Land of Fire and Ice Redux (Part 1)
The last time I travelled to this remote corner of the world, I had written a blog article that I ended by saying: “There are some places you travel to where you leave a part of yourself behind. Where when you leave you know you’ll be coming back. Iceland is one of those places.”
So true. My camera and I have travelled to some incredible places over the years. But very few of them engage the photographer in me to the extent that Iceland does. Landscape photography, with its demands of time, patience, fortitude and acceptance of what one cannot control, embodies a type of artistry that is a tranquil antidote to the bedlam of Bangalore that I experience on a daily basis. To be able to truly get away and be at peace with my surroundings is a privilege I do not take lightly, and Iceland is at the top of the list of places I’ve been to that allow me to do just that.
I spent the last three years wanting to go back there, and the better part of the last year planning the trip itself. I’ve just returned from an unforgettable few days in this superlatively beautiful island nation, and just like my previous journey there, I couldn’t have enough of it. The experience was a little different this time because of the sense of lingering familiarity with the country, the change of season, and a more planned and structured itinerary. In many ways it was even better than the first time because I was better prepared: a better understanding of the place and its people, a healthier respect for the unpredictability and capriciousness of the weather, more measured expectations, and, probably most importantly, a better understanding of myself, the photographer.
To be able to truly get away and be at peace with my surroundings is a privilege I do not take lightly, and Iceland is at the top of the list of places I’ve been to that allow me to do just that.
The first morning in Reykjavík dawned cold, grey and wet. I hadn’t explored much of the city the last time I was here, so I was determined to spend at least a day walking the streets and taking it all in through my lens. As it turned out, the weather really did play havoc with any plans I may have had of doing any serious photography, so Reykjavík will contribute more to my Instagram feed than it will to my website portfolio! It is a lovely city, with a vibrant central district full of quaint shops and excellent restaurants and cafés, and I’m glad I took the time to experience what it has to offer. Speaking of cafés, I have to say Scandinavians really know how to brew a good cup of coffee. I’ve heard some good things about the rock music scene in Reykjavík, but didn’t have the time to see what it’s all about. And please don’t ask me what “I’ll be your tomato” means. I have no idea.
The following morning we set off on our road trip. We followed the same route as the last time, taking the ring road counter-clockwise around the country. Our first stop was Skogafoss, where we spent the afternoon, and then headed over to Seljalandsfoss and nearby Gljúfrabúi for the sunset. It was cold and rainy all day, so the question of a gorgeous sky over Skogafoss or a sunset from behind Seljalandsfoss was a moot point. I had to challenge myself with the conditions I was faced with, and that, pretty much, was that. It’s not much fun trying to take long exposures with rain and waterfall spray blowing onto your filter, but one does what one can and moves on. And who said it has to be sunny to be beautiful?
We stopped at Vík for the night, and in the morning headed off to the cliffs of Dyrhólaey. The signs on the road warned us of sustained winds approaching 60 m/sec on the cliff-tops (that’s almost 220 km/h). When we stepped out of the beast (a Mercedes 4WD monster that Kári was driving us around in) near the lighthouse, we realised that 200 km/h winds are not to be trifled with. They were literally blowing us off our feet. Add freezing temperatures to the existing conditions, and it was near impossible to not just stand but to even breathe. Taking our camera equipment out with us was out of the question, so I braved the wind and cold, circumnavigated the lighthouse on unsteady feet and came away with some cell phone shots. And a multiplied respect for North Atlantic weather.
After some more shots at Reynisfjara Beach, we went on eastwards towards Jökulsárlón and the glacial lagoon. Jökulsárlón had been good to me the last time. The light had been good, and both the lagoon and the beach had provided me with keepers. By the time we got there on this trip, the light was fading fast and most of the sky was shrouded in thick cloud. There was only a thin sliver of colour near the setting sun, but it was hardly the recipe for the sort of iconic images of Jökulsárlón one is used to seeing, or wants to add to one’s portfolio. Still we took what we could until the darkness set in, whereupon we retired to our hotel for a cold beer, a hot meal, and plans and hopes for better light the following day.
And what a day it turned out to be! We got some good sunrise shots on the beach, but the clincher was the sunset at the lagoon later that day. The late afternoon and early evening didn’t seem to hold much promise as far as the quality of light was concerned, and approaching clouds threatened what was left of the day, but for a brief window our luck turned. The setting sun painted the sky in otherworldly hues of red and gold, and the reflections in the lagoon had to be seen to be believed. We’ve all read the biblical stories about turning water into wine, but I mean, come on!
We woke up early the following morning to another overcast day. We were to start heading northwards after a morning stop at the Stokksnes Peninsula and Vestrahorn. We made the most of the cloudy conditions, and I must say I was pretty happy with the dark, moody shots I came away with. Those reflections of Vestrahorn in the tidal flats will have to wait another day. It was just too cold, windy and overcast that morning.
We stopped briefly to replenish ourselves with a shot of caffeine and settled back into the beast for the long drive northwards. There was talk of colder weather and snow in the highlands and along the northern part of our route, but there were also rumours of sightings of the elusive aurora, and we continued our journey full of hope that luck – and the northern lights – would smile on us.
This brings me to the end of my account of our trip through Southern Iceland. In Part 2, I talk about our journey through the north and west of the country.
Author’s edit: Following the suggestion of a friend, I added a map of Iceland to this post to help readers take the journey with me. The map is shown below, and an account of how I made it can be found here.