16 Oct 2016

East, North & North-East Iceland - Day 4: Aldeyjarfoss, Hrafnabjargarfoss & Goðafoss!

Yes, it was a day to see more waterfalls. This part of Iceland is absolutely crammed with the things. From tiny trickles down endless hills after rain, or massive permanent ones funnelling huge quantities of water through narrow gaps and off ledges in canyons, waterfalls are everywhere.

The day started early as I managed, for once, to get up before sunrise. The weather-forecast was for a mix of sun and clouds, so that definitely gave it some potential. Given that the guesthouse was just across the road from the pseudo-craters on the southern side of Lake Mývatn, I also didn't really have an excuse not to head out there in search of some nice dawn light before breakfast.

I've always found the pseudo-craters tricky things to capture - in fact the best view had been from the room in the hotel on my last trip - but that view (from that little room anyway) had been taken away by the addition on the side of the hotel. The paths around the craters are well-built, with signs warning you not to bother the sheep and not to stray off the marked paths. This obviously limits the scope for photography, but so be it.

I started along the edge of the lake, which was calm and serene. The light was uninspiring, with the sky filled with grey cloud and a few bright spots.

A few sheep pottered about grazing, stopping to stare at me for a few moments before scarpering (why are sheep so skittish?!).

I headed up to the top of a couple of the craters, but couldn't quite find a view I liked. It was still a nice morning to be out, but the skies weren't suddenly turning spectacular and the composition was challenging.

After a while some flat strips of cloud that seem to be characteristic in this area (similar to lenticular clouds) began to glow pink to the south and west.

A few bright areas left any shots to the east overblown. I could just make out some sunlight on a hill in the distance, towards Goðafoss (if only I'd driven there!). Clouds to the north, over the pointy mountain, began to glow a vague pink too. I tried a few long exposure shots, but these didn't work very well with the sheep in the foreground moving around. I set the tripod low to see if I could hide the sheep below the grasses - this seemed to work okay!

I wandered back to the guesthouse, feeling disappointed with my time on the pseudo-craters, past a few more sheep.

Breakfast was an impressive affair, with the delicious local lava bread (cooked in the geothermal ovens in the ground) and local smoked trout, as well as the usual array of cereal, breads and cheeses. There was a delicious home-made rhubarb jam too.

After showering and packing up I headed onwards, my destination being Aldeyjarfoss, south of Goðafoss. I hadn't visited the waterfall before - and in fact had only really been aware of its existence when I did my research, although I recognised pictures, as it is quite distinctive. I stopped along the way just after leaving the lake when the sun finally broke through, throwing lovely golden hour light on the autumnal landscape (the kind of light I'd hoped for earlier).

I continued on, stopping briefly at the Fossholl hotel at Goðafoss. I just wanted to use the loo, but my room was already ready, so I was able to check in early. I didn't hang around for long, keen to get to Aldeyjarfoss, which potentially required a 4-5km walk from the car and back. The drive was pleasant, along a river valley lined with farms, heading due south, without too many potholes and bumps, so I was able to take it pretty swiftly. As I drove the light behind me was lovely, something I was hoping for at the falls, although the sun was going to be in completely the wrong place, if it appeared.

This was the only part of my planned journey where a 4WD would have been handy, since the waterfall can only be reached via an F-Road, unsuitable for normal cars. The regular gravel road stops short of the waterfall, so walking or hitching the last part of the journey was my only solution. I'd searched a few blogs to see if it would be possible in a normal saloon car, and read differing accounts - some saying it was okay, some saying it was definitely only suitable for proper 4WDs. After the girl I met in Egilsstaðir's experience of destroying her transmission and getting charged €5,000 I decided that I didn't want to take the chance. So I'd get a hike out of the visit too.

I parked the car at the turn-off to towards the falls, getting my gear all ready for the hike. When I was about to set off I saw a 4WD truck approaching, so I flagged the driver down and asked if he was heading to the falls, and if so, could I get a ride. He was, so off I went, with a random stranger, in his vehicle, in the middle of nowhere. I'm not sure there's anywhere else in the world I'd feel comfortable doing this, but in Iceland it didn't seem unsafe at all. François was a retired Frenchman who spent a good deal of time in Iceland, shipping his Mercedes camper truck across to the country on the ship from Copenhagen to Seyðisfjörður a couple of times a year. He drove around the interior, taking a few photos here and there, meeting people, enjoying the Icelandic scenery. He was planning to head further south than the falls, but would take me that far, which was a bit of a result. It turned out that the last bit of the journey was indeed unsuitable for cars (perhaps the first 1km might have been all right), with massive furrows and grooves, as well as extremely hilly and bumpy. After a short while we passed a sign announcing the start of the F-Road and the warnings about cars not being insured... I'd definitely made the right decision!

We soon reached the falls (a lot quicker than if I'd had to walk!) and I thanked him for the ride. He mentioned that he could also take me to the falls (Hrafnabjargarfoss) further upriver later on if I wanted. I said I'd see how I went here and catch him later. There were already a few other photographers there, including a couple who'd climbed down to the water's edge. The rest of us set tripods up on the rocky cliffs overlooking the top of the bowl into which the falls fall. Aldeyjarfoss has got to be one of the most spectacular of all the waterfalls in Iceland. Perhaps it's the effort required to get there (meaning it's not over-run with people), but mainly because of the geology. Water is pushed through a small gap and falls between basalt column cliffs where the water spreads out below in a massive bowl before carrying on down river. At the base of the cliffs piles of broken columns lie. It was quite incredible! The light wasn't great when I arrived, with a mix of cloud and pale blue skies, with the sun coming out from time to time. This is the first shot I took, before I started mucking around with filters, to get different shutter speeds to see how the water moved.

