The Hike to Svartifoss Waterfall

Skaftafell National Park (now part of Vatnajökull National Park) is most known for the scenic Svartifoss, a basalt-columned waterfall at the base of Iceland’s largest glacier field. Hint: the hike to Svartifoss is also worth your attention. It’s good to keep the eyes open. Plus, other sections to the park have their own views, including glacier vistas. Skaftafell’s a worthwhile stop on a Ring Road tour.

I didn’t bother to show up at Skaftafell till about 9AM. If it’s a rainy day, there’s no point in catching the dawn light. So I slept in, enjoyed Skaftafell Hotel’s free breakfast and tossed my suitcase in the trunk. (I was at a guesthouse just east of the Glacier Lagoon that evening.)

Layout. The park is just a few miles off Rt. 1 and there’s lots of parking (you can pay for that at the park’s visitors center). The help desk folks are all knowledgeable.

Skiaftafell

A big piece of the park is glacier and there are several companies located to the left of the parking lot that do tours each day. In addition, there are a number of hiking trails criss-crossing the non-glacier section of park, that long spit of land (above).

Trails

The rangers all seem to be total pros. The guy I spoke with gave me some good tips as to the more photogenic trails. The S2 trail goes to Svartifoss, S1 goes along the flatlands to the base of the glacier. S5 heads up a ridge that overlooks the glacier and the eastern mountain range. That’s what I ended up doing.

The paved Svartifoss trail starts just left of the Visitor Center. It has a fair amount of vertical elevation at first, then the trail levels out. For me, things got interesting even in that first section of the climb, where there’s a small bridge over a mountain stream. From the bridge, the view was nice but with too many branches and brambles to get a clean shot. So instead of following the crowd up to the marquee event, I found a path down and in front of the bridge and below the overhang.

From here I was close to the stream and some good foreground choices. With a 15-35mm wide angle, the shot just fell into place.

On path to Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

1/15 sec., F22 (All images are handheld, I didn’t bother with the tripod for the shutter speed I was going with.)

On path to Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

1/5 sec., F22. From under the bridge

By now it was raining again so I grabbed the poncho from my day pack. After the terrain levels there are a couple of waterfall overlooks to the left, for Hundafoss and Magnusarfoss waterfalls. (Foss means waterfall.) Both falls have lots of vegetation so getting a clean photo is tricky. This one turned out OK.

Hundafoss waterfall Skaftafell National Park

Magnusarfoss waterfall, 5. sec., F22

Not long after these waterfalls, you can see Svartifoss up valley.

Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Svartifoss waterfall from the ridge, 1/400 sec., F20

Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park. 1/250 sec., F11

Most images you see of Svartifoss are taken from either that bridge or along the creek. Here I preferred to include more of the valley. Part of that was just the situation. The vegetation was just starting to take on that red-brown spring coloring. Plus from higher up, the valley, bridge, mountains behind become part of a context that humans are a tiny part of. These images remind me of the old Chinese pen and ink watercolors, a traveling monk lost in a vast landscape.

But here’s an example of a more standard Svartifoss landscape shot from below.

Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Svartifoss from creek level. 1/25 sec., F20

The waterfall and the basalt columns are a more central part of the image from this viewpoint. But the creek itself is visually busy with all the boulders. If I do a 500px search for Svartifoss, the images that hold my attention are mostly the long exposure ones. Doing a longer exposure here would have hidden some of the busyness in the creek behind the gossamer texture. But I haven’t seen many Svartifoss images that grabbed me.

I made one final discovery walking back. The Svartifoss creek and the trail were perfect leading lines for a photo of the entire area.

View trail to Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Southern view, Skaftafell National Park. 1/500 sec., F11

Doing the S6-S5 trail

For a longer stay at the park, it’s worth it to hike a few miles more on the S5 trail — up to the glacier overlook. The easiest way to get there, if doing the Svartifoss trial (S2), is to look for a sign for Sjonarnipa. This is the S6 trail that runs into S5 (the trail number isn’t marked as such). It’s a nice trail that does a slow climb up the wide ridge.

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After @ a mile and a half, you’re at an overlook of the glacier, Skaftafellsjokull, and the eastern mountains. Nice.

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And heading back to the visitors center along S5 rather than going back the Svartifoss route the view continues.

Chinese Temple Dog

 

Tip: After all that hiking, there’s a nice cafeteria (soup, sandwiches, dessert) attached to the Visitors Center that’s a good value and a great place to chill.

 

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Take Care of Your Tools

There were several times on the road when I was reminded of my Yankee side — that part of me that takes a hard look at things, tells you to own up when you screw up. And I had one Yankee moment on the trail up to the Svartifoss waterfall.

