Tales from another planet
Last week I made my second visit to Iceland, and once again it seemed like my flight had managed to land on a different planet - it is such an extreme and other-worldly experience to spend time in that country. As this trip was a bit longer I will split my field report into multiple blog posts.
My previous visit had taken me along the whole south coast of Iceland, this time I decided to concentrate on West Iceland and the Snaefellsness peninsula. My resting place on the first evening was near to the port of Akranes but I decided to take the scenic route from the airport, driving through Þingvellir national park and visiting the beautiful Bruarfoss waterfall.
Bruarfoss might be the smallest waterfall I have visited in Iceland, but it may also be the most beautiful. The glacial waters have an amazing colour and the river takes a nice winding course via a couple of pools just after the falls. It was also slightly difficult to find... but it was worth some extra effort and I got there eventually.
From Bruarfoss I continued a short distance further inland to visit the thermal area at Haukadalur where there are many active vents, including Geysir - the first widely known example of its kind, responsibile for contributing the word geyser to the English language. These days Geysir is active only intermittently while it's near neighbour Strokkur is much more reliable, spouting water and steam 30m into the air every few minutes. This was an area that was amazing to witness, and to smell, but not really to photograph - the surrounding terrain was a bit of a muddy mess and there were hundreds of people in the way.
I continued to Akranes where I watched the sunset near the old and new lighthouses.
I had understood that there should be an old abandoned boat in a slipway near to the harbour in Akranes and I planned to try and photograph that the following morning... but having explored where I thought it should be, and a few other places as well, I could not find it. Luckily the port was an interesting subject without the abandoned boat and the still waters made for nice reflections in the hours before sunrise.
After my night in Akranes I again took a detour inland on my way up the west coast. Repeating the formula from the day before I headed for the waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafoss (a hundred metres apart - very convenient).
These waterfalls were both fascinating to look at, but when it came to photographing them I did not find inspiration easily. One problem was the light which was too harsh and direct but the other people at the location were perhaps more of an impediment to me.
There were some areas that were fenced off, with many signs asking people to stay behind the fences to protect the vegetation that was holding the riverbank together. I can admit that I have sometimes disregarded such boundaries where doing so involved minor trespassing or minor danger, but in this case I thought that the signs made a sensible request and I decided to respect them even though that meant giving up the best shooting positions. Other photographers had made a different judgement and the protected area was full of people... which, as well as being a bit stupid and disrespectful in my opinion, also meant that they were blocking out the view for anyone trying to observe or photograph from the permitted area.
In the end these obstacles worked to my advantage as I looked for alternative compositions in the area. About 40-50m upstream from the main torrents at Barnafoss I spotted an area where there was a rapid flow of glacial water framed by volcanic basalt and decorated by icicles. A long lens allowed me to capture an other-worldly shot which was quite different and unique despite standing at a popular place surrounded by photographers and selfie-hunters who were all taking the same shots that thousands had taken before.
My next port of call was at Deildartunguhver, another thermal area, this one harnessed for the benefit of the Icelandic population. Boiling water emerges from the depths at a rate of about 180 litres per second and this provides hot water and central heating for most of the houses within a 65km radius. The 64km hot water pipe to Akranes is the longest in Iceland and the water is still about 80 degrees celsius when it arrives at the other end.
After returning to the coast the scenery was quite beautiful on the drive towards the Snaefellsness peninsula.
It is actually a "big problem" from photography point of view because if you stopped every time you got fascinated by the view you could only cover about 10km in 24 hours. When visiting a new part of the country it is extremely difficult to know whether it is a good idea to try and find a place to stop and walk back to shoot. The amazing photos that you imagine from a fast moving car are often illusions, your brain is remarkable in its ability to edit out obstructions and distractions in real time but the camera is not so clever, every power line, bush and rock is fully visible in the photo when you return to the spot. It is very often (but not always) the case that when you stop you end up disappointed and also late for your real destination... and it is also very often the case that you end up full of "maybe I should have..." thoughts any time you don't stop. I have struggled with this on every kilometre of both my Iceland trips.
