„It is only when you suffer that you truly understand.“
Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
Iceland is one of those places that generates an irresistible pull. Maybe only affecting some select people, but without any doubt, we belong to this group. When we decided for this trip, planning and preparation for the big one to the Antarctic was already up and running and we felt we need to combine our typical endeavors a bit to save time and effort. So instead of separately going to Scandinavia for polar light photography and traveling to Iceland for the fantastic landscapes, we ended up on Iceland for polar light photography. Makes sense, yes? First step was to select a good time, as weather conditions can be quite challenging. We do not feel threatened by wind and cold, but rain and overcast skies are a nuisance when you go hunting for the mesmerizing green flames. It seems like the best time for such a trip would be February, so we selected 2 weeks around new moon. No Zebra, the highlands are closed for everything but the super-jeeps and just for driving on the ring road, the additional 6 days would contradict our plan for saving some time. It still felt quite strange and after we returned the Zebra was quite upset. We had to promise that next time, it would not be left behind (guess what we plan for 2019). Still we wanted a proper 4×4 and certainly not a Yaris, we ended up with a nice Range Rover that might not be on par with the Zebra, but still was a comfortable and spacious drive. Another change, this time we made reservations for all hotels on our trip. Or so we thought, when we came to Reykjavic, the Icelandair Marina told us they are overbooked and could not honor our reservations. We stayed at this place every previous time we visited this city and were caught quite by surprise. Luckily the Hilton Canopy they offered us instead was a very adequate replacement. Every other accommodation was wonderful, still at some places it became obvious that the tourists are of a different type than we are used to. The more „trendy“, the more people seemed to concentrate on exposing themselves on social media instead of enjoying food, accommodations and scenery. One place was especially strange, the food looked fantastic, but actually tasted awful. Luckily most places we knew already from previous trips and were not disappointed, the others might address an audience we do not belong to, but I can sure accept that.
Driving during winter with harsh weather conditions is a challenge. Several times, roads are completely closed and some people are obviously not used to driving on snow or ice. On our way to the geysers, we stopped counting the many rentals that skidded off the road, often on perfectly straight streets without any obstacles and perfect range of sight. Other people seemed to shut down their brains completely and stupidly parked in the middle of the road right after one of the many hillocks to take pictures. Luckily those seemed to stay at home when the weather turned bad seriously, sometime visibility dropped to a few meters and the wind could be blowing very strong indeed. Good for us, we have not been able to make reservations at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa before as it was booked out completely, but many people cancelled so we had a great time in the warm and wonderful water with only a few irrelevant body parts being exposed to the wind and snow.
In general, weather switched from snowstorm to sunshine in rapid succession. So a photographers wet dream, we got dramatic skies and sometimes perfect lighting conditions. Due to photography of snow covered landscapes being more in need of post-processing, there are some pictures in this travelogue that I edited for getting rid of the strong blue tint, but this one has not been altered whatsoever.
The traditional road on Iceland, stretching to the horizon.
During one of the storms, we found a great place close to the sea. The wind was very strong and we needed to find good cover, moving from one more-or-less sheltered area to the next. When we got back on the street, no cars were around any more. Unbeknownst to us, the road has been closed in the meantime not only because of the bad weather but also because of a heavy accident. Fortunately, it happened on the lanes in opposite direction, but it was a ghastly sight, involving several vehicles.
Landscape has frozen completely.
And not only landscape. During a previous trip, we had visited this place where fish was dried and wanted to visit it again, right in the middle of a snowstorm. Even then, the smell was quite impressive.
Not sure what part of those fishes you are supposed to eat.
All natural effects, no Photoshop-ing involved. This is the blue hour before sunrise and the orange light was coming from the window of our hotel room. Rarely have I seen such a surreal sight.
But Iceland would not be Iceland if they could not surpass all surrealism. For no specific reason other than looking nice, the geothermal power plant decided for some very interesting color combination for illumination.
Same view from the hotel room as before, just one hour later. Promises of a beautiful day.
Outside of the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, there is some stretches of water showing the strong pigmentation the place is famous for.
Together with the beautiful light, the sights were mindbogglingly beautiful.
The water itself had that „Windows Background Picture“ quality.
The moss seemed unfazed and waited for the short summer.
The storm front approaching is still a reminder that you might need to find some shelter soon. Or you had better packed adequate clothing. We had both good clothing, lots of cameras and the drone as part of our luggage and were actually stopped at customs and politely asked whether we had a permit to do professional photography work. We do not, but then, luckily we are not professionals.
The Yin and Yang of clouds.
At some places, heavy snowfall made photography difficult and unattractive, no matter how famous the waterfall is. Luckily we had some good shots of Gullfoss from previous trips.
But winter created miracles at waterfalls, the many icicles are a very fitting aspect.
