16 Oct 2016

East, North & North-East Iceland - Day 3: Driving to Mývatn via Lots of Exciting Places

Day 3 of my trip to the region was one of my big driving days, covering about 250km (not that much, but enough when you're doing all the driving yourself and many of the roads aren't paved). The plan was to take the ring-road for a good part of the way, but make a few deviations, weather-permitting, to Möðrudalur and Dettifoss, as well as visiting Krafka and Grjótagjá caves before spending the night at Skutustaðir on Lake Mývatn. I didn't quite end up making all of those places, but had a good drive, all the same.

Breakfast turned out to be two portions of everything just for me - which was nice given that I was probably paying the same for my room as a couple would be. If I'd realised the previous day I would've kept the second portion of everything provided! I chatted to a couple of women from San Francisco (everyone seemed to be from there!) who were "doing the ring-road", before packing up and setting off out of Egilsstaðir, completing my own ring-road, 14 years later, more-or-less. The weather was grim again, which was annoying given that I was passing some cool mountain scenery, but hey, that's Iceland for you. There were a few waterfalls along the way, but I was a bit "waterfalled-out" after the previous couple of days, so didn't feel a massive yearning to stop.

The road north of Egilsstaðir wasn't quite as stark as I thought it would be, with a fair number of farms nestled in a large river valley. The waterfalls started appearing to the north of the road and eventually I did stop at one. I needed to go to the loo so at least I'd be able to do that while getting a few photos. The waterfall was Ysti-Rjúkandi, one of the ones I'd identified during my research and decided to visit. I walked up to a second viewpoint; most other people seemed to just stop at a fence and went no further. It began to rain, adding to the challenge of spray from the falls. There were some more pretty red leaves and mossy green plants along the paths and I noticed a couple of blueberry-like fruit. I would love to have eaten them, had they definitely been edible, but I had this fear that they might just kill me, so the berries remained intact!

Back in the car I noticed a left-hand turn-off. I wasn't sure if it was the one towards Möðrudalur as I approached, but turned down it anyway. I checked my map and it was just a little side road (the 923), on the other side of the river canyon from the route 1, barely a detour. It was a great road, with no other cars on it, and probably would've afforded great views on a good day. Soon I was back on the main road, where I stopped to take a couple of photos of the roads. I just love a photo of a good Icelandic road winding off into the distance.

Almost immediately the turn-off I had been looking for came - the one to take me past Möðrudalur. It was the Route 901, a desolate gravel road heading off towards the bleak volcanic interior of the country, with views of the magnificent Herðubreið, which I'd seen a couple of times in the distance before (apparently it had been voted Icelanders' favourite mountain a few years back - I love it!). Disappointly there was just grey cloud where the mountain might have been visible. I still enjoying speeding down the remote road, stopping as I love to do to take photos of it a couple of times. Another thing I love doing, which makes me grin like mad, is doing self-portraits using the self-timer. I put the tripod in the middle of the road, focused on a point in the near distance, set the timer for 10 seconds, then ran to the focus spot and stood as if I was enjoying the view until I heard the shutter click. Run back to camera, check photo just taken, repeat. And again, until I get a shot or two I'm happy with. I couldn't hear the shutter as it was a little windy, but I managed a couple before a car approached and I thought it would probably be an idea to move my camera gear out of the middle of the road.

I continued on to Möðrudalur, not passing a soul, stopping once more to photograph the turn-off to Askja (one day I'd take that road...).

 ðrudalur is a tiny settlement in the middle of nowhere - although a little bigger than I'd expected; it even had a church. I had read that there was a little café there, so I stopped for a cup of coffee (nice to use a proper loo too!). The place was surprisingly busy, given that I'd only passed one other vehicle on the road there. I chatted to a couple of young girls who unsurprisingly were from San Francisco! They were driving the ringroad in a campervan and were tucking into an apparently delicious lamb soup. I had my sandwich packed, and didn't feel particularly hungry after my breakfast. We shared a few stories before we all headed off. I wandered around a little and took some shots of the ridiculously cute petrol station and beautiful speckled-faced dog that shivered against the window of the café. The place was full of turf-covered houses, dotted around (no turf on the church's roof though).

