19 Mar 2017

Iceland #12 - Day 3: Driving from Vík to Jökulsárlón

I managed to actually get up prior to sunrise on my second full day in Iceland - and drove over the mountain pass and took the left hand turn down to Reynisfjara - the beach with the awesome basalt columns, powerful waves and striking cool stacks just off the shore. I arrived about 20 minutes before sunrise - a little later than I'd planned - and was not surprised to find a few cars and camper vans already in the car park there. There was a vague pre-dawn light over Dyrholaey, but otherwise the sky and light weren't terribly interesting, with a low level of cloud on the horizon and some patchy cloud above it.

I headed onto the beach, past the new warning signs about the dangerous waves, and past the main basalt column section - the tide was out so it was safe to go around to that section.

I walked along the beach to get closer to the main stacks and set up my tripod - I was the first there to "bag" that spot, but was soon joined by others. I was trying to capture the occasional big wave crashing over the rocks in the foreground, otherwise it just looked like a big black mess. The sky began to change colour a little, but was nothing special. It had that challenging aspect of very bright patches of cloud that are easily over-exposed.

There wasn't quite enough contrast in the clouds for effective very long exposures, but I tried a few with my two different 10-stop ND filters anyway and was reasonably pleased with the results (once I'd messed around with them in post-processing - each has a different colour cast that requires a little work...(not to mention cloning out all of the hot and dead pixels I get taking long exposures)).

30 seconds using B+W 10-stop ND Filter, ,colour-corrected in post-processing
30 seconds using Tiffen Apex 10-stop ND filter, colour-corrected in post-processing

I wasn't taking particularly wide angled shots, so it didn't matter if others crept a bit further forward to my side, but at one point an Asian woman did try to set up right in front of me; I squealed at her and shook my head and she moved out of the way. It seems the western etiquette of priority for being first there doesn't seem to hold with everyone. A little later I witnessed quite an amusing tripod tussle going on beside me. The same woman and her companion had set their tripods down a few metres in front of a couple of English guys, who hollered at the women. The women didn't notice, but the guys then came forward and set their tripods down just in front of the women. The women then crept forward, then the guys did the same, until they finally stopped in a line. It reminded me of crabs scuttling along a beach. All very sad really, that we have to fight for space to put a damn tripod down on a magical geological beach.

The sun eventually poked above the cloud layer, but again it was nothing like a previous occasion I'd been there when it truly spectacular; it wasn't as cold, at least! I decided to concentrate on capturing some of the patterns of the basalt columns, which glowed slightly in the golden hour light.

I noticed with horror as a young Asian woman lay down on the pebbles a couple of metres from where the last wave had broken, to have her photo taken; the sign about the dangers of the creeper waves had either not been understood or just totally ignored. She got up, safely, but things would have been different had a creeper appeared...

After enjoying the basalt structures for a while I headed back to the car - I had to get back to the guesthouse, shower, eat breakfast and pack and be out by 11, so I couldn't hang around the beach all day. My plan for the day was to drive to Jökulsárlón, possibly stopping along the way if anything caught my fancy. As usual I was rather keen to get back to my favourite beach as soon as possible, but I did stop a few times - starting with a quick look back at the icicle-covered cliffs of Hjörleifshöfði, and where there are the little piles of volcanic rock near the turn-off to Hrífunes.

I took one little detour from the main road, to have a look at the snow-covered moss. The weather was pretty glorious, although not great for photographs, with deep blue skies and some clouds above the mountains and on the horizon; still the infamous Icelandic wind was elsewhere. It was definitely too warm for the lopapeysa today. The little road I took was unpaved and narrow and I kept driving a little further, hoping for an easy spot to turn around. This didn't materialise, so I ended up having to do a 3-point turn (which was about 7 or 8 points!). Looking at the map now, I realised I could have just continued as the road does a big loop round back to the route 1. But as I said, Jökulsárlón was beckoning.

The landscape looks very different when covered in snow, and not quite so bleak and desolate along that route. The mossy lava fields that line the route approaching Kirkjubaejarklaustur looked adorable but I didn't want to stop again. My next stop wasn't until I reached Foss á Siðu, where I always pull in to get a quick shot - it looked rather pretty and was flowing straight downwards in the absence of the wind.

From there it wasn't far until Lómagnúpur, that huge towering mountain that marks the gateway to the south-east and for me the fun bits (glaciers and icebergs!). Because there was so much snow still, it was difficult to pull off the road, and I was well aware of the dangers of hidden slopes waiting to trap unsuspecting cars. I managed to pull across to a small parking area that I knew would be flat, and parked the car there. I thought back on all my journeys and don't think I've ever seen this mighty mountain under blue skies - I guess she even looked a little dull! It was perfect weather for self-portraits, though, so I dashed around trying a few spots, with me looking up at the magnificent beast. Even though I take a few shots with the remote, go back to review, then try again, doing this does actually give me a chance to enjoy the view that I'm photographing me enjoying! I tried a couple of shots of little bits of vegetation on the ground with the rented macro lens, but didn't find any memorable subjects.

Back on the way, with a quick stop to capture the road in front of the mountain, and then straight on along the straight section towards the Skaftafell, with glaciers pouring over every mountainside in the distance; the tops of the mountains covered in white cloud.

The glaciers weren't very blue, as the ice was all covered in snow, but still was a pretty impressive drive.

As I passed the gas station at Hotel Skaftafell, where the road changes direction and heads south-east I noticed the weather in front of me had completely changed. Blue skies, sunshine and white cloud over the mountain-tops near Svinafellsjökull gave way to low cloud and ominous dark skies. I could see rain falling over the coast to the south, above the line of electricity pylons. The sun was still trying to come out in small patches, but overall the sky became dark and foreboding. Looking at the photos now I see that it wasn't rain falling, but snow, falling right over the sea in the distance.

