Saturday, 13 October 2012

Porsmork: Iceland

I had decided I deserved a day off; yesterday had been a hellish slog on the bike through wind and torrential rail to arrive bedraggled and saturated in Selfoss. Here things only marginally improved as I found despite my best efforts I had to bail out the tent after putting it up such was the amount of water falling out the sky.

The following day dawned fine and rather than slog back to Rejkavick I decided to grab a bus the other way and visit Porsmork Nature Reserve. The coach trips which run to the reserve from the capital every day, pass through Selfoss early in the morning and it is easy just to hop on mid trip, at least in low season rainy September. The first thirty or so km eastwards along the ring road is not particularly special, a flat green farmland stretching into the distance, but as you approach the Eyjafjallaokull icecap the land begins to rise up and a long westward facing rampart stares out across the plains. 

Here meltwater from the icecap cascades over the black cliffs to in a series of spectacular and much photographed waterfalls. Seljandfoss adorns many a magazine page and leaflet produced by the Icelandic Tourist Board; even in todays drizzle under leaden skies it's a spectacular site, falling seventy meters into a shallow plunge pool free from the steeply undercut cliff. Walking round the back of the falls into the blizzard of spray is quite an experience.

Here we must change buses, the fact that you are going somewhere a little special dawns as soon as you see your new vehicle, the big off road tyres and high ground clearance suggest that the terrain over the next few miles might be a little challenging. The road to Porsmork barely quallifies as such, being little more than a track picking the best line through the ever changing flood dalta of the River Krossa. The route can change from day to day and often needs to be bulldozed following spring thaws which can move thousands of tonnes of gravel around the delta.

The myriad of gossemer thin waterfalls running off the icecap to our right build into a series of fast flowing gravelly streams and rivers which the bus cautiously fords one after the other. We briefly stop to see the stark remains of what was once one of the most beautiful glacial lakes in Iceland; a pool of water cradled in the arms of the terminal and lateral remains of the Gigjokull Glacier, which usually sported a number of miniature icebergs.

This all changed with the eruption of the Eyjafjöll volcano in 2010 (that one that payed havoc with air travel in Europe). The meltwater from the eruption pouring off the plateau overwelmewd the terminal moraine washing it away over a length of 300m and draining the lake for good in a flood of awesome proportions.

There was a lake here two years ago.

Just before we enter Porsmork proper it becomes apparent that the rivers we have waded through so far have only been an aperitif for what is to come now. Here the Krossa river comes bursting out of the canyons of Porsmork fast and deep; this crossing our cheerful guide informs us " has swallowed more cars than any other in Iceland".

The coach driver gets out to have a good look at the riverbanks, judging the ingress and egress points and the general mood of the river today. Then he hops back in straightens the bus and off we go, slowly bouncing and crawling across the river, unsure that at any moment our bus may decide it would rather be a boat and sail off downstream. Nothing so exciting happens today however as the bus climbs out of the river shrugs itself off from this last challenge. 

With those treacherous waters behind the last bastion of Porsmork's defences defences has been brached and the coach drops me off at Husadalur a plesent valley base with guest cabins, campsite, and cafe selling drinks, snacks, and even wifi!  With limited time to explore before having to catch the bus back to Selfoss a quick climb to the summit of Valahnuku on the ridge which splits the two valleys of the nature reserve is the obvious choice.

The trail leads through a narrow col on the ridge that splits Husadalur from Langidalur in the parallel Krossa valley. It's sheltered enough for trees and shrubs to grow here in a riot of plant life which is notably absent from most of Iceland. Langidalur is the end point for the Laugavegur Trail probably the countries most celebrated trek, a four day hike between Landmannalaugar and Posmork through a spectacular sucession of wild volcanic landscapes.

From the base at Langidalur where mountain huts stare out of a spectacular black river delta scored with slivers of silver water the trail turns begining to climb and with each step the scale and majesty of the landscape increases. The peaks are raw and geologically young, towers of dark brown-black soil and rock to which dark green moss and grass struggle to cling.

It's only about 250 meters of accent but the summit is such a prominent point that the view is quite spectacular. The vast mountain wilderness to the north, the view west to the coast, and the towering icecap lost in cloud to the south all streach out into the distance. Despite the wind, which is biting and chill the panorama just holds me spellbound exploring the horizons, and standing staring into the jumble of peaks reaching into the interior.

The upper reaches of the Krossa and Hvanna Rivers

Looking down stream towards and the "road" in With the towering ice-capped flanks of the Eyjafjöll volcano on the left.

All too soon it's time to leave, the last bus out of the reserve departs soon after four and having left my tent and bag back in Selfoss I'm not too keen on spending an un-intended night out. Looking down from the summit the coach arrives in the valley crawling slowly along the back sand and gravel of the river delta, a tiny toy which resonates the scale of the landscape.

Posmork is a bleak beautiful place, to me it feels like a young Scotland but on a slightly bigger scale. The few hours I've spent here today has just illustrated the vast amount of wilderness there is in Iceland; visiting Porsmork I've just taken a peak behind the curtain of whats out there to explore.  I've already promised myself I will come back and complete the Laugavegur Trail and take a first real bite out of wild Iceland.

Looking inland along the line of the Laugavegur Trail

Spot the bus

Monday, 1 October 2012

Cycling In Iceland

Arrow straight the ribbon of tarmac rolls out to a vanishing point flowing over green gently undulating farmland, in the middle distance a line of green hills; further the horizon is broken by a line of mountains with ice fields clinging to their upper slopes. Far down the road a car appears to crawl towards me, seeming to make little progress against the panorama; tiny below the blue sky.

