John O’Malley, April 2019
I wheeled my bike off the rough lava and sand track, rested it against the lava plug a few metres away and sat down on the rough rock surface, pleased to have some shelter out of the wind and snow showers for the first time since leaving Kistufell Hut a few hours before. It was a very monochromatic view- the barren black lava fields and volcanic cones stretching to the northern horizon, the imposing grey icewalls of the Vatnajökull Icecap to the south, and the whiteness of the windblown snow. We were on the 7th day of our bikepacking trip into the Iceland highlands and still had at least another four days ahead to reach civilisation again. We were sitting at the most remote part of the most remote route in Iceland and the feeling of isolation was palpable. We felt privileged to be in such a magnificent landscape.
The route we were on, the F910-Gæsavatnaleið (or Gæsavatn route), is located in the centre of the highlands of Iceland just north of the Vatnajökull Glacier, Iceland’s largest ice cap. It isn’t an especially long ride, just 125km or so in length and while it may not have the same scenic beauty of the colourful Landmannalaugar area in the south of Iceland, it traverses a remote and raw landscape that has been shaped and is still being shaped, by volcanoes and glaciers. Just don’t expect to see many trees.
Getting to the Gæsavatn route is a journey in itself. Reaching either the northern or the southern ends will take you several days biking on rough highland roads which are difficult journeys in their own right. The Gæsavatn route will take around 2½ days to complete, not all that long, but it certainly ticks a lot of boxes- rough, isolated, magnificently barren volcanic and glacial scenery, it requires commitment and self-reliance, and it has an ‘interesting’ range of natural hazards to overcome, all within a stone’s throw of the grumbling Bárðarbunga volcano.
Ivan Viehoff in his 2005 online guide to cycling in Iceland(1)– the best guide to the highland routes that I could find- describes the Gæsavatn as “the kind of road mostly only experienced rough-roads cyclists, used to very rough tracks, deep fords, and prepared for circumstances like the need to carry 10 days food, and occasionally 2 days water, in their luggage, will think is fun…The great majority of cycle tourists in Iceland would consider this route some kind of masochistic torture or risk beyond serious consideration.”
We were prepared for a long stay in the highlands, not only in terms of our gear and food but also with our weather expectations. Having had two previous bike trips to Iceland, we certainly had no illusions about the Icelandic climate, especially as late in the year as September. The previous year Sue and I had ground our way north through the highland’s Sprengisandur Desert along the F26 road and knew from experience what the full force of a bike-lifting Icelandic gale in the exposed and utterly shelterless highlands could be like. Prior to this, we had also been lashed by wind and rain for days while traversing the Landmannalaugar hills, in addition to rediscovering that special thrill associated with hazardous river crossings. Iceland in September is not the place to go to improve your suntan.
The previous year we had paused at the F26-F910 intersection, wanting to ride the Gæsavatn but heeding the Nýidalur ranger’s advice when he said it was “too late in the year, the route will be dangerous if it snows”, decided to stay away and instead rattled on up the F26 through to the north. But the Gæsavatn remained an itch to be scratched…
This time we came from a different direction. We had begun our trip on the northern coast, at the town of Akureyri and, after some questionable riding through Goðafoss and Mývatn in the tourist traffic on the tarsealed Ring Road, headed south into the Ódáðahraun Desert (the ‘Desert of Misdeeds’ where outlaws were once banished), past the magnificent monolith of the ancient volcano Herðubreið. It took us just over two days to ride the 100km of bouncing corrugations, rocks and sand that made up the F88 road to reach the mountain huts at Dreki, adjacent to the Askja volcanic crater. We had been told the Lindaá River was “running high this year” but it had proved to be a straightforward if deep crossing along the way at the 50km mark.
The northern end of the Gæsavatn begins at Dreki. From this point, we estimated it would take us at least two days to reach the mountain hut at Nýidalur, but possibly longer depending on weather and river delays. The rangers at Dreki were very helpful as we grilled them for details about what lay ahead for us. The route starts on the F910 road, and after about 10km of rocky lava, reaches the Dyngjusandur Desert sands. Depending on the conditions, the desert can be an arduous all-day walk through fine sand, or if the wind is blowing, completely uncrossable due to sandstorms.
In the end event, we were lucky. After an initial hour or so of pushing our bikes in the soft sand, we were then able to ride along the sand edge next to the ‘super-jeep’ tracks. A combination of recent rain and cool temperatures had formed enough of a crust that just supported our 2.4″ tyres. Still hard work but easier and faster than walking.
At the end of the Dyngjusandur lay the Holuhraun lava field, location of the 2014-2015 Bárðarbunga volcanic eruption. The lava field was a welcome excuse to stretch our bike legs as we went exploring. The new lava was still very delicate and friable and we followed a poled route on the surface, set up to minimise any damage to the rock.
At this point, the ‘road’ splits into two: the newer northern F910 road and the old southern Gæsavatn route. Warning signs on the Gæsavatn made it clear that only high-clearance ‘super-jeeps’ would make it through this way.
The route turned further south towards the Vatnajökull ice cap and crossed a large 10km wide glacial outwash plain. Each afternoon muddy meltwaters from the Vatnajökull stream out across this sandy expanse, the flow increasing until it can cover the whole outwash. Our contingency plan was to possibly camp before the outwash if there was too much meltwater and to cross early the next day before the melt began. But again luck was on our side and while there were some swift flowing water in several turbid knee deep channels, as well as sticky muddy areas to cross, most of the outwash plain was relatively dry and very rideable. It was fascinating to watch the afternoon meltwater working it’s way out across the outwash, filling up channels even as we biked across them, and to see the ‘tidal’ surges of meltwater moving across the sands.
