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2013 Iceland

Road to Askja

In the summer of 2013 Rudi and cycle in Iceland for the third time. This time our route follows the F210/208 (Fjallabaksvegur) to Skaelingar and Landmannalaugar, the F910 to Askja and Snaefell and the F206/207 to Lakagigar. From Egilsstadir to Reykjavík we take the bus. In three weeks’ time we cover some 1,000 kilometers.

Day 1: Airplane to Iceland & Kevlavík > Hafnarfjördur (43 km)

We go to Iceland again: the land of rain, wind, volcanoes, lava, moss, and numerous stones. For cyclists who like unpaved roads and variety in nature, Iceland is the place to be. From the airport, we first go to Alex in Kevlavík to drop our bag with the bike covers and bike protection stuff and make a reservation for the last night. At the reception it turns out they have closed down the campsite (where we pitched our tent in 2007 and 2011), so we book a cabin instead.

The boring trip on the [41] is going surprisingly well. The weather is fine for cycling: 20 °C and there is hardly any wind. Only the bikes themselves are not exactly in shape: my wide rear tire is a bit egg-shaped and Rudi has stretched the leather of his Brooks saddle so often that the adjustment screw has come loose. We pitch our tent at the fine camping site of Hafnarfjordür. We order a Giant Bucket from the KFC, which in fact they only fill half with chicken snacks – what a bunch of crooks!

Day 2: Hafnarfjördur > Hella (102 km)

Today’s first priority is to find a saddle for Rudi. According to the internet just a few sports shops in Reykjavík are open on Sundays, and only at 1 pm. Luckily, at a mall we find a shop selling suitable saddles. By then we have already done a lot of shopping: enough for almost two weeks in the inlands where there are no supermarkets. With our extra Ortieb dry bags we can pack everything quite easily.

The [1] to the east is as always super boring. It’s busy and people drive fast, although they keep a good distance. And it’s starting to rain as well. So why are we cycling here again? Anyway, we are happy when we arrive in Hella at 9 pm. At the big campsite, we meet Miha, a Slovenian cyclist who enthusiastically lists all kinds of technology brands from his country and expects us to know them (not).

Day 3: Hella > Launfitjarsandur (66 km)

From Hella we take the [264] for a few kilometers before we arrive at the unpaved [F210]. We soon ride through lava fields of the Skógshraun plain, and gradually climb to the small but striking volcanic cone Hafrafell. After that, the landscape suddenly becomes a lot more varied.

It gets even more beautiful near the Laufafell, a valley with beautiful green moss-covered hills on both sides. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of the impressive Tindfjallajökull. The whole time we keep the river Eystri-Ranga on our right side. By now, the road has become easier, and sometimes we even cycle faster than 20 kilometers per hour.

Next to the Laufafell (1,164 m) there’s a watershed: on our left is Reykjadalir, which is said to be uniquely situated, but we turn right. A beautiful valley immediately reveals itself: really one of the most remarkable places in Iceland! We cross a meandering brook several times easily before we descend to the wide valley of Launfit. Unfortunately, the current of the river Markarfljót is too strong. Tomorrow morning we will try to wade through it.

Day 4: Launfitjarsandur > Skaftárdalur (80 km)

The Markarfljót is not yet at full power in the morning, so we can safely wade to the other side. However, the panniers have to be carried in several stages. On our bikes again, we climb to the next valley. There we have beautiful views of a fairy-tale landscape: especially towards Faxi and Totfatindar in the southwest. Somewhere behind the snowy peaks in the northeast must be Landmannalaugar. The whole area up to Hvangill is beautiful!

After the footbridge over a river, we arrive at the connection with the [F261]. The mountain named Stórasúla looks tough. Just like two years ago, we continue the [F210] over the Maelfellsandur plain. A man with a cute dog in a basket is cycling towards us at high speed over the jeep track – I am too amazed to take a picture. With a light backwind, cycling through the lava sand goes remarkably easy.

Meanwhile this little baby cloud behind us has grown into a gigantic thundercloud that slowly swallows us up. Just before the striking green Maelifell volcano (~800 m), which rises majestically above the dark lava sand, the rain suddenly starts pouring down on us and the temperature drops by no less than ten degrees. After the Maelifell we go left to a plain covered with lava sand and many small streams. A herd of horses with some riders approaches us with great speed. What a cool sight! The downside is that the horse hooves mess up the jeep track that we have to cycle.

