Day 15: Hvolsvollur to Reykjavik

The last day of the trip and the weather was against me straight from the off.  As I sat in the café, preparing myself for the day ahead, I could see the clouds circling above me.  As I cycled out of Hvolsvollur, a wicked cross wind caught me, tossing me into the middle of the road.  Fortunately for me, there was not much traffic on the road so I was not in any jeopardy.

The rest of the morning’s cycle to Selfoss was miserable.  On one occasion, after being pushed into the centre of the road, in the path of on coming traffic, I was forced to dismount and push my cycle up the hill as the cross winds were so fierce and dangerous.  This very much set the tone or the remainder of the day.

The intermittent spots of rain did little to raise my spirits.  However, after turning due west, the wind fell behind me for the final 20km stretch for the morning and ensured that I was able to match the pace of the previous day’s ride.  Before I knew it, I rode into Selfoss.

Reluctant to frequent the same greasy establishments that are peppered all around the ring road of Iceland, I chanced upon a lovely small café.  The place was empty and the young owner welcomed me in with a warm smile.  Lunch was very pleasant but I was warned that there was a mountain range that I had to cycle over before I made it to Reykjavik.

It took me an hour in more vicious side winds to make it 20km to Hveragerði.  There in front of me stood the mother of all inclines.  The route up was perilous for several reasons.  Firstly, the cross winds were extremely hazardous, pushing me out into the road many times.  There was no hard shoulder on my side of the road; instead, the upward route was divided into a dual carriageway.  Large vehicles hurtled past me as they climbed the hill at alarming velocities.  The final problem was the intense, unrelenting incline.  The hill stretched out for an eternity ahead of me.

After crossing the road, I pushed my heavily laden bike up the unyielding ascent.  Cars came far too close for comfort on more than one occasion.  I did however, manage to conquer the hill eventually, crossing back over and pedalling once the camber eased a little.  The battle of gradient and cross wind raged on against my onward progress.  I swore at the wind as the hard shoulder disappeared completely.  I had to choose between the road and the terrifying traffic that adorned it or the sandy, rocked waste that lay just beyond it.

Progress was extremely slow and arduous.  I began to loose my cycling mojo and decided to stop at the next petrol station.  As I sat nursing a bottle of coke, I made a deal with myself that I would load my bike and good self on to a bus should one happen to pass by.  It didn’t and in hindsight, I am eternally grateful.  To have given up so close to the end of my journey would have endured and bugged me forever.

The petrol station owner told me the road got better and he was right.  Soon after leaving, the road began to descent, the cross winds soon subsided to infrequent gusts rather than perpetual gale and the hard shoulder reappeared.  I spotted Reykjavik in the distance.  I know at that point I was going to be fine.  Iceland had not defeated me after all.

A few hours later after becoming lost in the suburbs of capital city, terrified on the tri-carriage ways, bemused by the maze of roads in the docks and perplexed by the general lack of signage, I arrived in the middle of town.  I sensed a slow bubbling of euphoria n my heat as I booked into a pleasant local hotel.  Luck was on my side that evening.  The sunset was stupendous, the hotel extremely comfortable, dinner scrumptious and sleep deep and restful.  I had done it.  I had cycle around Iceland.

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Day 1: Reykjavik to Borgarnes

We awoke to a beautiful day and set off north around the harbour towards Borgarnes which provided us with our first real experience of cycling in Iceland and along a 69km stretch. We had heard the Iceland was renound for it’s head-winds. The rumours were not wrong. The temperature was a very pleasant 25 degrees but the wind was incredible. The last part of the days trip had us heading along a dead straight road where we could see the last 10 miles ahead of us. Cycling in a straight line into the winds was almost debilitating so we were relieved to reach our destination.

We found a campsite and having set up our tents, headed off in to the local town to search for dinner. The food in Iceland can be challenging, fish is ‘popular’ but by now we were craving the green stuff. We were thrilled to find an awesome restaurant which served up the most fulfilling salads. Not something we thought we would ever appreciate quite so much but we went to bed full of fresh vegetables and utterly exhausted.

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The Road Ahead

Seven weeks today I shall be off on the first day of my ride to Nordkapp. To say that I am a little trepid at the thought of it, would be a huge understatement. In the interim, I have to gather together all the kit I will need for the trip. Going that much further north than last year, the temperatures might drop to near zero on the coolest nights north of the Arctic Circle. However, the average daytime temperature should be somewhere around 15 degrees Celsius.

