Iceland

Instagram inspired travel

Once again it was instagram buddy David (@daffydpowel) who dropped me an invite to join up with fellow snappers on a short whirlwind trip to Iceland. From a Thursday through to Sunday, we’d be based in Reykjavik and cover as much of the ground as we could.

The flight out from Edinburgh went as smooth as you could possibly imagine. It’s only a two and a half hour flight and on arrival the high tech automated arrivals had us through in a flash and onto our car hire. David and myself would take turns driving, but David was taking the initial hit on his credit cards, while the deposit was enough to make you wince, driving with a full car of old and new friends is enough to ensure we wouldn’t need it.

I had traveled with David before in Cuba and have known Lucy for a while now to, but on this trip I would be getting to know Alayne and Shirin, who I understand instigated the trip with David.

I bowed to David’s foreign driving experience, and he drove us from Keflavik Airport into Reykjavik, all the time laughing at the sat-nav’s Icelandic pronunciation. David took us right to the doorstep of the AirBnB apartment that would be our base for the trip.

There had not been much opportunity to make  specific plans, and we all had suggestions via Instagram DMs in the run up to the trip, so we spent our first evening in Iceland around the dinner table discussing possibilities and eventually deciding on a north south split. Our first full day we would travel north, up the west coast to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the next day we would go south to the Diamond Beach. We had a late return flight on Sunday night, so would spend our final day exploring the capital itself.

Our planning was accompanied by a selection of classic 80’s vinyl from David Bowie, the Police and the Cure amongst others, including some local talent in the form of a Christmas album by the Andersen Family. The photo on the cover did make us wonder whether or not the family now reside in a padlocked cellar or worse, an unmarked grave due to the manic looking father Anderson had in the photo! I’m sure they are all fine…

Iceland’s west coast & the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Friday, 11 January 2019. The following morning we were ready to go, leaving Reykjavik in the dark we set of out of town heading north. It was warmer than expected. No snow to be seen. This was strange for the time of year. Conditions were very familiar to us coming from Scotland. It was misty, breezy and the landscape was saturated, feeling quite a lot like home. The main difference being was the scale of the landscape. The roads were empty and straight, disappearing into the muted landscape.

The Greenland Sea was to our left and craggy ridges lined the right hand side.

We took a detour off the coastal road to visit one of the waterfalls Iceland is famous for. This was not one of the high vertical falls, but a cataract of water that tumbles through a volcanic gash in the ground. There are several bridges that take you over to with bank of the river. On the far bank a lava field had spread from a low lying volcanic caldera on the horizon. It was an understated geological feature, but fascinating all the same. The emerald water foamed below layered rock, the top layer featuring folds of lava, frozen in time. The falls themselves are named Barnafoss. ‘foss’ being the Icelandic word for waterfall and ‘barna’ I assume has the same derivative as our word  ‘bairn’ the colloquial for children. The waterfall was named after the tragic circumstance of two children who were swept away.

Barnafoss
Barnafoss waterfall

After this short visit it was my turn to drive. Luckily the roads in Iceland are in great condition. They are quiet too, so pretty straight forward once you are used to driving on the wrong side. 

We continued northward, where the mist and rain returned. It was a straight road but mile after mile seems to look the same. Visibility was poor, not ideal for a bunch of photographers. I started to feel concerned that the mountains we were aiming for would be shrouded in mist and we’d be driving this way for nothing.

Pulling in at a filling station for a bathroom break we had a quick look around. Shutters snapping what little there was to see. The filling station itself was bathed in an eerie light. It looked like a scene from a David Lynch movie.

David Lynch style petrol station

Carrying on, the road started to climb. We were now in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula itself. A national park the mountains came up either side of us and the road climbed through them. Snow patches appeared by the roadside, and the cloud we drove through started to brighten. Eventually, patches of blue started to appear and soon enough we broke through the cloud into clear sky. We could see the hills around us for the first time today. We had to stop, despite the daylight hours coming to an end. There was a small lake where we parked the car, and we broke off looking for scenes to snap. 

The surroundings had the feel of the moon about them. Ice shattered rock interrupted by mossy green or snow patches. We were elevated at our current position, so we could see further down the road with the surf breaking against a dark shore.

We didn’t stop long as the light was fading further. We loaded ourselves back into the car and descended the hill and onward around the peninsula.

Snæfellsnes
Kirkjufell side profile on the left

The road snaked around the base of a cliff and we could see mountains rising from a bay. It wasn’t immediately recognisable, but we were approaching Kirkjufell mountain from the side. The inland mountains were impressive enough, but as we rounded the coast the familiar shape of the mountain made revealed itself. We drove over the causeway to a quieter parking spot which put us in the prime position to see the pointy peak that gives the mountain its name of ‘Church Mountain’.

