Sunday, 27 July 2014

Monifieth, Scotland - A cycle to the simmer dim

On the first morning of my two-day ferry journey to Iceland, the boat slipped by a cluster of mist-shrouded, wind-blasted, low-lying islands, way out on their own in the bleak waters of the North Sea. They were the Shetland Islands, the most northerly outpost of Scotland. So if you've not already guessed, the final leg of my northern exposure is a cycle to Shetland. I'm looking forward to experiencing Scotland's northern summer light, the simmer dim. Given that it's a continuation of a cycle journey in other countries, it's going to be interesting to make direct comparisons with home. How good are the bike paths? How good are the drivers? Is it easier to camp wild here? Where will I find wifi and gluten-free cakes?

My cycle to the simmer dim, started with riding across Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh. As a touring cyclist, it's often a bit of a challenge getting across a big city but in the cities I'd crossed during this trip such as Amsterdam, Helsinki and Reykjavik, there was excellent provision of bike paths to make it fairly fuss-free. So I was really pleased to discover the same in Edinburgh as I crossed the city on a network of traffic-free bike paths and quiet roads that delivered me to the iconic Forth Rail Bridge via Edinburgh's river, the Water of Leith, and the wooded byways of Dalmeny Estate, a substantial country pile overlooking the Firth of Forth.

l stayed on the national cycle network as I biked across the agricultural landscapes of Fife. Fife is where I did most of my growing up but I was really trying to experience my journey as if I was one of the several loaded-up cycle tourists I passed on the route who were seeing the place for the first time. And so I would say that I had a gorgeous journey across Fife. The sun beat down from a blue sky as I pedalled along the coast, passing beaches, small harbours and pleasant little seaside villages bustling with activity at the height of summer holidays.

At Kirkcaldy my route turned inland and found some beautiful little back roads that made steep climbs over rolling hills to give me views across a patchwork of fields ripe with wheat and bursting with potatoes. I cycled through pleasant farming villages with colourful wildflower meadows and busy little grocery stores whose counters were offering locally-grown blueberries and raspberries. And in north-east Fife the national bike route passed through Tentsmuir, a large coastal forest criss-crossed by trails and bounded by long sand beaches. In the 18th century there was moorland here and when the Danish fleet was shipwrecked offshore, they set up homes in tents on the moor, giving rise to the name, Tentsmuir. As I pedalled through the forest, I was engulfed by the aroma of hot pines that made me imagine I was cycling somewhere more exotic.

The joy didn't end there as a traffic-free bike path took me across the Tay Bridge and continued alongside the waters of the River Tay before they morph into sea. At moments I cycled right beside the sea as my route headed east along the promenade to Broughty Ferry, home of my maternal ancestors and home of me until the age of seven. Cool, clear sea water lapped against the sea walls as a haar blew in on an easterly breeze, swirling atmospherically around Broughty Castle and the sailing boats on the water. I was grateful for the drop in temperature on a day when newspaper headlines read "Scotland hotter than Sicily".

All-in-all the cycle journey across Fife gave me a real "feel good" factor and, although there were no dramatic, wild landscapes, the ride was as enjoyable as that in the other countries I cycled through. Undoubtedly that impression was aided by the fabulous weather. In the first few days I've not been able to compare camping or availability of wifi as I've stopped at my dad's house in Kirkcaldy and my mum's house in Monifeith, both conveniently located on the national cycle network! But at a cute little cafe in Broughty Ferry, I have already found gluten-free cakes!

Fact File
Daylight - 18 hours, 27 minutes
Distance - 5146 miles, 8282kms
Days - 118
Route - crossed Edinburgh from Portobello to Dalmeny on city route 10, then the Water of Leith cycle route taking the Granton spur to Cramond. Cycled on the esplanade then to Dalmeny on the John Muir Way cycle route. Took National Cycle Network route 76 to Kirkcaldy, a lovely route that in places uses the Fife Coastal Path. Took route 1/766 via Leuchars to Monifieth. There are bike paths on both Forth and Tay bridges. All these routes are mostly well signposted.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Reykjavik, Iceland - Ice

Did you know that you can tell a whale's age by counting the layers in its waxy earplugs? I picked up that little snippet in a wee museum in the charming old fishing town of Eyrarbakki on Iceland's south coast. And did you know that the more blue a glacier is, the greater its density. I got that snippet from the internet. I was reading about Iceland's glaciers. I've seen the results of its fire, so I couldn't leave without seeking out its ice.

l cycled away from Geysir on the old Kjolur road, a gravel route that crosses the wild, empty interior of Iceland to provide a link in the summer months between the north and the south. It passes between two of Iceland's larger glaciers and I hoped I would get a view if the bad weather cleared.

