God spent most of the day recharging the waterfalls, but the wet stuff finally quit around 6:30 PM and the big bright thing made a brief appearance. The eastern fjords of Iceland are supposed to be incredible, but with visibility sometimes reduced to four inches it’s impossible to be be one hundred percent certain – Lonely Planet will have to remain the authority on the subject.
Since there’s still a lot of time remaining until the return home I made a detour up north to the Langanes Peninsula, which the guidebook describes as one of the loneliest parts of Iceland. Having spent over two hours driving the fifty kilometer “road” out here, it seems like the guidebook has it right. There are a handful of abandoned farms, a lot of birds, an occasional sheep, some rolling hills, and a blustery coast, but almost no signs of people – there have been two other cars all night, and no inhabited buildings. One very cool sight while coming out was a herd of 20-30 nearly wild horses running along the coast – they don’t like cars, and it was impressive seeing so many animals all take off at full speed across the countryside. The “road” ended in the midst of a long-abandoned fishing village so I’m camped here for the evening with winds howling, dozens of birds flying by every minute, and some impressive sea cliffs disappearing into the fog along the peninsula’s southwest coast. If the weather cooperates there will be a lot of exploring tomorrow, and if it doesn’t then it may be time to make an offering to Thor to try and get the sun back again.
Today started out looking like good weather, and has turned into one of those days that usually requires a guy in a yellow raincoat on TV to be saying “The full force of this category three storm is now becoming apparent…”. At the moment I’m parked in the Wondermobile next to a lighthouse, and the car is shaking as waves of horizontal rain go tearing past; this is definitely the strongest storm I’ve been in recently, even more impressive than the two big storms at the beginning of this trip.
Aside from Mother Nature’s fury it’s otherwise been an unremarkable day. I slept late (8:00 AM), visited the glacial lagoon, and then covered some ground driving towards the eastern side of the country. Nature-wise there’s a sheltered bit of ocean about a half mile from my current parking spot with several hundred swans in it, and I also passed a sign with a picture of a reindeer on it; it would be more notable had I seen an actual reindeer, but when the weather is this bad I’ll take what I can get.
First full day on my own, and I spent most of it re-visiting sites from the photo tour:
- Wakeup was at 6:00 AM in Thingvellir National Park and I spent about two hours photographing geese before any people had yet arrived.
- The next stop was Geysir (prounouned “Gay-zeer”), home of the gay-zeer for which all gay-zeers are named. Sadly someone chucked a rock into the gay-zeer in the 1950’s and it went from shooting 250 feet into the air several times a day to only shooting fifteen feet into the air during major earthquakes. Luckily the nearby Strokkur gay-zeer is still unblocked and erupts every few minutes to entertain the crowds that pour from numerous tour buses.
- The next adventure was past fields filled with horses (they are soft) and then along the foothills of the Hekla volcano and eventually back to the Ring Road along the coast. There was a nap included in that stretch of travel as well.
- Once on the Ring Road God sent perfect waterfall photography weather (dry with overcast) so I stopped at the Skogafoss Waterfall, and per Rod’s recommendation did some hiking along the river above the falls. This river should be the inaugural inductee into the waterfall hall of fame – I finally stopped hiking after the fifth waterfall, all of which are exceptionally photogenic.
- And now I’m parked for the night along the coast on a black sand beach formed when a volcano erupted under the glacier about twelve years ago and flooded a massive area with dirt and debris. The volcano is expected to erupt on a regular basis every couple of decades causing floods, ash, poisonous gases and other devastation – when asked about the upcoming destruction the volcano will unleash on his country Villi Knudsen noted that “it is going to be complicated to film”.
Strokkur Geyser beginning an eruption. The eruption process: cooler water on top of the geyser traps superheated water below. The superheated water eventually flashes to steam and pushes to the surface, causing an eruption. The eruption then causes all of the Japanese tourists to start clapping.
The wind was still howling at 6:00 AM this morning so the Skipper and I packed up and started making a leisurely journey back south. We arrived in Reykjavik around noon and played tourist, visiting the national cathedral, taking the obligatory pictures of the giant Leifur Eriksson statue, and then heading to the national museum. Amidst thousand-year-old relics and other archaelogical treasures the hidden gem within the museum is a room in which you can try on a Viking helmet, sword, and shield, and the Skipper was truly menacing once armored up. From the museum we walked down towards the harbor, and along the way discovered a pond that has every single bird we’ve been stalking for weeks swimming up to people looking for bread – it was a vast difference from a week ago when it took fifteen minutes to get within thirty yards of two whooper swans. I refrained from taking pictures, but will loudly object should my dad try to pass any of his photos as being truly wild birds.