I carried on my journey, soon rejoining the Route 1. Ooh, another awesome windy road disappearing around a hillside!

Next stop was Dettifoss, quite a drive away. In spite of being waterfalled-out, I couldn't miss this place - it's just too impressive not to see (again). It is, after all, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with the largest volume of water pouring over. I'd driven there on my last trip to the Myvatn area when I'd come to see the Holuhraun eruption, and the long drive along the gravel road to the falls was made more enjoyable by some great clouds and mountains visible in the distance. This time that was sadly not the case and it was a tedious, featureless long drive up the route 864 to the falls, along a bumpy, potholed, wet gravel road. I didn't stop to take a single photo, which is very unlike me. To make matters worse, for the last 10km I was stuck behind a particularly slow and over-cautious car which slowed my journey right down. Eventually I arrived at Dettifoss and parked in the extremely busy car-park; clearly the weather didn't put visitors to Iceland off the sight-seeing. I got my rain-gear all ready and walked down the hill towards the falls, the spray soon visible, rising above the canyon. I was pleased to see a "No Drones" sign - much as I love the output, they are noisy and annoying, especially if you're trying to capture long exposures and they fly into your camera's path. The canyon is quite a sight, and not surprisingly others stopped to take in the view (always amazed at how many people wear jeans on a rainy day!).

The first view of the falls is quite spectacular, with the spray wafting down the canyon below, grey chunks of basalt rock lining the sides, but it's only when you get a bit closer that you really see the power and volume of water that's falling into the abyss below.

A couple stood at the top of the falls taking a selfie - helping to add a little scale.

I had to yank up the ISO to get a shot fast enough to capture the water, otherwise every shot the water was smooth.

I tried a couple of slightly longer exposures using a 6-stop ND filter, but it gives a nasty pink cast which is tricky to correct, except by converting to B&W! I added a little vignetting for atmosphere too.

I walked along the edge of the cliff - part of which is now cordoned-off - something happening everywhere I go in Iceland these days - towards the top of the falls. I love to stand above the top and watch the water fall over; the power is just tremendous!

I eventually tore myself away, keen to walk upriver a short way to see Selfoss, which I'd given a miss the previous time as it was so unpleasantly windy and dusty. I'd seen it on my super-jeep trip there in the winter of 2009, but hadn't even known then that it was a whole series of falls, as those were frozen and obscured when I visited; all we'd seen was the horseshoe area at the end. The walk from Dettifoss is about 1.4km and I was able to continue along the riverside without having to backtrack to find the path. The rain was worsening, so it wasn't a particularly pleasant hike. I stopped at one point to pee, thinking I was hidden, only to notice three rescue men walking along the top of the hill above me; oh well, at least they'd have something to chuckle about.

Selfoss began to come into view - endless streams of water cascading down the black cliff ahead of me. It was quite something.

Given the persistence of the rain I didn't want to have to change lenses, although the 70-200mm zoom would have come in very handy here. Instead I kept the 24-70mm on and had to be satisfied with what I could capture with 70mm from the edge of the east bank. The water was a dull murky colour, which was a shame, and even playing around with the polarising filter I couldn't bring out anything from it. Still I managed to capture some of the cascades and the water tumbling gracefully over the piles of mossy black basalt column rocks along the bottoms of the cliffs.

A rare not long-exposure shot! ISO 1250 and f/6.3 required to get the 1/500th second shutter speed.
Seriously waterfalled-out now I decided to call it a day. I also planned to visit Hverir and Krafla, as well as the caves at Grjótagjá and still had a way to go. I headed back to the car, stopping (of course) to take a last few shots at Dettifoss before driving back down the endless road. The puddles had filled up and it was hard-going. At least I didn't get stuck behind a slow car. I had wanted to stop off at the little guesthouse/café near the road's entrance for a hot apple crumble (like last time) but felt as if I was running out of time.

It was nice to get back on to the smooth surface of the ring-road and soon I was back at Hverir, at the foot of the wonderful windy hill that goes over the pass and down the other side to Lake Mývatn. I'd realised that I just didn't have time to visit Krafla (again, next time!), so continued on to the turn-off at Hverir, where I stopped to take a couple of shots of the road. Again, no time to walk around to see the bubbling mud pools and steaming vents and fumaroles. Besides, it was still drizzling and just not pleasant.

