31 Mar 2017

Iceland #12 - Day 5: Stafafell and Hvalnes

I love waking up in the little yellow cottage, the wind gusting outside and the rain on the roof above me. Today I awoke at 8am and the sky was still brooding and filled with massive clouds, but there was a vague pink/blue morning hue; within minutes it was gone. I took a few shots out of the front door, the wind determined to shut it instantly, and then made myself a cup of tea, before deciding what to do for the day.

The cottage is well-placed between both Stokksnes and Hvalnes, two points at the end of long lagoons, each with jagged mountains towering above, so there's always the choice of visiting one or the other. Sometimes the peaks are shrouded in mist and cloud, but usually it seems to be fast-moving, so if you wait a few minutes (or hours) then the peaks peek out a little. Hvalnes is a good deal closer, so the decision was made to go there when the weather improved enough.

It was still raining outside, so I had a slow morning before the rain subsided, reviewing and editing a few photos, drinking more tea, enjoying the peace and solitude. Eventually at 11am I dragged myself out at and drove down towards Hvalnes, stopping first at the pull-out below the mountains, where there are a couple of little lagoons. I noticed a new line of scree that had fallen since my visit the previous year, a lighter grey than the surrounding slopes. I tried a couple of long exposures but there wasn't quite enough contrast in the clouds. The rain - at least - had stopped.

The lake wasn't frozen at all on the west side of the road, so I wandered across the road to another small lagoon which was partly frozen. The sun came out briefly and the whole of the Eystrahorn mountain was reflected in the frozen surface.

I walked along the shore taking macro shots of water bubbles trapped in the ice. I managed to set the tripod up so it was very low, but had to balance two of the legs on the surface of the ice - which obviously made me a bit nervous. I was captivated by the bubbles and the layers under the ice. It wasn't anything like the incredible frozen snow bubbles I'd seen in Antarctica in 2003 but was still intriguing and beautiful. The macro lens was finally getting some action! I wish I'd brought my extension tubes with me to get even closer... When the wind blew some of the bubbles on the surface slid gracefully across the water.

I spent an hour photographing the bubbles until my back ached too much from crouching down, so I dragged myself away (in spite of being totally transfixed). By the time I finished the sun had gone and the skies darkened. I drove up the road and took the turn-off to the lighthouse and parked there. I stood looking at the peaks of Eystrahorn, which were generally covered in cloud, but at least the cloud was moving quickly so from time-to-time the tops re-appeared. The cloud was nestled in a bowl between the largest two peaks of the mountain for a while. It is one of my very favourite spots in Iceland and there is almost never anyone else there (which obviously I love!). It's just too far east for most visitors, and has a hidden turn-off that is unmarked. Suits me fine that way, I just love this desolate point.

I took a few of my usual self-portraits, putting the camera on timer or using the remote if I was on the right side of the lens for the infrared to work. I even tried to get some of me actually facing the camera - challenging to focus right and with my hair not strewn across my face in the wind.

I wandered to the edge of the hill overlooking the beach, stretching out in the distance towards Brunnhorn and Vestrahorn (which were sadly hidden) - looking stark with the black strip of sand and white waves lapping against the steep shore. A patch of light shone through in a valley to the north, and there was even some blue sky above me. I tried some more long exposures with the 10-stop ND filters; there was a little more contrast in the clouds, but I still wasn't getting the streaks that I was hoping for. The colour cast on my filters is also rather strong, so it's a challenge to get the colour right in post-processing.

At about 2.45pm I drove back to the cottage for a little rest and some tea (and to recharge the batteries), passing hills with clouds draped over the tops. The sky was a strange blue in the distance.

Later on I wasn't sure whether to go back to Hvalnes or head through the tunnel to Stokksnes (the usual dilemma). I decided to stay this side as the sky looked a little clearer to the east, and I could actually see the mountaintops, whereas Brunnhorn and Vestrahorn were still hidden. I would stop there the following morning on my way back to Jökulsárlón instead. The slope of Brunnhorn was just visible underneath a large cloud, with the sun now shining above.

As I approached Eystrahorn the sun illuminated the granite slopes.

A patch of light shone through the valley near where the road winds up to the tunnel, with some distant crepuscular rays.

I parked back along the road near the lighthouse and headed back down to the spot I'd stood at earlier; sun was now shining on the sea below me.

By 6pm the sky began to change colour a little, as sunset was approaching. I wanted a different view so headed south along the edge of the low cliffs to see what else I could find - I could see some waves crashing wildly in the distance.