From there we ate dinner, and then it was sadly time for the Skipper’s trip to come to an end. I drove him to Keflavik, we hung out for a bit longer, and then I was off for the solo part of this journey. It’s sad to see everyone go, but at the same time I haven’t spent anytime alone and away from everything in a long time, and it will be a good chance to do some thinking and evaluating of how the whole “life” thing is going.
The Skipper and I awoke reasonably refreshed in a windblown tent this morning and then set off around the Vatnsnes Peninsula. On the far side of the peninsula we found a large grey seal colony and a neat little hostel, and since Mother Nature chose to blast us with wind, cold and rain it seemed like a good place to stop. The soft-spoken but very friendly farmer who owns this place has either been a regular subscriber to the Time-Life carpentry collection or else just simply likes excuses to buy tools, and he has hand-built several two-story cabins along the ocean. It’s a dramatic setting, but given the weather I utilized it primarily as a napping spot.
The day’s one notable adventure came as we were heading off for dinner. Most of the more interesting roads in Iceland require negotiating steep hills, fording streams, and escaping from some slick situations. The rental car I’ve got to handle these roads is a Suzuki Jimmy 4WD, aka Suzy the Wondermobile. Suzy has been a bit underpowered on the roads compared to my trusty Suby, and the handling has been a bit suspect, but she showed her true mettle as I was turning around in a gravel parking lot and she got stuck. Suddenly many of the roads on the Iceland map no longer look like possibilities. In her defense Suzy was fine once I switched the car to 4WD, but getting stuck in a spot that a Ford Focus would navigate with ease is at least mildly concerning.
The photography tour portion of the trip came to a crashing end this morning, and sadly I wasn’t able to find Rod and Marlene to say goodbye; I miss them already, which is unusual for me. They’re both very genuine and fun people – it’s disturbingly rare to find folks today who speak from the heart and don’t attempt to conform to expectations, but I get the sense that everything about the Plancks reflects who they are and what they believe. And in addition to that sentimental mumbo-jumbo, Rod is funny as hell.
The car rental folks arrived at the hotel promptly at 7:45 AM, and surprisingly all I had to do to get the car was sign two papers. With the extra time available I trimmed the mane, which had gotten shaggy enough that I might have earned second place had there been a Rod Planck lookalike contest. The Skipper and I hung around the hotel room relaxing and napping until about 11:00, and then per the Skipper’s request we headed off for the north of the country. The drive north was scenic, and I don’t think I caused any international incidents with my driving. After a few stops along the way we arrived at the coast and hung out on a sea cliff with some inquisitive fulmars that would briefly hover at eye level a few feet away before continuing on their looping flights. We next visited a herd of the Viking horses that they raise around here – they’re the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen, with long manes, frisky temperaments, and mild personalities. As soon as we stopped the entire herd wandered over to us, but they were either just curious or else looking for something other than the apples we offered.
The day ended at a non-descript restaurant in Hvammstangi that hides within its walls the most beautiful waitress in the world. She spoke English without any trace of accent but said she hadn’t been abroad and attributed her language skills to watching a lot of movies. The other residents of the town were of the squidgy and funny-looking variety (even moreso than yours truly) so one can only assume that the stork delivered the future Ms. Iceland to the wrong address many years ago. Following the dinner with the goddess we headed to a nearby town to put up the tent, took a dip in the local hot pools, and now we’re preparing for a potentially long night as rain and a ridiculous wind is building around us.
Last day – sadness abounds. We started off in Hof, and drove along the ring route towards Reykjavik. There were several stops along the way at some incredible waterfalls and a really neat basalt column formation that I climbed on because I’m a big dork. Hawk introduced us to the Icelandic rock throw, which he very likely had just made up and which he dominated – his best throw was farther and louder than anything that Marlene, Rod, Skip or I could manage.
We arrived at our hotel in Keflavik around seven and gathered for dinner at eight, and after spending two weeks with such a fun group I set aside my qualms about the mantouch and accepted a hug from Larry and Rod. A hearty goodbye from Mavis and Marlene was about all I could handle as I’m poor with goodbyes, so the Skipper and I headed off to bed. I have to pick up the rental car early tomorrow, so there may be more chances for goodbyes before I head off for three days with the Skipper followed by close to two weeks on my own.
