8 Mar 2015

Iceland Feb 2015 - Day 10: Þingvellir to Garður

My last day in Iceland had come. I woke up late in my lovely cabin overlooking Þingvellir, the wind still howling around me. The ear-plugs had ensured I got a decent night's sleep in spite of the incessant noise. I made tea and checked the weather-forecast - it hadn't changed much from the previous night, the winds still due to drop around lunchtime. On the roads website I was able to check how many cars had driven along the stretch of road I needed to go on to get to Reykjavik, as well as the most recent wind speeds. The wind was up to 23 m/s (just over 50 mph), so there was no way I was going out in that. I'd read that it was advised not to drive if the winds exceeded 15 m/s (or was possibly illegal to), so 23 was definitely way too high! The stretch of road from Vik to Hvolsvöllur was closed as the wind speeds there were into the 30+ m/s (I later read that some tourists had to be rescued from the road near Skaftafell after having their windows smashed by flying rocks and that section wasn't even closed!). After 10am I noticed the odd car driving along the road above the cabin, heading towards Þingvellir. It was a Sunday, so I guess some tourists still made the journey, regardless of the weather and road conditions.

Any photography in the morning was done from the comfort of the cabin, behind glass windows, lights turned off to prevent reflections - there was no way I was even stepping one foot outside in that kind of wind. The sky was a steely blue-grey, with white clouds near the horizon. From time to time a huge gust would bring the snow up across the grass outside. In the distance I could see snow being blown off the tops of the mountains.

The morning spent there was a bit of a waiting game - waiting until the wind speed died down below 15 m/s and looked as if it would stay that way for my journey downhill back into Mosfellsbær and on to Reykjavik. More and more cars and adventure trucks went by, although almost all of them were heading into the national park, not out of it. By 11am the gusts died down a bit and winds of 14 m/s were registering on the roads website. It was looking as if I'd make it to the airport the following morning on time after all. I didn't have far to go, so wasn't in a rush, but finally set off at 1pm, when the roads website showed 15 m/s and the hourly forecast suggested that the winds wouldn't exceed that for the next couple of hours. The storms further east were continuing, so it was a good thing I wasn't staying in Vik that night, otherwise I would have been stuck there. 

I drove pretty cautiously, and it wasn't long before I started the downhill section with winds constantly blowing snow across the road. Like the snowfall a few days earlier I found it mesmerising, watching the snow blow diagonally across the road in front of me. The conditions weren't unlike the first time I drove there three years earlier and I'd driven out as a blizzard was approaching; that time I'd never experienced blowing snow before and was far more nervous though. Fortunately the wind was behind me, so the car wasn't buffeted from the side at all and the snow wasn't coming directly at me. Visibility must have been pretty dire coming in the other direction, up the hill and straight into the wind and snow. At one point the blowing snow got very thick and it was only possible to see a few yellow posts ahead; the sky was dark too. I was hanging back a good distance behind another car, which put on its hazard lights, making it much easier to see. I did the same for a stretch, in case anyone came up behind me. We stuck at around 50 kmph, which wasn't a bad speed given the conditions. Eventually we got through it and could see properly again, and by the time I reached Mosfellsbær it felt like a normal driving day in Iceland, back up to a speedy 90 kmph!

As I'd managed to get into Reykjavik in less than an hour I had time to make a few stops, before heading on to see my friends in Álftanes at 3pm. I couldn't visit Iceland without at least one trip to see the wonderful Sólfar (Sun Viking) sculpture. I managed to take the right roads for once, and ended up driving along the north shore of the city, which I knew would bring me round to the sculpture. There's parking right behind it, which was very helpful too. I parked, kitted up, and nipped out to take a couple of quick shots, before diving back into the warmth of the car. The winds were still pretty strong and a light sleet was coming down from dark patchy clouds above.

Next stop was the pond, which I expected to be frozen. There's some limited-time parking along the shore, which gave me a chance to nip out of the car again before continuing on. I was dying to go to the loo (as usual), so wanted to continue on to Perlan. The pond was mainly frozen and looked very pretty with the coloured houses on the opposite side. A few swans lingered at one end - so there were some more in the country already!

My navigational skills were on top form, which was very useful given my urgent needs, and I soon found the right hand turn up to Perlan. I rushed in, went to the loo before heading up to the observation deck. I knew it would be windy up there, but it was crazy - the kind where it could actually blow you off course. I walked round once, took a few shots of the view of the little city, before heading back in for some respite. I was pleased to see that the great sculpture of the band was still sitting outside.

