5 Feb 2019

Iceland #15 - Days 8&9: Stafafell to Geysir & Gullfoss

My eighth day in Iceland started early, with breakfast and packing up before setting off from Stafafell at 7.30am. The forecast was still for a very stormy day, with the winds particularly picking up in the early afternoon in the usual spot between Seljalandsfoss and Vík, where the winds come down off the glaciers. I had 464km to drive, which should take about six hours of solid driving time, so I hoped to miss the worst of the storms and be at my destination by 1.30pm, give or take.

It was already light by the time I set off, and the conditions weren't too bad. It can be a pretty quick drive if you set your mind to it, even sticking to the speed limit (I have been known to go a little above...). I didn't plan to stop anywhere en route - I just wanted to get to my destination as quickly as possible. I was staying at Geysir Hestar, the lovely horse farm/guesthouse just next to Geysir, in the Golden Circle area. Of course I had to stop at a couple of places, and the first one I reached was my favourite tree which still looked rather dull.

I carried on, passing over the bridge at Jökulsárlón but not stopping (which always makes me feel a bit sad, wondering what iceberg joys I'm missing). I was making a good pace, stopping again once I went past some interesting geology, shown off by the fog lingering. Often in Iceland parts of the landscape are hidden; it's only when there's fog that suddenly they become visible, the clouds isolating geological features previously hidden by the rock and mountains behind. This spot is just before the lovely Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, driving west.

I carried on, not standing outside in the drizzle and rain, and reached Lómagnúpur at 9.30am. It looked very different from my journey there a few days earlier, the top obscured by cloud. I still made time to take a few silly self-portraits and photograph the same pretty autumnal tree. The winds hadn't yet picked up too much, but it was fairly bleak.

Next stop was at 10am, a little further on at Foss á Siðu, blowing a little in the wind, but not as much as I've seen on previous occasions.

The winds were picking up, so I headed on, very keen to avoid getting caught in the storm as it picked up. The stretch of road from Vík to Seljalandsfoss is notorious for fierce winds coming down from the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and whenever there's very high winds this seems to be the worst stretch. I was early enough to avoid it, but didn't stop at all along the way. It was a long, dull drive, with patchy rain and some wind, but I had managed to beat the storm's arrival. I turned off the main road and headed up into the Golden Circle area and arrived at the horse farm, a couple of miles east of Geysir, at 1.30pm - on schedule! I guess the time I spent stopping was made up for by going a touch over 90kmph. It was great to be back there, and I had fond memories of my stay a couple of years earlier, when I'd chatted for ages to the lovely Swedish owner. She wasn't there on this occasion, but I was greeted instead by a couple of enthusiastic young girls who showed me my room. It was so nice to have arrived safely, having avoided the worst of the storm, and now I was able to just relax, drink tea and go through the week's photos, while the storm raged outside (it wasn't actually that bad there). I also organised horse-riding for the following morning - finally I would get to ride an Icelandic horse and experience the tölt gait! I watched the clouds pass through during the afternoon, with patches of brightness and the Strokkur geyser erupting in the distance from time to time. I chatted to a talkative English woman who was there with her daughter and husband - they had camped in the nearby field the previous night but had decided to move inside tonight.

At around 5pm, full of tea, I headed out for a little wander as the sky was brightening, and I hadn't exactly had much exercise (no way I was going to make my 10,000 steps or four miles for the day!). I walked towards the pizza restaurant next door, passing some horses grazing.

A little later on one of the girls came in to tell us that they would be moving the horses and we could come and watch if we liked. There was a cute little lop-eared rabbit in a pen nearby too.

Later on I wandered back down the driveway to the pizza restaurant (another draw for this place to stay). I sat at the bar, as I had a couple of years earlier, and chatted to an American couple next to me, while I ate a pizza with banana as one of the toppings (surprisingly tasty!). The couple had only just arrived and were not very impressed so far (and didn't have any qualms in expressing this opinion!). He asked me if I'd been to the US, and then said "Yellowstone is just so much more impressive than here". The weather was dreadful and he'd only seen the scenery from the airport to here, so I told him to give it a bit more a chance. Yes, that area is not on the grand scale of some of the national parks in the US, but I explained that he needed to drive east (or west, or north for that matter!) and see some of the glaciers and mountains and then tell me the place wasn't quite magical. I headed back home, with half the pizza in a box for lunch the following day. The chatty woman was still up and we shared a few more stories, before heading to bed, alarm set early for a dawn trip to Gullfoss, a few miles up the road.

