On scaremongering

Well, I went looking for snow, and I found it. Miles and miles of deserted mountain roads, invisible save for a few jeep tracks, and without a single person or vehicle to be seen all day.

I have the lovely chaps at Kría Cycles to thank for this. One of the first things I do when settling into a new city is make friends with my local bike shop – because bike shops for me aren’t just a place where you can buy things and fix things; they’re also a general haven of reassurance. I realized this when I was preparing for my big trip, and spending every Saturday hanging around in Brixton Cycles, occasionally asking them to sell me something, or show me how it worked, but mainly just wanting them to tell me all their horror stories, speculate on the things that could go wrong, and then teach me how to fix them (often in wildly unorthodox ways), explain how I could stop them happening in the first place, and ultimately assure me that it was all going to be fine. (And it was, as well you know.)

I’d decided to ask Kría’s advice on where to go, having rethought my plan to ride straight round the ringroad from Seidisfjörður, since a) this would be mostly tarmac, b) it would also be very windy, and c) I’d have the sea on my right the whole way, sometimes with very little room for error should I be knocked off course by a gust of wind or badly driven juggernaut.

But asking (or accepting) advice is fraught with difficulty in enterprises like this – as I’m always saying, it’s very hard to judge how accurate someone’s advice is, because it will always be moderated via their own experience (subjective; often exaggerated), and their assumptions about mine (subjective; usually underestimated). A few days before I set off I received a rather patronizing message from an Icelandic gentleman who told me outright that what I was planning to do was impossible. Of course, statements like this can be a red flag to a bull where I’m concerned, but I’ve never quite stopped doubting myself, and while part of me smugly recounted my past experience, and told myself that he had no idea who he was talking to, another, more anxious part of me wondered whether he was actually right. Yes, I have some experience, but no, I’ve never cycled through Iceland in winter. Sometimes when people tell you something’s impossible, they really mean it.

I’ve also observed that, even when people have accomplished something themselves, they tend to err on the side of caution, remembering how difficult it was, and, perhaps if only for their own peace of mind, warn others off attempting it. I’m guilty of this myself. I’ll admit that I’m rather pleased my younger sister’s decided not to cycle in central London, even though I do so myself on a daily basis. I think embedded in this attitude, is an inherent, paternalistic distrust of other people’s ability to look after themselves. ‘I did it, but it was hard, so I’d rather you didn’t try it without me around to protect you.’

But in Reykjavik, I was lucky to meet Emil.

When he’s not working at Kría, Emil spends most of his time exploring Iceland on two wheels. He and his team completed the annual race around Iceland in under 42 hours, he’s recently built a website introducing offroaders to all the backcountry trails of his homeland, and he’s irrepressibly passionate about Iceland’s endless potential for solitude, hardship, and wide open spaces. I couldn’t have found a better person to ask.

Emil made me a coffee, got out some maps, and we both spent the next hour exclaiming over how exciting it was to have two weeks ahead of me, a gorgeous new bicycle, and all of Iceland to explore. He traced me out a route that passed through Þingvellir (Iceland’s great rift, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly moving apart), and then cut north along a tiny mountain road called Kaldidalur, closed to traffic in winter, that skirted the edge of the highlands, and cut in between two icecaps before descending into a river valley 70km to the  north. Excitedly, he pointed out a tiny track that would take me up onto one of the glaciers, and suggested that I might even ride right over the top of it and down the other side, though I should probably try and meet up with one of the tour guides, who take their clients up onto the glacier in super-jeeps, and ask them where the crevasses were.

I didn’t brave the glacier in the end (there’s always next time), but otherwise I followed Emil’s route to the letter, and had a wonderful, exhilarating, inspiring ride. I’ll give you a full report in due course, but right now I have other fish to fry. I rolled back into Reykjavik two days ago, exhausted, filthy and grinning from ear to ear, and made a beeline back to Kría, to thank Emil for his advice, and ask him where to go next. So he helped me plan out another route (as well as getting carried away with all my/our plans for whenever I next come to Iceland), and very shortly I’ll be back on/off the road.

It’s rare to find someone like Emil – who knows the terrain like the back of his hand, and is aware of all the risks and pitfalls, but nonetheless able to differentiate between a clueless novice and a reasonably hardened adventurer (even when I myself sometimes have trouble knowing which one I am), and happy to trust people to make their own mistakes, know their own limits, and bring themselves home safely in one piece. In this respect, he reminds me of Akbar, whom I met long ago in his guesthouse in south-east Iran, who had seen thousands of overlanders come and go through the badlands of Balochistan over the decades, and who rose above all the rumours and scaremongering and excessive caution, to say ‘ah, you’ll be fine’. And I was, and I have every intention of continuing to be so, as I head back off into the wilderness. See you in a few days.

Leave a Comment

8 Comments

  1. Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Excellent stuff. read an Iceland touring piece in C+ many years ago before it turned sales mag for MAMILs. You’re prodding the travel itch again. Thanks

  2. Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous. Emil’s rocking that jumper, too!

  3. Steve in New York
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Emily, Long time follower of your travels. I was curious, how did you get to the start of this trip from London? All the Best, Steve

    • Posted March 9, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      I flew, prosaically. Did have an ambitious plan to take a boat to Seydisfjordur from the UK, via Denmark and the Faroes, but it would have taken at least a week, with the possibility of weather-related delays and cancellations, and I decided I’d rather spend that time cycling. Maybe next time…

  4. Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on a successful first leg, your pics make it look so desolate.
    There will always be nay sayers, I have always found it make me more determined to prove them wrong.
    Stay safe (and warm)
    Mule

  5. Hannah
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    My hero x

  6. Zero
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    When I first visited Iceland in 89 I too visited the local bike shop. I asked the chappy if anyone ever cycled through the interior and he looked at me like I was a crazy person – “why would anyone do that?” he replied.

  7. Melanie Blake
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Emily, I am thrilled to see you are back on the road!