Italy & France – The Southern Alps

Leaving Switzerland we drove up and over the St Bernard pass to get to Italy.  It doesn’t seem like there is any easy way to cross this border, yet for centuries people have been braving these mountain passes.  At the top we saw an impressive statue of St Bernard, as well as a few of the lovely dogs sharing his name.

Winding our way down into Italy we passed by quaint little villages with stone shingle roofs.  We stopped to wander around one and have a closer look. It was a Sunday and the place felt deserted, except for one old lady coming out of the church.

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Driving down into the Aosta valley we were not immediately impressed, but we found a free parking lot just outside the city centre so things were looking up.  At the info centre the very helpful lady gave us a detailed map of all the hiking trails in the area as well as told us that to see all the main attractions in town there was a combination ticket for €7 each.  The town was full of ancient Roman ruins so we decided to have a look around, and it was well worth it.

The next day we headed west up the valley hoping to see Mount Blanc on the French border.  From the beautiful Lago d’Arpy we got some nice reflections of the mountain range and saw the mountain in its impressive glory from another viewpoint.

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Traveling to the eastern side of the valley we drove towards the Matterhorn, on the Swiss border, and were lucky to get a glimpse of Europe’s other great mountain through the clouds.  The iconic view of the Matterhorn is obviously from the Swiss side, but we thought it looked pretty good.

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Three days was probably not enough in the Aosta valley but we moved on to Gran Paradiso National Park.  Again we found ourselves surrounded by stunning mountains and beautiful blue lakes.  The Alps truly are incredible.

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Gran Paradiso was pretty cold though, and we hiked through a bit of snow to get to a trail that led us along a ridge where we saw a few Ibex who were not at all afraid of us.  We also saw a lot of marmots, who were also not very afraid of us!

Before heading up and over the mountains into France we stopped in the little town of Vernant, famous for its murals of the Pinocchio story.  There were not just a couple paintings; the whole town is covered in colourful murals.   And a lot of them show a story that I was not totally familiar with only being exposed to the Disney version.

The Park4Night app had shown us that there was a fort we could camp at for free on the Italy/France border.  Not knowing what to expect we drove up the windy road, past ski lifts, to find a huge ruined fort perched at the top.  We explored around, finding all sorts of stairs and tunnels that probably should have been closed off for safety (and people like Luke who see and dark scary tunnel and don’t think twice about going in).

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There are a series of forts spread across the top of the mountain range, originally built by the Italians in the 1800’s.  The French took them not long after from what I read, and it sounds like there was a lot of dispute over this particular border.  The forts were used again by the French in WW2 but are now abandoned.  We were so intrigued by the area that we spent a second full day checking out 2 of the other forts.  It also helped that it was one of the best free campsites we have ever come across, amazing views and even a visit by a friendly little fox.

Driving down into France we stopped in Tende after seeing signs for ancient rock carvings.  We found the local museum, which was free, and had a great exhibit on the carvings as well as a history of the area.  We hiked around the area in the afternoon and then decided we should try and find somewhere to swim.  Near the tiny town of Saorge we found the most amazing river, deep blue and crystal clear.

We had come down this way to visit our friends Matt and Mary in Sospel, a little village about an hour north of Monaco.  Luke and Matt spent some time on bikes and we had a good visit.  Luke and I caught a ride down to Monaco with Mary to check out the tiny country.  While made out to be very glamorous and exciting in reality it was hot and busy and just a big seaside town with fancy restaurants and casinos.  I could probably blame it on the heat, because it was a nice looking city in a beautiful spot, but we didn’t stay long.

Up next, Cinque Terre and the magnificent Italian Dolomites!

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Switzerland

Our first stop in Switzerland was the Swiss National Park.  A few years ago they released 10 brown bears back into the area, and there are rumors of wolves as well, but I think you would be pretty unlikely to come across any of these animals out there.  Like much of Europe, Switzerland is trying to rebuild the population of animals that were once native but were wiped out by hunting and farming.

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We did a couple great hikes in the park.  The first one we wandered up a valley said to be the best place to get views of Ibex and Chamois.  Luke carried on farther than me and at the top of the mountain range looking down into Italy he did see Ibex.  On our second day we saw lots of deer in the distance as we hiked up and around a little mountain with great views of the area.

