Back in January, daydreaming about travelling, I stumbled upon an article by adventurer and travel writer Alastair Humphreys whilst reading one of those online ‘must-experience’ bucket lists: How about cycling the 832 mile (1,338 km) loop of Iceland’s ‘ring-road’ in two weeks?

The idea was instantly appealing. I’d long been intrigued about experiencing the isolation of such a sparsely populated, unique country. The opportunities for photography coupled with a what would surely be a hugely challenging adventure were enticing.

Before I talked myself out of it, I booked flights. Done. “Now I’m committed”, I thought.

In the weeks that followed I binge-read as many articles, books, and blogs as I could find on subjects from choosing a bike and training, to learning new techniques in photography. I learnt a huge amount, grateful to others who’d shared their stories. I knew without doubt that this was going to be an amazing opportunity to find my own limits, and to document and share the experience.

As the trip drew closer, excitement and trepidation built in equal measure. I was travelling alone, a new experience. How would that go? Was I being overly ambitious with daily distances? Could I cope with the unexpected, stay calm in a crisis or deal with a dangerous situation? Truthfully I had no idea.

I’ve always enjoyed the planning stage. There’s a sense of wonder in spending long hours poring over maps from the comfort of home, imagining what each day might bring. It’s like getting lost in a good book, almost armchair escapism. I’ve read many times that planning is often more enjoyable than the actual experience, something I can relate to. I would discover all too quickly the reality of the challenges ahead.

Goðafoss. The ‘Waterfall of the Gods’.

The 30m wide horseshoe falls at Godafoss

Goðafoss is a stunning place which marked something of a turning point in my trip. Here, after 8 days on the road I hit a real low. Exhausted by the graft of covering my scheduled distances and coping with the solitude, I felt utterly overwhelmed. This was something of a surprise, and I’ve expanded upon it in a more Diary post on this blog detailing my day to day journeys.

Combining a 10-stop ND filter for a long exposure and a Lee soft-grad to bring down the exposure on the sky and balance the image, I took a series of photos from several vantage points. I settled on this one as the sun began to show through the clouds, feeling lucky to have this stunning location largely to myself. It can get very busy here as with all the post-card locations in high season, with regular coaches bringing tourists here by the hundred. I was very aware that as a tourist myself, I was in no position to feel put out by places being crowded, but there’s definitely something to be said for having a place like this to yourself.

Iceland has enjoyed a huge boom in tourism in recent years. Since the country’s economic crisis in 2008, subsidised tourism has played a huge part in attracting visitors. Cheap international flights can be readily found, even free layovers on transatlantic flights from Europe. This however is not without its consequences. I talked with several people working at iconic locations who spoke of the experience of visiting these spots being spoiled by the sheer amount of people.

My personal experience was that whilst I was surprised just how busy some locations were, I still found it possible to enjoy moments to myself – like here at Goðafoss – even in peak season. When it was busy, it didn’t really detract from the experience or prove too frustrating. The volume of traffic on route 1 (in the south near Reykjavik especially) was something I hadn’t counted on however, and may become an issue for cyclists, though plans are undeway for a EuroVelo cycle-path that has even started to be included on some maps.

The Eastfjords: Egilsstaðir to Höfn

I rediscovered my mojo! After deciding to allow myself some much needed rest, I made the difficult decision to take a bus which cut out two days of cycling. Had I not, with my schedule as it was I’d have had neither the time or energy to take photos or explore places on foot in more detail.

Cycling South from Egilsstaðir to Höfn was thrilling. Detouring from Route 1, plummeting out of the mountains on long serpentine roads through the valleys before sweeping in and out of the dramatic East Fjords, there were plenty of opportunities to take in some truly stunning views.

After a couple of nights camping down the coast in tiny fishing villages, arriving at Höfn was a welcome return to some hustle and bustle. The Lonely Planet suggests pronouncing its name “like you’re breathing in whilst dealing with a surprise hiccup”! It’s exactly like that, sounding more like “h’p-n!” when spoken by one local after he corrected my mispronunciation when I asked if I was close to “Hoffan“.

The extra time the bus ride had given me meant I now had the luxury of some time here, and it’s a great place to go for a stroll. Huge mountains and impressive glaciers create a dramatic backdrop to the port, and the quiet residential streets are lined with colourful houses and attractive parks. Set against this wild skyline, it’s a pretty and welcoming town.

Another reason to feel cheerful was that I was now joined by a close friend who flew out from the UK to complete the trip with me. The next 8 days along the south coast promised some of the country’s most picturesque roads, waterfalls and towns, and I now had good company.

Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon

Jökulsárlón exemplifies Iceland’s many surprises. Cycling over distance in any country, usually you see things change gradually. In Iceland however it feels like you could be in several different countries in the space of a day. One hour you’re cycling through a barren, vast plain of  volcanic rock, the next you’re in fields of green tall grasses, then you turn a corner and are suddenly confronted with a lake full of drifting icebergs. It’s a pretty wonderful experience.

Whilst still under a warm sun, the temperature here dropped significantly prompting a hasty rummage in the panniers for some additional layers. This place has its own micro-climate! Whilst it’s easy to assume the lagoon has looked this way since the ice age, it is in fact only decades old, created by the receding Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. This once reached the shore here, and the lake is continually growing.

