2 Mar 2015

Iceland Feb 2015 - Day 5: Heading East to Stafafell

On each trip to Iceland I try to visit at least one new place. Last year I flew to the east and drove around the south-eastern fjords from Egilsstaðir. This year I didn't have any new destinations planned, but I had found a remote cabin that was about mid-way between Hvalnes and Stokksnes, so at least I was staying somewhere new. I had only passed through Hvalnes and Stokksnes very quickly last year, so on this trip I'd get a chance to explore the area a bit more, and was positioned so that I had the choice of each of them depending on the weather and my mood.

The plan for Day 5 was a nice lazy one - get up for a last sunrise at Jökulsárlón (obviously), back to Hali to pack and check out, and then make the relatively short drive east, past the turn-off to Höfn, through the tunnel and up to Stafafell to my cabin. Plus a visit to either Hvalnes or Stokksnes, depending on the weather.

I managed to get up early (out of the door by 8am), but after my late night appointment with the northern lights I hadn't got to sleep until about 2am and I woke up with a headache that felt remarkably similar to a hangover, even though I'd only had one beer once I got in. My head didn't hurt when I was out on the beach at Jökulsárlón, but as soon as I got back in the car and drove back to Hali I felt dreadful. I spent just under an hour and a half at the beach, knowing that I had to get back and pack, shower and be gone by 11am. The sunrise was quite impressive, with a few clouds reflecting red and pink, but I struggled to find any icebergs that I really liked; sadly the problem with most of my visits there this time around (no "Octopus" shot this time). As I drove back to Hali the skies lightened to a deep blue and the scattered clouds dispersed. It was a glorious day, although cloudless blue skies are a bit dull for photos (no pleasing some people!).

I always feel sad leaving Hali as it is one of my favourite places in Iceland. I have rather mixed emotions about it now, though, as it was there last year that I first felt the swelling in my armpit that led me to visit my GP, which was soon followed by a diagnosis of early breast cancer. Almost a year later, after various treatments, it definitely felt strange going back there with that memory and everything that had happened in between my visits. As I left I said "see you next year" to the Icelandic owner (who always gives me a funny little wink), hoping that the coming year would be a lot less eventful and without any nasty surprises.

I took the journey slowly, stopping quite a lot, but the headache was still nagging away. The roads were considerably less busy east of Hali and I barely passed a soul all day. I stopped at a line of trees where I'd pulled in the previous year on a horribly rainy day. I took a photo of the same view, but prefer the one from last year, which had far more atmosphere. As I said, blue skies can be very dull for photographs! The sun was also responsible for the snow on the ground having melted, revealing that not particularly attractive yellow-brown grass.

A little further down the road I pulled in to an unmanned petrol station that had been a life-saver last year, only to find that it no longer accepted credit cards, only some strange key fob. I had enough to get me past Höfn and beyond, but hated to have to worry about it at all. I stopped again at the side of the road at another place I'd stopped to capture a couple of crooked trees. The bigger one looked beautiful this morning, with frost on the ground, two glaciers in the distance behind it and icy pools in front of it. Glaciers were everywhere! The wind was bitterly cold, so I didn't stay out of the car for long. A little further was a pretty church with a red roof; Iceland does do very pretty churches!

I took another turn-off and went for a little wander, marvelling at some ice patterns, slush floating down the river, another distant glacier creeping down onto the valley floor, and a ruined house surrounded by snow-covered mountains.

I continued on, stopping near a bridge across a large river and finding more wonderful ice patterns, with stunning mountains in the distance and some rhyolitic hills above. If it hadn't been so damn cold I could've stayed looking at the ice at the river's edge for hours, looking for more ice faces!

Streaky dull clouds were beginning to build up in the sky to the south as I headed eastwards on the approach to Höfn. After filling up with petrol near the turn-off to the town I continued onwards, and took the right turn just before the tunnel that takes you down to Stokksnes. The road was mostly covered in snow, as well as being extremely hilly and windy, but the traction of the tyres seemed to be working okay. When I'd visited the previous year it had been cloudy, so I hadn't noticed the stunning rocky peaks that tower above the road.

I got to the beginning of the spit that leads across to the black sandy, duned-filled beach to see a "No Entry" sign and asking for an entrance fee to be paid at the café. I parked up and asked the man there about it - apparently it was a "nature conservation" fee. I'd read about it on someone's blog, who'd said that one shouldn't pay, as it wasn't strictly legal. The light wasn't great now and my headache was still lurking, so I decided not to proceed, knowing that I'd be back a day or two later. I didn't really want to pay, but wasn't quite sure how not to! On the way back I stopped to pet and photograph some beautiful horses. I had the long zoom on, so was able to get some nice close-ups of the horses' features.

I'd been there about five minutes when a couple of SUVs pulled up and some Asian photographers got out. One of them asked me if it was okay if they joined me; I said "sure" and left them to it.

I continued on, through the tunnel, and pulled over a little way down the road at the one spot I could find to park. When I'd driven in the opposite direction the previous year I'd taken a couple of photos of the snow-covered slopes reflected in the bay, and was keen to recreate the shot. I managed to get a couple of photos, but needed to be closer to the water's edge to get the shots I was looking for. As I knew I'd be there a couple of days I drove on, keen to get to my cabin and try to get rid of my headache.

I drove inland and past a creek where a photographer was capturing a picturesque frosty canyon, and decided that I'd return there another day too. I reached my cabin at Stafafell at 2.30pm, and initially couldn't work out where to check in (there was a house with a tiny sign I'd missed saying "ring for reception"). The woman then accompanied me to my little yellow cabin that was my home for the next two nights. It was a lovely, warm and cosy place with flowery sofas, curtains and bed covers, two bedrooms, a TV, tiny kitchen and windows - and stunning views - on every side, as well as a terrace at the front. A perfect place to recover from my headache!

After lots of water and a couple of cups of tea (in the smallest possible mugs - I had to have two at a time!) I headed out to Hvalnes, where the tops of the mountains had been draped with mist on my last visit. The peaks were clear today, but the sky had become overcast and dull; not promising for a decent sunset. I drove past the point at Hvalnes to see if there was anything interesting to photograph further on, but got nervous when I saw road signs warning of gusty winds ahead; I remembered how exposed it had been when I'd driven along that section before and wasn't keen to get blown off the road. I hoped to see some reindeer too, but they were obviously sheltering from the wind somewhere.

I turned around, drove back around the point and parked at a sheltered beach that sits opposite the mountains. The lagoon was mostly frozen and I discovered some more lovely patterns - again seeing faces in the bubbles. I played around with some of my new Tiffen filters, but found there wasn't enough light or contrast in the clouds to get the best out of the 10-stop one. I took my first self-portraits (and last, it turned out!) of the trip. 

I drove home once the light was too low and blue. I remembered how beautiful the lagoons had looked on my last visit, with dozens of swans sitting on the calm water in the fading light. This year I'd only seen about five swans, as I was a good few weeks too early for their return en masse from their overwintering spots in the northern British Isles (another reason not to visit in February). The lagoon was mostly frozen and still looked beautiful, though, if a little empty.

I cooked some pasta, skyped the hubby as usual, forewent the beer as my head still felt a little fuzzy, and had a very early night. The alarm was set for 6.30am on the off-chance that both the weather and aurora forecasts were right - for a small break in the clouds and a good aurora display.

Click here for Day 6 - Stafafell & Hvalnes

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