A Trip Around Iceland
After Months of meticulous planning, my trip to Iceland in March 2017 was finally underway. I say meticulous as this is something that will become very important later on – My friend Mat and I soon enough found out after spending a month driving around the famed Ring road on the coastal line of Iceland that meticulous planning can often lead to sleeping in caves, abandoned buildings, tents and rescue huts, and that it would also lead to one of the best experiences of our lives.
We started our journey in the Capital of Reykjavik, Located in southwestern Iceland, on the southern shore of Faxaflói bay , exploring the City with its historical rich ties to Viking history . It is a sweepingly beautiful place with views of the sea and hills – However whilst exploring on foot and bus it became evident that the cutting cold wind was going to make camping somewhat more difficult , almost as difficult as surviving the financially crippling capital nightlife. I almost couldn’t decide what took my breath more away – The R200 beer or the cold air. It became clear to Mat and I that if we should continue our nightly excursions , we would not get to see the rest of the trip and we made the decision to rent a 4×4 and head out before the night life temptations just became too attractive .
This took us South into a national park where the snow was still thick and the dirt roads were dotted with Volcanos.
It was much colder than we expected and we were worried that we were unprepared to face the first night in the unknown outdoors. It felt like mother nature was playing her own personal tricks on us – The sun never really went down but the temperature kept on dropping at an alarming rate.
With the ever dropping temperature, we had to take shelter in a rescue hut along a hiking trail in the mountains. These orange huts can be seen all over Iceland, standing out against white snow or enclosed by mountainous green landscapes. Beautiful.
These huts were once maintained with beds, blankets, cooking utensils and heating equipment as they were vital for successful search and rescue situations. Today with wider cellphone coverage and online maps these are less maintained as problems have become less frequent.
These emergency huts are only to be used in cases of emergency, and once we noticed it took only 25 minutes for a 2 litre of water to freeze it was clear that it was a lot safer for us to sleep inside the hut than outside, or else the latter might have just caused for a little of an emergency for ourselves. In fear of losing a toe or two, we tried moving around the hut to get the blood flowing .Mat started a small fire inside a mobile camping container and tried to cook some chicken but to no avail. Cold, Uncooked chicken was on the menu. It wasn’t that bad.
I was walking around trying to get some pictures when we noticed the aurora above us. We didn’t even take a picture as this was something we had never experienced before, we just stood and gazed up in complete silence. It came and went, the rest of the night was spent second guessing if the aurora was back or if it was just our imaginations.
The next day, we awoke to a world of white, the sun shining through the falling snow. With a new adoration, walked back to the car and started our journey much, much wiser than the two lads who arrived in Reykjavik only nights before. It was right at the change of season when all the ice begins to melt causing thousands of waterfalls to form as the water runs toward the sea.
After heading through the national park and dirt roads outside of Reykjavik we joined up with the main road and made some ground heading South where we detoured every chance we got.
Sleeping in a tent at the foot of one of the worlds most famous waterfalls was definitely a highlight. With Iceland being as vast as it is , you do not often come across travelers, but on this particular night we did have a lively French neighbor. I wish I could tell you anything else that was significant about our fellow traveler but the rest of the night is a blur with memories clouded with whiskey thoughts and Matt spraining his ankle whilst drunken exploring the waterfall and lighting it up with a torch. Actual moment captured below:
Mat braved the pain and we walked up river to get some pictures in the morning.
Driving through Iceland made us realize that we had no idea how diverse the landscape was and there was always something to pleasantly surprise us around every turn. The ever changing landscape had already evolved from snow to green moss to fields of brown grass and now we were experiencing the black rocks and sand that made up a very desert like scene on the long windy walk to the DC3 Plane wreckage. The plane had been resting in Solheimasandur since 1973 since a US Navy Pilot brought it down due to some severe icing or an issue with the fuel tank depending on who you speak to.
Either way it makes for a pretty dramatic scene surrounded by nothing but a black desert .
As unexpected as the changing landscapes, the weather also did not disappoint in its actions – it had started to turn on us. The over an hour walk back from the wreckage to the car was spent hiding our faces from sand that was being blown up at us. The clouds rolled in and the sun disappeared. We made our way along the ocean roads toward the viewpoint that made me want to photograph Iceland in the first place. I had seen pictures of people standing looking down onto a black beach that looked like it went on forever, but as we sat there on our car we had to make decisions on capturing this coastline, or being safe as the weather was dire.
