This was not my first visit to Iceland, I came over in the summer of 2014 as trail crew for the Fire and Ice Ultra. This mainly involved driving a 4x4 along the highland roads, putting out course markers, bivvying in and around volcanoes, sitting upon volcanoes guarding the safe passage of racers, and dodging rocks hurled at me during my waking minutes by the race medical officer, Scott. I visited waterfalls, forded rivers, slept atop old lava fields, and seen some of the best of what Iceland had to offer.
On this trip, I'd be cycling along the southern peninsula and into Iceland's Golden Circle to visit areas that the cruel restraints of Time had prevented me seeing on that first trip.
Iceland is both welcoming and friendly to the cyclist.
I have it on good authority that it is one of the friendliest and most welcoming countries for cyclists that there is. Whilst investigating route options I had received oodles of support and ideas from Iceland's 'Safetravel' organization. When liaising with the highways management I was happily informed that, whilst the highland roads were not maintained during the winter months, they were certainly not closed, and I should counsel myself on whether or not to have a bash at them. A plethora of online webpages and blogs were an inspiration regarding sights to see, routes to follow, and roads to avoid.
I had only to fall out of the airport's arrivals terminal to find myself in the 'Bike Pit'; a converted container brimming with bike tools, information, and space for me to get the bike and kit sorted for the journey ahead. The people, organisations and facilities of Iceland were, in short, excellent beyond even my high expectations. A warmer welcome could not have been offered, at least not without someone actually sitting me down to a table and having me fed and watered, whilst a team of diligent mechanics put the bike together lovingly and expertly on my behalf.
I left the Bike Pit shortly after 10pm; the temperature a few degrees below zero, the air still, cool and crisp, and the day's rain and snowfall having recently ceased. For a couple of hours I cycled the dark, wet roads to the coast of the southern peninsula, making a wild camp at about half past midnight on the shores of a wetland area, looking out over a flood plain before the sea, in the light of a gibbous moon, as it shone out brightly between passing grey clouds. It was a good night.
Following that I cycled east, through magnificent black lava fields, some matt, and some shining as the low winter sun was reflected across a thin blanket of ice. I occasionally took a detour through a town to purchase supplies, or else to investigate some local area of interest, such a mud pools boiling away at 200˚C.
Iceland's landscape is astonishing.
At the very least there are beautiful rolling hills, open farmlands and plantations, but towards the most incredible are the vast volcanic plateaus which tower up with staggeringly impressive waterfalls thundering down. Elsewhere the classic Geysir erupts every few minutes, sending a plume of cloud several metres into the sky. This is only a few kilometres from Gullfoss, one of the most impressive waterfalls in the world (although I would argue not as impressive as Dettifoss in the north). Hot springs abound, as does the smell of sulphur and the solitary volcanoes that rise from the flatlands, all constant reminders of this very unique and geologically active land.
Cycling here, particularly in winter, is a character-building experience.
The winds are powerful and constant, sometimes not abating for days on end. Rainfall, sleet, snow and hail were daily events, at least for most of the two weeks I was there, but rarely lasted long. The roads are in bad shape, the tourist drivers even worse, and during winter the highways are not gritted or cleared of snow as often as you might expect. The inland, highland roads were not maintained at all and studded tyres were a must even on the main roads. Away from the main roads the fat bike was essential for progress across deep snow.
Almost everyone on the roads is a tourist, and some had no idea how best to deal with a cyclist, so improvised with something extremely dangerous and inconvenient to everyone in the vicinity. A Polish girl and her two friends made a fantastic cheerleading team whenever they drove by. A couple of cheery American women, a lovely Spanish couple and an extremely pleasant Canadian couple stopped to ask if all was well or if I needed anything. One elderly woman stopped to tell me what I was doing was very dangerous.
Wild Camping in Iceland
Wild camping away from the towns and national parks is possible, but hard-going in winter. At a zero or so below zero, the ground is frozen and finding a spot that will take a peg is challenging. The snow is not deep enough for snow pegs, and the ground is often so windswept there is no snow at all, so some nights I improvised with kit on the guylines. During the night body heat can thaw out the ground directly beneath the sleeping mat, allowing vapour to form on the mat and underside of the sleeping bag. A protective bivvy for the bag would have been a useful addition. My favourite night was spent at below minus fifteen Celsius, because then everything remained frozen and dry.
Iceland is a country where, if you do not like the weather at a particular moment, you need only wait ten minutes. Ten minutes later the weather will be worse and you can reflect upon that gay, pleasingly less-awful weather of ten minutes before with a wistful nostalgia. Still, it seemed to me that the weather existed mostly in 24-hour cycles, so one could endure one day in the comfort that nothing lasts forever, and quite possibly the next day would be a kinder, more forgiving one.
The sights in Iceland are spectacular and unparalleled anywhere in the world. Here there are vast expanses of lava fields, where the ground rises in mounds like those bread loaves with crusty tops that have opened up during baking. A backdrop of solitary volcanoes or towering volcanic plateaus that expand across the landscape, incredible waterfalls descending from them to the rivers beneath. Small side roads fork off into the volcanic valleys, to bubbling pools of mud and hot springs. Elsewhere crisp spring water flows, warmed by the hot earth, past the black shoreline and out into the sea. Being a solo cyclist here in the winter is a privilege, but with so much to see I leave hungry for more of what Iceland has to offer.
This post was adapted from Mark's blog. For more on his adventures and expeditions, head over to markhines.org. If you're feeling inspired to get some wild camping action of your own, our Wild Camping tips and Q&A with Mark might point you in the right direction.