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We detoured slightly over the Alps and into Italy to meet up with some friends in Stelvio National Park.  On a map it looked like a short drive away, in reality we went up and over one of the narrowest and most winding alpine roads I have ever been on.  In places the road was so narrow traffic was almost at a standstill as we tried to squeeze past each other.  I have grown used to the single lane roads they try to pass off as two-way traffic in Europe, but this was pretty intense.

Coming down into Val di Sol was worth it.  We spent a couple days there catching up with friends, watching mountain bikers go by, and hiking around beautiful clear alpine lakes.

Back in Switzerland we carried on with our tour of the Alps.  It’s impossible not to find something amazing up every valley and over every mountain in Switzerland, so at times we struggled to know which hikes to do.  We decided on a hike up to Lake Toma, the source of the Rhine, Europe’s second longest river.  It was a beautiful hike up, although very exposed, not many trees or anything to give shade at these high elevations.

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Carrying on westward we found beautiful Giessbach falls, thundering down the hillside into a brilliant blue lake.  It was very busy around the bottom of the falls and the hotel, but as we often find, once we started hiking up the crowds thinned and the views improved.

Taking a day off from hiking we went into the pretty city of Luzern.  I enjoy seeing cities, but it is often far more tiring than actually climbing a mountain.  Walking on pavement all day and navigating through busy streets are often reasons we avoid major centres.  But I’d read good things about this one so we braved our way in.

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The old part of the city is built along the river flowing into the lake with some lovely old foot bridges that lead across, and would have also served as city defense long ago.  One of the things I love about traveling through Europe is seeing the mix of ancient and new meshed together.  Under every building you see is possibly the foundations of something older and forgotten.

After our day in town we put away our clean clothes, got the boots out, and headed to Grindlewald.  The town itself is very touristy, surrounded by huge mountains and too many trails to know where to start.  We found the tourist information centre where a very helpful lady narrowed down some options for us.  As there is no other way in the Alps, we headed up, to views of the glacier and the entire valley.  It was a long steep trek up, and as we were nearing the top a man coming down encouraged me by saying the cake at the top was really good.  Now, I have often wished when hiking that there was ice-cream or cake at the top of a mountain, and in Europe there almost always is.  There will be a hut, or a hotel, with a beer garden and restaurant at the end of most trails in the Alps.  And this time I remembered to take some money, so we treated ourselves to fresh baked cake.

Our last stop in Switzerland was on the shores of Lake Geneva. We walked along its edge to see Chateau de Chillon.  The castle was made famous by Lord Byron in 1816 when he wrote a poem about Francois de Bonivard who was held as a political prisoner in the 1500’s.  And for the Disney fans out there it was the castle from The Little Mermaid.

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As you can see we did a lot in Switzerland, we loved its high mountains and alpine meadows.  There was a lot we didn’t see, and I would definitely go back to this beautiful little country.

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Little Liechtenstein

Although we only spent 2 days in the tiny country of Liechtenstein we thought that it deserved a blog all to itself.  With an area of 160 square km and a population of 37,000 it is the 4th smallest country in Europe, and it is a beautiful little place.

We arrived in Vaduz, the capital, on a rainy day so had a look around the town.  Modern art sculptures and old buildings make it an interesting city to explore.  We crossed the river through an old covered bridge and stood in Switzerland for a few minutes before heading back.

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In the morning we decided to hike part of the famous Three Sisters route.  I did not realize that the path took us along the sheer edge of the mountain, on a path that seemed only fit for the chamois we saw leaping along with ease.  It was terrifying for me, Luke loved every minute of it.  They say facing your fears helps you overcome them, I’m not convinced of this.  But the hike was amazing, I will admit that, and although it clouded over later in the day we still got some pretty amazing views.

We also checked out the little town of Balzer, which has a very impressive cathedral and castle.  We walked up the little hill through a vineyard, eating cherries off the trees, to the castle.

We probably could have spent more time in Liechtenstein, but actually we saw a lot of the tiny country in the 2 days we were there.