Away from the paved roads of Hringvegur, we got very different road conditions. Sometimes very easy to drive, sometimes too much even for the Range Rover. Mostly we got where we wanted.
In case of emergency, Iceland still has their horses.
Incredibly tough animals, only suffering from bad hair days sometimes.
This is the ruggedized technical equivalent to the Icelandic horse. Hand-made, huge tires, a lot of technology to keep you moving and a driver that was unfazed by any of the obstacles we encountered on that one day we booked a super-jeep trip.
And there was a number of obstacles. Originally we started in a convoy with three cars (if you can call them that), we were the only one that continued. Not sure if our driver was only ambitious or had some special relationship to shoveling snow. We did not recognize that there was a river in our path, but the GPS assisted map showed it clearly. We stopped before and I had that feeling in my mind that now we finally would turn around and head back. To my amazement, he drove right into the river and then started working.
Clearly this guy had as much fun with the situation as we had. Strangely enough, he turned down my honest offer to help shoveling.
Good part of Iceland, there is more than one river.
That helped generating some healthy exercise for our driver.
Our target was a valley a bit away from Þjóðvegur 1. And right when we arrived, the clouds parted a bit and we had the sun lighting up the snowscapes.
„Road“ is a tricky definition in Iceland anyway, but this seems even more conceptual during winter. Off-road driving is strongly prohibited in Iceland, so not to damage the vegetation. But in winter, you are not driving on a road, you drive quite a bit over the ground or use natural highways just like this stream.
Sometimes we crossed streets. Not sure where the actual street was or in which direction it would take us.
During summertime, our destination might have been a regular parking space, there were indicators of it. We walked the rest of the way. It really was beautiful, but my personal challenge was that where the others could walk more or less easily, my body weight was sufficiently higher so that I ended up sinking deep into the snow with each step. It was cold this day, but I developed a good sweat.
On the way back, the sunset was another reminder why this place is one of our favorites.
“The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five goddamn minutes. It’s totally exhausting.” – Stephen Markley, Tales of Iceland
We left the western part of Iceland in search for the great glaciers and lagoons (well, they are not hard to find, glaciers tend to move quite slowly and show no indication of running away all too fast. And during winter, global warming feels more distant.
Luckily one of the toughest roads brought us close to one of the most impressive glaciers. We took the car as far as we dared and had the drone do the rest of the distance. The result of this can be seen in the video section.
Another day, we booked a bus trip to visit one of the natural ice caves in the glaciers. There are several to choose from, but it seems the guides make some judgment about their visitors on the first stop and then decide which one they go visiting. As we had some that fell down and behaved a bit inept even in a completely flat area, the cave we saw was less spectacular than I hoped for.
Still a great sight. And a perfect example for the limitations of digital photography. Both of those pictures are intended to show the same, rich turquoise color. But on the second one, the color shifted out of the RGB range, turning out nearly black and white.
The heavy snowfalls from the days before blocked the water from going to the ocean, forming large puddles of water instead. With a color resembling the ice from the glaciers.
Finally we arrived at our most eastern destination, most famous Jökulsárlón. Still a great place to visit, although again there were less icebergs in the water. And the amount of drones in the sky was impressive, ours definitely wasn’t the only one.
During the previous days, only one night was giving us the display we were seeking, so our hopes focused on the one night at the lagoon that was forecasted to be both cloudless and had good prognosis for the Aurora Borealis. Our anticipation was high, we have been quite excited when we started preparing for the night. Arriving on site, there were a good number of people already. Naturally, the equipment everybody brought was largely different, some messed around with things I would not even call close to be a tripod. Still several people were prepared well. Other were less prepared, but the completely drunk couple topped everybody. Every five minutes, the lady slipped and fell to the ground pretty hard, finally directly onto their close-but-not-quite-tripod. Luckily they did not hurt themselves and kept laughing all the time, so as long as they have a great time, all is good.
I even managed to make a selfie.
After some hours, people started to leave. We had some interesting conversations as well and tried to tell people that there is always a big chance of the Aurora growing stronger at around midnight and that the best point in time to leave is probably much later than they think, but we could not stop them. And yes, the sky went berserk. It was only us and the seals, which by the way made quite a lot of noise.
When we returned to the hotel, the sun already started to rise.
Not an effect of the lens, this halo around the sun was a real phenomenon, formed by ice crystals in the air.
Back to the west, we visited an area with hot springs. Not too many people around, roads were closed. Only the one from the southern coast was opened, perfect for us.
Not comparable to Strokkur. I still would not dare to put my toes into this water.
Much more comparable to Strokkur. When we drove around the headland in south-western Iceland, a strong storm hit again and the waves were huge, hitting the rocks with quite some force. And yes, once you took one of these pictures, the next moment you took a shower.
Iceland during winter is very different than in summer. But still extremely beautiful.