[ Itinerary ]
June 20th, 2008
It is Midsummer Eve, the morning is crisp and clear. In a strange way the air is absolutely transparent - the eye covers long distances. Breakfast. After that the bits and pieces have to be bundled up. Reindeerman has left already.
We drive along a gravel road in a cloud of dust, Namesake and I. There are birds plunging about in the air. We have a constant escort: some of them bounce about in front of us, others follow close behind. We must be riding through their nesting habitat. A few of them have funny looking wing strokes: two quick and short ones, three slow and long ones. The birds sort of jolt along uncontrolably in the air. Why don't they learn to fly properly, the way birds in Finland do!
There is another cloud of dust at the far end of a lava field. It is coming towards us. We stop and wait. A familiar figure emerges from the cloud: it is Reideerman, who has made an off-road diversion. I dig the video camera out of the bag, and shoot a couple of extra laps. Namesake climbs onto the back seat to get a pillion's view enduro driving on a lava field. The camera work may not win the highest honorary awards, but the outcome is very real - somewhat nauseous, though. We have a good laugh at Namesake's experience. Then the two dash away while I pack the camera and have a quiet smoke. I hit the road, too.
After a couple of kilometres the back tyre starts to feel unstable, slipping from side to side. It cannot be a puncture; the gravel is not particularly sharp, and driving into a nail seems impossible, too. I turn to the main road. Driving on the tarmac is more like a survival game. I stop and check the back tyre. It is practically empty. I must have hit one of the potholes too hard, and the inner tyre has burst against the rim. Cursing my fate I limp onto the lay-by at Seljalandsfoss crossing. I hope the mates haven't passed the point yet.
After a cigarette I call Andri at Hafnarfjördur. He promises to try and find someone who save me from the lurch. Another cigarette. Andri calls me back, he has phoned someone at a repair shop in Hella. Help will soon be on the way. I tell Andri my exact location, so he can pass it on to the repair man. Andri urges me to stay put. Stay put! Where the heck would I go with a punctured tyre and all the bits and pieces strapped on the bike! I do not say anything about what happened to the bike in Thingvellir; it is not time for that yet.
Namesake and Reindeer appear from nowhere. I cannot be bothered to ask where they have been. All we can do now is to wait. Reindeerman climbs up the slope of the near-by hill and flops down to take a nap. Namesake follows his example. I sit, smoke, watch local monster trucks drive to and fro, wait and gaze at Vestmannaöyar, which appear to be much closer now. I remeber the sandwiches in the saddle bag. Eating makes better pastime than waiting and smoking. Namesake tumbles down the slope. I offer a snack to him, too. He says he doesn't like cheese - takes one, though. A small airplane hovers above us. Could that be the help Andri has sent to us? A kind of an Icelandic airlift.
With nothing better to do, I go and stretch my legs a bit. Across the road there is an iron grid, a solid enough construction to keep sheep from crossing it. Such a contraption would have been quite handy in the front yard at home when the kids were young. I just never came to think of that.
A car stops and a hitchhiker gets out of it, tosses his backbag on his shoulders and starts walking towards Seljalandsfoss. We say hello to each other. After a while he comes back, takes a shortcut across the field and starts walking towards Reykjavik. I watch him getting smaller and smaller.
A Nissan patrol with a trailer behind it turns into the lay-by. Our repair man from Hella. We shake hands, but I never catch his name. We push the Kawasaki on the trailer and strap it up. I look for something to cover the white leather seat before I sit down on it. The repair man says it is OK, and sits down on the driver's seat with greasy overalls on. Then it is towards Hella. Namesake and Reindeerman follow us on their bikes. I try to make a conversation in the car, but we do not share a common language. I point at houses, horses and sheep on the road side and say what they are in English. That makes my companion laugh; an easy-going chap he seems to be:
He speaks Icelandic to me, but puts enough English words in between; I understand he would like the sunny weather to continue, so he can start to make hay. This guy has several irons in the fire!
Real action starts as soon as we get in the garage. Another fellow comes on his Yamaha Drag Star, and take control of the situation. I make friends with a dog in the garage. It brings bolts and nuts for me to kick around, then dashes to fetch them. I soon get bored with the game and decide to ignore the flea bag. Then, with the dog constantly staring at me, I give in; the same game goes on until Reindeerman takes over.