Early on, I came to a bridge over a creek. I took the place in: a rushing stream, red-brown bramble lining the banks, rain clouds above. Of course I had to shoot it.

By now, I was under the bridge, close to the water. A wide angle was the choice, i.e. my 16-35mm that no longer had a cap. I looked the glass over as I screwed the lens in place.

My slip of a hand on that cold day was still a bother. It was an easy mistake that had non-trivial consequences. This two week shoot was important to me, as business and as creative opportunity. I’ve planned it up the kazoo. And this essential lens could easily get damaged given the spring conditions. Plus I hadn’t heard of a single store on the Ring Road that would have DSLR lens caps. (I found one a week later up in Akureyri.)

Point taken. I got my head back into photographing the little stream.

On path to Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Shooting under the bridge, Skaftafell National Park

Five shots later, the 24-105mm was on my Canon, the 15-35mm was in my pack (in one of those little lens bags). I had pulled out my poncho. Yes, there was a steady rain by now and yes, I had remembered to bring rain gear. As I walked, I returned to thinking how I could be more attentive, mindful. …

… My father used to say you always take care of your tools. Clean the paint brush you used. Put the hammer back where it came from. Basic dad stuff, basic life lessons. The early landscape photo pioneers had the same practical perspective on things, maybe that’s what made them pioneers. I started making mental notes of stuff I needed to attend to.

Stuff I need to attend to, a personal list 

  • Put the lens back where it belongs when you switch to a new one … same for ND, CPL filters, cable release, etc.
  • Put your lens cap into your left-hand pants pocket (my system) when you’re shooting.
  • Bring water.
  • Bring extra gear, poncho, windbreaker, etc., if there’s a chance you’ll need them.
  • Bring a camera cover in Iceland, you’ll need it at some point during the day.
  • Check your camera settings before you start shooting.
  • Take the location in, breathe it in, before you start shooting.
  • Keep the rest of your gear close at hand.
  • Don’t take unnecessary risks. Travel safely.
  • Don’t always stay on the path (or in the scenic overlook’s parking lot), explore.
  • Be respectful of property, ask the owner before you intrude on their land.
  • Be supportive of your fellow photographers. Don’t walk into their shot, don’t trash talk on their gear. Appreciate where they’re at, share insights. It’s a community.
  • Don’t pull the trigger until you’re seeing the composition you want.
  • Think outside the box. Try shooting at ground level, from above, with different settings.
  • Recheck settings as you go.
  • Check that your lens is clean, often.
  • Stow everything where it belongs when you’re through with that location.

These are my notes to self, your mileage will vary. I added one more note to the list when I got to Snaefellsness: Zip up your gear pack fully when it’s not in use, so that new Sigma lens won’t drop out and the UV filter won’t be destroyed. Yep.

This list is a work in progress. And I know there are a hundred other points I could have mentioned. But you can only keep so much in RAM.

 

Vik to Skaftafell, the Journey East

After  1 1/2 days shooting Dyrholaey, Vik Black Sand Beach and the waterfalls, I was ready to continue down the Ring Road. My next stopping point was Skaftafell Hotel, just down from Skaftafell National Park, an hour and a half northeast of Vik. The trip turned out to be full of unplanned discoveries. 

Ninety miles isn’t much. During the first leg, the landscape isn’t much different from the western side of the South Coast. You’re driving through a wide swath of rich farmland sprinkled with sheep and horses that’s overlooked by the usual mesa. After that, the massive footprint of Vatnajokull Glacier pushed the Ring Road down towards the coast.

So the plan was to stop half way and do a 2-3 hour photo shoot at Fjaðrárgljúfur, a 2 million year old canyon park, then head into glacier country and Skaftafell Park. I had done a quick trip to the canyon on my first trip to Iceland, getting there just before dusk (see slideshow below). Fjaðrárgljúfur had a certain magic and I knew the location would be even better with good light.

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But before easing down the road, I needed to upgrade my cold weather gear. I swung by the store, Icewear, to pick up some serious gloves and a balaclava mask on my way out of Vik.  Icewear is as big as any REI store in LA. Finding all that cold weather gear in a town of 200 is kind of impressive.

About 40 miles east of Vik, Rt 1 crosses a lava area that is covered with dense green moss. It’s an intriguing area, most of it fenced off for environmental reasons. It’s worth a stop at one of the road pull-offs.

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Shooting the moss-covered lava was challenging. It’s tactile and otherworldly but too amorphous to fit easily into a composition. Finding a bit of a foreground design and pulling in a distant mountain plateau seemed to work.

Closed for renovation 

When I got to the turnoff for Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, I was in for a surprise. A park ranger was waving visitors over to explain that the canyon was off-limits except for the bridge at the bottom of the stream. The wooden boardwalk that goes along the entire eastern rim was getting a major renovation.

