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An Icelandic Rabbit Hole…

20 August 2018

by John O'Malley

Our travels in Iceland.

Why go biking in Iceland? There are easier (and definitely warmer) places in the world and it's a long way from NZ. After a 25 year hiatus from cycle touring, the original decision by Sue and myself to take our bikes to Iceland could be best described as ‘uninformed’. In 2014 we were thinking of rekindling our youth with an overseas bike trip in Europe, and then on the spur of the moment opted for Iceland. It just seemed an interesting destination. Of course we had no idea what the cycling was actually like there, and certainly not of the rabbit hole this choice would take us down…

On the F261 near Emstrur, in the south of Iceland.

On the Reykjadalir track, near Landmannalaugar, southern Iceland.

Camping on the Sprengisandur.

Against all rational explanations we have now had three bike trips there (just don’t ask - our answer won’t make any sense!). May 2015 was a traditional cycle touring on-road trip on the coastal roads. Having survived this intact, we made subsequent trips in September 2016 and 2017 that were more bikepacking oriented, with our time spent mainly about the interior highlands. For us, the highlands became the real drawcard - although most cyclists who go to Iceland opt to circumnavigate the island on the 1300km Ring Road or Route 1.

Pushing against a scything headwind on the endless Sprengisandur.

Goðafoss waterfall at the northern end of the F26.

Ásbyrgi  Canyon (the Shelter of the Gods) in northern Iceland.

The highlands of Iceland are vast uninhabitable subarctic volcanic deserts that cover most of the interior. There is hardly any plant growth, as any rain or snow soaks quickly into the ground. This results in a barren surface of rocks, grey sands, lava and volcanic ash. There are relatively few bikeable routes through the highlands with the main north-south ones being the F35 Kjölur and the F26 through the Sprengisandur desert.

Hraunhafnartangi lighthouse on the lonely Melrakkaslétta Penisula- the northern most point of mainland Iceland.

Aurora gazing at Raufarhöfn, Melrakkaslétta Penisula.

Terrain aside, the harsh Icelandic weather can also be ‘challenging’ in the extreme. I’m not sure exactly how many rain days we've had, but there has been a lot! After our first trip we just accepted that this was part of the ‘deal’ and we got on with the biking. On the plus side the weather is very changeable, so rain can quickly clear to sun (and vice versa). Apart from the rain and the cold, the Icelandic wind is a further force to be reckoned with. Most days seem to be windy and we've had our fair share of soul-destroying energy-sapping freezer blasts, to downright scary bike-lifting gales to last a lifetime. Having the right gear is critical to your survival - you can be assured those hypothermia inducing 2°C, windy, rainy days on the shelterless highlands will test it.

On the F88 to Askja - 100km of sand, rock and corrugations. Herðubreið (the queen of Icelandic mountains) in the distance.

Camping on the ride to Askja.

While this may not make Iceland sound a particularly attractive cycling destination, the magnificent scenery more than makes up for it. We feel privileged to have experienced many stunning locations that few visitors to Iceland get to see, and biking has allowed us to experience these in a truly rewarding way. Of course there has been a bit of physical effort and suffering in the mix too, but aren’t these the parts that you look back on as being the best?

Crossing the Dyngjusandur desert south of Askja.

Urðarháls crater on the Gæsavatn route.

In 2016 we biked on the roads and tracks in the southern highland hills to Landmannalaugar, before carrying on north through the Sprengisandur. The vividly coloured hills and trails around Landmannalaugar have formed the backdrop to innumerable YouTube mtb videos, although the many hikers in this area (particularly on the Laugavegur Trail) are skilfully edited out. We chose to ride the F261 road which runs more or less parallel with the Laugavegur Trail- the same surreal scenery without the people.

Kistufell Hut on the Gæsavatn route

Riding beneath the Vatnajökull ice, Gæsavatn route.

A handy lava plug to shelter from the storm, Gæsavatn route.

North of Landmannalaugar lies the Spregisandur volcanic desert, a Canterbury Plains sized plateau of featureless rock and sand located between the Vatnajökull and Hofsjökull icecaps. For many cyclists the Spregisandur would be some kind of biking hell - days of rough roads, river crossings, totally barren volcanic rock and sand, scything headwinds, cold temperatures and rain showers. To be honest we had our desperate moments in the five days it took us to cross the 200km length of the Sprengisandur on the F26 route, but we also loved experiencing the vast open expanse of this wilderness and its feeling of isolation and emptiness. Camping under the northern lights was a bucket list item for sure, the 100+ km/hr winds the next morning probably not so much.