My soul wish is that I do not experience the amount of rain encountered last time. I anticipate that I will be camping far more frequently due to the sparse population in many of the places I aim to cycle through. In fact, chances are that I will end up free camping most of the time. This means both good and bad things. On the plus side, there is nothing quite as liberating as finding an isolated spot and camping out for the night. If you like peace and quite, and I do, this is just the ticket. On the other hand, laundry, washing and conversation will all be far more complicate.

Part of the route I will be following will take me through Germany. Unless I take a rather lengthy detour on my way northwards towards Denmark, I will have to traverse Hamburg. Not that I dislike the city, cycling through large conurbations tends to make life all the more tricky with cars blazing past you and getting hopelessly lost.

It would necessitate the need to carry yet more kit that requires recharging. On that note, I had the first stab at a kit list yesterday. By Jove, I’ll be carrying a lot of gear. That’s the consequence of doing this solo I suppose.

A couple of people have indicated their interest in joining me on the ride. I’d love to have company. The more I think about it, life would be so much easier with another person present. For example, shopping; I will have to leave my bike, albeit chained up, along with all my panniers, which do not have locks, attached to the bike outside of the shop. In smaller towns and villages, this should not present too much of an issue. However, in a larger metropolis, I’m not sure it will be there when I emerge from buying groceries. Then there is all the end of day chores. Last year, Pete, Mary and I shared the cooking, laundry and tent pitching, which worked out really well. It won’t me a problem, probably something I get used to very quickly. Just that after several houses cycling; it would be nice to share the load.

All that aside, I am completely focused on the ride. I cannot wait to see the places that lie ahead of me. From all the cyclist’s blogs I have been reading, it should be a trip of a lifetime. So, now I must marshal my forces and complete preparations for the next Long Way Up ride.

Getting back to civilisation

Cycle ride from John O’Groats to Wick
Total mileage: 18
Terrain: Very fast cycle ride over quite flat terrain

Our last day saw us cover a small distance from John O’Groats to Wick, where I had booked a B&B for us. Pete had tried in vain to book a return rail trip from Wick to London, so we were forced to either catch a bus or cycle it! Fortunately for us, our landlady had been kind enough to accept three bike bags we had ordered via the Blackberry on the way up, once we knew we were not going to get a space on the train.

We arrived quite early in Wick as the terrain had been flat and easy to negotiate, which meant that we cycled the 18 miles at a very healthy space. We hung around in a café for a couple of hours until the tenants leaving our B&B checked out. Mrs McDonald, our landlady, still had to tidy the place up but we were able to leave our bikes and change clothes.

Wick is a pretty nasty town when all is said and done, with very little to do. We wondered around the very small town centre for a few hours until we were able to head back to the B&B. We all chilled for the rest of the day and watched crap TV programmes.

The following day, we had to check out early and wait until 4pm when our bus turned up. Carrying the packed down bicycles to the bus stop, about 1km away was absolutely exhausting. Far easier to cycle the damn things!

Our mammoth return journey included the following legs:

  • Wick to Inverness
    This was very pleasant, as there were few people on the bus and the weather was pretty awful making us happy that we were on a bus rather than cycling. The landscape was stunning as we tore passed it at a pace were had become unaccustomed to.
  • Inverness to Sterling
    The journey was very pleasant with more beautiful scenery and not too many people on the bus.
  • Sterling to Glasgow
    The bus stop in Sterling was like a large public lavatory. Fortunately, we did not have to wait too long for our hour-long connecting bus to Glasgow. By now it was getting dark and the rain continued to fall.
  • Glasgow to London
    Although we had stated to the bus company prior to purchasing the tickets that we all had bikes, National Express had overbooked the bus and had to call in another company to help with the final leg of our return journey. These cowboys tried to charge us an extra £15 per bike. Considering the entire ticket had cost us £35 each, this did seem more than a little exorbitant. We fobbed the driver and conductor off saying that we needed to withdraw money from cash point and them promptly fain sleep to prevent them from extorting the cash from us. By the time we reached London the following morning, there were so many people buzzing around the bus, we were able to scarper without being forced to pay. We went to the National Express helpdesk at Victoria Bus station to ask them if this was normal practice for them, to which they said no. As a consequence, we complained and told them that she needed to be more prudent choosing extra bus suppliers in the future.