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Austria

After leaving Munich we headed for Austria and the Alps.  We had read about some of the high alpine roads in Austria and decided to head to the Grossglockner, the second most visited place in Austria after Vienna.  Built in the 30’s when the country was in a depression, this incredible road was built purely for tourism, for the love of driving in the mountains.

 

We followed the road through all its hairpin bends to the Franz Josef glacier.  Here we got close up with some ibex and well as a few marmots.  We walked out through a series of tunnels as far as we could before the snow took over the path.  We were lucky with the weather and had great views of the mountains and the glacier.

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Sticking in the mountains our next stop was at the stunning Krimmler waterfalls.  Deciding we’d rather buy ice cream than pay 5€ on parking we rode our bikes to the bottom of the falls and then hiked up the very steep trail to the top of the series of impressive waterfalls.  I’m learning that nothing is easy in the Alps unless you only want to see it from the bottom, and the best views really are from the top!

We stopped in the lovely city of Innsbruck for a day, a beautiful town nestled in the mountains which has hosted the Olympics and Paralympics numerous times.  We wandered through the city centre and along the river, admired the famous gold roof, and ducked into churches to admire as well as cool off (they are always cold and quiet inside when you just need to escape the heat of a city).

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Leaving the city we headed into the mountains to the tiny village of Kuhtai where we hiked up to a pretty lake and then carried on to a nearby peak.  It was a lot of scrambling up and over rocks, and as we neared the top of a very exposed peak the distant sounds of thunder became a bit too close.  As fast as we could (which was not overly fast) we descended the mountain.  The storm did catch us, but not until we were within 20 minutes or so from the van.  And then it is a great feeling to come round the last bend and see your little house waiting there for you, with dry clothes and a thermos full of hot water for tea.

On our last day in Austria we drove over another beautiful high alpine road.  The scenery in Austria has been amazing, the wildflowers brilliant.  It feels like too short a stay, but the road is leading ever onward.

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Germany

After the wedding we were eager to get on and see a bit more of southern Germany.  We were right on the edge of the Black Forrest so that is where we headed first.   There are waterfalls cascading down the mountains everywhere in this part of the world, but we stopped first at Alleheilgen Falls. At the top of the falls we found the old ruins of an abbey which was an added bonus.

Our next stop was Mummelsee, a beautiful glacial lake high in the Black Forest.  The legend is that the lake is inhabited by a water king and his nymphs.  We didn’t see them but we did get some amazing views when we hiked up to the top of Hornisgrinde.

As we were leaving the Black Forest we spotted a big castle on the top of a hill.  Deciding we better take a look we found ourselves at Burg Hohenzollern, a fantastic castle that was originally a fort in the 11th century, completely destroyed in the 1400’s, and rebuilt to its current state in the 1800’s.

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Heading further south we arrived at Lake Constance.  We drove along it until we came to the pretty town of Lindau where we parked up just outside the city and rode our bikes in.  This has been one of the best ways for us to see cities, not having to stress about parking and it’s a good excuse to gets the bikes out.

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 Luke found an app called Park4night that shows places where people have camped for free or cheap and we have been using that loads around Europe.  We ended up at a trailhead parking lot one evening, falling asleep to the sounds of cow bells.  In the morning we decided (I agreed) to hike up the mountain in whose shadow we had slept.  It was a hard hike up, but worth the amazing views at the top.

 Our next stop was at Neuschwanstein castle, a place we both had seen pictures of and wanted to see.  It was stunning; picture perfect perched on the top of a hill overlooking the town.  We decided not to pay for the 20 minute tour inside with a herd of other tourists and opted to climb up the hill behind the castle for a better look.  The castle was built by King Ludwig of Bavaria in the 1880’s.  He built a few other big castles nearby at the same time before he was placed in a mental hospital and suspiciously found drowned not long after.  Seems not everyone approved of his extravagant spending and flamboyant lifestyle.

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Our last stop in Germany was Munich, mainly to see our friends Norbert and Gaby, but also to check out the city as well.  I always prefer to visit cities with friends and get the local take on where to go and what to see.  Part of the perks of traveling as much as we do is how many people we know all over the world. Munich was great though, we visited a few beer gardens, saw an impressive clock as well as lots of other beautiful buildings.

