„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.“
The world changed. Iceland changed, but Iceland has a different habit of changing, typically involving a lot of heat and smoke. Our last trip to Norway in 2020 was just before the world shut down and this annoying virus named SARS-CoV-2 started to seriously affect travel. Subsequently we missed the Aurora season, with a lot of new camera equipment not being put to use. Compared to the victims and the suffering the crisis caused our loss is minimal, so we will not complain. But this travelogue is not about the change induced by the virus, it is about the Icelandic type of change that creates new landscapes and although very destructive in nature, is beautiful and fascinating and the starting point for another cycle of life. I prefer the Icelandic type of change.
The most challenging part of describing any kind of naturally occurring change on Iceland is that you have to learn a couple of Icelandic names first. This time was all about the Fagradalsfjall volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Seismic activity started in January 2020 in the vicinity of mount Þorbjörn and in March 2021, the new fissure eruption happened. It was always on our bucket list to take pictures of an active Icelandic volcano and we followed news and feeds closely, a little jealously watching as people were witnessing this spectacular sight from up close. It was clear from the beginning that we would try to get over there, but we decided that we would apply some patience until such a trip could be declared safe (assuming you can consider a trip to an active volcano safe in general). Once we got vaccinated and airlines picked up normal operations, we started planning, being aware that this was another time that the Zebra had to stay at home. Still everything was relatively short notice, we made bookings for the flight, rental car and hotels on the 6th and 7th of July for an outbound departure on the 19th of July, planning for 8 days on site with several slots targeting the visit of the volcano to get a chance at shooting some good pictures. Luck was on our side.
The booking procedure felt unaccustomed and packing for the trip included the usual uncertainties as you never really know what weather you will encounter. We are both seasoned and regular travelers with frequent flyer status, but with the long break it was quite exciting to be back at an airport. The flight itself was nice, the crew was doing a good job in keeping us comfortable while we were wondering what we might have forgotten to pack this time. Especially because we decided to bring new camera equipment, instead of a lot of Nikon DSLRs and a Sony video camera our packs were holding Canon equipment, based on new mirrorless cameras. We switched over to Canon video after we were a little disappointed by the strong noise we encountered with the Sony during nighttime videography and got the cameras so that we would need to bring only one set of lenses.
Arriving on site and after passing very rigorous screening for our certificates we got our rental. As usual, prices for the rentals were extraordinary, especially if you target something with a little more space and the ability to drive an unpaved road. It took some time on the parking lot to find the car, but once we got off the premise, it felt like coming home to a place we learned to love over the years – we were back on Icelandic soil, enjoying the sight, smell and all the glorious nature of this place.
We selected our first hotel because it was both close to the volcano and we have stayed there before, knowing that food would be excellent. Upon arrival, we had been welcomed by a very special host – a family of oystercatchers that used the small lawn in front of the hotel to search for some food in a landscape otherwise dominated by volcanic rock. Those birds mean a lot to us and we considered this a very good omen.
When we entered the building, the oystercatcher was already watching over us.
Lawn. Very well maintained and rather unusual for that part of Iceland. And a very nice buffet for the birds, they pulled worms out of the ground on a very regular basis for feeding their offspring.
Here they are. It was three of them, but getting them to group together for a family photo was close to impossible.
Throughout the time we stayed in this hotel, they have been around somewhere. Apparently either not able to (or too lazy) fly, they remained running on the ground.
All watched by the two parents. Those are not large birds, but getting too close to the chicks resulted in ferocious attacks with low sweeps and an impressive amount of noise. Considering that the largest predator on Iceland is the arctic fox, I’m pretty sure that those tactics are quite successful. Certainly they have been impressive.
The next day. Volcano day. We drove to the official parking lot and first had to struggle with the app that was supposed to give us our parking ticket. It required payment by credit card which is not unusual, but unfortunately my card required confirmation from a mobile device and I had configured my iPad for this task out of sheer ignorance that only one device would be accepted for this. My fault, but I managed to correct that on the parking lot.
