22 Sep 2014

Stack-chasing in Iceland

This trip to Iceland wasn't all about the volcanic eruption, northen lights and waterfalls; I also went in search of some impressive stacks up on the Vatnsnes Peninsula in the north. For years I'd seen pictures of Hvítserkur - a distinctive 15-metre-high black basalt stack, speckled with white from guano, with two small arches at its base. I discovered that it wasn't quite on the ring-road in the north, but not far off it,  and that there was a hostel based just next to it, which made viewing at sunrise and sunset pretty straight-forward.

After my volcano-viewing I drove west via the Tröllaskagi Peninsula, that straddles the border between north-east and north-west Iceland. Not wanting to drive round every peninsula (the roads are generally gravel, and therefore a little hard-going), I missed out the Skagi Peninsula, but then headed for the Vatnsnes Peninsula (via a little detour to the delightful Holufossar falls). The road up to Hvítserkur, and the Osar Hostel, is dusty and bumpy, and a lot longer than I'd thought, but I eventually pulled up at the rather desolate-looking hostel. No-one was there, which seemed fitting, and the wind had come up since my trip to the waterfall. I called the number on the hostel door and a ruddy Icelandic farmer came and helped me get set up. I had planned to get a single room, but the place was quiet, so I plumped for a bed in a dorm, together with ridiculously expensive linen (ISK 1500). The room had six beds and at that point (around 6pm) was empty. "You could get 5 big construction workers turning up to join you," he told me, with a slight raise of the eyebrows and a wry grin.

Annoyingly, the only internet at the hostel was based down at the little reception room, which is locked outside office hours (most of the time off-season), so in order to check email, northern lights forecasts, etc I had to huddle next to the building out of the wind. But I was soon off down the path to the beach, in search of the much-photographed stack. I thought it might be at the bottom of the path, but it turned out to be a bit of a way up the beach. Just off the shoreline was a collection of seals on a small sandbank, and a couple stopped to watch and photograph them. The ripples along the beach matched the slight waves lapping at the shore.

I continued to my destination, where I was greeted by the striking stack and the view of tripod legs and men with big cameras! This was a photography tour, with 8 clients, mainly from the US, and an Icelandic guide. Surprisingly there was actually one female photographer - a rare sight. A couple of them were very chatty, and they discussed f stops and ISO levels. All of them were fixated on the ripples - we were lucky to be there at low tide to see the photogenic ripples, but they weren't that amazing. I preferred the shadow of the stack in the milky water.

At one point they all decided to make a move forward to the water's edge - checking first with me that it was okay (photographers can be very gracious, although not always so). Not long after the sun had set (it wasn't the most spectacular of sunsets again), the group was off up a steep path, with mutterings that they had to get back to their hotel for dinner. There was no restaurant in the vicinity and the hostel didn't do any food off-season, so I didn't have that issue (I was having bread, cheese and ham for my supper, again), and I was able to stay on the beach until the last of the light disappeared, enjoying the reflections in the ripples beneath the stack.

I stayed a little longer than I should, and ended up clambering up the steep path in near darkness (my torch was packed away in the hostel, although I could have used the light on my phone) - the only slight mishap was a small stumble resulting in a tiny dent on the thread of my new circular polarising filter (always put the lens cap back on!). I desperately hoped for some northern lights to magically appear, but there was nothing. I enjoyed playing around with the polarising filter as the skies darkened, although it brought some rather uneven skies.
I made it back to the hostel at about 9.45pm, cold, hungry and extremely dehydrated. In my room was a sweet young Austrian couple - no burly workmen. We chatted about our Icelandic experiences as I downed some water and nibbled at my unexciting sandwich. The highlight of their trip so far - or at least the strangest thing - was that they'd met some horses along the roadside just up the peninsula earlier that day and one of them had licked their car window a few times. By 11pm it was time for ear-plugs in and off to sleep, with no early alarm set as it was forecast to be overcast the following day.

In the morning I finished off my bread, cheese and ham (that was three meals on the trot, so I was truly sick of it), played with a nippy border collie puppy before heading north around the peninsula, hoping to meet the car-licking horses. When I got there the horses were miles away in the field and nonchalantly glanced over at me, but showed no interest in coming to see me, let alone licking my very dusty car. I continued on until I saw a sign for a seal colony, where I had a not-so-quick quick stop.

Then it was south via a beautiful lighthouse (another not-so-quick stop) before reaching Anastaðastapi - another impressive stack that I'd found out about on the Vatnsnes Peninsula's website. It was a short walk down the hill to the stack, which was covered in lichen and weeds, giving it a bright orange-yellow-green appearance. I took a few long exposure shots of it as the clouds came and went overhead. It was quite blissful, with the sun shining on my back as I sat playing with my filters. Before I left I found a spot of water providing a perfect reflection of the stack. A couple arrived and the man (in his fifties) expertly clambered around the full extent of the stack before heading back up the hill with his companion. 