I found a little inlet where the waves were pouring over low rocks. I couldn't quite get a composition I was happy with, and the light was fading quickly. The frothy water was too white and the rocks too dark for my liking! I walked a little further to see if I could get a better view, but it wasn't really working for me. It wasn't a spectacular sunset anyway, and I now wished I'd gone to Hvalnes, where there was a patch of bright light. That's the luck of the draw I guess, and who knows, it could've been disappointing there too. It was still great to watch and listen to the waves crashing - always impressive around this headland.

After about 20 minutes there I gave up and drove home, happy as always to get back to my cosy little home.

The night was spent cooking my pasta, reviewing photos, speaking to hubby, charging batteries, checking weather and lights forecasts, and enjoying one of my lovely beers - the usual routine. With plenty of cloud cover the chance of northern lights was limited, but I've had good luck there before, so I kept an eye on the stats on various websites, and checked outside every once in a while. It was pretty unlikely that I'd see anything, so I had an early night; I wanted to be up and out early to get to Stokksnes if the weather looked promising (although the forecast was pretty dire).

Click here for Day 4 - Jökulsárlón to Stafafell
Click here for Day 6 - Stokksnes & Jökulsárlón

21 Mar 2017

Iceland #12 - Day 4: From Jökulsárlón to Stafafell

After a good night's sleep and a reasonable wake-up time (8am in the end) I had breakfast in the guesthouse, a quick chat with the lovely owner, before packing up and heading off. First stop was obviously Jökulsárlón - couldn't stay nearby without another visit before heading east for a couple of days. I hadn't visited the lagoon the previous day, so headed there first, and was surprised to see the car-park area had been increased massively. There had been no more snow since the previous evening - the quick storm I was randomly caught in was obviously the extent of it, but everything was covered in snow, the icebergs were white as a result. The sun came in and out, brightening up the snow when it did. There were a couple of enormous bergs, and many smaller ones between us. It amazes me how different it can be - sometimes I've seen the lagoon almost free of icebergs, with only small chunks floating away in the distance near the foot of the glacier, other times it's crammed with them! Ravens flew around, occasionally landing on the icebergs.

I spent about an hour there before heading across to the beach; again on the west side of the bridge where all the big bergs had been sitting the previous afternoon. There was a fair amount of cloud, but as I wandered down to the shore the sun was still poking through from time to time - a pretty usual Icelandic weather day.

The beach was already busy when I arrived, just before 10am, but I wasn't too bothered as you can always wander a bit along it and get away from the others. It was certainly very colourful.

The icebergs were similar to the previous night - with stacks of smaller ones at the edge of the water, and a few large, turquoise ones sitting on the sandbank, with the waves crashing against them, flinging water high into the air.

My plan for the morning was to get some close-up shots of the icebergs, as I just love the different patterns and textures and colours of the ice, sitting starkly on the dark sand. It was challenging, as they were stacked close to each other, and few were isolated (and I hate cutting off icebergs - like feet or legs!). The colours weren't great and the light was pretty flat, but I still enjoyed capturing the surf receding over the icebergs. Here's a few abstract shots.

After concentrating on close-ups of the ice for a while the sun came out a bit and I took some wider shots of the icebergs in the waves, including getting a bit carried away with one where massive waves crashed over it.

I took a few long exposures of a massive iceberg that sat out on the sandbank before deciding that I really should be on my way. It is such an amazing place that I really could just spend days on end there, but on this trip I was only staying there one night on the way east, before returning in a couple of days for two more nights. I had plenty of time to enjoy it later, and so I dragged myself up the snowy beach to the car and headed off under drab skies.

For anyone who's followed my journeys before, you'll be familiar with a few of my traditional stops along the way as I drive to Stafafell. This trip was no different, so first stop was my favourite line of trees. I parked at the pull-out and walked down towards the trees. It seemed a little further than I remembered to get to them. I took a couple of shots with the mountain behind, the skies behind having become more threatening. I had remembered a bent tree that added nicely to the composition and then realised that the first section of the trees had been cut down, hence no bent tree, a longer walk from the car, and a whole bunch of tree-stumps! It was still possible to get some nice compositions, so I wasn't too disappointed with my tree-line experience!

I always love the view of the road there too, leading back towards the mountains behind Hali. It was particularly stark today with a little slush left on the black tarmac, and the black mountains covered with snow.