I was extremely happy to see Bryony at the bus stop. She took us all out for breakfast before poor Pete and Mary had to press on with their journey and catch a bus from London down to Weymouth and re-assemble their bikes there, before boarding the ferry back to Guernsey. From subsequent conversations, I can assure you that we were all very happy to be back home with all of its conveniences and comforts.

I cannot recommend this journey enough to anyone interested in cycling or seeing the country. Physically, it does have its challenges but that is not to say that it is not equally blessed with rich and rewarding experiences all along the way. Although I am and have been for quite some time, an ardent cyclist, I have been indoctrinated into the world of long distance cycling. I am determined to find a new challenge in for 2009. Perhaps Pete and Mary will join me, who knows?

In additional to all the images here and on Flickr, I have also uploaded many to my gallery on Alamy.com
Stock photography by Julien Buckley at Alamy

Day 19: Bettyhill to John O’Groats

Total mileage: 50
Terrain: Long shallow climbs and downhills with a very pleasant warm, sunny afternoon

We bloody well did it!

After a pretty awful night at the Bettyhill camping ground, with all the local drunks and their kids making one hell of a noise, none of us were that sprightly the following morning.  We only had a short distance to cycle today but the terrain was quite arduous and not too exciting.

The morning was cold and so we wrapped up as heavy clouds circled above us.  None of us we particularly talkative even though we were were at the zenith of our ride.  First stop of the day was in some tiny town for a comfort stop.  The cold wind was chilling our moral and we all donned another layer.  I had hoped that our final day on the bikes would be more pleasant.

The land began to flatted out as we passed Bighouse.  There was an inlet that took us a mile or so inland but overall, nothing particularly taxing.  The spledour of the previous days Highland ride was all but gone.  The land had fewer features but was very so slightly more urdan, although this is perhaps not the correct way to describe such wilderness.

As we pushed on throgh Raey, the golf course was a welcome expanse of green with the backdrop of the Scottish north coast.  The only other point of interest was the bizzare power station we passed.  The focal point was a hugh white sphere that looked as though it had been plucked straight from a Star Trek episode.

We stopped briefly in Thurso for some provisions and a couple of bottles of Cava.  Rather than push on to Wick, we decided to camp at John O’Groats as this seemed the most fitting end point to our cross country endeavour.

Upon leaving Thurso, the road was occasionally adorned with a sign post denoting the distance to John O’Gorats, as in the photo above.  The last twenty miles flew by.  All three of us were utterly transfixed on completing the task.  We were fortunate enough to have a marked change in the weather, which had us stripped down as the heat rose.  Before long, we were hammering along at a healthy 18mph, only moments away from he end.

We eventually rocked up at John O’Groats as it clung to the last remnants of sunshine.  All behind us was shrouded in cloud.  However, the sun shone on us for the rest of the day whilst we had our photograph taken under the sign post and set up camp in the field next door.  We all got pretty hammered on the Cava immediately after calling all our friends and families to inform them that we had made it to the end point successfully.  Loads of people congratulated us including a rather large contingent of motorcyclists.

We had a hearty meal in the evening and watched the beautiful sunset over the North Sea.  So, what’s our next challenge then guys?

Day 18: Durness to Bettyhill

Total mileage: 43
Terrain: Coldest day with lots of hill climbing with sustained periods of rain

A short day and a bit of an anti-climax after the previous day’s cycle.  Breakfast was a simple affair in the hostel.  The room stank of 4 large, pissed French blokes.  Neither Pete nor I made any attempt to be quiet as they had been crashing around the previous night, completed steaming, when they returned to the dorm.  Not sure where they went but there were a few bottles of Jack Daniels littered on teh floor of the room.

The temperature had dropped a few degrees and the wind was progressively more severe as the day pressed on.  Today marked a change in direction for us.  We stopped heading north and started heading east.  The road ahead hugged the coastline closely as we navigated around Loch Eriboll, a 16km long sea loch.  Apparently, it had been used for centuries as a deep water anchorage as it is safe from the often stormy seas of Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth.  On our round route, we passed some bronze age remains including a wheelhouse in great condition.

On our way back up towards the north coast and Hellam, the hills started to raise more sharply around the water’s edge.  As we reached the apex, the relentless winds of the previous day returned to pummel our easterly journey.

This was very much the make up for the rest of the day; stunning scenery, step hills and unceasingly resistant winds.  The temperatures continued to dropped as we all wrapped up.  By the time we reached Tongue, our spirits were at a low ebb.  Perfect timing as it turned out for some lunch.  We stopped in the town’s only hotel, which happened to sport a decent restaurant.  Three courses of hot food and accompanying beverages later and once again, the cockels of our hearts were warned.

