17 Apr 2016

Iceland #10 - Day 10: A Stormy Drive Back to Reykjavik (and home)

I woke up on the morning of my final full day in Iceland to the sound of the storm overhead. The intensity would come and go a little, rattling the doors of the guesthouse at its strongest. I had a huge breakfast, stuffing myself with delicious home-made malty bread. All of the guests hung around, not quite sure when it was going to be safe to leave. It was a perfect place to sit and wait for the weather to improve though, with lots of nice people to chat to, a warm log fire, as well as tea and coffee on tap. Eventually the winds did die down and one-by-one the guests departed - heading out nervously. I left at about 1pm, hoping to get to Reykjavik by 5pm (usually it's a 2-hour drive, but with stops and taking it slowly that would hopefully work).

I wasn't expecting to take many photos that day, as even though the winds would drop, it was still forecast to be stormy all day. The rain was blown around by the wind, so taking any photos without getting the lens covered in raindrops would be challenging, and use of a tripod was definitely out of the question. I drove cautiously down the road to the ring-road, but it wasn't too gusty - just a constant wind and precipitation coming and going. My first stop was just past Vík, at the turn-off to the skimobile place, as I saw some crepuscular rays to the south. I pulled on the raincoat and hat, crossed the road and took a couple of shots of the road, hills and the rays. There was pretty good visibility, considering, so at least some of the mountains were on show. The rain was slanted at this point, so it was possible to keep the lens dry for a few shots, using the zoom lens with the long hood on.

Next stop was Skógafoss. I've seen these falls many times, and usually stop there once on each trip. It can be very crowded - especially with coach-loads of English geography field trip students, and it can look very dull in grey weather, with blown-out white skies above. I'd noticed a little road on the far side of the river on my last trip, so decided to give the usual parking area a miss and head down there, to see if I could get a different - or better - viewpoint. I liked the view, but even with the 1.4x extender I couldn't quite get as close as I'd have liked. The surrounding landscape was that yellowy-brown grass, that really needs to be hidden under a good covering of snow (or converted to black and white), and from that point there was too much of it in view. What I did notice, though, was that the wind was blowing the waterfalls upwards. Fortunately it was blowing westward, so the visitors who made the effort to climb up to the viewpoint (I did that on my very first visit and haven't bothered since) weren't getting drenched. It was quite striking, and looks even more so converted into black and white.

I was quite fascinated by the upwards falls, so ended up driving back to the usual parking area to get a closer look.

I think this looks like a man about to punch the waterfall...

As usual it was quite busy, but people came and went, and occasionally just a couple of people would be standing in front of the falls.

While I was there I noticed that the sky had begun to brighten slightly behind me to the south, and for about 3 minutes the clouds parted, the sun came out, blue skies appeared from nowhere behind the falls and the sun shone brightly, giving a lovely brief rainbow. Everyone was delighted! Having looked drab and dull, suddenly it looked glorious.

Within a couple of minutes the sun was gone, and off I went.

The rain and hail and sleet and wind returned. Or rather I drove through it. I stopped very briefly at Seljalandsfoss to use the loo, took a couple of shots of people battling the sleet, and then headed onwards.

Just after I left I drove through the most unbelievably intense shower, with gusty winds and snow coming straight at me. It went on for a few minutes and I felt quite relieved once I'd driven through it. I pulled the car over to capture the storm as it retreated; sun shone on the mountaintops in the distance.

I stopped a little further on to photograph some trees, and a few other times to capture visible rain storms passing in the distance (there were a few).

I was a little nervous about the big hill past Hveragerði and the high pass beyond. When I'd been manically checking the road conditions and weather sites before I set off that was one area that was marked with "storm" conditions. The big sweeping dual carriageway that winds up around the hill was surprisingly clear of traffic (and snow) - just a couple of other cars and me; fortunately no high-sided trucks (they don't seem to drive on weekends and hopefully they also have rules about not driving in windy weather!). At the top the road and roadside were pretty snowy, and I passed a snow plough a little further on, that was presumably just driving up and down that stretch of the road all day. It was no longer snowing and the wind had died away, so apart from a bit of snow on the road, which I was used to, the conditions weren't too bad at all. I'd definitely made the right choice to leave later as I'd clearly missed the worst of it.

I gave Reykjavík a miss and headed straight to Álftanes, where I was expected at around 5pm at Sigrún and Johannes' for supper. The promise of Sigrún's Thai fish soup had been driving me forward all day long (I'd eaten nothing since breakfast)! I arrived on the peninsula a little early so took a little drive to the east side along an unmade road to get a better view of the enormous storm clouds that were passing over the city in the distance. I could just make out the Hallsgrímkirkja, the highest building in Reykjavik (not the tallest from the ground, but its peak is higher than any of the new skyscrapers built on lower ground along the waterfront).

Behind me another storm was coming in and it was great to watch the patches of rain fall in the distance. I knew it would reach me soon, so I got back in the car and headed back towards the west side. I stopped the car at one point as the storm hit me to try to capture the ferocity of the sleet as it hammered the car and road ahead of me.

