Bikepacking Iceland: Death to Tour Buses

We do our sightseeing between Midnight and 2AM.

MAX_1862-1

The majority of tourists heading to Iceland seem to want to avoid tourists. That’s the buzz I got from travel forums and other cyclists, anyways. It’s a paradox; as Iceland becomes easier and easier to visit with the addition of better roads, cheaper flights, more services, and more pictures pulling at your heartstrings, so too increases the number of people you have to fight against.

So, what’s a bikepacker in peak season to do?

MAX_1960-1

Kelley and I have been getting on great since our unfortunate run-in with the black flies at Thingvellir. We had some rain and wind, sure, but some breathtakingly clear days keep making the bad weather worth the trouble. We stopped at Uthlid and started plotting the rest of our Golden Circle adventure. The problem: the road was wicked busy and the sites were packed with tourists, pouring out of massive buses in droves.

The solution? Leave at 11PM!

MAX_1621-1

So, we did. We took off from Uthlid in the middle of the night, finally free from getting buzzed by the tour buses, which universally drive with more aggression towards us than the locals and tourists in cars.

In the middle of the night, Geysir still had its fair share of visitors. But unlike the peak hours, the tourists don’t ring the geyser 3-deep, waiting eagerly with cell phone cameras and tablets held like shields in front of their eyes. No, we had a much smaller and (dare I say it?) like-minded group, looking to experience it without the crowd.

MAX_1584-1.jpg

Geysir was a bit of a letdown. I enjoyed the hike behind the geyser itself more than the intermittent explosions of water. The site was just ravaged… thousands of footsteps marred the mud around the hot springs. Pools of water had coins and trash thrown into them. The rocky cliffs behind were torn apart by people hiking off-trail. It was a little depressing to see… we took a few pictures, Kelley got some video, and we moved on. All the pictures I took of the geyser itself suck; there are cranes in the background building a new concrete hotel/motel. Sad!

Gullfoss, luckily, made up for it.

MAX_1697-1

We didn’t get to Gullfoss until around 1:00AM. We were the only ones there. Iceland’s Niagara Falls, and we had it all to ourselves. Gullfoss was awe-inspiring, a tumble of staircased waterfalls culminating in one giant 105-foot drop.

MAX_1685-1

We rode up and down the empty paths, invigorated and wide-awake. Kelley rode down the lower sections while I waited up top to shoot pictures, and then we met at the bottom and got drenched by the mist coming off the falls. It was so wonderful having the waterfall to ourselves.

MAX_1702-1

The ‘unloaded’ bikes were a joy to ride after so many miles with full kit. Out-and-back excursions are becoming a new theme for our trip; we’re doing it right now as I sit in this coffeeshop, my lightened bike right outside the window.

The next morning, we set off for Selfoss, which has a Bonus. Bonus is the name for Iceland’s discount grocery store, and when we’re looking to stock up for 5 days at a time, we use Bonus to keep our costs down. Since we’re a lot less picky on tour than we are at home, we’re actually not spending too much more on food than we usually do. I would estimate that we’ve spent about $250 on food so far, for both of us, and it’s Day 15.

MAX_1527-1

Our meal of choice is mixed pasta. I personally love taking a Chicken Ramen and dumping in a half-cup of cheese tortellini for a little extra food, and a little extra protein. The pot comes out almost clean, and it really fills you up. Here, Kelley mixed bow-ties and tortellini.

MAX_1525-1

We’re really glad we brought a butane stove. There are gas canisters available everywhere – supermarkets, gas stations, even the “free stuff” bins at campsites are loaded with them. Gas canisters here are cheaper than they are in the United States.

MAX_1772-1

We passed Selfoss and camped in the quiet coastal town of Stokkseyri. Unfortunately, the route here got dicey. We had absolutely beautiful gravel coming out of Stokkseyri, but then got stuck on Route 1 until Hvolsvollur. There simply aren’t bridges over all the tributaries and rivers near the coast. The many towns there are connected to each other via the Ring Road, like arms on a centipede.

MAX_1847-1

The highlight was Uridafoss, Iceland’s most prolific waterfall. Gullfoss is the highest, but Uridafoss sees a lot more water. There’s a long-term plan to tap the waterfall for a huge power station, producing up to 125 MW, but the locals are pushing back against it. As of now, a simple gravel road leads down to the waterfall, and because the wind drowns out the crashing water, you’d never know it was there unless you stumbled right on top of it.

MAX_1850-1

All the water in these rivers is tinged slightly teal from silicates washing out of the glaciers way upstream. It makes for a beautiful array of soft, cloudy tones in the water flowing all across the country. We’ve probably seen ten waterfalls so far.

Despite the truck traffic, we persevered and camped at Kaffi Langbrok, a local coffeehouse and bar with its own accordion band.

MAX_1939-1

The Æskan VE 200 is permanently grounded here, which made for a pretty interesting camping spot. Kids love playing on the slowly decaying boat.

MAX_1949 (1)-1

We also got to check out one of Iceland’s famous earth-houses; this one is the Virgin Temple of Mother Earth, an ancient turf house. It kind of reminded me of a samurai. Really nice campground!

MAX_1929-1

Since we had put down so much distance the day before (71km’s of mixed terrain), we were pretty close to our destination, the ferry to the Westman Islands. Anticipating an easy few KM’s, we set off.

MAX_1973-1

The route was gorgeous to start. Quiet gravel roads wound between farm fields, with absolutely breathtaking vistas on the horizon the entire time. We could see glaciers off in the distance at some points, but mostly, just little snowcaps, braving the 60ºF heat!

MAX_1842-1

Then, the wind set in.

MAX_1982-1

By the time we reached the shore, we were biking against 35mph+ gusts, and constant pressure. It’s hard to describe just how difficult our progress was.

Go outside, get on your bike, and head for the steepest hill on your block. That resistance, the way you have to lean into every pedal stroke a little bit… it was a lot like that, for kilometer after long kilometer. We pushed against it for about 25km’s straight; it took us the entire day to go a distance Kelley and I would consider commutable in the US. Our legs burned, our skin was burned from the wind, our eyes were dry, our throats were dry… it was brutal! A great effort, and a lot of Type 2 fun in hindsight.

MAX_2109-1.jpg

We made it to the boat, but I won’t spoil that yet. We’re on the Westman Islands and it’s the highlight of the entire trip. I’ll fill you in once we step back on the mainland in a couple of days.

Until then, keep riding!

2 thoughts on “Bikepacking Iceland: Death to Tour Buses

  1. Max,

    Thanks so much for posting. I’m really enjoying these trip reports. Well, except for the flies. Fortunately in all my travels abroad, I’ve never had such an encounter. You really captured the anxiety of the moment in your previous post. From Nicaragua to China to Iceland, it seems bus drivers the world over are convinced that roads were paved solely for their use, cyclists be damned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s