29 Apr 2013

Endless Basalt Columns in Iceland - a Geologist's Dream

When you visit Iceland, one of the first landmarks you're likely to visit is the wonderful Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrims Church), that sits atop a small hill in the centre of Reykjavik. Architecturally it is magnificent, and when you travel around the volcanic countryside of Iceland you begin to understand where the inspiration for its design came from. There are basalt columns everywhere!

Although I studied geography up to 'A' level at school, I don't remember learning about basalt columns. I learnt about ox-bow lakes, folds in the earth's crust, the different shapes of volcanoes and so on, but basalt columns have either slipped from my memory, or were slipped from the curriculum. I've seen them in a number of different locations around the world over the years - Montagne D'Ambre National Park in Madagascar, Yellowstone National Park in the US, Chirpoy Island in Russia's Kuril Islands and even some up on the Isle of Skye and in Edinburgh, but I've never seen quite so many (or quite such impressive examples) as in Iceland - from Vestmannaeyar and Vík, to Stykkisholmur and Svartifoss, Arnastapi to Kirkjugólf, Dverghamrar and many many more!

Simply put, basalt columns are formed during rapid cooling of lava flow following a volcanic eruption. Fractures form during the cooling, and an extensive fracture network may develop and result in the formation of columns, which are usually hexagonal. They may be vertical or horizontal in orientation, although the most impressive ones, in my opinion, are the vertical, hanging ones.

Below is a small selection of the basalt columns that I saw on my visit to Iceland this year. Notable locations around the world can be seen on this useful Wikipedia page.

The first one I came across on this recent trip was at the black sandy volcanic beach of Reynisfjara, near Vík, along the south coast of Iceland. The beach had been gouged away since my trip a year earlier, revealing more of the base of the fascinating columns. I got there just in time to see the soft golden light in the half hour before sunset cast an orange glow on the columns.

A couple of days later I was further east (having passed a couple of columnar sites, but having decided to visit on my return in hopefully better weather), and I hiked up to Svartifoss, a waterfall that drops between vertical columns in a very striking setting in the Skaftafell National Park. I'd visited the previous year and it was one of my favourite spots - a half hour uphill hike was well worth the reward at the end. This year there was lots of ice around, so it looked completely different. The flow from the waterfall was tiny, and large icicles hung from some of the columns, crashing rather scarily down to the ground every once in a while. The columns themselves were dry, where last year they had been moist from the spray from the voluminous falls. Some of the columns were rusty from the oxidation of iron-rich mineral deposits.

After a few days in the south-east I tore myself away from the iceberg-littered Jökulsárlón beach - my favourite spot - and headed back along the ring-road. The first stop was Dverghamrar, a couple of columnar outcrops near a pretty waterfall (Foss á Sidú). The name means "Dwarf Cliff" but I couldn't really see the dwarflike resemblance. The weather was a little overcast, but the sun attempted to peek out as I was there.

Back in the car and on to Kirkjugólf, which means "church floor" in Icelandic. It was never the site of a church, but could easily have been mistaken for this, with smooth and pretty regular hexagonal stones - the top of columns that lie underground. Again, the sun briefly came out for me while I was there. My decision to postpone my visit to these sites on my return journey had been a wise one!

I stopped at Vík again, this time visiting the beach at Dyrhólaey, which had also suffered some beach erosion since my previous visit. Only the tops of the basalt columns were visible at the beach, jutting out of the cliff against the shore. The weather by now was pretty dismal.

I had one more trip to the beach at nearby Reynisfjara, hoping that the weather would miraculously improve for sunset, but no such luck. The winds were strong and cold, as usual, but I got a last chance to marvel at these wonders of nature that have inspired so much of the architecture and sculptures in Iceland.

I'm sure I'll find even more next year...

10 Apr 2013

Inspired by Iceland... "Iceland is my Just Can't Get Enough Land"

I've now been to Iceland five times, so I would say that I am "Inspired by Iceland"! And it appears that I'm not alone...

The website of all-things-Icelandic www.inspiredbyiceland.com has been running a competition since August last year, asking people to contribute their suggestions to fill in the blank in this sentence: "Iceland is my _ _ _ _ Land" - with answers ranging from "Adventure Land" to "Endless Night Land" to "Awesome Jumper Land". Have a look at one of these stories here. They are currently counting down the 10 most popular. More photos, stories, and info can be found on their Facebook Page.

