town. He also tells us of an alternate route over the mountain that avoids the Number 1.

We opt to go off the beaten track that Bertus told us about: a dirt road that winds up the mountain just east of Akureyri. At the beginning it's asphalt as it goes through some of Akureyri's nicer residences. Then, the rough surface starts and doesn't end till the other side. It's not easy going. The only reward is the view and the absence of traffic. At one point, Michèle has to pee and there isn't a bush in sight. What better time to try out the Shewee (a device that allows women to pee standing up). Although I didn't see the incident, the seal was broken by the rushing urine and Michèle ended up soiling herself from waist to toe. Good thing there was a stream to clean up. It makes for a good running joke, along the lines of the guy asking if her writing book is a bible. Anyway, having done very few kilometres, we dash into the next campground.

Michèle writes: Right, the Shewee incident. There wasn't a person in sight either. Not even Benoit: he was far ahead, powering up the slippery gravel. Seemed like a good time to try out the Shewee that my friend had given me at our going away party. Ya ya, you're supposed to practise in the shower. But how difficult could it be to use? Sadly I had to learn the hard way why the shower practice is so strongly recommended. By this point Benoit was probably thinking that I was so far behind him because I had wiped out, when really I was washing piss out of my shorts in a stream. I knew he'd laugh about the incident; and that I'd laugh about it too, once my shorts dried. We continued up that steep dirt road that Bertus had recommended. Easy for him on his knobbly Marathon Extreme tires. I had been cursing him and his damn ideas on the fourteen torturous kilometres up, but then was bursting with thank yous to him when I caught sight of that magnificent view at the top. Bertus had been exploring the northern fjords of Iceland, the part that looks like a rooster’s comb. Barren roads that ribbon their way through valleys. Needless to say his photos would put ours to shame.



I don't know why we tend to get stuck with no food. Maybe it's because we don't do enough kilometres to reach the next store in one day. So, on an empty stomach we ride towards Lake Mývatn which is one of Iceland's main tourist attractions. The area is known, of course, for its beauty but also its bugs. Thank god for our bug hats.



Being on empty stomachs, our mood quickly deteriorates and on the last stretch of road, with a restaurant almost in sight, Michèle starts crying and says she cannot go on without eating something. There is some stale bread and a remnant of blue cheese at the bottom of a pannier. I stand there pouting as I watch her sniffling while wiping up a few crumbs of cheese with the dried up bread. Once back on our bikes, we quickly get to the restaurant to gobble down a burger and fries. We were so hungry that we didn't even feel full afterwards. It seems that the food got absorbed as soon as it hit our stomachs.

Michèle writes: Ten kilometres before the lake, the flies were there to greet us. These bugs are supposedly vegetarian, not interested in flesh nor blood. They sure seemed carnivore-curious, though, because they zipped into ears and noses when we slowed on the hill climbs. We were almost at Mývatn when I bonked. My legs gave out. Benoit was gesturing impatiently at the road ahead of us.
- It’s just around the corner.
More like on the edge of an event horizon, I was thinking. Thank goodness for those stale snacks that fueled me the last few k's. After devouring burgers like we hadn't eaten in days, it was off to join the crowd of tents at the campground. A highlight for me, if you can call it that, was its co-ed washroom. It was a bit trippy to be brushing my teeth at the sink beside a man shaving his head.


The campground is expensive and crowded so we end up staying just one night. The next day we start heading east again. A few kilometres from the lake is a thermal hot spot.



After the boiling mud, where they used to throw convicts back in the good old days, we head out onto the lunar landscape with a nice tailwind. Not far into the ride, a cyclist comes in the opposite direction: another German who is fighting the head wind. We stop to say hello and Michèle gets out her broken German because the guy does not speak English. It's all pretty boring till we try to tell him that we want to take the ferry to Denmark. He doesn't seem to understand what we are trying to say. Then, I remember one of my favourite German movies.
- Das Boot! Das Boot Denmark! I tell the guy.
He then gives me this very weird look. So weird that we stop our inquiries, stand around awkwardly for a minute and take our leave. Later I thought, maybe I was telling him that we wanted to take a U-boat to Denmark. I guess we'll never know.