Beyond the outwash plain, the route ascended up the slopes of the ancient Urðarháls volcano. The Dreki ranger said the route was rocky around here- he wasn’t joking as we viewed what looked like a mountainside of loose rock. No sign of any formed route either but at least there were weathered wooden poles to confirm you were heading in the right direction. The loose rock, along with sections of sand and ribbed lava for variety, meant not a lot of biking was done.
We climbed higher to eventually reach a massive 200m deep hole about a kilometer wide- the Urðarháls Crater. It was hard to comprehend the force of nature required to blast such a huge hole. Leaving the crater behind us we could see on the mountainside in the distance a faint manmade shape- Kistufell Hut, the emergency shelter that was our intended destination for the night.
Our progress was slow, alternating between riding small sections of rock and walking through deep sand, more so too as it was getting late in the day; we were tired and a cold wind had now picked up. We eventually pushed our way up the final steep sandy slope to reach the hut about 7pm, 11 hours after leaving Dreki. After removing the heavy wooden shutters covering the hut’s door and windows, we happily made ourselves at home for the night, the bikes in one half and ourselves in the adjacent bunk room.
Kistufell Hut is about as close as you can get to the Bárðarbunga volcanic system. Bárðarbunga lurks under the Vatnajökull ice and in recent weeks there had been several earthquake swarms centred on the hidden caldera, reassuringly due to magma movements according to the volcanologists. A warning notice at Dreki stated that if you felt any large earthquake then should evacuate the area. That night lying in the bunk and feeling the wind shake the hut, with our bikes as our only escape vehicles, it didn’t feel like that we had a lot of options. Outriding a jökulhlaup flash flood on the outwash plain would be a once in a lifetime experience I suspect.
Next morning we woke to wind and snow showers. Time to make a decision: the hut was temptingly very comfortable, but if we stayed, then our water supplies would soon run out and the emergency water supply in the hut didn’t look all that drinkable. The weather wasn’t great but we knew it could get a lot worse and really leave us really stuck. In the end, a brief weather clearance made leaving the obvious, if reluctant, choice.
Beyond Kistufell the route passed through several rough lava fields separated by smaller glacial outwash plains. The deep channels cut into the sand showed the meltwater flows here could be significant and we were pleased not to be riding there later in the day. We now tracked along the edge of the Vatnajökull ice which looked just like a range of white and grey hills. At one point we made the effort to ride up to the terminal ice (just to say that we had touched it of course!).
At nearly 1200m altitude this was the highest part of the route, a significant elevation for Iceland and making it the highest route on the island. We soon began descending eventually reaching the two lakes at Gæsavötn (from which the route name is derived). The rivers near the lakes would also be the first freshwater source since leaving Dreki, now roughly 80km away. About 10km beyond the Gæsavötn lakes the route joins up with the northern F910 road again and heads west towards the F26 road and Nýidalur Hut. Between this point and the F26 intersection lay several river crossings. Ivan Viehoff1 described one as “the hardest ford I have crossed with a bike. The problem is that the current is very strong, and the water is turbid…A couple of years ago a cyclist got washed away here. He survived but his bike and luggage were lost.” We were looking forward to that one for sure.
There was a locked hut at Gæsavötn. As we brewed up a hot drink it was very tempting to pitch our tent for the night, and at least have the hut wall to shelter us from the wind and rain. In the end, we made the uncomfortable decision to head back out into hypothermia-inducing conditions; the thought of getting as closer to ‘that’ glacial river so we could cross more safely early the next day, outweighed any comfort gains of staying near the hut. We managed another 20km or so before setting up our tent; there was plenty of flat ground for this but, as usual for the highlands, zero shelter from the wind and rain.
Next morning we grabbed a hasty al-fresco breakfast between the snow showers. Travel along the F910 actually wasn’t that bad due to the strong tailwind and we made short work of several smaller rivers before reaching the anticipated hard crossing. Thankfully this was a very welcome anticlimax; while the water in the river was turbid, the level was low and the current manageable enough for me to even piggy-back Sue over.
By mid-morning, we had reached the F910-F26 intersection and it was a truly satisfying moment to see the same signpost we had gazed upon the previous year. However just south of the signpost, between us and Nýidalur, now a mere 5km away to the south, was yet another glacial river with a bad reputation. Two cyclists who we had met in Akureyri before we set out had been unable to cross it without a ‘rescue truck’ in late August. So it was with huge relief again that, instead of an uncrossable torrent, we saw a mere small stream flowing down the riverbed. Once again luck was on our side (although our time management with the glacial melt probably also had a lot to do with it too).
We soon reached Nýidalur Hut chased by driving snow. It was the last night the hut was open before closing for the winter (coincidently exactly the thing same happened when we stayed there at a later date in the month a year earlier). Inside the hut, it was warm and dry, and there in the rack of hut slippers was my favoured pink pair that I had worn the previous year, soon to be slipped on like an old pair of….
Nýidalur Hut is located almost at the geographic centre of Iceland in the vast and barren Sprengisandur Desert. We may have finished the Gæsavatn route but getting back out to civilisation from Nýidalur was still a task. For us, this meant another 3½ days riding to reach Akureyri via the highland ‘oasis’ of Laugafell (and of course, with a rest day in the hot pool located there!).
(1: ’Touring Notes: Iceland’, Ivan Viehoff, http://www.masterlyinactivity.com/ivan/iceland-zones.html, https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/europe-scandinavia-the-nordics/iceland/f910-to-askja)