Having been at home for a while it was time to hit the road again. I wasn’t sure where, but being the summer then Iceland seemed a fine idea. When I suggested it to Gaz and he was up for it then a plan was made. Little over 72 hours later, we were on a Sunday morning plane to Reykjavik. It was less prep time than I’d normally have and meant that our low chance of finding a host in Reykjavik became close to 0, but that wasn’t a big issue. Iceland is probably the easiest country in the world to find a campsite (ignoring the weather) and while the official paid campsite was expensive it wouldn’t break the budget to stay there for the first night.
The international airport is about 50km west of Reykjavik, with little in between other than a chance to encounter Iceland’s infamous weather. It’s a country where you can have 50km/h headwinds mixed in with cold and wet weather in the middle of summer to the extent that it can make the UK look positively tropical. The 50km stretch is also like the rest of Iceland in that there’s little by the way of people living along it. We’d packed sufficient snacks to get us the 50km even if it took us 4-5 hours of awful riding, but in the end, it took even longer than that.
We’d both packed our bikes in plastic mattress bags, something I’ve done on multiple occasions and which is definitely my preferred packing method. It makes getting to the airport so much easier and putting the bike together on arrival is generally super-fast. When checking in they’d asked me to unbag my bike because they wanted to scan it and, because of last minute packing meaning I’d got to the airport late, I repacked it poorly. That’s me coming up with a reason, but it didn’t help when on picking up my bike at baggage reclaim I noticed the bag was tattered and the front wheel buckled. I hoped it’d be fixable, but a bit of a closer inspection found a snapped weld on my rack, 4 broken spokes, a dent in my rim, snapped handlebar grips and a wheel that was never going to be straight again. The closest we could come up with as a cause was a heavy metal suitcase dropping on the wheel at an angle, not that it mattered.
The line to talk to the baggage people was longer than it should have been, as a WOW Air flight seemed to have lost a bunch of baggage just before we arrived so they were all waiting in line to complain, but eventually I got to the front and filled in the paperwork to make my claim. I asked about what I should do, and how much compensation I’d get from EasyJet, but was told that there was no way to know. Gaz and I sat in the airport for a couple of hours, as we tried to come up with a plan. With no confidence that I’d be able to get decent replacements in Iceland, I was busy looking at flights back to the UK to get things resolved, which looking back now was a terrible idea, but we eventually decided on getting into Reykjavik, staying at the campsite and visiting the bike shop the next day. While paying for the campsite wasn’t going to be cheap, the official tourist bus from the airport to the campsite was going to be ridiculous (around about $50 USD each) thanks to our bikes. As someone who was still aiming for about $10 a day, that wasn’t a viable option. Thankfully a local bus exists which would involve waiting a fair while and a couple of changes, but be about half the price.
We took the first local bus together, and it got us to the southern end of Reykjavik, where I explained to Gaz how to get to the campsite. It seemed easier (and cheaper) than us both going for the multiple bus option. The front wheel was so badly buckled that it was impossible to push the bike and I got to lift the front wheel anytime I wanted to move the bike. That was also super fun on the 2nd and 3rd buses because Icelandic bus drivers love slamming their brakes on at the last minute, and violently taking corners, which lead to my bike constantly trying to fall over.
Thankfully when I got to the campsite, Gaz was there waiting and it was just down to us to check in. The campsite was so busy, and as I’m used to camping in forests or behind people’s houses it felt strange to be sharing a campsite with hundreds of others. Having said that, it was pretty effortless and probably what we needed for the night.
The next day I got to take my bike on a bus across the city to Kria Hjol, which I’d read was the best bike shop in the city. I was met by very friendly staff who tried to straighten my wheel out but it was never going to happen and they didn’t have a rim that I’d want in stock. They could have built me a stopgap wheel, but then I’d have had to get one from the UK to replace it. A 20-minute phone call with Thorn later, and the problem was resolved. A new wheel, fork, handlebar grips and brakes were ordered and would arrive and be installed the next day. It wasn’t going to be cheap, but the bill would be being submitted to EasyJet (who fully paid up 2 months later)
By the time my bike was back together, and we had everything packed up it was almost 6 pm. Thankfully being Iceland it meant the sunset wasn’t until 10 pm so there was still time to get out. We made our way out of the city and towards the Golden Circle route, which leads to the closest tourist attractions to Reykjavik. 30km was enough and we found an easy place to camp by the side of the road.
