Iceland Part 3: Crossing the Sprengisandur and the Ódáðahraun desert

After a very rainy and slightly dismal morning in Landmannalaugar fixing up my broken brake we decided to continue inland, into the desert of the Sprengisandur. This was definitely to be the most cold and miserable day we had in Iceland - if we'd known this at the time it might have been better!

We had bought some extra food supplies at the Landmannalaugar 'store' which consists of a bus full of extremely expensive basic food items. We calculated we may not come across a shop for another 6 days, so we it was worth the expense!

We had a strong tail wind pushing us away from the warm hot springs of Landmannalaugar, and we were quickly flying along the flat, quite good shingle road which leads to the F19. The sands were black and there wasn't much to see as the rain came down and mist hung low on the flat landscape. Some motor cyclists hooned past us, but we were making pretty good progress.

The landscape was pretty bleak in this area and very windy!

Soon we reached the small climb and then a fairly rough road (large loose metal) which was made rougher because of the insanely strong side wind which made it impossible to keep the front wheel on the ground. Soon we were off walking, some ugly power plants with big lines to my right added to the generally unappealing feel of the area.

Eventually we reached the small section of sealed F19. Here we had to decide if we wanted to head South for 10km to fill up our fuel bottle - we decided to risk not refilling it and managing with what we had. We found a drain beside the road where was sat and tried to eat some grit sandwiches in the rain, but soon we were so freezing we had to keep going.

Rainy and cold in the desert

Another strong side wind section and we were off pushing the bikes - we still had 60km to ride and I was feeling pretty low! Fortunately we changed direction a little and were able to ride again, and after a few more hours the wind eased entirely and we were making good progress again.

The landscape in this area is bleak - rolling rocky desert in all directions. We past a few tents beside the road with bikes outside - other cyclists who had given up for the day. Finally we reached the closed hut we had been aiming for - we decided to cycle 10 km more up the road to a ford where there was potential camping.

After a very tiring day, over 90km of rough riding we were very happy to climb into our warm little tent. Chris cooked up a feast out in the vestibule, and we went to sleep very quickly to the sound of pattering rain on the tent roof - that was quite a mission of a day.

Finally time to jump into the tent

In the morning there was a new kind of pattering on the tent roof, this time it was millions of mosquitoes! They must have loved the rains of the previous day and now they were out on force! Just as well we had our mosquito face masks, we were able to pack up and eat a hasty breakfast without too much wild flapping.

Map studying time

It was a further 30km to Nýidalur, a wardened hut and common stopping place in the middle of the Sprengisandur. After a couple of hours cycling with not much to see but more seas of rocks the sight of a green hillside looming ahead was wonderful. There was a sign saying we were entering the National Park, we were both very happy to have made it this far.
The green hills of Nýidalur were a very rewarding sight after the bleakness of the last days.

A strange sight greeted us as we neared Nýidalur - fluorescent vest clad workers were raking stones over old tire marks which hard scarred the stony surface of the hillside. We found out later that these tire tracks take years to disappear and leave ugly scars for all to see - off road driving in the National Parks is therefore strictly prohibited. Unfortunately not everyone obeys this rule.

We parked up at the little cluster of buildings that is Nýidalur and were greeted by the very friendly hut warden. For a small fee we were allowed to go inside the warm hut and cook up some yummy lunch on the gas stoves provided. There were several other groups there - most of them traveling by jeep or motorbike, and we shared some good stories with them over lunch.
Chris shows off his rain booties off at Nýidalur

We also managed to find out from the warden that the route we hoped to cycle to Askja should be quite ride-able. The road was officially still closed, but she told us a couple of cyclists had already made it through a few days ago and the rivers were now cross-able - great news!

So feeling much renewed by the warmth, food and company we headed off on the much less frequented F910. We crossed a lot of rivers and eventually made it to the final and largest river. Fortunately Chris was strong enough to carry the bikes across one at a time and then come back and get me. We made it to the bridge crossing of the Skjálfandafljót river, from there we would take an even smaller road than the F910, the Gæsavatnaleið road which skirts the Vatnajökull glacier.