We arrived fairly early, with only a few cars already present. Weather forecast indicated this day to be the best one for the next days and we picked up the camera equipment and started the hike. The terrain was easy in the beginning but became quite steep soon and I was really very happy that I lost a lot of weight during the lockdown. Once we arrived at the first official observation spot we could see a lot of lava and some sulfur on the surface, but the fog was blocking all further view.
Fortunately we are sufficiently familiar with Icelandic weather. Especially the part that if you don’t like the weather, you just have to wait for 15 minutes. So we took a couple of photos and started to wait. Plus we chatted with some other people and learned that there was another observation spot a little further along.
While we debated whether we should give the other spot a try or just wait, the fog lifted just a little bit and we were able to spot a river of molten lava running down the hillside. Obviously the decision became a very easy one.
We fired a couple of shots of that river, hoping that more fog would lift to reveal the source.
And there it was! The volcano crater was slowly revealed by the fog further lifting. And we realized that the noise we heard all the time wasn’t the wind as we originally thought, it was the rumble made by the volcano itself, just dispersed by the fog. This and the following pictures are edited during post to provide some better clarity. As usual, we shot all pictures using raw data and the amount of information embedded in those pictures turned out to be impressive.
The sight was mesmerizing. Watching volcanos on TV always give me the impression of the motion being slowed down, but reality was exactly the same. The lava erupted quite high, to my estimation about 40 meters.
On the right of the crater, the wall was providing an opening for the lava, creating the rivers we saw before.
Slowly, the fog lifted even more, revealing fascinating details.
We took many pictures at this spot and also captured some very nice video footage. Postproduction turned out to be tricky, I really dislike strong edits, but the heat of the lava made the air blurry and the fog wasn’t helping either.
Standard 50mm view, so this is roughly „normal“. There was a small hill in the middle of the lava with some artificial structures, likely measurement equipment. Later, a helicopter landed on this hill and with people walking close to those antennas, it looked like the antenna to the left was about 4 meters in height.
Considering the hill was roughly half way to the volcano, it allowed us some estimation of the size of the eruptions. We were impressed.
Then we decided to get closer to the lava and to follow the lava rivers over to the next valley.
This lava was cold on the surface, but there was a risk that beneath the surface there was still molten rock. Icelandic rescue teams took a very simple policy, you break through, you are on your own. Likely you will die pretty fast in such a case, but to our knowledge, this luckily hasn’t happened up until today. Although we saw a couple of people that walked a lot deeper into this area than we dared to as we kept to the edge.
The volcano in the background was a nice reminder that this wasn’t an amusement park.
From a previous trip to Holuhraun, a lava field connected to the Bárðarbunga volcano much further in the east of Iceland north of Vatnajökull we knew how fresh lava looked like, still it was a sight to remember.
The lava is very sharp on the edge and can cut into your fingers easily. Still I don’t think there is a lot of bacteria or other dangerous stuff as it was properly heat sanitized when created. It will take some years until plants will grow here, but without any doubt, this will happen. This is a new part of Iceland in the making.
We reached a very nice observation spot on a hill looking over the valley filled with all the fresh lava. And our luck was getting better, the weather further cleared up, even revealing some blue sky.
From this spot it was actually possible to feel the heat radiated off the lava field. The rivers were very interesting to watch, the material cooled down and slowed the flow considerably. Sometimes such a river even stopped and acted as a dam until enough lava arrived and either overflowed that part or just circumvented it.
Over to the right the view revealed how much lava was already filling up the valley.
And new lava was steadily following.
While still very hot, the material looked more like funnily colored water plus some smoke for effect.
Still a fairly deadly phenomenon if you would consider to take a bath.
It looked and acted like white water, flowing and spraying over already cooled down rocks. You had to remind yourself that this was actually rock as well, just in a different aggregate state.
Right ahead of us was a patch of lightly colored material. When we showed the pictures, some people asked us if this was some kind of fluid like water. Nope, no water close to lava.