Although I'd visited Hverir on two previous occasions, this was the first time that I noticed the troll. I see faces in the rocks in Iceland all the time (really - it's called pareidolia!) and suddenly I noticed the profile in the rock here. The colours of the hillside are also pretty impressive.

I drove up the wonderful meandering road and back down the other side, looking out for the signs to Grjótagjá - somewhere else I hadn't visited before. It wasn't far down the road and I parked at the small car-park there. I climbed down into the cave entrance next to the car-park which warned of signs not to enter the pools as the water was so hot. I took a few long exposures with my tripod set up, and the blue of the thermal water showed up amazingly where there was just a vague hint of colour to the naked eye. A Spanish couple arrived and the woman started stripping off down to a swimming costume, saying that she'd been the previous day and seen a group of young lads bathing there. She poked her toe in the water and gasped and exclaimed that it was too hot. There was no way she was going in, after all! She clambered across a couple of rocks so that her husband could take some photos, and managed to slip on her return, cutting her arm slightly. At least she hadn't fallen in to the water, which although not actually scalding, would not have been pleasant.

A few more people arrived and climbed down to the rocks near me so I decided to investigate the rest of the area. There is a long rift, with geothermal pools and steam rising from the cracks. It was getting late now so the light was very limited, ISO turned right up as I couldn't be bothered to set the tripod on the rocks above the cave.

I returned to the cave via an entrance a few metres south and took a few more photos. It was lovely and peaceful when no-one else was there but there was a constant stream of people coming and going.

A group of young Americans arrived with torches shining about across the cave, so I decided to call it a day. I didn't have much further to drive, so on I went to Skutustaðir, my home for the night, driving around the lovely Lake Mývatn. I wasn't exactly sure where the guesthouse was, having stayed in the hotel before, but found it easily enough, just on the other side of the hotel. I checked in - a bit of a painful process as the reception was in a different building, boots off each time, and the girl (owner's daughter) couldn't find my door key. It was windy and rainy too, which didn't help. She showed me to my room in the main building, which was small but had a sink and looked comfortable enough. The common areas felt very much like a hostel, but it was very cheap (for Icelandic standards). The room only had one plug socket working, so I had the choice of a side light or charging one battery. Later I asked for a socket extension, so I was actually able to enjoy soft lighting and charge my low batteries.

I decided to have dinner at the Sel Mývatn hotel, which I was a little confused about. I could see that it had had an extension in the past two years, but couldn't work out which bit was new, as it was in the same style as the original, painted grey. I was trying to work out where my cool little room had been, with the great view over the pseudo-craters. I eventually realised when I went there for dinner that they had literally built on a whole new side of the hotel, pretty much doubling the size. I ate in a new side dining room that had fantastic massive pictures of the eruption at Holuhraun (maybe I should get my own shots blown up big?). I had the most delicious chicken breast with truffle risotto. It wasn't cheap, but it was worth it.

After supper I decided that I'd drive back to Hverir to try and capture light trails from cars coming up and down the wonderful stretch of windy road. I didn't realise quite how challenging this would be, and also quite how few cars there were. The northern lights forecast was good but there was still almost 100% cloud cover. I noticed a vague green glow behind the clouds, but although they were moving, the clouds weren't disappearing.

I tried a few really long exposure shots, using the bulb setting, leaving the shutter open for a couple of cars or trucks to go past. I managed two I quite liked, and noticed the added northern lights glow on the horizon.

The road wasn't my only subject - I also took a few shots of the hillsides behind Hverir, where the green glow was taunting me behind more clouds. Occasionally I'd get a little more of a glimpse, but generally the green was muted.

The clouds were showing no sign of clearing - getting thicker, if anything - so I drove home. I was pretty exhausted after my drive and bits of hiking. I set my alarm to get up early as the weather-forecast for the next day wasn't too bad, hoping for my first decent sunrise, another busy day over!
Click here for my day 2 blog - Waterfalls in MjóifjördurClick here for my day 4 blog - Aldeyjarfoss, Hrafnabjargarfoss & Goðafoss

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