I could not help observing with interest the mineralogical curiosities which lay about me as in a vast museum, and I constructed for myself a complete geological account of Iceland, [a] most curious island.
— Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth
Iceland; a place which I had never considered visiting before, became the destination of my most recent, and most beautiful venture.
The reason I had never considered visiting Iceland was due to a lack of knowledge of this magnificent country. The name ‘Iceland’ conjured images of Björk, vikings and ash clouds. However, around 1 year before the trip, my girlfriend (who had been to Iceland 6 years ago) suggested that we visit. As I began looking at google images of Iceland photography, I soon realised that there would definitely be much more to see than Björk, vikings, and volcanoes (I acknowledged that the likelihood of seeing the first two were slim.) I reacted to the image search by quietly saying colourful profanities under my breath. It was at that point that my mind was made up, and soon after our flights had been booked.
Our ideas for exploring the island changed throughout the year leading up to our departure. Limited to time (15 days) and budget, we quickly decided that we wanted to explore at our own pace and freedom, so any type of tour was out of the question. Our original plan was to cycle and camp around the island (thank god we changed our minds. It would have been an incredible, but incredibly challenging experience.) We then decided that a car+tent combination would be better, but after hearing stories of gale-force, tent-destroying winds, plus the expectation of a lot of rain, we finally decided to rent a camper van. For our needs, the camper van was perfect; giving us our own freedom and shelter, and being able to wake up and travel at a moments notice. Our camper was modest (more like a builders van with a mattress in the back) but it did the job perfectly! We rented our van from the friendly guys at Kuku campers (http://www.kukucampers.is/)
In preparation for this trip, I had decided to prioritise our own travel experiences above those of photography. This wasn’t, after all, a dedicated Iceland photography tour, but instead (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I like to remember special moments as myself being in the moment, and not just being a witness to the moment through a viewfinder. Also, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a landscape photographer, and there is no way I could compete with the thousands of awe inspiring images of Iceland, so once I had taken the pressure off myself of trying to get the Iceland photography, I was left to enjoy the journey for what is was; an exceptionally breathtaking one.
That being said, I did try to plan as much as I could, and some resources which I found invaluable were: The lonely planet (my ‘go to’ for guide books), an ebook called ‘Photo guide to Iceland’ by Hawk and Finn (http://www.icelandontheweb.com/articles-on-iceland/travel-info/photo-guide-to-iceland) and The Photographers Ephemeris (a website and app which allows you to view the sunrise/sunset time and direction from any point in the world. I bought the app so that I could use it on my iPad without internet connection.)
I spent a long time (as always) deliberating what camera equipment to bring. Having a van meant that I didn’t have too worry (as much as normal) about traveling lightly. I wanted to have as much versatility as possible. I decided to bring:
X-T1 + grip.
XF55-140. (the zooms were generously on loan from the friendly guys at Fuji Spain).
X100S (I kind of saw the X100s as my ‘personal documentary’ camera while the X-T1 was the workhorse. It would also serve as a backup if I dropped the X-T1 in a volcano).
Haida 10 stop ND filter (plus step up rings so I could use it on all lenses).
Manfrotto BeFree tripod.
A remote timer (for exposures longer than 30 seconds).
A bunch of batteries (along with car charger).
And my MacBook Pro/Hard drive (so I could add photos to Lightroom/Backup on the road).
All of this was packed inside a Billingham Hadley Pro bag (which holds all the essentials plus fits on as cabin baggage on the plane).
Other important items included a Moka pot with damn good coffee, a notepad, and a miniature dancing hula girl. All the essentials.
I’m a relative road trip newbie (Iceland being my third; my first was in New Zealand several years ago, and more recently Romania earlier this year), but picking up our van instantly reminded me of the huge sense of freedom that comes with road tripping. The van was to become our carriage, our kitchen, our restaurant, and our penthouse for the next 11 days.