The repair men do not need a hand. They speak very little even to one another, and do not make any unnecessary moves: everything goes smoothöy and effortlessly. I take a look around in the garage. There are a couple of tractors and a truck in the hall. Outdoors there is a hay baler, bucket loader, fork lift and a couple of SUVs - all in need of a work over. And this is the right place for them.
An older woman leaning on a crutch is walking on the pavement. I know: she has broken her leg, and is now looking for help at the garage. The guys will fix the broken leg bone for her - no doubt about it.
The tyre job with the hauling, coffee, entertainment given by the dog; everything costs about 80 euros. Not bad at all. I call Andri. We agree we'll settle the score next week when turning in the bikes. Reindeerman asks the guys for a business card in case we would have to get in touch again. Ominous premonitions? Not necessarily. We'll just have to see.
I make sure everything is OK and tighten the straps round the bags. I say good-bye to the guys and wish them nice and sunny days for hay making.
Driving onto the main road I get a nasty surprise: the back brake doesn't bite at all. I miss a tractor by a few inches. I pump the brake pedal a few times, and everything is in a working order again.
It is past noon when we get back to Seljalandsfoss. I decide to take a few pictures there. The cliff makes it possible to walk behind the waterfall. Of course you get wet, but the scenery looks really wonderful from there. Staying dry is a better option this time. And, of course, you should bear in mind that this is one of the places where elves live. They live in the pond at the foot of the cliff, but sometimes take a human form and mix with ordinary tourists. I take a look around, some of the people look a bit dubious, I must say. A couple of ladies are looking into the pond; maybe there is someone beckoning them to come and take a bath.
I make sure we didn't forget anything at the lay-by. The others have vanished again. I wonder where they went; they were still in the mirror a few kilometres before the cross roads. But no matter, we'll run into each other somewhere on the road again. I turn left on a gravel road in search of Skogafoss. I find a waterfall; it is not Skogafoss, though. I take pictures, but cannot be bothered to get off the bike. Back on the main road I take a look at the map. Skogafoss is still a few kilometres ahead. Reindeerman appears and pulls off. So does Namesake after a minute or two. They have been taken pictures up on Seljalandsfoss cliff. No wonder I lost them in the mirror.
The landscape is simply awesome. Too much of this, and you get kind of numb to its beauty. A couple of horses are grazing on the meadow. I wonder whether they appreciate the scenery around them. How would they like it somewhere else? I bet, grazing in the flat lands of Oulu would make them homesick in no time. Still, they appear quite indifferent. Really, I should throw a stone at them, they look so ungrateful.
Sometimes the landscape can get an overly emphasized significance in the eyes of a visitor:
We drive slowly past Mount Hekla. Or in fact, we don't drive slowly, it is just so far in the distance that passing it takes time. Anyway:
Hekla is a stratovolcano located in the south of Iceland with the height of 1,491 metres. Hekla is Iceland's most active volcano; over 20 eruptions have occurred in and around the volcano since 874. During the Middle Ages, Icelanders called the volcano the "Gateway to Hell."
Hekla is part of a volcanic ridge, 40 kilometres long. However, the most active part of this ridge, a fissure about 5.5 km long named Heklugja, is considered to be the volcano Hekla proper. Hekla looks rather like an overturned boat, with its keel being in fact a series of craters, two of which are generally the most active.
Mount Hekla is one of the most famous volcanos in the world. It has probably been active for as long as 6600 years.
We stop at Skogafoss to gape at the waterfall and to be gaped at by a coachload of Japanese. They don't recognize the flag on my bike, and one of them comes to ask where we are from. The answer raises a confused look on the poor fellow's face. I know a question from my part would confuse him even more, so I just pull a friendly smile. Namesake washes the visor in the splashes of the waterfall - and doesn't want to admit he got wet himself, too.
Back on the road, we head towards Myrdalsjökull and its southernmost jut, Solheimajökull.
Myrdalsjökull can be translated as a glacier covering a marshy valley. The peak of the jökull is nearly a kilometre and a half high. Under the glacier lies an active volcano called Katla, which erupts every 40 - 90 years. The latest eruption took place in 1918, which means the Icelanders will soon be in for another one. In the old times, before Hringvegur was built, people were afraid of crossing the plain on the south side of Myrdalsjökull due to landslides and fierce currents in the estuary.