It's always lovely to get back to see these friends after a trip around their beautiful country, and obviously I was particularly happy to be greeted by the adorable Jökull (the kitten), who was as affectionate as ever. The fish soup was so delicious that I had three bowls. This was then followed by an even more delicious apple and pear crumble with a walnut crumble and home-made vanilla ice-cream. Again I had three helpings and then felt ridiculously over-full for the rest of the evening! It is very nice to have a friend who is an extremely talented cook! I had a relatively early night as I had to get up at 5am in order to drive back to the airport for my early flight home. The kitten slept on top of me all night.

The weather was dreadful again, and this time I was happy to leave (on my last visit I awoke to a beautiful crisp cold day - and northern lights - and was miserable to be leaving).

I dropped off the car - thanking them again for swapping it on the first day for one with a music system (a trip-saver!) - and fortunately there was no damage (always a relief, especially after the blowing sand at Stokksnes and the bumpy drive to the DC3). They dropped me off at the terminal and I checked in, had a delicious breakfast of an open prawn sandwich at the remaining Icelandic café, and stocked up on my favourite stout. We had to walk across the runway in the blowing rain for a short distance to get to our plane, which seemed a little strange - as well as unpleasant! Fortunately I still had my hat with me, but my other Iceland-weather-proof gear was packed away. My seat was at the emergency exit next to the door, so was also covered in rain. I stood around waiting for the last passenger before wiping the rain off it!

I sat next to a lovely American woman who had just got engaged (her fiancé sat behind) and we shared a wonderful couple of hours chatting about our lives. I always meet fantastic people on my flights to and from Iceland.

I took a few shots out of the window along the way, although Iceland was covered in cloud as we left. Above the clouds it was glorious and there were some cool brocken spectres of the plane as we descended through light clouds into Gatwick.

The weather in London was delightful and I was glad to get home to my boys and start the mammoth task of sorting through the thousands of photos I'd taken!

It had been a pretty successful trip, and it had been great to have a proper weekend break with hubby and friends to start with (I really enjoyed playing tour guide in this country I love so much). I'd had some great weather, particularly on my drive east from Jökulsarlón, but no really spectacular sunrises or sunsets. I'd seen the northern lights on three occasions - with the most amazing display on the 4th night, which after my first couple of trips of seeing nothing is always good. The icebergs on Jökulsárlón beach - or rather lack thereof - had been my biggest disappointment of the trip. But that's the thing I love about Iceland and my road-trips there - every visit is different: the weather, the snow, the ice, the light, the experiences I have, and that makes me want to return again and again - to see it in yet another different light again.

Click here for my blog from Day 9 - Driving West to Hrifunes

16 Apr 2016

Iceland #10 - Day 9 - Driving West to Hrífunes

My penultimate day started early, with a trip down to Hvalnes beach for sunrise. The weather forecast was for clear skies, but obviously that never happens - and besides, a little cloud usually makes sunrise far more impressive. It wasn't going to be a spectacular one, however, and the intense light I was hoping would light up Eystrahorn as the sun broke above the horizon didn't happen. It still looked quite nice though.

I parked on the road to the lighthouse, as usual, and headed down to the beach on the east side. There was quite a lot of cloud around but the sun occasionally peeked through as it rose. A few rain clouds passed above the horizon. It was extremely windy, as usual.

It's a nice beach with some rocks which make for some pleasant water trails as the waves recede. The tide was in, so I could barely see the bigger rocks that sit a little further out, where I'd captured some cool shots of the water flowing down the steps of the rocks on my first visit there.

I kept checking behind me, and took a few shots of the clouds moving around the peak, but the sun just wasn't playing ball, stubbornly hiding behind low clouds on the horizon above the sea. Ominous rainclouds came and quickly passed.

After a while I wandered a bit further along the beach towards the rocks, where massive waves crashed against the shore every minute or so. I tried a few long exposure shots of the mountains behind, but the clouds weren't quite right for it.

The sun, at least, finally came out properly and made the mountain look rather special.

I walked on a bit and tried to photograph the waves. I've tried to capture them at that spot before, and it's pretty challenging to get a shutter speed fast enough to get the movement, and an aperture narrow enough not to have the foreground totally out of focus. The sun was now beginning to appear in its full glory, brightening up the clouds, making the task of photographing the waves even more challenging. Some of the waves were enormous.

It's a pretty exposed spot and eventually I had to leave as my fingers had frozen - a common occurrence. I say to myself "oh just a couple more" and my fingers then freeze up even more! Given the way my fingers felt slightly numb for a couple of weeks after I got back to London, I think I probably overdid it! I stopped to take a few shots of the mountain, upon which the sunlight still fell, before getting back in the car and heading back to my lovely yellow cabin to pack up.