At this point in the trip everyone is showing signs of sleep deprivation after nearly two weeks of non-stop action. Any bad weather that might have curtailed our excursions and provided a chance to rest has surprisingly stayed away, so people are falling asleep in the van, taking naps whenever possible, and generally looking disoriented in the mornings; by my accounting that’s a sign of a great trip. Today we set off a bit later, with an 8:00 AM breakfast followed by a return visit to the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon. Instead of ice I spent the morning with my dad and Rod photographing an active bunch of arctic terns, and ten bazillion photos later I can actually say with some confidence that I’ve got some good ones. Despite repeated dive bombings I was nipped only twice on my hat, although the Skipper took a full load from the back end of one of the birds and had to spend a good while cleaning up in the restroom.
The remainder of the day was primarily spent photographing glaciers that flow off of the massive ice field – apparently the world’s third largest behind Greenland and Antarctica. In addition to having enormous ice sheets Iceland spices things up by adding volcanos, and during eruptions huge masses of the ice melt quickly and wash away anything below including sheep, bridges, towns, etc. Everyone seems to be generally OK with this arrangement, most likely due to a thousand years of living in a tough little corner of the world.
Post-photography I opted to walk forty-five minutes back to the hotel, getting bombarded by a pair of skuas along the way. Dinner followed, and since the trip is nearing its conclusion the alcohol flowed more freely, Hawk made a speech thanking us for making it a fun two weeks, and we retired to the lobby to burn away a few more hours of the night. Tomorrow we’re making our way back to Keflavik, visiting a few sights along the way, and the following day it will sadly be time for the trip to come to an end.
Arctic tern. Not the one that unleashed on the Skipper.
Today is in the running as the best day of the trip thus far. We awoke at 4:15 AM and arrived at the Ingolfshorfoi bird cliffs at 5:00 AM. After a twenty minute tractor ride across tidal flats to the cliffs we spent nearly six hours photographing puffins and skuas – puffins on the ground, puffins flying, puffins with fish, skuas displaying, skuas flying… there were a million different photographs to be taken. Marlene is to be greatly commended for arranging the early and extended visit.
After returning to the hotel for a nap and eating an early dinner we headed off to do some photos of the local glacier, which comes down from the world’s third largest ice sheet. Arctic terns, grey seals, icebergs, mountains, and all sorts of other goodies filled the photos, and it wasn’t until after sunset (around midnight) that we finally returned. Since tomorrow is a late (8:00 AM) breakfast there was time to enjoy a beer with Rod, Marlene and Hawk, and many old stories were dredged up, including the infamous tale of Rod’s famous victory interview several years ago in Antarctica. Sadly only two full days remain in the trip, but if our luck continues they should also be good ones.
This sentence would be a nice transitional sentence if I knew how to write well. At one point during the day Marlene asked Rod what he was photographing. In his best little kid voice the reply was “I’m photographing air… and sunshine… and love”. The moment doesn’t translate as well when written down, but it was pretty damn funny at the time it was uttered.
Great skua, attack mode.
More great weather today – when asked about the weather Hawk said “Yes, it has been very good. You usually have to pay for that later.” If his prophesy comes true I may have some interesting days of camping once the photo tour ends. Today was another travel day, and we spent it driving along dirt roads, through streams, and past landscapes that included volcanic deserts, lava flows, glaciers, lush fields, and other awesome sights. There were numerous photography stops, and hopefully a few of the day’s photos will be decent ones.
Since we were making good time Hawk suggested we visit an out-of-the-way lake that tourists never go to, and for the next hour we traveled along a road that was at times very nearly impassable, and it eventually became truly impassable at a large snowfield. Hawk indicated it was a short hike to the lake, so after eating lunch and doing some sliding on the snow I set off at a brisk pace. The number of stupid things I’ve done in my life is far too short, but today it grew slightly after a swim in a glacier-fed Arctic lake. There was a quick bit of stripping down, a longer bit of psyching up, some running into the water, some frantic “Panic!” signals sent to the brain, a dive, some loud yelling, and then a quick retreat. Afterwards there was quite a bit of jumping around onshore to get the bloodflow going again. I spent the rest of the day in wet boxers, but it was definitely worthwhile. We’re in bed early tonight with a 4:15 AM wakeup tomorrow to head off to another bird colony before paying a visit to a glacier lagoon that is supposed to be really picturesque.
Today was the second day in this part of Southern Iceland, and it was spent looking for landscapes to photograph. Every manner of weather confronted us, from rain to hail to sun to wind to bugs (lots of bugs). Highlights included some amazing volcanic landscapes, a tolerant pair of whooper swans (who Rod ran down a slope to visit), and a fun hike with Rod and Marlene. Due to the rough weather a lot of the day was spent driving around looking for good light, and we returned to the guest house in the evening a bit earlier than normal and ready for drinks. Whether due to alcohol or simply several days of familiarity there weren’t many inhibitions when it came to conversation, which included a demonstration from Hawk of how he would use a restroom in the U.S. in order to avoid Larry Craig-style footsie adventures (imagine gymnastics involving legs raised well off the ground), Rod’s “Diesel Fitter” bombshell, the usual one liners from John and Diane, Larry’s laughter, Mavis’ giggling, and Marlene’s zingers. It will be sad to see this trip end, ’cause it’s been a fun one.