Michèle writes: The boiling pits of mud stank so much of rotten eggs that it was hard to breathe without gagging. Months ago, before the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, I had sent an email to reassure a friend that there was no danger of volcanoes in Iceland. They’re all dormant, I wrote. Little did I know. The burps of scalding mud brought it home that there is a lot of fiery madness down there and some quite close to the surface.

Towards the end of the day, we have the option to get off the Number 1 and take a side road to a campground a few kilometres down. It is freezing cold and the campground has no hot water. Doing dishes that evening was a bit torturous but once the feeling in my hands vanished the task became much easier. Back in the tent we put on all our clothes and wrap ourselves in our sleeping bags: it took a good 15 minutes to warm up.

We decide to continue on the dirt road where we have to conquer three passes. The gravel is loose but the views are something to be remembered.



Once we join back up with the Number 1, we are rewarded with a down hill, but the head wind is so strong that we almost have to pedal. At the bottom, it's still early but we decide to call it a day and dash into a campground that has a heated pool and reindeer burgers on the menu. In the morning, there is a bird stuck between the tent and the fly. It's very cute but it ended up shitting everywhere.



Michèle writes: "What is the grossest thing you ate?" some kid asked friends of ours about their cycling trip. Sometimes the food we eat while on the road is less than ideal. Like the time we decided to try a can of beans and wieners in Newfoundland. Yuck. Yet I remember stuff like that being so good when I was a kid. We met a couple of Icelanders ready to head home from their hiking trip. The woman gave us the packages of food that they didn't finish.
- Camping food only tastes good while camping, she said. Don't try to eat this at home.
It was pretty tasty to us and we were grateful to have it. Especially when there were no food stores within many days' ride. Then, there are the experiments with food. We mix whatever we have in our bags and see if it tastes good. With limited success.




In the town of Egilsstaðir we look up at the mountain we have to ride over. It's pretty big but doable. Once we get to the other side it will be goodbye to Iceland and a great start to the trip. It's 7 pm, and since there is no night, we decide to do the climb. It has many switchbacks and the powerful side wind stop us in our tracks. But we inch ourselves to the top where we find thick fog and subzero temperatures. After a short break we start the downhill which proves to be more torturous than the uphill. Once we picked up speed, the windchill seem to drop the temperatures to minus 20. Even in Montreal I had never felt so cold. Chilled to the bone, with giant waterfalls on either side of us, we make our way down to Seyðisfjörður and the fjord that will be our exit.

At the campground I dive into the shower and crank up the heat. After a half hour shower we go into the common area to cook some dinner. Once comfortably seated, our friend Roland storms in. He comes and joins us after which we quickly start talking about the climb, the wind and cold. The conversation gravitates to a tale of major fuck up: Roland at the top of the hill, ready to come down to the other side realizes that he forgot his cell phone at a tourist centre at the bottom of the hill. He had plugged it in to recharge and now his downhill won't be on the proper side of the mountain. I imagine myself in that situation and start to feel nauseous: we decide to head to bed.

Michèle writes: The last bit over the pass to Seyðisfjörður was only 16 kilometres. It looks easy from afar, then once you're on it, almost immediately it becomes a major pain in the ass. Benoit was still film happy, recording our slagging progress up eight kilometres of steep switchbacks. He pointed the camera my way. I glared at him. I wasn’t in the mood to have my struggles documented. At the top, we were in the clouds. I was almost crying from the frustration. It was 10:30 at night but not dark in this land of the midnight sun. However, the fog obliterated the light so that we could barely see two feet in front of us. We got out all our flashing lights and reflective gear so that we would light up like Christmas trees to any passing cars. I was nervous nonetheless that drivers wouldn’t see us until it was too late. At last, to my relief, we descended out of the mist. My hands were stiff from the cold. I braked often, mostly to convince myself that my hands hadn’t frozen right off. When I heard that Roland had to do that climb TWICE, and that he was only 500 metres from the top when he had to turn back for his cellphone, I shuddered at the thought.

The ferry that will take us to Denmark awaits. A thirty-six hour journey across the North Sea. More in the next post.

All of our Iceland photos are here.

All of our Iceland videos, plus others, are here.

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