Yesterday was by the standards of the trip quite a quiet day, a gentle drive through the flat lava fields and some mild hikes. Today was going to be supercharged, as we head off again to continue the trip around Route 1. We were beginning to feel a bit Stuck, we had been in Iceland for 5 days, and really we really hadn’t got that far around the ring road…and we still had an awful long way to go. This had been planned as there is so much to see and do in the south, but it was just a sense of being bogged down.
Today has a total of over 300 km and nearly 4 hours of driving, not really too bad but with several stops and activities planned it was going to be a big day and would move our markers quite a way around the Island. As we had ticked off all the places we wanted to see in the first 80km yesterday it was a long push right out of the gates to Skatafell and the Vatnajökull National Park.
Vatnajökull National Park – Svartifoss
The drive out to the National park was an epic experience. The first section, which we covered yesterday is through the Moss-covered Lava Fields, Then the road closes in on some beautiful Cliffs adorned with waterfalls. The falls around here are barely named and there are few signposts or pull-outs, these are stunning features and would be national monuments in most countries but in Iceland, they barely get a second look! That is how stunning the Icelandic scenery really is.
We subsequently found this fall to be called Foss a Sidu but it really is just part of the scenery. Further on the road opens out onto the Glacial runoff flows. Here the entire scenery takes a dramatic turn. The Mountains really rise up and the Glaciers start taking over as the masters of the environment.
Remembering back to Geography classes we were always told the hills and valleys of the area we lived in were formed by glaciers, during the last Ice age, but I always found it hard to really picture how that process went, how some ice could carve out the huge vast valleys I saw around me. This area of Iceland filled in the blanks nicely, as this is Geology in action.
The skeiðarárjökull Glacier Tounge is particularly striking as it literally marches straight through a mountain range. You can see the mountains on the left, and on the right, and the colossal glacier just busting a hole right through the middle! Reducing the mountains to the rubble we are now driving on. It really is quite humbling to behold. The whole region is being slowly shaped by these forces of nature and one day will be quite different.
These Glacial run-offs are themselves enormous. As we crossed the land bridges that transect the mazes of rivers, flows, and rocky deposits, there are very few reference points and the road just stretched on for indeterminate amounts of time. At one point we turned towards the mountains heading directly for Vatnajökull National Park, after 10-15 minutes we looked at each other and said have those mountains got any closer?
Of course, eventually, they did and we arrived at the National park, our first stop of the day where we planned to hike up to Svartifss and out to the Glacier.
The Hike up to the Waterfall is classed as easy and with well-made paths leading the entire 2km trail it is pretty easy going, it is however fairly steep for the most part of the way out. IT took around 25mins to hike up, followed by a little time taking in a photographing the waterfall.
Really this was one of our first disappointments in Iceland. The Waterfall is very pretty and the Geometric Basalt Shapes add a real uniqueness to the falls, but overall it’s just a bit small. There are limited opportunities to grab different angles and overall it was just not as picturesque as we expected. As we mentioned above, there are rather a lot of Waterfalls in this region of Iceland, and we had driven past several far better than this and stopped at ones that were even better still, to have hike 2km up a pretty steep hill for a fairly small and undramatic waterfall was a bit of a letdown.
Like everything in life though you need to look more at the journey than just the payoff, and the hike up was really spectacular. The views up the Vatnajökull Ice Cap and the stunning Hvannadalshnjúkur, the tallest peak in Iceland, and the endless views out over the Glacial runoff flats were really beautiful, the wild blueberries and almost tame birds that were feasting on them were great to see, and overall it was a lovely hike up into the uplands. Just the pay-off was not quite as great as billed.
The way back down was much easier due to the gradient now being in our favor. We then considered the second part of the hike, the 2km out to the foot of the Glacier. Time was getting on and we has a Rib tour booked for Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and our window to make the tour was getting fine! We decided to put our heads down and smash it out.
The path is pancake flat, but there was a tremendous headwind making the hike out pretty challenging. We had been in two minds as to the value of this hike as from the photos we have seen the Glaciers retreat meant that all that was left was some muddy ponds and a little dirty ice. After stomping against the wind for 30 mins, that was pretty much all we were greeted with.
