13th July 2014
Icons of Iceland
Our neighbours at dinner, a group of Chinese tourists, leapt from their seats and began running to and fro shouting “Northern Lights, Northern Lights”. My companions did not react and carried on talking. One woman could not accept this lethargy and rushed to our table, pulled me to my feet and propelled me outside. I gasped in amazement as I beheld a landscape bathed in a bright green light that was reflected in the lake in front of me. It was amazing and an image that is imprinted on my mind.
My companions were severely punished for their complacency. We were in Iceland for a week on a photography course to capture images of the Northern Lights. They assumed there would be more opportunities when we had our cameras at the ready. They were wrong as it was the only good display while we were there. We assembled outside after dinner but the show was over. Geraldine, one of our photography tutors, barked some commands at me “exposure 15 seconds, ISO 1600, aperture F4.0 and lens set to infinity”. It sounded like a foreign language to me and I said so. By then it was spitting with rain so I gave up and went to bed. Maybe photography was not for me.
It had been a strange day that had started early as soon as the sun rose over Reykjavik I walked to the water front and took some photos of the buildings bathed in yellow. I was excited at the thought of unravelling the mysteries of my new SLR camera. When we arrived at Pingvellir (the site of the Icelandic parliament) although the trip had been advertised as ‘all standards welcome’ we were sent off to take photos with no suggestions regarding subject matter or technique. Our tutors were already busy with their own photography so I just did what I had always done and set the camera to auto.
When we took to the road again we saw several flocks of swans in flight and I requested a stop but Geraldine snapped back that we could only stop if our cameras were set properly – she knew she held the trump card. Wildlife was a particular interest of mine and I was determined to find a way to get the images I wanted. We continued to the waterfall at “Skógafoss”: http://www.world-of-waterfalls.com/iceland-skogafoss.html for another untutored session of photography. I had been promised the loan of a tripod but that had not yet materialised so I did not even have that to play with and contented myself with taking a few photos and then climbing up the side of the waterfall.
Vík, famed for its black beaches, sea stacks and Reynishellir a superb basalt cave was our final location that day. This location lends itself to both abstract and unusual landscapes but the rough seas and howling gale meant I struggled to appreciate these attributes and after battling unsuccessfully against the elements I decided to seek refuge in our van. It was locked so I leant against the side, out of the wind. That was where Colin’s mum found me. I had no idea who Colin was but his mum was offering me shelter in his car and I accepted gratefully. When the group returned I bade farewell to my new friend and we set off for our hotel, Hotel Katla where my swans were bobbing on the lake.
A late breakfast the next morning thwarted my plan to photograph the swans before we set off. Salt was rubbed into the wound when Geraldine re-opened the dialogue about swans and I said could we just forget the swans and concentrated on our first subject matter of the day an old farm at Nύpsstađur. This time I managed to get some tuition from a guest photographer in the group and finally solved the mystery of focal lengths and took some good images. When I reviewed them later they all featured the bright pink anorak of another member of the group who had raced ahead of us all and pitched her tripod in the middle of the landscape.
At Svínafellsjökull glacier we found a lake with fantastic reflections of chunks of ice that had broken off the glacier. I was immersed in the landscape before me and had to be dragged back to the van when it was time to drive to our hotel, Guesthouse Gerdi. The rooms in this hotel were very basic with two single beds pushed together, one armchair, one small wardrobe and two bedside chests but both on the same side of one of the beds. We were given one towel, one duvet, one pillow and one bar of soap and no television or telephone. Having discovered the ice-rink properties of the wet room I asked for a bathmat in my bathroom and I was given a second towel for the purpose. This was confiscated the next day and I had to get another one. As the floors were never swept and became very sandy I used this second towel to shuffle round the room to keep my feet clean. The beds were never made either as they did not make the beds if any items were left on top of either of them.
That first evening we drove back to Svínafellsjökull seeking Aurora. But after stumbling over mounds of moraine and then hanging around for two hours our only reward was a faint green smudge in the sky. The only excitement that night occurred when Martin, the other tutor, put his camera bag on the ground and forgot to pick it up again. He and Geraldine spent ages looking for his black bag against a black background but finally found it and we returned to our hotel in the early hours of the morning.
