13 Oct 2020

Iceland #19 - Day 9: Finally to the Incredible Stuðagil!

I woke up to more drizzle, and no view of the mountains. Given the lack of visibility I decided to give Stokksnes a miss, again, and hoped it would be better on my return journey. I packed up and popped in to see Sigurdur and pay, and was delighted when he presented me with a bolt to try. Neither of us expected it to fit, but I nipped back to the car, and lo-and-behold it fit in the tripod - my moving panning tripod problem was over! I still felt sad to leave, but it certainly hadn't been my most memorable stay there (I've had a few - incredible storms, northern lights, blowing snow, disastrous fall, etc..). 

My journey for the day was taking me to a place I hadn't stayed before which was extremely good value and looked very nicely located - just off the ring-road on the eastern/southern end of the 917 road, Litlabjarg guesthouse. Along the way I hoped to see a few new waterfalls and take a mountain road that I hadn't driven on before - the 939 (I do love a good mountain pass, even in the rain!).

I didn't stop at Hvalnes as the mountains were completed hidden by cloud, but continued on until a lay-by along the scary stretch with the steep scree slopes above. As usual there were the odd chunks of rock lying in the road from tiny landslides. It was particularly worrying driving along that section after or during rain!

I got past it safely and breathed the usual sigh of relief. I don't get as nervous as I used to, but it's still a bit pulse-rate-increasing for a few minutes of driving. My first stop was at a small waterfall set back from the road, called Barkinafoss. I got out and had a little wander and took a few photos, the drizzle falling gently.

I continued on, feeling excited that I might finally get to see the incredible basalt column canyon at Stuðlagil that day, which annoyingly I hadn't known about on my trip to the east/north-east back in September 2016 (no-one else really knew about it then either). It was still a way away, and whether I visited that day or the next depended on the weather and how much energy I had for the 5km-each-way hike to see it from the better side. 

My next stop was at a small beach just past Djúpivogur, near the Teigarhorn monument, where I'd taken a few shots of a ruined boat the one time I'd driven that route (March 2014). Sadly the nice pointy mountain to the north was shrouded with low cloud (what a surprise), but I had a nice wander along the beach to the boat anyway.

It was 11am by the time I left the beach and headed on my journey east, driving alongside Berufjörður. Before the turn-off up the mountain pass I noticed another left-hand turn towards Fossadalur, which I assumed meant waterfall valley, so I decided to go and investigate. I passed a couple of waterfalls in the distance, but it wasn't the easiest place to spot them or access them. I got past a youth hostel, had a little wander, couldn't see much as there was lots of private farmland, and then turned around again and drove back down the hill. I stopped before reaching the main road again and went for another little walk through a little pine forest to a waterfall. There were mushrooms, wet cotton grass, coloured heather and leaves, and more berries. The drizzle was thankfully laying off me for a change.

There's a waterfall just at the top of the first bend on the road, but I missed stopping in both directions - one to explore next time. Instead I continued on a short way and soon the road became the 939 and off I climbed up steep switchbacks and blindhæds towards the mist. After a few minutes I reached a car park to the left and pulled over, and slicing through the valley ahead of me was the magnificent Folaldafoss. The geology in the vicinity was impressive - with massive rocky layered shelves (which I've since learned is called trap terrain).

I wandered down towards the waterfall, armed with tripod, but the wind had picked up and it started to rain. At least I could tighten my tripod properly (although it did un-tighten when I walked with it, so needed to tighten it before each use). I took a couple more shots, enjoying the trap terrains, and then headed back to the car, where I sat and ate my cheese sandwich, the rain now coming down properly.

I continued on my way, up more fantastically winding, hilly switchbacks, the road disappearing in front of me beneath low cloud. Unfortunately the road was in the low cloud for a good few miles while I crossed the top of the pass, which was a shame, as I'm sure the scenery must have been spectacular! I could see more waterfalls around each corner in the distance, but the conditions were certainly not appropriate for stopping! I passed a few cars, but it wasn't exactly busy; not a place you'd want to break down or have brake failure!