In the end, The coastline proved triumphant and we tried to brave the weather, despite the insanity of the situation. I chose some film out of the plastic zip-lock bag, loaded the camera in the front seat of the car as the rain starting to heavily pour down. We couldn’t even see through the windscreen anymore. But determined as ever, we had made up our minds. Mat got out and I followed and started to shoot as soon as I got up to the viewpoint. To my dismay, I then realized there was fog appearing in my viewfinder and lens. Not too concerned I carried on until I couldn’t see anymore through the camera. Mat had already gapped it back to the car. I returned to the car, dropped off my Mamiya film camera and picked up my Fuji digital to continue to try capture the view I was hoping to see.
After struggling to keep the camera dry and walking around in the rain for about half an hour we came to our senses and carefully continued along some small roads toward a beach on the other side of the mountain. Our tenacious pursuit finally proved fruitful as the sun peered its head and we ended up on one of the prettiest placed in the best of weather, and as a little extra bonus for the persistence, our clothes were also starting to dry as we walked the beach.
They say that curiosity kills the cat – And in this case it was almost a persistent photographer.
This is where everything could of gone very wrong. This is where I had a taste of the Icelandic sea.
But in a way it also went very right.
We got to the end of the beach and ended up running to beat the encroaching waves and climbing onto some rocks to get a good view around the corner of the beach where some alien looking pillars were pointing out of the ocean, as the waves crashed violently against them. We had previously read a warning sign where we had parked the car kilometers down the beach about ‘sneaker waves’, and thought nothing of it.
Mat ran first and quickly climbed up onto the rocks, I followed quickly behind him and realized how fast the waves came in and disappeared again. This made me unsettled while taking pictures up on the rocks. After I was happy with a shot I decided I would wait for a opening between waves and climb down the rock and run back to the side of the beach we came from. I don’t think I waited long enough and as I got down to the bottom of the rock I ran and got hit by a swooping wave from behind. The only thing I could do was swim, with camera gear such as my Nikon D800 camera and a Nikon 24-70mm lens. When I finally got out the first thing I did was take out the battery and look at my camera, being hopeful of the weather-seal. There was water pouring out of the lens mount. Looking up I saw Mat, coming around the corner bone dry, looking like he’d taken a slow stroll from the rocks.
After a long wet walk I spent a while by the car laying out all my soaking clothing that were meant to be keeping me warm, and almost like it had a feel for my mood, the weather turned again.
The following days and nights were spent driving in miserable weather and sleeping in a tent in any possible place when we were tired of driving.
It was night time when we arrived in Skaftafell, just before what looked like a giant glacier on the map. We found may have been a camping area, but was most likely someones front yard. The next day it was still raining but we decided to go try walk on the glacier. As you could expect, we did not get very far. We ended up walking along the melting ice and tried climbing onto a few pieces.
We spent the following days travelling further East around the bottom of the glacier, visited many waterfalls, went on a few short hikes and camped.
One thing I can attest to, is that the human body gets used to the cold.
One thing that does not adapt to weather conditions, is clothing . By this time in our trip, all our clothing was wet, but, life gave us a bit of a helping hand and we were lucky enough to find a petrol station that sold hot dogs and bright orange water resistant overalls and gumboots that helped us fend off the cold, wet weather.
There are roads in Iceland called F-roads which are 4×4 only accessible roads, sometimes not accessible at all. We hadn’t been on one yet, so with our newly found courage in our orange suits, tonight was the night. We looked at our map and decided we would try camp inland toward some mountain peaks visible on the map. We were taking turns to drive day by day, and today was my day. We turned down the F980. It seemed a fairly comfortable dirt road at first. We crossed one river, which wasn’t very deep and then another and another, with Mat occasionally getting out and guiding me in the rain. This went on for what felt like hours ( And most likely was). After passing a few waterfalls and many rivers, we were in a riverbed where we were navigating in and around small rivers .We eventually arrived at a river where I thought to myself “there is no way we are going in there!”. Mat got out and contemplated it’s depth, or my driving skills. Much to my relief, we turned around. Only to realize we had no idea where we had come from. It was raining and the clouds were thick, it was another very dark night. I started to panic and Mat kept his cool and decided he would get us out of there. I gladly handed over the wheel to him. I had barely handed over the steering wheel when we both heard a loud pop and woosh.
In true survivor style…
Our tyre had popped.
Already panicky, I wanted to change the tyre and make our way out of the riverbed.
In my head, all I could think about was that it was raining, the glaciers was melting, the rivers were filling up and there we were stuck and lost between the rivers which surely became one big one when full. Mat thought it was better to hold tight and wait for morning. I was not happy with this, so I went for a walk. Mat started a fire and attempted to dry his feet. I walked and found where we had come from, but had no idea how to navigate the car there. So I had to join Mat at the fire. I even placed bottles on the rocks next to the water around us, so I could check how fast the water was rising.