A bit further on, the Hólmsá turns out to be difficult to overcome. The current is moderate, but the river is quite deep today – probably because of the combination of high temperature, rain and time of the day. Near our destination Skaftádalur I ride fast on a trench in the road, with a puncture as a result. This is my first flat tire ever during a cycling holiday. We camp on the banks of the Skaftá, one of Iceland’s largest rivers, with mighty rapids lying right in front of us.

Day 5: Skaftárdalur > Skaelingar (39 km)

The more than twenty kilometers on the [F208] we ride on a good road surface with few loose boulders and no river crossings. Occasionally there is a steep climb up to 18%. Unfortunately, my lower back hurts so I take it easy. This first part of the road to Landmannalaugar is quite boring, although we are glad to see something at all, contrary to two years ago. The surroundings become beautiful from the exit to the [F223], where we will be cycling a loop to the northeast.

After that exit, there is a double river crossing and next the road climbs steeply all the way up to the top of the hill Eldgja. Here is a viewpoint where you can see a canyon and the waterfall Ofaerufoss. We take the jeep track to Skaelingar and descend all the way down to the Skaftá. Unfortunately, we see less of the river than we had expected looking at the map. After the umpteenth climb over loose stones, we finally see in the distance the beautifully located Skaelingar campsite.

Day 6: Skaelingar > Landmannalaugar (54 km)

Directly from the campsite we climb more than 300 meters on a very steep road. It is impossible to get up here without pushing the bikes. On top of the hill the 180 degree view is beautiful. We arrive at the ridge through a funny “lava gorge” and then slowly descend to Blautulón. The jeep track goes partly through the shallow part of the lake, but we just walk past it. Thanks to the sunny weather, the blue lake stands out sharply against the fresh green hills.

Via the easy to cycle [F235] we quickly return to the [F208] and head for Landmannalaugar. Especially the part between the hills Graenafjall and Tindafjall is very beautiful. Two years ago, this was a difficult stage, because it was raining all day and it was cold, and some of the river crossings were difficult to cross. Today the slopes are still just as steep and long, but the weather is fine and I only have to take off the Sealskinz socks at one river. We arrive in Landmannalaugar on time.

Day 7: Landmannalaugar > Hrauneyjafoss (41 km)

We are in Landmannalaugar for the third time, after 2007 and 2011. I wash some clothes and check my bike, while Rudi heads to a lava field to take photos. I still think the camping site is a busy and unpleasant place to be. There are many backpackers who ‘do’ the famous trail that is on their bucket list, and many day-trippers are brought in by large buses. Yet I have to admit: it is damned beautiful out here.

In the afternoon we cycle north on a very annoying washboard road with lots of loose sand. To make things worse, the wind is getting stronger and stronger. Near the lake Hrauneyjarlón it is even difficult to stay upright. Those are the moments when you think: “Really cool, Iceland (not).” We are relieved therefore when we arrive at ‘our’ wild camping site behind the trees at the Hrauneyjafoss. At the guesthouse we order Iceland’s tastiest hamburger.

Day 8: Rest day Hrauneyjafoss

The plan for today was to cycle the monotonous Sprengisandur, but the wind is blowing hard from the northeast. We know from experience –two years ago we got stuck on the [F26] because of the wind– that cycling in these conditions is pointless. We prefer to take the bus right away, but the next possibility is tomorrow. So we have a rest day in the tent while hoping that meanwhile the weather conditions will improve.

Day 9: Hrauneyjafoss > Nýidalur (bus) & Nýidalur > Langadrag (26 km)

Well, that was wishful thinking: the wind has started blowing even faster. The flagpole at the gas station bends completely. Decision made: we take the bus. We carefully mount the bikes on the back rack of the bus. After the experience of 2011, this time we put insulation foam between the top tubes and the hooks to prevent the paint from wearing off. At the deserted petrol station halfway through a cyclist arrives in the bus who got stuck there because of the storm – just like us two years ago.

The bumpy ride to Nyídalur takes three hours and is boring. When we get there it’s only 6 °C. The [F910] –also known as “the road to Askja” or “Iceland’s worst road”– was officially opened only yesterday (August 7!). The warden is not able to inform us about the status of the route. Anyway, we just start. Right at the campsite, we have to cross a river and five kilometers further on another one. Both times knee-deep, resulting in cold feet. The temperature drops to 3 °C.

