Iceland, a country that due to its global location conjures up visions of a cold, bleak and baron landscape; however, it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s known as the land of fire and ice thanks to its absolutely amazing geology and the country is alive just a few feet below the ground. Everywhere you go there’s remnants of volcanic activity all over the island. The constant smell of sulfurous from the steaming hot springs that pepper the landscape along with beautiful waterfalls, snow caped glaciers and geysirs that blast boiling water into the air every few minutes, Iceland definitely has it all and then some.
A country that was always on my ‘to do’ list, I still can’t believe we actually went there. Landing in Keflavik and picking up the hire car the thing that immediately struck us was how the landscape along the main road to Reykjavik was like being on the moon. Black and colourless lava fields not elevating more than a few metres as far as the eye could see surrounded us, it’s nothing like you’ve ever experienced before. Distant views to the north across Faxaflói bay revealed snow capped mountains where we’d be heading during the week, but for now we headed past Reykjavik and east to Hveragerði where our hotel was. The road nearing Hveragerði on Route 1 climbs up and over a high altitude pass and the mossy lava fields were now covered in snow. Another surreal sight was the descent into Hveragerði. It’s literally like dropping off a cliff, down a few hundred metres onto a flat plateau which goes for miles towards the sea on the south coast. The geology of this country had already got me hooked.
I chose this as our base for the week as it’s close to the ‘Golden Circle’ tourist sights of waterfall and viewpoint locations and also is out in the sticks enough for clear skies in the hope for some Aurora sightings. Hveragerði is actually on top of a series of hot springs so this was our first point of call after checking in. Whilst the sulfurous smell fills the air, it’s quite an amazing feeling and privilege to be standing next to a pool of boiling hot, bubbling water. Even the ground was warm to the touch; it really made you appreciate that our planet is very alive and the absolutely uncompromising natural power that lurks just a few feet under us is mind blowing.
First port of call on day two was a nearby volcano crater. Thankfully in Iceland they put a special logo on the signs near interesting viewpoints and features along the main roads so you’ll never miss anything. Kerið, one of Iceland’s most beautiful Calderas provided us with another amazing sight. Photos don’t do the size and sheer magnitude of this massive geological feature justice. The depth and diameter are huge and the best bit is you can walk all around its edge. As spring starts a lot later than in Britain here, also together with its elevated position there was a bitterly cold gale blowing and it didn’t take long for the eyes to start watering and fingers going numb. However it was an amazing sight and a joy to shoot.
We then continued east towards the famous Golden Circle. An aptly named area of Iceland where you can find some of the main tourist spots including awesome waterfalls and also the amazing geysers. The town called Geysir sites a number of active hot springs and was also the location for the famously named ‘Great Geysir’ that would blast water into the air over seventy metres. Unfortunately these days it lies dormant and hasn’t blown since 2003. Thankfully there’s still one geyser left called Strokkur. The most reliable of it’s kind in the world firing boiling hot water into the air on cue every few minutes. It’s not only an amazing sight to see, but you can also see and hear the chamber clonking and bubbling away whilst you stand there preparing for the next blast.
Water at a depth of 23 metres (75 ft) is around 120 °C (248 °F), but cannot boil because of the weight of the water pushing down on it from above. When this water is forced up to around 16 metres (52 ft), some of the water may be above boiling point, which sets off the chain reaction: the pressure decrease allows more water to boil and flash boil into steam, which drives the un-boiled water further up the conduit. As this happens closer and closer to the surface, with increasing velocity, the water and steam is forced out, and it is this mixture of water and steam that forms the eruption.
On the same site there’s hot springs and mineral pools bubbling away at temperatures between forty degrees right up and over one hundred degrees. Thanks to the minerals deposited on the rocks they produce some amazing colours.
We saw a variety of seabirds on the route out and then the distant sight of a whale’s blow sprayed into the air. It was a smaller Minke Whale and unfortunately didn’t hang around long however after some time we managed to spot what we came out here for and that was a Humpback Whale. The sheer size of it was incredible and after surfacing a few times graced us with the show of the rear tail fins as it commenced another deep dive.
A real magical experience and whilst we didn’t witness a breach (when they jump right out of the water) it was still a fantastic sight to see. Still floating on air we started the two hour trip back into harbour.
That afternoon we spent going round Reykjavik seeing the sights. The Viking ship sculpture and the amazing Cathedral were some fabulous places to visit.