The next few days took us past some rather delightful scenery. It started off very touristic, but once we got past the waterfall of Gulfoss we were off the paved road and so the number of tourists dropped dramatically from a stream of tour buses to the odd car. The first night we’d been planning to wild camp, but Gaz’s lack of waterproofs combined with some wet weather meant that we took the one safe option and paid to camp outside a hut. That allowed us to sit inside and Gaz to avoid hypothermia. We’d met other cyclists who had mentioned being given the leftovers the night before, so I was pretty saddened when the lady working there emptied a large pan of soup down the sink, especially after she’d spoken about freeganism (which includes things like dumpster diving) and how easy it is in Iceland.
The most frustrating moment of the cycling happened the next day. Gaz and I had been riding together on and off, but I was faster and so would generally ride ahead and wait. Being on a dirt road with next to no turns, I didn’t put any thought into how this could go wrong outside of mechanical issues. I knew the route and thought I’d explained it to Gaz pretty clearly, go straight for the next couple of days. That’s how I had ridden ahead and then sat down at the top of a climb to prepare our lunch around 2 pm. We weren’t in a huge rush, not much more than an achievable goal of getting to thermal water that night. I got everything out, and after waiting a while started preparing the couscous with the expectation Gaz would arrive soon. It was ready, there was no Gaz. I finished eating, there was no Gaz. I waved down and spoke to the drivers of a few vehicles and while some of them claimed that they’d not seen any cyclists there was one who mentioned seeing a guy that sounded like Gaz climbing up a rather steep side road. Bugger. So, after 90 minutes of waiting for Gaz, I doubled back to the junction he’d apparently turned right at where I waved down more cars and asked them to tell the cyclist that he was going the wrong way as there was no way I was climbing up the hill after him. I laid down, read my book and despite being in the middle of nowhere had 4G so called my granny to see how she was doing. Another 90 minutes went past and finally, Gaz turned up. I’d had far too long stewing about it that I wasn’t in the greatest of moods and we rode off after I chuntered at him – even though of course it was partly my fault and it’s not like he’d done it intentionally, but we’d wasted almost 5 hours and we had no chance of getting to our planned end point. Thankfully, being Iceland it meant that finding a place to camp was effortless and so we rode until we were tired and then stopped and put our tents up 100 metres from the side of the road.
The huge influx of tourists into Iceland and the consequences this has on their country is a big issue for the locals. In general, the locals are quite welcoming and aware of how tourists in their country provide a big revenue stream, but there is also the issue of responsible behaviour. When I travel, I nearly always ask for permission to camp somewhere instead of just dropping my tent down. I did this in Iceland and it lead to some very surprised farmers as apparently, they are very used to finding random people camping on their land in the summer. None of them turned us down, most of them showed us where they thought would be the best place for us to camp and one even gave us permission to fish in his stream, if only we’d had fishing gear! The one big difference between Iceland and other places however is that no-one interacted with us more than that.
Gaz goes swimming
Our one place staying with a host in Iceland was in Akureyri, the second city. We managed to find a Couchsurfer called Jonas who warmly welcomed us in, showed us round and even took us to see the local geothermal swimming pool. My favourite thing about Akureyri is bizarrely the traffic lights. The red light was changed to a heart back in 2008 during the financial crisis to help with people’s positivity and I think it’s a glorious thing that should be adapted much more widely.
The route back to Reykjavik was originally going to be back through the interior, on a more demanding, and isolated unpaved road, but it was vetoed due to concerns about Gaz’s lack of proper clothing. We’d been lucky with the weather after the first couple of days, but if we hit poor weather going back there wouldn’t be as many escape options as there had been on our first interior road. Instead we took an easier route which was almost all along quiet paved roads, doing our best to avoid the busy ring road which circles Iceland. We were fortunate with great weather, and barely even had a headwind as we dawdled back with plenty of breaks to read all the way to Reykjavik and then the airport.
Icelandic horses run funny