Iceland 2009: The East

Tuesday 16th June: H÷fn - Svinafell (near Skaftafell) (130 km)

You know you are cycling in Iceland when ... the glaciers are bigger than some of the other countries you have cycled in.

Vatnaj÷kull is the largest glacier in Iceland. It covers 8100 square kilometres, which is about 8% of the area of Iceland. It measures 100 km from north to south and 150 km from east to west. The tongues of Vatnaj÷kull that drain down to the lowlands are big enough to have their own names; there are about twelve of these subsidiary glaciers that can be seen from Route 1. The two widest of these tongues, Brei­amerkurj÷kull and Skei­arßrj÷kull, are both about 15 km wide at their snouts.

ÍrŠfaj÷kull is a particularly interesting subsidiary glacier. It is Iceland's largest active volcano and it also has Iceland's highest peak, Hvannadalshn˙kur (2109m) on the crater rim. ÍrŠfaj÷kull even has its own wind, the 'Freysnes downslope windstorm', which is a warm bora wind. When conditions are right the northeasterly wind breaks like a wave over the mountain, resulting in strong, turbulent wind around Freysnes and Svinafell.


Glaciers: Skßlafellsj÷kull and Heinabergsj÷kull


J÷kulsarlˇn Glacier Lagoon


J÷kulsarlˇn Glacier Lagoon


Brei­amerkurj÷kull glacier, in the background, is about 15 kilometres wide at its snout

Karen's diary:

It rained solidly through the early hours of the morning and we didn't hurry to get up, just listened and waited for it to stop. At 7.00am it was better and we got away at 8.20am. From H÷fn the road was almost completely flat and at the start of the day there was almost no wind. Low clouds covered the mountains and although the glaciers came down almost to sea-level we could see very little of them. As time passed the wind grew stronger and was behind us so we made very good time.

We began to notice a strange glacier, Brei­amerkurj÷kull, in the distance. It didn't look very high or steep but it was extremely wide and it took us a long time to cycle across it. This glacier terminates at a lake (or glacial lagoon) which drains through a short channel into the sea. The lagoon (J÷kulsarlˇn) is filled with icebergs, some of which float under the bridge and out to sea. The icebergs are very beautiful sculptural forms and come in every shade of blue. J÷kulsarlˇn is a big tourist drawcard - we enjoyed a snack of waffles with jam and cream at the visitors' centre and watched the people come and go. The sky became very dark as we left and soon it was raining. The wind was roaring by this stage and we were freewheeling at 25 - 30kph, hardly even pedalling. We felt very sorry for all the northbound cyclists.

At the south end of Vatnaj÷kull is ÍrŠfaj÷kull, a high, snow-capped mountain with twin summits over 2000m high. The glaciers tumbling down its sides are steep and dramatic. ÍrŠfaj÷kull is very close to the sea and the road skirts around its base before heading inland towards Skaftafell. We approached the southernmost point at a fast pace but when the road turned 90 degrees to the right, the wind went completely berserk and we were almost blown off our bikes. It was gusting and buffeting from every possible direction - I was unnerved and had to stop several times and just stand still, braced against what felt like a hurricane. One of Brian's pannier-covers got blown off his bike and is probably halfway to Scotland by now.

Eventually it settled down to a fairly steady, roaring gale and we were able to make some progress; we leaned hard to the right and rode along with our bikes and our bodies tilted over at an angle. It even got to be slightly funny.

We decided to stop at the tiny village of SvÝnafell, a few kilometres short of Skaftafell and the national park. There were cabins there but they were already fully booked so we pitched the tent in a high wind and kept our fingers crossed. Our supplies were a bit limited so Brian decided to cycle to the next village, 2kms away, to look for more food. He returned safely with plenty of goodies.

The campground has a big indoor kitchen and dining area (which has been taken over to some degree by a French tour group); it was nice to be indoors at dinnertime. At bedtime the wind had almost disappeared. An interesting day!