It wasn't looking really promising as I stopped in pouring rain at one of Iceland's most spectacular sights, the waterfalls of Gullfoss. It's one of many places in Iceland that stop you in your tracks and make you say out loud "wow" even although there's nobody around to hear. Gullfoss translates as "golden falls" and there are numerous stories about how they got that name. My favourite one is that a local farmer had accumulated lots of gold in his lifetime but didn't want anybody to get it after he died. So he put the gold in a casket and tossed it into the waterfalls where it would remain hidden for eternity. As I stood above the falls, a tiny chink of gold appeared in the form of a few faint rays of sun so I jumped on the bike and cycled on.

A few miles beyond Gullfoss, the road climbed up into a barren, rocky landscape blasted by cold winds. The only life was an arctic fox in his summer coat of creamy browns bounding through the banks of purple lupins. The wind eventually cleared the remaining low clouds over the mountains and finally I had a distant view of the ice as long arms of the Langjokull Glacier wrapped themselves around the dark, flat-topped peak of Hagafell. It's peculiar how glaciers instill in us such a sense of excitement and wonder, and I'm always strangely moved to see them. Perhaps they symbolise the raw power of nature but also its fragility as they slowly succumb to climate change.

Just as I had hopes of cycling closer, the next weather front moved in. It sent down ice in the less appealing form of hail which did also move me ... back to a shelter I'd cycled passed earlier. It was a grotty, old Anderson hut, amusingly called on maps, Hotel Sandbudir. I sparked the stove into life and sat out the weather, drinking a cup of hot coffee and reading the graffiti. Lots of other cyclists had passed this way and left their comments, mostly about the winds. When conditions eased a little, I opened the door and peered out. The clouds had lowered again and my view of the glacier had gone.

Satisfied with my brief encounter with the ice, I turned my back on the mountains and cycled south to Eyrarbakki. Today the old church and the colourful traditional fisher homes were picture postcard stuff in a moment of rare sunshine but the old black and white photos on display inevitably painted a different picture of a grim, hard life. On my way to Eyrarbakki I passed the 5000 miles marker for the trip. Just at that point, a sudden group of people under golf umbrellas appeared in a random field and gave me a round of applause as I cycled passed. It was very surreal as I tried to figure out how they could possibly know. But a few hundred metres further on, I was passed by groups of cyclists with numbered vests riding in a local bike race and that explained the bicycle-friendly, clapping crowd.

I think I've mentioned before that I'm not very organised about researching my travels and often end up in spectacular places by pure chance. It happened again as I was cycling towards Reykjavik. I just picked from the map a quiet-looking gravel road to give me a nice, easy ride into the city. Of course, I ended up cycling through one of the most beautiful spots in Iceland. A contorted, jagged ridge of black rock rose above the road which wound its way along the shores of a dark, misty lake with black volcanic sand beaches. Reds and oranges were splashed across one area of the ridge, indicating the presence of some hot geothermal action. These hotspots abound in Iceland but this one had a boardwalk built across it so you could walk right through the steamy, sulphurous, boiling, bubbling cauldron of mud and minerals.

It was fantastic and the road was a lovely, quiet approach to the world's most northerly capital city. It's funny how you have an idea of a place in your head when the reality is very different. I had somehow pictured Reykjavik as a few brightly-painted tin buildings around a harbour. Of course, it's not like that but is a big, modern city with modest skyscrapers, dual carriageways and shopping malls which have swamped what charm the old town may have had. I wandered the streets on a freezing, grey day. In July in Iceland people are wearing duvet jackets and woolly hats. The city does have parks, bike paths, a big waterfront, views to the surrounding mountains and yes, there are some colourful tin buildings.

I came to Reykjavik to see the capital and to catch a flight. I'll be leaving Iceland tomorrow but it's not the end of my northern exposure so keep reading to follow me on the final leg of the journey. I'll be cycling through a land with rugged mountains and green valleys, with beaches of white sand and islands that float in an aquamarine sea. It's a country that's also been shaped by ice.

Fact File
Daylight - 21 hours, 37 minutes
Distance -  5073 miles, 8164km
Days -  110
Route - from Geysir continued up route 35 passed Gullfoss as far as the Sanda River and from here got the view of the glacier and surrounding landscapes. Then followed the 35 south to Selfoss. It was very busy further down but the coast road to Eyrarbakki and then west was beautiful and very quiet. I took route 42 into Hafnarfjodur  which makes a gentle climb through the spectacular valley at Krysuvik and is a great approach to the city. The middle section is gravel road, steep in places. I cycled across the city using the Maps with Me app on my tablet and the city has lots of bike paths. I'm staying in the city at the campsite which is a few kms from the centre. It's huge and busy but somehow manages to be quite peaceful. The back entrance exits into the botanical gardens which is rather nice.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Geysir, Iceland - Niceland

The boat ploughed its way across rough seas under a sky the colour of bruises as if another storm was brewing. It picked a way through rocky skerries and tiny islets accompanied by seabirds that hung around at eye-level with any passengers who braved the outer decks in the bitter cold. After an hour there appeared on the horizon a small, green flat island with a single row of brightly-painted houses.