Leaving the car we grabbed out tripods and walked up the pathway that followed a lagoon, leading up to Kirkjufellsfoss, the waterfall that so often acts as foreground interest to the mountain that gives its name.

As we were late, it wasn’t too busy, but not quiet by any means. There was a bit of hustle and bustle as people waited to find the perfect spot to set up their camera.

I had no predetermined shot planned myself, although I would have loved a perfectly clear reflection of the peak. I grabbed a few handheld shots on my way to the waterfall and then set up in a position that would include the waterfall. I shot sets of nine panoramas so that I could capture the scale of the landscape. The low light meant it would be slow shutter speeds, so blurring the water as it tumbled below.

Kirkjufell
Kirkjufellsfoss

I took a moment to take in the crepuscular view. The town in the distance sparkled as the lights came on. Layers of high ridges receding back from the town into the Greenland sea.

We crossed over the road and returned to our parked car via the shore. The tide was out, so no chance of a watery foreground, but we did try to capture something a bit different before leaving.

The return down the west coast continued as darkness fell, punctuated by a fuel stop and a visit to a supermarket before reaching Reykjavik. Shopping for our evening meal made staying in Iceland that bit more affordable.

So after several hour of driving in the dark, we were back at our Airbnb to freshen up, have some dinner and plan the following day, all to the sounds of the 80’s vinyl.

South Iceland, diamond beach & the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Saturday, 12 January 2019. Our destination for the day would be the south coast and the famous Diamond Beach and the source of the icebergs, the Jökulsárlón glacier and lagoon.

It was around 5am we decided to get going. It would be around 5 and a half hours each way and pretty much all done in the dark. Again we would split the driving between myself and David. I took the first shift.

Luckily the roads are well kept and fast with little in the way of traffic, especially at this time in the morning. We stopped in a lay-by an hour or so in for a ‘comfort-break’ it was still pitch black and the road ahead would descend for a while into the next town.

Continuing through the gloom, Alayne soon pointed out a strange illuminated sight as we descended further. It turned out to be one of the numerous waterfalls. Lit up from below, this was Seljalandsfoss, and we decided we would try to visit on the return if we had enough time.

As the horizon ahead started to glow, we crossed vast lava plains that stretched from the high plateau to our left out to the coast on our right side. The mountains ahead loomed out of the darkness. We could just make out the snow tops and the occasional finger of a glacier reaching down between them. 

A sunrise was attempting to make itself known, with a line of soft pink appearing above the horizon, and since the mountains and glaciers ahead were bringing about more ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ amongst us, so we decided to stop and grab some shots.

Drivers swapped over and we continued towards the mountains. I continued to shoot from the rear window as the glaciers just seemed to get bigger and more impressive.

We crossed the bridge that spanned the lagoon form the Jökulsárlón glacier and parked up the car for the diamond beach. The draw of the glacier was strong, but we went down to the matt black beach that was peppered with glassy little icebergs and a fair smattering of photographers.

It was 11 o’clock and the sunrise had not really come to anything. This didn’t matter to me. The flat grey light just added to the austere atmosphere.

We each went our own way on the beach trying to pick out gems. It was busy and trying to find a sand backdrop that was clear of footprints was quite difficult but added another element to the challenge of grabbing an interesting shot. I started near the outflow of the lagoon where a scalloped surfaced little berg had the incoming tide swirling around it. Its tapered ends added to the diamond look and I thought I’d set up my tripod to catch the swirling water. I stuck the tripod with camera in the sand, and set the 2 second timer, gauging when the wave would surround the ice (and my camera). The sea washed in covering the feet of my tripod as I ran backwards to avoid wet toes.

I walked back along the beach through other visitors until it got a bit quieter. This also meant there were less icebergs. There were a few large ones though, being battered by the surf, so I made those my subject, before Shirin approached, letting me know the others were on their way to the glacier lagoon. We had spent over an hour photographing the diamond beach. I didn’t think it would, but there was something about this beach that had a real awe inspiring effect on me. I was glad to be able to take it in at my own speed.

Jokulsarlon Diamond Beach
Jokulsarlon Diamond Beach
Jokulsarlon Diamond Beach
Wave crashing over iceberg at Jokulsarlon Diamond Beach in Iceland

We walked underneath the Route One bridge we had crossed earlier. The outlet of the lagoon had a few large bergs beached in the middle, the water flowed around them. Further upstream however the water and ice turned an unreal hue of blue. The ice in particular was a massive jumble of broken blocks, some clear and translucent, some dirty carrying glacial silt and others a rich almost artificial looking bright blue.