Shortly after follows the exit to Askja, which we have been looking forward to for so long. We ask a passing ranger for information about water along the route, but he doesn’t know. The road quality is good at the beginning, but gradually it gets quite bad. After a few more river crossings, we find a nice camping spot at the river Langadrag. Meanwhile it’s only just above freezing point – inside the tent. At night it starts to snow.

Day 10: Langadrag > Fjallsendi (54 km)

We don’t know for sure if the streams drawn on our map do actually exist. And according to the same map we won’t find any water after about 40 kilometers. We take no risk: Rudi takes the Ortlieb water pouch with about six liters of water on the back of his bike. (For no purpose, it turns out later, because today we encounter countless streams and lakes. What a lousy ranger that he couldn’t inform us properly!)

Soon we reach the river Skjálfandafljot where a bridge connects the steep banks. We take the official northern route of the [F910] and not the southern variant after a warning for quicksand. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of the area because of the low-hanging clouds. The volcanic cone Trölladyngja (1,460 m), which we cycle around all day, remains completely invisible.

The road leads us through stone and lava fields. There is more variation than the map suggests. Especially at Efribotnar cycling is fun: a fairly good road going crisscross through high lava structures. Near the mountain Thrihyrningur we see wonderful ‘blob lava’ with all kinds of ripples. After struggling for a long time, we finally find a perfect camping spot on the parking lot near the striking rocks of the steep Fjallsendi.

Day 11: Fjallsendi > Askja (45 km)

Last night it was freezing mildly again. The cold came right through the ground sheet, tent sheet and mattress. I kept it warm by wearing the down jacket in my sleeping bag. When we go outside the tent is covered with a bit of snow. Luckily, the temperature quickly rises to 6 °C. Today we can see a lot more of our surroundings, like the icecap in the south, the Trölladyngja bathing in the sun, and the mighty mountains of Askja. It is a beautiful route with wide views!

The first part to where the southern route joins the [F910] is easy, but on the stretch up to the Holuhraun plain we encounter a lot of loose sand. After a bit of ‘normal’ road there’s again loose sand – this time even fifteen kilometers long. It is impossible to cycle on, so we ride parallel to the road, where the sand is a bit more solid. The road surface of the last six kilometers to Dreki, where the hut and camping site are located, is very rocky with lots of loose boulders. Just like elsewhere in Iceland, in Dreki most of the tourists come from France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia.

Day 12: Askja > Kreppa (54 km)

Today we visit the Askja crater first. To get there we cycle up a fine road for about eight kilometers. On the way we have a beautiful view of “king” Snaefell in the east and “queen” Herdubreid in the northeast. At the end of the road we park our bicycles and walk to the crater lake. Note that one needs to be here early – around noon, there is one long-stretched caravan of day-trippers who are brought in from Mývatn by bus.

Askja is impressive. The prehistoric crater ring is no less than 50 km2 in size. The highest point Thorvaldstindur (1,510 m) rises very steeply above lake Öskjuvatn. Askja is not a traditional volcanic cone. There is a large magma chamber underneath the mountains and it has regularly collapsed over time. Because of the eruptions, the large lake Öskjuvatn and the small, warm crater lake Vítí were created. The last big eruption was in 1875, when the volcano in East Iceland caused death and destruction. Part of the population decided to emigrate.

We slither down over a steep snowfield to the crater lake Vítí. High on top of the crater rim people are watching as we are –the only ones– glide into the water. To our surprise (or: disappointment), the water isn’t hot at all, but just lukewarm (22 °C). Nevertheless, it is a special experience.

In the afternoon, we go east again. After Midfell the decent gravel road transforms into a terrible loose sand track (and later also washboard). We pass the light brown colored hill Upptyppingar (1,084 m), which looks like a giant turd. We pitch our tent a stone’s throw away from the Kreppa canyon, in a bizarre landscape with upright stone ‘walls’. With the help of Rudi’s pants we sieve the sandy water we collected from a lake on the way.

Day 13: Kreppa > Thórisstadir (57 km)

We leave our wonderful camping spot and cycle with backwind northwards to the bridge over the river Kreppa. The first kilometer after the bridge is very nice, but after that, fun is over. Ahead of us are 40 kilometers of very bad road (loose sand, 80% washboard, numerous loose stones) and headwind. Despite the sunny weather, panoramic views are absent in this monotonous landscape. This part of the [F910] is definitely not recommended!

On such a day, I’d almost give up. I lack motivation and my back hurts. However, after warming up a little and eating an extra ‘Bever’ (=a store in NL) breakfast, I’m completely refreshed. It’s remarkable how much better I can cope with the wind and bad road afterwards. At Brú we enter the long stretched Hrafnkelsdalur valley. We find a nice camping spot right next to the road.

