17 Mar 2018

Iceland #14 - Day 4 - East to Hvalnes

One of my truly favourite places in the world to spend a few days, in almost complete isolation, is the little yellow cottage at Stafafell. I didn't discover the place until February 2015 (I think), but I've been making up for it ever since, having stayed there now a total of five times (and hopefully there will be many more!). So even though I was leaving Jökulsárlón behind for a few days, I had another superb place to head for.

I managed to get myself up early - for a change - grabbing some clothes, a Nature Valley for breakfast, and heading down to the beach to arrive just after 8.30am (not exactly early early!). It was bitterly cold, and the clear sky above my head soon disappeared as huge stormy snow-clouds took its place. There were a few more bits of iceberg in the surf, but still not a huge amount. A little further up the beach it was still littered with small pieces, mostly flattish stubby bits. A little snow had fallen on them during a recent shower. I wandered up the beach looking for some decent bergs, hoping that the sky must suddenly explode with some pre-sunrise colours; it didn't.

The cloud just grew, and the light patch on the horizon where the sun might appear diminished.

The clouds became more and more menacing. I found an unusual dark green iceberg, possibly that dark colour from terminal moraine dirt at the end of the glacier; it looked a bit like a grouper in certain angles. I rather liked it!

Some of the icebergs were nicely-placed for some decent water trails, so I tried a few angles. I wasn't disappointed - especially as the sky above the horizon had a hint of red finally.

Unfortunately I had to return fairly early to Reynivellir as check-out was at 11am (all check-out should be at midday at the earliest!!), so I had to tear myself away. As I walked back along the beach I noticed a camera on top of a very flimsy-looking tripod, close to the ground, but with the extension column raised. The owner had his back to the camera and was rootling in his bag for something. He turned round just in time to see the tiniest of waves come in, tipping the tripod over, unsurprisingly, and gently nudging the camera and lens into the salty water. The man picked it up and was clearly very annoyed with himself. Seriously, people, never leave your camera unattended on a tripod in the surf zone! I've learnt my lesson from rain damage, and I'm also super-careful when I'm anywhere close to salt water (I also carry a spare body, just in case...). I then passed a massive photography crew taking some pictures of a woman wearing a long flowing dress. Someone stood nearby with a huge coat that would be rushed around her shoulders between takes. I didn't recognise her, but there seemed to be a bit of an entourage, so perhaps she was a Game of Thrones star, or something.

There were some beautifully sculpted icebergs just before I left the beach - this one looked like a sculpture by Henry Moore.

One of my favourite shots from the trip

Just before I got to the car I noticed that the snow was covered with small black specks of the sand, blown across its surface; it reminded me of the best-ever posh vanilla ice-cream I've ever had, made with real vanilla pods, in Base Camp, Spitsbergen (of all places).

And then it was time to go! I'd be back in three days' time, and hopefully the iceberg conditions would be slightly more interesting by then. Still, it's always hard for me to leave. I drove back (it's so nice to stay so close), had some granola and Skyr, packed up, drove to Gerði to check-out and then I was on my way, east again!

It wasn't long before I had a near-miss mishap of my own. I pulled in to the side of the road to take a few shots of the line of trees (which still look crap with the first section chopped), and my wheels became bogged. I immediately accelerated forward and slid my way out of the predicament and stopped on the road - usually it's possible to pull right off the road there, but I was taking no chances. I was still able to get a little of the car off the road, but mostly I was naughty and left it sticking out. The road conditions themselves weren't great, with a mix of clear patches and icy sections. A couple of reindeer grazed (if that's possible on a snowy field) nearby. The sky was still a mix of ominous black snow-storm clouds and annoyingly bright patches. There was a little bit of blue, and it was horrendously cold - there wouldn't be any silly selfies today.

