Iceland – The Land of Ice and Fire

Last night, I finally got around to writing an article on Aurora Photography, so I thought with another trip to Iceland coming up, it was about time I wrote another blog post about one of the most dramatic countries for landscapes. In the meantime, anyone who would like to know a bit more about photographing the Aurora, please feel free to read the article.

Photographing the Aurora Borealis

I first visited Iceland in August 2014 and I have since visited in a few different months, including November and March. It’s never warm in Iceland, it’s simply too windy to ever be warm, but in August, at least during the day, it is comfortable when the sun is out. November is a bit like a typical UK winter, cold and wet, but even then, it is possible to get some sunny days. March on the other hand is generally cold and snowy, turning to rain and at times alternating between the two. Again though, it is possible to get some later winter sun and out of the wind, it can actually be pleasant at times.

Iceland sits above the Mid Atlantic Ridge, above a magma plume. This is what gives it its volcanic nature and why the volcanic activity is so high. It is much more accessible now, than it was in times gone by, as flights are available from many UK airports, as well as Europe and the US. The flight is actually quite short, but it is even possible to travel by ferry, even if the seas can be a bit rough at times. It is the home to the largest waterfall in Europe, as well as the largest glacier in Europe, but it actually straddles two continents, with the capital and the western third being on the North American continent and the eastern two thirds or so are on the Eurasian continent.

I’ve only visited the south of the island so far, although I would like to travel up to the north, where it can be a lot harsher. Even in the south though, you can get a variety of landscapes (all volcanic of course). Around Reykjavik International Airport and the rest of the Reyjkjanes peninsula, it is relatively flat, with a few protuberances from smallish volcanoes. On the other hand, on the eastern side, you have the true giants, with the volcanoes of Bardabunga (responsible for the largest eruption for a few centuries in 2014/15) and Oraefajokull. Most people land in Keflavik, where the Reykjavik International airport is situated, before travelling east (if they have enough time), but there are many interesting locations to visit and stay along the way.

Reykjavik and the Reykjanes Peninsula

The Reykjanes peninsula is the most densely populated area of Iceland and includes the capital Reykjavik and larger towns, such as Keflavik/Reykjanesbær. It is also the home of the Blue Lagoon and the Krysuvik hot mud pools. Also along the main road from Keflavik to Reykjavik is the Reykjanes lava field.

The Blue Lagoon gets large numbers of visitors, but it is actually man-made. It makes use of the natural thermal activity in the area to heat the pools and allows the benefits from the natural minerals. Although you need to pay to get into the complex itself, you can walk around the many surrounding pools and marvel at the aquamarine colour of the water.

Also not far from Keflavik, is the geothermal area of Krýsuvík. There are a number of hiking trails around the area, with opportunities to view steaming mud pools and mud volcanoes. There are also a number of thermal springs and small lakes.

As you head towards Reykjavik, the road travels along the northern coast of the peninsula, with views across the Reykjanes lava field and the Atlantic ocean beyond. There are a number of little inlets and pools and it is a haven for seabirds.

Close to Reykjanes lighthouse, you have the area of Gunnuhver. This is another area with volcanic mud pools. The water here is acidic, so the rock has been dissolved to form the mud.

To get beyond Reykjanes along the main road, you have to travel beyond Reykjavik, but there are also some interesting sites within Reykjavik itself. It is also one of the harbours from where you can go whale watching. It isn’t a big city and once parked, it is easy enough to walk around most places. The harbour area is actually quite a good place to park and while you’re there, you can visit one of the nearby cafe restaurants to sample some fish and chips. Also nearby is the sculpture Sólfar (Sun Voyager). This is a large steel sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason, in the form of the veins of a viking ship. Sadly, he died before it was completed. Also in Reykjavik, is the cathedral, Hallgrimskirkja and the Harpa concert hall, especially if you enjoy architecture. On the outskirts, there is Perlan (The Pearl), but there are also other museums, if science and technology aren’t really your thing.

Pink sunset, with rising mist and steam from a fumerole near to Thingvellir.

The Golden Circle

Ok, so it isn’t exactly an area to avoid the crowds, but there is a good reason for that. It contains a number of the most popular natural attractions (as well as a few less natural ones if you join one of the organised tours). As we’re travelling vaguely west to east I’ll start with Thingvellir.

The Thingvellir National Park is a large area surrounding a rift zone. This is the active fault area, where it is possible to see the results of the two continents as they drift apart. While countless other fault lines are present in Iceland, this is probably the most accessible and most visible. Even a large lake, Thingvelivatn has formed as a result of the rifting. Thingvellir actually isn;’t so much the rif itself, but the location of the ancient assembly (Althing in Iceland and the site where the Althing sat. Above the Althing fields, are sculptures of many of the leaders of the time. The area is a natural ampitheatre. Nearby is the gorge where the rift is visible.

Heading west through to Thingvellir and you are on your way to the next attraction on the Golden Circle, but on a dirt track nearby is a blue waterfall called Bruarfoss, which is worth a visit, if you can find it!. Geysir hot Springs are the next stop on the official Golden Circle. The largest of the geysers is only active after large earthquakes and rarely erupts, but Strokkur is active every few minutes. It is actually in the larger Haukadalur geothermal area.