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We loved the parts of Germany that we did get to, the Black Forest and Bavaria.  It was full of amazing scenery, delicious bread and beer, and fairy-tale castles, and definitely a place we would go back to.

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Belgium & Luxembourg

We crossed the ferry at Dover, arriving in Calais with no problems, but headed out of France and into Belgium.  Nothing against France, but we were on a mission to get to Germany to our friends’ wedding.  With only a couple days to spare on the way there we decided on a route through Belgium and Luxembourg.

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As you do in Belgium, our first stop was to buy some cherry beer, then find a campsite for the night.  In the morning we found a beautiful little spot called Parc de Furfooz.  There are some Roman remains there and a few great natural caves.  We spent a couple of hours wandering around the trails there before heading into the town of Dinant.

Surrounded by rocky bluffs, the Gothic cathedral and the colourful buildings make Dinant a stunning place to visit.

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Dinant

Out of time in Belgium we crossed into the tiny county of Luxembourg, which is officially the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.  I don’t really know what that means except that they have some kind of constitutional monarchy.

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Fields of Luxembourg

Luxembourg was really beautiful and very clean and tidy.  I don’t really know how to explain it differently; everything seemed very orderly and neat.  We headed for an area that is called little Switzerland near Berdorf.  We were surprised by the tight rocky gorges hidden away in the forest.

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Our other stop was at nearby Schiessentumple Falls.  It was such a fun word to say we had to go!  It was good, not as impressive as it maybe could have been, but still a good stop.

Crossing into Germany we had one day left before heading to Offenburg.  We stopped at the very pretty Geroldsauer Falls.  There is a lovely path along the river that was still drooping with pink rhododendrons.  It was a great way to spend a hot afternoon.

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And finally we arrived in Offenburg, where our good friends Thea and Dan were getting ready to have a wedding.  Thea’s parents kindly let us camp at their house, despite all the business happening there.  The wedding was lovely and we were so glad to have been able to be there and to spend time with old friends from our Africa travels in 2006.

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A week in Wales

After a 24 hour delay I landed in London Gatwick (thank you West Jet for the crazy cheap flights from Canada), and was met by Luke in our new little home, a beautiful Ford Transit, lovingly converted in record time from a dirty work van to a great little campervan.  She was about to have her maiden voyage, a week away in Wales with Luke’s family.

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Luke has been to Wales a few times, but for me it was my first glimpse, and I loved it.  Beautiful rolling green hills dotted with sheep and steep cliffs down to the ocean.  I’m told we had unusually good weather (not a drop of rain all week) and the wildflowers were blooming everywhere, buttercups and bluebells for miles.

Luke’s sister, Gemma, had found us a house to rent near Pwllheli on the Llyn Peninsula.  We were close to the beach and spent a few of our days there wandering the coastline, fishing, and exploring little seaside villages.  Luke’s nephews entertained us for much of the time.

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We hiked up to the remains of an old iron age fort and traipsed around the bottom of Mt Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain.  We saw ruined castles and found geocaches.  It was a great time away in a beautiful part of the UK, and lovely to spend time with family.

Our little van went strong and we are now more confident in her ability to carry us around Europe!

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Still Going

Home.  It can mean so many things, be so many places.  Recently our home was a big yellow truck, now we find ourselves in a little white van.  What was planned to be a one year absence from New Zealand (one of our other homes) has turned into four.  It happened slowly, opportunities presenting themselves, not running out of cash like we anticipated!  But all of a sudden I am acutely aware of being “homeless”.  This could have something to do with the plight that my parents now find themselves in, cut off from their home by massive flooding with the possibility of never being able to live there again.  Or it could be that I just need to stay still for a while, unpack my bags, and put my books on the shelf.

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Yet here we find ourselves, embarking on another adventure!  This little van that Luke turned into a home is becoming a home, a familiar place to retreat to, to make a cup of tea, to store a few things.

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The prospect of seeing new places continues to propel us onward.  This time we are heading to Europe for 3 months this summer.  The Schengen visa will only allow me this, so that helped to give us a defined time limit!  Any tips of great places to see will be welcomed; we are kind of winging this one.

Armed with hiking boots, bikes, and Luke’s camera, we set off again.

