Saturday, 28 June 2014

Saeberg, Iceland - Midnight-ish sun

Having advertised this blog as a cycle to the midnight sun I thought it was about time for a midnight sun photo. Trouble is that Bart and I missed midnight sun in Norway as we were never in the right place at the right time, and Iceland doesn't actually get midnight sun as it's not within the Arctic Circle (except for part of a small northerly island). So here's a photo of the sun just after midnight a couple of nights ago from a wild camp spot on Iceland's north coast!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Akureyri, Iceland - Fire and water

Iceland may be known to you and me as the land of fire and ice but I've found in my first week of cycling here that the dominant element is water.

Rain fell in deluges in the first few days as I cycled across lceland's highlands, an empty and barren desert plateau of old volcanoes and lava rocks. There was nothing out here to interrupt the nothingness except the spectacular waterfalls of Dettifoss, a deafening wall of water that over the millenia has cut a huge, gaping canyon in the landscape. The sheer cliffs gave me vertigo. The cycling was hard with long, boring sections and nothing to see in the rain. Over time, the rain forced a way through my waterproofs like Dettifoss forced a way through the rock, and I was wet and cold.

It was lucky then that fire followed the water as I crossed by Krafla, one of Iceland's recently active volcanoes and cycled over the Namafjall Ridge, a violent geothermal area that belches out steam and boiling mud and sulphurous gases. Iceland sits right on the Mid Atlantic Rift and temperatures below ground here reach 200 degrees. All this hot action is tearing Iceland apart by 2cm every year.

Beyond here water takes over again in the form of the tranquil waters of Lake Myva, a large shallow lake formed by a lava eruption thousands of years ago.

One of the first things I've noticed about Iceland is the abundance of birds in the countryside wherever there's water. Waders wade around in the wet areas beside my road or fly along ahead of me, skeins of noisy geese pass overhead and the familiar whooper swans that spend their winters in Scotland mingle with sheep in the greener places that form their summer breeding grounds. But Myva is the jewel in the crown of Iceland's birdlife where they all gather for rich feeding in a place whose surrounding volcanoes and lava fields lend a primeval, other-worldly feel. Man has made a temporary impact here with small hamlets around the lake and a few roads but when you stand on a high point and take it all in, you have the feeling that the forces of nature are very much in control. Myva is a beautiful place with an elemental atmosphere.

l cycled away from Myva under a hot sun and over a high mountain road where gravel took over from asphalt and lupins formed a carpet of purple that stretched to snow-streaked mountains. On the other side the road descended into a different landscape of green fields and farms as I dropped down to Iceland's verdant north coast. I cycled on to Husavik, the old whaling town. It's a lively, colourful place set around the busy little harbour with the old church watching over everything.

These days the only whaling that's done out of Husavik is whale watching and I joined a group to take to the water on an old oak boat with the unfortunate name of Fanney. The boat may have been unlucky in its name but it was very lucky in finding whales and I had some unforgettable close encounters with humpback whales on an evening when the water seemed full of them. A couple of times they breached so close to the boat that you could see the details of their fluke patterns while the spray from their blowholes drifted over the deck.

Further along the coast from the whales is this pleasant town, Akureyri, which sounds to me like it belongs in New Zealand. It's a sporty wee place with an outdoors vibe set amongst snow-covered mountains at the head of the long fjord, Eyjafjordur. From here I'm cycling further west to an area appropriately named the Westfjords where the land is cut into long fingers that wiggle north and west by that dominating element, water.

Fact File
Daylight - 24 hours
Distance - 7043kms/4376 miles
Days - 87
Route  - have so far followed highway 1, the Iceland ring road, which is not actually very busy and have taken detours on back roads with some gravel sections to Dettifoss and Husavik. Mostly using campsites at the moment as they are plentiful and cheap, and it's tricky to wild camp in this area. Technically only a tiny part of Iceland, Grimsey Island, is within the Arctic Circle and experiences midnight sun but in reality here at the moment there is all-day light.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Egilsstadir, Iceland - The shipping news

After two days and two nights at sea, I've made land in Iceland. My Faroese boat, the Norrona, left Denmark on a sunny morning of Mediterranean blues and slipped into the grey waters of the North Sea.

There was a strange assortment of passengers heading for Iceland. The silver-haired campervan set were joined by a cavalcade of noisy, smelly motorbikes. No doubt they felt they were heading to adventure in a wild, elemental land but the truth is all they have to do is put petrol in their tank and go. Not like the cyclists on-board who have to overcome the weather, bad roads, steep climbs and energy lows. Those cyclists included a Dutch man biking round a country his wife had longed to see but died too young, and a serious, quiet German who had the most amount of equipment I've ever seen anybody carry on a bicycle. And me. A middle-aged Scottish woman looking for adventure and gluten-free cakes, and hoping to find out something about Iceland and life and herself.

