4 Apr 2013

Iceland Highlights 2013 - Day 4: Drive from Vik to Jökulsárlón

I planned to spend a couple more nights in Vik on my way back, so headed to Jökulsárlón on my fourth day, where I had booked three nights in a lovely guesthouse not far from the lagoon and beach. I was rather excited to see those little blue bergs on the beach again!

I had a few stops planned along the way, including my favourite Icelandic mountain, Lómagnúpur. I'd book a guided trip to an ice cave, so had to be at the petrol station at Svínafell at 3.30pm, which gave me a good few hours to make my way there with a few stops en route. When you're doing a return trip it's very easy to say to yourself, "oh, I'll stop there on the way back", but now I know from experience that if you see something you like and the weather and light is half-decent, then you must stop, as the weather is bound to be crap on the return trip if you don't (especially in Iceland, in winter)! So, I always try to leave enough time to be able to make those stops on the first leg of the journey.

I left Vik in what I'd learned to expect as typical weather - a strong wind and a hailstorm. I hadn't bothered to get up for "sunrise" having a hunch that there wouldn't be one. I was glad for the extra sleep. I had to stop to fill the car up with Diesel before I left Vik but couldn't work out how to open the petrol cap. Feeling like a complete idiot I went inside to ask a guy to help me. I felt even more of an idiot when he said "you just have to put the key in it" - I hadn't even noticed the key-hole in the top of the cap! Poor man went back inside, covered in hail.

Off I set, and as usual did a couple of detours along the way. Just outside of Vik is a huge free-standing outcrop, called Hjörleifshöfði, which appeared dramatically as I approached, partly shrouded in cloud and mist. I drove towards it and met another 4WD coming towards me and stopped to take a few snaps, before the hail got the better of me. Just as I was about to leave I heard the telltale sound of a gaggle of whooper swans and managed to get a couple of shots (although didn't have the zoom on). I was pretty confident I'd see many more further east, as I had seen dozens of them the previous year.

The weather along the way improved a little, with patches of blue sky visible from time to time, but I kept stopping to take photographs of the rain in the distance to the south - I just love being able to see it falling (away from me!).

There are quite long stretches of road in Southern Iceland where you cross sandurs, which are huge glacial outwash plains. Mile after mile of black sand is criss-crossed by braided streams that carry the glacial meltwater down to the sea, together with silt and other debris. The road often meanders, where a temporary diversion has been built while they re-build the existing bridge that has been washed away or damaged during heavy flooding. Sometimes katabatic winds can cause sandstorms harsh enough to strip the paint from your car. The weather wasn't that bad on my journey, and eventually the scenery changes and there's some other geological feature to catch your eye. Just before getting to Kirkjubæjarklaustur (a bit of a tongue-twister of a name; not the only one) you pass through a section of rounded lava mounds covered with green moss. As I drove through the lava field it had just been covered with a light snow or hail.

Next stop, I planned, would be a nice little geological feature at Kirkjugólf, where the tops of about fifty basalt columns sit together in a field, just on the other side of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Apparently the locals had thought it was the floor of an ancient church (Kirkjugólf literally means "church floor"). I'd visited on my last trip, but the weather had been overcast. The weather this time was so grey that I decided to ignore my own policy and give it a miss, hoping for the best on my return (the snow/hail and wind weren't letting up), so carried on straight through the town and continued my journey eastwards, excited to see the towering Lómagnúpur again, weather-permitting.

I soon passed the sweet little waterfall Foss á Siðu, which barely had any water flowing. The wind is renowned for taking the water in all sorts of directions, including upwards, and sure enough the water wasn't going straight downwards when I drove past.

My next stop was completely unscheduled, and something I hadn't noticed on my previous trip (the weather driving that day had been far, far worse!). I came around a corner, up a slight hill, and noticed some very picturesque shallow waterfalls nestled beneath a small mountain shelf. The sun even deigned to come out for me, as I played around with different filters and exposure times. I can't find a name for these falls on a map, but here they are, shot at 0.4 seconds exposure length.

