Iceland To Africa By Bicycle 2004

Newsletter 1

Written 24th August 2004

Key statistics for the journey so far:
  • Pedalled distance: 293 miles
  • Furthest in a day: 65 miles
  • Punctures: 1
  • Mechanical breakdowns: 1
  • Mental breakdowns: None so far
  • Maximum speed: 36.5mph
  • Number of Mars Bars eaten: Too many to count!

It has been an awesome first week, taking in one train, two ferries, the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, five days of cycling in Iceland, a trip by twin otter to the arctic circle (with the bike) and a lot of time to simply think and soak up the wilderness! The weather has been very mixed and the going has been extremely tough at times but there have been some incredible highs (psychological and altitude!). I am sad to be almost at the end of the Icelandic stretch and have found the country to be as fascinating and welcoming as I could ever have hoped. The people are incredibly generous - even if the weather has not always been quite so hospitable!

I arrived at Seydisfjordur (a tiny port on the eastern coast with a population of about 450) on Thursay 19th August at 8:00am and was in Egilsstadir (a slightly larger town 26km away), ready for the off at 10:30am. I must confess though to a slight cheat here having taken a lift over the hill from the coast to the starting point in Egilsstadir! Lynne (my chauffeur), would you believe, is also on a Marie Curie Cancer Care fundraising trip to Iceland and we met on the ferry! Her mission is to drive from Wales in a sponsored truck and run the Reykjavik marathon which she has now completed. The lift was very welcome since the first day was to be incredibly long ... and I promise to do the hill on my return to Seydisfjordur for the ferry tomorrow!

The first two days' cycling were horrendous - in freezing conditions directly into a bitterly cold northerly gale. It rained, hailed and blew and it was all I could do to maintain an average speed of 7mph against the elements (particularly since some of the roads are not tarmaced). Very quickly my fingers and feet turned to ice and I had to look down to find where they were on the pedals! The terrain was unbelievable though, something akin to the North Yorkshire Moors or Peak District National Park, and it went on forever with no sign of civilisation ... endless crests and dips disappearing into the horizon! It stayed that way for 100 miles!

The first puncture of the expedition came very quickly (12 miles from Egilsstadir) and I couldn't help thinking that I'd done something wrong to bring such misfortune on myself! Sitting in the freezing rain and howling gale by the roadside, struggling with numb fingers to free a petulant tyre, snapping a tyre lever in the process, was not how I had envisaged the expedition beginning! But then, as I have found several times since, there is only one option and that is to get on with the task at hand. There is nobody else here to turn to and I am finding a new resolve in myself. After the puncture was fixed I cycled until I could physically cycle no more - a lowly total of 43 miles were covered and, in the growing darkness, I pitched my tent in a hollow near a stream and hunkered down for the night with 3 curious sheep and a few geese for company. The next day was similar, covering only 42 miles and arriving at Grimsstadir, a small hamlet of around 5 houses, tired, cold and badly in need of some luck. I thanked god I had the foresight to pack food and water for up to four days in the open!

Then, a miracle! Can you imagine how shocking it is to be alone in a foreign country, in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, and hearing someone call your name from outside the tent! At first I thought I was hallucinating! Atti and Anna were real though ... They arrived in their Landrover with a gift - today's newspaper. I'd given an interview in Egilsstadir before setting off and it had been published, along with a photograph, in the Icelandic national press (Morgunbladid)! They knew all about the trip and had recognised me as I arrived. The fact that my luck had begun to change really sank in as I stood in a warm shower at their farmhouse, digesting fresh blueberries and cream! Thank you Atti, Anna and family for your kindness!

On returning to my tent I was even more warmed to find that I had company. Anders Vera and Michael are a Danish family with a passion for Scottish malt whisky ... and they were incredibly generous with it too! Those of you who know me well will realise that I was, by this point, in heaven!! I had to pinch myself to prove that I hadn't actually perished on the road! Not surprisingly I slept very well that night.