It never did.
We woke up in the car, which was a lot colder than the tent we were used to. The weather was still horrible but we could see exactly where we had come from and getting back was easy. The spare tire was on the car and we were on the road again. We stopped briefly to admire where we had slept the night .
We had finally reached the East of Iceland and started heading North. Something we had spoken about a lot in our many days together. We didn’t know what to expect from the North.
Was it colder? Was it hospitable at this time of year? We hadn’t seen any campers since Skogafoss in the South.
The roads were quiet and we were racing up the East Coast without a spare.
Still stopping and hiking up as many waterfalls as we could.
There was now thick snow surrounding the roads. We found ourselves stuck for about an hour having to use our breakfast bowls as make shift shovels to dig the tyres out. For the remaining part of the trip up the coastline we tried to stick to the coastline but unfortunately bad weather had caused a wall of snow to block a piece of road. Detouring inland wasn’t much better.
The weather got worse and it got a lot colder. It was now snowing and visibility was bad. We were crawling North and things were looking bleak. Then, as we summited the sun came out for the first time in days.
Exploring the snow covered areas in sunlight was a very different experience and almost in a childlike awe, we built snowmen, rolled giant balls of snow down the hill and even walked over frozen rivers and waterfalls. We boiled hotdogs in the snow and headed toward the East Coast.
It was Sunday and we were in a small fishing town looking for a spare winter tire for our ride or die. The first person we asked said there was nothing open on a Sunday but two minutes later he was back, on the phone with his friend. We followed him to his friends workshop where a man not speaking much English fitted another second hand tire. Saved by hospitality, we were off on the road again.
We were finally in the North and it was nothing like what we had been afraid of. The weather was the best we had experienced, the roads were great and it was the most secluded we had felt on the whole trip so far. It was nearing sunset at 1:20am when we passed a waterfall leading into the ocean. After taking some photos we walked down a black beach where we found a long cave.
This is where we decided to spend the night.
The North quickly became a favorite for views and short walks by ourselves, especially since we had been in the car together and sleeping in the same tent for the better half of the month.
The winding mountain roads slowed us down and we often ended up driving well into the next day but with good weather allowing it, it never got that dark, so our sleeping patterns were abnormal.
My film camera was living in a plastic bag and would ever so often make an appearance as there was still water in it. My digital camera that took a swim with me was still sitting in rice but, at this point I was just being optimistic about it ever recovering.
The weather was less favorable on every Hike in the North and I started shooting less and less.
Once in a while there was something that I couldn’t believe was real and I would be walking through the rain with my little Fuji x100 camera, in a almost comical way.
Iceland is dotted with volcanos that dwarf you as you drive between them. The rich colours of the volcanic rock range between dark black to red, to even purple. We were lucky enough to hike up one where we could see our car scaled between another red giant.
Typical Iceland, around the next bend everything changes. The red volcanic rocks have turned to fields of vibrant green spongy moss that cover jagged rocks for the next few kilometers.
At this point in the trip, we hadn’t bathed for a while since the hot springs were scarce this side of the island , almost as scarce as an actual hot shower. Just as I had to make peace with my new found body odor, a great swimming opportunity came about. We came across what looked like a volcano crater. We were unsure of what it really was but the water was crystal clear and it felt hot in the sun, so there we were stripping to our underwear. Mat counted down and we both dived in. As I came up from underneath the water, I filled my lungs with a scream and turned back hastily to get out of the water. Mat made it about half way before swimming back as fast as he could. I was in shock that water could be that cold and was starting to think that there was something in the water that was making my delicates hurt. It was just that cold. We lay on the rocks, taking in the shock of the cold water, and soaking up the scenery for a short while before changing back into our thermals.
The best part of the journey was although we had meticulously planned – we also hadn’t planned anything at all .When we arrived at photographic locations we were always excited and shocked we had just stumbled across them. All the emotions we felt were as raw and as pure as Iceland itself.
The black church was one of these locations. We had seen many churches throughout Iceland with some of the most breathtaking backdrops. The black church was the one I really wanted to see and photograph and there it was about two days before the end of our journey.
The last night before heading back to Reykjavik we treated ourselves to a night in an abandoned house near some hot water springs. The morning was spent enjoying the springs and washing the long trip off of us with hot sulphur water straight from the ground.
Seeing Iceland the way I did – with Ice cold waters, Jagged landscapes, Boiled hot dogs and breathtaking waterfalls – will always be one of the most life changing experiences I have ever had. I wouldn’t change a thing and long for the moments again until the day I am back there.
© copyright mike bell photography 2020