The road eventually started descending out of the cloud and visibility was improved again as I turned on to the 95 and headed downhill towards Lagarfljót and Egilsstaðir. I was tempted to turn left towards Litlanesfoss and Hengifoss, but the canyon was beckoning me, and I'd visited them a couple of times on my previous trip. Instead I reached the ring-road, drove straight through the town, and onwards, across the big bridge between the turn-offs to the 925 and 917 roads. Again I thought about stopping when I reached Ryjúkandi-Eystri, as the weather had improved a bit and it looked quite lovely, but I had to get to that canyon! On my previous visit to the area I'd actually taken the side road (the 923) for a short while, but even 4 years ago the canyon was mostly unknown (having only been discovered after the river was dammed further up at Kárahnjúkavirkjun in 2008), revealing the magnificent basalt columns (previously I guess the river came up far higher and most of the columns were submerged). Apparently I was visiting at the exact right time of year on this occasion - with the water at its most turquoise (later on the reservoirs fill up and the water that flows into the river is more milky, brown glacial water. So even if I had gone in September 2016 it wouldn't have been so amazing.

I took the gravel road that leads down along the river, having to overtake a few very slow cars on my way (there are plenty of very inexperienced drivers that drive at literally 20-30km per hour on these roads). There was a worrying amount of traffic, but I was expecting this as I'd read online a few days earlier that it was really busy there, plus it was the holiday weekend. I decided to visit the north/west side first, which requires a longer drive, but a lower amount of walking, although it does involve a lot of steps. I stopped along the way when I got a great view of the Stuðlafoss waterfall which is a couple of km before the canyon. The view from that side was fantastic, as you're above it, and get a superb view of the basalt columns, hinting at the treat that awaits you a little further on!

I drove the last few km, parked up, and was rather aghast at the number of cars in the car-park. The first glimpse of the canyon from that side is only really possible once you start descending a big, ugly metal staircase that has recently been added on that side. The canyon started to come into view, with basalt columns just everywhere, in every direction, and the most incredible fast-flowing, turquoise river below. I'd seen many photos of the place, but most seemed to have only one or two views, so I had no real concept of how big it was - it is huge! Or how incredible it was - it is incredible! Or how turquoise it was - it was so turquoise! The sky was cloudy and dull, but still the water glowed an unbelievable colour. The basalt columns must go on for 300-400 metres I think. I walked onto the platform and took a few photos without the tripod - it wasn't an easy place to set the tripod down. This was my first view, and they only got better!

Almost immediately, however, I heard the dreaded whine of a drone, which instantly ruined the experience for me, and I muttered something to that effect to the drone's owners as I tried to get away from it. I really do hate the noise beyond reasonableness; drones just put me in the foulest of moods! I took more photos, trying to recapture the glory and ignore the whine. The other side was absolutely teeming with people.

The canyon was spectacular from that side, but it's far more difficult to see the canyon properly from there. I took a few photos - playing around with the polarising filter in order to get the water at its most turquoise and non-reflective - before heading back up the endless stairs to the car, and then driving back the 5km to the other car-park. I hadn't driven all that far, but felt pretty exhausted, especially knowing that I had 10km round-trip ahead of me, lugging my heavy gear. The south/east side car-park was even busier, but I managed to find a spot, got myself geared up, and headed off across the bridge to start my long walk there. It was 2.45pm when I set off, and fortunately the biggest number of people were on their way back as I approached. It's a nice walk, with only a couple of gentle uphill sections, and within about half an hour I had reached the waterfall again, taking a few hand-held photos from beneath it.

I just wanted to get to the canyon, so hurried on, determined to get there in less than an hour. After 50 minutes from leaving the car I reached the eastern end of the canyon and there my adventure really began. It's a pretty overwhelming place for a photographer for the first time, with so many compositional options. I didn't know what to do with myself! I took lots of photos from different angles, clambering down the banks to explore among the basalt columns themselves, climbing up a few, doing some long exposure shots to get the frothy water smooth and pretty. By the time I left, two and a half hours later, I had taken just over 300 photos. All different, many extremely cool. Here's a selection of the wondrous place. I was in columnar basalt hexagonal heaven!

It was just after six pm when I dragged myself away, my shoulders aching like crazy from carrying the heavy camera and lenses, plus tripod, and I felt hungry and exhausted. I stopped at the waterfall and set the tripod up, trying to make the most of my time there - who knows when I'd be back, after all.

I drove back up to the ring-road, and headed east, towards my home for the night. I suddenly got a bit panicked as I hadn't confirmed exactly where the guesthouse was, and my phone battery was about to die (and the charging cable in the car wasn't working and I couldn't easily find the other!). Fortunately my memory was correct, and I had enough juice in the phone left to have a quick check on a map - it was down the 917. I arrived and a German guy who was staying there greeted me, before the lovely owner Elisa showed up a few minutes later. It's a great little guesthouse, in the middle of nowhere, with nice views of the mountains to the south, and old farm buildings everywhere. I cooked myself some tuna pasta and chatted to a couple of German women travelling with three kids, sharing stories of the places visited nearby.

