18 Oct 2016

East, North & North-East Iceland - Day 5: Whale-watching & Asbyrgi, Among Other Things...

Day 5 saw another early start, with the alarm set to catch dawn at Goðafoss, before heading up to Husavík for my whale-watching trip. Even though I was staying a stone's throw away I still rather lazily drove across to the other side. I was the only visitor there, whereas on the opposite shore was a group of photographers already set up - possibly the Chinese group I'd seen the night before.

The sky was gloomy, and again it didn't look very promising for a decent sunrise, but you never know what might happen. I walked down the path a little and took a few shots upriver before walking back up to the area at the top of the falls, carefully navigating my way across the slippery stones there.

Time was ticking on, and I didn't want to be late for my whale-watching, so headed in to get breakfast. There was a nice warming porridge - perfect after standing outside in the cold for a while. I packed up and set off with plenty of time to spare. Obviously useful, given my habit of pulling over at the side of the road to take a few photos now and then. I got about a third of the way there before I passed a tranquil lake on the right-hand-side of the road, Vestmannsvatn, and pulled over. In the middle was a little island, perfectly reflected in the early morning light, and in the distance was a little church and settlement.

I was quickly back in the car and speeding northwards towards Husavík. As I pulled into the town the clouds were clearing and blue skies revealed. I had twenty minutes to spare, although read later on that you were supposed to check in half an hour before the trip. I popped into the North Sailing office, asked where to park, moved the car across the road and dashed back, with plenty of time to get onto the boat. On arrival I was given a massive warm all-in-one body suit which I put on over the rest of my clothes, slightly worried I'd overheat, given that I already had thermals and a down jacket on. I chatted to an Australian couple as we set off.

Although the sea looked calm there was a nasty swell, so I had to concentrate on the mountains in the distance, which were covered in fresh snow and bathed in sunlight. The swells continued as we motored out into the Skjálfandi Bay, towards a collection of other boats that were in the whale-rich area. It had turned into a glorious morning.

After about 45 minutes we saw the spout of spray from a humpback whale and headed towards it. I quickly realised that booking the cheaper boat was possibly a mistake. Had I taken a speedboat (which was more like €150) I would have seen the whales close up. Our boat was the slowest, so every time we saw the first spray we would head towards it, but by the time we reached the whale it had taken its dive down and came up to the surface again five or ten minutes later somewhere else, away from our boat. The speedboats, on the other hand, would immediately turn, motor over to the whale and sit next to it for a few minutes.

This was very frustrating for me, as I would've like to have seen the massive creatures a bit closer (not to mention getting better photos!). Even the sail boat was quicker than us.

Sometimes, however, the poor whales were surrounded by boats, so at least we weren't guilty of crowding them.

The next hour and a half was spent in this way, desperately scanning the horizon and surrounding waters for telltale signs, seeing sprays, heading over, watching tiny dorsal fins or tail fins disappearing in the distance, while the other boats sat alongside the massive mammals. We did see a few whales a little closer, but overall I found it disappointing. At least it was a nice morning, with some interesting clouds hanging over the mountains on the west side of the bay, and the sailboat was nice to watch glide through the water.

Eventually a pair of whales that we'd been trying to follow surfaced quite close to us, so we followed them for a while.

Soon after they dived down and we headed back across the bay towards the port. Again I had to concentrate hard on not feeling sea-sick, but managed to get a mug of hot chocolate and a cinnamon roll down me. As we cruised back to Husavík harbour I noticed the sea was full of jellyfish.

When I got back to Husavík it was just after 1pm, so I headed to the recommended Naustið restaurant, opposite my guesthouse (the Arbol), and had a small bowl of fish soup and some fresh home-made bread. I couldn't check in until 3pm and by the time I finished lunch it was just before 2pm. I suddenly felt unbelievably tired, so decided to roll the driver's seat back and have a little nap until check-in, before heading off to Asbyrgi Canyon. I ended up sleeping until about 3.20pm, then headed to the Vin Buðin to get one more beer, before checking in at the Arbol Guesthouse. My room was small, as most of them had been, but the owner was friendly and the place was nicely decorated. I dumped my backpack and then headed out, driving around the top of the Tjörneshreppur peninsula. The weather was glorious, and I was a bit annoyed with myself for having lost an hour and a half of it to sleep. Oh well, I might have fallen asleep at the wheel otherwise.