I continued on, past the turn-off to the Kalfafellsstaður guesthouse - easily visible now with the cute church next door - and on towards my favourite tree. I don't know what it is about these things - perhaps the nostalgia of discovering them before, but I just love them. I particularly love the way this tree slopes in a parallel line to the mountain behind. Looking on Google streetview it's just visible but doesn't look remotely interesting with leaves and vegetation around. I could barely make out the glaciers and mountains behind, but it still looked special to me. The nearby pond was frozen, so no nice reflections of the bare trees behind it were possible.

A little further on I pulled in again, as the church at Brunnholl looked very cute with its red roof. I quite liked the farm building next to it to with its red doors matching the roof of the church next door. 

There's a lovely stretch of road just after that, where the road bends inland again, soon passing a derelict house, before reaching another bend and the other derelict house that is covered in graffiti (where I also usually stop). The hills behind looked striking with the snowfall on the steep scree slopes.

I continued on, stopping to fill up with diesel, before pulling in at the picnic area near the Dynjandi Guesthouse, just after taking the left-hand turn that takes the route 1 further east. I became a little obsessed with the almost monochrome hillsides.

Next thing I knew I was already at the tunnel. I chose not to turn off towards Stokksnes as I had a new waterfall to investigate on the other side. The tunnel is always a lot longer than I remember and curves around to the left for the whole length, so you're almost heading in a northerly direction.

Obviously I had to stop on the other side of the long winding tunnel to photograph the view of the road to it. It didn't look particularly amazing, but I still find the curving sweep of the road just beautiful. There were also more monochrome hills and mountains, and the sun even came out on some pointy peaks for a moment.

 A photographer I knew from Flickr/Instagram/Twitter had recently visited the area, and had found an off-the-beaten track waterfall in the area, so my aim was to find this, have a little hike and see what the fuss was all about. Skutafoss sits a little round the corner from the road below the tunnel, and I'd noticed a track up on the eastern side of a small river with a weir a little way up, but never stopped before. This time I did, driving the 4WD up the track a little way. Eventually I parked and continued on foot. There was a small waterfall first, and I took a few silly selfies with me standing in the river in front of the falls, before it began to rain a little. The light was particularly flat and dull, but sometimes that's better for photographing waterfalls. I noticed even here that the water below the falls was a strange deep green.

I carried on uphill a little, passing many rocks covered with colourful lichen. I should have got the macro lens out, but given the slight rain I decided it was safer for my sensor not to change lenses unless I was in a sheltered spot. I didn't get a sharp image, which was disappointing.

Soon I reached the main falls, which were split between a narrow one on the left and a larger one on the right that plunged down onto a rounded platform, next to a large sheltered cave. Beneath the falls was another lovely emerald green pool. 

The light rain wasn't going anywhere, so under the shelter of the cave seemed the best option, otherwise I had to wipe my filter after each shot. I even decided to change lenses, given that it was dry, so tried a couple with the wide-angle, which I rarely seem to get the opportunity to use while in Iceland. I loved the place too, although the sky was horribly washed out. I was alone, taking photos; what more could I want?!

I decided to head on to the cottage, as it was 4.15pm, and I knew I could check in. There's nothing quite like returning to a place you lovely dearly! As I wandered down the track a couple of other photographers had shown up - you're never alone for long in this country if you park within two minutes of the ring-road!

I stopped briefly on the way to photograph Brunnhorn, the pointed mountain behind Vestrahorn, with the layers of sandbanks beneath it, before continuing straight to Stafafell.

The owner, Sigurður, greeted me warmly and we chatted in the doorway briefly. He had wanted to get a print of a photo I'd taken on a previous trip of the cottage with star trails above it, but he hadn't done so yet (not so easy in the middle of nowhere), so I promised to help get it done on my next trip, bringing it from Reykjavik if necessary. I was staying in the yellow cottage again - perhaps I'll never get to see inside the green one - and it was lovely to be back there again, with its pretty flowery sofas and fantastic views to the south-west. I put on the kettle, had a nice cup of tea and sat looking out of the window for a while. It began to snow and the skies remained dark, but I was happy to stay there, having taken quite enough photos for one day.

Later on I cooked myself the usual tuna pesto pasta (actually pretty delicious!), had one of my Garún beers and downloaded the day's photos and spent the evening going through them. I was exhausted again, so decided against an early start, with cloud forecast for the morning. The wind got up and I went to sleep listening to the wind howling and sleet falling on the roof. Perfect :)