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

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