I completed the last section without any more stops, eager to get to the beach and see what the icebergs were looking like. I passed the turn-off to Fjallsárlón, where the road has been improved from a track and a new building has gone up, and then reached the hills of the terminal moraine that mark the bottom of the Jökulsárlón lagoon. The bridge came into view, but I didn't feel as emotional as I sometimes do on my return - perhaps there was caution in my excitement after my disappointment in finding no icebergs on the beach on my arrival the previous year. I turned into the car-park on the west side of the bridge and was relieved to see plenty of bergs on the beach, as well as a few cars and visitors. I got my gear together and headed down to the shoreline. Seabirds flew very close to the sea where the waves were crashing over large icebergs sitting on a sandbank a little way out from the shore. The white of the birds was distinct with the dark skies behind. It was snowing a little bit, but not unpleasantly, and it came and went. I took my first shot at 3pm, although it felt a lot later given how dark it was.

The conditions weren't great - with lots of small bits of ice on the beach and the tide quite far out, crashing wildly over big icebergs, moving them as they crashed. I tried a few different shutter speeds (using the usual combination of ND filters) and wandered along the beach to the west to see if I could get closer to individual icebergs. There were a few dotted around on the beach, moved around by surf, each wave creating different compositional opportunities. None of them was a "wow that's amazing!" kind of iceberg, but I was content enough to be back there, snapping away, mesmerised by the waves.

The small icebergs lacked any colour, and the big turquoise ones out on the sandbank kept getting jostled by the waves, and were too far out to get any closer to. I still managed to capture some nice swooshery that I was happy with.

I always hope for capturing something similar to my "octopus" shot from 2013, but nothing ever comes close! I managed a couple that gave nice water trails, but nothing special.

I tried a few experimental shots, moving the camera (intentional camera movement, or ICM), panning across the scene, using a slow shutter speed. A few came out quite nicely. I particularly liked one that showed the movements of the birds, flitting about above the waves.

The sky was getting dull and I got a bit cold, so decided to head to the lagoon at Hali to take my last few shots for the afternoon, before eating at the restaurant there. I parked up by the old guesthouse building where I'd stayed on each of my previous visits, but which has now been turned into staff accommodation (the only single rooms available now are with en-suite and around 5-6 times as expensive, which is extremely disappointing!), and wandered down to the shoreline of the lagoon. The sky had turned a strange colour and the frozen lagoon was an interesting shade of green; in a way I wished I'd stayed at the beach for longer - in fact I wasn't quite sure why I left so early.

A branch sat near the shore, perched on the ice. It would be gone in a few days, once the water had thawed.

The sky darkened, so I drove up to the packed restaurant car-park and sat alone, eating a couple of bowls of lamb soup and some delicious bread, and downed about a litre of tap water. The owner walked through the restaurant and gave me the usual raised eyebrows and brief smile in recognition. It was nice to see a familiar face among all the eastern European young men who worked there now, but I still felt rather annoyed that she'd got rid of the budget, self-catered accommodation. I missed my little (very cheap) single room!

By the time I'd finished dinner and paid it was completely dark and snowing heavily. I only had 10km to drive to my guesthouse (Kalfafellsstaður B&B) but it was one of the most surreal and scary drives of my life. The snow was coming straight at me, extremely heavily, and I tried with and without full-beam headlights, but whichever way, I could barely see a thing. I mentioned it to my friend Sigrún later and she said she'd seen a picture where it's likened to the Starship Enterprise flying through a meteor shower. It felt as if the car wasn't moving, but obviously I was and there was no way I could stop as I couldn't see a thing ahead of me. I soon saw the sign to Kalfafell, and hoped this was the right place. I knew that there was a little church next to the guesthouse - I'd driven up there a few years earlier to photograph it, but I couldn't see a thing in the snow. Driving at a perpendicular direction to the snow was a lot easier. I drove up a track and came to a house. There was no guesthouse sign but they don't always have one, so I got out and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but keys were in the door so I let myself in and shouted "hello?". A woman came out and I could see a family sitting round the dinner table eating. I apologised and asked where the guesthouse was and she told me that it was a few hundred metres further along the main road, next to the church. I explained that I couldn't see a thing as there was currently a massive snowstorm, but she reassured me that it really wasn't far, I thanked her and continued on. I found the next turn-off, with a sign to the guesthouse, and was relieved to find the place easily, next to the illuminated church which became visible as I approached. Another car had just pulled in, and it was a guy who'd stayed there the previous night but who had a booking 50km east in Höfn asking if they had any room as he clearly didn't want to drive in conditions like that either. She was full, so he had to continue, but in fact as soon as I arrived the snow stopped! Had I finished eating ten minutes later I might never have even known that it had been snowing! It wasn't something I ever want to experience again. The woman was very friendly, the room comfortable and I went through the usual nightly ritual of downloading photos, reviewing them quickly, editing and posting a couple, Facetiming the hubby and polishing off one of my delicious beers. There was a possibility of northern lights, and the skies were patchy with some breaks in the cloud, so I took a few shots of the church. The lights were just about visible, but only just, and the cloud cover was getting denser. It was cold, I was tired, and I knew the show wasn't going to be spectacular, so I called it a night. The weather-forecast was for cloud in the morning so I decided to treat myself to a lie-in and set the alarm clock for 8.30am, planning to head to the beach after breakfast, before heading further east to my lovely yellow cottage.

Click here for the first instalment of my trip - Iceland #12 - Days 1 & 2: The Journey there and on to Vík
Click here for the third instalment - Iceland #12 - Day 4: From Jökulsárlón to Stafafell

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