Along the way I pulled in at the parking area and climbed down to the beach where chunks of ice had broken up and a few rocks lay on the surface. One thing I'd seen lots of before in Lónsfjorður were whooper swans, but now there were none and I hadn't seen any on my trip; it was obviously too early for them to be back in Iceland. My fingers were just about functioning again.

There was a lot of cloud over the mountains to the west, where I was heading; the best of the weather for the day was definitely behind me. As I reached the cabin I wanted to take a few more photos of the wonderful view down towards Brunnhorn and Vestrahorn, but the cloud was now obscuring the view.

After packing up the cabin I stopped by at the house to pay, and the owner, Sigurður, drove up from the farm (he has a lot of sheep!). His sheepdog is very cautious, but eventually lets me pet her before I leave each time. I promised to get a copy of the star trail photo for him, which he said he'd like to have on his wall. I'd left the key in the door, so no chance of forgetting it this time and a mad dash back to return it. As I left, the clouds had moved on a bit and the sun came out briefly over the farmland and the peaks in the distance.

The drive between Stafafell and the tunnel before Höfn is one of my favourite stretches of road, so obviously I had to stop a few times, even though I was excited to get back to Jökulsárlón for one last little session. The light wasn't great, with too much cloud, but occasionally a shaft of light would appear to illuminate a spot of the land near me.

After the obligatory stop before the tunnel I drove through and onwards towards Jökulsárlón. For once I didn't stop to capture the favourite tree, although I did make a very quick stop at the graffiti house, to photograph some reindeer, and at the line of trees a little further on.

Like the previous day the sides of the roads were lined with intensely blue ice pools, especially along the last stretch of the road before the lagoon.

By the time I reached Jökulsárlón the weather had totally deteriorated and it was sleeting. No worries, I had my rain cover and set off along the beach with the zoom lens only and the 6-stop ND filter - that should do it, I thought. There were a few icebergs on the beach of some size, but it wasn't massively inspiring, especially with contrast-less cloudy skies along the horizon. There was one rather nice iceberg, but otherwise there wasn't much to keep me there. The place was unusually deserted (actually it usually is when it's pissing with sleet). The sleet got heavier and battered at my back until I could bear it no more. I was drenched and freezing. I stayed less than half an hour - a very quick visit for me - and then headed off, hoping for something more inspiring on the road west, warming up and drying off in the car.

There wasn't much more to inspire me that day, and the drive was long and dull, through rain and high winds. I brightened it up by listening to some rather ridiculous music ('80s Madonna, for example - I don't think this is what she had in mind when she sang "Holiday"...), singing along, as usual. It seemed to brighten my mood a little, which is never great when the weather is poor. I stopped briefly at my beloved Lómagnúpur, the top of which was shrouded in low cloud. I realised that I'd never actually seen it before with a slight dusting of snow. What I could see of it looked lovely!

After passing Kirkjubæjarklaustur I pulled over again to take a few shots of the moss-covered lava, but the light was pretty poor and nothing looked very impressive.

I could've taken a detour to the canyon, but was worried about the snowiness of the roads, and didn't want to risk getting stuck. I continued onwards and soon found the turn-off up to Hrífunes, where I was spending the night. I passed more blue pools, but otherwise the landscape was fairly stark and dire. I drove straight to the guesthouse and checked in. I was greeted by a very friendly young woman, and was shown to my tiny room just off the dining room. It was nice to actually stay in a place with other people, having led a pretty solitary life the previous few days.

I headed back out to take a few shots of the surrounding area - there is a pretty river and canyon just down from the guesthouse, with a tight turning in the road down to a bridge. Part of the road had been washed away by recent rains, so driving needed a lot of care. I stopped by some of the blue pools, but the squally showers hampered any proper photography efforts. The snowy landscape was dotted with little patches of moss and small shrubs, and after a couple of handheld shots I soon headed back to the comfort of the guesthouse.

In the evening the place was packed, and we sat around two communal tables and ate dinner and chatted about our trips and the usual traveller conversations about where we were from and what we did back home. Most of the couples were English, but there were a couple of Canadian girls and a cute couple who'd met for one night in a bar in Switzerland months ago and had finally reunited in Iceland (he was French, she was American - and they were clearly smitten!!). I had a couple of the stouts and ended up feeling quite drunk - others were drinking too, so at least I wasn't alone. The biggest conversation topic, as is common among Brits and Icelandics - was the weather. One couple recounted a story of getting stuck in a parking area overlooking Þingvellir and having to call to get winched out, costing £180 - I'd clearly had a narrow (and cheap!) escape when I got bogged down in the Jökulsárlón parking area. As happened on the last day of my trip the previous February, a massive storm was forecast for the drive to Reykjavik; it was due to die down a little by the early afternoon, but  we were all a little worried. I went to bed listening to the wind and rain battering the place, hoping that I'd make it back to the capital safely.

Click here for my blog from Day 8 - Rain, Rain and then Vesturhorn!
Click here for my blog from Day 10 - A Stormy Drive Back to Reykjavík