Bikepacking Iceland: New Friends and New Topography

Hey, look! That’s where all our clothes come from!

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Today marks a week on the bikes. We’re currently sitting in a big dining hall at the Úthlíd campground, charging phones and letting saddlesores heal a little before we get back out there. This place has three hot tubs and an incredibly friendly hostess, which definitely motivates the decision to wait a day.

Let’s backtrack to where we left off…

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After a long 54km against a brutal headwind, Kelley and I made it to southern Reykjavik. We stayed in the city for two days and made a ton of new friends as we explored the culturally rich and occasionally sprawled center of Iceland’s social world.

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Reykjavik has one foot in the old world and one in the new. 95% of households in the country have wifi, and we have yet to stay in a campground without a connection. Yet, tradition is paramount, and many practices like hand-knitting are passed down from generation to generation.

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We spoke to one local, who told us about a different Iceland; prior to WWII, the country was far less modern, a collection of farming and fishing villages loosely connected by dirt roads. In the harsh winter and constant cold, Icelanders had a silent pact to look out for one another, and that binding unity is part of the undercurrent of Icelandic consciousness.

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In the campground, we met some very wonderful people: Przemek and Saska of In Between Spokes and Z biciklom naokoli. Przemek and I had already heard of each other through the surprisingly close network of bikepacking bloggers, which was a lot of fun. We are both the photographers, so we rarely end up on our own sites. Now we had faces to match to  voices.

Saska and Przemek are on a year-long world tour on slim and light bikepacking rigs. They have an impressive repertoire already, having toured most of Eastern Europe, Scotland, Wales, Iceland, and soon the United States as they ship out for the CDT. We drank a third of a bottle of Tito’s vodka, found in the “Free Stuff” section at Reykjavik Campsite, and swapped stories and adventures and sage wisdom, mostly from them. Kelley and I both felt that we had been friends with these amazing people for years; their warmth and energy and encouragement was uplifting and infectious. It was just the inspiration we needed at the start of this great big adventure, and we felt so lucky to have met them. A tour together in the next year or two seems imminent.

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After meeting them, Kelley and I also mailed back six pounds of extra clothing and gear, and wished we had taken a bigger leap of faith in the “ultralight” department. I wax poetic about carrying less for two years on this blog, and then I finally get the opportunity to tour internationally and I overpack. Sheesh!

Whatever. It’s not too heavy. I’ve only switched into the low gear once in seven days despite hundreds of hills, partially because the rack makes the transition annoying. I’m gunning up hills in the 31/18 gear ratio and getting noticeably stronger.

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We left Reykjavik along the hot water and electricity lines, along a lonely road called Nesjavallavegur. We got there on suggestion from another cyclist, a local with a penchant for bikepacking and some extremely helpful advice about the climate and conditions ahead of us. Nesjavallavegur is one big gradual climb for something like 40km, which was a little bit mind-numbing. Probably less so than the northern roads past the Westfjords, or the coastal roads by the glacier Vatnajökull.

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Eventually, the road wound up and over a small range of mountains. We saw at least ten mountain bikers ripping around on Enduro rigs, possibly American, possibly European. They didn’t stop to say hi.

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The road devolved, as roads tend to do here. We stuck to gravel for another 20k to a campground at the southeastern tip of Lake Þingvallavatn. This trip has had ups and downs, and this dynamism was nowhere as present as this campground. Why?

Black flies.

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We started wearing our headnets on the bike about five miles from the lake. Every time we stopped, there were about fifteen of them swarming in front of our faces. At this point, we were at Defcon 4. 

We pushed on to the lake itself, and started following a little gravel road. We thought we were within National Park boundaries, so we were headed for the campsite. It was well past 11:00PM, so there wasn’t a lot of traffic. We had 30-40 flies each that buzzed around us in a cloud. Defcon 3. 

We made it to the campground, cooked a quick meal in the kitchen at 1:00AM, chatted with a french-speaking couple from Italy and Belgium, and finally retired to our tent. It was a really nice campground. In the morning, I thought it might’ve been raining. There was a tap-tap-tap on the tent, constant and at a high cadence. When I got up, I realized what it actually was. Hundreds, maybe thousands of flies, in between the rain fly and the bugnet of our tent, desperately trying to get in. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Defcon 2.

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Dead flies caked every surface, and live ones moved in clouds. Babies had headnets on- we were so thankful for ours. Even with full-body protection, packing up camp was a disaster. We were close to panic, as the constant tiny bites, buzzing, and swatting drove us mad. We had to shake them out of our tent fly before stuffing it in. By the time everything was stowed, we had thousands obscuring our vision around our heads. It was truly brutal.

Defcon 1. 

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Kelley hates flies more than I do. The stress indicated in her voice was heartbreaking. We did our best to endure it, but after riding another 25km’s in our own personal clouds of them, we hung a right and skipped Þingvellir- there was just no way to endure that for another 24 hours. As a world heritage site, Þingvellir topped both our lists, but we just couldn’t do it. We’ll see if we can stop back in a rental car after we finish the rest of the tour. It was that bad.

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The sheep, now frequenting our route more often than deer in the Northeast, were much friendlier fauna. Kelley pet a few, and we delighted in watching them run with us as we rode past. Black ones, brown ones, white ones- there are tons of them, and most are wild, roaming the countryside in protective wool sweaters. Neat!

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We’re setting off for Geysir and Gullfoss tonight at 9PM, and we don’t expect to make it back until well after 2AM. Thanks to our new Polish/Slovakian friends Przemek and Saska, we’re on the night-owl schedule, and that fits perfectly in Iceland with 24 hours of daylight. In the late evening, traffic is minimal, and highways become country roads. We’ll hopefully get to see the geyser and waterfall without fifty smartphones lit up around us. That’s the plan… skip the tourists, and experience Iceland as the locals used to.

Stay tuned for the next update, and keep riding!

One thought on “Bikepacking Iceland: New Friends and New Topography

  1. Hey you guys! Hope Iceland is kind to you. We just had our first (starry!) night in Canada. It’s green and great, and there’s canola smell all over the place. One day here and we already love it. Take care up there and show those pesky flies who’s boss!
    Przemek&Saska

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