It would have been a great spot for sunset, but I had to get to Grundarfjorður for the night, so not possible on this trip. I eventually tore myself away from this lovely geological feature, climbed the hill and drove south, in search of some lunch. No more stacks after that, but it was definitely worth making the detour around the peninsula to see both Hvitserkur and Anastaðastapi, each very different and impressive.

More photos from my trip can be seen on the Iceland Sept 2014 gallery on my website.

Please contact me for details of licensing/usage/prints of any image on sophiecarrphotography@hotmail.co.uk 

21 Sep 2014

Volcano-chasing in Iceland

I usually visit Iceland in March. Occasionally there's a rumble and talk of some possible volcanic activity and I get a little excited that I might be there to actually witness en eruption, but then I go home without any action. So when I read about the grumblings of Barðarbunga and the subsequent eruption of Holuhraun a couple of weeks ago I felt annoyed that I wasn't there. I mentioned this to my friend in Rekyjavik and she said "just hop on a plane, it's supposed to last a bit." This comment - together with photos taken from a small plane over the eruption site in a UK newspaper - got me thinking; it hadn't actually crossed my mind to go until then. I casually mentioned to my husband that evening that I ought to go over and see it (and spend a little extra time there to make the trip worthwhile, of course) and that was that, decision made. I spent the next couple of days booking everything, with a couple of sightseeing flights over the volcano organised too, and left a few days later.

So off I went on a last-minute trip to my favourite country - volcano-chasing the perfect excuse to go back there. I flew into Keflavik in a light drizzle and got the bus along the strange, characterless road across the endless lava fields that lead to Reykjavik, got dropped off at domestic airport, and from there I then flew up to Akureyri, arriving during the golden hour, the sun shining beautifully to greet me. It was a lovely welcome back to this beloved country. I picked up a one-way rental car and headed off to Goðafoss for my first night (see my waterfall blog). The woman at the guesthouse told me that it was possible to see the glow from the lava a few kilometers away, so I had a quick look - indeed the horizon shone with the reflection of the lava on the clouds of smoke and gas it was pouring out. It set my excitement levels higher for what I was hoping to see the following day!

After an early rise to catch sunrise over the falls I headed to Lake Myvatn, hoping to get my first sightseeing flight at 8.30am. As I drove around the lake I could see a sandstorm to the south, and the weather-forecast was for strong winds both in Myvatn and over Holuhraun (I'd been checking manically for the previous few days), so I didn't have high hopes of the flight actually leaving. As expected, all the Myflug flights were cancelled that day, but rearranged for the following morning. I didn't feel too disappointed, as I still had plenty of opportunity to see it, and there's lots to see in the area. I spent the day pottering around a bit at the mud pools at Hverir, driving up to Dettifoss, wandering between the lava formations at Dimmuborgir and finally exploring the pseudo-craters near my hotel (the Sel Myvatn) during the golden hour. After dinner I headed back to Dimmuborgir where I witnessed the most spectacular northern lights show (see my northern lights blog).

The next day the winds were forecast to be really strong until about 2pm, but my flight was at midday, so I was worried that it might be postponed again. I didn't receive a cancellation call, so drove to the airport and arrived to be told that it was all on. Half an hour later I was sitting in the front passenger seat of a 6-seater Cessna, the controls in front of me, heading south across a massive barren lava field towards the smoke trail on the horizon, beside a pilot who was probably just over half my age! It was an overcast day, which was perfect for viewing the lava, although made the sights along the way a little dull. We flew over the enormous Askja crater lake (and nearby Viti), before arriving at the magnificent eruption site at Holuhraun. We spent about 15 minutes circling the incredible spectacle so all of us on the plane got a good view. Huge amounts of red hot lava were forced out of the black craters every few seconds, with the smoke and gases, lava trail and mountains just visible behind. It was over too quickly, and off we headed back to Myvatn airstrip - all with massive grins on our faces, and memory cards full of photos.

Although it wasn't very bumpy, I felt quite airsick on the way back. I'd over-dressed and totally over-heated and was very glad to arrive back on firm ground and strip off a few layers. As a result of feeling quite rough, I wasn't too bothered whether the flight was on the following day or not, given that I'd seen what I'd come to see. I went back to the hotel and caught up on a few hours of sleep.