And my answer? It's a tricky one, as there's so much that I love about the place, as I hope my photos and blogs of late have illustrated. I guess as I keep going back it really has to be "Iceland is my Just Can't Get Enough Land" - it doesn't really roll off the tongue, but I really can't get enough!

And I've only just scratched the surface...

8 Apr 2013

Iceland Highlights 2013 - Day 9: Vík to Keflavik

My last full day in Iceland had sadly come; the plan was to drive at a leisurely pace from Vík to Keflavik, near the airport, where I was spending the night. I woke up at a reasonable time, looked out of the window to see whiteness everywhere and discovered that it had snowed heavily overnight, and was indeed still snowing. I headed into the garden where there were some pretty bare plants covered with snow; the view behind grey and menacing. The snow was pretty deep so again I was glad to have brought wellies. A dog pottered around, occasionally jumping around like a puppy in the fresh snow.

After packing up all my bags and remaining food (I'd given some leftovers to Danielle the previous night) I checked out, cleared the heaps of snow off the car and drove down to the beach for one last photo session. I was the first car to drive along the path to the parking area, but the 4WD handled it fine. The back of the beach was covered in thick snow, but where the water was bringing in waves there was just a light dusting, each wave washing more of the snow away, leaving some interesting patterns.

At the far end of the beach, towards the stacks, I could see what looked like some large black rocks covered in snow at the shoreline. As I approached I realised that they were in actual fact oyster catchers, standing still along the edge of the waves.

 They did shuffle around a bit, and from time to time would fly off, circle over and then land in more-or-less the same place.

The snow continued to fall quite heavily, although the sun was trying to break through and briefly lit up the snow-dusted cliffs above me.

The snow worsened and the cold got the better of me, so I headed back to the car. In the carpark I met the two photographers who I kept bumping into, Jeremy and John, who were sitting enjoying the warmth of their car, waiting out the snow-storm (they might have been some time). A number of cars had now driven to the beach along the tiny track, so the snow was now slushy. I wove my way through the tiny town centre and up the huge hill to take me westwards. The snow-ploughs had moved a lot of snow from the road, but as I got higher the snowfall got heavier and conditions became more hazardous. The snow-ploughs needed to come back and do my side of the road which was completely covered in snow by the time I reached the highest pass. Visibility was also extremely limited, and headlights of an oncoming vehicle could only be seen about twenty metres or so in front; not ideal as I was driving on the clearer left side of the road where I could. As soon as I had gone around the long bend that goes down the hill on the other side the snow began to clear, both in the air and on the ground. By the time I reached the far side of second smaller hill near the turn-off to Dyrhólaey the snow had gone! The weather was still grey and showery, but visibility was improved and the road was clear from any snow or ice.

My next stop was Skógafoss (again). It wasn't too busy upon my arrival, but I knew this wouldn't last for long. I set up my tripod in the river to get a long exposure shot, playng around with my polarising filter so that the stones on the river-bed below were visible.

Soon the hoards arrived, including a couple of parties of English schoolchildren, again. I'm not sure how interested they were, with plenty of them standing around with their backs to the falls. Although it wasn't actually raining, the spray from the falls was quite strong, and the odd wind brought fine droplets over the camera every once in a while, so I had to wipe the filter after every few shots. I watched a woman taking photographs on an iPad, which always makes me grimace just a bit. I chatted to a nice photographer from Ireland, and lent him my polariser so that he could get some clear water shots too.

We stood there for a while, trying to photograph the falls and the people, wiping our lenses every minute or so. My toes were still frozen from standing on the beach in Vík, and standing in the river here hadn't helped, so I had to get back to the car, get the wellies off and try to de-frost my toes. I continued my journey west, barely able to feel my toes, and stopped at Seljalandfoss, which isn't far away. I was amazed at how much of the snow and ice that I'd seen just five days earlier had melted, and it's not as if it had been beautiful warm weather since then. Where it had been impossible to walk to the right of the falls, or behind them just days ago, now this path was almost clear. I hadn't walked behind this falls before, so thought I'd give it a try. I'd seen some lovely wide-angle shots taken from this viewpoint in summer, when the surrounding hills were green, the sky blue and the water volume was delicate. It wasn't quite like that this time, with the grasses mostly brown, the sky grey (but bright) and huge amounts of water pouring down (not delicate, and far too much spray!). I'll just have to go back in late summer...