I arrived at Gullfoss at 6.45am and parked in the lower car-park. I was delighted to find that no-one else was there yet; I had the place to myself. I don't know why I find that so special; perhaps because it's such a rarity these days in Iceland. It felt a bit like the first time I was there, back in 2002, desolate and powerful.

I wandered down the path to the falls, which is shut if I ever visit in winter. The spray was pretty full-on in places, so I had to wipe off the lens after every shot, which was a little annoying. There was quite thick cloud cover, but I still hoped for a little colour as the sun rose. The sky began to lighten, but the clouds didn't change much.

I wandered back up the hill as a couple of women arrived - two people didn't manage to ruin my solitude.

I walked up the steps and along towards the viewing platform.

A bit naughtily I climbed over the very low barrier and on to the rocks that overlooked the falls. The sun began to rise opposite the falls, and the light was tricky, but lovely. I looked behind and noticed the mountains in the distance were lit up. It's so nice when the sun comes out on a cloudy morning, if only for a few moments.

I returned along the rim and down the steps towards the car. A few people had now started arriving - not surprising given that it was 9am - this seemed to be the time the tours started. I stopped to take the last few photos of the falls before heading back to the guesthouse for breakfast.

Next on the agenda was horse riding! I was a little nervous as I hadn't been on a horse for a good few years (possibly not since our honeymoon in Chile in 2010), but also pretty excited. The weather looked a bit changeable (as usual), so I kitted myself up in full waterproofs. I wanted to take some photos along the way, so also took my camera (although in retrospect that wasn't the best idea, as the bag jiggled against my back, even with the straps tied tight). I met up with Freya, my guide for the ride, got my helmet sorted out, and she then went out to saddle up our two horses. There were a couple of sheepdogs there, a super-friendly one that I'd met on my previous visit, and another that gave me a little nip as I put my hand out to befriend it (fortunately no blood drawn!). I found it difficult to get up on the horse as I have reduced strength on my right side, so Freya moved the horse towards a fence which I could use to help me get up. I had a dark brown horse, Skuggi (pronounced Scoo-key) and Freya had a frisky brown one with a white nose and blue eyes like a husky. Every time she got up on it, it would dart forward and dance around a bit until it finally calmed down.

We set off from the farm and walked along a track at the side of the road for a bit before crossing over a bridge and heading off away from the road. It was quite blissful, not too cold, a bit of sun coming and going, no rain, and not much wind. We trotted a little and then got up a notch into the tölt, the funny-looking trot where the horse lifts its front legs up. We walked along some boggy tracks and reached a small river, which the horses crossed with ease. We carried on, chatting about travelling - Freya had worked on horse farms in many exciting places but was heading back to university the following year; a nice gap year activity!

We soon reached a massive wide section of river, and Freya instructed me to lift my legs a little, as the horses would get up to their thighs in the deep water. As we crossed I had the weirdest sensation of being dragged by the current and it felt as if we were walking in the wrong direction. We made it to the other side, and I was glad I'd worn my wellies, as my feet were dry as a result. Soon after the river we stopped for a bit, getting off the horses to give them a rest and to enjoy the view. I took a couple of photos and instructed Freya how to use the back-button focusing so I could actually get a couple of shots of me. There was rain in the distance, but it stayed dry for us.

We got back on the horses and continued on, back towards the farm, Freya's horse skipping off manically as she sat upon him, as usual. We reached a stretch where we were able to canter and off we went. It was the most incredible fun, riding side by side, water kicked up by the horses, who were also loving it. We were actually galloping, not even cantering, and it was the most comfortable ride ever. We reached the end of the section near a gate and stopped for the horses to get their breath back. I'd never really thought that horses would get out of breath before, but they do, and they seriously sweat!

Freya got a phone call and was asked by one of the other girls back at the farm if we wanted waffles upon our return. Er, obviously! We continued on, mixing walking and tölting and eventually reached the farm. The last stretch of driveway, up a slight slope, was another opportunity for the horses to run on their approach to the farm, and off they went. We rode side by side, to avoid being hit by stones flying up. It was exhilarating.

Skuggi - what a joy to ride! Still sweaty after the gallop up the driveway.