So I finally reached Lómagnúpur, and turned left on a little gravel road raised above some small pools below. I parked in the one pull-out area, where I stopped last year, and headed down the bank, armed with camera and tripod. Most of the little pools were covered in ice, so there was no chance of a reflection shot, as I'd got last year when the sun gave me a small glimpse at the right moment. The cloud did clear a little this time, and I could see the mountain, so I wasn't complaining too much.

My date with the ice cave guide was beckoning, so I didn't hang around this mighty mountain for too long. The next stretch was across another wide sandur, although it was broken up by some black sandy mounds covered with reeds. The rain and wind returned, so no more stops until I reached Svínafell. I was a little early so I headed up to Svínafellsjökull and sat in the car eating my lunch. A few people came, walked up to the viewpoint in the hailstorm, ran back to their cars and disappeared. I had a little snooze, hoping the weather might clear up. No luck, so I snoozed some more and then headed back to the petrol station to meet the guide. 

I met the guide's son (also a guide) and got my gear ready, while we waited for two other people to arrive. Fifteen minutes later and there was no sign of them, so the ice cave trip was off. I told him that I was around for a few days, hoping that I might get another chance. Rather disappointed I continued on my last 50km to Jökulsárlón, but at least I had that to look forward to, and the hail had finally stopped.

Last year I'd discovered another glacial lake, Fjallsárlón, about 8km from Jökulsárlón, which was very picturesque too, but completely empty of other people (not another photographer in sight!). I came to the turn-off and drove up to the end of the road, and traipsed down the hillside to the lake. It was completely different from last year, with the lake mostly frozen and huge icebergs piled up against the shore (again, no chance for reflection shots of the pointy peak in the background). I noticed one iceberg that showed part of its underside - an incredible shade of blue.

I didn't stay too long, thinking I'd be returning, as I had two whole days in the area, and the draw of the icebergs on the beach at Jökulsárlón was too much to resist. I felt as if I knew the road pretty well, having driven up and down it a few times the previous year - for sunrise, for sunset, etc.. When I saw the small suspension bridge looming into view I knew I was there, and after crossing the bridge I immediately turned right towards the beach on the far side of the shore - my favourite spot the previous year. I got my gear together, wrapped up warm (it wasn't raining, snowing or hailing, but was still pretty nippy) and headed over the ridge to the beach. I was a little confused at first, as there were not only no other people there, but no icebergs either. For a moment I felt devastated, but then a quick glance back to the other side of the river onto the far beach reassured me that there were not only many icebergs to be seen, but plenty of other photographers too! Back in the car, nipped across the bridge, then down to the busy beach to begin my quest to capture perfect waves trails over icebergs!

As I'd found on the previous trip, the icebergs were so different on each visit, depending on the tides, the waves and what the glacier had dumped into the nearby lagoon. On this occasion there were some large blue icebergs, but not many small fragments, so my trail idea was out. I got a little fixated on one big berg (among others) that looked a bit like a (blue) horse's head, lying in the breaking waves.

Eventually I dragged myself away, with no sunset to look forward to, as it was getting greyer by the minute. I arrived at the lovely Hali guesthouse a mere 13km away and got the same lovely little room as the previous year. I ate a delicious locally farmed artic char at the restaurant, then headed back to my room to look over the hundreds of photos I'd taken and obsess, as I did each night, about the potential for northern lights showing that night. The auroral activity was low, and there was thick cloud-cover, but I still checked every five minutes to see if there was going to be any change. The weather-forecast didn't look too good for the morning either, so finally I opened one of the bottles of wine I'd bought at the duty free shop on arrival and set my alarm for a nice sociable 8.30am.

Click here to see Day 5: Jökulsárlón, Jökulsárlón & more Jökulsárlón!

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