As the eerie twilight became another clear, crystalline morning in the mountains, the scene from the tent door was benign, betraying the previous night.
Breakfasting and striking camp quickly, I pushed off and retraced my route for a couple of kilometres before stopping for pictures at the head of route 35 – the Kjolur.
The Kjolur is one of two main routes across the stark interior of Iceland. It is regarded as the easier and, at 200km, is shorter. Largely gravel road, passage is made easier by the pipe bridges which cross rivers en route. The longer Sprengisandur involves fording braided glacial rivers… maybe next time.
Leaving the Tarmac once more, I began my journey south proper. The first section followed the lovely valley of the Blanda and as the road climbed the head of the valley the scenery became increasingly wild and barren. As it did so, the road slowly deteriorated and I soon learned why the Kjolur remains a challenge for the cyclist. The passage of 4×4 rakes the gravel into ridges – a washboard. These humps look pretty insignificant at first but they are arranged in such a way to cause maximum discomfort. My memory of A-Level maths is hazy at best but I’m sure it’s possible to prove that the ridges of the Kjolur are set at the optimum frequency to shake a bike to bits and dislodge a few fillings… and brain cells.
Avoiding the ridges can be tricky. It may be possible to find a better line on the edges of the road and sometimes at the centre, but rocks and soft sand are the main hazards away from the main tyre tracks. My two- inch Schwalbe Marathon Extremes were no match for the sand.
Fully engaged in my riding, I soon reached the Afangi mountain hut, one of a handful of welcome stop offs on the main Kjolur promising refreshment, a flattish place to camp and a bed in a dorm if you need it.
I heaved Tango across the rough driveway and tried a door… locked. I searched its prefabricated frontage in vain and hunted round he back where I found a small terrace and ubiquitous hot pots. The entry was, of course, obvious and I found it eventually. The exertions of the morning were evidently taking their toll.
I walked into a modest yet welcoming dining area and joined just one other traveller, a motorist, taking a break from the rattling progress of the road.
My requirements were simple: coffee and cake, and lots of it please. My host – a lovely, chatty Icelandic woman – delivered. I was pleased to see Hjónabandssæla was on the menu so I ordered a large portion with whipped cream. A huge coffee urn was placed on my table and I helped myself with relish.
I polished off the cake at an equally embarrassing rate. However, seemingly impressed with my enthusiasm, my host offed me more on the house. ‘If you can eat it, you can have it,’ she said.
I could, and I did.
Like other Icelanders I’d met, she thought my cycle trip was daft. I tried to extol the virtues of the bike, all in vain.
Energised with the caffeine and sugar, I filled my bottle and headed out again for some more ‘Kjolur Gerjigga’.
The road passed pallid lakes and climbed steadily, the odd steep section forcing me to click down and spin the pedals, my rear wheel fighting for grip on the loose surface.
Day tripping motorists in hire 4x4s passed me. Most gave me a wide berth. A few demonstrated a collective ignorance that blights many a driver in the UK. Plenty gave me a wave of encouragement though. The best came from a couple in a tiny Suzuki who gave me a dual hand clap in perfect unison. I laughed out loud, which only heightened their evident delight.
The road crested a hill and another landmark I’d read about came into view. Matching Tango’s Agent Orange livery, the Arnarbaeli emergency hut provides refuge for travellers in difficulty. A German couple were parked outside who offered me food and water, a lovely gesture which I declined as I had all I needed.
They left me to savour the sanctuary of the hut alone. Despite a generator burbling beneath the raised wooden building providing welcome warmth, the wind could still be heard outside.
The dusty hut was cleaner than I expected, with a small common room and tiny sleeping area. The walls were, in effect, a visitor book with messages and other pearls of wisdom from fellow Kjolur travellers – the most entertaining missive adorned the back of the door.
I pushed on and a new focal point materialised, the distant bulk of the Hofsjokull Icecap. It was hard to judge distance in the haze. The map confirmed I had some way to travel.
The road now changed. The raised loose gravel became a bulldozed track littered with rocks. The ridges were now sporadic and, while rough, progress was a little more straightforward rather than easy. I pedalled on, my gaze fixed on finding the best line.