 

African Adventures

Luke and I now find ourselves on a new adventure, although the cash has not quit run out we’ve started new jobs for a travel company called Oasis Overland. At the moment we have just finished a training trip with them through East and Southern Africa and are waiting to start our own trip in January.  We feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity and are excited to start showing people around this amazing continent.

Perfect beach on Zanzibar

We started our trip with a few days in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. From our previous travels in Africa this was one of our favourite places and it didn’t disappoint. The perfect white sand and clear blue water make for perfect beaches, and Stone Town is an amazing labyrinth of narrow winding streets worth getting lost in. Luke and I also love the night food market here (although some of the people we traveled with did not share our love the next day!).

Zanzibar fishing boat

Zanzibar fishing boat

Exploring Stone Town

Night market in Stone Town.

Night market in Stone Town.

Heading south we made our way to lake Malawi, a very chilled out and beautiful place. Camping on the beach and watching the sun set from the warm lake was not a bad way to spend a few days.

Sunsetting over lake Malawi

We spent the next few weeks in Zimbabwe where I was amazed at how friendly and generous the people here are despite all they have gone through. While it is not advisable to openly discuss politics in this country I’ve had a few very insightful conversations with different guides along the way. As always, hearing multiple sides to a story help me to reshape my own opinions. But mainly I have been impressed with how a people who have been through so much remain so resilient and positive, looking forward to a brighter future.

We’ve been lucky enough in Zimbabwe to have close up encounters with lions and rhinos, as well as see an ancient ruined city.  We also took a very memorable overnight train journey from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. You might be imagining a romantic Out of Africa kind of train, this was not that. Quite dirty is a kind description, but it was an experience to be had!

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Zim ruins

 

 

Our next stop on the itinerary was Botswana, home to the largest concentration of elephants in Africa.  We did a boat trip on the Chobe River and saw proof of this, as well as loads of hippos, crocodiles, buffalo, and so many beautiful birds.

Hippo on the Chobe River

 

Elephant sands

One thing that we missed on our last trip in Africa was the chance to go into the Okavango Delta, a massive waterway feeding into northern Botswana.  We went out in traditional makoros, small 2 person canoes, with a guide in each one poling through the shallow water.  It is a very peaceful way to travel, gliding through the reeds, stopping occasionally to look at tiny frogs or huge elephants.  We camped overnight on an island and enjoyed the brilliant African stars.

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Night in the Okavango Delta

The next country we visited was Namibia.  Namibia is a special place, with old red deserts, lots of wildlife, and some of the last remote tribal people in the world.

Camping in Namibia

We stayed a night at a place called Cheetah Park, where a local farmer started rescuing wild cheetahs about 15 years ago.  In Namibia cheetahs are a pest and are usually killed when trapped by farmers.  There were 3 of these beautiful cats that had been rescued as kittens and lived as pets at the farmhouse that we were able to get close to and pet.

Saying hello to the Cheetahs at Cheetah Park

Most of the Himba people live in the northern parts of Namibia but we were able to visit a community with a local guide.   The people were still living very traditionally, besides the odd mobile phone and store bought hair extensions.

Himba tribe

A highlight in Namibia was spending 2 days in Etosha National Park.  During the day we drove through the park looking for animals, and at night the campgrounds were next to busy water holes.

Game drive in Etosha National Park

Late night visit to the water hole

Namibia is a land of spectacular scenery, I would be hard pressed to pick my favourite country in Africa, but Namibia would be close to the top.  We saw amazing sunsets from Dune 45 and Spitzkoppe, saw the sun rise over Soussusvlei, and spent an afternoon wandering along the edge of Fish River Canyon.  If you need more excuses to come and see us out here I’ve got lots!

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Our camp spot in Spitzkoppe

Sun rise over Sossusvlei

The view from the top of Dune 45

Fish River Canyon.

Hope you enjoy the photos, I’m not sure how regularly we will keep up with the blog now, but we’ll try and update you all when we can.

Our friendly travel companions

Iceland Bike Trip – part 2

I left off on the last blog as we arrived in Vik, the southernmost city in Iceland, about half way through our journey.  At this point the riding was feeling easier for me, but the wind that was blowing against us most days did not make the actual pedaling any easier.

