Dan's Sing Around Iceland cycle tour – Halfway through the Tour
Who wouldn't want to live here?
There's folks who've been making a living out here for 1300 years. And they call this Iceland. They make them tough out here.
Now one thing about Iceland is that it's really pretty dramatic. Sharp ridges, rough ground, abrupt peaks, lovely crinkly edges and all that. Turns out a million years isn't so long for a place to have had enough ice ages and river cycles to smooth it down very much. Some of Iceland is older than three million years (the Mid-atlantic Ridge, or tectonic plate boundary, has been spreading since the Atlantic started opening maybe sixty million years ago); some of it is considerably younger than a million years old. Gunnhildur Gisladottir left Heimaey in the Westmann islands when the volcano Eldfell erupted, covering the land around with lava, destroying a third of the town (and fortunately no more), creating a new harbour in the process and substantially increasing Heimaey's land mass. That's 38 years ago; the island of Surtsey, in the same chain, didn't exist before 1963. Apart from volcanoes periodically covering the land around with lava or ash, as they have done fairly continuously throughout Iceland's past, the island is growing from within, stretching a few centimetres each year across its middle.
Is it me or does this lake look like Iceland?!
Steingrimsfjarðaheiði – the route out of the Westfjords
However one thing that becomes very apparent on the rockier bits of the island is that erosion is very much a way of life here. Roads have been built wherever it is possible (and necessary) to put them, but often this is round the side of a steep mountain, alongside the edge of a fjord; commonly both. Many of the rocks that make up Iceland are very hard, but many are not, and some layers of rock lie on top of layers of clay. Minor landslips and rockfalls beside or onto the roads are common, and tunnels are being built to link communities that were either not connected apart from by boat, or via very twisty mountain roads – some of which were often blocked by rockfalls. Avalanches in the last century – some in the last twenty years – have hit many towns in the fjords, often with loss of life; massive earth ditches and dams now channel snow away from dwellings, the steeper slopes are kept for summerhouses (used when the snows have thawed and not during winter when the risks are higher), and in the case of Súðavik in Isafjarðardjúp, following a lethal avalanche in 1995, half of the town has been moved a kilometer up the fjord to where the risk is less great.
Whoever designed Iceland had some pretty amazing crimping shears
Looking towards Buðurdalur, the end of the Road to the Westfjords.
Three major tunnels opened in 2010 – one in the Westfjords, 5km long, and two north of Akureyri with a combined length of around 10km. The tunnel to Bolungarvik makes obsolete a stretch of road that clung to the coast like a limpet, and is breathtakingly beautiful; one of the most staggering peaks in the Westfjords is literally over your head.
A Long Way Up
But it is making its way, bit by bit, downhill: a busload of passengers was killed in a rockfall here fifty years ago, and in the few months since the tunnel opened rocks have tumbled to the road or its generous verges; I had gone ahead despite an unmistakeable sign atop a boulder and oil drum in the middle of the road announcing it was closed. Half an hour later I met a car coming the other way – maybe someone who isn't keen on tunnels. I quite like them, but wouldn't have missed this trip for anything. It was however a constant thought, whether I'd see a rockfall of some sort on my way – one week after cycling into the Westfjords, once I was on my way out, I was convinced that some of the rockfaces now revealing themselves were fresh.
This is what 'geologically young' means.
Under a few million years and you're still a juvenile delinquent.. the reason Iceland is so jagged and rugged and breathtakingly beautiful is that, compared to the UK, the French Paysages or most of the rest of Europe, they haven't finished making it yet.
Read on to see who I've stayed with and who's helped me so far (next page..)