We estimated that to reach John O’Groats would have been a long stretch and that to cut the last day’s cycle down to a mere 10 miles from Thurso to JOG would have been a real anti-climax.  Therefore, the best alternative was for us to stop in a town called Bettyhill.  The town itself was non-descript.  In our ferver to find a decent spot for the evening, we managed to choose the lesser of the two camping sights.  As you can tell from the image above, this was not the most solubrious of campsites.  Indeed, I think on reflection, it was perhaps the most grim campsite we stayed at, a most fitting last night!

Not everything about Bettyhill was a disaster.  Once we were able to navigate our way successfully to the local beach, a trial in itself, we were treated to a glorious sunset.  The skies were peppered with a few clouds but we all remained optimistic that our final day would be one blessed with sunshine.  I think Pete and Mary were really lucky to have one another on this trip.  Sharing an adventre like this, no matter how trying or run of the mill, is something that shared will be a momeory for life.  I was definitely happy that Pete and Mary were on teh trip.  It really reminded me of the great times we had experienced together when we met on the Inca Trail, en route to Machu Picchu or diving in the Caribbean off the north coast of Colombia.

Day 17: Inchnadamph to Durness

Total mileage: 45
Terrain: Very tough day with sustained hill climbing and strong headwinds

Today was awesome in so many ways. Firstly, the weather was magnificent, with wall to wall sunshine. Considering it was the north of Scotland, the temperature was comfortably in the twenties, probably the warmest day we had whilst cycling in Scotland. Then there was the landscape, which was superb. Best of all, there was very little traffic on the road, so it meant conditions were perfect for cyclists.

Very close to Inchnadamph on the shores of Loch Assynt is Ardvreck Castle and some other ruins. We stopped here whilst I ran off to grab from shots. I was so caught up in the moment that I forgot the time. Before long, the Mary had decided to head off and take the day at her own pace as I was taking so long. This opened up the day to a different type of cycling. Instead of working in a pack as we had done for most of the journey, we were working as separate units. Pete hung back to tell me that Mary had gone off ahead, so we cycled in tandem initially.

The hills started getting gradually more serious, especially as we turned right up the A894. The climb was intense in the heat. In the absence of Mary, we did the typical boy approach to any challenge and started to try and cycle up the hills at full speed. This was a mistake as I ended up consuming a lot of my water on the 2 mile climb, which was not great as I and only done about 8 miles so far.

After a period of climbing, we made it to the top of the first climb. In front of us was one of the finest roads I have ever seen. It snaked down and around the hill side, way off into the distance. Mountains abutted the road, with an occasional loch. The weather was spot on making this perhaps the most perfect piece of cycling on the whole trip.

As there was so much beautiful scenery for me to photograph, I kept stopping to take shots. Pete eventually headed off ahead as I was taking my time. This gave me the opportunity to thrown on some tunes as there was little traffic to fear.

The cycling was amazing, truly epic. Occasionally, I had to negotiate the road with coaches or motor homes heading in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, the narrow roads meant that passing was perilous, especially when the drivers in the most part tended to continue driving along the centre of the road. On one occasion, I had to swerve off the road to avoid being hit by a bus, hurtling along without any regard.

The only other fly in the ointment was the wind. The climbs were steep and definitely the toughest of the trip but at least the hill off shelter from the wind. Most cyclists will admit one of the benefits of a hill is the decent on the other side. I felt slightly robbed of this perk by the fact that the relentless southerly wind. The wind was fierce and depleted any momentum I managed to gather whilst climbing the hills. So, in effect, one had to cycle just as hard to decent as one did ascending.

We all hooked up just before lunch in Scourie. Shovelling down large mouthfuls of energy foods, we all felt better as the tired muscles were replenished with rest. Again, we separated on the way north but by the Kyle of Durness, we reformed and cycled the remaining 5 miles. Although today was one of the shortest days of the ride, it was perhaps one of the most challenging. Durness is a small outpost of a town, at the North West end of Scotland. The guesthouse was empty when we arrived but the co-habitants were all congenial. The small local shop had some fresh vegetables Pete used to cook with, always a pleasure after a hard day in the saddle. The day would have been perfect had it not been for four smelly, half-pissed, snoring Frenchmen…

Day 16: Garve to Inchnadamph

Total mileage: 57
Terrain: Tough cycling in the Scottish highlands

After a hearty breakfast, we started on what would turn out to be a day of mixed weather and glorious scenery.  The initial part of the trip took us along the A835 to through Garbat and then along the west coast of Loch Glascarnoch.  At this stage, the weather closed in and the rain began to fall… again!  The temperature started to drop, making riding conditions uncomfortable to say the least.

