Ice madness (may 2015) - map
“Where would you like to go this year?”, ask I at home. “Well, this time to some warm place.” “Excellent,” say I and smile gently to my girlfriend who has no clue about geography at all, “let's go to Iceland then, it is the so-called land of fire and ice, it means it will be warm there.” If I had any idea what punishment would come as an answer to my little joke I would rather go to Somalia.
We buy the tickets from Berlin few days before the flight as usual, and on the page how-to-park-at-the-airports-for-free.com we manage to find a cheap spot for our car in the airport neighbourhood. In Keflavik, we meet our local contact from the car rental service. We ordered a car in the company called Sadcars, and I must say that the name was well chosen - on the desolate lava field we can see about twenty old wrecks waiting impassively for a tourist to come and take them for a ride around the island. The whole scene reminds me of the TV series abound abandoned dogs trying to get a new master. It is horribly cold and windy, and we wait which car will be ours just to get in. Because the given car's electricity is broken, we are offered a free upgrade to 4WD. “It will be helpful, in the snow,” says the guy. “Oh, no snow,” object I, “we want to go only by the ring road, and there is no snow there in May.” “You'll see,” answers the guy mysteriously. The first afternoon we spend in the supermarket. As we are pretty hungry, we buy so many supplies that we have to carry some of it back home at the end of the trip.
Around the airport
We wander over the Reykjanes peninsula between the airport and the Iceland capital. We walk for about a mile to see the abandoned village from the sixteenth century on the seashore. The wind soughing through the little houses from stones, black sand and flying pieces of moss. It is colder than on arrival, except one sweater I wear everything I took for the holiday. The wind makes the movement difficult. All this looks crushingly and depressively.
We visit the first place with geothermal activity - Krýsuvík. No one can swim in the pools as the water is too hot. We sleep on the shore of the Lake Kleifarvatn. My navigator does not even come out of the car while I try to get a long exposure shot over the lake. I come back in about thirty minutes frozen to death. We sleep in the car. We do not even try to build a tent because of the wind.
In the morning, I realize that I forgot to put the batteries into my sleeping bag to protect them and so they're almost empty. I also find out that I forgot my car charging cable so very soon my camera is going to be without power. We set up to the capital to buy the wire. It is Labour Day today, and we are surprised that the locals do not celebrate it by doing some labour, but they are all at home in fact and all the shops are closed. Finally, I manage to find a universal charger. “Look, it displays the percentage of charge. Now there is twenty percent,” the seller tries to push me to buy this expensive piece of crap. I have no other option, so I take it. After a few days, I realize that it displays twenty percent all the time. At the petrol station, we buy the gas bomb, so we have everything needed to go to the wilderness.
At first, we want to visit the Golden Circle attractions near Reykjavík. The first one is national park Þingvellir the place of a great historical importance where the parliament met once a year until the Danes said no. It all lies in a rift valley which symbolizes the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We go from America to Europe there and back for hours, and it is so much fun. Finally, we get pretty hungry, and we want to cook something to eat. However, it turns out that the gas for stoves in Iceland is probably made nonflammable for safety reasons and we cannot cook. Fortunately, there is a tourist centre nearby where they sell the bombs with gas that actually burns.
Another classical stop on Golden Circle is geyser called Geysir. It hurls boiling water up to seventy metres, but it is somehow switched off last few years, probably also for safety reasons. We then appreciate its smaller brother Strokkur with its poor twenty metres. It erupts every few minutes, and it is so funny to observe the people around the small lake expecting the explosion in every second.
The last attraction on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss waterfall. It is the first of amazing big waterfalls in Iceland we see, and it is an amazing experience. We are so thankful to the young girl who ran barefoot over the hills and rivers to Reykjavík to fight the electricity lobby, which wanted to destroy the valley and build a dam here. We run to the waterfall with the naivety of small kids, and soon we get thoroughly wet. It is no comfortable experience when the temperature drops to zero. At the end of the trip, we will be like a couple of old experienced Indians sneaking around the falling water and observing the wind direction just not to get wet. The water neighbourhood is covered with ice, which creates an incredible mood.
We did not have a bath for two days which seems to be a problem to my navigator so we seek for a hot spring water Reykjadalur, where one can have a swim without being boiled or frozen to death. The bath is well deserved as you have to go over the windy hills for more than an hour. The spring itself is almost boiling, but it is very soon mixed with cold feeders which make the water temperature comfortable. On some places, you can even have legs in hot water while your arms are in cold water. We spend hours there partially because it is very, very comfortable, but mainly we cannot imagine that we go out back to the wintertime.