Cycling away from Nýidalur

It had been raining for several hours now and we were completely soaked. We knew that not far from here was a little hot spring, so we decided to ride a bit further to try and find it and camp beside it. We rode for some distance before deciding that the turnoff must have been unsignposted, so we rode back again and found a very indistinct road leading in the right direction.

In the dimming light of late evening in the drizzle we came upon the most extraordinary little hot pool. In the middle of the barren land, on a little green grassy outcrop was a beautiful little pool, scooped out with a seat. We plopped our tent right outside the pool (the temperature of the pool was only about 34, so we decided a quick exit from the pool and entry into tent would be optimal).
Our amazing camp spot by a hot spring

We couldn't imagine anyone would turn up here in the middle of nowhere at this time of night. Just as we were putting in the last pegs I heard the roar of vehicles and looked up to see 3 sets of bright headlight on the horizon! Soon they pulled up in the car park and jumped out, highly amused to see us there.

They were German tourists, also on the hunt for hot pools. We stood there - them in their nice warm clothes and us in our freezing soaking ones shivering away- having a good chat, until they decided it was too cold for them and went back into their jeeps and drove away. So much for that! We got in the pool, and slowly our frozen feet and hands warmed up and we could enjoy this most unusual camp spot.

Chris cooked dinner on the side of the pool, and then we hurriedly jumped into the tent and snuggled into our warm sleeping bags.

There were more mosquito and 'no seeums' about in the morning, so we packed quickly and headed back to the junction by the bridge from the day before. The weather was still overcast, but still and dry, so this was a big improvement.

We reached the Gæsavotn lakes by lunch time - another beautiful grassy spot with an absolutely crystal clear stream and several small lakes. There was a closed winter sports lodge there. After lounging on the grass eating lunch and doing a little bike maintenance we headed up the climb to the tongue of the Vatnajökull glacier. The road was very rough here, but still ride-able.

The space toilet at the Gæsavotn lakes

We met two friendly hikers who were amazed to see us biking. Soon we reached the foot of the enormous glacier and found some funky lava formations which actually made for some great riding. We cycled across the glacial silt out-washes, a strange kind of very flat sand with little turbid streams running everywhere. These proved damp enough to be quite ride-able, and we made great progress through the moon like terrain.

Riding up towards the glacier
Rock cairns
Chris riding on the smooth lava with the Vatnajökull glacier in the background

One of the very flat out-wash zones

By late afternoon we arrived at Kistufell hut - an Icelandic mountain hut which is open to the public for a small honesty fee. It was great to be in a hut after so many days in our tent and we hung our clothes and things out to dry. We cooked up some dinner and enjoyed the solitude of the cosy hut in the middle of nowhere.
Kistufell hut in the setting sun
Cosy to be inside a hut!

At about 8.45 we heard the terrible sound of vehicles - and looked out the window to see two monster trucks reeving up towards the hut, oh no! Soon an Icelandic Guide had told us to move our stuff out the way for the guided Dutch family who would be staying in the hut with us. Grudgingly we moved our stuff and tried to remain polite.

The Dutch family were actually very friendly and soon we were chatting away with them and the guides left with the monster trucks. The family had so much food it was unbelievable, and kindly gave us lots of nice things to eat - and a cold beer!

We had a really good sleep and in the morning we were able to have fresh bananas and yogurt for breakfast! The wind had been gradually picking up all morning and now we could hear it howling around the hut, we had the feeling that the day ahead might be another challenging one. We knew the road ahead became even rougher with many river crossings followed by 'the sands' which could take hours of walking through unrideable sand....maybe in a sandstorm?
Monster truck vs. Chris and hut...

The friendly Dutch family roared off in their monster trucks looking at us dubiously, obviously thinking we would never make it. We set off down the hill towards the Urðarháls shield volcano.Full-screen It was extremely windy and very bumpy, so the going was pretty slow, but on our full suspension bikes we rode along quite well.