After a few snaps, off we went back to the car. At least this time we had a tailwind. Back at the car and the buffer we had to make it to Jökulsárlón easily had almost gone, so we quickly put together a lunch of cheese sandwiches and crisps and headed off. At this point the Sat-Nav went haywire, sending us off in the wrong direction, I spotted this instantly but continued to follow it thinking it may know something I don’t, a one-way system or something, but after a few mins it was clear it was playing up so swung the Duster around and headed back to Route 1, we didn’t even need a sat nav, it’s just handy for knowing how long is left on any particular section.
It only put us a few minutes back but as we said we were running out of buffer time. One thing we have learned over thousands and thousands of miles on road trips all over the States and Europe (not to mention working as a delivery driver through the Pandemic!) trying to beat Sat-Navs is a pretty fruitless task. Attempting to speed to get back lost time never works and instead just provides unnecessary encounters with law enforcement and fines. We have the tickets and late arrivals to prove it. Now we just trust that steady progress at or near the posted limit is going to get us there roughly when google says, trying to beat that is wishful thinking.
And so it was we had around 45 mins to cover a 45 min journey. So we were ok, but cutting it fine. To be honest, the Tour asked us to be there 30mins early, and we were basing our arrival time on that so there was still a good buffer. If only we had checked our E-Mails before tearing off, we would have seen the cancellation E-Mail!
Jökulsárlón Galcier Lagoon
We were not having much luck with RIB Trips so far in Iceland and this was no exception. High winds had caused the organizer to pull all RIB Tours that day. Full refunds would be issued, and nothing could be done, but if we had just checked the E-mail the rush and the stress could have been avoided.
The operators were still running the Duck or amphibious vehicle tours so we opted to jump on one of these. Not as exciting or as concise as the Rib tours, as the slow-moving Duck had no chance of getting up the Glacier wall which is what we really wanted to see. But at least we would be out on the Lagoon, getting close to the Icebergs and seeing what it was all about.
The tour was pretty short and did not go too far into the Lagoon, but we circled some of the largest and prettiest Icebergs, heard all about the Lagoon’s formation, got to hold some Sea Ice, and saw a few seals hunting near the lagoon entrance. We would definitely have preferred the Zodiac Tour but that is the reality of travel. You often only get one shot at things and need a little bit of luck.
After the tour, we explored the Lagoon’s edge for a while and saw more seals playing and feeding in the entrance by a rather large cluster of icebergs queueing up to head out to Sea. Then we headed over to the beach across the road in search of Diamonds!
The Jet Black Sand of Diamond beach holds a pretty well-known secret. After the Icebergs get out of the Channel from the Lagoon into the Ocean they break up in the waves and warm water of the ocean and the fragments are washed back to shore. Here they sit on the black sand, perfectly clear with the appearance of diamonds. This is a photographer’s dream, as the contrast and unnatural appearance make for some startling photographic opportunities. Not something we could miss.
Again this is nature and it does not always play ball. Ice has a habit of melting and if the supply of fresh ice crystals is cut off for a while, maybe due to a jam at the glacial mouth then there can be no ice on the beach at all, other days it’s littered with huge lumps of crystal ice. For us, we got a poor day, but not a total blank, with just a few remnants set in the jet black sand.
For many laying on a sandy beach is the dream part of a vacation and an exotic black sand beach is even more appealing, however, laying in the damp, soggy black sand of Diamond beach, in near-freezing temps with a howling gale somewhat missed the mark but it had to be done for “the” shot. Waiting patiently for the waves to hit the diamond just right.
After a while focusing on one diamond we decided to switch, and hereby came the highlight of the trip. We love photographing the natural world. Or even the less natural world as we visit Cities and snap up the amazing architecture. Whatever we are shooting however we like it to be the focus of the shot. The odd figure in the shot for detail is fine but a haggle of tourists ruins any shot, we go to great lengths to get our tourist-free shots, even at some of the busiest tourist attractions.
But some people just crave being the star of the show. These are the banes of our trips as we wait patiently for gaps as the “must be in the shot” stars come and go and we try and grab that person free shot in between. On Diamond beach, most people seemed, like us, to be content shooting the ice without getting in on the action. They also noticed people like me were waiting for that perfect wave. But not everyone.
