Iceland 2009: The West Fjords

Friday 5th June: Heydalur - HˇlmavÝk (93 km)

You know you are cycling in Iceland when ... you never remember how to say 'Good day'.

English is widely spoken in Iceland so it is possible for tourists to get by without speaking any Icelandic. The language, derived from old Norse, has no dialects and it has changed little since the first settlers arrived. The pronunciation is predictable but it is not always obvious to foreigners; for example the 'f' of KeflavÝk airport is pronounced like an English 'p' (ie. 'Keplavik').

The grammar is complex, like a cross between German and Latin. Nouns, for example, have different endings which depend on case, number and gender. Thus 'ein' - the number 'one' - can be einn, ein, eitt, eina, einum, einni, einu, eins, einnar, einir, einar or einna.

Place names, being nouns, also change according to their use; what you read on the map may not be what is written on a bus or plane timetable. Here are some of the towns we visited, with the 'map' name first, the 'timetable' name second:

A visitor can easily learn some Icelandic. 'Takk fyrir' means 'thank you' and 'Komdu blessa­ur' can be shortened to 'Bless' for 'goodbye'. I (Brian) could never remember how to say 'Good day'. When addressing a man you say 'Go­an daginn' and when addressing a woman you say 'Go­an dag'.

Route 61

The end of a difficult descent on a steep, muddy, loose gravel road


On top of SteingrÝmsfjar­arhei­i west of HolmavÝk


A frozen lake and a cold cyclist on SteingrÝmsfjar­arhei­i west of HolmavÝk

Karen's diary:

At 7.15am we bumped down the stony driveway back to the main road and I was surprised at how easy it seemed. There's nothing like food and sleep to restore your confidence on the bike. When we continued on the main road (Route 61) we found the surface quite rough and the wind was getting stronger. A few kilometres further on we turned right and headed up Eyrarfjall, the first pass. The road condition got worse. It was rocky, potholed and strangely (for it hadn't rained) very muddy.

A tanker truck was driving up and down the road, spraying the surface with water. We couldn't understand it. It would drive down to the fjord, fill up with sea water, and drive back up the hill, dropping water everywhere. Soon we were spattered with mud. It wasn't a big climb but it was steep, up to 14% and the muddy surface didn't help. There wasn't much traffic but we got a friendly wave from every passing car. The descent was on a 12% gradient; part-way down we came face-to-face with the road-grading machine and scrambled quickly out of the way. The driver gave us a friendly wave as he passed by. The freshly bulldozed road looked smooth but it was booby-trapped with invisible soft patches. I descended carefully and soon we were at the bottom of the hill, on bitumen. The wind was behind us as we rode along ═safj÷r­ur and for the next 20kms we scarcely needed to pedal.

The wind was against us once more as we turned inland and began the second pass, Steingrimsfjar­arhei­i (430m). The countryside was rather unremarkable, just low hills, stones and scrubby, brown grass. The gradient was uneven, sometimes flat and sometimes steep, and the wind was cold and strong but its direction kept changing. We were both tired. As we climbed higher we could see Hornstrandir and its icecap, Drangaj÷kull, in the distance. Eventually we reached the top of the plateau. It looked very wintry with lots of snow and frozen lakes. We both wore our raincoat hoods to block the cold wind. Across the bleak and frozen landscape we rode, almost in the clouds. The descent was fantastic, nothing like the climb. The road plunged straight down a narrow valley on a good bitumen road (8% gradient) and down on the flat valley floor we had a strong tailwind all the way to Steingrimsfj÷r­ur.

One interesting feature in the Icelandic landscape is the giant rubbish dumpster. These hulking forms are dotted all over the country and at first I thought them an eyesore. Now I changed my mind; the dumpster on the edge of the fjord was the only place for many miles where we could find shelter from the wind and eat in peace.

11 kms to the south (more hills, more wind) was HˇlmavÝk, a small, attractive town with a lovely outlook. There we found the first supermarket since ═safj÷r­ur. It was a bit expensive but we bought a lot of food as we did not expect many shops for the next couple of days. There are rainclouds to the south so we have opted for the guesthouse. Our room is very nice and has a lovely view over the town and harbour.