In such idilic conditions it's easy to sell cycle touring, the open road, big skies, leisurely km of smooth tarmac disappearing beneath the wheels of the bike as you feel the ebb and flow of the landscape. On the bike the view changes slowly, morphing as you move through it, giving time to enjoy the subtle changes in angle as different aspects of the land are brought into focus or profile; not the blink and you miss it snapshots you get from the car.

Then there is the feeling that your earning every experience; that feeling at the end of the day that those miles have come as a result of your own efforts makes the experience of travel all the more rewarding. The journey becomes an event, each mile a distinct memory part of the experience. 

For a country as spectacular as Iceland the bike seamed the obvious choice to explore the south west of the land of ice and fire. It would also be my first proper shot at cycle touring apart from an abortive attempt in Austria about ten years ago when we broke ourselves on Day 1 and let the train take the strain from then on.

The beauty comes with a bite though, the days which can best be described as a challenge; Iceland can throw down wind and rain with the best of them, and on a bike you really don't have anywhere to hide. Heading out in September I knew I was taking a bit of a risk on the conditions and I didn't escape. One particularly miserable stretch between Pingvellir and Geysir sticks in the mind; fog bound, up hill and into the teeth of the wind whistling off the interior (strong enough to stop me freewheeling down hill!). 

With rain driven by the gusting wind into every patch of unprotected skin, the ride becomes a mental game of counting down the miles, driving the body forward with the motivation of a hot cup of tea at some ill defined time in the future. Counting down the yellow marker flags which line the road every 50m to tease and taunt you as you slog into the headwind, the word saturated does not come close.

The roads themselves are a joy to ride on and in a novel experience for those used to riding in the UK not a chore to share with motorised vehicles. Apart from sections of Highway 1 the 800 mile  "Ringroad" they are quite and flowing; drivers almost always give you plenty of room when passing usually in some form of modified  4x4 with a roaring engine and monster off road tyres. In the south west all the major routes and by that I mean up to ten cars an hour are smooth tarmac with none of the cracks and potholes which can make cycling in the UK so much fun. 

I have it on good authority this view is spectacular...

I had hired a bike and trailer out here instead of trying to fly my bike out; this was half a mistake as it meant going back to 26" wheels, and having got used to the easy rolling of 29" tyres just highlighted how much more efficient my 29er is on anything but the most technical terrain. To be honest the bike I rented, a mountain bike with front suspension was overkill for this tour as I stayed on tarmac for the duration and therefore just carried around unnecessary weight. For future trips and a crossing the interior where roads are just packed gravel I will certainly bring my big wheels out there to eat up the miles

One of the things I was really keen to try this tour was a trailer for all my kit. Cycle touring used to involve messing around with a pannier system on the back wheel, or if you really have packing efficiancy issues on the front wheel as well. I've cycled with panniers before and found them to really weigh down the rear of the bike, cock up the centre of gravity making handling uncertain, be awkward to balance, and usually be too small. 

Almost through day one, heading towards Pingvellir

Trailers seem a much better idea especially as you can now pick up models designed for pretty rough off road use where in my opinion, panniers really fall down. Beast of burden or BoB trailers sit behind the back wheels attached to a modified hub and can pretty much go anywhere you would take the bike, the more expensive models even equipped with a suspension fork. 

The result of this setup is that weight is kept lower giving the bike a more natural centre of gravity and hence normal handling. The trailer came with a massive dry bag which  swallowed all my kit, even the monstrous Quasar ETC I was force to bring as my tent. I flew out with just over 25kg which all had to be towed around with me; being able to put all this weight off the bike behind the back wheel really minimised the feeling of carrying a lot of weight.

Not getting lost is also quite easy in Iceland, as there are not many roads to get lost on! I used a1:300,000 road map with couple of 1:50,000 for the more popular areas. The maps themselves are poor by UK standards (the Ordnance Survey spoil us) and you would need to be careful and know your nav if going off road. Places are well signed but there are no intermediate distance markers which is a grind if you want to know what you've covered. I did take out a cycle computer but could not get it to work properly on the bike.

So basically I'm hooked, cycle touring is physical yet relaxing; each day becoming little adventure. The flexibility of stopping when and where you spot a view or something interesting, or enjoying the rush of wind as you roll downhill. It's the simple joy of carrying your life around for a few days of setting up camp and resting with a brew and a book at the end of a day. A trailer is going on the kit wish list, and the Western Isles into my sights for spring.

You know how I said everything was well signed!

A bit more info...

Kit and logistics

Tent: I had thought long and hard about this, I own two tents a small light one man Vango TBS100 and a two man Tera Nova Quasar ETC. The Vango was the obvious choice for weight and space but it's old, and the fly has seen better days, it's also its one pole design and although strong is not going to stand up to a real battering. The Quasar is practically indestructible, pitched correctly it will stay standing long after most tents have given up the ghost; the ETC porch also offers the space to cook and keep kit dry in Iceland's changeble weather; but its heavy and bulky, with two people not and issue with one. I'm glad I took it but it was a ball-ache to lug around.

Bag: Switched to the four season down bag last minute, glad I did it got cold at night. Keep it in its own dry bag and protect it with your life.

Stove: Primus Omnifuel TI, light, and powerful especially if you just bring it set up for gas. Fuel canisters are easy to pick up in Rekjavick and you can often get half used canisters free at campsites.

Food: Supermarkets in main towns only, N1 petrol stations act as grocery stores where you can pick up all the basics. They also have microwaves and sandwich toasters for you to use to cook a mid ride lunch (this is amazing!!!).

Campsites: Where I was in the south west of Iceland usually good; hot showers, covered/indoor seating areas, the bigger ones have internet access. Cheap too - £5 ish

Geothermal baths: End of day bliss, even the ones that stank of brimstone (sulphur) Excellent, excellent, excellent

A video is now up of my travels

Camping at Pingvellir