Although the evening meals were disappointing our lunches were very good and we frequented either the service station at Freysnes or the café by the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. The former offered very tasty fish and chips or a beef burger with bacon, egg and chips. The latter offered a delicious fish soup and some lovely apple cake. We visited the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon several time during our stay as the large chunks of ice floating in the water offered endless possibilities for interesting images – especially the ones that were still azure blue. Sometimes we visited the black sand beach beyond the lagoon that fringed the sea. Here chunks of ice washed up on the shore creating a beautiful contrast between the crystallized water, the black sand and swirling patterns created by advancing and retreating waves.
This beach was a good place to watch the sunrise and we would get up early in an attempt to capture it. I was gaining in confidence and on our first dawn visit there was a lot of ice so plenty to do. I set up my tripod and was clicking away and moving along the beach when a man told me I was in his shot – he had set up his tripod behind me and in my humble opinion only had himself to blame. Nevertheless I moved but I went the wrong way and he shouted at me saying I had left footprints in ‘his’ sand. I suggested he get a life and he called me a bitch. I was seeing a whole new side to photography and retreated to our van.
That afternoon we visited an arm of the Vatnajökull Glacier to explore the ice caves. We were driven across the moraine hills in a large, all-terrain vehicle and then scrambled over some very rough terrain. The caves were the same colour as the moraine around them so we did not capture any spectacular shots but it was interesting to explore these cavities that penetrated the glacier. Dinner was an improvement that evening as we walked down the road to the Museum Restaurant. The exterior resembled bookshelves and the interior offered a cosy ambience and functioning WiFi which our hotel did not. After dinner, even though it was late, Geraldine insisted we looked at a selection of Martin’s photos. The theme was consistent, lumps of ice on a beach surrounded by swirls of receding water. It seemed everyone was obsessed with these images and the next morning we were out at the crack of dawn again so they could all add to their collections and I could start mine.
I was enthusiastic about our new location Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon as this remote less visited location offered the drama of a glacial lake packed with ice floes in the foreground of a glacier creeping down the mountain in the background. I was soon engrossed in capturing this beautiful landscape from every angle and I was disappointed when it was time to leave.
That afternoon we returned to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon where the landscape had changed dramatically and particularly on the beach as a lively sea had tossed blocks of ice everywhere and was playing around them. It was fun trying to capture the spray and to watch my colleagues leaping out of the path of waves crashing around them. I was particularly happy to find some wildlife there – seals swam in the lagoon and dunlins nestled in hollows on the beach.
Our last dawn patrol to the ice beach did not start well because, when we arrived, there was hardly any ice so some people began creating their own landscape by moving lumps of ice to the water’s edge. I decided to experiment with the changing light and stayed in the same position changing the settings as the light got brighter. As I peered through my view finder massive chunks of ice began floating past at great speed jostling with each other in a race to get out to sea. It was incredible.
On the road again and Geraldine suddenly announced we were so low on diesel she was not sure we would make it to the next service station. We did but she over shot and then stalled as she was completely out of diesel so we had to push the van back to the pumps. Despite a full tank the engine still refused to start due to an air bubble. While we had lunch the chef turned mechanic and tried to get the van going again but failed. A tow was the only option but it took a while for Geraldine to figure out that the tow rope should be attached to the front of the vehicle and not the back. This delayed our arrival at Seljalandsfloss Waterfall and time was running out as we were still a long way from Reykjavik.
When we reached our destination we had one last ditch attempt to track down the Northern Lights as Geraldine paid for six of us to join the Reykjavik Excursions Northern Lights tour. There was a fleet of buses going out on this tour and we struggled to find one with enough room for all of us. We drove out of town for forty minutes and then stood around for ninety minutes hoping we would be lucky but nothing happened – so we drove back to Reykjavik. We were offered a free trip the next night but we could not take advantage of this generosity.
Perhaps the most iconic sight in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon and I decided I should stop there on my way to the airport to bathe in this hot geothermal pool against a backdrop of a steaming power station. It was wonderful but I did not have time to wash my hair afterwards. As my hair dried out on the flight it got stiffer and stiffer until it was standing on end. I was grateful no one was around with a camera.
This article is based on the personal experience of Valery, an ExperiencedTraveller.