When I got back to the other side and crossed the small bridge the sun came out - it always surprises me just how quickly the weather can change on this island. I did a couple of my usual self-portraits (10-second timer then running quickly to the focused spot and standing still and trying to look relaxed) as well as noticing how lovely the view was away from the waterfall. Then it was off again for the main stretch of my drive that day.

There's a lot of farmland between Seljalandfoss and Reykjavik, so I wasn't expecting to find much to stop to photograph along the way. I wanted to explore the Reykjanes Peninsula a bit more (I'd driven through the southern part the previous year), so hoped I wouldn't get too side-tracked. Obviously I had to stop from time to time, particularly when I saw some lovely horses along the side of the road; sometimes they can look so sad, as one invariably approaches you to say hello, kept from you by the barbed wire fence.

Not far from Selfoss I passed a sign towards Urriðafoss, a large, shallow waterfall system just off the ringroad that I'd seen - but hadn't stopped in time - along the way. After crossing the bridge I took the left turn and headed towards the falls. The traffic had started to become heavier and I was feeling a bit sleepy, so it was probably sensible to stop anyway. Time had flown by and it was already 4pm. As soon as I turned the engine off I realised I was feeling very drowsy, so wound the chair back and dozed for about ten minutes, coinciding with a quick shower outside. Feeling a little groggy but a bit refreshed I got out and wandered along the bank, clambering over some rocks to get a good viewpoint of the magnificent falls. A sign told me that this waterfall had the highest volume of water in Europe, but I thought this accolade went to Dettifoss (in Northern Iceland, which I'd visited 4 years earlier). It was pretty impressive anyway, and the water was a wonderful milky glacial run-off blue-green.

The drive into Reykjavik wasn't much fun - I couldn't believe how much traffic there was on the road, after five days of seeing very few other cars. As I ascended the other massive bendy hill of the journey (just past Hveragerði) I drove into another snow-storm, again with limited visibility and the snow settling quickly on the road. After a few miles and down the other side it cleared again. I didn't go right into the centre of Reykjavik, but followed signs to the airport. I began to feel pretty dehydrated and was running out of diesel (again), so drove without stopping until I found a gas station just before the airport. Having filled the car up I headed onwards, not stopping to check-in at my hotel, but drove up past the airport to Sandgerði, a port town. I was scouting for a picturesque spot for potential northern lights that evening, as well as for sunset, which wasn't far off, as the drive plus stops had taken me longer than planned. I would love to have stopped more, as the skies were amazing, with enormous cumulonimbus storm clouds off the coast to the north. As it was the sky was still dramatic as I stopped in the harbour.

I then drove along to another point on the peninsula, Garður, where there are two magnificent lighthouses (not so great when you're trying to find darkness to capture aurora, though!). The sun was setting fast, behind huge ominous clouds off the coast. Hundreds of eider ducks paddled around, sometimes flying around to the other side. I could see patches of sun across the water towards Akranes.

I played around with different exposure lengths as I watched the manic eider ducks - I quite liked the effect of the active birds darting around - this is a 2.5 second exposure.

Eventually I left, as the sun had disappeared and it had begun to rain. I drove back into Keflavik, checked into my hotel, which seemed completely dead, and checked the forecasts. There was patchy cloud and the aurora level was already active, but there was also a very bright full moon. I grabbed a quick dinner in a recommended restaurant, Kaffi Duus, and watched the first of the lights darting across the sky, with my hands up to the window to block out the ambient light. The food couldn't come fast enough - I just wanted to get out there and enjoy the show - finally. By the time I'd wolfed down my delicious seafood salad, paid and driven along the road back towards the lighthouses the clouds had already become thicker - my aurora luck was really poor! I found a few dark-ish spots, but with the bright full moon coming out from time to time and the clouds creeping over me - together with the intermittent flash from the lighthouse - my aurora experience just wasn't happening. I managed to capture a few glimpses, but there was nothing of interest in the foreground, so I headed home just after midnight, a little disappointed, but knowing that I had a great excuse to return - perhaps in the autumn this year.