And then it was to my room to pore through the hundreds of photos taken during the day, posting one of my favourite ones online for everyone else to enjoy. The weather forecast for the following day was mixed but mainly dry, so I spent ages wondering about where to go - situated where I was I could have driven all the way up to Dettifoss, or out to one of the eastern fjords, or perhaps back to Stuðlagil. Lots of wonderful options to look forward to.

Click here for my blog from Day 8 - A Wet Day Around Stafafell 

8 Oct 2020

Iceland #19 - Day 8: A Wet Day Around Stafafell

The frustration was extreme. I knew what the scenery that surrounded me was like, but again I woke up with zero visibility and a dreary, heavy drizzle. Not the best start to my second week in Iceland, but something I'd had to become accustomed to over the past few days. I was grumpy. I drank tea, ate my granola and Skyr, checked to see if the clouds had lifted (they hadn't) and felt more grumpy. I took the car towards Hvalnes to see if the conditions might be better around the headland; they weren't, so I turned around and drove back towards the cabin. I stopped at the car-park, and even the swans looked drab in the normally-lovely Lónsfjörður. Someone had drawn on the bird sign "Sophie was here" - it wasn't me, and it saddened me that people had defaced the pretty sign.

Every plant was covered in hundreds of glistening water droplets, but the endless drizzle made any photography painful, so I headed home, stopping only briefly to say hi to some horses.

The horses immediately came over to me as I approached from across the road. I felt bad that I didn't have any food for them; I never do :( (note to self: buy carrots on next trip).

I got back home and dried off, feeling very sulky still. The poor weather had now been going on for 4 days and I was truly fed up. The rain was supposed to have cleared up, but it didn't seem to be doing so. I drank more tea, had a cheese sandwich, reviewed and processed some photos, and moped a little more. I felt restless and decided to drive west, to see if it was any better in that direction - perhaps revisit Skútafoss. As I drove I started thinking about the missing knob on the tripod and decided I'd drive into Höfn to see if I could find a replacement bolt (driving slowly, mindful of the recent speed cops sightings; I didn't see them again). I turned off the road to drive up to the waterfall, but on seeing another car there decided I'd go to Höfn first. I then remembered that it was Sunday and the shops were unlikely to be open, which I confirmed on my phone, and then remembered that the following day was a public holiday, so the shops wouldn't be open then either. It was still drizzling, I was pissed off that it was Sunday, pissed off about the tripod, and so I drove home again. Another cup of tea would make things better. I stopped at the house to ask Sigurdur if he might possibly have a spare bolt, but he wasn't quite sure what I was asking for. I showed him the tripod and he said he'd have a look. It was worth a try - surely everyone has a drawer with loose screws and bolts that they haven't thrown away, thinking that they'll come in handy one day...

I sat in the cabin, looking out of the window and opening the front door from time to time to see if the drizzle had stopped or the clouds had lifted at all, and then went out to photograph some of the water droplets on the low grasses and flowers outside, in spite of the drizzle not stopping. The grasses looked lovely, and occasionally I heard the whistle of the whimbrels in the distance, laughing at my predicament, perhaps...

At around 4.30pm the rain finally began to ease and it brightened up a bit. From time to time I could just see the hills to the north, although no sign of Brunnhorn to the south-west, sadly. A little later on I headed out, deciding to drive to the two little derelict farm huts at Papafjörður, which I usually photographed from the other side of the fjord. I parked the car near the huts and had a little explore. Due to all of the recent rain I couldn't continue to the end of the road, as it was basically a river now. A plaque stood on the river bank, with a bit of history about the area, which had been a trading post for a few decades in the late 19th century, before moving to Höfn (actually taking some buildings out around the headland to the town!). I decided to go for a walk up the river valley, to see what was there. The valley, I found out later, is called Kastárdalur, and it is possible to walk all the up the valley and around the flanks of both Vestrahorn and Brunnhorn to get back to the huts. One day I will try that. 

The river was pretty, but mainly I was just delighted that it had stopped drizzling and there was some visibility, if not much. 

I took a few shots of the winding river before heading a little uphill and discovering that there was a little canyon - it was wonderful! The hillsides were also teeming with crowberry bushes, on which I gorged myself.