After another small northern lights show and a bit of a lie-in I returned to the airport for 10am the next day and it turned out that the winds were light enough to fly - so off I went again, also in the Cessna, with a different pilot (also half my age!). I sat on the right-hand side again, but in the middle, behind the passenger seat. The view was still good, although I couldn't see the volcano as we approached. It was slightly more bumpy, although not bad, but we couldn't fly over the Askja crater this time. Instead we saw some beautiful isolated hillocks on the desolate lava plain below, lit by patchy sunlight. The air to the east was thick with red gas and smoke from the volcano. The wind-direction had changed slightly and was now blowing towards the north/north-west, so we were able to fly a little south of the eruption site over the lava flow. The pilot flew higher than the previous day, so the view was different, looking down on the eruption sites and the glowing lava trail as it wove its way down to the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river. The volcano seemed even more active than the previous day, with one massive eruption and three smaller ones. We only did a couple of sweeps past the lava, as we went further along the trail, but still got great views, before heading back to base. I wish I could've stayed there longer, circling around, looking down at the bubbling molten rock - serious geology in action!



From then on the trip was a little more normal. I drove slowly back to Reykjavik over a few days, stopping along the way in the northern fjords and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the west, seeing more beautiful waterfalls and some striking stacks, before the last highlight of my trip - actually going inside a dormant volcano chamber! I'd read about the Inside the Volcano trip a couple of years earlier, and was disappointed not to be able to go in March (it only operates during summer months). When I booked this trip it was an added bonus to be able to do this excursion. When I arrived at the starting point at the Bláfjöll ski field in a misty drizzle I realised why they only run it in summer - it's up on a high desolate plateau that suffers from strong winds and lots of fog and rain.

After kitting myself out in thermals and rain/windproof layers, the group of us set off across the lava, passing a few lava tube caves, before arriving at the basecamp for the journey into the volcano. In May each year they helicopter in a couple of portaloos and containers that serve as the storage unit and shelter for people before and after the trip (they take all of the equipment out again at the end of September). We were split into three groups and given harnesses and hard hats to wear, before climbing the last few metres up to the entrance of the volcano. There we were attached by a line to a bridge across the narrow opening of the volcano, and then reattached to a line inside the lift carriage (the lift is like one of those on the side of a skyscraper for window-cleaning and is attached to a crane). When we were all in we were hoisted down about 120 metres into the volcano below. On the floor of the cave they've set up a series of flood-lights to light up the walls of the massive chamber. The colours on the walls are quite incredible - mainly yellow from the sulphur and red from the iron, with a few others thrown in. Standing at the bottom and looking up to the tiny slit of light made me realise just how enormous volcanoes can be, and I thought of it full of bubbling and erupting lava, like the one I'd flown above at Holuhraun. This was what would be left at Holuhraun in a thousand years, perhaps!

It was challenging photographically, as the light was still very limited, and the ground was uneven with rocks from old eruptions, but I managed one shot I was very pleased with of a local man taking his own photos (he stood still enough for my long exposure to catch him!). It was also impossible to capture the whole of the cave with my widest angle on the new 16-35mm lens, or to get a sense of the scale of the place. If I return, I'll have to rent an 8mm fish-eye, or something of that ilk.

Like the flights it was over too quickly and our group was called to return to the surface; I could've stayed down there for hours. As we ascended the remaining people down below became the little dots of their white helmets before soon disappearing. We climbed out along the platform and then wandered back down to basecamp where a big pot of hot lamb stew awaited us. After two bowls of the delicious soup we headed back across the lava, a fine drizzle still dampening the walk. We stopped in a couple of lava tubes, the lovely guide excitedly pointing out that the walls were almost smooth from the lava that had flown through them over a thousand years before.

I drove back to Reykjavik, without getting lost for a change (don't know what it is about that geography and roads in that city - it just confuses the hell out of me!) and headed to the Welcome Apartments, where I always stay. I had a bite to eat at Café Solon, where I always eat, washed down by a couple of wonderful porters made by Borg (one of the country's micro-breweries), before a long last Icelandic sleep (it was drizzly, so no northern light spotting or sunrise to worry about). In the morning I wandered around the town and photographed some of the artistic graffiti, stopped in a café where I was greeted by a panoramic array of bright apples - everyone was on their Macs, before a last look inside Harpa and my beloved Solfar (sun viking) sculpture.

It was a fantastic trip, full of wild vulcanism, intense aurora, crazy colours and majestic waterfalls; well worth the impulsive last-minute decision to go and see the volcano and also experience a part of the country I didn't know, at a different time of year. I did feel strange (and quite sad) not to be visiting Jökulsárlón beach or the south coast, but I can't go there every time! And who knows, the volcano may still be erupting in March, and maybe by then it'll be possible to visit it at ground-level and see it in all its glory, up close and personal...