For information about what gear to take on a photographic trip to Iceland, have a look at my blog here

More photos from my various trips to Iceland can be found on my website.

7 Apr 2013

Iceland Highlights 2013 - Day 8: Around Vík

I love the starkness of the scenery around Vík (full name - Vík í Mýrdal), at the southern tip of Iceland. The first time I approached it, driving from the west, I was blown away by its setting, nestled at the foot of a large hill that sweeps inland around the headland, off which the craggy stacks sit, huge mountains towering above it to the north-east. I'd just used the town as a stopover point on my way east and back the previous year, so this year I'd decided to spend a little longer, and had booked into the friendly hostel for two nights, giving me a full day to explore the volcanic scenery nearby (still not enough time to do it justice). It's also close to the massive Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which sits on top of the Katla volcano, which hasn't erupted for nearly a hundred years, so there is some worry that an eruption is due (but it hasn't shown any signs of danger recently). As well as (and probably as a result of) being the country's southernmost village, it is also the wettest coastal town, with 2,275mm (almost 8 feet!) of rain each year, three times as much as Reykjavik gets. It also seems to get a fair amount of snow and wind.

It was an average day that I awoke to, with rain hitting the window next to my bed. The Spanish guys who'd bagged the bottom bunks had already left, so at least I'd get a better bed that night. Out of the far window I could see chickens, and realised that the lower floor of the hostel was set into the ground; probably wise in such a windy and wet place. I'd checked the weather-forecast the previous night and decided against getting up for sunrise (I wasn't having much luck with my sunrises, let alone clear nights, but at least I was getting enough sleep). Over breakfast I sat in the dining room and went through some more photos and began chatting to a Welsh girl who was working there. She was studying for an masters in photography, so we had a lot to talk about. In the afternoon we headed out in the car to Dyrhólaey, a nearby promontory, with some stacks and a huge arch off its coast and a pretty lighthouse on top. The weather was still pretty dreadful, with a "fresh" wind and intermittent showers. The wind was nothing like my trip the previous year when I'd felt as if the car was going to get taken off the road on a number of occasions (and standing upright wasn't easy). A causeway has been built across to the small island, making access easy, in spite of the swiping gusts.

We started at the eastern side, where you get sweeping views eastwards towards the stacks off the coast at Vík and a huge stretch of black sandy beach inbetween. There's also a narrow entrance to a small beach which faces south-west, where waves batter against the cliffs. I'd been told by one of the photographers that I'd met in Jökulsárlón that this beach had almost been washed away since the previous year, and he wasn't wrong! Where there had been a gentle slope down to the shore there was now a steep ledge ten metres or so further inland and where there had been a beach was now larger rocks, a metre of two lower.

Danielle wasn't as well wrapped up as I was, so we soon left that part, warmed up a bit in the car, and drove back along the promontory up the hill to the lighthouse. Offshore there were patches of sun inbetween heavy black clouds, lighting up the grey seas.

There was a walkway around the edge of the promontory, with the dangerous areas around the cliff-tops cordoned off - not great for getting views of the arch from a photographer's point of view. Towards the west there was a long view over another enormous stretch of black volcanic sand, with a big white surf, and a few mountains inland. On a clear day apparently it's possible to see as far as Selfoss, which is about 125km away. Not quite that far today.

With the view of the complete arch obscured we just had a brief wander around the top of the breezy promontory, and I stopped to photograph the lighthouse, just as Danielle's battery ran out (a useful lesson learnt, she said - always charge batteries!).

We drove back to the hostel to warm up, recharge batteries, and planned to head out for sunset later on. Although the weather was generally pretty cloudy, it was very changeable and you never knew what might happen a couple of hours later. I decided to cook myself some pasta then, as I'd ended up not bothering the previous night and felt drunk (and hungry) after a third of a bottle of wine!

The weather hadn't significantly improved when Danielle came back, but we set out anyway for Reynisfjara, the beach on the other side of the hill from Vík, where I'd sat for a glorious sunset a few days earlier. I noticed that the beach here had also been gouged out a bit, and far more of the base of the basalt  columns was now visible. There was a tiny break in the cloud for a few minutes, giving us a hint that there was a setting sun somewhere behind the grey, above the lighthouse and arch that we'd been to in the afternoon.