No matter how thirsty you are, you do not want to taste icicles picked from Myrdalsjökull. In the ice there is so much lava, dirt and grit it has become grey or downright black. In some places it is difficult to see where the ground ends and the glacier begins.
The southernmost tip of Solheimajökull is only a couple of kilometres from the main road. I urge Namesake and Reindeerman to go and take a look at black ice. As for myself, one puncture a day is enough. The sharp stones on the track make me turn back before reaching the glacier. I take a few pictures from a distance.
On the way to Vik we take a diversion to Dyrholaey nature reserve. Dyrholaey is a narrow promontory sticking out into the Atlantic. The waves of the ocean have eaten holes in the cliffs turning them into arch-like formations. Further out at sea there are some lava columns, remnats of an underwater volcanic eruption. Black lava sand makes the shore look quite inhospitable and threatening. Lots of puffins nest on the cliffs in the summertime.
Now we are unlucky; we are not aloowed behind the fence. Due to the birds' nesting time admission to the nature reserve is forbidden.
Hunger drives us to Vik to have lunch there. The miserable village has a longer name, too: Vik i Myrdal. They probably want to make a distinction between this Vik and others - of a similar size - that go by the same name. They have realized in Iceland, too, how important it is, say, for organizations such as towns to build a profile and bring out their special features. What the people in Vik want to emphasize is the fact that the town is the only one along the coast without a harbour! Backwards thinking? Of course not, this is Iceland!
It is the traditional Icelandic soup again, this time at the gas station cafe. The soup looks quite different from the one I had at Geysir yesterday. Still, there is plenty of it, and it must be nourishing.
Following the example set byt the other customers, we replenish the brennvin stock.
In honour of Midsummer Eve I phone my wife. Nothing much there. The temperature is more or less the same as here, but it is raining cats and dogs in Oulu. Poor buggers!
Having spent the morning in subsidiary activities, we still have a long day on the road ahead of us. The thing is, I have promised Thorlakur, a good friend of mine, we'll be in Akureyri at 5pm. next Sunday. He will arrange a barbeque for us at his home. With that in mind, we definitely need to put more miles on the clock today.
Fatigue sets in after Vik. I take a look at the map. It is another 100 kilometres to Kirkjubaejarklaustur, maybe a cup of coffee there would be in place. Riding on a good surface with practically no traffic, I can give my cerebrum a break. I cannot afford to let myself fall into a coma but half way there anyway. Maybe that way I can save some energy - whatever for, I cannot imagine.
The landscape varies. I drive through lava and stone soil, flat lands and lupin fields. I stop to take a look at a large bolder formation covered with strange velvet looking green stuff. At a closer look it turns out to be a thick and dense layer of moss. Definitely, these are not the famous rolling stones.
Icelanders have come up with a brilliant idea of marking by-roads and houses along them. They have simply put up signboards at crossroads with maps on them. Simplicity is the father of invention! Why did no one in Finland come up with that! Clever people they are, Icelanders! Sending text messages on mobile phones was one of their inventions, too.
I spot a 'No Entry' sign. There is something written there, too. I cannot make head or tail of it. Except the word for 'heat'. Whatever! Better keep off.
On the roadside there are herds of horses and flocks of sheep - more sheep than horses, though. I ponder on the recent history of the island. The British invaded Iceland in 1940 in order to prevent the Germans from doing that. The Americans came in 1942. It was not a question of invasions in the worst sense of the word. Still, the foreign forces were not very popular.
The soldiers outnumbered the locals girls many times over. Very few had a chance to live the kind of life young people tend to do. As a result, the sheep had a tough time. Looking at the poor creatures on the roadside, you can still see traces from the times of the occupation in them: a stiff upper lip as the British legacy and the high, slanting forehead from the Americans.
Feeling elated and hilarious, I decide to have a smoke.
I stop at a lay-by and take a look at the info board on Kirkjubaejarklaustur. It seems, I have interpreted the name of the village right: 'Kirkju' stands for a church ('kirkko' in Finnish), and 'klaustur' for a cloister ('luostari' in Finnish). The meaning of 'baejar' remains a mystery, though. Anyway, at this site there used to be a big farm called Kirkjubaer. That was a long time ago. In 1186 they established a Benedictine cloister here. The cloister prospered till 1550 when the Icelanders decided they would rather be Reformists than Catholics. At the centre of the village there is a tomb. Two nuns, incarcerated and burned for their unexpiated sins, were buried in it. The board also mentions beautiful natural phenomena in the area, but does not single out them. Unlike Vik, nothing seems to be missing here: a harbour or anything like that.