We reached the large crater in an area which really could be the moon, and sheltered out of the wind. We consumed an entire packet of biscuits (also a monster truck family donation) and then continued down onto the river plains.
The crater of Urðarháls shield volcano

Dropping down onto the out-wash plains

The rivers were amazing - totally flat glacial out-wash plains, with small shallow channels spreading across them. On either side were the rocky lava fields and far in the distance the twinkling ice of the glaciers. We followed regularly spaced yellow road markers across this surreal landscape, riding fast because the sand was firm and the tail wind amazingly strong.
Chris enjoying the riding
Riding on the plains

This was a fantastic section of riding and we covered the distance at a really good speed, so in no time we were off the plains and into 'the sands'. Actually, because of our fat tires and the recent rain we were even able to slowly ride the sands too, so in only 5 hours (compared to the guidebooks estimate of 8) we were nearly at Dreki hut.

Suddenly Chris's smile dropped away... he had just noticed that the tent was no longer on the back of his bike! Hmmm, this was not very good. We got out the camera and scanned through our recent photos, back and back..... to a photo of Chris shortly after leaving the hut... no tent!

So the tent must have fallen off near the start of the ride! There was no chance of going back,so we just kept on riding to Dreki to see what they could suggest. Dreki is a dry and amazingly sculpted valley - it is from here that you can visit the Öskjuvatn and Viti explosion crater from a huge eruption of the Askja volcano in 1875.
Dreki huts and camping area

We talked to the rangers at Dreki, and they very helpfully sent out several messages to huts in the area in case any driver turned up with our tent - in the mean time she offered us a place in the nice warm hut for the price of camping - lucky us! After a big feed up in the hut kitchen along with many other tourists we decided to do the 2 hour walk to Viti.
Leaving Dreki and heading onto the ridge which leads to Askja

From the hut you climb up a ridge, and then to a saddle where you drop into the Öskjuvatn lake and then sidle around to Viti. It was very windy, but the low light was beautiful and the barren mountain sides very spectacular. Chris said it reminded him of Abu Dabi.

A quick descent to the lake

We reached the Viti crater after a quick descent down some snow. There were some people already swimming in the aqua blue water, so of course we had to have a dip too. The lake is supposed to be warm - but it was only about 25 degrees and with the very cold wind this wasn't quite warm enough to be pleasant. Chris found some mud on the west side of the lake that you could burrow into and it was quite warm.
Viti (the little dots are swimming people)

Hopping out was freezing and we hurried back up and out of the crater and along the 3 km trail to the car park where some kind French family let us squeeze into their car and we drove back to Dreki for a noisy evening in the hut sharing stories with many other travelers. We smelled so strongly of sulfur from swimming in Viti!

Chris looks pretty warm after getting out of the 'hot spring' right?
Looking into the Dreki gorge (Dreki apparently means 'dragon' and you it's not so hard to imagine dragons around here)

Good news in the morning - our tent had been found and taken to Nýidalur by a jeep driver! So hopefully they would be able to get it down to us in a day. We cycled out of Dreki and 40 km along the road to Herðubreiðarlindir. With another strong wind it didn't take us long and we soon reached the grassy fields and babbling stream of Herðubreiðarlindir, a cloud capped Mt
Herðubreið in the distance.

Dreki in the morning
An enormous muddy river on the way out- luckily we didn't have to cross this one!
Wide landscapes and a very strong tail wind!

Here we found yet another helpful warden who knew all about us and our missing tent and was happy to have us stay in the hut again, and she thought our tent should arrive in the morning. We had a chilled afternoon exploring the little lake and surrounding cold springs and washing some clothes in the hut. Our food supplies were getting pretty limited by now - dinner consisted of plain pasta and mashed potatoes.
The oasis of Herðubreiðarlindir

Cloud capped Mt Herðubreið in the late evening
Cool evening clouds

We had a very comfy nights sleep and in the morning our tent had arrived! So that all worked out very nicely thanks to the helpful wardens. We had 90 km to cycle to get to Mývatn that day, and fortunately we had another tail/side wind. We made good progress along the loose metal road and enjoyed the deep river crossings because it was a relatively warm day.
Looking back towards Mt Herðubreið
Another of many river crossings

After 60 km of rough road we finally hit the main road - the ring road - which runs around Iceland. After 11 days crossing the interior of Iceland we had finally made it out to the North coast and we knew that only 30 km down the sealed road we would find Mývatn and a supermarket!!!

To be continued...


Kate Pedley said…
Wow - what an epic! :) Well done on that section and getting your tent back!

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