Part 2: Iceland, North East and North West
After a very calm crossing we were rudely awakened at 5.30 by the announcer telling us we were 3 hours away from docking and needed to vacate our cabins in an hour. We played the game, left our room and went to have breakfast. The dining room was heaving so they opened up the restaurant area for us.
As you approach Iceland you are struck by the tall, green, snow-capped mountains that reach right down to the sea. There are very few houses except on the odd places where there is some flat ground. It really does look like a massive fortress. The original settlers must have been very determined to find somewhere suitable to land and colonise.
By 08:30 we were on Iceland and riding up the road from the port. We only had 160 miles to do so planned a relaxing ride with detours if we saw something interesting that warranted further investigation.
The first 50 miles or so were an introduction to Icelandic roads as we travelled up a very windy road over the mountain to about 600m, then down the other side again. If you weren’t confident on your bike this could be a daunting road to ride. As we got higher there were little ‘bunkers’ of snow. I was surprised to see that most of it was very dirty – I suspect the melt brings a lot of grit down with it making it look like the snow we have in England once the Council have been round. We love waterfalls and were very pleased to see some though we realised later these were tiny compared to what was to come.
We travelled inland across the desert cutting of the top corner of the island. It was quite interesting to see but there’s only so much empty-arctic-tundra-with-mountains-on-the-horizon you can take before it becomes a bit boring. There were very few animals as there was very little grass or indeed any vegetation at all; the land was just barren. In places there were large rocks strewn across the landscape, in others it was smooth.
We parted from John and Sonia when we went to investigate a bridge over a small river canyon. The main ring road – ‘1’ – is mostly really good and we knew this would take us to our destination. Zumo 660 routing can be quite poor since a software update some time ago (the 550 seems better) and, as we weren’t in a hurry, curiosity led us to follow it when we were later routed off the main road. Our first experience of Icelandic gravel.
Eventually we found ourselves in a landscape that was much more appealing than arctic tundra. The sun was out and the water in lakes was bright blue. Vivid green moss outlined the water courses so they were very pretty; this is the first vegetation to colonise the lava fields. We started to see waterfalls which brought water into rivers that were quite fast flowing. The power of the water results in some quite deep canyons for the rivers and of course, more waterfalls.
We stopped to put some warmer clothes on as it was quite chilly and the lay-by had an information plaque which showed a rather large waterfall – Dettifoss – which was off the main road, but only about 30 km away. We decided to go and visit it. The road was fairly gravelly, but not too slippery, and seemed quite comfortable at around 45mph. Suddenly we were being shaken to bits as the road had deteriorated and had lots of corrugations. Kevin realises that in most circumstances when off tarmac ‘gassing it’ is the answer to all ills. Unfortunately (he says!) he has a great deal of trouble doing that when I’m on the back because if he does then stack it he knows I’m going to be hurt. Slowing down did make it feel a lot worse but at least if we came off we wouldn’t be going too fast. The road continued like this for about another fifteen miles and then we came to the car park for the waterfall.
It was a short walk to see the waterfall, and was definitely worth the bumpy ride. The water is very grey as the fast-flowing Jökulsá á Fjöllum river picks up lots of debris along its route before plunging over the edge where the river continues 45m below. The walk back felt a lot longer as it was all uphill, mostly rocky steps. Dettifoss is reputed to be Europe’s most powerful waterfall with more water moved per second than any other. There was a toilet in the car park which I was very grateful for. Inside was the first evidence of Icelandic humour – a sign saying there was a water shortage in the area so please conserve the water!
Coming out of the car park the SatNav wanted us to continue on along the bumpy road but we decided to retrace our steps as at least we knew what that part of the road was like. This time Kevin’s head won the speed debate and we had a faster, more comfortable trip back.
Once back on the main road we continued towards our hotel. Not far from Lake Mývatn, past a particularly large debris field, we could smell sulphur in the air. Round the next corner we could see where it was coming from – a large volcanic mountain with steam coming out of vents at its base. We stopped for a closer look and were rewarded with mud pools and steam vents. It was a bit reminiscent of White Island in New Zealand as the sulphur leaves a distinctive yellow on the ground.
There are large patches of purple scattered throughout the countryside. At some point in the late 19th century lupins were imported into Iceland and planted in many places to combat erosion; we have never seen so many and they cover whole mountain sides in places. The programme is somewhat controversial as they are thriving and forming vast swathes which probably prevent native species from growing. We saw quite a few groves of small trees that have been planted, these were mostly either pines or birches. The native trees only grow to a couple of metres and there’s an Icelandic joke that if you’re lost in one of their forests all you have to do is stand up!
We then had a short ride past the lake which was formed about 2300 years ago as a result of volcanic flow; it’s huge and on this occasion very blue. It’s not all beauty. Mývatn means ‘Lake of Midges’ and is aptly named. We stopped for some fuel and an ice cream then continued to our hotel for the next 2 nights, the Fossholl Guesthouse.
The rooms of the guesthouse look towards the Goðafoss waterfall which is a short walk away. The name means Waterfall of the Gods and is so named as the Icelandic king who agreed to embrace Christianity is reputed to have cast his pagan idols in there. There are actually two waterfalls in a short distance, the second, smaller, one is called Hansengatid. We had a very pleasant walk and photo session. We thought about going out on the bike to explore further but having removed our bike gear to walk to the falls we couldn’t be bothered to put it all back on so relaxed for the rest of the afternoon instead.