The daily bus which plies the Kjolur during the summer months thundered by, throwing up a choking cloud of dust. The cloud cleared to reveal a young couple walking towards me hand in hand. I stopped to chat. They worked at either end of the Kjolur and were hitching the road in order to spend as much time as possible together. Progress so far had been painfully slow. Save for an SLR camera, tripod and day sacs they were lightly equipped. Did they worry about spending the night out? I asked. Not really. They had faith they’d get a lift.
I bade them farewell and bon chance. Checking my watch, it would soon be time to stop. I planned to wildcamp in the highlands depending on progress. However, I was close to Hveravellir hot springs where the was a campground and cafe of sorts. A dip in the geothermal bathing pool would be welcome too after 100km on these rough roads. I found the turn off and checked in.
The camping area was tricky at best. The ground was uneven and, at this late hour, all the sheltered flat spots were taken. I found some flat ground in the wind but near a warm stream spilling out of the hot pools above. I pitched tail to the elements and shifted a stone wall windbreak to protect my gear. I spent a happy hour or so viewing the hot springs, clouds of sulphur tainting the air. Sadly, I didn’t make the bathing pool as a group of German cyclists on an organised group tour had monopolised it for the night.
I consoled myself by dipping weary feet in the warm stream as I ate dinner… Pasta again.
A determined rain drummed on the flywheel most of the night, the drops gaining extra zeal from the wind which poured into the hollow of the springs. Morning dawned bright, though, and my stream steamed in the early chill.
The routines of the road had now fully taken hold and I packed quickly. Just before I left, there was just for more photos. This time the German tourists wanted shots for the album of the crazy English guy carrying all his kit on a bike.
I climbed steadily out of the springs and soon stopped to contemplate the scene. A vast brown plain met the Hofsjokull at a distant hazy horizon. The uniformity of the ground was broken only by the sinuous single track road which snaked off into the distance.
I felt totally alone… It was magic.
I’d started the day early and would have the road to myself for the next three hours. Progress was challenging – the road far rockier here – while the occasional short, sharp climb reared up ahead of me, demanding effort and concentration not lose momentum and balance. Pushing my beast of burden on these sharp climbs was an encumbrance I wished to avoid.
I was lost in a sea of rock and sand, and the icecap provided little comfort as a measure of progress. The parched air threw up atmospheric anomalies that compromised my sense of scale.
I passed another milestone, the turning for the mountain station at Kerlingafjoll. This was another stop on my original itinerary, but I felt strong and was confident I’d reach the end of the Kjolur that day. I pushed on to the mountain station at Hvitames, a glorious location on lake Hvitavatn, the snout of the Langjokull icecap spilling into its azure waters. I stopped again and munched on donuts.
Despite bagging these milestones in good time, I still had a long way to go. I rode to a bridge across the mouth of the lake where it channeled into the powerful Hvita river. Climbing again, I reached the lip of the plateau and began my descent. Here the weather changed radically and its ferocity that rather caught me unawares.
Black cloud raced from the south toward me proffering smeared blankets of rain. The wind preceded the precipitation, and heavy drops and hail slammed into my face. I stopped to throw on waterproof hats and gloves, all in vain.
The next two hours were torture. The wind slowed my progress to a crawl and everything became soaked. Eventually the Tarmac returned but the comfort was diluted by the crazy conditions. With little cover along the road there was nowhere to hide either.
With visibility now a matter of metres, I shouted, somewhat pathetically, at my predicament and willed the visitors centre at Gulfoss to appear out of the murk. It did – eventually – and I found a sheltered spot to leave Tango and went in search of food.
I took a self portrait over a bowl of delicious Icelandic stew. I looked dreadful… I’d definitely left something on the road back there. Regaining some strength I went to leave only to be stopped by an energetic woman at the door.
‘Are you the guy with the Surly Troll?’
‘Hi, I’m Barb from Vancouver. My brother follows your blog and he told me to look out for a tall guy cycling around Iceland.’
Barb describes me as a tall, nerdy cyclist on her blog – I can’t really disagree.
Gathering my soggy mount I made a snap decision: bugger the camping tonight. I needed a decent bed, some decent food and some overpriced beer. I pedalled up to the doors of the a Hotel Gulfoss and squelched into reception.