After Geysir, you have Gullfoss (golden falls). This is a large series of waterfalls on the immense Hvítá river. When the sun is shining, a rainbow shines over the falls, but the spray from the falls and the noise produced is something to behold. The river contains a lot of energy and was earmarked for a large water-powered plant, but is now protected. In winter months, part of the area are cordoned off for safety, as it gets very icy. Even in the summer, care must be taken, as the rocks are very slippery from all the water.

As you head south from Gulfoss, towards the town of Selfoss, there is another nearby waterfall called Hjalparfoss. This is actually a double waterfall, but the road is not kept as clear from snow and ice as some of the more major roads.

Selfoss to Vik

Once at Selfoss, you are back on the main Route 1 ring road that goes all the way around the island. Heading east, there are a few more of the more popular attractions, including two more large and interesting waterfalls.

The first of these falls is Seljalandsfoss. This is an unusual waterfall, where it is is possible to walk behind (as long as you don’t mind getting a bit wet if windy). Not far away, just a five minute walk, is the smaller grotto-style waterfall Gljúfrabúi and an area of grass, giving a view of the escarpment.

Next stop is the larger waterfall of Skogafoss. This is one of the taller waterfalls in Iceland and like Gullfoss, if the sun is shining from the right direction, you will be able to see a rainbow. In addition to the falls themselves, there is also a path that takes you above the waterfall and beyond to some more smaller falls.

Just as the road starts climbing, before getting to Vik, there is a side road that takes you to Reynisfjara (Black Beach). In stormy conditions, the waves can be spectacular and ther eare many rogue waves ready to catch out any tourists that may not be paying attention. At best, you may get a soaking, but if you aren’t careful, it is easily possible to get washed out to sea. Just off the coast, are a series of rock formations that can make interesting coastal landscapes. There is a similar black sand beach on the other side of Vik, near a large roadside cafe and garage.

Wideangle view of Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon at the base of Vatnajokull.

Beyond Vik

After leaving Vik, the surrounding terrain starts to get more mountainous and in the colder months, the risk of snow and blizzards increases. You are now entering the land of the giants. Katla, near to Skogafoss and Vik is big, but is still small compared the volcanoes under the Vatnajokull glacier. At first, it might seem that the large volcanoes are some way off, but they have  along reach. Bardabunga in particular is known for sending out underground rivers of lava for tens of kilometres. It did this in 2014/15, eventually erupting far to the north, to form lava fountains up to 10 metres high, eventually erupting for six months. This was the largest eruption, since the 18th century, when a similar event occurred, called the Skaftar fires, this time travelling south, into the region now known as Laki, creating the Eldhraun lava fields. About one hour out of Vik and you are surrounded by these lava fields, but there are also some lakes and waterfalls scattered about. Just to the north is the Skaftafell National Park, with further waterfalls and glacial lagoons.

It is at this point that Vatnjokull starts to dominate the landscape, with several glacial tongues visible from the road. This is the biggest glacier in Europe and if the skies were clear when you were first approaching to land, you would have been able to see it as the dominant feature. Keep going and you will reach Jökulsárlón. This is the famous glacial lagoon and in the main season, trips are on offer to get closer to the edge of the glacier, where you get the iceberg calving. In March, most of the lagoon is filled with icebergs. On the opposite side of the road, where the lagoon meets teh Atlantic, you have Diamond beach, where it looks like massive diamonds have just been strewn about by giants who had become bored with looking at them. If you want a slightly less busy view of the glacier though, then head back west for a couple of minutes and visit Fjallsárlón, another smaller, quieter lagoon. There are also even more out of the way lagoons in the Skaftafell area.

Aurora Borealis

The southern coast of Iceland is quite well populated, with many small towns and villages. This means there is a certain amount of light pollution. However, head away from the main ring road and it is possible to find some areas without pollution. This is particularly so in some of the hiking areas, but these roads may also be closed outside of summer or require four wheel drive vehicles. There are some very nice locations for shooting the Aurora though and if the display is good, then light pollution is less of a problem. In fact the bigger problem is the weather. Whenever you go, 80% of the time it is cloudy and rain and snow is common. Although it can be cold and windy though, you don’t get the extreme temperatures of northern Scandinavia, as Iceland, like the UK and western Norway, is warmed by the Gulf Stream.

The advantage of Iceland over Scandinavia, for viewing the Aurora, is due to the position of the magnetic north pole. This means the Aurora is pushed further south than in mainland Europe and only in North America is it to be viewable further south, The best time to see the Aurora, is during a new moon, but the full moon can add atmosphere and make for a much more interesting image. Visiting around one of the equinoxes may also increase chances, but in general, it is down to luck and knowing the forecasts for both terrestrial and solar weather.

Iceland is an interesting country to visit. It offers cultural breaks, as well as dramatic landscapes and natural phenomena. If you are wondering if it lives up to the hype, then rest assured that it does.

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