Day 14: Thórisstadir > Snaefell (39 km)

The road surface is good until the gas station of Adalból. Then suddenly, we see that the road continues from the valley almost straight up to the top of the hill. This will be the most strenuous part of our Icelandic holiday. Gaining more than 300 meters over a very steep and very bad road. I have to push 80% of the time, and even Rudi is walking a large part of the time, which is highly unusual. What a ridiculous road, even worse than those in England!

On top of the hill we cycle further on, while the clouds prevent us from seeing much of the surroundings. Fortunately, the road on this plateau is not so hilly anymore. I do have very cold hands. Those expensive waterproof Sealskinz gloves appear not waterproof at all when used intensively in the rain. After a stream, where we I have to put on the Teva’s (and Rudi his surf shoes), we cross the asphalt road and take the [F909] to Snaefell.

After about thirteen kilometers on a fairly simple road we arrive at the hut. Here it clears up a bit, so we can see the lower part of the Snaefelll mountain. Even though we will be sleeping in the tent, for a few euros per person we make use of the facilities of the cozy and warm hut. This is highly recommended! Orri –warden and ranger– welcomes us cordially.

In the evening Orri takes us in his Land Rover to the Saudahnjúkar. During the walk to the top, he tells us about the Hálslón reservoir. The construction of the dam (2003-2006) was controversial. The energy helped to create a thousand jobs for the new Alcoa aluminum smelting plant in Reydarfjördur, however this was at the expense of the unique breeding area. Already 85% of the country’s energy production goes to aluminum smelters, and how much more nature needs to be sacrificed?

Day 15: Rest day Snaefell

Today we will enjoy a rest day in this beautiful environment. We will walk to the Snaefell via the ‘standard route’. I stop halfway at a viewpoint, but Rudi continues through the snow on his cycling shoes to the summit (1,833 m). Thanks to the good weather we can see up to more than 100 kilometers in the distance: Asjufjöll in the southwest, “queen” Herdubreid in the northwest and Kverkjökull, Askja, the Trölladyngja and even the Tungnafellsjökull in the far west.

Back down at the hut we chat with an assistant-ranger, who is an Icelandic teacher during the remainder of the year, and her sister. They teach us some Icelandic. This is an interesting language, especially considering that the writing has not changed for more than a thousand years. Icelandic linguists keep inventing new Icelandic words for new foreign words like coffee, banana and computer; in practice, however, they still use those foreign words. In the evening Orri and the ladies prepare a festive meal –coq au vin– in honor of the annual Gay Pride.

Day 16: Snaefell > Egilsstadir (94 km)

We say goodbye to Orri and the ladies and return to the [F909] through the rain. From there we quickly reach the tarmac road. On paper the next 50 kilometers over the plateau looks simple, but the road is monotonous and the wind is not favorable. I get cold hands and my back hurts again. I recover only after the descent to the Lagarfljöt and eating a 600-calorie ‘Bever’ breakfast at Hallormstadt.

We pitch our tent at the Egilsstadir campsite, which is well-equipped but not cozy. As the shops are closed, we go to the N1 for diner. This is really the place to be: half of the town population is gathered here. After a hamburger with fries, we eat an additional pizza. And also one liter of soda per person. We feel very bad after this fast fat salt & sugar food experience. When you consider that in the U.S. many people do this every day….

Day 17: Egilsstadir > Höfn (bus)

From Egilsstadir we take the bus all the way back to Reykjavík, but in stages, with a stop tomorrow to visit Laki. Two years ago, due to the low-hanging clouds, we hardly saw anything of the east coast. Now that we take the bus, the weather is excellent. The entire road from Egilsstadir to Höfn is very beautiful, and certainly the first part on the [92] to Reydarfjordur. We see many mountains, created by lava erosion. After we arrive at the campsite in Höfn, we have crumbed lamb meatballs for dinner.

Day 18: Höfn > Hunkubakkan (bus) & Hunkubakkan > Blágil (37 km)

At 10 am we take the bus to the west. We stop for another hour at the ice lake Jökullsárlón. Two years ago, we arrived in the evening when it was peaceful here. Today, in the middle of the day this location turns out to be one big tourist hotspot with many buses and rental cars. The same goes for Skaftafell where we make a short stop a bit later. Why is it so busy here while there are so few people in other beautiful places inland?