These colours repeated themselves in more ordered striations that ran in parallel up through the glacier that rose above the lagoon, the source of all the ice.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

The ice edge was 20km further north when Iceland was first settled and had grown during the ‘little ice age’ which peaked in the middle ages. Throughout the last century however, it has receded rapidly.

The lagoon grew from 8 km2 in 1975 to nearly 15 km2 in 1998. Large blocks of ice break off the edge of the glacier, which is about 30 m high, keeping the lagoon stocked with icebergs. It was amazing to think of the millennia this snow and ice had been making its way seaward and, just how much longer it would be in existence? The temperature for January was not exactly arctic. It was hovering around zero, but the days before had been even warmer.

I met the rest of the group taking in the jaw dropping sight of floating ice and glacier. We stopped for a quick coffee at the visitor centre before returning to the lagoon to explore further.

We got down to the waters edge and slowly worked our way back downstream.

Credit to David for the photo

It was getting noticeably busier as the general public had risen from their beds and bolstered the numbers of photographers who had made the most of the ‘earlier’ light.

The scale of the glaciers in the distance and the beauty of the ice against black sand had left an impression, but it was time to move on. We planned to fit in a few sites on the return journey. It also started to snow ever so lightly.

First stop after a few more hours driving was the small town of Vík í Mýrdal. We parked up at the typically Icelandic church which overlooks the town by the sea.

Vík í Mýrdal

We did have to wait for a short while to get a clean shot of this minimalist building as a local parishioner had parked up outside, leaving their car at the front door. As soon as they left, we were like vultures descending. It was dusk and we still wanted to photograph the beach below.

Vik Church

Parking up at the breakwater that runs adjacent to the black beach, we bailed from the car and out into the bay to take in the hazy dark seascape with salt spray, cliffs and the basalt sea stacks known as Reynisdrangar.

The breakwater is actually part of an anti erosion programme that has been running to save the town from the encroaching sea, but it also provided a platform for us to walk along and set up a tripod. Once again we were not the only photographers on the scene.

I spotted Lucy alone on the sand of the beach itself. Giving her time to have the beach to herself I waited till she started walking back before I went to witness the surf breaking for myself. I met Lucy on the sand as she was walking back and we stood and felt the power of the thunderous waves hitting the beach. It was slightly eerie in the low light, strange seeing birds in flight over the water especially as it was almost dark. But it was an absolutely beautiful sight to behold.

We had to give in to the dark, we made our way back to the car through the long grass which is also part of the anti erosion work along the beach.

Back in the car, for a short while at least, our next stop were the famous waterfalls that have become synonymous with Iceland. First off, we stopped as Skogafoss, probably the most instagrammed waterfall of late. No danger here. We were in full darkness when we arrived as we considered pointing the car headlights upstream, seriously though, we walked towards the gloomy cataract and towards the roaring sound of water. It was still pretty impressive. Gulls wheeled overhead, looking to take advantage of the scraps that the daytime visitors would leave behind. We could see headlamps making their way up the footpaths to the side of the waterfall. I’m not sure what would be visible from this vantage point, but down below where we were, I was kind of glad we saw the waterfall when we did. No crowd, not worrying about camera settings and just enjoying the scale of this surreal setting. Another short stint in the car and we were at the other waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, which we had seen from the road, illuminated in the early hours. This waterfall was a more slender affair and has a footpath that takes you into a shallow cave behind the waterfall itself. We carefully picked out way over the rocks. My headlamp providing me with my own personal rainbow, actually making it harder to see where I was placing my feet on the slick footpath. Behind the curtain of water, it was invigorating. A cold shower with immense energy. David, Lucy and myself laughing and shouting tried to make ourselves heard over the sound of the falls. The spray and the thundering water produce a euphoria. We watched silhouette figures projected against the falling sheets of water. For a moment Lucy questioned why the shadows were moving when we were not, before the realisation that they were coming from the other side, and were not in fact our own shadows. We laughed as we made our way back to the trail.

Looking back towards the falls, we did experiment with some slow shutter stills. Trying to capture the trails of water in the spotlight. The spray and low light making it tricky to set up our cameras.

I took the next shift behind the wheel for the 15 minute stint to Midgard Basecamp where we would get some food. David had suggested that we could catch a gig while we were there, but it would mean staying till quite late. 

We ordered some food, in my case a tasty burger with a side of little spicy potatoes. It seemed reasonably priced too, for Iceland. It was a welcome rest in a nice bar/diner, but we couldn’t stay. It would be a while before the band came on and it was starting to snow again, so we decided to head for home. We had a while to go, and crossing high ground, the snow lay thicker on the road. Our winter tyres gave me confidence, but driving on the wrong side of the road became tricky when you could no longer see the markings. The road seemed to rise forever as we came closer to Reykjavik, but eventually the dark snowy high ground gave way to city lights. It was a relief and I was glad we hadn’t stayed later in Midgard.