I then drove onwards to Álftanes, remembering the way from my visit last year. I arrived at 3 on the dot, which I was quite impressed with! It was lovely to catch up with Sigrún and Jóhannes and their two young children who were happy to have a TV day given the nasty weather outside. Last year I was greeted with home-made waffles; this year Sigrún had made some special Icelandic cakes that are served with strawberry jam, whipped cream and chocolate sauce - very yummy and welcomed! Jóhannes is a bit of a barista, so I was also treated to a couple of very decent espressos. I wanted to continue on to Garður before it got dark, so left just before 5 (armed with home made banana bread!), heading back out into the snow and wind, which was still lingering. The road to the airport was fairly snowy, with the overtaking lane generally unused; everyone seemed to be driving pretty safely, apart from the odd taxi that would speed past in the snow at 100 kmph. On the other carriageway was an airport bus that had slid off the side of the road a little and been abandoned. To the south I could just see the tops of the small mountains, visible through a blue snowy haze. If any of the turn-offs had been clear of snow I might have ventured away a little as it was truly beautiful, but I thought it safer to continue onwards instead. I stopped for petrol in the usual place, a car skidding as it drove in near me.

I reached my cabin in Garður in a massive snow-storm, and the owner quickly came and let me in. It was another lovely, cosy cabin - this time with underfloor heating, no draughts and no howling wind. There was still a little daylight left so I headed out to see if I could get a few shots of the two lighthouses nearby that I'd visited a couple of years earlier and watched the ducks flitting around near the shore as the sun set. The snow had stopped but the wind was still gusty. Next to the cabin I petted a couple of horses, owned by the cabin owner's brother, before the short drive to the point. I was quite surprised to find an old double-decker London bus converted into a café (and karaoke bar!) parked there, although it was closed. I drove back, past the cabin and had a little drive around the village, stopping to photograph the pretty church and some grey houses (the light was terrible by this stage!), before heading back to my refuge for the night.

And that, as they say, was that. Iceland trip number 8 was over! My flight was early the next morning, so I had to get up way before it got light, leave my lovely little cabin, drive to the airport, top the tank up with petrol, buy some birch liqueur for the hubby, and then fly back home. I always feel a bit relieved to be going home, to better weather, to my boys, to my home where I can sit at my Mac and review my photos endlessly for weeks or months on end, but obviously I'm always sad too to leave this place, which has somehow become a second home to me. When people say "but don't you just want to go on a beach holiday?" I say "yes, a black, sandy beach strewn with icebergs or with basalt column for cliffs, where the wind blows you off your feet or your car off the road (hopefully not!) and where it's always cold!"

Each time I leave, now, I know I'll be back to this funny little island that I love so much, so there's no need to spend the rest of my Krona, and there's no real reason to feel sadness. Each time I leave, now, I know I'll be back soon...

7 Mar 2015

Iceland Feb 2015 - Day 9: From Vík to Þingvellir

I am definitely too old to stay in dorms, I discovered on this trip. I usually stay in a dorm on at least one night on my trips to Iceland, but I think this might be the last time. I set my alarm for 7am and crept across the hallway to shower. Once clean and dressed I carefully carried out my backpack, camera bag and filter bag into the hallway, in the darkness. I went back in for the rest of the stuff - iPhone, purse, car-keys, lipsalve, etc - that I'd kept next to my pillow overnight and tried to carry out my down jacket without making too much of a swishing noise. A hotel room just would have been so much easier! Upstairs I grabbed a quick breakfast and took the remaining food bag out of the fridge and set off towards Reynisfjara, where I was hoping to catch sunrise.

The skies were completely clear and starry, but there was no sign of northern lights lingering in the dawn twilight. It was extremely cold - by far the coldest day I'd had so far on this trip. The wind wasn't strong, but it didn't need to be for me to suffer! I was well wrapped-up though, as I'd checked the weather-forecast and knew it was going to be as cold as -15 deg C in Þingvellir (a little milder on the coast), and had an extra thermal layer on. As I pulled into the car-park I thought I was the first person there, but another photographer was already on the beach - he must've been staying in a nearby cabin. The stacks looked so stark in the twilight, as did the silhouette of the basalt columnar cliffs. The horizon was a dreamy pale red and the waves surprisingly calm.

After ten minutes another photographer arrived, an Englishman who'd got up in Jökulsárlón at 4am in order to drive here in time for sunrise! We chatted a bit and then I wandered along the beach to the cave to get a different view, which was accessible as the tide was out. Small icicles hung from the basalt columns of the cave, just visible in the morning light; had they been any larger I would've felt uncomfortable standing below them, in case one should snap off and hit my head. Also milling around the cave was the other photographer, who was German and didn't speak a word of English, so no chatting with him then.