I finally looked this place up on a map, to see if the area actually has a name - the mountain behind is called Steinafjall, so that'll have to do. I got back into the car and carried on, immediately realising that this was where the road had been swept away during flooding the previous October. A new section of road and a new bridge across the braided river had been built within about a week, and the remains of the old bridge hung to remind you how fragile this landscape can be. It wasn't long before I stopped again when I noticed a massive herd of reindeer in the distance. There was a slight pull-out which fortunately wasn't snowbound, so I pulled in and headed a little way towards the grazing beasts; the sun had even come out briefly.

I drove on, and didn't stop at the favourite tree as there was very deep and dodgy-looking snow where I usually stop. There was hardly any traffic on this stretch of road (bliss!) so definitely not somewhere to get stuck, alone. This section of the ring-road is just lovely - with glaciers dotted along to the north, mountains everywhere, and pretty little hamlets from time-to-time. I didn't stop again until I reached Höfn; I needed to get some food for the next few nights' dinner and for packed lunches, so headed for the supermarket there. I stopped first at the N1 petrol station on the edge of town and had my second near-miss mishap of the day - I couldn't get the key in the petrol cap to unlock it. I tried and tried, seeing if I could somehow angle the key in a different way to get it in, remembering that it had been a bit stiff the previous day, the first time I'd filled up. Another tourist pulled up in a Dacia so I asked him if he could help; he tried but also couldn't get the key any further. He checked his own and it went in just fine. I got back in the car and headed to the supermarket. I sat in the car-park and googled to see if there was a car rental place in town - there were a couple, out at the airport, where about two flights arrived each week, so that didn't seem very hopeful. I texted hubby for help.

I headed inside and picked up a few things for the next few days. I'd hoped to recreate the lovely meal that Mandy had cooked in The Garage on our trip in September - pan-fried salmon with salad and potatoes - but I couldn't find any salmon. I stood at the fresh-packed fish area looking at different packets, clearly having no idea what any of them were, and not quite sure which to get. Finally I noticed another packet squeezed sideways at the end and lo-and-behold it was two big chunks of salmon in some lemony sauce. That'd do. I found an Icelandic lettuce selection, some potatoes, still warm seedy bread, cheese and ham and headed to the check-out. While I was queueing up hubby texted back and said that I needed a cigarette lighter to warm the tip of the key, so I bought one when I reached the till. Back outside I heated the tip as instructed and tried again. It didn't work. I tried for a bit longer and still it wouldn't work. Third time lucky - the key went in, panic over! I drove back to the petrol station, warmed up the key again (inside the car) and then finally managed to fill the bloody car up with petrol. It certainly would've brought an extra element of pain to the trip had I not solved the problem!

One of my favourite spots along the ring-road is the turn-off just outside Höfn where the road goes up towards the tunnel and on towards the east. Far fewer tourists come up this way and for me it marks the beginning of the final section towards my beloved yellow cottage. I drove without stopping - there was too much snow everywhere! - and on towards the Almannaskarðsgöng tunnel (for that is what it's called!); Stokksnes would have to wait until another day. I stopped again when I got out of the far side of the tunnel, feeling well-and-truly in far east Iceland (although strictly I'm not sure it is).

The peaks to the north always take my breath away, especially when they're nice and sunny - one of these days I'll venture a little off the road and explore a bit. I think the middle peak on the second photo is called Lambatungafjall, at 1,023m tall.
It was nice to be headed for sun in the distance!

It's hard to concentrate on driving when you have this mountain in your rear-view mirror.

I drove onwards, passing Stafafell, as it was too early to stop. Didn't stop the excitement as I saw the faded yellow and green cabins at the foot of the hill as I drove past. It's a fun road to drive along, even with a bit of ice, although there were some clearer patches further on. I didn't stop until I reached the parking area, on a slightly raised rocky spot overlooking the frozen Lonsfjörður lagoon. The view was stunning, as always. I made myself a little sandwich and ate it at the picnic table there, enjoying the serenity and the view (it was pretty chilly, so I ate damned quickly!).

As is often the case in Iceland, there was no-one there when I arrived, but as soon as I'd parked a couple of other cars pulled in and people spilled out to take photos. One man was travelling alone (a rare sight!) and he rushed down the hill towards the shore. It looked pretty icy and within seconds he had slipped onto his bottom - I think his camera was unharmed!

