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.

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