Halfway through the afternoon the bus driver drops us off at the exit to the [F206] to Laki. After a day and a half of sunshine, it starts to rain again. That’s why, just like two years ago, we hardly see anything of the landscape. Fortunately, today it’s not cold (8 to 11 °C) and after less than 40 kilometers we already reach our destination. With the cozy and well-equipped hut of Snaefell in our mind, we feel that Blágil’s hut and camping site are quite miserable.

Day 19: Lakagigar tour (44 km)

At 4.30 am the babbling sheep wake us up. However, right now we don’t feel like getting up, because it keeps raining. By the end of the morning, we’re completely fed up with the weather conditions: we put on our rain suit and ride into the fog! The plan is to cycle around Laki [F207] in a clockwise direction. After about fifteen kilometers we start to see some of the surroundings, and after the information point halfway through the circle the weather even clears up.

To our right the craters are lined up all the way to the ‘mother crater’ Laki. To our left we see mossy hills, situated behind the lake Lambavatn. Shortly after this, we enjoy the most spectacular view of the loop’s most northwestern part. Now and then the sun breaks through and shines beautifully on the lava plain of Lakagigar, which stretches to the northwest, with behind it the Skaftá and the green hills of Fögruufjöll, which stand out against the intensely dark clouds.

Next we ride to the Laki volcano. In 1783 and 1784, in the whole area of Lakagigar, Grímsvötn and Thordarhyrna there were several eruptions. Besides 14 km3 of basaltic lava, large amounts of hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide were released. In Iceland, half of the cattle and a quarter of the population died. The lava dust and acid rain led to a global dip in temperature, crop failures in Europe and drought elsewhere. Laki is claimed to have as many as six million victims: a volcano eruption world record. Today, Laki is keeping quiet.

Day 20: Blágil > Kirkjubaejarklaustur (44 km)

Since last night it has been raining continuously. The area between Kirkjubaejarklaustur (‘Kurkyousomething’), Laki, Landmannalaugar and Vík is perhaps Iceland’s wettest place. That’s why it’s so beautiful green everywhere. But you can’t see that because of the fog… Anyway, we haven’t experienced such a wet weather in Iceland before. All the tire tracks on the [F702] are filled with water and on hoping for the best we ride into ten meter long puddles. After this very rainy day, the campsite in Kurkyousomething is a relief. We eat lamb meatballs and pommes parisienne.

Day 21: Kirkjubaejarklaustur > Reykjavík (bus) & Reykjavík > Hafnarfjördur (14 km)

For the fourth and last time this vacation we cheat by taking the bus. The driver is out of his mind: all the time he shouts things about touristic places to us and a German couple – in Icelandic, because he can’t speak English. He drives too fast, doesn’t handle bikes carefully and constantly makes unpleasant noises. We are therefore glad when we get off at the city camping in Reykjavík, from where we immediately continue onto the better camping in Hafnarfjördur.

Day 22: Hafnarfjördur > Kevlavík (82 km)

We avoid the boring [41] and take an alternative route via Grindavík. The [42] leads us to Sveifluháls: one of the active volcanic areas on the southwestern peninsula. We visit Krýsuvíkur, where we see boiling mud surrounded by weird colors, and where steam hisses between the lava rocks. It looks a bit like Hverir near lake Myvatn. After this, we take a new road along the south coast to Grindavík, and after taking a hamburger at the N1 we struggle against the strong headwind on the last twenty kilometers to Kevlavík.

Day 23: Airplane to the Netherlands

After an excellent stay in a one-room cabin at Alex, we leave for the airport at a 5.15 am. An hour later we have packed the bikes and bags, start queueing in a very long and slow row because most of the flights depart early in the morning. After another hour, we have finally checked in – only just in time for boarding. At Schiphol Rudi and I drink a beer and toast to the successful holiday!

Epilogue

After three cycling holidays in Iceland, I summarize my findings. I am most impressed by the area between the Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull, Lándmannahellir and Laki. So much variation –green mossy hills, lava fields, ice caps, canyons and meandering rivers– can’t be found anywhere else in Iceland, and perhaps nowhere else on this planet. Askja, Lónsörafi, Kerlingarfjöll and the east coast are beautiful as well, as is the ice lake Jökullsárlón – as long as you know how to avoid the tourist crowds. On the other hand, the main unpaved routes Kjolur, Sprengissandur and F26 east of Askja are monotonous, while the roads in the southwest are wide and busy; taking the bus is recommended here.