20 Oct 2016

East, North & North-East Iceland - Day 6: A Long Drive Around the North-East Coast

I don't make my Iceland trips easy for myself. I try to make the most of every moment of daylight, and cram as much in as possible, so sometimes I'm exhausted as a result. Lie-ins from time to time are very important!

Day 6 saw me exploring the north-east corner of the country, almost reaching the Arctic Circle, and driving over 250km. I set off late after one of those nice - and much-needed - lie-ins and the usual buffet breakfast in the guesthouse. The weather was nice, clear, not windy, although no cool clouds or light. Great road-trip weather all the same. I drove along the same stretch of road towards Asbyrgi that I felt I knew quite well. I could make out Grimsey some 40km off the coast to the north as I drove around the top of Tjörneshreppur - the island is the only part of Iceland officially in the Arctic. Onwards I went, passing Asbyrgi, where I thought of stopping to explore again, but knew that time would be too tight to do some of the other things I had planned, so my visit the previous day would have to do for the time being. I drove on past it, and motored onwards towards the north-east corner.

I didn't stop for ages, until I was past the turn-off to Kópasker and noticed a small lake full of upturned swan bottoms shining brightly in the sun. I pulled over as soon as I slowed down enough and walked back towards the swans, armed with my camera and zoom lens. The bottom display was over as soon as they clocked me, and they floated up and down the far shore of the lake. I noticed that they were getting noisier and doing a strange display moving their necks up and down. I was just getting my iPhone out of my pocket to take a shot with that when they started lifting off - bad timing! I put the camera back in the pocket and raised my proper camera and managed to get a few shots of the beautiful, graceful white birds flying off towards Kópasker. Almost missed the moment for a pointless iPhone shot!

With the swans gone I got back in the car and drove on. The route 85 is a wonderful road that meanders around the north-east, mostly tarmac, and barely another soul on the road, passing desolate hills and dotted with small lakes. The hills were patterned with autumnal foliage and scree and the plains were scattered with autumnal grasses and piles of random volcanic rocks.

Before long I reached the turn-off towards Raufarhöfn, the northernmost town in mainland Iceland with a population of around 200 (there's a farm slightly further north around the peninsula, but it is only a farm, so this place gets the accolade). The town is nicknamed the Arctic Village, and at 66°27′0″N15°57′0″W that's pretty close to the Arctic Circle. The reason for my visit was not really because of its proximity to the Arctic, but to see The Arctic Henge (Heimskautsgerðið) (which is there primarily because of its proximity to the Arctic, mind). It was a strange town with young men in overalls wandering along the wide streets (it was lunchtime when I arrived). In the centre of the small town was a large hotel - the Nest (apparently there's a few hotels, which seems odd given its position and size), and a strange, almost scarecrow-like figurine hunched over an old upright stove and le Creuset pot at the side of a road! Also rather odd, and apparently there are a few of them dotted around the place, courtesy of a local artist. Had I known about them beforehand I might have made an effort to find them and photograph them, but I only found out about them after I'd visited. I drove straight through the town towards the stone sculpture circle set up on a hill just out of town. I parked nearby and walked the short distance to the enormous pagan structure - a collection of massive stones stacked into pillars joining into pointy arches, some looking like fingertips cupped together. 

It is steeped in history and mythology. It was extremely cool, and the clouds were playing their part in creating some nice dramatic skies and shadows, in spite of the hour of the day. I took a few shots from different angles, including some long exposures. A man walked towards me as I was heading off - a local on his daily walk I guess - and I exclaimed how cool it was. "It'll be great when it's finished" he said, and told me to read the sign at the entrance by the road. I took his advice and it showed some pictures of a much larger structure with gates and adornments that reminded me of some of the old meeting places in Mayan towns! Indeed, it would be great when it was finished (if that was ever going to happen), but it was pretty damned awesome already.

Next stop was Raudanes Point, where I'd seen some pictures of some cool stacks (I love me a good cool stack), but first I drove down a spectacular remote gravel road (the unmarked 875). I felt a little nervous as there was just nothing there, and at some points the surface worried me with piles of stones in the middle of the road looking high enough to damage the precious underside of the car. Occasionally I would see a large pebble sticking up just before hearing the thdunk of the car hitting it! I stopped a few times to take in the remoteness and stillness, including at the side of a tranquil lake. 

I finally managed to get a reasonable shot of the patterned hillsides, and of course a few shots of the road disappearing into the distance.

Eventually I re-joined the main road (85) and I was actually quite relieved. I loved the 875 but it certainly made me nervous (the number €5,000 at the back of my mind all the way). It wasn't an F-road, so I would've been insured, but not sure I would've been rescued any time soon!! It was about 2.30pm when I reached the turn-off to Raudanes Point. The Frenchman I'd hitched with - François - said it wasn't very impressive, but I thought I'd investigate anyway. Plus I fancied a little hike around the coastal path. I parked my little white car and set off towards the coast, taking a quick shot of the map, so I knew what there was to see along the way (lots of cool stacks, each numbered).

The hike was blissful, with the sun coming in and out of light cloud, and across a strange moorland with bumpy bits covered in red leaves and cotton grass. 

I soon reached the first site - an impressive arch just attached to the mainland. I wandered down a little to get a closer look but couldn't get a decent angle. The light, in fact, was pretty dreadful for photography, even if it was nice hiking weather.