With a fully loaded iPad and tank of petrol, we hit the road with an electrical level of excitement. The industrial area surrounding the car pickup location quickly opened up into a wide expanse of green mountains. I couldn’t stop smiling at the landscapes and was amazed at how ‘big, open and beautiful’ everything was. My girlfriend looked at me, and with a soft laugh said “This is just the tip of the iceberg”. And she was certainly right, as what we saw during those first 30 minutes (although incredible) paled in comparison to what we would see during the following weeks.
Doing a road trip in Iceland is very easy, as there is one ‘ring road’ that goes around the circumference of the island. The recommended time to do the ring road was about 7 – 10 days. We had 11 to do the ring road so were sweet. This also gave us time to deviate from the ring road and explore as much as we could. Our first decision was in which direction to drive. We decided to drive anti-clockwise as by the time we were on driving the northern stretch, there would be a higher chance of seeing the northern lights (a lifelong wish of ours). On average, I would say we spent between 3 – 6 hours a day driving/stopping to take photos.
If you’re thinking of doing a trip around Iceland, I would strongly recommend a camper van (if on a budget), or renting a 4×4 and staying in accommodation (if you don’t mind splashing out). Having a 4×4 would have been a big advantage for taking photographs as you are able access many places which you are unable to in a van. But saying that, the ring road (accessible by all vehicles) leads you to an uncountable number of stunning places.
This was our route:
Reflecting on the trip, it is very difficult to put the experience into words. I hope that my photos can somewhat evoke the sense of natural beauty and magnificence in you (the reader) that Iceland did on me. I will do my best to share some experiences.
The overall highlight (sorry if this is cheating) was the nature itself. The country is very varied in what it has to offer, and the scenery changes dramatically. You could start the day in rolling green hills, cross the icy snout of a glacier and pass moss covered lava fields in the space of a few hours. There are so many waterfalls, ranging from mighty to tiny. At one moment my girlfriend and I counted 25 waterfalls on the mountain facing us. I would consider it a good day if I saw just one waterfall, but on some days we probably saw more than 100.
I kinda of fell in love with the Icelandic horses. They are such beautiful creatures. They all seem to be very tame and friendly. At almost every chance, I would stop the car to get photos of them. I was desperate to get beautiful backlit photos during the golden hour, but unfortunately, that opportunity never arose.
There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies. If there is a river or fjord to cross (and we shall meet with many) you will see him plunge in at once, just as if he were amphibious, and gain the opposite bank.
— Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth
Due to the geothermal activity, there are many natural hot springs and pools. We visited Seljavallalaug (one of the oldest outdoor pools in Iceland, built is 1923), which was spectacular. The pool is set in a picturesque valley next to a river. It takes a short trek to arrive there, but it is definitely worth visiting. Prepare to bathe in algae filled water as the pool is cleaned just once each summer.
On the second night of the trip, we were fortunate enough to witness the northern lights in Vík. This was an incredible experience. As I had only seen photos/time lapses of northern lights, I was surprised at how they move and dance across the sky. At times they were like the final whisps of a flame, in an attempt to stay alive, at other times they appeared to explode in the sky, spreading in all directions. The last scene of the spectacle looked like ten people flashing torches on the clouds, illuminating them as if the gods were having a party.
Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfallls in Iceland (being 25m wide and 60m tall). We visited early in the morning and there was a rainbow fixed at the base of the waterfall. There is a walk which you can do to the top, which is well worth it. However, I thought the most impressive views were from the base.
About 9km from Skógafoss is a wreckage of an US Navy airplane which crashed in November 1973 (fortunately no one died). The remains of the plane can be found on Sólheimasandur black sand beach. Arriving to the location was a little difficult (without a 4×4) and we had to walk a few kms across a barren landscape to get there. We were blessed with sunny weather and really enjoyed exploring the wreckage (you can go inside it, which is a little eerie).
Jökulsárlón is a glacial lake where huge chunks of ice break off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and enter the Atlantic ocean. This place was phenomenal. We arrived just before sunset, and watched the sky turn red (contrasting the deep blues of the ice) as a thick mist rolled over the glacier and onto the lake. There were seals swimming in the water.
