5 Apr 2013

Iceland Highlights 2013 - Day 6: Svínafellsjökull & Skaftafell

After my previous night's slightly disastrous attempt at aurora-viewing and resultant late night I decided to lie in again. The weather-forecast for the morning was snowy (again), so I made another good decision - sleep is important, after all and I was already a little exhausted. After a late breakfast I headed west, where the weather was supposed to be clearer and where I could fill the car up. It was a little nerve-racking driving towards Skaftafell, nervously checking the mileage capactity on the remaining diesel in the tank, and then still having another 30km to go when the orange "empty" light came on. I passed Jökulsárlón and decided not to stop (had been there a fair bit already, after all), and continued towards Skaftafell. As I drove up a hill where the road sweeps around a big corner and heads towards the north-west I suddenly remembered that there was a petrol station (unmanned with a dilapidated hut), just before Litla Hof and Hof. I pulled in, feeling very relieved to be able to finally get some diesel in the tank (and I knew how to open the cap this time, which helped!). It was freezing cold, and snowing again, so the whole experience was rather unpleasant. I put in the amount I thought I needed to fill the tank up and the total came to far less than that, so hopefully they only charged me for what I used, and not the full amount!

Feeling much less stressed I continued on and decided that Svínafellsjökull would be my first stop. There was patchy sun by now, once I'd turned inland. I'd had a beautiful experience the previous year on my only vaguely sunny day where I sat at the edge of the glacier waiting for a layer of fog to clear, which it eventually did. I was a bit late in the day for the best light, and my luck with the sun and clouds wasn't great. I stopped along the track on the way to the glacier and caught a glimpse of sun and a tiny reflection of one of the mountains above.

Once I reached the parking area the glacier looked a bit dull and the mountains looked uninspiring against a backdrop of white cloud. I climbed along the path to the left-hand side of the glacier for a bit, to where I'd got the magnificent view the previous year and waited for the light to improve. The sun shone through the clouds from time to time, giving some great crepuscular rays.

A closer look at the ice through a zoom lens revealed that it was coated with a light covering of snow or hail.

 As I sat looking at the glacier, waiting for the sun to reappear, I noticed a couple of photographers down by the lagoon at the foot of the glacier. The lagoon the previous year had been almost empty of icebergs, but this year it was full of them, so I decided I'd follow their lead and go and investigate from the shore-side.

As I passed over the mounds of terminal moraine to get around to the far side of the lake I met the photographers - it was the same two I'd met in the café the previous day. They warned me about slight quicksand in the muddy shores of the lagoon, but my wellies served me well and barely sank in at all. At the edge of the lagoon large icebergs were piled up high on the shore - a storm had obviously pushed them higher recently. I was able to walk between some of them, although I felt a bit nervous as some were dripping and creaking as I passed by. Again, apart from the two photographers, no-one knew I was there, so I needed to be a bit careful! The light was getting worse, heading towards midday and a large bank of cloud had come overhead, so the icebergs didn't look their best. I continued around as far as I could and marvelled at some of the shapes that had been carved on their journeys. The dynamic range between the blue and white sky and the icebergs in shadow and light was enormous, so I played around with the HDR setting on the camera. The in-camera option didn't produce nice results at all, so I'd have to do my best in post-processing. In the end I had the most luck with just one photo, with a bit of dodging and burning. The iceberg looked a bit like the underside of a humpback whale to me.

The sun came out at one point, so I raced around the side of a few icebergs to capture a wonderful triangular one I'd seen earlier on. It looked so much more dramatic with the sun shining on it!

Eventually I tore myself away from Svínafellsjökull as nearby Svartifoss beckoned, even though the sun had returned. I had beautiful views of the muddy face of the glacier as I clambered back over the moraine and back to the car. Two coach-loads of English school-children had just arrived, so it was a nice time to leave; hopefully that meant that Svartifoss wouldn't be as crowded. What a great place for a school geography field-trip.

The couple I'd spoken to in the guesthouse had told me that Svartifoss had a lot of ice around (and that the bridge across the river had been rebuilt), so I knew it wasn't going to look as it had done the previous year. I parked the car at the entrance to the Skaftafell National Park and headed up the hill, working up quite a sweat in all my gear. The falls did, in fact, look very different from my previous trip. The light was different, the water volume was tiny, the river was completely covered in snow, the waterfall landed in a snowy chimney, and huge icicles hung from some of the basalt columns.

The columns were mostly dry too, and looked as if they were covered in salt. The regularity of their hexagonal shape just blew me away (again); sometimes nature leaves me speechless!

My hands were suddenly exremely cold and after a quick chat with an American photographer (the only other person there, thankfully), I headed across the bridge, up the hill and then wandered back down to the car, enjoying the afternoon sun, now the sky had cleared. A few peaks in the distance were visible now most of the cloud had gone.

Obviously by the time I'd driven back to Jökulsárlón (around that point at which the weather always seems to change) the skies had clouded over. It was my last evening in the area, so I had to give the beach another visit. There was a brief glimpse of sunset, that I shared with a number of other photographers on the beach, before it quickly darkened again.

I got home after a long day to an email from the ice cave guide that the trip was back on for the following morning. The skies were completely covered in cloud again and the aurora forecast was quiet, so no obsessing about it for another night. I skyped the hubby, finished off the last of the wine and set my alarm for 5.45am, which would give me time to get up to see sunrise over the beach (just one last trip!), head back to grab breakfast, pack and check out and then drive to the petrol station to meet the guide. Another great day in Iceland was over.

Click here to see Day 7: Jökulsárlón back to Vik