After the bath, we continue east by the only road around the island. Civilization gets thinner, and there are fewer tourists along the way. We stop by Seljalandfoss, the waterfall where you can go behind. I'm afraid of the hardware as we get completely wet again. I doubt about evening shooting, but finally, we move on towards Skógarfoss.
Skógarfoss is the real jewel of Iceland, and in reality, it looks amazing. The water drops down about sixty metres and creates a huge mass of spindrift. We take each other long exposure photos standing at the bottom of the waterfall. To stand without movement there for thirty seconds is much harder than it seems.
Before the sunset, we get our stuff and move a bit towards Vík, about forty kilometres on the road. The northern location of Iceland has one perfect advantage for photographers. While near equatorial the golden hour - the best time for shooting - lasts a few minutes, here, thanks to the low sun trajectory, it takes almost couple of hours. I can use this to even change location during the sunset. Our target is the troll's rocks near Vík. Vík itself is the largest settlement in the south of Iceland, but in reality, it consists of one street with a petrol station and church. The wind is so strong that night that it moves gently with our cars, which makes us sleepy like babies.
Vík is the southernmost and also the warmest location in Iceland, and our road turns slightly to the north towards the largest glacier in Europe Vatnajökull. The following part is breathtaking, and we have to stop our car every few minutes to absorb it. I let the engine run to prevent battery draining. I even try to shoot during the daylight, something which I never do in normal circumstances. An hour ride before the glacier we enter the black sand desert, known for the sandstorms strong enough to rub off the colour of the car or peel an orange you just want to eat.
The next part of the road runs through the narrow piece of land between the icy peaks of Vatnajökull and the sea shore. We go for a walk in the Skaftafell national park towards the edge of the glacier, and the wind is so strong that most people turn back and give up. We also visit the Svartifoss, beautiful small attraction mainly thanks to the rock formation around. It is a calm place with no wind which we appreciate the most.
As we move forward, there is more and more snow along the road, and it gets even colder than before. I'm looking out for the one of the most enchanting places in Iceland - the Jökulsárlón lagoon, where the glacier head and the surrounding lake almost touches the sea. From the lake, the ice floes go to the sea and polished as diamonds they are thrown back from the rough sea to the black sand beaches around. This a real paradise for photographers. I keep running between the lagoon and the beach and try to take long exposure up to three minutes. I stay excited until midnight, and I even do not mention that my shoes are suffused by waves several times. I also hit my girlfriend with the back door of the car to her head, and I accidentally empty the cooked pasta to the sand. We stay hungry without food, but I do not care and continue shooting. In the morning, I realize that I broke the ND filter during the evening or night.
Since several days, we have a crazy idea to set up for a short trip away from our car. We drive out about three hundred metres up to the mountains, we randomly choose a snowy hill on the horizon and start our cold adventure. The trip is difficult, but it leads through a beautiful tundra around the lake. On the top of the hill, there is so much wind that I do not wait for my porter and turn back immediately. When we pass a small lake, my girlfriend proposes a swim just for fun and accidentally throws off my poorly fixed lens cover into the lake. Because the Canon lens cover is not for free anywhere in the world, I get undressed and try to take it out of the deep water. Frozen to death, I give up after a few seconds. It is the second loss in one day.
The road turns slightly more towards the north, and we pass the southwestern horn of Iceland, a place called Stokknes. It is a real iconic spot for landscape photographers. The combination of black sand dunes and thousand metres peaks creates breathtaking scenery. The evening is almost perfect except the annoying guard who wants ten euros just for visiting the place and the clouds of black sand rolling over the dunes thanks to strong wind which make my camera uncomfortable. The photographer next to me has everything covered in perfect plastic bags and an assistant girl who waits for his slightest commands. I have none of this. My assistant sits in the car.
Frosty north east
We enter the region of the eastern fiords. Even though it seemed unlikely yesterday the wind get stronger, and sleeping in the car becomes a bit annoying as it shakes a lot. In the evening we do not even leave the car, we only put the boxes on the front seats and lay down at the back. The way through the fiords is just wonderful, yet long enough. The amount of snow increases as we move towards the north and finally in the last fiord the snow is everywhere. We leave the sea coast and enter the northeast inner land, the coldest part of Iceland. The condition of the road worsens, sometimes the surface is covered with snowploughs. The weather is foggy and windy, and we see only patterns of white and almost no cars. It is our small European adventure. It seems that the landscape around is almost waste and nothing grows here even in summer.