A short walk from Jökulsárlón is an area known as ‘Icy Beach’, which is where the lake actually meets the Atlantic. The lake and the ocean push huge lumps of ice around and many of them get washed up on the black volcanic sand. We spent a night and the following morning here and the icy sculptures are forever changing shape and being replaced.
I love the Eastern Fjords and we spent 2 days driving along them. The fjords are so vast, beautiful and peaceful. I think these were extra special to me as I had never seen a Fjord before. There is one town called Seyðisfjörður (population 665) which I particularly loved. It seems to have a strong artistic community there, with some galleries, public sculptures and beautiful walks. It’s the kind of place that makes me want to rent my flat out and spend a summer there.
We went whale watching in Húsavík, an extremely pretty fishing town. There are many species of whales and dolphin which visit the bay, and we were fortunate enough to have a humpback whale swimming around and under our boat for around 15 minutes. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a whale and was a very memorable experience (freezing cold though!).
Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest urban area as is located in the North of the island. When we drove into the city we were taken aback by seeing so many cars and people. We had come from days of driving through almost unpopulated landscapes and passing perhaps 10/20 people a day, to a city with traffic (albeit not much).
Our trip began and ended in Reykjavik. We spent out first and final 4 days there. Reykjavik is a very nice city, and we particularly enjoyed the many cute cafes. We didn’t experience the nightlife which is it renowned for, but heard it’s very good. I was really impressed by Harpa, a beautiful mirrored concert hall, and Hallgrimskirkja, a modernistic cathedral in centre of the city. We also enjoyed walking along the old fishing harbour and exploring the beautiful botanical gardens (with a nice little cafe in the middle of the gardens).
The country is extremely sparsely populated. According to Wiki ‘it has a population of 329,100 and an area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.’ Bearing in mind that more than two-thirds of the population live in Reykjavik, when you leave the capital city, it’s gets very, very lonely.
I got the impression that nature seems to be the highest priority. It appears as if no river were diverted, or mountainside cut into, in order to accommodate humans. There seems to be a harmonious balance of humans living alongside the beautiful virgin nature of the country.
Iceland seems to be a good model for other countries:
‘Consistently rated the most peaceable of all countries in the world by the Global Peace Index, Iceland has reduced its military expenditure to zero, has no armed forces, and has reduced the inequality gap between rich and poor.’ -Scilla Elworthy
The Icelandic people are very jolly and most of their surnames end in ‘son’.
The names of places are mostly unpronounceable.“Eyjafjallajökull”. ‘Nuff said.
There are sheep everywhere (there are many more sheep than people). They often run across the road so you have to be very careful as you drive.
Because of the lack of people, it was great to get out of the car and observe the silence.
Everything is very expensive (at least compared to Barcelona, where I live).
They eat all parts of animals (the least appetising being boiled sheep’s head and ram’s testicles). In Iceland, I was happy to be a vegetarian.
They have their own type of yoghurt (but it’s not actually a yoghurt) called Skyr, and it’s delicious.
There were many more obese people that I expected (which could be explained by their love of hotdogs and coca-cola). I didn’t see any vikings.
They seem to like good coffee and have many cute cafes with good cakes (at least in the cities).
On the way back from Iceland we had to stop over for a few hours in Oslo. Flying over Norway made me want to visit! The older I get, the more I realise my love for nature (perhaps as I’ve always lived in cities). I love forests and lakes and Norway seems to be full of them. I definitely want to experience the northern lights again, and they can be seen there.
Reflections on the trip.
I couldn’t give a higher recommendation than to visit Iceland, and think everyone should see it in their lives. It is unlike anywhere I have ever seen, and the beauty of the place is breathtaking. We were extremely lucky with the weather (it was sunny most days of our trip) and this made a huge difference to our experience. I would recommend visiting in the summer, but I imagine it would be equally as beautiful (but in a different way) during the winter (plus you would see the northern lights in the winter). It is an expensive trip, but it’s one which I will never, ever forget.