I carried on, reaching another formation - a cross between an arch and a stack, I suppose - with a round hole in the middle. Again I went down towards it to get a better look and decided to have my packed lunch as the sun had come out. Gulls flew past me, sometimes very close, and I tried to capture them, but was having almost no luck with focusing on them as they shot past. All a bit frustrating. Looking at the photos now, I think they're fulmars.

I headed onwards, having quite a long way to go, and I still had a fair drive to reach Vopnafjörður, so didn't want to linger anywhere too long (or actually enjoy a place!!). 

I passed more grassy basalt stacks off the coast before eventually reaching the spot that I'd gone there to see - a lovely rounded arch with a couple of stacks visible through it. I clambered down onto a beach, careful not to slip over in my wellies on the most ridiculously slippery rocks.

I tried a few angles and eventually found a nice enough composition and the sun even managed to come out. I was there at totally the wrong time of day, of course, with a nasty shadow from the land behind me, but trying to combine a road-trip and a photography trip means you don't always get to the right places at the right time of day (if I only photographed during the golden hour I'd have a lot less to show!). I tried a few filter combinations to get different shutter speeds, and then some with a different view from the top. The sun couldn't make up its mind whether it was coming or going.

I reached the end of the sights around 4pm but the walk was circular so I continued on around the headland. The route seemed to go on forever, and I thought at times that I'd just never see my little car again! Finally it appeared and I was glad to rest my legs and get some water (yes, I'd left my water in the car - oh well, less to carry and I could rehydrate back in the car). The walk back was also lovely, with the sun backlighting the red leafy mounds - just a little longer than I'd have liked!

I was only half way through my journey when I got back on the road - still had another 125km to go! I drove without stopping until I reached the B&B at Hvammsgerði, just outside of Vopnafjörður. I wasn't quite sure why I'd chosen that place as my overnight stop, but it was possibly because of some more cool stacks off the coast nearby. I quickly checked in - very friendly owner - and then raced onwards through the town towards Skjólfjörur - a beach another 30km away, hoping to get there for some kind of sunset/dusk light. The clouds were looking promising. Obviously I hadn't planned the shoot very well as I couldn't find the track down to the beach when I arrived, and the sun was right round the corner so I wouldn't have seen anything of sunset anyway.

I got a reasonable view of some stacks from the top of the small cliff, but ended up driving a few km back towards the town so that I could see the clouds turn. I parked near a massive waterfall - Gljúfursárfoss, took a few shots there (it was impressive, but the light was poor as it was hidden in a canyon (that's what the name means)) and I was more interested in the sky to the west, which was getting more firey by the minute. The sun hadn't quite set, but was negotiating its exit with some stubborn clouds. The light grew and lingered, moving a little to the east, lighting up some streaks of white cloud that sat above the town an intense pink.

When the light was fading and the pink became grey I headed back into town; next stop was supper. Disappointingly the café in the information office was closed (in "winter" it closes at 5pm, and winter season starts on the 20th September!). The only other option in town was a hotel, which had a big sign out the front offering pizzas. That'd do. It was a strange place, with a huge dining room at the front on the road, and was surprisingly busy, for "winter". There was a group of Icelandic men eating, and a guy in a separate room watching some international football while eating pizza. I decided I'd order a big one to give me some leftovers for lunch the following day. I totally misjudged what 16" is. The pizza was absolutely humungous! I ordered one with pretty much everything on it, and only managed to eat a quarter, before asking for a box to take the rest of it away with me.

It was almost dark as I headed home, and I could see a vague streak of green in the sky. As soon as I got back to the guesthouse the sky went crazy - with the first really strong northern lights I'd seen all week (and no real clouds, yet). I took a few shots of the farm building and tractor with the lights swirling above.

Then suddenly there was the most colourful array I've ever seen, moving really fast across the sky - too fast for me to even change my camera settings for fear of missing them. I could actually see the purple and the green with the naked eye.

This was pretty impressive - it might be a good night! I whooped out loud like the Japanese girls on my first real sighting at Jökulsárlon lagoon a few years earlier. Sadly the lights disappeared almost as swiftly as they'd arrived so I went back in and relaxed for a while, looking at photos from the day. There were two really noisy Russian couples sitting in the area outside my room, which was kind of annoying, so I decided to head out again - if only to get some peace and quiet! It had already begun to cloud over - grrrr - so I drove uphill away from the town, hoping for some clearer skies a little further north. I didn't have a great deal of luck, although I could definitely see that they were there, dancing behind the clouds. Each night it was the same - a tremendous forecast, some clear skies at sunset, and then as soon as it was dark and the lights were visible the cloud decided to move on in and ruin the party. The one piece of clothing I hadn't located for the trip was the detachable hood for the lightweight down jacket I had. Without the hood and only a beanie and small scarf I got extremely cold around the back of the neck every time I stood outside at night, so I kept going back into the car to warm up. Eventually I gave up and called it a night. It hadn't been a bad showing, but the clouds were just ruining my fun.

Again, another rather packed day, rushing from place to place, but at least I got a decent hike in and some pretty amazing lights, even if the clouds had got in the way. Rain was forecast for the night and the following day, so again I treated myself to the luxury of a lie-in and an alarm call just before breakfast finished.

Click here for my Day 5 blog - whale-watching, canyons, hiking, eggs, fish skewers, and more