Back at our digs, we got changed, had a drink of gin and whatever mixer we could find, then we decided to get out and try a local pub for a pint. It wasn’t busy in town, at least not where we were, but as we walked through the streets, you could see the locals enjoying each others company in the houses we passed. It all looked very cosy, particularly since Iceland was hanging on to many Christmas decorations and other twinkly accoutrements. After a short walk, pressing our noses up against the windows of  a few watering holes, we settled on a friendly little place. Not busy, but comfortable with a low ceiling, rustic wooden tables and beers with vikings emblazoned on the taps. We each chose a different beer under the advice of the bar tender. Settling down at our table we savoured the drinks and chatted about our days, photography and music amongst other things.

Closing time came before we had even finished our drink, but with Icelandic beer prices the way they are we thought it for the best. Lucy, Alayne and Shirin had booked a session at the Blue Lagoon the following day and David would run them there in the morning.

Exploring Reykjavik

Sunday, 13 January 2019. The others were off to the geothermal spa, known as the Blue Lagoon, just west of the city. I stayed behind and cleared up the house. We still had most of the day, but our flight was later in the evening. David returned with the car and we locked up the house and went across town to the museum that sat on the hill overlooking the city. We tried to blag ourselves into the museum for free in order to get shots from the roof. Unfortunately we couldn’t get access to the outdoor part so we had to make do with the carpark. The views were great through. Looking to the mountains beyond with the Greenland sea making its way inland, the city looked splendid. Even more so with the sun coming up, the snowy backdrop turned a beautiful rose gold.

Reykjavik

It was time to go pick up the rest of the group from the Blue Lagoon, and when we did they seemed to have had a wonderful experience. It certainly looked out of this world from the outside. A barren lunar like landscape with low profile buildings and pipes spewing steam into the sky.

Blue Lagoon spa with steam rising in front of volcano

Back in the city

We parked up by the famous Hallgrimskirja. Modelled after the volcanic basalt rock structures, this striking church rises above the city. However, our first stop was a small bakery Lucy had been tipped off about. Baud & Co. was just down the street with a graffiti covered facade. Inside you were greeted with the warm aroma of cinnamon and an amazing selection of breads and pastries. The cinnamon rolls were recommended so we place our orders, then with coffees in hand savoured what I can honestly describe as the most pleasant pastry experience I’ve ever had. To paraphrase Lucy she imagined it ‘must be similar to nuzzling your face into a warm bosom’. I don’t think she was far off the mark.

Baud & Co bakery in Reykjavik

On returning to Hallgrímskirkja Church we got out tickets to climb the tower for views of the city. Peering over the high walls in the tower, the colourful buildings radiate outward from the church in all directions until they met the sea.

The distant mountains still retained a warm glow from the low sun, contrasting beautifully with the deep grey blue of the Greenland Sea. It was well worth the small fee for an all-seeing panorama.

After grabbing a coffee, we meandered around the streets, popping in and out of touristy shops until we reached the Harpa Concert Hall, a beautiful shimmering piece of modern architecture. We didn’t go inside, but worked our way along towards the setting sun, which lit up the buildings in a warm glow. However, we soon realised the light show would be happening back from where we had come. Lucy had made her own way there and messaged us, saying that the snow covered mountains and sea were looking spectacular. So the rest of us walked briskly back to Harpa and the breakwater beyond.

We met up with Lucy once more and captured the light fading. At one point a tall ship left the harbour and passed in front of the mountains. It didn’t have its sails hoisted but all the same it made for a beautiful image. A large moon sat high in a darkening sky. 

We had one last experience to take in, the famous hotdog stand known as Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Its well renowned probably due to its Icelandic name translating to ‘best hotdogs in town’.

We didn’t wait long, but I did feel I rushed things when I was being served. Everyone else came away with plenty of dressings, while I had gone for straight up dog with ketchup and mustard. The mustard being the thick sweet variety most favoured in these parts. The others had remembered to dress their dogs up with additional onion and other sauces. Possibly due to my selection, I didn’t think too much of it. It was just a hot dog after all. Small and served in a flimsy bun. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to have it, but after the cinnamon bun earlier, I think I’d peaked too soon.

It was now time to head home. We had to return the hire car (with its hilarious sat-nav voice) in plenty of time so they could transfer us to the airport.

We walked back up the hill to the church, where the moon approached the spire in a deep blue evening sky.

The drive back to the airport was straight forward, with only a slight delay loading onto our Edinburgh bound flight.

The short days were packed with adventure, leaving us all wanting to come back as soon as we were able. I’m glad we did go in winter, even though it may have been one of their warmest and snowless in many years. A summer visit beckons with long light days, but that’s for another time.

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