5 Apr 2014

Iceland 2014 - Day 8: Vik to Reykjavik

I woke up really early in my beautiful hotel room in Vik, feeling sad as it was my last full day in Iceland and knowing that I had to leave the south coast behind and head back to Reykjavik. I got dressed and headed out to Vik beach, a short drive away. 

The last time I'd driven to that beach was on my last day the previous year when the small town was covered with snow. This time it was grey, the air heavy with moisture. The clear skies forecast had again failed to materialise.

I was surprised to find that I was the only person there when I arrived, in spite of the presence of another car in the car-park. I plonked my tripod down on the beach and became mesmerised by the waves breaking over the occasional large, smooth black pebble as the water returned to the sea towards the beguiling stacks on the horizon. There was no dawn/pre-sunrise glow as the clouds were too dense, but after the sun had officially risen (behind those clouds) a break in the cloud appeared on the horizon allowing a small amount of colour to light up some of the otherwise grey clouds in the distance. The colours were subtle, but worth getting up for, I decided.

Half an hour after my arrival a van of photographers arrived, all settling into similar spots no doubt to take similar photographs, I imagined (I shouldn't judge as I'd never been on one of these organised photo tours, but I couldn't really imagine anything worse (photography-wise)). This year there were no interesting patterns of snow and hail on the beach, no dusting of snow on the black hills beyond, no sunlight glinting subtley on those hills, and no oyster catchers at the shoreline to amuse me. Just the sea. Even that was fairly tame, compared with my first visit there two years earlier; I will never forget the noise of the gargantuan waves breaking against the black pebbles and dragging them back with them (quite deafening, it was!).

Just after the photographers arrived it started to rain. I'd seen the responsible clouds coming in from the east for a while, and as sure as it always does in Vik (for me, anyway), it rained. I continued on for a while until my gloves were soaked and my feet cold. I had a tight schedule again, with an arrangement to meet my Icelandic friends Sigrún and Johannes at their house just outside Reykjavik between 4 and 5pm, which meant that I had limited time in some places. I headed back to the hotel, and tucked into the cold pizza - surprisingly good (and useful as I'd irritatingly left my Skyr and granola (not to mention the remaining ham and cheese) in the fridge at Hali). Out of the enormous window I watched kittiwakes on the bird cliff behind - it was a great view, but I hoped it didn't affect them, having this massive hotel with bright lights just in front of them.

I then had what I can only describe as the best shower I'd ever had (a rain-shower head a foot in diameter with a separate hand-held head for rinsing my hair). It was the only place I'd stayed on the trip that provided decent shampoo and shower gel in a little bottle; all that the other guesthouses had provided (in shared bathrooms) was generic "hair and body wash" (hint: always take your own shampoo and conditioner if you're staying in guesthouses!). After about 10 or 15 minutes of wallowing under the hot waterfall I eventually packed up my stuff and headed out through the strangely half-finished hotel to the car to continue on my journey west.

My next stop was Reynisfjara; there was no way that I could visit the Vik area without popping in on my favourite basalt-column-cliffed beach, in spite of the dull grey skies. As I pulled in a coach was just pulling out (it was later than I'd thought) and the beach was - briefly - mine. For the first time ever I was there at low tide, and was able to walk around the edge of the basalt columns and have a look up in awe at the caves. The beach wasn't gouged out as it had been last year. Soon a few other people arrived, climbing up onto the columns for photos; I took a couple of self-portraits too (in the blue jacket series!).

It was 10.45am before I left the basalt beach behind and continued on my journey westwards. My next stop was one of my most exciting ones: somewhere new, and somewhere a little bit risky. I'd read about a crashed United States Navy DC 3 that lay on the black sands just past Vik, 2km south of the ring road. I'd found someone's blog which showed exactly where it was (thank you vividscapes!), and although I didn't want to pay to get the GPRS on my iPhone, I'd pinpointed the site on Google Maps and taken pictures of the map, and looked on Google Street View to familiarise myself with the exact location of the turn-off (you can also see the plane if you zoom right in on Google Maps). In the end it was easy enough to find as someone else turned off the road just as I approached and then in the distance two vehicles came towards us, so we knew we were on the right track. I overtook the car in front, as they were pootling along very slowly, and in my slightly higher 4WD I was able to coast along over the black sand, following the previous visitors' tracks.

After a couple of kilometres the surface of the flat black sand began undulating a little and again I was glad to have the car I had (in spite of the ongoing irritation with the failing remote starting mechanism, which made me curse every time I tried to start the damn thing). After a few ups and downs over the bumpy track the ominous vision of the crashed plane loomed into view, strangely white-looking against a back-drop of black sands and dark clouds. I parked nearby, got out and started photographing the magnificent ruin before the other car arrived. It was spitting, so the filters had to be wiped off after every few shots.

The engines and the wingtips had been removed, but the shell was in pretty good condition, with wires and pieces of the ripped fuselage dangling and swaying slightly in the wind. Graffiti covered the plane's body, visitors wanting to leave their mark. The other car arrived, they took a few photos and soon drove off again (check!). I was there for about an hour, during which time about 4 or 5 other jeeps arrived, including a super-jeep with the huge blown-up wheels, which whizzed over the sand, dumped its passengers for a quick stop, a wander around and through the plane, a few photos, before whizzing away, bumping over the wavy black sand towards the sea nearby.

