The Icelandic driver of the little bus offers me a black coffee to warm me in the chilly morning air. Although I told him that I do not drink this caffeinated liquid, he did not understand. The gentleman is old and I suspect a little deaf. Like everyone else, he is impressed by the fact that I travel alone by bicycle. “You’re really brave” ! Brave. Courageous. What does it mean ? I do not feel brave to cycle across Iceland. I just decided to do it. It takes a bit of effort for sure but it does not seem to be such a complicated adventure. He drops me off at Reykholt and I ride quietly with a headwind the thirty kilometers separating me from Gullfoss. This is where the F35 road begins, a trail through the Highlands. It follows the old Kjölur trail, one of the oldest tracks previously used by Icelanders to connect the North to the South. Further east is the F26, the other big, even wilder track, crossing the Sprengisandur Desert. To cross via this track, it takes a good ten days and the food that goes with it. That is adventure. But I decided to start reasonably, following the F35, more accessible and feasible in three, four days.
The landscape is changing rapidly, leaving behind vegetation. I enter the field of pebbles. Here, stones are kings. My bike is jumping on the stony track transformed in ripples by the too fast passing the 4 × 4. A violent steep climb to put things in place followed by a good shower and I am almost already on the kneecaps. But the light is beautiful. The sky is black but the landscape is bright. Rainbows appear, ephemeral. And several cars give me the thumbs up. They must think that I am brave (still) or crazy, to embark on this crossing by bicycle. On the other side of the ridge is the large inner plateau that extends as far as one can see. The track is difficult but I take my time. The large glacial lake Hvitarvatn spreads its milky waters through the landscape. A large black cloud mass appears in the sky pushed by the wind. The rain falls violently. I leave the main track to follow a smaller one that takes me to the Hvitarnes hut on the edge of the lake under a deluge of water. Nobody inside. And no guardian. If I believe the rumors, there would be a ghost resident on the first floor. The specter of a young woman who died of cold while fetching water. No way I am staying outside, I am ready to share places. Built in 1930, the Hvitarnes refuge is one of the oldest in Iceland. The bottom of its red roof is covered with moss. A voice in Italian surprises me slightly. Would it be an Italian ghost? But no it is two cyclists, two ladies, who have just arrived, they too are soaked. “Hard day! Yes, indeed”. I have aches everywhere after the seventy kilometers. In the evening light that comes, I listen to the rain playing a pleasant rhythmic melody on the roof of the shelter. I can not contain the joy I feel being here.
The big cloud has gone away. It is bright weather this morning. But the wind has strengthened. Air masses descending from the two glaciers around, Langjökull and Hofsjökull, unleash the breath of the elements. Seeing the squalls, I tell myself that it is gonna be a hard day. Only thirty-two kilometers to go but on track and with a strong headwind, it can mean the whole day. Indeed, it is a fight that starts as soon as I set foot outside. It is 8.30am, and I waver under the gusts of wind. Probably winds of fifty kilometers per hour or more. I join the main track and throw me on the fight. But the will is nothing against the power of the wind. In four hours, four long difficult little hours, I am only fourteen kilometers away. I have dust in my mouth and small tornadoes strafe my face with tiny gravel. I have dismounted a long time ago, unable to cross on the bicycle the small climbs of the hilly track. In this landscape of stony desert, tossed like a straw by the power of the elements, I feel abandoned.
A silhouette of a bus grows in the distance behind me. It is the only bus crossing once every two days. I give up the fight, declaring forfeit and throwing my thumb in the air, praying wholeheartedly for the bus to stop. The driver makes me an understanding sign of the head and stops his truck-bus at my feet. My luggage and bike go up the aisle with aid of the passengers. I slump on a seat under their admiring eyes. Courageous, again. We cross in about thirty minutes, the twenty-two kilometers that I had left to do. From the inside, the landscape seems so calm. And welcoming. But I feel separated from it. The Kerlingarfjöll mountain resort appears in a small valley at the foot of the mountains. My tent folds in two under the squalls. I am fed up. And I am exhausted. The fight and disappointment drained me of my strength. I give up and take a bed in a shelter where I spend the end of the afternoon dozing in the small living room where a large bay window facing the sun fills the room with a benevolent warmth. My “failure” leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I regret a little not being able to do the kilometers and give up to comfort. Courageous, not that much …
Hvitarvatn plateau and lake.
On the trail across the plateau.
The following days the wind is still strong and I decided to take the opportunity to go for a hike in the mountains. After three days a break in the wind finally appears and I am back on the road. The 40 kilometers that separate me from Hveravellir where a small geothermal area is located are calm and monotonous. Large 4x4s regularly pass me at blazing speeds. I drive through the stony desert, my spirit bubbling. I forget the difficulty of the track, focused on an influx of creativity from the void. Ideas about my projects jostle under my skull apparently stimulated by the desert expanse. The emptiness is never empty. It is only for the one unable to see through.
I leave the track for a moment of rest sheltered from the wind. The trace of my bike in the brown sand looks like a new scar. How long will it take to disappear? A trailer is abandoned on one side of the road. A missing wheel. This seems recent. Have its owners gone to seek help or left it to rust in this mineral desert? The perspective is slowly evolving. The glaciers around me are changing at the slow pace of my bike as it moves through the desert.
Small steaming geothermal area in the middle of the black expanse, Hveravellir proves to be a good surprise. There is something in the atmosphere that pleases me, here, in the middle of fumaroles. A small pool fed by geyser water attracts all the tourists from the area. I go around the geothermal area at the end of the evening taking refuge in the middle of the hot smoke to escape the biting cold. Sheep roam among the geysers seemingly indifferent to the boiling water around. The fish stew with potatoes is good but way too small for my hungry stomach. Tonight it is restaurant in the middle of nowhere. A small pleasure on the road. I accompany it with waffles with homemade jam. It is good. I do not know if this could be described as Icelandic food but I have seen this dish everywhere since I arrived, fish soup and waffles on the menu. So why not? Around ten o’clock in the evening the hot pool is finally empty. I go quickly jump braving the cold wind to warm my body in the hot water. It is almost dark.
I continue my way along the desert. Suddenly the landscape changes and vegetation returns. The plain is covered with grass and small heather. The glaciers are behind me. With the change of environment, the track improves. Fewer pebbles and less ripples. I almost have a back wind. A first, since my arrival in Iceland. The landscape looks like great steppes, high plateaus of what I imagine to be Mongolia or the Scandinavian countries. Big Lake Blöndulon is a gigantic reservoir whose water power feeds a hydroelectric plant almost forty kilometers away. The water is brought via a large canyon – canal where Svarta River flows. Afangi hut, presumed stop for the night turns into a simple meal stop. Everything is closed. I lunch behind, sheltered from the wind, in the heat of the sun. I have done thirty-eight kilometers and I am going for fifty-five more. Courageous? It is not everyday that I do that. But today a combination of elements, including the back wind, seems to motivate me to continue. I drive in a landscape of clear vegetation and a multitude of small lakes. The strange unconscious worry that I had in a corner of my mind while crossing the inhospitable mineral desert has disappeared. I imagine myself pitching my tent in several places but pushed by the desire to reach the North coast I continue. A big descent rest my tired legs and I reach the valley where runs the N°1 road at the beginning of the evening in a golden light. I laugh, deeply happy. Sheep are walking on the road. And big steep mountains surround the horizon. I have arrived.
The Hveravellir geothermal area.
Arrival on the North coast.