The non-stop sunny weather finally ended today, and the result was awesome. Twice the skies opened up and deluged pea-sized hail on us, the second time for about twenty minutes. When it ended there was an inch of hail on the ground, and it looked like snow had fallen. The majority of the group was sensible and huddled in the van during the longer storm, but I roamed about like the mentally-challenged invididual that I am and enjoyed every second of the rough weather. Iceland similarly revealed its character earlier in the day while we stopped to photograph by a lake and the swarming insects were so numerous that there was a very audible buzz in the air. These sorts of experiences are exactly what I expected in Iceland, and it’s pretty awesome to be hit by this sort of raw nature.
The main event that was planned for today was landscape photography, so the rough weather was a blessing as the clouds and precipitation made the countryside more dramatic. The majority of the day was spent hiking in Landmannalauger amongst lava flows, fumaroles, and other prehistoric scenery. After the second hail storm testosterone was flowing, and I charged up the steep slopes several miles to the top of a mountain to take it all in. At the top the winds were blasting, the colors were crazy, and the views were awesome. I chatted with a German couple who were there before firing off a ton of photos, then Rod and Marlene arrived and we hiked down together through the volcanic steams and across the lava. The Skipper joined us near the base of the trail, and everyone came back to the hotel in excellent spirits.
Exhaustion set in yesterday and I went to sleep without updating the journal… oops. The day was another day of travel, although we made several stops along the way, including the big three Icelandic sights of Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gulfoss. Thingvellir is both a historical and geological site as it was home to the first Icelandic Parliament over a thousand years ago, and also marks the boundary between the European and North American tectonic plates. There are also geese there, and everyone likes geese. Geysir is (unsurprisingly) home to a geyser that erupts relatively frequently. Rope barriers separate the thermal features from the boardwalks, and when a local Icelander saw a few folks crossing one he was quick to comment “Come back please, this is very stupid. It takes only one minute to boil a tourist.” They came back. Gulfoss means “Gold Falls” and is a tremendous, two-tiered waterfall. From there we drove through volcanic moonscapes before reaching the Hotel Highlands where an Arctic fox appeared outside the window during dinner. Everyone but Larry and Mavis decided to forgo any late evening photography, and for the first time in about a week I enjoyed more than five hours of sleep for the evening. Today we’re back out to photograph in a volcanic caldera that Hawk describes as one of his favorite spots in Iceland, so it should be another good day.
Today was primarily a travel day as we again took the ferry from the West Fjords back towards Reykjavik, with the eventual goal being the dramatic landscapes of the south coast. Tonight we’re midway, in the town of Borgarnes. Everyone, myself included, was exhausted after taking full advantage of three straight days of perfect weather, and it was a sad lot that sprawled in heaps on the ferry, snoring away. After the crossing we stopped at the local Vin Bud (liquor) and Bonus Pig (groceries) before heading to our hotel and eventually out to visit some scenic waterfalls. Prior to that excursion I managed to find some blank CDs, and with the use of Larry’s laptop and a fast internet connection eventually downloaded everything I needed to revive my own laptop. Tomorrow we’re meeting for breakfast at the unfortunate hour of 6:30, then embarking on a long drive south, followed by several days photographing amongst thermal features, mountains, and glaciers.
After returning from our last night at the Latrabjarg bird cliffs after midnight a small group gathered in the parking lot to drink a few beers and tell stories – apparently every guy alive has at least one childhood tale that essentially ends with “I lit it then dove for cover, ’cause that thing BLEW UP!”, making for an entertaining evening.
Today was another good day with perfect weather, but everyone was understandably tired after the recent late nights. As a result we spent most of the morning and afternoon driving through fjords and photographing landscapes. We returned from one such photo stop to find Hawk dead asleep on the side of the road, and at another stop a heated discussion led to Rod exercising his conflict avoidance skills by leaping out of the van and running off down the road. Upon returning to the hotel my laptop decided it no longer liked booting up, so it may unfortunately be a while until these journals make it onto the web.
The evening trip to Latrabjarg Cliffs had perfect light, and with fewer people around more puffins were on the rocks. Flight photography was a disaster – I might have one photo that even resembles a flying puffin – but the birds were otherwise very photogenic, and it was a good final evening here.
Puffin at Latrabjarg.