Once off the horse I went into the farm building and was greeted by the other girl with fresh coffee, a pot of strawberry jam, whipped cream, and freshly-made waffles - all very tasty. It was such a lovely place and the horse-riding was fantastic - I will definitely return. And then it was time to head back towards Reykjavík. The only stop I had planned on the way was to watch the eruption at Geysir a few times. It's never just a few times, though, as it's totally mesmerising! I watched quite a few eruptions, from both sides that you can now stand - seems to change each time I'm there. The blue bubble did not fail to impress.

And then it was off, with the short drive back to Reykjavik ahead of me. As the road to Þingvellir was closed I had to take the road south and back up through Hveragerði. As I approached the town I played one of my favourite songs - Uncertain Smile by The The, which I'd seen played live in June on two consecutive nights with two of my oldest friends. The song has the most incredible piano solo, that was played originally by Jools Holland, and I was hoping that the keyboard player would be able to replicate it. I watched him warming up in the first few minutes of the song - looking a bit nervous. I was nervous that I might be disappointed. And then he did it - just brilliantly, and it was quite incredible - no disappointment whatsoever, just elation. And then he did it again for me the next night! And here I was, three months later, listening to the Jools Holland version and remembering those incredible moments. And here I was, in the most beautiful country that I love so dearly, the sun shining, feeling quite blissfully happy, at the end of a magical trip. As I passed the cute little church (Kotstrandarkirkja), I realised that tears of joy were actually rolling down my cheeks. This has not happened very many times to me, but it was a heartwarming experience! The music, the trip, the scenery - all perfect. The rest of the drive was a little less emotional, and I pulled in to the centre of the city for a quick stop at Orr just before four to pick up a couple of presents (oh, and a new ring for me!), before continuing on to Álftanes to Sigrún's in time for supper. I had a lovely stay there, as usual, with delicious food and great company. It's such a nice way to end my trips to Iceland, relaxed in the company of lovely friends.

I never plan much for my last day - a leisurely breakfast, and then just getting to the airport without having to get up too early, dropping off the rental car (and hoping for no damage - still managed that every time so far, in spite of the incident where a bit was hanging down!), having a delicious last lunch in the airport restaurant, and picking up some more tasty Borg beer and some chocolate-covered licorice. No pizza-stealing incidents at the airport on this occasion - just some scrummy arctic char, washed down by a Borg IPA on tap. From my window seat on the plane I saw the desolate wastes of the Reykjanes peninsula disappear beneath me and a wonderful intense sunset before darkness took over. Back in March 2019!!

My crazy long drive on Day 8!
A much shorter route on Day 9

Click here for my blog from Day 7 - Stokksnes & Friends

19 Jan 2019

Iceland #15 - Day 7: Stokksnes and Friends

Day 7 started early (for a change); I actually managed to get out of the door and was at Stokksnes by 6.30am. I decided to park by the café and walk up the spit, as I wanted to see the lovely rocks in the lagoon that I'd discovered the previous night under the rising moon (and I wanted to avoid paying the entrance fee again, which still leaves a bit of a bitter taste as no-one knows if it's legal). As I walked from the car I heard a noise in the distance; in the twilight I was just able to see a couple of foals and an adult horse galloping past playfully - it was delightful to see them having fun. I continued on and didn't actually stop at the rocks after all - I wanted to find some decent ripples in the dunes instead. I'd used the blower on the back of the wide-angle lens before I left, so hopefully wouldn't have all my photos ruined from the errant hair. As I reached the dunes I noticed there was a very light covering of frost on the black sand, particularly in the ripples.

Trying to find sand dunes at Stokksnes these days without footprints everywhere is something of a challenge. I suppose the best time to come is first thing in the morning after a very windy night (which is a regular occurrence, at least). There had been little wind, however so any footprints from the previous few days were still visible. I managed to find a few and was careful not to make many more of my own, trying to follow in others' prints as much as possible (I wish other people would do the same!). It was a stunning morning, with almost completely clear skies, the moon about to set to the west and the sun about to rise to the east.

I found a few compositions I particularly liked, and settled down to watch the mountains and dunes light up before me.

The light on the mountains was lovely, but I was really waiting for the light to hit the beach.

Finally the sun was up and overly bright on the mountains within minutes. It's amazing how quickly the light can change and cast a completely different colour onto the landscape in front of you. With the arrival of the sun the frost soon disappeared.

I wandered back a little towards the lagoon, and found a last unspoilt section of rippled dune.

I ventured out onto the expanse of beach past the dunes, where you can walk to the lagoon's edge; the reflections were incredible as the water was so still.

