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.
The day started with Skip and I oversleeping due to the alarm not being turned on (DOH!), and while rushing through breakfast I managed to put yogurt into my coffee instead of milk (DOH DOH!). Despite the late start and lumpy coffee it was still a great day – the weather was perfect, and we were out until midnight again taking photos. The morning was spent enjoying the landscape, talking to Rod, Hawk, and Marlene, and failing miserably while attempting to take a few pictures that capture the awesomeness of the surroundings here. Dad and I proved we were related when Larry spotted a flower he was looking for and yelled “That’s it!” – the Skipper and I began packing our gear to leave before the confusion was resolved.
The evening hours were again spent at the Latrabjarg Cliffs with the sea birds, and tonight I think I may have actually gotten some good pictures of puffins. The birds were unexpectedly calm, and several times I found myself sitting next to the cliff face only a few feet from one. After two hours of photographing I set off for a hike along the cliffs, and I’d put this path in my list of the top ten best hikes I’ve ever done. Sheep were grazing along the way, birds were flying by and calling out, and the light kept getting more and more dramatic as the sun dipped. When finally I turned around I was over a thousand feet above the ocean along sheer cliffs that were home to hundreds and hundreds of Northern fulmars. Being a bit late I had to do some trail running (in hiking boots and carrying a photo backpack) to make it to the van by midnight, but an hour later I arrived sweaty with two minutes to spare. Wakeup is at 7:30 tomorrow, so it will be another light sleep night, but a few more cups of lumpy coffee and I should be good for another day.
As a side note, after hearing my dad utter “Holy mackerel” or “Heavens to Mergatroid” or some other Skip-ism the other night I commented that I never really heard anyone else use these phrases; sadly it appears that I was mistaken, and the trip-wide “Holy mackerel” count now stands at about twenty-eight. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I’ve yet to figure out how exactly invoking a heavenly fish made it into the English lexicon.
Sunset was at 12:51 AM, and sunrise is at 2:21 AM. It won’t be dark at all tonight, and after the day’s excitement sleeping might be tough. The day started at 5:45 since we had to make the ferry to the West Fjords (westernmost point in Europe). Hawk had said that the weather report was for “wind”, and it turns out that in Iceland “wind” means 60+ mile per hour gusts. Getting caught by a gust on the ferry was enough to knock a person over (literally), which made for a fun crossing.
After arriving in the West Fjords the wind curtailed most photography, but we spent some time driving along high, winding dirt roads that would give a mountain goat cause for concern, past fjords, through small fishing villages, and eventually to our guest house for the evening. With the wind still blasting we paused for a nap before dinner, then headed off to the Latrabjarg Cliffs, home to thousands and thousands of Atlantic puffins, razorbills, black-legged kittiwakes and Northern fulmars. The cliffs themselves drop over a thousand feet straight into the ocean, and the birds nest just below the edge, requiring rather perilous excursions to look down the cliff face to see what might be lurking below. Everyone came away with a ton of great photos, and I also took some time to do some hiking, putting me out of sight of any other human on top of massive sea cliffs – by any measure, a very good day.
Day two. We spent the day around Hellnar photographing birds, waterfalls, beaches, and whatever else appeared before us. The weather was overcast and wet, but that didn’t stop the group from spending twelve hours outside taking photos. I’m the youngest of the seven participants by about thirty years, and when Rod, Marlene and Hawk are included in the mix I still end up as the junior member by about eight years.
The day’s activities led us down to a new beach to start the day, then to the newly-named Haukurfoss (Hawk’s Waterfall) where we photographed waterfalls for over an hour before launching into a spirited discussion of why Rod hates the Detroit Lions. That was followed by lunch and then two more photo outings, the first to another beach, and the second to some neat lava formations which stymied my every effort to photograph them – clearly I have a lot to learn during the two weeks of this photography tour.
The trip kicked off in a big way this morning as our Icelandic guide Haukur (Hawk) arrived with a giant van and we all piled in for the trip north to Hellnar (pronounced “Hitnar”, obviously). The highway passed by green fields filled with tiny Viking horses, through old lava flows (including one containing a golf course), around the capital Reykjavik, through a four mile long tunnel, past waterfalls, and eventually to the base of the Snaefellsjokull glacier, setting for the Jules Verne book Journey to the Center of the Earth. Hawk provided color commentary during the journey, Rod told many stories including one that I’d completely forgotten in which I showed up to dinner in Antarctica wearing only long underwear and a t-shirt, and a tasty lunch was eaten in a building with a grass roof.
After checking in to a lodge for the evening we set out along the cliffs to photograph the birds, and I spent several hours taking blurry photos of kittiwakes in flight while catching up with Rod on the news from the past couple of years. The Skipper was out and about as well and came away with some pretty good gull photos. Dinner featured delicious lamb (which Skip picked) and OK fish (which I chose), both of which were vastly better than the pickled herring I expected we would be eating. Tomorrow the weather is forecast to be a bit worse, so Hawk is leading us off in search of waterfalls and other lovely subjects that should keep cameras clicking and feet hiking.