A Nerd’s Cycle Trek Across the Icelandic Desert
It was about four weeks before I left for Iceland when I first heard about the Great Gravel Desert. I had been planning a one-month, 1200 km circumnavigation of the island by bicycle when a co-worker described it: a 110 km volcanic expanse of mountains, gravel, lava and boulders. Situated in the rain shadow of the mighty glacier Vatnajökull, it’s Europe’s largest desert. It also isn’t actually called the Great Gravel Desert, but that makes it sound more dramatic.
In any case, it was devoid of towns, gas stations or anything other than rubble and sheep. A normal person might say, “Cycle 110 km through a sub-polar desert? Madness!” I, because I am perhaps an enormous nerd, thought, “Mordor!,” and merrily began my trip.
After 10 days of battling cold, mountains, howling winds and gravel roads, I found myself in the town of Myvátn. Named for the clouds of biting flies which infest the nearby lake called, “Midge Lake.” It was the last stop on the western edge of the desert.
An overnight storm had left the winds howling in from the east—not a good omen for my trek across the black land. Yet, I was a veteran cycle tourist, at the height of my physical prowess, well-provisioned and motivated! I thought, “Wind be damned! I am going to simply ride into Mordor!”
As with all decisions of great import, I should have listened to Boromir.
In memory, the 110 km ride splits in to three distinct parts—just like Lord of the Rings. So, we shall split our recap up that way.
Leaving Myvátn, I summited a brief pass and saw Mordor laid out before me. Elation! Eagerly I tackled the first 40 km while facing a steady headwind. No easy task for a fully laden cycle tourist, but I was enjoying the bleak and beautiful scenery. Much like for Frodo and company in the Fellowship of the Ring, the first third of my journey was touched with danger and hardship, but defined by the spirit of exploration and progress.
Kilometres 40 through 60 were more like reading any of the later of Robert Jordan’s, The Wheel of Time series. In that it was endlessly long, nothing happened and a conclusion never seemed to be coming any closer. I was well provisioned with food and water, yet the merciless headwind continued to howl and impede my progress.
Somewhere along here my morale flagged and I began to question my decision to ride. After all, I could have waited a day—one friggin’ day!—for more favorable conditions. The wind, which I naïvely assumed would die down over the course of the day, actually seemed to get stronger. At times, it would blow so hard I would simply have to cease pedaling and let it stop me! Yet, there was nowhere to stop, and no way to go but forward.
To further muddle this nerdy and overly elaborate fantasy analogy, if you try to tell me this wasn’t where they filmed the scenes at the Fist of the First Men in Game of Thrones, Season Two—I will find you. Anyway.
Kilometres 60 through the end were like reading George R.R. Martin’s, A Storm of Swords, in which life is short and full of pain.
After seven hours of battling the wind, my legs started to give out. Pain was shooting up the back of each knee on every pedal stroke. Fearful of injury, I briefly considered stopping where I was and putting up my tent. However, I am also extremely stubborn, and was still determined to prove Boromir up there wrong. I cursed the wind. I cursed the sky. I cursed my own foolishness and I especially cursed at the stupid sheep who stared at me stupidly as I cycled by.
I pushed on through the final 20 km, taking breaks every five, hoping my knees would hold together. After what felt like an eternity, I finally descended out of the desert and down into a green valley where a hot-tub equipped campsite lay in wait!
I’d done it. I had simply rode into, and back out of, Mordor.
I guess this might not sound like fun, and it’s true that it probably wasn’t at the time. Yet, what could be better at the end of a hard day than sitting in a hot tub and cackling in defiance at the Dark Lord Sauron? After all, we must remember the cycle tourist’s motto (admittedly this is probably only my motto):
“It doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun!”
So, put your head down, think of Frodo and persevere. Also, yell at the sheep. It really does help.
Zack Peters is a dedicated cycle tourist, having traversed Canada, Russia, Mongolia, Japan and now Iceland by bicycle. He is also a giant dork.
Editor: Sara McKeown