6 May 2020

Iceland #17 - Day 9: A Quick Drive around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

For my last day on my September 2019 trip to Iceland I decided to drive around the whole of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, before heading down to Reykjavík and Álftanes for the night. I'd visited the peninsula twice before, and never spent a great deal of time there - the crowds had rather put me off. In spite of my late night and lack of sleep, I woke up feel fairly energetic and was very glad to see a fantastic breakfast at the Comfort Guesthouse - more than I could eat, enabling me to take the leftovers for my packed lunch.

The weather was pretty mixed - windy and showery, but with some intense patches of sun. I stopped a few times soon after setting off, first to capture some horses, before stopping again just after turning onto the main road towards Grundarfjörður to take a few shots of the wonderful lava scenery there.

My next stop was at the edge of the Kolgrafafjörður where a tiny slice of sunlight illuminated part of the fjord, with moody clouds above.

My next stop was to view a waterfall just before reaching Grundarfjörður, called Grundarfoss. I parked in a lay-by and headed down the track towards the falls, low cloud swirling around above the top of the falls. I reached a viewpoint (couldn't get closer as there was farmland in-between) and the clouds lifted enough for me to see a little pointy peak above which I think is called Digrimúli.

I continued on, passing through Grundarfjörður, wondering how busy the car-park at Kirkjufell would be. I was rather shocked - it was rammed! On my previous couple of visits - admittedly a good few years ago - there was just me and a few others. Now the place was packed, with ugly paths built to take people up to the bridge and over to the viewpoint. I decided to head on - it would have depressed me to be there with so many others - but did stop to take a photo to illustrate the point.

I drove on, hoping to capture the pointy Kirkjufell from the other side instead, without the people. I found a spot to pull over where I could see some horses next to a derelict farm building, and almost immediately another couple of cars did the same, nearly causing an accident as they stopped abruptly. The light was poor and the wind had increased dramatically, so after a quick scramble a little way up the hill for a couple of shots, I was back on my way.

I stopped again a little further on, where there is a car-park and viewpoint (at Búland). It was so windy by that point that a waterfall just south of me was blowing upwards - I've seen this a few times in Iceland before; quite something! I could barely hold the camera still, so no great photos.

It was 11.30am by the time I reached Olafsvík. I stopped just before the town as I saw some birds battling with or playing in the wind. The wind was extreme, and there were hundreds of gulls, most sitting on the beach to the east.

I didn't have a great deal of time in my itinerary for exploring so I headed quickly on, stopping again when I saw a pretty little church up on a hill, the mountains layered behind under cloud.

I drove up to the church and the view from the other side was rather different. The sky to the north was blue and the sun came out illuminating the wonderful newly-painted red roof. The church is called Ingjaldshólskirkja.

The only other time I'd driven around to the west of the peninsula was on a very cold, grey day back in March 2012, when icicles covered the north-facing hillsides and there was barely another soul on the road. As I passed Hellisandur I was able to the top of the Snæfell peak appearing above the low cloud. Beneath it was a mountain that resembled a profile - I see so many trolls in the Icelandic landscape - called Hreggnasi.

I decided to explore a little, and saw a sign towards some beaches and a lighthouse, so headed off on a winding road built over lava towards the beach. The road meandered so much that it was very slow. I stopped when I saw a parking area near a beach (Skarðsvík); the wind, still, was intense, so it was a quick jump out of the car, take a photo, and onwards!

I eventually came to an intersection and took the right hand turn towards the wonderfully-named Öndverðanes lighthouse. The road was bumpy, meandering and slow again, and I wondered if I'd ever reach the small orange lighthouse in the distance. Eventually I got there and parked next to one other car. I decided to do a little hike, leaving the tripod in the car as it was tripod-prohibitively windy! I wandered along the rugged coastline, with big waves crashing against the shore to the north (nothing like the immensity of some I've seen on the south coast). I could barely stand up at times, and photography was challenging to say the least. I put on a couple of filters to try some hand-held long exposures of the waves, but that was pretty unsuccessful too.

I struggled back towards the lighthouse, which was a strange squat little building, unlike the usual taller ones.

I would have liked to have explored in the other direction too, down to the Svörtuloft lighthouse, but given the unpleasantness of the wind and general lack of time I decided to head back on my journey; that would have to wait for another time. So it was back along the squiggly road and heading south around the end of the peninsula, the clouds over the peaks clearing as I drove.