On the first morning, as the ship ploughed the waves of the North Atlantic, I dragged myself out of bed early as Norrona scraped passed a cluster of low-lying, rocky-edged islands. Gannets wheeled overhead and patrolled at deck-level beside the ship, as if seeing an intruder off their territory. This was my first ever sight of the Shetland Islands, the most northerly outlier of my own country.

Later that day, excitement built on the ship and a crowd of people wrapped up in warm clothes and colourful waterproofs braved the weather on deck to watch the ship dock in the Faroe Islands. It quickly exchanged passengers and sailed on through dramatic storm-bound peaks and plunging cliffs. Wherever the slopes and clouds relented there was a scatter of colourful houses surrounded by fields of emerald green. Some of these Faroese villages are incredibly isolated communities on a chain of islands that's already unimaginably remote.

After a night of rough seas, Norrona docked on the second morning at Seydisfjordur and I cycled off ready for adventure. I was immediately hit by a cold blustery wind, steep hills gushing with waterfalls and a very long climb into the snows. Welcome to cycling in Iceland!

Fact File
Daylight - 23.5 hours
Distance - 4143 miles, 6667kms
Days - 83
Route - the ferry Norrona sails from Denmark on Tuesdays and Saturdays in summer, stops at Torshavn on the Faroe Islands and takes 48 hours. It passes really close to Shetland where it used to also make a stop.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Hirtshals, Denmark - Flat peaches and other fruits of summer

There are two things that conjure up summer for me. One is the screech of swifts in a blue sky whether it's above the rooftops of home in Scotland or here above the green fields of Denmark. The other thing is the appearance on the pavement fruit stalls of flat peaches, or "doughnut" peaches, as some people call them. And although they don't taste much like doughnuts to me, I've been scoffing them by the half dozen as I've pedalled round the north of Denmark.

In the heat and sunshine of summer it's been quite idyllic meandering along the back roads, bike paths and dirt trails that criss-cross Denmark's rolling, green farmland. Although the landscape is mostly agricultural, space has been set aside for nature in the coastal scrub that the bike paths cut through and in the small woods that engulf my road with cool shade and the perfumed aroma of pine trees. Even the verges are awash with wildflowers, especially cornflowers whose blue petals mirror the deep blues of the sky and sea.

Summer is in full swing and the bike paths, beaches and campsites are busy. At least when I'm staying in a campsite, watching the goings-on passes the evenings now that I can't amuse myself by checking Bart for ticks. Most people in the campgrounds are not minimalist tenters like me but have arrived with caravans and mobile homes. Despite this, they take over the campground kitchens and toilets which makes me wonder why they bothered to bring a house with them on holiday. One way to avoid all this is to camp at one of Denmark's many free campsites. These are small clearings in the woods or field margins only accessible by foot or bicycle with a simple shelter and a hole-in-the-ground toilet. They're called nature campsites rather than naturist so you're allowed to keep your clothes on.

Apart from the fantastic bike routes, the other highlight of my mini bike tour in Denmark has been the old fishing village of Skagen, located on the northernmost spit of Denmark where Baltic and North Sea waters meet in a maelstrom of choppy waves. It's a picturesque little town of small streets with pastel painted shops and pavement cafes but alongside this it's Denmark's biggest fishing port so there was an air of bustle around the harbour and an aroma of rotten fish. In the neighbouring marina, expensive yachts were moored and as I mingled with the rich and well-dressed, I was aware of a different aroma from my rotten trainers.

All the sun, sea and sand is very pleasant, but this blog is advertised as a northern cycle to the midnight sun. And so it's time to leave behind summer, the flat fields of Denmark and its flat peaches, and return to the cold north.

Keep watching for the next leg of my journey as I board a boat to sail back to the polar regions and cycle around the land of fire and ice!

All the photos from the trip on Flickr - click on the link right.

Fact File
Daylight - 19 hours
Distance - 4127 miles/6642kms
Days - 80
Route - Denmark is covered with excellent, signed bicycle routes, many completely off the road and traffic free. Even when you are cycling beside a moderately busy road there will be a separate bike path. Most are tarmac but many are also unsurfaced. I cycled south from Hirtshals on a mix of bike route and back road and then east to the Baltic coast. Here I cycled north up the coast on national bike route 5 and then back to Hirtshals on the north coast on route 1. They both pass through pleasant villages, coastal scrub, nice beaches and lots of woods. The meeting of the seas is at Grenen at the tip of Denmark and thw top of bike route 1. With bike routes, free camping and sunny weather, Denmark sounds like cycle heaven but there is one drawback - the constant wind that howls in from the sea!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Hirtshals, Denmark - Blood, sweat and gears

It's been hot. It's been sweaty and southern Norway has thrown up some very stiff climbs. But we've completed our bicycle journey through this beautiful and diverse country from the North Cape at the top of its polar regions to Larvik, where it dips its foot in the North Sea.

