A Photographic tour of Iceland.
April 2014. Part I - The The Golden Circle and Snaefellnes in the West.
What can you say about Iceland?
It's a place where you rapidly run out of superlatives. I've wanted to go there for many years, originally because of it's historical connections but later it was the landscape that started to draw me.
Iceland is a country still in formation. Sitting on a hotspot over the Mid Atlantic Ridge where the Earth’s crust is literally being torn apart by monumental forces, the evidence of that drama is written in the extraordinary geology that presents itself at every turn.
The Vikings that first came here believed that their Gods had slain the first great giant Ymir and filled the oceans with his restless blood. They broke his body and cast his skull into the air to make the dome of the sky. From his flesh they formed the Earth and his shattered bones became the rocks and the mountains. Looking around you in Iceland it is very easy to see why they thought this way.
Our plan was to make a circular tour of Iceland to get a real flavour of the landscape, not just the tourist hotspots but some of the less well known places as well. We wanted to travel "out of season" to avoid the crowds and we would hire a camper van to give us flexibility and a loose schedule.
Wednesday 2nd April.
Our flight brought us safely into Keflavik International and we were met by a cheerful representative from "Happy Campers", the company we were hiring the vehicle from. He responded patiently to the barrage of questions I pestered him with as he drove us into Reykjavik to collect our mobile home for the next two weeks and we got our first look at the landscape.
It has to be said that the Main road on the North of the Reykjanes Peninsula does not offer the finest views Iceland has to offer.
The camper van we had booked was the smallest one available and although rather compact it gave us all the essentials we needed for the trip. On future occasions we may consider something a little bigger but it was sufficient and good value.
There is a road that encircles the island and passes through many of the bigger settlements and towns. It is known simply as Route One and this would form the backbone of our journey buy we wanted to make a few side trips as well. While most of Route One is metalled many of the side roads are composed of compacted gravel, a material that the Icelanders have in plentiful supply.
A huge number of visitors to Iceland never proceed further than Reykjavik and a tour of the so called "Golden Circle". Our first stop in the camper would be in this more touristy area but we hoped that we would be a little ahead of the coach tours and crowds if we actually rose with the sun on location.
Now, call me a wuss if you like but I hate getting into a new vehicle on the wrong side. I like it even less when I find the steering wheel is on the wrong side as well.
They drive on the right in Iceland of course and to a Brit that is always unsettling. Add to that our departure from the yard in the middle of the rush hour, trying to read signs with too many consonants and a very hairy drive over the flanks of Skálafell in the thickest fog I have ever seen, on a road with an indeterminate number of lanes. I was far from relaxed on arrival at Geysir.
We settled down for our first night not far from Geysir which we were going to visit properly at dawn. The bed was comfortable if a little cramped but the bedding was hardly adequate for the conditions. We had paid extra for “sleeping bags” which helped slightly but if we do this again we will bring some decent bags of our own from home.
Having said that, the van had heating which we only used occasionally to preserve fuel so it wasn’t too bad.
Thursday 3rd April.
As we noticed a few times, the geothermal areas that we found often announced themselves to our noses first. Water percolates down through porous volcanic rock to the heated earth below dissolving minerals as it goes and then emerges again as vapour dispersing some of these compounds into the air.
The sulphurous smell is distinctive. Not really unpleasant but certainly very characteristic of the sites we visited. Geysir was no exception to this rule.
The original “Geysir”, from which these features now derive their name worldwide, erupts very infrequently now. Fortunately it has a slightly smaller neighbour that makes up for it by bursting into action every 5-10 minutes or so.
This is very convenient for a landscape photographer hanging around in the cool morning air.
The first tourists of the day stared arriving as we were packing up to leave so we set our course for Gullfoss, just a short distance up the road for our next stop.
There are a few rivers in Iceland called Hvítá, which just means “White River”.
The light colour of the water that leads to this name is usually caused by rock flour, a fine silt created by glacial action.
The end result is that many waterfalls have a colour which has to be seen to be believed.
At Gullfoss, this Hvítá plunges 32m in two stages into a narrow, steep canyon before flowing away in a completely different direction.
The spray from the falls coats the rock face with ice in the Winter and as it melts in the Spring it adds it’s own peculiar interest and texture to the scene.
Once again, as we were leaving the first coaches were starting to arrive. By the time we reached Thingvellir the crowds had truly arrived.
I didn’t actually take many pictures at Thingvellir as our visit was more of a personal pilgrimage than anything else.
Ever since developing an interest in the Vikings I have wanted to stand upon the Lawspeakers Rock and see the plain that figures so strongly in their history. I took a small camera with me but the image I took from that place was not one that could be caught with any technology. I spend much of my life teaching people about the Vikings and some parts of my knowledge come from putting myself in their footsteps from time to time.
What better way to understand their voyages than sailing in copies of their longships? How better to understand their artefacts than learning their crafts? For me, standing in that place was something that deepened my understanding in ways I cannot really explain.
Leaving the crowds behind us we set out for a more obscure location.
Brúarfoss is not a huge fall and not easy to find either.
I had come across a few pictures and descriptions and it sounded interesting.
