Halfway along the Kjolur to the east is the Kerlingarfjoll mountain area. This would have been another option to join the Sprengisandur, however this too was under several metres of snow and closed. So, sadly, our only choice was to turn tail and ride the 90km back to Gulfoss and the only other viable river crossing heading east. Still, at least this time we had a tail wind, and what took us 13hrs the previous day took only 7hrs with the wind. We found a campsite halfway between Geysir and Gulfoss, then found it made excellent pizza. We spent that evening eating (not noodles!) and working out what to do next.
My lasting memory of the Kjolur, and from what I’ve heard this is true to some extent of the Spengisandur too, was surprise at how heavily travelled it was. While it was undeniably beautiful, and we only saw two other cyclists; there were many 4x4s and buses along the route. So in spite of the emptiness and desolation, it rarely felt like the wilderness. We knew that if something happened, there would be someone along in half an hour who could help. It’s not at all what I had expected.
After riding across the Kjolur twice in as many days, Day 5 was going to be a ‘rest’ day. We had looked at the maps and found a track running 45km east/west from Gulfoss over an 800m shoulder to Haifoss (another huge waterfall) where there was hut and campsite. The route had quite a few river crossings, but from our vantage point and the overall topography it didn’t look like it was being fed by the local glaciers, so we maintained hope for low levels of water.
The day started out well enough; we had noodle for breakfast (anything is better than porridge), the sun was shining, the wind had dropped a little and the views were epic. We rode slowly upwards on the opposite side of the river to the flocks of tourists visiting Gulfoss, and then swung east over the mountains.
That’s when the fun started.
The track was in a shocking state and clearly not at all well-travelled. We couldn’t help wonder if that was anything to do with the ‘large’ crossing over the Fossá river towards the end of the route. We found ourselves trying (and frequently failing) to cycle on loose rocks the size of tennis balls, the track generally meandering east and uphill over countless blind summits. Every uphill section meant Jim getting off to push, while my fatbike came into its own by just about managing to stay rideable. This at least made me happy, as it meant the smug German fatbike expert from a couple of days before was incorrect when he’d said I was on the wrong bike. The pace was glacial.
We crossed four or five small rivers, a couple requiring us to strip down to our underwear and grit our teeth as the freezing water rushed around our legs. Here the fatbike became a serious hindrance. It floats. Even with all of the baggage it floats. This meant that any water deeper than about 0.5m caused the bike to tip sideways and try to launch itself downstream. Crossing the rivers became an act of clinging to the handlebars and trying to stop the thing from washing away.
This continued for the next 5hrs. With crossings and loose uphills rapidly sapping our strength and our will. And all the while the nagging question of why we hadn’t seen another vehicle of any kind. Was is because of the Fossá crossing? Was it going to be too deep or fast? Fatigue and nerves were beginning to prey on us, when we encountered at least one of the reasons why there were no vehicles.
We rounded a corner to find a snow drift across the track. It was about 15m high, several hundred metres wide and completely blocking the way. On foot and pushing the bikes, it wasn’t too hard to get around, but only a lunatic would have tried to drive over or around it.
Eventually, and after yet more small river crossings and uphill sections, we came to a long loose downhill with the Fossá forming a ribbon of water glinting in the distance. Neither of us had much energy left at this point, and we were hoping against hope that we could cross. The thought of dragging our bikes back up the mountain was not one we were looking forward to.
With not many other options, we headed down to the river. As we approached it got wider and louder. When we finally stood on the bank, looking into the rushing torrent of fast flowing water, both of us were more than a little nervous; just a few hundred metres downstream the river ran through a series of small rapids before plunging 120m over the Haifoss waterfall.
With no choice but to either quit or go for it, Jim made the crossing first. The water rose to thigh height, and for a moment he looked at a loss, before finding a technique of using his bike as a prop and slowly hobbling across. I knew this wouldn’t work for me, Jim’s bike didn’t float. My crossing was more eventful; with no means of propping myself up, and the bike being dragged down river, I had to use it like a sea anchor to steady myself as I crossed. Jim came back over to help, but the bloody-minded part of me declined, determined to make it on my own. One slip and that was it, the bike and all of my gear was gone and I was stranded miles from anything resembling help, on a road no-one used. Fortunately there were no slips, and with adrenaline pumping we made it to the opposite shore unscathed. All that remained of the day was to take in the magnificence of Haifoss, then pedal another 5km downhill and downwind to set up camp.
Unfortunately the hut had been invaded by a team of Icelandic rednecks. When we arrived they were already completely drunk out of their minds and just setting up for an evening of getting even more drunk. The scene in front of us was this: Two guys with beers (for the duration of this anecdote just assume everyone is doing everything one handed because the other hand is already occupied with beer) were outside lighting a barbeque with petrol. One guy had set off the alarm in his truck and was trying to crawl through the boot to shut it off, only he’d forgotten the key and was a bit stuck due to only having one hand free. Two more guys were unloading crate after crate of beer from another truck, and there was the owner of the hut stood watching the whole thing and shouting a lot. Oh, and crotch-obsessed dog.
They were all very cheerful and friendly and wanted us to stay (especially the dog), but after 12hrs of hard riding, this did not seem like a place where we were going to get any rest. So with heavy hearts, and the slight sadness that comes from missing out on an epic party, we got back on our bikes and rode another 30km to a quiet campsite infested with midges. I think we lost the plot that evening. We didn’t need a campsite, we didn’t need to ride 30km more and we ended up heading in the wrong direction for Landmannalaugar. If I have any regrets from the trip, it’s that we should have crossed the Þjórsá at the hydro plant 3km south of the hick-hut and wild-camped close to the F225 to Landmannalaugar. But we were tired, strung out and fed up with the headwind.