As I was setting up a new shot on a large and rugged piece of ice, a couple decided the girl just HAD to pose right next to the Ice. My Eyes rolled but hey we all want the shots we want right and I was not ready yet anyway. She lay down in the sand and pulled the obligatory photo faces and silly hand gestures, when predictably, and in glorious slow motion, the perfect wave came at the perfect time. It completely wiped her out washing her a little way up the beach and scuttling for the sanctuary of her tour bus.
In a stagging display of in-graciousness, the crown pretty much burst into laughter and I am afraid we were just as guilty. These sorts of tourists spend hours ruining our shots and getting in the way, so this was just a small token comeuppance, and the wave was pretty tame and did nothing but get her a bit soggy and embarrassed. I am sorry I missed the opportunity to get it on film but her partner was taking pictures so may have snapped the happy event!
After this, we spent a little more time laying in the sand waiting for the right wave, then back into the car heading for Hofn and the night’s accommodation.
Stokkness and Vestrahorn.
The Road from Jökulsárlón to Hofn continued in a similarly dramatic fashion as before. Towering Mountains, Glacial Tounges, and Sprawling run-off plains. Our hotel was just outside of Hofn in the Seljavellir Guesthouse. We had booked a north-facing mountain view chalet and as we arrived it was quite wonderful and perfect for in-room Aurora Viewing. It would be a shame we would only be spending a single night here.
As we settled in there was a pressing conundrum. Should we visit Stokkness this evening or wait until tomorrow morning. We had time tomorrow and were pretty exhausted today so the obvious option was to delay it. Plus the weather was hardly ideal, blowing a gale and heavily overcast. However the flip side was the weather tomorrow morning was forecast to be even worse, rain and low cloud being the order of the day!
It was a tough decision with possibly no good answer until I went to take a quick shot of our mountain view from the room. Sure the cloud was thick and grey, but it was still fairly high so as not to obscure the mountain tops and actually was really textured, moody, and quite dramatic. It may not have been the perfect conditions I was hoping for but it could just work out. Kate, was less convinced and an evening settled in and warm felt far more appealing to her, so I headed off alone to investigate Stokksness.
It was a short 30min drive from the hotel out to the peninsular. There is a small charge to access the area, which I was not actually aware of. This grants you access to the peninsular several beach areas and the Viking Museum. So really it was probably pretty good value but as we just wanted to access the peninsular to grab some shots of Vestrahorn it was pretty pricey!
The area is seriously dramatic with the towering mountains rising straight out of the dark sandy beach. It’s a contrast of mountains so picture-perfect they seem too good to be true and the otherworldly, barren lava landscape, teaming up, to create a scene that is scarcely believable, something from a science fiction film, rather than an actual living breathing landscape right before your eyes!
The Beach holds large ponds of very shallow and perfectly still (even in these extremely windy conditions) water. The perfect mirror to frame mind-blowing reflection shots. My initial worries about the horrible weather and terrible light were not unfounded, but in actuality, the cloud base was nearly perfect and the mountains actually interacted with the cloud base creating a sort of dark halo around the mountains as the wind rose up from the ocean distorting the clouds. It was, mean, moody, and really dramatic.
After a few different compositions, I headed back to the hotel ready to call it a day. We would head into Hofn for dinner tonight and had found a great little restaurant that was getting rave reviews, Ups. This was a Mexican street food cafe and served some really good Mexican-style tapas dishes. It was expensive like most places in Iceland and portion sizes were pretty mean, but it was fantastic and the flood of locals, meaning we only just got a table, was a testament to its quality.
Back at the hotel, we settled in for the night. The hotels out here have a distant lack of fridges but we were continuing to make use of nature’s fridge and just stored our beer and wine outside. There are zero issues with theft in Iceland, and the frigid late autumn nights kept our drinks nice and cool.
As for Aurora, as we said we had the perfectly positioned room looking directly north over some impressive mountains. But the KPI Forcast was low, and the cloud cover was thick and getting thicker, tonight was a good night to sleep!
Live Blog – Trip Report