I headed back around the cliff and back to the car to get the 100-400mm lens out - I couldn't carry that extra weight with me if I didn't think I was going to use it, plus I wasn't keen on changing lenses outside. Sitting in the car changing lenses gave me a couple of minutes to warm up too; it was absolutely bitter.

As I got back to the beach the sun was about to appear over the top of the layer of cloud on the horizon towards the south-east. I was looking forward to any warmth the sun might bring.

The German was down by the shore taking pictures of the waves and Dyrholaey to the west, with the pre-sunrise earth's shadow providing that wonderful blue and pink hue.

The warmth I was hoping for as the sun pierced above the clouds didn't come, but it was a stunning sight anyway, with the sunlight illuminating the waves crashing over the rocks near the shore.

The sun quickly rose, and passed behind the larger of the stacks for a short while. I moved along the beach a little to get a different angle, and then became fixated with another photographer in front of me - I love the scale a photographer can add.

I became quite worried about the state of my fingers, with my right thumb acheing quite severely. Had it not been for that I probably would have stayed longer, but I was also keen to get to the DC3. I sat in the car with my thumb wrapped in the warmth of my left hand and when it started to tingle I set off. I'd visited the DC3 the previous year, and had looked at Google maps to re-familiarise myself with the turn-off. There had been a light snowfall on the black sands so I was a little worried that I might not be able to find the tracks to the crashed plane, but I needn't have worried - since last year they'd put in some poles marking the route all the way there (as well as a sign saying that normal cars weren't allowed, only 4x4s - this reassured me that I wasn't breaking the law and driving off-road!).

When I arrived at the plane I was alone to enjoy it, lightly covered in snow, the sun shining on it - very different from the passing showers of a year earlier. I was the first visitor of the day, so the snow was still pristine. Within ten minutes a Spanish couple arrived and rushed around and on the plane taking photos on self-timer. By the time they left the place was littered with footprints in the snow! I hung around a little longer to get some more shots of the wonderful shadow the plane cast in the snow.

When my fingers began to get cold again I walked back to the car and drove back to the main road. At the entrance were two cars stopped, and as I drove towards them I worried that they might be police and that this wasn't a proper, legal road after all. It turns out that they were German tourists, waiting to ask me some advice on driving to the site - they had one saloon car and one van. The track wasn't very bumpy so I thought they'd be okay in the van. They thanked me and I headed off west towards Skogafoss.

I love Skogafoss when the weather is bad, as it seems more atmospheric, as well as being less crowded. I planned to stop there, but I was too early to catch the sun on the falls, so decided to just drive on. I had photos of the falls in rain and shine, but I didn't see the point of more photos of it in shade! I stopped a little further on at a derelict farmhouse, where there are a few rocks out in a bay, with Vestmannaeyjar in the distance. I've driven past many times and only stopped once, so pulled in and wandered down to the beach to get a few shots. The shore was lined with ice and more wonderful ice patterns.

In the field next to the derelict farmhouse were some cows, which apparently is a fairly unusual sight at this time of year. It was such a lovely day that perhaps the farmer had thought he'd give them a breath of fresh air.

My next stop was Seljalandsfoss, which I'd also photographed in rain and shine, and knew that it would be in the shadow for a good few more hours. I pulled in there anyway to take a few shots of the crowds from the grass near the car-park, but didn't go any closer. I could not believe how busy it was!

I drove back into the sunshine, and continued on the glorious drive west, passing through tiny Hvolsvöllur and Hella, making a quick petrol stop to keep me going for the next day. I made a quick detour to Urriðafoss, where I sat in the car and ate my cold pizza. A couple of photographers were battling against the wind above the falls. When I'd eaten I headed out, but didn't go very far as I knew the wind was strong enough to rock the tripod. I took a few close-up shots of patches of ice on the water before the bitter wind got the better of me. It was challenging to get a sharp shot too, as I was using the long lens - definitely not ideal on a windy day! Sometimes I forget just how much the cold can drain my motivation too.

I turned off the ring-road and headed north on the 30 towards Geysir. My plan was to try to visit Brúarfoss, if the conditions of the road permitted, and if I could find it. The drive was glorious, with the sun shining behind me, the landscape looking beautiful with a light covering of snow, and with snow-capped mountains ahead of me. Before reaching Fluðir I took the left turn on the 31 which was completely empty of people and cars. I stopped to look at a couple of horses that were drinking from a snowy puddle.