There were a couple of people here and there, including an Asian couple with a drone, the man filming the woman walking along, so naturally... I took a few pictures before wandering on. The surface of the sand was streaked with yellow.

I saw a guy taking some photos and offered to take one of him and his wife on their iPhone. Afterwards we got talking; they lived in Arizona and had four kids and were super-friendly. The guy (Trent) said that he'd tried to take a full 180° panoramic view of the scene, with the setting moon on one side, the mountains (fully-reflected) in the middle, and the sun rising on the other side. He asked if I could take that kind of scene on my 'proper' camera, so I took a whole load of vertical shots on my 24-70mm lens, hoping to be able to stitch them together when I got home. I gave him my website address and off they went. 

Here is the finished shot. I wasn't quite happy with it, as the light changed so much across the sky, the stitching software was not happy with the frames with the sun in it, and the sun caused awful flares. It took a lot of work, correcting the white balance and exposure of each raw shot before trying to do the stitch.

(Trent sent me an email a couple of weeks later and bought a copy so this should be printed out HUGE and hung on a wall in Arizona!)

I took a few more reflection shots before calling it a day at 8.45am; I needed my tea!

In case you didn't notice, this is a reflection turned upside-down

I came home and had breakfast (the usual - blueberry skyr and Icelandic granola with lovely roasted hazelnuts in it) and a couple of cups of tea, while downloading the photos and recharging the batteries. The first thing I noticed was that the fail from the previous night had been repeated. ALL of my wide angle shots taken with an angle of wider than about 30mm had the huge hair across the lens. I was devastated and really angry with myself. I had thought the hair was at the rear of the lens, but all the time it was stuck to the glass on the front of the lens. It was from the lopapeysa :( Usually I clean my lenses each morning before setting off, but this time I got up so early I hadn't bothered. Lesson learned!! 

I took the rest of the day fairly easy, somewhat lacking the energy to go out and do too much more. I eventually ventured out again at midday (lenses properly cleaned!), my destination being Skutafoss, a little waterfall just off the road back towards the tunnel. First, however, I went across the main road and down the little lane to the river bends. I stopped to take a few shots of the beautiful horses. Some of them I'd presumably photographed on my previous trip in the winter.

I had been concentrating on capturing a couple of horses on the hill to the east of the road and looked round to see a few of the horses surrounding my car. I wandered a bit closer and noticed that they were licking it, which was a bit odd. 

I shooed them away when I noticed one of them beginning to nibble on the trim of the driver's door! Licking the wheels and bonnet was one thing, but nibbling, no. I got back into the car and headed further down the road. This was where I had walked after a snowstorm in February and the shades of grey and bends of the river had given me one of my favourite shots from the trip. How different the conditions were today, with blue skies overhead and an almost balmy temperature; the views were just lovely. I longed to have a drone to see the river braids from above, but hate them with a passion, so will just have to enjoy the view from ground level until I've reconciled myself to the fact that they make an incredibly annoying buzz (and maybe eventually they'll find a way to make them quieter!). The views back to the cottage and entrance to the canyon were wonderful too.

On the way back up the road I noticed some sheep running at the side of the road, so stopped to get a couple of shots.

Next stop was Skutafoss, which I'd only visited once before. It is a nice little waterfall, at the entrance to a wide, shallow cave. I drove up a gravel road a little way, parking before it got too bumpy, and continued on foot. It was 1.20pm by the time I arrived at the falls and the sunlight was bright on the water. I took a few shots from the river bank with filters on before heading into the cave.

It's a rather challenging waterfall to capture, and I'd come at the wrong time of the day, as the sun was just about to set behind a hill to the west, even though it was hours before the actual sunset. I obviously hadn't checked The Photographer's Ephemeris properly, which showed the best light on it from about 9am until 1pm. I just caught the sun setting behind the mountain as I tried to get the tripod as close to the back of the cave as possible. Big black clouds behind would probably help.

I'll try to visit on my next winter trip, but this all depends on the accessibility of the road and how deep the snow is on the track. I headed back home for some tea, greeted by a sheep basking in the afternoon sun.

As I sat in the kitchen downloading the photos I noticed something intensely red catch my eye out of the window. I looked out and noticed a cockerel, with its wattle backlit by the low sun.