We move towards Lake Mývatn, one of the most visited places in Iceland. The lake is famous mainly for its geothermal activity and millions of birds nesting around in summer. We take a side road to visit the biggest waterfall in Europe - Dettifoss. We cannot get too close to it because there is too much snow, so we lack the spectacular feeling of others as is described on the Internet. We appreciate smaller Selfoss in the adjacent neighbourhood. Because I do not have the ND, I have to wait for the dusk to have longer exposures. At night which is not real night here in the north, I go back to the car through the snowy, calm and completely abandoned beautiful landscape.
Before the midnight, we arrive in Mývatn area. We are surprised by volcanic activity in Hverir, full of sulphuric dust and boiling lakes. We look around, and suddenly we see a heavy red cloud over the horizon. This is surely a volcanic eruption with lava. We jump into the car and drive like crazy towards the phenomena. After the last horizon, we stop in front of modern geothermal power station beautifully lit by electricity.
We plan to have a rest day. It means that instead of sitting in the car and driving we sit in the car and look out. We desire to have a bath in the local thermal pool, but we find out that it's closed due to strike. We try the normal pool in Reykjahlíð village, but at the entrance, we are disappointed by the stuff. It is closed until 4 pm. We spend the free time walking around the crater of a local volcano and at the precise time we are back at the entrance to the pool. The staff is very sorry, but the pump is somehow broken. They advise us to go to the next little village about an hour ride on the ring road. Finally, we get lucky, and the pool is open. Next few hours we sit in several hot water pools with different temperatures. Small babies around us play naked in the snow. We watch the frozen hills on the horizon, and suddenly the sun starts to shine, and snowstorm comes at the same time. We sit in the smoky water with completely white hair and look like an aged couple. Extraterrestrial experience only for three euros.
After leaving Mývatn I shoot at Goðafoss, one of the last big waterfalls on the ring road, where Christianity became the official religion in Iceland. In only two hours I witness several massive and impressive snowstorms over me. The snow covers the dark soil, which helps to decrease the scene contrast. It is still freezing, and the temperature did not rise over zero for a few days. We decide to move quickly to the western coast and pass Akureyri, the second largest city, at night. Before going to sleep, we dream about the land where you can walk outside without wearing a cap, but it seems to us as a nonsense after the week in Iceland.
Our last destination is Snaefelsness peninsula, sometimes said to be the most beautiful region of Iceland. I dream about shooting under the mysterious Kirkjufell peak. We take a German hitchhiker into the car. He spent three months working as a volunteer on a local farm, so we ask him a lot about life here. There are too many tourists per one local and the Icelander assigned to us is probably too busy to talk. The peninsula is a real jewel among the peninsulas around the world, and it's such a pleasure just to drive through. The only problem is that the hitchhiker has no sleeping bag, so we spend a lot of time looking for his accommodation while the sunset is coming fast. My navigator gets seriously sick, and we look for room for her as well. I stay outside because I want to shoot both sunset and sunrise under Kirkjufell which includes only three hours of sleeping. Initially I thought that I would photograph both sunset and sunrise every day, but due to the lack of sleep, it turns to be impossible. Morning session under the mountain is even better than evening one and is a great satisfaction for a short night.
We approach the airport slowly during the last two days. We spend a night near the largest source of hot water in the world - 180 litres per second. It is so comfortable to eat dinner, put the dishes for a few seconds into the stream a take it perfectly clean. Last afternoon we hike towards the highest waterfall in Iceland. We are pretty lucky because we can traverse the river by the improvised bridge built only a few minutes before our arrival. The waterfall itself is not very attractive. However, the canyon below is indeed. The last day is much warmer, the temperature attacks eight degrees and the wind calms a lot. Iceland is saying goodbye in a nice way. We return the car in the evening, somehow we have enough sleeping in it and we plan to spend a short night in the airport hall. To our bad surprise, we are woken up several times by the local staff. It is forbidden to sleep on the mat, but you can only sleep directly on the floor.
Iceland is surely the most beautiful country I visited so far. It is without a doubt a paradise for landscape photographers thanks to its dramatic scenery, dynamic weather and long lasting golden hour. I was so amazed by shooting there, maybe I also had extreme luck for the light. The Icelandic society seems to us to be perfectly organized, but we have only a little experience of it. The country is ranked as the top one when measuring the quality of life, and there remains only one disadvantage - the cold weather. Thanks to the low-cost airlines and our - rather inexpensive - way of traveling the destination is much more affordable than it was in the past and I plan to visit Iceland soon again during summer and maybe winter as well.