All this is, of course, important information for those planning an extended visit to the village. As for me, I have other plans in mind.
I come across my mates downtown Kirkjubaejarklaustur. We take a look at the map, and decide to ride on a bit more - to Skatafell, at the edge of Vatnajökull. It is another 100 kilometres there, but cuts tomorrow's job that much shorter. I point the number plate on Namesake's bike to him - fixed with one bolt only, it is dangling badly. Namesake agrees it looks pretty bad, but says there has to be one bolt, otherwise the plate would drop. I cannot argue with that!
After a while clouds start looming up in the sky. According to the roadside info board, the temperature is + 4 degrees centigrade. Not much! In fear of the impending rainfall, I empty the pockets to make sure the mobile, cigarettes and matches do not get soaked. Then I rode on, and it starts pouring with rain. I can feel the temperature plummeting, it must be close to zero degrees. Of course, I realize now, I should have put on more warm clothes before the rain started. In this rainfall it is impossible to do. I just have to drive on.
I had planned to take pictures of the large estuary caused by the melting Vatnajökull glacier. The latter day Noah's Flood destroys my intentions. I'm glad to be able to see enough to stay on the move. How can it be so cold! I stop a couple of times before Skaftafell to run a spin just to keep the circulation going. I wonder how far ahead the mates are.
For some reason the bridges in Iceland usually have only one lane. Due to the shortage of cement most likely. Some of them are covered with wood, others with iron. Both are equally slippery when wet. Crossing the first one startles me badly; I can feel the back tyre slipping. The only remedy I can think of is to close the throttle quickly and fix the eyes farther ahead on the road. Once the going gets smoother I toss a hasty thanksgiving up into Heaven: we were lucky this time! At the far end of the bridge there is a sand dune across the road. 'Whoopsie daisy!', a British biker would probably say, and press merrily on. I say nothing - if ever there is a time to take things easy, this might be it!
I turn off the main road and drive to the hotel in Skatafell. No other Kawasakis in sight. Instead, a huge woman wearing red socks emerges from the building. No doubt about it; she must be a Skotta:
Skotta is a common name for Icelandic female ghosts. The name refers to their outfit: they wear a brown traditional costume with a bonnet backwards on the head, and red socks. Sometimes they are known to suck their thumbs.
Of course, I do not believe in them - but still, they do exist!
The colour of the socks is enough for a positive identification. On your bike, old man!
It is really coming down now. I try to make a steady progress: slow but sure. At times I stop and run, hop and wave the arms. I must look like a windmill. There are no other travellers on the road. I get back on the bike again shivering with cold. The beginning hypothermia makes me forget to keep an eye on the mirror. All of a sudden a bus equipped with gigantic tyres overtakes me. It must be one of the vehicles they use on tours across the uninhabited, roadless central part of the country. The bus moves pretty fast making a hellish noise. What a way for a frozen biker to come back to life again! There are times brown underwear would be in place!
The rain ceases at Jökulsarlon. I decide to stop there for a while. A French couple keeps knocking at the cafe door, but it stays closed. I wouldn't have minded a cup of coffee, either. Anyway, we'll come back here tomorrow again. Namesake has promised us a unique show. What it is remains to be seen. Still, I have some doubts about it.
I take a few pictures of the glacier and the lake. They turn out to be alright. Then I have a quiet smoke and phone Namesake. He is just checking into a hotel at Smyrlabjörk, some 30 kilometres west of Jökulsarlon. Reindeerman has checked in even earlier. I learn Reindeerman had been freezing, too; then decided enough was enough, opened the throttle and disappeared in the horizon.
After a couple of diversions I'm at the hotel, too. I put the wet clothes on the radiator and turn it to the maximum. Warm clothing is what is needed now. We also warm ourselves internally with a few good slugs on brennvin. Then it is time for dinner. After that we sit and make sure we won't catch a cold - from inside anyway. Reindeerman tells us he had spotted a by-road that eneded in a huge rock. Another Kopavogur road construction project or simply an optical illusion. Who knows!
At night I am woken by horrific snoring - in a duet this time. I get up and see if my clothes are dry already. I put the boots closer to the radiator. The sky seems to be clear, and the sun is rising. That is a good sign for tomorrow.
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