Other images from the trip can be found on my website within the Iceland Sept 2014 gallery

Please contact me for details on licensing/usage of the volcano images at sophiecarrphotography@hotmail.co.uk

Northern Lights-chasing in Iceland

My impulsive decision to visit Iceland to see the erupting Holuhraun volcano turned out to be extremely well-timed. On my second night there, staying at the southern end of Lake Myvatn, I witnessed a spectacular northern lights show. I'd read that there had been a solar event a couple of days earlier, which was likely to result in an impressive display that night. Earlier in the day I'd visited Dimmuborgir, a series of huge volcanic rock forms, and decided that these might make a good foreground for any light pictures. I drove there an hour after sunset, parked in the car-park, and wandered around a few of the paths in the rapidly-decreasing twilight, alone, scoping out some good rocks; I felt a little nervous. I found a couple of great formations, two together with a hole in each. Unfortunately they were facing east (north/north-west would have been better), but in all the other directions there were also interesting black shapes silhouetted against the sky.

Some of the formations look very face-like (it's hard not to suffer from pareidolia in Iceland - there are faces everywhere!), including this one that helped me understand why there are so many stories about trolls.

At 9.40pm I saw the first faint glimmer of auroral activity, mainly just a vague streak in my photos. I sat on the ground, patiently waiting for things to hot up, and eventually they did! By ten o'clock the skies were alive with activity, and by 10.30pm I thought that the sky was going to fall onto me, as I sat watching the lights dance above my head, shooting beams of faint green and purple light down towards me. Unlike my experience in March at Jokulsarlon, where my northern light viewing was accompanied by the cackle of thirty Japanese girls, here I was alone, surrounded by weird black jagged rocks, with no noise other than my own exclamations of wonder!


I decided I ought to try somewhere with a different view, so headed back along the dark paths to the car-park, just as the bright nearly-full moon rose from behind the black rocks. From a higher path above the car-park I could see the glow from the volcano on the horizon to the south, with gentle aurora glimmering above it.

I lingered on the hill for a while, looking to the west as the lights danced over Lake Myvatn, with the lights at Skutustaðir, where my hotel was, just visible to the south.

At 11pm I decided to go back to the hotel for a bit to warm up, check the lights forecast, and perhaps head off to Goðafoss. The lights had faded a little, although I could still see them with the naked eye in spite of the moonlight and ambient light around the lake (a good sign of activity!). The forecasts all showed activity levels of Kp6 - a serious auroral storm - but when I ventured out to the pseudo-craters at just past midnight the lights had more-or-less disappeared. An hour was spent looking at nothing, waiting in vain for the lights to return. I went back inside and then at 2am the forecast rose to Kp7, so I headed out again! The lights were back, visible clearly to the south-west, so I headed west around the lake to find something to capture. The moonlight was very bright by this stage, washing out any lights visible to the east. I'd driven past a small pointy mountain the day before, so parked opposite that when I found a pull-out. Without the moon the night would have been even more spectacular, but at least it lit up the foreground a little. I decided not to bother driving all the way to Goðafoss.

I continued on my journey round the lake, and drove up the hill towards Hverir, looking back at the lake and the geothermal plant. The cloud cover was increasing and the lights were fading, as was my energy. Just before 3am I called it a night, drove back to the hotel and managed to get a few hours' sleep.

The following night the auroral activity was low, but I managed to see a little glimmer over the pseudo-craters. Each night I obsessively checked all the forecasts I knew of (some had crashed the night before as a result of the increased activity because of the storm!). On my penultimate night I was staying in the west, at Grundarfjordur, where the beautiful Kirkjufell and nearby falls are situated. The skies were clear-ish, but the Kp activity was low - only hovering around 1.67. At 10pm though, the woman from reception of my hotel knocked on my door and told me that the lights were visible outside. I quickly dressed up (thermals, layers, gloves, hat, etc..) and headed outside, got in the car and drove to Kirkjufell. It was a strange thing to be doing, climbing up a hill in the dark, in order to photograph waterfalls and mountains at night, with aurora above, but I wasn't the only photographer there! There were a couple of others, and a couple more came and went during my hour there. The best displays were when I arrived, photographing just the mountain itself from near the roadside. Once I got to the falls the activity had subsided a bit, and the waning moon rose.

The lights were fairly static, and a huge swathe of green stripes hung above me, from the north-east to the south-west. Eventually I gave up and headed home, stopping once alongside some reeds at the lake's edge.

Considering I'd gone to Iceland to see the volcanic eruption I was extremely pleased that I'd also been treated to such incredible auroral displays, especially given that I'd seen practically nothing on my visits in 2012 and 2013. Fingers crossed for more next year.

For tips on how to photograph the northern lights see my blog from earlier this year.

More images from this trip can be seen in the Iceland Sept 2014 gallery on my website.

Please contact me on sophiecarrphotography@hotmail.co.uk for details on licensing/usage of these images.