The tide was out and the beach was littered with large black volcanic rocks, which produced lovely water trails, like those over the icebergs that I'd become somewhat obsessed with back in Jökulsárlón. If I'd been alone I probably would've stayed out there all night, but Danielle had disappeared (presumably back to the car), so I joined her and drove back to the hostel.

It hadn't been a great day for photographs, but it was nice to have some company for a change. Back at the hostel the sitting room was buzzing with activity, and I spent a fun evening with a couple of New Zealand brothers I'd met earlier, two American students, Danielle, and a young English guy, and all of the others recounted stories of where they had been in scary situations and nearly died/been raped/mugged etc.. It was a bit ghoulish, but entertaining, all the same (and they were all there, unscathed and alive!). It had started to snow outside, and the aurora forecast was "quiet" - ie. little activity. The last bottle of wine was polished off and I got a reasonably early night in preparation for my drive back to Reykjavik the following day.

Click here to see Day 9: Vík to Keflavik

5 Apr 2013

Iceland Highlights 2013 - Day 7: Jökulsárlón back to Vik

My love affair with Jökulsárlón had to come to an end at some stage, and today was the day. An appointment with the ice cave guide and accommodation booked in Vik meant it was time to go. I might've stayed longer, but the guesthouse was full that night back when I booked it.

I got up very early and headed back to the beach for one last visit, and the weather was surprisingly pleasant - not too biting a wind, no precipitation, and the odd break in the clouds. Sunrise is a nice time of day on the beach, and so another twelve photographers thought too - it was positively crowded! I saw the pair I kept bumping into, both standing on icebergs in order to escape any errant waves (my wellies helped when the wave got the better of me). Apparently some mornings in February there can be seventy photographers...


I left all the photographers there, sad to have to drag myself away, but I had a lot to do before getting to Svínafell for 9.45am. Packing is pretty easy when you've got a limited amount of stuff, but I seemed to have so much - food, camera gear, outdoor gear. A few trips to the car and I was off on my way, sadly having to pass across the little white suspension bridge at Jökulsárlón for one last time (on this trip, anyway - I'm sure I'll be back). It was a glorious morning, and there was so much I could've stopped to photograph if only I hadn't been short of time.

I met my guide Einar at the petrol station, together with a couple from Hong Kong who'd said it would be okay for me to join them on their tour (and make it affordable for me!). We set off in Einar's jeep and soon headed off the road towards the Vatnajökull glacier, in which the caves were located. The last part of the journey was on a track I certainly wouldn't have taken my rental car on. Once there we were kitted out with helmets and crampons and walked a couple of hundred metres to the first - and most exciting - cave. The season has apparently been pretty mild, so there are very few caves, and access to the two that were still okay was getting limited as the sun was melting them fast, pouring water and pieces of debris down in places.

Einar set up some ropes to help us to walk down over a few obstacles so that we could get down into the main chamber, where a huge icicle stalactite hung from the cave's ceiling. We were warned to give it a wide berth - if it fell it would cause some damage to anyone nearby, not to mention destroying the sight of it for any further visitors (and they did a couple of tours each day).

Photographing inside a dark cave is quite challenging! Einar was a great help, having lots of experience with it, and gave some useful hints on settings. I was glad to have the high ISO capability of my Canon 5D Mark III - I don't think my 60D would have handled it all that well. The main problem, however, was the high dynamic range, with the immense brightness of the entrance (where there was light!) and the darkness of the interior. I settled with f14 (as I wanted to capture as much detail as possible), a 30 second exposure length, ISO of 1600 and under-exposed by 2/3 stop. It was quite an impressive sight, looking down one side into another chamber, realising that I was underneath an active glacier (it had moved forward about 30 metres in the past year). We spent some time down there, careful not to ruin each others' shots with flashes or torchlight (or bump into the icicle!). I climbed up into a different chamber, from where the icicle looked like an enormous chandelier.