I would have needed a geologist to identify what it really was. To us, it was a great subject for photography and this completely satisfied our curiosity.
The markings on this part looked remarkable. But not in any way similar to things I have seen before other than some human art. Nature is still better in creating fantastic sights.
One of those rivers up close. Using a zoom lens, I’m certainly not going any closer to this.
And then suddenly the show was over. The volcano shut down and the eruptions stopped.
It took some time, but one by one, the flow of the rivers stopped as well and the orange color vanished. Bottom line, we have been incredibly lucky. The volcano had been quite active, the weather allowed us to take some great pictures and overall it even was a rather nice day (compared to other weather conditions we encountered on Iceland already).
So we hiked back to the car. On our way we found that the hills were covered by people taking a look at the volcano. Some unfortunate people were still arriving and we learned later that the volcano was remaining inactive for this day.
I’m not entirely sure that my shoes have just been too old or if the material was weakened by the environment. Half way, the soles of my shoes were getting loose and we had to use some strings to secure them. Luckily it wasn’t my only pair, although the other shoes do not provide the same level of security on rough terrain. Even though they gave up rather unexpectedly, I will continue using this brand, quality is very good. I took this as a mild hint that I was due for some shopping after the trip.
Another great place to visit on the Reykjanes Peninsula is the Blue Lagoon. With global travel still impacted it was remarkable easy to make a reservation, it worked short notice which was close to impossible before. This time, we decided to walk from the hotel to the area so that we can have dinner along with a glass of wine as well and the quality of the food was impressive.
This area is a fantastic display of nature fighting for every opportunity. The volcanic rock is being conquered by plants that can cope with the slightly alkaline and mineral rich water from the artificial lagoon, although dandelion are known to be on the tough side anyway.
Actually it is rather difficult to really color match the water with digital photography as the distinct milky blue shade seems to be out of even the Adobe RGB color space.
Still a serene display of beauty and a great way to wind down.
The silica content of the water is providing a strong natural contrast to the lava field which acts as a natural filter.
The comfort provided by the warm water obviously is attractive not only to humans. Not sure the ducks apply face masks from the silica mud as well and or if it has any kind of beautifying effect for them. Maybe this is currently trending on beakbook?
It might take some years until the new lava fields from the active volcano will look like this. Still this is not far away from the volcano, the Seltún geothermal area is on the Reykjanes Peninsula as well, just 20 kilometers apart.
But certainly it is less advisable to take a bath here.
Again, the display of color is close to be surreal.
After our successful visit to the volcano we visited a number of other places, mostly parts of Iceland we have seen before already. Which does not matter to us. What mattered a little more was the weather, the rest of our vacation was on the cold and wet side.
To heighten our mood, we visited a popular place on the south coast that was known for its puffin population – the Reynisfjara viewpoint.
As usual, the puffins are incredibly photogenic.
And very willing to pose for the photographers. First look to the left, then to the right.
We saw quite a number of the birds, a little surprising as we encountered them in number only later during the day when we visited them on the Látrabjarg seabird cliff in the Westfjords.
We realized that the fishing grounds for the birds were just ahead of this cliff, so the puffins could fly out, go fishing and immediately come back. We saw a lot of birds with their catch, but the light made it difficult to get a good shot. And not just the light, these birds are very capable flyers and difficult to follow with our lenses. They maneuvered heavily in the air, mainly to avoid the many other seabirds. Especially the seagulls thought to steal the fish from the puffins instead of going fishing on their own. Unfair.
At least the larger seabirds have been much more relaxed during flight, so it was a lot easier to get a couple of good shots.
Not its own catch…
The new cameras actually were quite helpful, their autofocus system was quite good in getting the bird’s eyes into focus, allowing us to get some great shots.
Still, another journey came to an end. A wet and grey end but considering how lucky we had been to have the volcano giving us such a great show, this trip was a huge success for us. Truly a sight to remember.