Not far along the road was Hvalnes. I have many favourite things and places in Iceland, but this is definitely up on that list. It's always empty, for a start, which is a plus point for me (I've seen one other car there on all my visits). There's a lighthouse that sits on the edge of the promontory, with spectacular views in every direction - nothingness out to sea to the south, waves crashing against the rocks along the coast to the east, huge craggy peaks to the north, and a long black sand beach stretching all the way to Brunnhorn in the west. I got out and walked down to the lighthouse - the ground was like glass, absolutely lethal, so I had to walk extremely carefully!

The light to the south wasn't too bad, with the sun coming and going behind some soft clouds, but it was drab in the most part towards the big mountain. I tried a few long exposures with various of the filters, but the clouds weren't moving quite fast enough or in the direction I would have liked! The colour cast was dreadful on both 10-stoppers, so a little B&W conversion was in order.

I wandered along to the first beach and got the macro lens out for the first time - annoying when I carry it around to not bother using it! It's definitely not the easiest of lenses to use, and given that you can only get 1-5x (rather than at infinity) its uses are limited. I found some bits and pieces frozen under the ice - mussel shells, feathers, other shells. I love exploring this beach, looking for weird and wonderful bits that nature has discarded here. I wanted to find the white seaweed pods that remind me of some of my Orr jewellery but couldn't find any. Eventually I found a couple of clusters together and felt weirdly relieved!

The light began to fade and I began to crave a cup of tea and my cottage! I walked back across the icy bog to the car and headed the short distance home.

It was lovely to see Sigurdur again - it always just feels like coming home for me, even if we do have slightly awkward conversations to start with, which are, in fact, rather British - mostly talking about the weather. Off he sent me to the yellow cabin (I doubt I'll ever make it to the green one!) and I managed to get the car down the very frozen but bumpy track in one piece (apart from the key fiasco and nearly getting bogged down earlier, the Dacia was doing me well). The yellow cabin is always so warm and welcoming when I arrive. I unpacked the car, as well as bringing the beers inside as I was afraid they might actually crack if I left them out (it was due to get down to minus 10 deg C that night). I took my last few photos for the day from the front verandah, of the usual view, down to Brunnhorn and Vestrahorn. It really is one of the most exquisite views in the world :)

The salmon was a complete disaster, although tasty enough. While I managed to successfully boil some potatoes, cooking the salmon was not as easy as I thought it would be. There are two small hobs in the cottage, and not a great deal of choice of pans. I'd scraped off the skin from the underside of the salmon and washed most of the marinade off and set about frying it in olive oil. It stuck, badly. In the end the piece almost completely disintegrated, so I ended up eating small pieces of deep-fried salmon. Perhaps the other piece the following day would be a little less disastrous.

Later in the evening, once it was dark, I started to check out of the kitchen window for any signs of northern lights. Not much was forecast, but I'd had strange luck in that place and the skies were mostly clear and forecast to stay that way. Additionally the location was almost complete devoid of any light pollution - the closest really being from Höfn on the other side of the distant peaks. To my excitement I noticed the telltale vague cloudy layer across the horizon to the north. It got a little stronger, and eventually I forced myself outside. I was in luck. The lights weren't strong or particularly impressive, but you have to get what you can get! I was out there a while, then they dissipated so I came back in, finished my beer. Then I checked from the kitchen and they were back out again, so out I went again. This continued on and off for the next few hours - the first sighting being at 10pm and the last at 1pm.  The Kp all night was between 0.67 and 1.0 - so that should tell you to check out the window!!

Not a bad day in Iceland, all in all, starting in one of my favourite places in the world, finishing in another, with a little display of one of nature's most incredible phenomena, and a bit of beach-combing and mountain-admiring in the middle. The weather forecast was for clear skies so the alarm was set for 7.45am so I could be down at Hvalnes or thereabouts for dawn.

Click here for Day 3 blog - Jökulsárlón Beach