The colours of the hillsides were amazing, with a wonderful combination of autumnal shrubs and varied geology.

The peak of Snaefell still had some remaining snow, and I wished I'd had more time to actually drive up to see more of it - especially on such a clear day. I had to just admire it from a distance instead. It was great to see the different sides of it as I drove around towards the south side of the peninsula. As I drove south I noticed that the road had got far busier. I passed signposts to Djúpalónssandur, but seeing coaches heading down there I decided to give it a miss. Instead I just pulled over a couple of times when lay-bys were available.

Next stop was at Arnarstapi, which I'd visited on that first trip and the wind had been incredibly strong. Not too dissimilar today, only there were blue skies and it looked stunning. I parked down near the harbour and set off for a little walk around the top of the basalt column cliffs. I hadn't ventured as far the previous time so was unaware of all the holes. I was fascinated watching the sea crashing up through these holes.

I could have spent hours exploring and hiking along the coast, but time was tight, as usual, given that I wanted to be back in Álftanes for 6pm. I headed off, stopping only a couple of times more along the south coast of the peninsula when some more wonderful geology caught my eye.

I made one tiny detour before getting back to my friends' house - and that was the little road to the church at Garðakirkja, just before reaching Álftanes. The view of the mountains along the Reykjanes peninsula was wonderful.

At the end of these trips it's always such a pleasure to reach my friends and catch up with them and the kids, always greeted with divine food and hospitality, and a chance to excitedly recount stories of my incredible trips (having barely spoken to anyone for a week). I noticed during a delicious supper of fish stew that the light outside was glorious, with an orangey-pink glow once the sun had gone. I decided to excuse myself and headed out and the short way along the road to the beach just after 8pm. The beach itself was covered in seaweed, deposited during recent storms, but the view out to sea was just sublime. I stood there for ages, listening to the gentle lapping of the waves as the sky darkened, the peach as intense as could be possible for a sky to be. In the distance was Snæfell, which I'd driven around earlier in the day; a few wispy clouds adorned the sky.

I stood out there for about an hour and eventually Sigrún came and joined me; she was so lucky that this was her home; a place she bought without even having seen in the flesh a few years earlier! As the sky darkened stars began to appear, and then some northern lights were visible to the north, the glow from the disappeared sun still bright beneath them. It was magical.

We chatted as I clicked away, revelling in such a stunning view. The odd shooting star would streak past, one of them finding its way into one of my photos. The aurora weren't very strong, but were still beautiful, and a nice gift for my last night there.

We stayed out a while together, before heading in. I couldn't settle though, so headed back out once it was properly dark, having looked out of the back window and seen some greenness at about 11.15pm. I saw some quite nice displays initially, but it faded quickly.

I heard some chattering on the beach - which is odd around there, as it is very residential - and two women approached me after a few minutes. They were Chinese and asked me, in French, if I spoke French! I understand and speak a very little amount of French from O level many years ago, so we managed to get a tiny amount of small talk exchanged. It was rather surreal, being on a seaweed-strewn beach, at night, in a very untouristy area, with two Chinese women, speaking French, asking me for help to take pictures of the northern lights. To make matters more surreal, they had good equipment (a Canon 6DII with a 16-35mm lens and a decent tripod), but had absolutely no idea on camera settings. I changed the settings for them - ISO about 2000, manual focus, manual settings (aperture 2.8, shutter speed 8 seconds), 2-second delay, pointed the camera in the direction of the lights - and lo-and-behold I managed to take a reasonable northern lights photo for them. Ah, they exclaimed, taking a few more, before saying their mercis and disappearing, as the lights above too began to fade. I was left alone chuckling to myself. I stayed a little while longer, before eventually giving up for the night. I thought of how the women would try to take photos the following day and no doubt be completely stumped, taking horrendously over-exposed long exposures and having no idea how to correct the settings (hopefully if they put it in the automatic settings they might be okay). I wandered back to the house for my last sleep before the sad event that is flying home, although I already had my return trip planned for February, so leaving wasn't that hard...

It had been another wonderful trip, with unforgettable, but simple moments, like the man waving at me in Bildudalur, watching the swans swim gracefully across the fjord from above, the magical mountains around the fjords, being greeted at the guesthouse near Dynjandi with dinner made by my host, standing on the beach under especially stunning skies with a wonderful friend...

Click here for my blog from Day 8 - Leaving the Westfjords Behind