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 

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