We were woken by the sound of ablutions and realised the cabins we are in are not soundproofed at all. We were lucky, John and Sonia had been woken at 03:00 by the couple in the room next to them rearranging their chickens (you’ll have to ask John for an explanation).
John and Sonia had been whale watching yesterday afternoon so we decided to ride to Húsavík, about 30 miles away, to do the same. Again the scenery was mixed – a lot of barren land, with clumps of rock; it looked like at some time in the past the land was like a sieve and molten rock had spurted up through the holes. The farmers do their best with the flatter pieces, and some are very green where they have been cultivated. We saw the odd sheep or three…we’d noticed most of the sheep were in groups of three or multiples thereof – and later found out that the sheep are bred to have twins.
When we got to Húsavík the first thing we did was book on a whale watching tour with Gentle Giants, as recommended by John and Sonia. While we waited for our 12 o’clock trip we visited the whale museum next door. We learned a lot about whales including Minke whales’ breath is really stinky and Blue whales occasionally mate with Humpback or Fin wales; I wonder what their offspring are called?
The museum houses quite a few skeletons of whales that have washed up ashore. It was interesting to see the Blue whale’s jaw with its row of very large teeth and we noticed the pectoral fins of nearly all the skeletons have five-fingered ‘hands’. It’s not until you see a whale skeleton close up that you see the similarities to humans.
Our whale watching trip was brilliant! Within about half an hour we had spotted the blow from a whale in the distance and we were soon nearby. There it was – a smooth hump came sliding out of the water, then again, then a third time, the ‘money shot’ with the tail flukes coming out and then down again as the whale dived deeper. We wouldn’t see that one for some minutes again. There was clearly a pod of the whales in the bay and at one point we were sailing alongside one as it fed. You could hear it breathing and grunting, clearly enjoying its dinner.
After a couple of hours whale watching we were returned to the harbour where we enjoyed some fish and chips. A short period of panic ensued when I went to pay for our lunch and realised I’d lost my purse which contained quite a bit of Icelandic money I’d purchased from the bank before boarding the boat. I was very relieved when I retraced my steps to the supermarket to find a supervisor had just picked it up from the till area. I’m sorry to say I doubt I’d have been so lucky in the UK.
Rather than returning straight back to our hotel we decided to ride a bit further to see where the road took us. It took us round the coast, past more volcanic debris and some large rocky walls that looked like they may have been built by a giant sometime in the distant past to form a walled garden.
Eventually we found ourselves on a dust track and decided to put the SatNav on to see which was the quickest way ‘home’. “In 4 tenths of a mile do a u-turn”. OK, this was the other end of the Detifoss road we had not travelled on yesterday. We complied with the instruction and retraced our steps back to the hotel for our last night there.
Today we had about 270 miles to ride, west and south to Reykjavik. The weather started out bright and sunny and reasonably warm.
As the day progressed it did get a bit colder and we all resorted to electric heat to keep warm – John and Sonia their heated seats, Kevin the heated grips to supplement his summer-weight gloves, and electric jacket and gloves for me. It did warm up again as we rode south though and these measures were discarded by the time we reached Reykjavic.
We had a stop at a roadside petrol station/café and noticed there were quite a few Icelandic bikers. As we continued on we came down a hill and in a large field to the left was a very full camp site. “Why is that place so popular?” asked Kevin and as we got closer we noticed there were a lot of bikes on the field. “I wonder if that’s the rally we saw the poster for in Torshavn?” Eventually we could see that it was. John blagged our way in and we spent half an hour or so wandering round looking at the bikes. Apparently the night before had been a heavy night with ‘games’ (we never really got to the bottom of what that meant!) and everyone was sleeping it off. We did get to chat to a couple of people but left them to it, trying to leave as quietly as we could.
As we passed a very busy services area we wondered why it was so packed. 50 empty miles later we realised why, it was the last one for miles. We eventually found a restaurant and had a very good burger and orange juice and lemonade. While we were in the Faroes we noticed that our favoured orange juice and lemonade combination was very startling to people. So much so that John declared it was obviously a forbidden combination drunk only by heretics! It seemed equally puzzling to Icelandic folk.
It’s hard to describe the scenery as I don’t have the words or ability but I’ll do my best. It’s large! You can be riding down a road looking at a mountain range ahead which you expect to reach in about 20 miles but 20 miles later it’s just as far away. If you are riding through a valley the sides will either be out to infinity or, if there are mountains to one side, they will be miles away and very often you will see another mountain behind. The mountains don’t look particularly tall, until you see the tiny houses nestled along the bottom edge. Some of the mountain tops still have snow patches and it’s only when the snow is alongside you realise how high you are.
There are rivers and waterfalls everywhere. Some are fast-flowing and narrow, cutting their way through the rock, others are sprawling, meandering slowly through wide, flat, riverbeds. We saw numerous waterfalls, some the thin, tall ones finding the shortest way from the top of a hill to the river below, some huge gushing waterfalls over metres of rock spewing thousands of gallons of water hundreds of feet.
Having been in the wilds for the last few days on empty roads it was a bit of a nasty shock to be back in ‘civilisation’ and urban traffic as we approached Reykjavik for our stop at the Hilton, where we would be for three days.
We caught the hotel bus into Reykjavik that evening and it was not quite what we expected. There is no ‘old town’. All the old, historic, buildings have been demolished and replaced with uninspiring modern buildings. There is a series of ‘what it was like in the old days’ pictures near the port but it’s a shame there is absolutely nothing real from the old days to see.
There are more photos in the Iceland 2012 Album