Hiding from the rain in a road tunnel

 On the day we left Vik we encountered such wind again and when we were looking for a sheltered place for the night found an old hut that was a couple kms off the main road.  It had been built as a shelter for travellers but the main road had since moved so no one else stopped in while we were there.  It was a great find and we were happy to be out of the wind and rain that night.

Our hut for the night

We biked through a large lava field on day 12 of our travels.  The lava is all covered in a thick moss which made for a very comfy nap spot for me while Luke too pictures.  The scenery changes very subtlety in Iceland, from a distance it all looks similar, but the change from Lupins to moss covered lava was pretty cool.

Napping in the Lava Field

As we were making good time on the bikes we decided to do a little side trip up a 4WD track to see the Laki Crater.  We stopped first in the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur to go in the hot pools and stock up on food.  We anticipated it taking us 3 days to complete the loop.  Sadly we only got 18km on the first day (we needed to do 36).  The road was very bumpy with lots of steep hills and loose rocks, and proved to be a bit more than I could handle with the loaded bike.  So we admitted defeat, mainly because we didn’t have enough food to last us if we kept up at the current rate.  The day was not really a waste though, we stopped at a beautiful canyon and camped near another stunning waterfall, and as always the scenery was beautiful.

On the way to Laki Crater

After stocking up again and soaking in the hot pools in Klaustur we carried on the ring road heading east.  We stopped at an old farm, Nupsstaour, that used to be a tourist attraction but after the old farmer died in 2010 at the ago of 101 it has been closed.  There were a few people who had walked up to the old farm house and buildings so we decided to have a look as well.  It used to be considered the most remote farm in Iceland, and was cool to see the grass covered roofs and visit the little chapel.

Núpsstaður Farm

Our next stop was Skaftafell National Park.  We camped on the edge of the park our first night there overlooking one of the glaciers.  It was easy, and allowed, to free camp as long as you were not within 5 km of an actual campground or in a National Park.

Looking over Skaftafell

Skaftafel is one of the main tourist stops, so the trails and the campground were busy.  But it was worth a stop.  We hiked up to the waterfall and then Luke carried to hike high above the valley while I went back to rest my legs.

Svartifoss

The next day we hiked out along the valley bottom to look for some natural thermal pools that we had read about.  They were not marked on any of the park maps so we weren’t sure if they still existed or if the locals liked to keep it a secret.  We did find them, 2 murky little pools, but they were hot and the view from was amazing.

View from the hot pool

On day 18 we biked 51km and got to Jokulsarlon, the Glacial Lagoon.  Another popular stop on the tourist trail it is an absolutely beautiful spot.  The lagoon flows into a river which meets the sea after about 500 meters.  Big chunks of ice wash up onto the black sand giving it the name of Diamond Beach.  We camped on the edge of the lake that night and Luke was rewarded with some great sunset shots.

Jökulsárlón

Diamond Beach

After 2 more long days of biking we made it to Hofn, I’m not sure I’ve ever been as happy to reach a destination!  We still had 5 more days left of our trip but this was the point where we could get the bus back to Reykjavik.  I can easily say that biking in Iceland was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I was proud of myself that I kept going for 20 days.  And the funny thing is, that I think I would possibly do it again!  Not in Iceland, but maybe somewhere the weather was a little more friendly.  All up we biked around 800 km in 60 hours over 20 days.

Celebratory Viking Beers in Hofn

Back in Reykjavik we rented a car for our last 4 days and travelled around the Snaefellsjokull peninsula.  We hiked up an old volcano, spent a day walking along coastal trails, and admired more stunning scenery.  Perhaps worth a mention is that we saw the tallest structure in Europe, a gigantic radio tower (maybe not that interesting!).

Snæfellsnes Coastline

Overall we loved Iceland.  It can be expensive, but if you cook your own meals and stay at campsites (or fee camp) the cost is not that bad.  I would recommend travelling there, and cycling if you are looking for an extreme challenge!

Our rental car

We’ve made a video of our travels, it’s a little long but a good watch , you can find it from the link at the top of the blog or click HERE. (The video doesn’t seen to play on all tablets for some reason, but works fine on computers.)

Kirkjufell at Sunset