There were two places I wanted to visit - Asbyrgi Canyon, which a colleague had told me about, and Hljóðaklettar - an area with some strange volcanic structures and basalt column faces. I didn't really have enough time to visit both properly, but decided that I'd visit the canyon in the last of the sunlight first. It is an incredible place, a long horse-shoe-shaped canyon filled with trees, with a huge wall surrounding it that reaches over 100 metres high at the far end. It is possible to drive almost to the end, with the last bit done on foot to a picturesque lake. The place is full of hiking trails. In the late afternoon sun the autumn leaves looked spectacular, and I stopped a few times to take photos along the way.

I parked at the trailhead to the lake, which is only a few hundred metres away through the trees. The lake was stunning - completely calm, everything perfectly reflected.

I noticed that there was another trail leading uphill a little, so walked up there for a great view of the canyon, lake and beautifully-coloured autumnal trees.

A couple stood on the rim of the canyon looking down - I wished I was up there, but I'd have to save that for another trip. Trying to capture the canyon walls was impossible, as the canyon itself and the lake where the sun had already disappeared was in dark shadow, while the tops of the cliff and the sky were very bright. I decided to just concentrate on the reflections and trees in the shade.

Daylight hours were running out so I decided to head towards Hljóðaklettar. I took one of the nature trails back towards the car, stopping to photograph some of the leaves along the way (using up more of my daylight time!).

I eventually got back to the car and sped off, hoping to get to Hljóðaklettar for sunset; I was cutting it fine, that's for sure. One more stop on the way back, in the same spot as on the way, but this time noticing Eyjan, the island, towering 25 metres above me, glowing a little in the golden hour light. On the horizon it looked almost dark.

The road south (the 862) started well - paved and straight and fast. After 8km though, things changed, and it became gravelly and bumpy. I continued on until I saw the sign off towards Vesturdalur. I drove down the windy road, disappearing over the brow of the hill, away from the last of the sun. One thing I always seem to misjudge - or forget - is the fact that the sun will always disappear some time before sunset itself if there are hills in the way. And in Iceland, unless you're watching the sun disappear over the sea in the west, the chances are there will be hills in the way. I reached some large puddles that straddled the road, and drove slowly through the first couple. I turned a bend and found a very large one, so got out to investigate. A couple of women drove up beside me as I approached in my wellies - very useful in this instance. The puddle was actually pretty shallow so we both drove onwards. Soon we reached a car park and left our cars, heading downhill towards the start of the trailhead towards Hljóðaklettar. It was nice to have some other people out there, given that the light was fading fast. They were from Argentina and Brazil, but living in Barcelona.

I set off slightly before them, embarking on the 5km round trip around the Hljóðaklettar area and the Red Hill (Rauðhólar), the light fading fast. I had a vague idea that I might try to capture some northern lights there, as the skies were almost completely clear, and the forecast - again - was for intense lights. Not having scoped out the route previously, however, meant that I had no idea what was there and how safe I'd feel in the dark. The trail was amazing, full of massive outcrops of twisted basalt rocks, along the Jökulsá river canyon - I will return in daylight one day. 

I'd seen some pictures of some basalt columns weathered ends sticking out of a cliff with weird shapes that looked to me like strained, pained faces (that pareidolia rearing its head (!) again). Fortunately I located this formation early on the hike, when there was still just enough light to photograph the "faces" (with the help of my tripod to allow for the longer exposure). They were incredible - it was worth the effort (for me) just to see these bizarre shapes. Of course I wished I'd had more time, to study the whole wall and concentrate on the most pained of faces and surreal masks. Sorry that there are so many pictures, but I think that basalt columns are my favourite things in the world!!