Further along the grey blanket of cloud cleared and gave us great views of Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced “AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuult”) or the ‘Big-E’ which is far easier 🙂
A short drive further along brings you into Skogafoss with it’s HUGE waterfall. This place is a major feature of the ‘Golden Circle’ tourist route, and it’s easy to see why. It felt like being in a scene from Peter Pan’s Never Land taking this photo. Standing in the river whilst Glacier melt water plunges down sixty two metres of rock face creating a constant mist cloud with colourful shimmering rainbows in one of the most immersive scenes I’ve ever witnessed. I always try to capture the scale of a scene in my images, so sent my lovely girlfriend off into the mist to get wet (sorry And!) Soft ND Grad filter kept the sky and some of the falls glare in check, whilst a Circular Polariser made the river see through and boosted the colours of the rainbows.
Now nearing the south peak along Iceland’s coast you arrive at Vik with it’s amazing black sand beaches and small, quaint and colourful churches that can be found all over Iceland.
Passing through Vik and east you now come onto the moonscape that is the plains of black lava that washes down out from under the Myrdalssandur glacier. I hope you can gauge some scale in the below images by looking closely and using those small upright posts – they’re standard height power line poles which shows the sheer vastness of the volcanic glacier that lies above.
Crossing through the deep tunnel below the vast Hvalfjörður you pop up into a different landscape. The glacier covered cone volcano Snæfellsjökull, after which the peninsula is named, is one of the most recognised sights in Iceland. Its mystical atmosphere has been described in words and written language and became famous through Jules Verne’s novel “A journey to the centre of the Earth.” The area is home to elves and trolls and many of the famous Sagas originate from this spectacular area. Well, that’s what the guide book said! Heading up and round to the beautiful Grundarfjörður crossing over sea inlets with their bridges revealed some fabulous views of the surrounding mountains.
And then the stunning conical mountain of Kirkjufell came into view.
Before visiting Iceland I went through countless guide books and on the internet, to carry out some location hunting and this place above was definitely on the hit list. A small river leading to a beautiful waterfall sits at the foot of this massive mountain. It’s one of those scenes you discover as a photographer that just pretty much works without forcing composition. It was quite a windy day with broken cloud so waiting for the sun to come through to catch the mountain side saw me standing around for a good forty minutes. Heading west towards the lovely sea town of Ólafsvík and then south sees you rise up and over the Snaefellsnesvegur mountain pass. The first part of the ascent is all gravel road so it took a while getting to the top. After climbing and seeing more and more snow we arrived at the top where the tarmac started and were greeted with unbelievable views down towards the ocean and across the west coast of Iceland. The photo doesn’t do the scale of the scene justice.
On reaching the bottom of the mountain road there’s a turn off to a small village at Budir. I’d seen on the internet a great view of the local church with the imposing mountains behind so had to bag that one to take home.
That was it then apart from the few hours drive back to Hveragerði and what a fabulous country! Iceland holds such diverse landscape, a different scene around every corner. Awe inspiring and amazingly alive geology bubbling away a below your feet. It really is a photographer’s paradise and we only saw about thirty percent of the country on our short but busy week there. It’s definitely a country I’ll return to, the Glacier and Ice lagoon at Jökulsárlón was somewhere we didn’t get round to visiting, not to mention partaking in a glacier tour up some of the snowy peaks along the south coast. It really is an amazing country and would recommend anyone to visit there
Thankfully when we were there we, even though late in the season we were greeted to the Aurora Borealis. Not a massive show by Icelandic standards but a superb experience none the less for a Brit like me. It’s always something that’s fascinated and intrigued me all my life. I caught a glimpse of the Aurora in Pembrokeshire about ten years ago when it was very active over Britain, and that definitely planted the seed to see more! All throughout the week (thanks to hotel wifi) I was constantly checking the ‘space weather’ and Aurora forecasts and on the last evening it came good. The sun disappeared behind the mountains and a faint green shape appeared. It was the Aurora! Grabbed the camera and headed out of town up into the nearby mountains for a clearer views. Set up took seconds, focus on stars, shoot wide and enjoy the spectacle, the sky did the rest!
It was past 11pm but the remnants of the sun still visible on the long exposures. Looking straight up was totally surreal, with the long colourful streaks coming directly towards you.
At this point I thought I’d have some fun so turned on the torch on my phone, set the shutter to 30 seconds and played around with some light painting. The red lines are where I covered up the torch with my hand between the letters.
Trying to write the words ICELAND backwards in mid air, getting it legible and also under thirty seconds took a few attempts. Still, this is one of my most memorable images from the trip away.