Ice not hills- the Gæsavatn route following along the edge of the Vatnajökull icecap.

One of the many river crossings on the F910.

The snowy F910 heading to Nýidalur.

The north-east highlands are the most isolated area of Iceland, traversed only by the F910 and the little used Gæsavatn routes. Compared to the Sprengisandur, this area is closer to the adjacent Vatnajökull icecap (the largest glacier in Europe) and is more volcanic. In 2015 the Holuhraun fissure eruption along the F910 produced 1.4km3 of lava and the nearby Bárðarbunga volcano still lies grumbling under the Vatnajökull ice.

Arriving in the snow at Nýidalur Hut in the central highlands on the Sprengisandur.

Looking back over the Sprengisandur north of Nýidalur.

Rest day in the hot pool at Laugafell in the highlands.

We bikepacked the Gæsavatn route last September - the most remote, and at 1200m, the highest route in Iceland (it tracks along the northern edge of the Vatnajökull icecap). To say it was rough to negotiate is an understatement (it puts the F26 to shame which is saying a lot) and had its share of biking obstacles to overcome. We were lucky though, and were able to cross the fine sands of the Dyngjusandur desert without too many problems. The wide Dyngjujökull glacial-outwash plains were largely empty of meltwaters, and cold snowy weather meant the crossings of the glacial torrents were safe. The weather was the weather but at least we had a tailwind when it mattered, even if it did come with rain and snow. The Gæsavatn was by far our most challenging trip and it would be fair to say that we found our limit of acceptable suffering. Definitely type-2 fun but what an amazing, out-of-this-world place to have experienced.

Near Laugafell in the highlands.

Descending from the highlands on the F821.

Fine dining at Akureyri after 11 days of freeze dry meals.

To return to the southern coast, we also biked the F35 Kjölur road, the easiest north-south route through the highlands. All the rivers on the F35 are bridged, so the road does tend to carry more traffic than the other highland routes. It is possible to buy food (and warm up in the hot pool) at the huts at Hveravellir around the half way point. For the most part this gravel road has a good surface for biking, although we were slammed by some fairly heavy weather just so it wouldn’t be too easy for us!

A 7km tunnel on the the Troll Peninsula.

Siglufjörður, Troll Peninsula.

Troll Peninsula.

Outside of the highlands, we have also rolled along the southern coast, around the Snæfellsness Peninsula in the west, the Troll Peninsula (Tröllaskagi) and lonely Melrakkaslétta Peninsulas on the northern coast, plus touched on the West Fjords for a few days. All these roads are sealed, so the riding is relatively easy, although in the northern part of the Melrakkaslétta the roads remain gravelled. The Melrakkaslétta area was the most isolated, and as it’s a flat landscape it's also not quite so scenic but was largely devoid of tourist traffic (actually pretty much of all traffic). The Melrakkaslétta ends at the Hraunhafnartangi lighthouse just shy of the Arctic Circle - we reached there late one afternoon on our second trip after spending the previous two weeks biking steadily from the south coast. We thought that ‘running out of Iceland’ was a very fitting way to end our progress north.

Battling the crosswinds on the F35 Kjölur road as the wind clouds stream over the Hofsjökull glacier in the distance.

The hot pool at Hveravellir on the F35 Kjölur road.

Sunrise at Hveravellir.

So would we go back again? We don’t have any plans to but… in the predawn light on the day we left last September, with the aurora dancing in the sky, I did wonder… perhaps, maybe, it would be nice to camp under the northern lights at least once more in my life… so who knows.

The 'old hut' at Hveravellir.

Riding south on the F35 Kjölur road with the Hofsjökull glacier in the distance.

Aurora over Reykjavík harbour.

Some useful online resources:

Iceland Cycling Map 
Iceland Maps 
Road Conditions 
Icelandic Met Office Smartphone App (Veður)
Iceland Weather (also aurora and cloud forecasts)
Guide to biking the highlands