After an hour or so it was our turn in the other cave, and Einar's son Aron (who I'd met on the previous Friday) brought in another couple. He told me that the reason the two people hadn't shown up on Friday is that they'd gone to the wrong Foss Hotel - instead of the one at Svínafell they'd driven a further 130km to the one at Höfn! We walked out into the open air, and the light was astonishing after the darkness of the cave's interior. The other cave was close by and didn't require any equipment, other than the hard hats in case of any falling debris - there was quite a lot on top of the opening to the cave.

There wasn't a great deal to see inside the cave itself, just nice blue walls, but they weren't very obvious with the bright hazy sky outside. The four of us played around with our camera settings and I tried the in-camera HDR setting again and got this result - a big fail, Canon, I'd say! I wouldn't normally include such a ridiculous photo, but I do find it quite amusing, and as a result I won't be using the in-camera HDR option again.

I took a few bracketed shots and did some HDR processing once I got home and think I got a rather more realistic shot of the couple, also standing in the entrance to the cave. So the walls aren't so blue, and you can't see any detail in the sky, but it does look a bit more real (although I still don't like it all that much).

The tour came to an end and off I set, the skies having clouded over, leaving the south-east and all the magical glaciers and mountains that comprise the Vatnajökull National Park behind me. My first enforced stop was just short of my first planned stop, at Lómagnúpur, as a long, high (for Icelandic standards) bridge across the river was being replaced. I took a few snaps, wishing I was on the other side, down by the pools in front of the mountain. The delay didn't last long and I was soon across the half-repaired bridge, taking the side road, scrambling down the bank and taking silly self-portraits with the camera on 10-second timer (which involved pressing the shutter before madly running to a suitable pre-focused point, making sure my hair wasn't caught up in my hood and then standing there trying to look all thoughtful, staring up in awe at the mountain (that bit's real)!). The ice had melted a little, and there was little wind, so I was able to get a couple of reflection shots.

Just around the corner from Lómagnúpur is a small settlement with turf-covered buildings that I'd planned to visit, but was disappointed to find a gate across the entrance and a sign saying "private land". Ho hum, plenty more to see, and by this time it was already 3pm and I still had quite a way to go. Next stop was Dverghamrar (or "Dwarf Rocks"), a couple of small outcrops of basalt columns (I'm rather fond of basalt columns), just across the road from Foss á Siðu (which was flowing straight downwards for a change). I had a quick wander around, and the sun tried to pop out and managed briefly, which was decent of it.

Back in the car and onwards to Kirkjugólf, with a promise of slightly better weather than on the journey out there. I knew exactly where to go this year, so parked and walked along the little track back towards the town, reaching the basalt column floor just as the sun came out.

I drove on, keen to get to Vik to secure a bottom bunk in the hostel again, but also to get there for sunset. I passed through Kirkjubaejarklaustur and stopped briefly at the moss-covered lava, this time no snow in sight. I wasn't the only one stopping there.

I stopped again, a short way down the road and was surprised to hear the sound of police sirens and to see a police car screech past, then turn around and turn into the side-road I'd just stopped in. Uh-oh! Fortunately they weren't after me (hadn't been doing over 90kmph on that stretch), but they had ruined someone's day. I carried on and soon the stacks off the coast from Vik came into view, as I raced (within the speed-limit!) against a storm approaching from the east. I got to the beach (more important than the bed!) just as the storm did, but still walked down on the black sand to capture a few shots.

It's got to be one of the most striking beaches I've ever been to (without icebergs, that is - nothing can ever match Jökulsárlón beach) - so dramatic with those jagged stacks, black sand and huge towering cliffs. I didn't stay long as the rain brought with it a freezing wind and soon I couldn't feel my fingers. I checked in at the hostel (top bunk only, grrrr) and sat reviewing my photos from the day, intermittently looking out of the window to see if I should head back down to the beach for "sunset". The weather changed every five minutes, but I decided that I must go (it wasn't very far, after all). Sunset didn't really happen, although the light was still quite nice and moody - it was worth the small effort, I think.

Again, no northern lights forecast that night (how bad was my luck?!!) and storms set in for the night, so I settled down to a lovely evening in the hostel (no Frenchies stinking out the place with fried fish this time) chatting to an English couple, and sharing another of my duty-free bottles of wine. Ear-plugs in and no alarm was set at the end of a very long and varied day!

More Iceland photo highlights on my website.

Click here to see Day 8: Around Vík