2 Mar 2015

Iceland Feb 2015 - Day 6: Stafafell & Hvalnes

Day 6 started well. As I was staying in the middle of nowhere with very little light pollution, I knew that any northern lights would be easy for me to see out of the window. The alarm went off at 6.30am, I reached across to the other side of the bed, pulled out the curtain to peek underneath it at the sky and the first thing I noticed were stars, followed quickly by a vague moving streak of light. I was in luck - the northern lights were out, as forecast! And my headache had gone too; an added bonus. I quickly pulled on some warm gear and headed outside, only needing to walk a few paces from my cabin to find a good spot in order to get a few shots of the lights over the hills and the cabin. It was quite a different display from a couple of nights earlier, with lots of purple lines coming down at me, as well as intense green waves dancing around, with the best displays off to the north-west.

The show might have gone on a while, but within twenty minutes the clouds were coming in rapidly from the south-west and the lights were barely visible. I went back inside, had the usual breakfast of Icelandic granola with Skyr, a couple of tiny cups of tea, and then headed out, in the direction of Hvalnes again, hoping for a spot of good sunrise light. I knew the day wasn't going to be easy, as strong winds were forecast for Hvalnes, as well as rain for most of the day. Outside the cabin the clouds had cleared a little, so I took a couple of shots just in case the northern lights were still visible, even though it was nearly light; they weren't!

When I reached Hvalnes I took a little turn on the right that leads down a gravel road towards the lighthouse at the end of the point. I parked my car facing into the wind, again trying to prevent the door being torn off by a strong gust as I opened it. As I sat in the car getting my stuff sorted the car rocked a little in the wind, so I knew it was going to be challenging. I did a little reccie to see how strong the wind was before getting my tripod out - I've been in Icelandic winds so strong before that there's just no point in bothering with a tripod (or trying to get sharp shots!). It was pretty fierce, coming at me from the west, but I tried an area below a small ridge on the east side of the promontory and it was totally sheltered! I went back to the car, picked up the tripod and headed back down in the snowy grass to the area and set up my gear in wind-free peace. The sky was still pretty dark as sunrise wouldn't be for some time, and dark clouds loomed around the peak of Eystrahorn and the ridge behind it.

Like on the beach the previous afternoon, I was totally alone - it seems as if this spot has not yet been "discovered", in spite of the magnificent mountains towering above. The air was calm enough behind the hill for me to even try a few long exposure shots, but there wasn't a great deal of contrast in the dark grey clouds. Using a very long exposure and the 10-stop filter did make it look even more atmospheric and bleak, though (lower of the two shots below). Apart from the distant noise from waves crashing onto rocks on the windy side of the headland and a snow-plough scraping the road at one point, it was peaceful and quiet.

After a while I wandered down over some rocks to reach the beach. The waves weren't that strong on this side, but from time to time a larger one would crash over some low black rocks, creating a smooth cascade as the water receded. A tiny amount of morning light briefly shone on the waves as they swirled around the beach.

It began to rain slightly, so I decided to head back to the car, expecting worse to come. On the way I saw some interesting bits of seaweed on the black pebbles, as well as plenty of broken mussel shells. A large spotted rock also caught my eye. I knew that I was capturing my own reflection in the wet pebbles, but my polarising filter was in the car, so I couldn't try that out, and instead ended up reflected in most of the shots!

I walked back up the slope to the car, meeting the wind head-on as I went over the top of the ridge. The gusts were as strong as ever, but it was also raining more consistently too. I'd only been out an hour and three quarters but was in need of a break to escape from the elements, so drove back to the the comfort and warmth of my little refuge while the rain and wind battered away outside. The cabin really was the perfect spot to be in while the weather was so horrid out there.

It continued to rain all afternoon, but I was glad for it; I always appreciate a rainy day half way through these trips, as it can get thoroughly exhausting taking photos or driving all day, every day. A few hours with your feet up makes a nice change! I had a little nap on the comfy sofa. When I woke up at about 4.30pm, the rain had eased and there was some beautiful light in the distance over Vesturhorn, with sun rays visible above and below a thick layer of cloud that sat above the mountains. The Batman-shaped peaks of the far mountain stood out clearly.

I got kitted up again and headed back down to Hvalnes, about 18km away, although in retrospect I probably should've headed west, towards the light! I stopped along the way to capture the clouds reflected in the nearly-frozen lagoon where I'd previously seen the swans, the mountains just visible on the horizon under the cloud. The clouds thickened as I drove.

I continued on to Hvalnes and parked in the same spot and headed back down the slope on the sheltered side again. Most of the snow had been melted and washed away by the day's rain. There was still a little contrast in the clouds on this side of the lagoon, but a decent sunset was not on the cards (I had to stop kicking myself for not heading over to Stokksnes and just hope that it too was covered in grey cloud now).

The tide was much higher than it had been in the morning, and now the waves were crashing against the rocks with huge impact from time to time, forcing the water a good few metres into the air. I tried to capture some of the better crashes, but the light was disappearing fast, and I had to push the ISO up and the f-stop down to get a fast enough shot. Sometimes when a wave was forced upwards it reminded me of the Strokkur geyser erupting, although a very different cause. I got some pretty impressive ones before I finally gave up and headed home.

I cooked the last of my tuna pasta meals and washed it down with a beer and looked over the day's photos before a reasonably early night. The forecast for the night was for total cloud cover which would last until around 10am the following morning. I set my alarm early enough to see any sunrise, but didn't intend to be out anywhere special for it, in case the skies were surprisingly nice again.

Click here for Day 5 - Heading East to Stafafell
Click here for Day 7 - Lon & Stokksnes

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