Eventually, after regretting multiple stops and multiple non-stops, I made it to my next highlight - the black church at Búðir.
This tiny church, in the middle of nowhere, in the shadow of mountains and glaciers, was maybe my favourite destination of the trip. I scouted it out as well as I could before continuing to my accommodation at the Fosshotel in Hellnar. Normally on my Iceland trips the accommodation has been functional and basic but this was a number of steps up from that without a corresponding step up in price, and it also has a nice restaurant. I highly recommend staying here if you are in the area.
After dinner I did some scouting of the nearby attractions and realised I was rather exhausted... I decided to get some sleep, but first I thought to check that the aurora forecast (which did not look encouraging) was correct.
Any time there is a chance to photograph auroras that takes priority over sleep... so I drove the twenty something kilometres back to Búðir.
The little black church is unfortunately (from photography point of view) rather harshly illuminated at night, creating a massive difference in brightness within any scene. Some other photographers had the good idea to cover the main light with a towel which mitigated the problem slightly... and they also had the less good idea of continuously waving their torches around in order to see well enough to adjust their camera settings. It does not take much unwanted light to completely ruin an exposure.
After an insufficient amount of sleep it was time to go back to Búðir once again... this time for the sunrise.
As usual it is the time before the sun appears which is the most interesting, the colours are often quite magnificent and the soft tones are a lot easier to capture than the harsh light and shadows that dominate after the sun makes its entrance.
The area near Hellnar has some beautiful cliffs and beaches, as well as a lighthouse. My plan was to try and add some good seascapes to my portfolio. I am often drawn to that kind of scenery, and very much like other people's seascape pictures, but my own efforts have never been quite as good as I would hope.
At Londrangar there is a good vantage point and a spectacular view over the vertical cliffs, full of nesting gulls... but the composition would benefit greatly from taking 5 steps to the left. Any attempt to do so would not be that wise as the 50m drop to certain death in the Atlantic would rather disrupt your photography session. A drone would be helpful in this situation... but I would like to resist that temptation, I find the constant buzzing of other peoples drones rather irritating and it is an increasingly regular phenomenon at all places of photographic interest, it really takes you (and everyone else) out of the peaceful beauty of a location. Maybe when they are completely silent and one quarter of their current size I can think again.
A short trip around the coast from Hellnar you can find the black sand beach at Djúpalónssandur. As is often the case in Iceland, the prospect of imminent death is waiting for you at this attraction, and you enter at your own risk. In this case the peril is provided by "sneaker waves" as it is in the beaches near to Vik in the south. The beach slopes gently down to the shore, but just beyond the shore it drops off rapidly, creating conditions that are just right for occasional waves to come 15 or 20 metres further up the beach than the waves coming before or after. If you are swept out by one of these sneakers, you will not make it back. As if this danger was not enough, the beach is also guarded by a fearsome Troll woman :)
The beach itself is beautiful as well as deadly, a typical Icelandic black sand and black pebble beach with interesting volcanic rock formations.
Having survived the deadly beach it was time to make my way towards the second part of my trip which I would spend in Grundarfjörður near to the iconic Kirkjufell mountain. The journey from Hellnar to Grundarfjörður would take a little over an hour if you managed to drive without stopping... but such things are almost impossible in Iceland so it took me nearly 3 hours.
One of the regular features of the scenery in Iceland is the lovely Icelandic horse, my friend Bragi Ingibergsson has many beautiful pictures of these animals and I wanted to get at least something to remember them by from this trip.
Besides the horses, another regular feature of the Icelandic scenery is abandoned buildings and machinery in the middle of nowhere. I suppose that the tough conditions will inevitably defeat some of the human settlers and then the low temperatures help to preserve the ruins, such scenes are typical on many of the routes I have driven.
My trip reaches its half way point... and I will save the rest for my upcoming posts.
Thanks for reading my blog and have a good day!
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