Thursday, July 17, 2003


Friends: Summer arrived here in Iceland yesterday, at least for a few hours. I was actually able to hike bare-chested in Skaftafell National Park amongst its glaciers. For the first time since my arrival I could squeeze my bottle of honey without straining my wrist, and my laundry was able to dry on the clotheslines in my tent while I spent the better part of the day hiking around the largest of Iceland's three National Parks. Chris Carmichael, Lance's coach, may not have approved of my putting my muscles to such use when I'm in the middle of demanding bicycle tour, but it was good for the psyche to take a leisurely stroll on some of the trails in this park.

It was frigid the evening before when I made my entrance to the park. The cold  forced me to put my gloves on for the first time in several days. It was overcast and the wind blowing off the Vatnajokull Glacier that hugs the park cut to the bone. The glacier is the largest in the world outside of Greenland and the Antarctic. Glaciers cover about 10% of Iceland and this one is bigger than all the rest in the country combined. I will be bicycling more than 150 miles along its southern extremity. It has countless tongues of big league proportions extending out of the humongous mother glacier. From this town of Hofn, a fishing village of 1,800, the largest I've passed through in days, one can see four of these behemoth glaciers licking out towards the ocean, each larger than anything to be seen in New Zealand or Banf-Jasper, other favorite glacier-watching sites.

One of the great oddities of this glacier is that two active volcanoes lay beneath it. They last erupted in 1996 causing such huge meltage that the largest bridge in the country and several smaller ones were wiped out by the sudden surge of water. The rivers that flow out of the glacier were clogged with a tumult of icebergs, some weighing up to 200 tons. Film crews from all over the country rushed to the scene. The park headquarters showed a video of iceberg after iceberg pummeling the bridges. Contorted lengths of metal, that were once part of the bridges, can still be seen from the road.

I safely survived a 50-mile stretch of road through sand flats preceding the park that is occasionally closed due to sandstorms. There is such a vast network of rivers through the sand flats that they prevented the completion of the Ring Road around Iceland until 1974. Up till then residents of Hofn had to go the long way around the country to Reykjavik on the Ring Road, as also happened for several weeks in 1996 after the volcanoes destroyed the bridges.

Of the hundreds of volcanoes dotting Iceland only seven remain active. Any can go off at any time, though it may have been years since their last eruption. The people of this country live in a continual state of pending peril from a plethora of dangers--earthquakes, high winds, avalanches, sand storms, volcanic eruptions and, up until a few decades ago, starvation too threatened if the winters were exceptionally harsh. When the country feels slighted by the European community, the Icelanders just shrug and say they have survived famine and plagues and much else over the centuries, so a little disrespect is just a trifle. One thing they don't have to worry about is bears, except for the occasional polar bear that gets washed over on an iceberg from Greenland. When it happens it is always a widely reported event.

I've been here a week now and until today I'd only seen a couple of motorcyclists. But today a group of 25 Germans arrived on the ferry from the Faeroe Islands, and a flurry of them sped past me. Traffic otherwise has been so minimal that the lack of a shoulder on the Ring Road has not bothered me in the least. The Icelanders are notorious speeders, but I have yet to experience anyone passing me at mach speed or anything remotely near it.

I met a couple more shell-shocked touring cyclists today, both riding solo. One was a retired Dane who was high-tailing it back to Reykjavik to rent a car. Another was an Austrian who was riding the Ring Road clockwise, in contrast to me and the recommended route, and had been reduced to busing it from time to time like every other cyclist I've met regardless of the direction they've been riding. Everyone praises the Icelanders for their friendliness, but I have yet to meet anyone who has been invited in to a local's home or been offered food or drink along the way, something touring cyclists are accustomed to elsewhere. We are just too common to be paid any special notice, just as in New Zealand. It is a minor relief that I don't have to fear being invited into someone's home and having the national delicacy, rancid shark, forced upon me.

Just half an hour limit here at the tourist office on the computer. When I tried the library at five p.m. to make use of its Internet, there was a sign saying it was too nice out to remain open and they had closed early. Normal closing time is seven. It was the first library I had encountered since my first day here. The library at Vik was closed for the summer. I'll go back to the library tomorrow and follow the time trial in the Tour de France until mid-afternoon and then head north into fjord country. It will be a rest day of a sort for me.

Later, George

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