I tore myself away from these incredible natural sculptures and the path wound around through this city of weird volcanic architecture. I soon found Kirkja (the church), just off the path and had a quick look. It was now far too dark to go in and investigate.

The path continued uphill, alongside the river. I found a nice viewpoint that would have been a nice spot to wait for the northern lights, but I was restless and wanted to explore the whole of the trail in what was left of the light.

The other girls passed me a few times and then I'd pass them when they stopped to take photographs, but eventually they left me behind and I was all alone. As the light dropped even more I began to feel a bit nervous. The path was tricky and windy and I didn't want to sprain my ankle out here on a cold night in the middle of nowhere! I didn't quite need my torch, but it wouldn't be long until I was forced to get it out. Eventually I reached the top of a rounded hill from where I had a fantastic view in every direction. A long exposure revealed the autumn colours in one direction and the red hill in the other (I didn't quite make it there, where I'd been on my super-jeep trip in March 2009).

This was my decision point - stay here and wait for the lights, or head back to the car before I got really freaked out. I got a bit freaked out, not knowing what the trail back to the car-park would be like. I didn't want to risk doing it later, so rushed down the hill. The trail, it turned out, was easy, wide, man-made, and pretty direct. I used my torch for most of the way. I stopped a few times to see if there might be some sneaky aurora, but noticed a few stars and some increasing cloud (typical). 

The silhouettes of the mammoth volcanic structures might have made a nice back-drop for the northern lights, but the cloud was encroaching and I had this homing instinct (I was also mindful that the restaurant in town was open until 10pm, so I could get a fish kebab if I hurried). I found a little short-cut marked to the car-park and quickly reached the car. The other women were still there, camping in their estate car, and another couple of people were camped there too. I needn't have worried about being completely alone.

Back through the puddles and up the winding bumpy road and I was back on the 862, heading north towards the ring-road. I thought I noticed a glow in the sky so stopped and took a few trial shots. Yes, there they were: the northern lights! They weren't massively bright to the naked eye, but I know what to look for now, and a long exposure brought out the shapes and colour. It wasn't my favourite type of lights - a bit muddled, but I took a few shots before getting too cold and hungry.

The drive back to Husavík was pretty quick, mainly because I was taking it pretty quick! I managed to get to the restaurant just before the kitchen closed, and ordered my fish skewers. The last customer was just leaving and soon I heard some cackling from the kitchen. Something was going on, and eventually a girl came out to tell me that it was her brother's last day (he was moving to Reykjavik), and that their mother had covered him in egg. He came through too, covered in egg. The mother came through too, recounting the story, also covered in egg. 

Keen to see if there were any more lights I paid up and left (not covered in egg), just as a few streaks of aurora were passing over. There was a strange sculpture behind the car-park and I took a couple, but the ambient light was too great. 

I drove up the hill behind the town for a recce, but there was nothing to see there, so I decided to drive down to the lake I'd passed in the morning - Vestmannsvatn - to see if I could see them there. As I drove I saw very little, and realised when I finally found the lake (further than I'd remembered) that the cloud was almost fully covering the skies.

I took a few shots all the same, and managed to get a couple. From time to time the lights would be active, and it was frustrating and tantalising seeing them behind the cloud, with just a glimpse through the clear window of sky.

A few years earlier and I would've been over the moon with this display, but having seen some pretty impressive ones with clear skies I've become a bit spoilt! I drove home, had a quick beer while I reviewed the day's photos, and headed to bed pretty late, setting the alarm fairly late as I'd had such a long, exhausting day. The following day I had a long drive ahead of me to Vopnafjörður so needed to get a decent night's sleep. Sunrise would have to wait.

Click here for Day 4 blog: Aldeyjarfoss (mostly!)
Click here for Day 6 blog: Driving around the North-East Coast, stacks, northern lights...

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