The next day I woke to a welcome change in the weather and 65 sunny miles went by to Myvatn (mosquito lake) via Dettifoss (Europe's grandest waterfall) and an active volcano. The lava fields that lined the route for 30 miles were so striking in their bleakness it was not far removed from how you might imagine the moon to look. From there I pressed on to Husavik on the Arctic Coast, the whale capital of the world - this is where the whale from Free Willy (Keiko I think) was released - and finally yesterday I made good progress for the 60 miles to Akuyreri where I now sit enjoying the beer and generous hospitality of Iceland Air Hotels!

As I'm sure you can imagine, sitting on a bike for up to 7 hours a day is a wonderful tonic for the mind. You have to keep it occupied and sometimes you think the strangest things. Other than song lyrics, which have a habit of arriving uninvited and playing themselves over and over in your head like a stuck record (top of the pops this week was "Rainy Days and Mondays" by the Carpenters), I have not quite contemplated life the universe and everything, but not far off! Yesterday, on the long ride to Akuyreri (which incidentally is Iceland's second largest conurbation outside of Reykjavik with a population of 15,000), I clearly lost my marbles ... allow me to explain:

For some reason the wind had turned from the north to the south ... on precisely the day when I was heading southwards for the first time! I took to thinking that it would be easy to complain but , in fact, the long, flat, straight road was very much with me and the two, to some extent, counterbalanced. I realised that it was important to focus on the factors that were for you, not those that were against you. This is all perfectly normal you might think, but as my mind wandered I began to realise why older or more remote cultures had gods of the wind, the sun, the rain etc. My exposure to the elements over these few days had brought me closer to those early explorers and settlers who would go to sleep praying for a change in the wind, more or less rain and so forth. These things are, of course, outside our control and we don't like the notion of no control. I realised that it's far easier to imagine the concept of a wind "god" who's unhappy - that way you have the ability to make an offering and restore some control to your destiny. You're going to think that I've lost the plot but I decided to have some "gods" to keep me company! The most important factors to me are the wind (strength and direction) and the road (surface and incline). They needed a name so, being a product of late twentieth century consumerism, I gave them brands! My "god" of the wind is called Xplair and the "god" of the road is Mac! And THAT is how strange your thoughts can become ... but at least it beats trying to calculate the maximum flying speed of a mosquito by speeding up and slowing down (yes, I've done that too!).

So, from here to the Shetlands for 3 days, then the Orkneys to thank the staff of Northlink Ferries in person and thence to John O'Groates for the UK leg.

Thanks this week are due to Katy for contacting the Iceland Tourist Board on my behalf which resulted in the newspaper article, Atti and Anna, Anders and Vera, Lynne, Iceland Air (and Air Iceland - they are two separate companies) for supplying accomodation and flying me and my bike to the Arctic Circle and, of course, to everyone who has sponsored and supported me so far.

Best regards


(PS, The picture is Dettifoss, Europe's greatest waterfall. Also, if you're into poetry there's one at the very foot of this email which I found in Akuyreri's Information Office, written by an English lady. It's a wonderful, poetic summary of Iceland which sums up my feelings for this beautiful country more eloquently than I could ever have managed!)

Tom Bottomley
Mobile:  +44 (0)7740 592834
This Email Sent From Mobile
Poem found in Akuyreri's Informarion Office. Written by Christine Kennett from Norfolk, UK on 2nd July 2002:
We went where there was silence
except for the cry of arctic terns
where the mountain height was snow-capped
and the foot of the mountain burns

We went where there was silence
except for the voice of the white dancing force
threading its way down the hillside
past the sheep and the sturdy horse

We went where there was silence
where the white-tailed eagle flies
and in the long glass arms of the fjord
the mountain shining lies

We went where there was silence
when the sunset turns into dawn
in the time of never darkness
we walked at midnight as morn

We went where there was silence
and have left them all behind -
the coloured farms on the lakeshore
but the silence is now in my mind.