As I was there the light rain eventually stopped and the sun even came out briefly. There were still reasonably fast-moving clouds with good contrast, so I put on my 10-stop filter and did a couple of long exposures (since converted to black and white). I loved the place; especially after everyone else had gone and it was just me, my car, my camera and the majestic ruined plane.
I had to tear myself away; the time was right for the sun to shine on Skogafoss not far away, according to the trusted Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE). The journey back over the sand was easy too, following the tracks my car and others had made, heading towards the hills inland. I easily reached the track that led back on to the Route 1 and off I went towards the falls. It was still pretty cloudy, but as soon as I reached Skogafoss the skies had cleared to the north, and the sun had come out, creating an amazing rainbow to the side of the falls! Previously I'd seen the falls under mist, rain, drizzle, shade and generally grey skies. To see it - finally - in its full glory, with the sun reflecting in the spray, was a great privilege. As I parked I noticed some brightly-coloured outfits glinting in the sunshine and as I got out of the car I realised that a tai chi class was about to begin, made up mainly of children; it was quite a bizarre - if fortuitous - event to stumble upon. After the earlier sights of the day, made up of brown, black, grey and white, it was great to see not only the colourful outfits, but also the rainbow and the blue sky behind.

The falls looked much more beautiful and picturesque than I'd seen them before, if a little chocolate-boxy. I took a number of photos, playing around with the filters (which again had to be wiped after every couple of shots). The rainbow was pretty impressive and pretty intense, and a second one could just be seen. The spray, however (the reason for the rainbow) was coming forward and making it tricky for all the photographers to get a shot clear from tiny water-droplets. I took a few more self-portraits in the blue jacket before tearing myself away.

The other striking waterfall along the coast is Seljalandfoss, but I knew I'd be arriving too early for the best of the light (most of the falls would be in shadow). True enough, just the top of the falls poked out from the shadow of the steep cliffs, so I stopped only briefly to get a sandwich and visit the loo before heading on (didn't take a single photo, which is very unlike me!). I'd visited it the previous year when the time of day and light conditions had been perfect, so didn't feel the need to take a bunch of sub-par shots here!

The rest of the drive back to Reykjavik is a little disappointing, after the grandeur of the scenery further east, but at least I didn't feel the need to pull over at the side of the road every five minutes; the sky was filled with high clouds and the light was poor, so it was just as well. The only other stop I had planned between there and Reykjavik was Urriðafoss, one of my favourite waterfalls in the country, and one that's barely in the guidebooks. I kept expecting to come to it, as I reached the tops of hills, as I had a vague memory of where it was from last year. Finally I turned the bend, went over the bridge (it sits just downstream from the main road where it crosses a massive river), and took the left turn down to the parking area. A couple of cars were there when I arrived, but pulled away as I got out. I walked along the path downstream from the falls to get to the little rocky hill that sits below them and from where the view is best. A huge slab of snow sat upon some rocks at the top of one of the falls. The water was as intensely green as I'd remembered, presumably from the glacial waters that it carried down to the sea.

The falls, unusually, had looked better with grey skies the previous year, but I managed a few shots, trying out - as always - a combination of filters and shutter speeds. I left just as the sun disappeared behind more clouds, at 4pm - meaning that I'd be lucky to get to my destination past Reykjavik by 5pm. The traffic always picks up at Selfoss, not far from Urriðafoss, but it wasn't bad and there were no major delays, other than a little slower driving up the enormous hill past Hveragerði. The pass takes you up onto a high plain where last year I'd met driving snow. This year there was just old snow lying on the ground, but the road was clear and my journey to Hafnarfjordur was a quick and easy one. Again, I'd taken pictures on my iPhone of the directions to my friends' house, and managed to follow these without much problem, and arrived on the quaint peninsula of Alftanes at 5pm on the dot. It was great to see Sigrún and Johannes and their two young children, who'd moved back there from London last summer. We scoffed delicious waffles that Sigrún had just made, smothered in strawberry jam and whipped cream and then the children ran around the house giggling like crazy; they were displaying "guest behaviour" Johannes told me (there's a word for it in Icelandic which roughly amounts to a cross between playing up and showing off!).

As the light began to fade and sunset neared I headed back in to Reykjavik, having left it just a little too late for the best of the sunset. I stopped briefly opposite their house at a small beach before parking near the Solfar back in town, now able to navigate my routes in Reykjavik much more ably (I have got lost there on a number of occasions previously). I should have stopped at the pond, where the sun was falling directly behind and the swans and ducks pottered about on the ice, but I didn't stop in time and it was too far to walk back from my parking spot. The light wasn't very interesting at Solfar so I wandered along to Harpa, the magnificent theatre and opera house. The remaining light on the clouds reflected in Harpa's many windows as hoards of people arrived to enjoy a Saturday night out there.

I wandered back past Solfar for one last look before driving the very short distance to my accommodation, the Welcome Apartments, where I'd stayed a few times before. I'd hoped to meet up with another friend, but hadn't managed to get hold of him, so I headed out to Café Solon, alone as usual, with my iPhone for company (with free WiFi and an iPhone, who needs friends?!). The skies were clear but the forecast for northern lights wasn't great, so I headed to bed just before midnight, hoping to get up bright and early for a last sunrise at Solfar. As it happens the lights were apparently quite good, but I was so exhausted there was no way I could have gone out in search of them again.

Click here for Day 7 blog
Click here for Day 9 blog

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