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.


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    Car Centre Warrington

  2. Wow, you packed a lot into the day! Love your heavy-weather shots at the beach at Vík ! I can recommend some thick icelandic wool "ullasokkar" for your next visit - even if that be in the summer! Your blog is so well written and complements the photography perfectly.