As our summer expedition to Iceland approaches, we are knee deep in maps and guide books, trying to figure out our route. Every big trip is different each year but this one throws up some challenges we haven’t had to face before with the kids. But along with the challenges come some exciting prospects for a wilderness ride on a truly adventurous island…
Iceland, Adventure Island
“If a road is described as really challenging, it may be because you will have to drag your bike through soft sand or loose pebbles for hours and hours.” Ivan Viehoff
If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that Iceland is a country of surprises. Our guide books and cycling pamphlets are full of potential obstacles including lava fields, boulder fields, fast flowing glacier melts and high winds. And we’ve the added challenge of riding with children, tandems and trailers. But we are also sure of rewards we wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world; ice caves that steal your breath, waterfalls that crash into your consciousness and extraordinary volcanic features that can’t help but burn themselves on your memory.
An island where reading a map becomes a full time job
While I’ve been wrestling with maps of the Western Fjordlands and the Central Highlands, Kirstie has been pumping the British Icelandic specialist Dick Philips for information over the phone and closely studying the accounts of Ivan Viehoff (quoted in red throughout this post) which are refreshingly and at times alarmingly honest about what we might expect.
“It isn’t a very nice ride from Keflavik to Reykjavik. There are tales of cyclists riding this road in very bad weather, and changing their ticket to leave the country as soon as possible.”
But as a family we’re up for a challenge, at least I think we are. For the last few years we’ve opted for long yet fairly predictable rides across Europe. A 2,000km ride from Amsterdam to Venice was never going to chuck a lava field or sandstorm in our direction. And on the Camino to Santiago, while God was a constant reminder in the crosses on the landscape, we weren’t required to negotiate our way to the rim of hell.
An island where the roads are paved with gravel
“Near Oskjuvatn lies the explosion crater Viti, which means Hell. Altogether it is one of the most extraordinary landscapes in Iceland.”
As cycle touring destinations go, Iceland is definitely one of the more interesting. But at this stage it’s all a bit of a nightmare. To establish how many miles we can go in a day, first I need to work out whether the roads are paved or unpaved, and what we might face on the way.
“Crossing this section when the sand is dry can be sorely trying, as the bike sinks in, and you have to drag it, which is both slow and very hard work. People have taken all day over it. A strong wind, which the area is prone to, doesn’t help either.”
An island where roads ford glacier fed rivers
Some roads change constantly according to the climate and other natural phenomenon.
“There are several fords in the first 30km, one of which is the hardest (though not the deepest) I have ever crossed on a bike.”
If fording a river is tricky for the lone cyclist, it’s a major hassle for us. While other cyclists can lift their bikes across, we will have to make several trips to get tandems, trailers, children and up to twelve panniers across the fast flowing, freezing glacier melt water. And I’m not sure if we should even attempt it.
An island that never sleeps
“Camping terrain varies from the very hard, where you will have to hammer strong pegs in, to very loose, where you will prefer broad pegs and be putting rocks on them.”
And then we’ll have to set up camp. Every night. Normally on cycle tours, we choose from a vast variety of hostels, hotels and well equipped campsites. But with very few cheap hotels in Iceland we’ll be camping, often in the middle of nowhere, and even getting a titanium tent peg in may take until nightfall.
Actually, I forgot; there is no nightfall.
“There is perpetual daylight through June to late July and it barely gets dark for 90 days from early May to early August.”
An island that never gets fat
Resupplying can be an issue too. Supermarkets are few and far between so it could be days between restocking opportunities. And then it’s likely to be a small store; Tesco hasn’t taken hold here and even its namesake supermarket Iceland hasn’t yet arrived in Iceland.
“Most food is expensive, especially bakery products, meat, cheeses, chocolate crisps etc…. Alcoholic drink is outrageously priced and only sold in special shops with short opening hours. Even fish isn’t cheap.”
I’m not too upset about the fish. And there are some definite positives. Crime is almost unheard of outside the city and main towns. Wild camping is widely permitted and there are no dangerous wild animals, few insects with bite, and indeed few humans. The country is about half the size of Britain and with only three hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants is less populated than our own home county of Cumbria.
An island that’s prone to exploding
And what the guide books can only hint at is the sense of wilderness and sheer beauty of the youngest country on earth. On our honeymoon tour in 2000, Kirstie woke up on her birthday with a view of Villarica volcano in Chile and was convinced she’d never be as happy again. But in Iceland, volcanoes outnumber shopping malls.
An island where you need to wear a hat
On this trip we won’t even be able to afford discounted luxury hotels or eat a fine meal. But we will get as close to nature as we have ever been. We will spend days cycling without meeting another person. And we will spend time in places where the only moving objects are carried on the wind.
“Arctic terns are common and aggressive around their breeding sites. Mostly they try to surprise you by suddenly making loud noises close to your head, but sometimes they hit your head with their feet, or crap on you, so wear a hat.”
The kids say they are looking forward to that. But I bet it won’t be so funny if or do I mean when it happens. Unless it only happens to me.
An island of adventure
We will have an adventure. It’s perhaps the only thing we can guarantee in this unpredictable and unpopulated place where the glaciers stretch into heaven, and at least one road leads straight to Hell.
What’s the most adventurous destination you’ve visited?
This post is part of our 2012 Iceland Season. We visited Reykjavik in April for the Children’s Culture Festival, then spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike. We’re grateful to Visit Reykjavik, Icelandair and Icelandair Hotels, Reykjavik Excursions and The Blue Lagoon for their support in helping bring you this season of posts from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival.
Read more from our Icelandic Spring 2012 Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:
- Looking for the Source – preview post
- First impressions – arriving in Iceland
- Not your usual Golden Circle tour
- Letting go of the reins – Icelandic Horse Riding
- Making music with a carrot – Contemporary Music for Curious Children
- 8 things that make Iceland the most creative, kooky place I’ve been
- Does a happy revolution sound like this?
- Whale watching or whale eating – what’s would rather you do?
- Spin but not as we know it – the Icelandic art of marketing
- Posts from our Adventure Islands Season in Iceland and The Faroes