Armed with map and compass we set out in the right direction only to be confused by a second stream, not featured on our map, that cut across our path.
Undeterred, we checked our position, crossed the first river and eventually found the falls just where they should be.
Here, the wonderful colour seems to be caused mainly by tiny air bubbles, whipped into the chill water by a succession of falls on either side of a small ravine.
The effect is startling, especially in the sunlight anthough the sun was not best placed when we arrived for the best shot that I could see. Another time perhaps.
We arrived at Buđir, our next stop, in overcast conditions, walked to the beach across the lava field and watched seals surfing in the big waves before turning in early.
Friday 4th April
It was a grey dawn turning to drizzle, not much point photographing the church in those conditions so I decided to concentrate on the rocks and the sea instead.
Debs took her sketchbook and worked around the church and I worked the shore til noon.
The lava forming the rocks at the shores edge here was obviously quite viscous and cooled into dark tarry looking shapes that I thought contrasted nicely with the fluidity of the waves washing over them.
After a sandwich for lunch we drove down the coast to Anarstapi.
This part of the coast is well known for it's sea cliffs which are pounded by the waves and populated mainly by kittiwakes.
Basalt formations like these are formed when lava gathers in pools, as it cools the rock cracks at right angles to the cooling surface and often forms hexagonal columns.
Because it is pre cracked it actually erodes faster than you would expect for a rock this hard and here there were arches and many broken pieces forming boulders in the surf.
In Britain there are similar formations at Staffa and the Giant's Causeway but I’ve never seen anything anywhere near as complex.
Here we found a great variety of forms.
The drizzly weather continued all through the day but fortunately the soft lighting seemed to suit the rock formations well.
We settled for the night further up the coast at Lóndrangar hoping that the weather would clear for some wider shots of the landscape.
Saturday 5th April
A grey dawn again, about 5°c with showers of rain. I took some early shots along the coast and then, after breakfast, set off over the Lava field with Debs for a closer look at the stacks.
I’m not sure exactly how they were formed. They sit on the edge of a lava field but I suspect there must originally have been a cinder cone that has eroded away. What remains is a ragged, hollow core sticking up like a stump of Ymir's broken bones.
Iceland seems populated by more tales than people at times and it is little surprise that such a strange and bewildering landscape is filled with stories of ghosts, trolls and hidden people.
Even in these conditions Snćfellsnes is a beautiful place. Along the road we saw an Arctic fox crossing the road, still in his silver coat. Traffic is so scarce here that he stopped to curiously watch us drive past before going on his own way. Moving to the northern side of the peninsula we stopped at Kirkjufellsfoss, another popular site among photographers.
I cannot begin to tell you how angry I was to find the first litter here that we have seen since we landed on Iceland. What really made my blood boil was that it had obviously been left by photographers.
Wrappings from a memory card, a flight luggage label complete with the name of it’s owner, who flew in from Frankfurt, a battery, a piece of broken tripod and two tabs from professional 120 film, so certainly not all from general tourists. What sort of scumbags fly to such a beautiful place and then start to foul it up for everyone else?
There really is no excuse for it. I've been a photographer for over thirty years, film and file, and never left anything but my footprints at a location. People like this are an absolute disgrace and drag the reputation of the majority of responsible photographers down and though the mud with them. I cleared it all up of course.
We decided this place deserved better light so after a few shots and sketches we grabbed some more supplies at Grundarfjordur before taking a quick look at Strykkisholmur.
We found a few things of interest but what caught my eye most were some weathered basalt cliffs by the harbour there that are full of interesting detail.
I like a good piece of stone especially if it’s been exposed for a while.
Often the oxidisation of compounds in the rock produces far more colour than most people expect.
Sometimes we don’t have to look far to find good subjects.
We returned to the falls in the evening and parked up for the night.
Sunday 6th April
With the whole of Iceland to choose from, a bunch of clowns in another Happy Camper van turned up, parked right next to us, and started playing loud music, at 1:20 am they started flashing their hazard lights and waving torches around to attract the attention of two more vehicles. I got out of bed and suggested, in no uncertain terms, that they adjusted their behaviour. I was certainly not a very “Happy Camper” at that point.
By morning there were six of the idiots wandering around the place like lost sheep.
They had come, like so many before them, to capture the landscape that they had seen and read about in books but regardless of their expensive cameras and rather cheap flimsy tripods, they obviously didn’t have a clue about what they were doing.
One of them even started waving his mobile phone around pretending it was a light meter when he saw that I apparently did have some idea of which end of the camera to point at the subject.
A promising dawn slowly faded out to a fairly clear sky for a while so I took a few shots while Debs tried to catch up on her disturbed sleep.
After breakfast we left them to it and moved East to a dramatic lava field we had spotted the day before called Berserkjahraun.
This is another place that figures strongly in the saga and storytelling tradition of this country.
As a landscape the biggest difficulty is knowing where to start. You could spend a lot of time here and never take the same picture twice.
Our plan was to stop for the next night at Hvítserkur, an off shore stack to the North with a distinctive shape which stories say is a troll cow petrified by the light of day. At least we hoped we would get some undisturbed sleep that night