As I climbed along the top of the little canyon my mood lifted dramatically - I was so pleased to be back outside, enjoying the hidden wonders that Iceland always seems to deliver, taking photographs. I've always admired this v-shaped valley from the other side of the fjord, ever since I saw it for the first time, with stripes from the snow, back in March 2014, but I'd only once driven along this side of the fjord before. As I got to the top of the short canyon the river zigzagged off into the mist and I felt happy and relieved, the mood I'd been in due to the crappy weather having finally lifted. Holding the tripod to take long exposures was tricky, so I was still feeling a bit grumpy about that.

I wandered back down towards the car and noticed a couple of hikers along the fjord's edge - they had big packs on so I think they must've done the long trek - most of which would've been extremely wet. I picked some more berries and put some in a ziplock bag to have with my granola the next morning.

One of the upsides of the rain over the previous few days was that the hillsides were overflowing with picturesque little waterfalls and trickles, so on my drive back towards home I kept stopping to photograph more!

At this last stop I looked back and was blessed with a view of Brunnhorn - finally! - with a little remaining cloud lingering around the peaks.

I drove back to Skútafoss and was pleased to find no other car there. I headed up the hill and took some photos from above again. In the distance more little waterfalls trickled from underneath the fog which was still clinging to the mountaintops. Conditions were far more pleasant than the previous day without the rain to contend with.

I walked back down to the bottom of the falls and into the cave, hoping to be able to get a fully-framed view of the falls, which I'd not managed to do very well the previous day. I had to get myself and the tripod up against the back of the dripping cave wall and then hold the tripod steady (I really needed that bolt!). I managed a couple that I was pretty happy with, with and without the framing of the whole cave.

There are some lovely views a little downstream too. 

It was 7.30pm by the time I headed off, just as a family arrived; the benefit of visiting in summer is that you have so many more hours of daylight to play with, so the photography window is a lot longer! I passed a sweet little meandering stream over grasses on my way back to the car.

Before getting back to the cottage I decided to take a little detour - up the F980 road that heads north just before reaching the bridge and big bend before Stafafell. I had the time (and daylight) to explore, and the scenery was pleasant with hills and farms on one side and the braided river off to the east.

It wasn't long before I came up to a manmade ridge in the road, got to the top of the ridge and noticed that the road disappeared into the river! I'd noticed the river-crossing warnings on the road-sign, and they weren't kidding!

There was absolutely no way I was driving across that, so turned around and headed back towards home. As I neared the main road there was a sudden intense glimpse of sunshine on one of the farm buildings at Stafafell in the distance. The light was back!

I drove back past Stafafell and headed towards Hvalnes, with patches in the cloud now allowing views of the colourful rhyolitic hillsides and distant, mysterious peaks. It was quite magical after the rain! Usually when I'm here the colours are hidden by snow.

I pulled in at the parking area just before Hvalnes and looked back at the view. There were lines of soft golden light illuminating the hillsides. It would have been even more spectacular had the sun been shining on some of the swans swimming around in the fjord. It was still pretty magical.

Again I could just make out the peaks of Brunnhorn; it looked rather surreal, partly hidden by thick fog, above, below and behind.

To the north the sunlight patch diminished, but there was still a bright patch, with some rain just visible. I headed a bit further on to the first parking spot at Hvalnes itself and took a few pictures of the road winding away towards the brightness. More magic...

I drove up towards the lighthouse and had a little wander to the hilly outcrop above the beach and stood watching the sky darken, the waves lapping against the black sand below me.

I drove home in the last of the light and took a few last shots of the little yellow cabin as a couple of local sheep scarpered away up the hill, and a couple of whimbrels flew away, startled by my presence. 

It had been a decent end to an otherwise disappointing day. It was quite late, but I still managed to cook my salmon and wash it down with another tasty beer. I was sad to only be staying there for two nights - although even when I've stayed for four it never seems like enough time. I hadn't visited the Hvannagil canyon, I hadn't even been to Stokksnes, but at least I'd discovered a cute new canyon and had finally had some light! And at least I was coming back that way, so had another chance to visit Stokksnes again. The following day I was off further east, staying not far from Egilsstaðir, and finally going to Stuðlagil. I wanted to set off early, so had a fairly early night, feeling a lot less grumpy than I did when I woke up!

Click here for my blog from Day 7 - Rainy Drive to Stafafell