The saving grace of the morning was the incredible scenery however.  From lochs to forests, the road had very little traffic and was festooned with glorious landscape.  As fortune would have it, the sun began to shine as we made it to the coastal loch of Broom.  Although we had to climb for a few miles, we were blessed with gorgeous views of Ullapool and the coastline.

Lunch was a hearty helping of burger and chips for me, food of champions.  Mary and Pete had some fish, wich would more than likely have been the healthier option.  Just to make up for it, we all had ice cream for desert.

After scoffing this all down, we went shopping to stock up for the days ahead as there were unlkikely to be any major supermarkets until we arrived in Thurso, and that was a long way off still.

The sun continued to shine as we started the long and arduious climb north west out of Ullapool.  However, the landscape just became more and more impressive.  Turquoise sea lapped again white sandy beeches as we cycled through Ardmair and headed back inland.  From this point on, the highlands rose majestically to progressively loftier peaks.  The clouds grew denser the further we cycled away from the coast.  The evening light would have been ideallic had it not been for the persistent attacks from the countless midges that were everywhere.

Heading north again on teh A837, we passed Loch Awe and onwards towards Loch Assynt.  Just shy of the loch lay Inchnadamph and our hostel for the evening.  The place was pretty amazing, with internet connection, large kitchen and dinning hall and a great laundry.  We were all soaked from a downpour during the final miles of the day’s ride.  However, with full panniers of supplies, we did not want for a good meal as Pete whipped us up a great meal.

I would definitely recommend anyone heading up to the north west coast of Scotland to stay at the Inchnadamph YHA if they are after a place to stay.  The only requirement seemed to be that for men, they all sport half decent facial fuzz.

Day 15: Fort Augustus to Garve

Total mileage: 49
Terrain: Pleasant riding with some heavy rain

Not an especially interesting day from a cycling point of view.  After the antics of the previous even and all the bloody midges, all three of us were somewhat burdened with bits and itches.  We left the campsite and headed north east, along the edge of Loch Ness.  The traffic was still not too intense and this allowed us to take in the beautiful views as we continued north.

We reached Drumnadrochit and turned off the A82, on to a lesser B road towards Milton.  This is where the real fun started.  We took a very minor road due north after Milton, which started with the most severe uphill leg of the entire trip.  The insane uphill was 19% at the worst point and no less than 16% for quite a large portion of the long climb.  The two cars that passed us were struggling to make it up the steep incline, which gave us little confidence.  However, the feeling at the top of the hill was quite euphoric.  None of us had been broken by the hill’s gradient, something we managed to maintain all the way to John O’Groats.  That said, I think I covered about 1km in 1st gear, spinning the pedals incessantly to make it to the peak.

Back on more level ground, we pushed on to Wester Balblair and then Beauly, where we stopped for lunch.  We had intended to enjoy the rare sunny day we had been afforded by the weather.  However, before we were even able to read the menu, the skies opened and the rain fell hard.  We hauled up inside the cafe for a couple of hours, agonising whether to have a crem tea or not after the large lunch.  After waiting in vain for the rain to stop, we conceded that we were going to get wet again and ventured out into the storm.

The roads were flooded before we had even left the town limits and all of us were completely soaked within minutes of saddling up again.  To add insult to injury, the heavy rain abated about a quarter of an hour later, just long enough to give us a really good soaking.

We passed through Muir Or Ord and then north west on the A832 towards Wester Mor.  Here, we re-joined the main road after a very pleasant country ride as we push on towards Ullapool.  The road was bordered by the railway line and Loch Garve soon after.  We passed a shop that exclaimed the next food shop was 60 miles away in Ullapool, so we stopped a bought a few provisions.

Once in Garve, we decided to call it a day as there were no other inhabited areas of note for many miles.  This turned out to be a great decision as we stayed with a lovely couple in their B&B.  The view from my enormous window was of a river, field and mountain.  Better than that, no midgets as I could close the window!

We ate supper in the local hotel and then pigged out on some bags of sweets, over a few card games.  I think had we started off sooner and not had the deluge, we might have been able to get to Ullapool.  That said, we had time on our hands and were in no rush, which allowed us to take our time and really enjoy the last part of our ride.