4 Apr 2016

Iceland #10 - Day 8: Rain, Rain and Then Vesturhorn!

The rain continued overnight, accompanied with the usual high winds, and I woke up late to a miserable view out of the window.

I like staying in cabins in this kind of weather, but it's no fun to go anywhere. Visibility outside was limited, with not a peak in sight, and I didn't fancy taking photos in the rain just for the sake of taking photos. I didn't have far to drive, at least, as I was staying in Stafafell, but there would still have been plenty to photograph along the way in good weather. I stayed in the cabin all morning, watching the other two cabins' occupants impatiently peaking their heads out of the window frequently to see if the rain was subsiding, just as I was doing every five minutes. A couple of horses stood in the shelter of one of the cabins, looking inside at the guests, before wandering off across the snow. The rain showed no signs of abating any time soon.

Eventually I had to leave (check-out was at 11am) so rushed to the car laden with as much as I could so I only had to do the journey twice. I set off into the mist and rain, not quite sure where I might stop and what I might do until check-in at the cottage at 3pm. I was a little nervous about the exposed scree-slope section of the road, worrying that the heavy rain might have dislodged even more snow and rock and bringing it tumbling down onto the road (the avalanche risk was "considerable" but not "very high", at least). The road conditions weren't too bad before I got to the nasty bit, although at one point I was surprised by a huge truck overtaking me - it had crept up on me so fast that I hadn't even noticed it behind me. I was driving particularly slowly as there were gusty winds as well as rain and limited visibility.

Sneaky iPhone shot of the crappy weather
The truck later pulled over, so I passed it again, and drove the 4km behind another SUV, glad for the company in case anything happened, avalance-wise. I very much hoped the truck wouldn't come rearing up behind me again, and it didn't. My heart was definitely racing a little and I wished the SUV was driving just a little faster so we could get out of there sooner. I felt a great sense of relief to get to the end of that section and arrive at the headland at Hvalnes. I pulled in to take a comparison shot between then and the previous, glorious afternoon. I could only just see the first low peak of Eystrahorn - everything else was hidden by low cloud. It was pretty miserable, especially when you know what stunning peaks lie beneath the murk.

I quickly got back in the car - even that was very challenging with near-gale-force winds and driving rain - and continued my drive west. I decided that I'd just head into Höfn and have lunch there to kill a bit of time. I could have driven all the way back to Jökulsárlón, but didn't really have the energy either for the 130km round trip journey or to stand on a wet beach, especially given how disappointing it had been earlier in my visit on a couple of occasions. I drove past the yellow cottage, looking forward to returning there, and onwards towards the tunnel. There were amazing turquoise pools along the roadsides, where ice pools were beginning to melt. The colour was quite intense and I hadn't seen anything like it on previous trips. Again it was challenging to capture as the rain was pretty much horizontal and for some reason seemed to be coming in every direction. The hood on the zoom did little to keep raindrops from the lens. The rainfall was very heavy and in some places the pools were overflowing and beginning to flood the road.

In Höfn I drove to the Kaffi Hornið and treated myself to their speciality of langoustine (lobster tails) and a lovely porter.
iPhone shot of yummy langoustine tails - so many of them!
They weren't quite as delicious as the ones Scott had had in the Grillmarkaðurinn in Reykjavík, but were still pretty yummy (and garlicky, which I could taste for the rest of the day!). I hung around for a while, savouring my beer, killing time, and then drove back (feeling a little naughty for having had a beer) through the tunnel to the cottage. By the time I got there it was 2pm - a little early - but since I'd stayed there twice before and it was raining I hoped that the nice owner would let me check in early. He did; and I was in the yellow cottage again (for a third time). He told me how he'd seen the star trail shot of the cabin and loved it. 

It was great to be back in the cute little place again, a great spot to shelter from the weather, drinking mugs of tea. The weather was forecast to improve later on - at least being dry, even though the winds were still going to be strong (and getting stronger). I reviewed some more photos and had a short nap, and then lo-and-behold the rain stopped, so I geared up to get ready to drive to Stokksnes. 

As I set off there were still enormous grey clouds rolling around the tops of Brunnhorn and Vesturhorn and above, but there were patches of brightness and even glimpses of clear skies behind. The view from Stafafell always impresses me - I can't imagine living in a place and seeing the view of the wonderfully-shaped Brunnhorn every day! The drive was a little gusty, but I always enjoy the drive up to the tunnel, with the pointy peaks ahead and to my left.