The boat was the ferry Baldur that crosses Breidafjordur, linking the West Fjords and the Snaefellsness Peninsula. The island was Flatey, once the cultural centre of old Iceland when the coastal communities around Breidafjordur were the wealthiest in the country, courtesy of the sea's rich, natural bounty. Today Flatey is a small community of five permanent residents and lots of puffins. It's also the best preserved traditional village in Iceland. I was happy to fill a few hours here wandering the single dirt track that is the village street and watching the puffins while I waited for the last remnants of the storm to clear.

When the Baldur made its second pass of the day, I jumped back on and continued to the Snaefellsness Peninsula which is described in visitor literature as "Iceland in a nutshell". It has coastal fishing villages, lava fields, dramatic peaks, sweeping beaches and a glacier. What more can you ask for! It also had some super cycling as I whizzed east along its south side on a flat, quiet road with a gentle tailwind.

Given that cycling in Iceland has been quite challenging, I thought it was time for a few nice treats so I was whizzing towards Iceland's southwest corner which promised just that.

The first of these treats was Pingvellir National Park, probably the most significant place of Iceland's past and its future. It was here that the Vikings formed the world's first ever democratic parliament in AD930. And it's here that the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are separating, slowly pulling Iceland apart by 2cm every year. In Pingvellir this action has created a dramatic rift valley that cuts through the landscape. I pitched the tent, parked the bicycle and went for a walk along the northern part of the rift valley. Unlike the more southerly part in the park which has been developped for visitors, this section is raw nature and on a quiet, drizzly, clagged-in afternoon it had an eerie beauty.

At the heart of Pingvellir is Iceland's biggest lake, Pingvallavatn. I cycled on through the park in the early morning on a quiet back road that climbed high above its grey waters. Lush, green forests of dwarf birch trees stretched to the horizon and on the empty road in mist and rain the whole place had a primeval atmosphere.

Beyond Pingvellir was my second nice treat, the Geysir geothermal hotspot. The oldest geysir here, called Geysir, claims to be the one after which all other geysirs are named. It doesn't erupt anymore but sits quietly smouldering in a landscape of rolling green hills. It's lucky then that its near neighbour, Strokkur, erupts spectacularly every ten minutes or so, sending boiling water 20 metres into the air. It's surrounded by lots of mini geysirs and boiling, bubbling, steaming pools of water so that walking through the area is like being in a giant, outdoor sauna. The campsite I'm staying in is so close to the hotspot that I can hear the rumblings and explosions during the night. It's amazing then that you have to pay extra for a hot shower that's only luke warm.

Ahead are my last few days of cycling here. It's currently wet and windy, but hopefully the weather will turn nice in Iceland.

All the photos on flickr - click on the link.

Fact File
Daylight- 22 hours, 11 minutes
Distance- 7975km, 4955 miles
Days- 102
Route - ferry Baldur runs twice per day between the north shore of Breidafjordur at Bjarnslaekur and Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, calling at Flatey. I cycled west along the north coast of the peninsula through small fishing villages then back east along the south shore and then down to Borgarnes. Cycled a short section of highway 1 which I did early morning as traffic in this part of Iceland is now quite heavy. Then took a gorgeous quiet road around Hvalfjordur which cyclists must take to avoid an undersea tunnel. Took dirt road 48 through a beautiful valley and mountain pass then picked up the road to Pingvellir which was extremely unpleasant being very busy and very windy. There are lots of tourist buses from Reykjavik in this area and they don't give cyclists any space on the narrow roads. When I have to cycle a section of these busy roads now, I always try to have it done by early morning before the tourist traffic builds.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Flokalundur, Iceland - Dirty girl

Ha-ha! I thought the title of this blog would catch your attention. Of course, it's not what you think. Truth is that I've been getting dirty riding some of Iceland's dirt roads out in its western fjords.

Since the last blog in Akureyri my road initially looped north to the top of Iceland passing through small, sleepy fishing villages with pleasant old buildings hunkered down around the harbour overlooked by cute, photogenic little churches. It's a sign of Iceland's seafaring tradition and uninhabitable interior that the towns and villages are mostly on the coast and were once only connected by boat. These days new roads and tunnels make the connections and I found myself cycling through a 7km tunnel then a 300m gap to gulp some fresh air before cycling a 4km tunnel. I did wonder as I was pedalling through if it's possible to get carbon monoxide poisoning in there. At the top, the land had an empty, edge-of-the-world atmosphere - there's nothing beyond here except the North Pole itself.