It’s a striking sight, right alongside the main road. Spend some time here and the deceptively static view changes before your eyes. Occasionally you’ll see a ‘berg suddenly break free or tip over, and standing on the bridge at the estuary it’s clear just how quickly the melt water is flowing into the sea, sculpting the surrounding landscape. Rapids carry icebergs seaward at speed. Those which don’t complete the trip become stranded along the black sand beach. There’s something you don’t see every day.

Skaftafell National Park and Svartifoss Falls

Riding into Skaftafell, it was hard to reconcile the first half of this ride with the stretch I was now enjoying, such was the stark difference in progress and morale. We were fully blown along the road like sail boats by a tail wind at close to 20mph, barely needing to pedal, and covered the distance to the next the campsite in what felt like no time under blue skies and a bright summer sun. Skaftafell is a popular, welcoming location with a vast, pretty campsite and to my surprise, one of Iceland’s few forests. Iceland’s tallest trees grow here.

A short, steep trail leads to Svartifoss, another of Iceland’s iconic falls. This narrow cascade is flanked by distinctive basalt rock formations resembling the buttresses of a cathedral; long vertical columns curve inward at the top giving the illusion of some petrified man-made structure. A little farther on, the view opens up to reveal a vast, flat volcanic plain threaded with countless rivers streams of glacial melt water. It stretches as far as the eye can see, disappearing into a haze towards the coastline. Squinting, it’s possible to just make out the distant line of route 1. The occasional tiny, shining dots of a cars inching along look like ants on a stick. “We have to cycle that”, my friend and I acknowledged in a quietly understood grim sideways glance at each other. Still, if that tailwind kept up, it shouldn’t be bad right?

Skogafoss.

The thunderous 60m cascade of Skogafoss

This is I think perhaps the photo from the trip that means the most to me, not least in that it was a surprise opportunity. I knew of this famous place, but had somehow failed to realise it was on my planned route, so to see it appear at the roadside was a special moment.

Skogafoss drops dramatically 60m right over a towering cliff. The booming torrent of this immense waterfall can be heard clearly from the approach road. It’s impossible not to be taken aback as rainbows form, disappear and reappear elsewhere with the wind billowing a spray cloud that engulfs an enormous cavernous drop.

The photos belies the reality that there are in fact a lot of people here in peak travel season. Usually I’d take care to frame and compose to eliminate as much distraction as possible (I mean really, who wants half a dozen other photographers and their tripods as foreground interest?), but with a large crowd that can be difficult if not impossible. Returning or staying until a quieter time wasn’t an option on this trip. In these cases I have no issue with taking multiple exposures or using Photoshop’s tool set to remove people from the final image. I’ll share tips on this in future tutorials. Standing here, taking in this place, I felt was a very personal experience despite the number of people here. That’s how I wanted to represent it.

Vík, Puffins, and the Eye of the Dragon

Sea stack at Reynisfjara

Strong tailwinds continued to gift us free miles on our way to Vík, Iceland’s most Southerly town famed for its puffin colonies, captivating coastline and high rainfall. Leaving Vík, we took a very worthwhile detour around the headland to the beach of Reynisfjara where it was easier to see them.

This location is beautiful. Cavernous basalt columned cliffs flank a black sand beach, and several huge black sea stacks jut sharply from the churning Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of sea birds swoop and dart overhead bringing fish back to their nests. It features prominently at the end of Bon Iver’s ‘Holocene’ video. Actually it’s funny watching this now having travelled to many of the locations featured. The kid in the video skips hundreds of miles across locations in sequential scenes, all apparently on foot! I wish I’d had his powers of teleportation.

I’d never seen puffins before and it was great kick watching their comical, clumsy landings as they buzzed about, a blur of stubby wings and multi-coloured beaks. Their black and white bodies lend them the appearance that they’ve dressed for a fancy dinner. These charismatic birds certainly steal the show here. You will have to run the gauntlet of ‘bombs’ dropping in the beach mind you, good luck! I escaped without incident, others weren’t so lucky.

Seljalandsfoss was the last well-known viewpoint on the route back to Reyjkavik. I heard this place called the “Eye of the Dragon”, as it’s possible to walk a slippery path that loops behind the falls; looking out from this cave, the falling water against the sunset and the mouth of the cave can resemble a huge eye.

Sadly the light was flat and dull during our stay, and without the luxury of more time I had to make do with this one shot which is still an important one to me, even if it didn’t turn out to be quite as striking as I’d hoped. It marked the beginning of the end of the trip, closing the loop on the last section of the ring-road loop would take just a few more days before the trip was complete back in Reykjavik.

Come the finish, 798.6 miles of my scheduled 832 were covered. This distnace that the bus ride took off was made up for my detours to Þingvellir and the East Fjords in almost equal measure, and I’m happy to have completed it this way.

Cycling around Iceland was an unforgettable, rewarding experience that I’ll never forget. It was a trip of two contrasting halves; the first an intense, challenging fight against the elements, loneliness and isolation; the second a thrilling, relatively straightforward wind-assisted cruise with time to spare and good company. I’d experienced very real danger, some weeks of solo travel, and pulled off a memorable adventure. I feel can take the experience and confidence gained into planning future trips having learned a huge amount about myself and how to approach similar challenges.

I returned with a two or three images that I’ll print, along with lots of snaps from the road that will make up more of a personal scrapbook. I’ve included these in a diary post on this blog, with more detailed links to resources and accounts of each daily section if you’d like to read more or are thinking of planning your own trip to Iceland.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions and I’ll reply. Safe travels, overcome your fears if you’re thinking about this or something like it. My advice is simple: go do it!