I didn't really know where I wanted to go for sunset, but as I hadn't been to Hvalnes that day I decided to head there, to do some beach-combing, and have a little photo session for my new jewellery! I realised that I talk a lot about my incredible Icelandic jeweller, Orr, so decided it was about time I photographed some of the amazing pieces I've acquired. Before I set off I went up to the farmhouse to pay up, as I was planning on an early start the following morning. Sigurdur's wife was there and we chatted briefly as I paid, before setting off on the lovely short drive to the point. The light wasn't particularly interesting; still a little harsh even though sunset was approaching. I arrived at Hvalnes and another couple was there on the hill near the lighthouse photographing the view west. I headed down to the beach, stopping to take a couple of shots of the magnificent first peak of Eystrahorn.

The first thing I saw when I reached the beach was a carcass of something. At first I thought it might be a seal, but closer inspection showed a massive bulbous skull and long toothed beak. I checked the anatomy of a dolphin when I got home; this is what it was. It made me feel rather sad. Bits of bone were strewn along the beach too, among seaweed and stones.

The view from the beach is always amazing though. I think Eystrahorn wins the prize of second-favourite Icelandic mountain, after Lómagnúpur.

Photographing jewellery is not easy, and I struggled with too shallow depth of field and reflections of me and the tripod in the shiny silver.

It was getting close to sunset, so I headed back to the car, checking that I had all the pieces of jewellery still with me!

I often get in a bit of a flap about where to go for sunset. It's always better if I have a firm plan and then just stay there, but sometimes I just panic a bit and head somewhere else (I also have dreams like this, where I end up completely missing the sunset, or decent light, or lose my camera...). I decided to head back through the tunnel, where there was at least chance of seeing the setting sun (on the east side of the tunnel the sun disappears behind the mountains ages before actual sunset). The light on the lagoon on the way back was sublime.

I know, horrible flares, but it was just glorious!

I pulled over a few times, but still hurried on. Looking back at Eystrahorn I wished I'd stayed there as the mountain glowed a warm orange.

Most of the rest of the drive was in shade; it wasn't until after I drove through the short tunnel that I was reunited with the setting sun. I took the left turn-off down towards Stokksnes and parked a little way down, knowing that there were always some nice patterns on the beaches along the lagoon's edge. There were indeed some lovely patterns in the sand, and pink and orange reflections in the water from the clouds above.

I walked along the beach a little and was amazed at how quickly the tide was coming in. Within minutes of taking that shot the water had completely covered the sandbanks. The water was lapping quickly at the shore, so long exposures didn't really work. The rocks along the shore had some interesting patterns on them; something to explore on a future trip :)

I drove back home and rustled up a quick tuna pasta. There was the possibility of clear skies and a tiny amount of aurora, so I kept a constant eye on the conditions. Just after 10.30pm it seemed that there might be something, so I got my gear together and headed up the hill behind the hostel, along the trail that led to the canyon. It was still moonlit, but the moon was still relatively low in the sky and not lighting up the skies too much. And there is literally no light pollution there! I was pleased to immediately notice some green glow. I walked for about ten minutes and set the tripod up. I turned the camera on and realised that I didn't have a memory card in the damned thing! I lugged the tripod back to the hostel, picked up my memory card, and headed back out - I considered driving to Stokksnes but I didn't have the energy (and I'd had a strong beer already). As I walked up the hill the lights began to get brighter.

I continued on up the hill and along the path for about ten minutes again. Occasionally I got a bit spooked when my torchlight shone in the eyes of some sheep, suddenly awoken by my light! It was a bit unnerving, that's for sure, with these large sheep staring at me in the dark! I found a spot where I quite liked the outlook, and it wasn't too far away from the warm hostel. And then the lights came out to play for me.

There was quite a nice selection of colours; not just green, but some purple, pink, yellow and red.

Eventually they died down, as they do, and I wandered back down the hill to my nice warm room. Obviously I stayed up a little later, reviewing the shots and doing a little editing. I had to get up early, though, as the following day a big storm was forecast from about midday onwards and I wanted to get most of the drive out of the way before it arrived. For some reason I'd been a bit careless in my planning and had decided to drive all the way back to Geysir to stay at the horse farm there - a whopping 464km! It was going to take some time (just under six hours according to Google Maps), so I decided to set off at 7.30am. I could have done with more than six hour's sleep before such a long drive, but the main thing was to try to avoid the storm, and I could always catch up on sleep when I arrived at Geysir Hestar.

My route on Day 7 - back and forth around Stafafell!

Click here for my blog from Day 6: Exploring around Stafafell