For once I didn't stop along the way to capture the road winding up to the tunnel, as I was keen to get to Stokksnes as soon as possible. Once through the tunnel the dark clouds had gone and it was almost clear ahead of me to the west. I took the left turn, and drove along the meandering road with huge bird cliffs above me, a couple of reindeers flitting off to my right. I got to the Viking Café, did my usual half-hearted attempt to see if the man was there to collect money, and when he didn't come out within five seconds I continued on across the sandy spit. 

There were a couple of cars parked already near the dunes, and I noticed that black sand was being whipped across the road ahead, where I usually park at the entrance to the radar station. I decided to park before I reached that spot, hoping not to get any damage to the car's paintwork from the sand being hurled at it. Boy it was windy! I got my gear ready in the car, wrapping up tight against the wind, and then set off, being helped nicely along through the dunes by the enormous power of the wind. It wasn't even particularly gusty, just really strong wind all the time! This would be a little challenging for the tripod-mounted long exposures I had in mind (er, pretty impossible!), or indeed any photography.

The dunes were incredibly exposed, with the wind funnelling between them like it does between the skyscrapers in London, so I decided to head to the rocky area at the end of the beach, hoping it might be a little more sheltered. On my way I took a few handheld shots, with the sand racing past my face!

The beach itself was extremely exposed, with sand dancing towards the sea, and the rocky area wasn't much better. I did find a spot that I quite liked on the rocks, and I sat for a while with my tripod on its lowest legs and me behind it, protecting it from the wind. The wind whipped at my back, catching any tiny gap between the thermal tops and thermal bottoms (and was icy cold!). The mountain looked striking, with the slowly-setting sun upon it, and snow in some of the creases of the slopes, but the sky was an uninspiring blue (better for B&W conversions). The waves weren't massive, given the power of the wind, and the tide was out, so the opportunity for really cool wave shots and water trails over the rocks seemed limited. A couple of other photographers milled around, one trying - like me - to capture some shots of the beach using a tripod, and another couple heading out onto the exposed beach and trying the handheld option (even that was hard, especially when the wind was strong enough to move you off your feet a little).

The light was nothing like the fantastic, intense last-glimpse sun that had reflected off the mountain when I'd been there in Feb 2015; after that anything else is a little disappointing. The lingering clouds would've looked great with a 20-30 second exposure streaking them across the sky, but with the winds as strong as they were that just wasn't an option.

I managed a few long-ish exposures, holding onto the camera to prevent movement (which isn't usually advised as holding onto it itself creates movement). It seemed to work for a few seconds, but no more. The tide began to come in, as the last of the sun disappeared, swirling over the rocks below me. The last of clouds began to dissipate.

I stayed for a couple of hours, until the dusky light crept in, heading out along the beach before I left. The skies had almost completely cleared of clouds, which boded well for night photography later on (wind levels permitting).

The wind had made me pretty cold, so I had to give up before I lost use of my fingers (as usual) and walked back to the car, slightly sideways, with the hood on my windproof jacket pulled over the whole of my face. Walking into gale force winds that carry gritty sand is not pleasant and I was glad to get into the calm of the inside of the car (although the car itself was being rocked from side to side). I realised that at some point I'd lost a lens-cap, which was irritating, but there was no way I'd be going back out there to re-trace my footsteps to try and find it (besides, the footsteps would have been blown away by now!). I drove back along the spit, through the tunnel and back to my little cottage and cooked. I was getting seriously bored with tuna pesto pasta now, but at least this was my last night of it. 

The skies were forecast to be mostly clear that night, but the northern light forecast was only Kp 1, at best. I decided to try some Milky Way and star shots, although it was far too windy still to try to set up a series of long exposures (there was no way I was leaving the camera out on the tripod, which could easily have been taken to the ground by a gust). I took a few shots of the cabin and stars (which weren't that intense), and noticed that there were, in fact, some northern lights out after all. I took a few more shots from behind the cabin, towards the hills, nearly slipping over on treacherous ice a few times, and the northern lights came out to play briefly. Eventually they disappeared behind the hills, the cloud level increased above the horizon, so I called it a night. After a dreadful start to the day at least I'd got some good shooting time on the beach and of the night skies.

Click here for my blog from Day 7: A Glorious Drive East
Click here for my blog from Day 9: Driving West to Hrífunes

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