In retrospect I’d hesitate to say that day was definitely the best part of the trip (mainly because of the poor choice at the end). But it was exactly the kind of experience I’d been looking for. It was hard, a bit scary and utterly unsupported. We felt like we’d found a little of the the wilderness we’d been looking for, faced the challenges it presented and arrived at the other side not found wanting. That’s not to compare what we did to climbing Everest or other equally impressive adventures; but it’s all about perspective. To us, this was what the spirit of the trip was about, and I doubt we’d have found it if we’d followed Plan A.
The following day we rode the 70km to Selfoss for provisions and to work out the best way to Landmannalaugar following our wrong turn the previous evening. This ended up being the bus. With only 70km covered on easy roads, day 6 turned out to be the rest day. We arrived at Landmannalaugar quite late; the bus driver having had a whale of a time getting through river crossings and snow to reach the camp site. But when the sun only sets for 2 hrs a day, and it doesn’t really get dark, arriving late isn’t an issue.
After pitching the tent we immediately stripped the bikes of gear and went for a ride up the valley, revelling in the lightness of the bikes beneath us. The valley floor was a huge gravel outwash plain bisected by hundreds of tiny streams. On all sides the rounded hills rose in a combination of orange, ochre, green and red; with steaming horned black volcanic extrusions thrusting through the mountainsides and disfiguring the landscape. At any moment I expected to hear a deep rumble and see lava (or Orcs) spewing from the mountaintops.
As we explored it became clear that the campsite sits at the head of a massive historic lava field which has blocked a valley almost completely. Only by walking over the lava field can you find a hidden verdant green plain surrounded by steep sided mountains capped by snow. As we sat and stared at this incredible, almost impossible sight, for the first time in a week the wind disappeared and we were confronted with near perfect stillness. The only moving thing was a waterfall cascading down the mountainside a few km in front of us, and the only sound was its faint muffled roar. It was utterly tranquil.
The following morning (day 7) was bright and clear, an experience dulled only by porridge ming. We decided to make our way along the Fjallabaksleið Nyrðri road (F208) towards Hólaskjól. This was a relatively short day of 45km, but we were beginning to suffer at this point and we knew that the route had quite a few river crossings and a couple of stiff climbs. The map showed five rivers, which in true Icelandic style turned out to be about 12. Fortunately the first and last (the largest) were bridged.
The F208 road winds its way through the northern foothills of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. The road is stunning, showcasing the volcanic and tectonic activity which has shaped the region, and the almighty glaciers which continue to carve their way through the landscape.
Unfortunately, after a number of tedious fords, impatience got the better of me after the fourth or fifth river crossing. Rather than stopping, prodding about, changing my shoes etc, I just started going at them full tilt on my bike. While this was certainly effective and no doubt spectacular, it did lead to incredibly cold and wet feet for the next 8hrs. To all future travellers in the region, I would advise taking a different course of action.
The final descent from the mountains led to the Eldgja River and the Hólaskjól campsite. This was vastly enlivened by racing a bunch of Brazilian guys on a supported motorbike tour down the mountain and across the fords. Here my gung-ho river crossing technique and Jim’s inability to locate his brake levers worked to our advantage, and we won. There was much grumbling from our petrol powered friends. Grumbling further enhanced when we skipped across a footbridge and sat on a small bench watching them one-by-one nearly drown crossing the last river, while we scored them out of ten for effort and aggression.
Another night of dining on noodles led to our final day (of porridge) and an attempt to hit the southernmost point (Kotulangi). This is located about 2km south of a massive lump of rock on the south coast called Hjörleifshöfði. The day was going to be a big one; with 35km of gravel road, followed by a 45km dash along the ring road (imaginatively entitled ‘1’) then 4km across a black sand beach. Followed by the reverse along the beach and a further 12km to Vik, whereupon we would collapse, burn our bikes and find some beer.
While uneventful, the day proved to be hard. We were flagging pretty badly by the time we got to the ring road, overall fatigue from the previous days was making itself known. After the solitude and silence of the wilderness, there are few sights more depressing than a strip of tarmac frequented by scores of tourist buses. This was compounded by a lump of rock (Hjörleifshöfði) which appeared to be moving away from us as fast we were moving forward. I’d sort of given up hope that the end of the trip would be anything but an overwhelming disappointment, until we left the ring road and started across the beach. Once again we were alone in a bleak and deserted world. Our tyres crunching along the beach as we aimed for a mirage of the sea shimmering above the bone dry black sand.
All beaches are special in one way or another, but Kotulangi really does feel like the very end of the world. Cut off from the road by sand impassable to anything but a big 4×4 or bikes (too far to walk for all but the most inquisitive) and stretching seemingly endlessly in all directions, it was a fitting place to end our adventure.
We sat on the warm dark beach, watching the sun on the waves, listening to the sea and drinking the last of our coffee.
Eventually we roused ourselves and made our bedraggled way to Vik. We’d covered about 650km in 8 days, taken routes we’d never heard of, and had an epic adventure… Not quite as planned, but then there’s something to be said for leaving your plans behind in a place like Iceland.