We left the west coast soon after Sjoasen and cycled south down the central spine of Norway's mountains. It's been mostly sunny as we've pedalled through landscapes of forested hills dotted with patches of green pastures and small farms that form charming clusters of red-painted outbuildings or the older style farms with grass roofs and raised barns. Norway is one of the least populated countries in Europe but it seems that each of its 5 million inhabitants has a holiday cabin in the hills as they often cover the slopes and encircle the lakes, making it difficult for us to find a wild camp spot.

The sun was briefly absent as we made our highest climb of the trip over Valdresflyi at 1393m in the Jotunheim National Park which contains most of Norway's biggest mountains. Here the landscape was still gripped in the old snow of winter and cross-country skiers glided along beside the road in heavy rain. We stayed that night in a campground and overheard a Dutch tourist phoning home to tell the folks that the toilets were amazing. It's strange the different things that make an impression on people. I'd be more likely to mention the park's snow-covered peaks and sapphire lakes that we enjoyed on a short walk in the park during an afternoon of sunshine. As we've cycled south summer has arrived and the temperature has crept up, causing us to sweat under a hot sun as we've made long, winding climbs on small back roads that finally brought us to a ferry to Denmark.

It's a sad moment as it's here that our routes separate as Bart cycles back to Belgium to catch up with work and family commitments. It's been a wonderful journey cycling with Bart and a bit of challenge keeping up with him. l'Il really miss his company, his crazy antics on the bike, bad singing and his strange use of microwaves for drying socks!

And what of the blood in the title of this blog? Well, it's not a crash as you might imagine but the annoying insects of summer - mosquitoes, midges, horseflies and numerous ticks that I've removed from various parts of Bart - that have drawn from us their fair share of blood.

 Fact File
Daylight - 19 hours
Distance - 4039 miles/6500 kms
Days - 74
Route - south via Trondheim area, picking up quiet back roads roughly in line with Highway E6 which is busier in southern Norway. Then route 51 to Gol and a short section on Highway 7 before using small back roads to Larvik from where there are two ferries per day to Denmark.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Sjoasen, Norway - Who pays the ferryman

If I told you that in the last week Bart and I have been cruising the Norwegian fjords, you might think that we've swapped adventure cycling for a more middle-aged activity. However the truth is that the road we have cycled down Norway's west coast, route 17, is not a continuous line but a series of road sections joined together by boat!

The journey by bicycle has been paradise, especially as we've enjoyed a week of beautiful sunshine. The quiet coast road has meandered below snow-capped mountains and wound its way around bays of white sand and see-through aquamarine water, liberally dotted with cute fishing cabins painted in that traditional Norwegian red. Every now and then, the road has turned inland a little and passed through the green pastures of small farms and verdant woods in the flush of early summer. We regularly stop pedalling and gaze in wonder at the landscape. It's just so difficult to believe the beauty and charm of it. Of course, roads that follow coastlines are never flat so there have been a few up and downs, and many tunnels to cycle.

The road is connected together by dozens of ferries, some just a short hop and others taking more than an hour. The ferries pick a route through the fjords and offshore islands, often starting and ending at some charming little village where the coming and going of boats adds an air of business to an otherwise quiet backwater. On one ferry connection, our boat glided by a long arm of the Svartisen glacier that almost reaches the sea and on another we watched orcas from the deck, even making out their detailed forms under the clear water.

Norway is a beautiful country but there is a downside and that's the cost of living. The grocery bill is a small fortune and we are very hungry cyclists! There is one way that you can reduce your grocery bill and that's by returning used drinks cans for money back. Now I don't want you to think that we've been raking bins for empty cans but one morning, while waiting for a ferry, Bart found a large pile of cans on top of a bin. We collected them together and took them to the nearby store to get the money back.

At least that way, we have money to pay the ferryman.

Photos on flickr.

Fact File
Daylight - 22 hours
Distance - 3486 miles
Days - 64
Route- from the Lofoten Islands we took a ferry back to the mainland at Bodo and have followed route 17 south. It's a spectacular journey by bicycle and I would say go out right now and do it. The ferries are super fun and reasonably priced at £3-5 each time. We have mostly camped wild which is quite easy but it's also possible to find some cheap campsites away from the popular towns for 100Kr, about £10. The traffic is mostly quiet and when it comes, it tends to do so in short waves between ferries. In fact in one section we seemed to have the road to ourselves and even camped at a picnic spot beside the road it was so quiet - thats the last photo above.