Cycling the ‘Dream Road’ – Iceland’s Western Fjords
One person’s dream can be another’s nightmare. We first heard of the Icelandic ‘Dream Road’ from Dick Phillips, the Cumbrian Icelandic expert and each imagined our own versions of perfection. We assumed it would be overrun by cyclists, but found that, like most places when you are cycling Iceland, we had it to ourselves. And as we bumped over stones, forded rivers, crossed beaches and slipped along muddy cliffsides, we spent a lot of time wondering just whose dream it was…..
Riding the Dream Road
The locals don’t recognise the name ‘The Dream Road’.
“Is it really called that?” asks the woman at the desk of the museum that catalogues Sea Monsters in the area, shaking her head at the imagination of the tourists. Maybe if she was to ride it, on a tandem, she’d see how appropriate the name really is.
Dream or nightmare?
Have you ever had that dream where you are running and running and never getting anywhere? Or the one where where blurred shapes come out of the mist to scare you? Where magic rules over logic? Where you arrive at school without your trousers on and all your teeth fall out? That’s kind of what it’s like on the Svalvogar Circuit in Iceland’s Western Fjords.
Actually the trousers thing never happened during our time on The Dream Road. And the teeth part happened later, when Hannah tripped and fell at a campsite. (She is now the proud owner of 200 kroners from the Icelandic tooth fairy and will probably be asking for her two front teeth for Christmas.) But the rest of those dream elements came and went on this tough stretch of road; a road where you take your heart into your mouth and your wheel to the edge. Incidentally, it’s one of the most popular cycling routes in Iceland; even though there are whole kilometres that are totally unsuited to bikes. Not just tandems; any bikes!
Picnic in rainbow bay
Our dream starts, like all pleasant dreams do, with a hillside picnic and a rainbow. A roving rainbow that follows us for miles. Wherever we turn a corner in the road, the rainbow comes too; floating over the bay like a multicoloured good luck charm. We’ll need that good luck charm later, when the weather changes and the road turns to rock.
To the lighthouse
It does this quite suddenly. One minute we are having a post lunch snooze and the next we are battling against a hurricane; I half expect to end up in Oz, dressed in ruby slippers. Of course, I’m exaggerating; this is Iceland and it’s only a light wind in the scheme of Icelandic weather. But its enough to drain our dwindling reserves of energy as we push against it for ten kilometres or more.
On steep cliffside, where the road constantly drops away to ocean, we wind up at the Svalvogar lighthouse. The kids climb up the ladder and stand in front of the light. Although it’s late, it isn’t yet dark enough to be switched on. They are tossed by the wind back and forward around the platform, giggling and squealing and wondering out loud what it would be like to be blown away. I’ve already been wondering this quietly for half the afternoon.
Pitching in the ruins
The weather is deteriorating and we are done in, but there’s nowhere to camp on this rocky hillside. We push on and on, hoping for flat ground. Near Dalsdalur we find the ruins of a deserted farm and pitch our tent in the corner. It’s bumpy and sloping but just about possible, and there are plenty of rocks to pin it down with. Stuart tries to cook in a gale on an MSR and Cameron tries to find the i- pod he has mislaid somewhere in the long grass. It’s been a long day and despite the conditions everyone sleeps well.
In the river
Just when we think we know what we’re doing, the dream ups the stakes and starts to throw countless rivers in our way. After the initial shock of wading in glacial water, we get used to them, but it’s slow work; taking off shoes and socks, paddling gingerly across slippery rocks, negotiating the current, hauling the bike through the water, then stopping to get dressed again and remove the silt from between your toes. Matthew becomes bored of this routine and starts to try and cycle through the rivers; to mixed success.
On the beach
Now there’s no road at all. Near Stapadalur, we find ourselves biking on a beach. No sand here, just a jumble of stones. The waves spray us as we try to pick a route through. The kids love this and get as close as they can to the sea edge, crying out when they get showered. We herd them along. There ‘s a chance the tide may come in properly. At certain tides the road becomes impassable and you’ve no choice but to sit it out.
We come to a house. But as this is a dream road, it’s a haunted, peeling house; where no man would surely venture? But they do. As we pull up to take some pictures, a line of jeeps roll in. Someone grabs a cool box and they all head off towards it like the cast from Scooby Doo.
A local pulls up too and joins us watching them head off up the hill.
“What is it?” I ask. “This house? Is it important.”
He shakes his head, bemused. “Just another dead house in Iceland. There are many of these.”
Then he checks out our bikes. “You are tough,” he says.
Out of the mist
We have turned a corner. Literally and metaphorically. We take a brief look at the mountain bike track up to Kirkjubolsdalur and we decide to give it a miss, pushing on towards a higher, yet better surfaced road back into Pingeyri. There is pasture now. And even sheep. We bike up and down the grassy hillside, wondering if the dream has any more surprises. And then; there they are. Looming on the horizon. Ten, no twelve, no thirteen peninsulars, lined up in a row, as far as the eye can see.
“It’s like someone parked all those mountains there. Reversed them in!” says Cameron.
“They’re like giant’s fingers aren’t they?” wonders Matthew. In all my years of travelling I’ve never seen anything quite like this. The glaciers must have been hard at work here over the centuries; carving out the land with such precision. Or maybe they are just for us. It’s our dream after all.
The Dream Road hits the main road
It’s evening when we rejoin the main road. We have had enough of wading through rivers. Cameron refuses to do the last one and his brother carries him across on his back. That’s how I am sure it’s a dream. This would never happen in real life.
We are now against time. We have a ferry first thing in the morning and need to get back to Pingeyri to retrieve the car. But there’s a mountain pass between us and the Mondeo. It’s 500 metres high and will take us several hours to bike. We pause to chat through our limited options.
And then a car pulls up. It’s the man we met at the abandoned house. He works at a local museum, and is taking a drive to try and spot free trout in a waterfall. But he has met us for a reason because there are no coincidences in a dream.
There are two outcomes to this scenario.
a) He is going to be a mad axeman and take out our insides and leave them at the bottom of the sea.
b) He is going to rescue us and take us over the mountain.
We climb into the car.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. All the experience, views and opinions are, as ever, our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.