As I continued cycling west, I returned to lush farmland. Iceland is incredibly green along its coastal fringes which makes me wonder why we call it Iceland and not Greenland because Greenland, by all accounts, is covered by ice. Iceland is most definitely covered by birds and I'm constantly amazed by their numbers. Mind you, as the road often crosses nesting territories, I'm constantly being harassed by angry terns who attack from above and come screeching so close to me that I can see down their red gape. They have allies in the noisy black-tailed godwits who attack on my flanks. More composed are the elegant, long-billed whimbrels who make a half-hearted attempt at seeing me off and the fulmars who sit quietly on their eggs on the rocky outcrops above, looking disdainfully down on everything. Then there are always flotillas of eider ducks gently cooing offshore, golden plovers sending out their thin squeak from the moorland, snipe frantically flapping above and at some point in the evening a group of whooper swans will inevitably fly over my camp spot, bank majestically with some dramatic piece of Iceland scenery as backdrop and disappear over the horizon.

As for my own nesting habits, I've now been using a mix of official campsites and wild camping which is easier in this emptier part of the country. Campsites are cheap but crowded and noisy. People don't seem to understand personal space here, pitching their tent within inches of yours, and they shout a lot which I put down to having to be heard above the wind.

I've also been using a mix of road surfaces. Iceland is famous amongst adventurous cyclists for its challenging gravel routes that criss-cross the country but on my light road bike I've been trying to mostly use asphalt roads. However exploring the western fjords requires cycling some sections of dirt road. Most have been a good standard and I've only been caught out a couple of times by steep descents on loose, slippery gravel. The roads in this part of the country twist and turn along the coast, travelling a long way up one side of a fjord and then returning back down the other side. Its a bit frustrating when you end up cycling 20km but only advance 4km as the tern flies.

I've also been caught out by the lack of grocery stores in this part of the country after days of bad weather slowed my pace. So I had to do something which is rare for the budget traveller and eat in a restaurant. Yes, I know ... life on the road can be hard! At least it was a chance to try some traditional Icelandic cuisine. I declined the roasted puffin and fermented shark, going instead for the safer option of lamb.

The other thing that's caught me out is Iceland's biggest storm of the season. I had checked the weather forecast and saw the wind speed predicted at 15 to 17 which I assumed was kilometres per hour and that's not a lot of wind. But I realised later that in Iceland wind speed is quoted in metres per second and 15 to 17 m/s is an awful lot of wind. It was a grim couple of days of cycling. There had already been four days in a row of heavy rain and storm force winds were now added. I managed to cycle a couple of passes on gravel roads but by the time I reached the third and highest pass, I couldn't even stand up in the wind, never mind cycle. I was desperate to get out of the storm but the road travelled a landscape that was treeless, exposed, desolate and pretty empty. There was no chance of getting the tent up in the full blast of the wind.

Just as my bottom lip was starting to quiver,  I came across a summer cabin beside the road with a small shelter belt of trees. It looked like it hadn't been used in ages so I squeezed through the bars of the padlocked gate and, for the second time on this trip, pitched the tent in somebody's driveway. I know that's tresspassing on private property but I'm sure that anybody who saw the conditions that day would understand. I slept well which was lucky because the winds were even worse the next day. It took me 10 hours of mostly pushing to cover 50km and I was genuinely terrified at points when gusts severe enough to actually lift the bike off the road caught me as the route edged along a cliff or crossed an exposed causeway.

The empty road I was cycling is the one that runs along the north of Breidafjordur, the big bite out of Iceland's west side. Breidafjordur is a huge, shallow bay dotted with islands and skerries which is rich in wildlife and history. Its landscapes of flat-topped grassy ridges, rock formations, mist and rain reminded me of the Trotternish peninsula on Skye. Once I get a break in the weather, I'm hoping to cross Breidafjordur by ferry to get to the area on its south side that is the sticky-out tongue in the big bite, the Snaefellsness Peninsula. There I should be mostly back to asphalt roads which is a relief as these last days of heavy rain have turned the gravel roads to mud and I am genuinely ... dirty!

Fact file
Daylight - 24 hours
Distance - 4738 miles, 7625km
Days - 95
Route - from Akureyri took route 82 north along the coast, a lovely route through nice villages. Its all asphalt and the big tunnels now connect Olafsfjordur and Siglufjordur, the latter is a charming wee place, even in rain. Continued to Blonduos via Saudakrokur and then back to route 1 until its junction with route 61, a gorgeous coastline up to Holmavik, some unpaved sections. Route 61 over the hills to join route 60 west along the north of Breidafjordur.  The road has some unpaved sections which were steep in places.