After a couple of miles back on the main road (the 35) I took another left turn down a rather snowy 255. At the entrance to the road a couple of cars had stopped so I asked them if the road was okay. Just snowy, the man said, so take it slow. I wish I'd stopped to take some photos along that road because it was just lovely. Everything around me was white, the sun was shining, with pale blue skies, and the car was handling the snowy roads just fine. I was sad to come to the end of the road, turning right to rejoin the 37 towards Geysir. Almost immediately I reached the collection of summer houses that marked the location of Brúarfoss (it's tucked away behind them), although the first road I turned into was blocked off. I took the next - and only - turn and drove into the strange area along a snowy road with huge piles of snow that had been ploughed stacked up on each side. I had to reverse a long way back around a corner at one point when I met an oncoming car. I carried on, hoping to find a left turn that would lead me to the starting point for a visit to Brúarfoss, but just ended up next to private cabins. There was nowhere to park, just one turn-around spot, which I knew I couldn't use as a parking spot. I could see the river valley off to my left, but just couldn't find how to get somewhere that I could stop. In the end I gave up and drove back out again, annoyed that I hadn't researched the location a little better (I did look at a map when I got home and deduced that the road that had been blocked off was the one I needed, and therefore it wasn't easily accessible at this time of year, perhaps because of the snow. Had I found anywhere to park I could've walked, but there was so much snow everywhere and nowhere to park). Next year, perhaps.

Obviously disappointed I continued on, deciding that I'd just go straight to the cabin I'd booked for that night, overlooking the lake at Þingvellir. It cost enough, so I decided that I should get my money's worth and spend a decent amount of time there! I rocked up at about 3pm and called to let them know I'd arrived. The cabin was open so I went on in, shortly before a woman arrived to greet me. She warned me of a storm that was coming in (another one!) which for some reason I hadn't been aware of, in spite of my usually manic checking of weather-forecasts. The storm would be worst along the south coast (with strong gales and possibly hurricanes forecast for the area west of Vik and near Skaftafell), but strong winds were also forecast for the south-west, including Þingvellir.

The wind wasn't strong now, but it was still bitterly cold, possibly colder than down on the coast, so any time I was out to take photos of the view I had to rush back inside quickly to warm up. The cabin was delightfully decorated, with large windows overlooking the lake, and the afternoon sun streamed through the window. I had a few cups of tea (again, tiny cups!) and popped in and out taking pictures of the view and the cabins. The woman came back a little later to take my payment and said I could stay the next day as long as I wanted, and even the next night. She warned me to take care driving in the wind the following day.

I should really have taken the opportunity to go back down to Öxarárfoss, which I'd planned to visit on my return, but my energy had gone. After nine days of pretty-much-solidly taking photos I'd lost the motivation I needed to get myself away from my comfy cabin. I could just about drag myself out of the cottage a little way down the slope to capture the view, but even that became more and more of an effort. I played around with the filters again, but the cloud conditions weren't really conducive, and it was too damned cold. Mainly I stayed inside, drank more tea, and reviewed the photos from earlier that day and the previous few days, only popping out occasionally for another shot. Sometimes I just have to stay put, even when I know that the next day I probably won't be able to take many photos because of the weather. The clouds were building up and the light eventually faded; the sunset wasn't dramatic, although it was still pretty.

After a dreadful pasta dish (I had no tins of tuna left, so just had pasta with sour cream, olive oil, garlic paste and cheese) I contacted my friend Sigrún in Reykjavik about meeting up the next day and we messaged back and forth about the weather. The forecast was for serious storms - not just everyday storms, but the kind that result in road closures and advice to stay inside all day. I got a bit nervous, given that I was flying out of Keflavik first thing on Monday morning, so I really had to be out of there before the next evening. The hourly wind forecast did show signs of a reduction in wind speed after around 2pm, so it looked as if I'd be okay. As I skyped my hubby at 9.30pm the winds suddenly hit - one minute it was calm, the next minute, bam! The cabin turned out to be quite draughty, with all those windows, and the wind was coming up from the lake and howling around the wooden structure. The radiators in the place weren't massively effective, but there was at least a blanket to wrap around me. I felt a little nervous too as I hadn't worked out how to lock the door properly (I needed to lift the handle up, but hadn't figured it out), so was worried that someone might break in (ridiculous, I know). I took all my valuable camera equipment and laptop into the bedroom with me, just in case, put in ear-plugs against the wind, and set the alarm for a very late 9am start.

Click here for Day 8 - From Höfn to Vík
Click here for Day 10 - From Þingvellir to Garður