When the sun came out it looked even more spectacular, although the shadows and brightness of the water made it challenging.

The couple on the rocks gave the scene some scale, but doing long exposure shots meant that they were blurred, unless they stayed absolutely still! I tried a few different shutter speeds and angles, wandering around the side of the cliff towards the top of the falls. With a longer exposure the water seemed to spread out in lines - quite cool!

Heading uphill I noticed a small rainbow on the spray when the sun was out, so took a few close-up shots.

I was in basalt column heaven!!

Even the surroundings near the falls were beautiful. I was truly in love! I wasn't the only one. From time to time a new 4WD would arrive and another couple of photographers would get out and set up their tripods.

The light was improving and I just couldn't stop taking photos of this magnificent spectacle!

I realised that everyone had gone (including my friend and driver!), so I set about doing the self-portraits that I love to do when I'm alone (if I remember, and if the weather's not too dire!). I tried a few poses - standing and sitting on either side of the falls, as well as with different layers of clothes on. Some of them gave the usual problem - the label on my long-johns sticking out! Blue top, pulled right down, sitting down, seemed to work the best! The sun came out on me too. I even stopped to actually enjoy the view - it wasn't all about taking photos...

For a while I had the place completely to myself, and it was pure bliss. Mild, stunning scenery, alone.

Some people arrived so I decided to explore a little. I had a little wander below the falls, clambering down to the water's edge.

I'd hoped to be able to get onto the ledge that I'd seen the first photographers on, but there was a large rock in the way. By the time I'd climbed back up I didn't have the energy to climb down the other side. Again, next time... When I got back to the top François had appeared and the others had gone. He asked if I minded if he used a drone - with the noise of the waterfall I wouldn't be able to hear it, and I'd taken more than enough photos, so I didn't mind at all. He had a basic one, which he set to work. After a few minutes he offered to take me to the other falls, and then drive me back here, where he was going to stay for sunset. He'd decided not to drive any further south, but just to stay in this area overnight, since the weather was decent and it was already getting late.

The track to Hrafnabjargarfoss was even more bumpy, and even François's truck struggled from time to time. It wasn't far though - I could have walked up along the river bank, but this was definitely the quicker option. We both wandered around along the side of the falls, which was backlit by the low sun, so again, pretty challenging photographically.

Hrafnabjargarfoss is a strange set of falls, with a large horseshoe-shaped area and then various trickles and falls downstream. A group of four guys arrived and took a few photos before disappearing. I explored a little further downstream but couldn't find decent compositions, due to the position of the sun, mainly. There were plenty of rainbows, though, appearing when the spray was in the right direction and the sun out (which is was most of the time now).

François then asked if I minded the drone - I didn't at all, and I liked the shot of him standing on the riverbank while he guided it (you can just see the little red drone hovering above the left-hand-side of the falls in the photo below).

The light was fading, and clouding over, so François suggested driving me back to Aldeyjarfoss, where he dropped me off. I had kind of hoped to find someone driving past so I could hitch a ride back to the car, but it was a nice enough hike, along the gravel road, mostly downhill. About half way back I could just about make out my car in the distance, accompanied by another white car. Soon I passed a couple who were on their way to the falls, laden with camera gear too. A 4WD passed by too, heading to the falls, but was full, so I doubt the walkers would've been able to catch a ride. There would be no room for me either, if they drove back past me. The walk didn't take too long - about 35 minutes, and then I just had to drive back to Goðafoss. I crossed the bridge a little way down the road, taking the route 844 back to the hotel. The weather deteriorated as I approached my stop for the night.

I parked on the east bank of the falls for a few last shots for the night. It was now drizzling and windy. There was a vague brown glow on the horizon and huge numbers of cars on the opposite side. I stopped briefly at the smaller falls downstream.

I wandered along the top of the main falls (which had new ropes cordoning off the cliff edges (which most people ignored anyway)) but the spray was troubling, so I hiked down to the river bank. The spray was even worse than at the top! I took a few shots before giving up and heading inside to the comfort of my hotel, having managed to get a few I was happy with. Most of the shots were covered in raindrops or waterfall spray, but I had a few keepers.

I headed downstairs for supper in the restaurant of the hotel, where there was a large group of Chinese photographers. The owner and her husband were absolutely rushed off their feet - not really prepared for such a large group. Eventually things calmed down a bit and I ordered some lamb soup. It was tasty and hearty, if a little pricey. The Chinese group eventually left in dribs and drabs, leaving the door wide open, letting in the cool night air (why do people do that?!).

I was pretty exhausted and again, totally waterfalled-out, but decided I'd still get up early in time for dawn, given my proximity to this wonderful waterfall (hopefully my last waterfall of the trip!). The northern lights forecast was manic again, but no chance with the cloud cover unless I drove to Akureyri, and I just didn't have the energy. I booked a whale-watching trip online for the following morning at 10am, as the weather looked pretty good, which would give me enough time for sunrise shoot, breakfast, packing, and the short drive up to Husavík. Again, another pretty good day, and at least the weather had been generally kind to me. Aldeyjarfoss was definitely worth the effort and was up there with my top favourite waterfalls (I have a few...).

Click here for Day 3 blog - Möðrudalur, Dettifoss, & Grjótagjá
Click here for Day 5 blog - whale-watching, Asbyrgi and more!

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