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, the canyon is one of Iceland’s unique photo experiences. Plus this was my one chance to shoot this park, what with me doing the Ring Road. I wanted to see if there was any leeway.

Our ranger was a total pro, articulate, thoughtful, hunky. He explained that as an American, I would understand how important and delicate the ecology of a park can be. He mentioned that it gots 500,000 visitors in 2017, way more than the current wooden boardwalk can’t handle, especially with all the spring rains.

My new ranger friend told me the view from the bridge would be worth it. Knowing that the bridge is located at the bottom end of the canyon, I begged to differ. “Do you think a photo taken from the far end of the Grand Canyon captures the magic of the place?” He got my point. He did allow me to head down to the base of the bridge and wander up river if I wanted. The water was way too cold for that but I did get one or two shots at river level.

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

Not the photo I wanted. But I gained a bit of insight into the challenges Iceland faces in preserving its unique landscape. Plus he gave me a ride back up to my car. We shook hands. He continued working with the new visitors, I continued up the Ring Road.

Along the way

With only 50 miles to my hotel, I had plenty of time to kill. So I kicked back and enjoyed the classic southern countryside, golden-green farmland framed by a mountain plateau… plus a wind-swept waterfall.

Waterfall in SE coast, 60 miles east of Vik in Sidu

1/800 sec., F8,  63°51’9.282″ N 17°53’17.322″ W

Just another road pull-off, not a place that’s in any guidebooks or on any tours. But balancing the fence posts with the plateau made it one of my favorite images.

Then I pulled up and parked for a closer look at the falls, called Foss a Sidu.

Waterfall in SE coast, 60 miles east of Vik in Sidu

1/30 sec., F18,    63°51’14.61″ N 17°52’16.128″ W

The area past this point was private land so I didn’t intrude. Just took six shots of this delicate falls. In half the images, the water doesn’t make it do the ground, the wind gusts kept sweeping the falls away.

Eastern District

Twenty miles further on and the Iceland landscape is transformed from farmland to a black sand river delta. I spotted a butte set against the expanse of brown-black earth — another photo location that’s not in the guidebooks. I found a safe pullout just over the bridge. My first image was to the east.

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For this composition I used the curve of straw colored grass along the dune to lead the eye in.

Shooting north, the view is of a long plateau and a tongue of the Vatnajokull Glacier.

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Afternoon exploration, Hof 

By now I was close to my hotel and ready for a late lunch. I checked in and grabbed something at the restaurant/store across the road. I had decided to do Skaftafell and the Svartifoss waterfall the next morning when I was rested. So that afternoon, I drove further east on Rt 1 to take a look at another of the area’s points of interest, the turf church at Hof.

Hof Sod Church

The church itself was closed but the trees and old graveyard made for a shot that could have been in The Hobbit.

This whole area has some intriguing mountains so I explored another 10 km down the Ring Road. There was something about the snow covered peaks fronted by golden tundra grass. But one of my working rules is not just to shoot a cool mountain or waterfall by itself. I need to put any visual element into a more complex artistic context. So I didn’t pull over until I found the missing element, a dirt road that led the eye into the mountains.

Rt 1 pull off southeast of Hof

A leading line into composition

Evening light

It had been a long day so I rested before dinner. But Iceland had more in store for me, the evening light. I walked outside and noticed sunlight filtering down to the glacier behind Skaftafell National Park. Sweet.

Skaftafell Park

A closer look.

Skaftafell Park

And further down the road.

Pond south of Skaftafell Park along Rt 1

This time looking east with the stream as a leading line and anchored by the rough vegetation.

Pond south of Skaftafell Park along Rt 1

A variation

I got back to my room just after nine. It had been an interesting day, a perfect road trip day. My only must-see photo location had been a washout, called on account of spring rains. But the photos I had were uniquely my own … just me seeing something that other folks on the road had driven past. Not bad.

Shooting Vik Black Sand Beach

Reynisfjara, known in general parlance as Vik Black Sand Beach, is one of the most popular photo locations in Iceland — as a visit to the 500px site will confirm. The beach is a generous expanse of blue-black set off by those distinctive sea stacks. The third major design element, the basalt columned cliffs that frame the black sand. It’s an excellently nice view and with some dawn coloring, you’ve got something that can be hung on a wall and studied.

… The place even has a legend attached, that the big sea stacks are trolls that were coming home after being up to no good. They were caught, outside after dawning — which as we all know, turns a troll to stone. … “See kids, that’s them out there in the waves.”

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For a location as well known as Vik’s Black Sand Beach, it’s common to have seen excellent images of the place before even going. Sometimes you’ve visited the place several times already and know the composition issues like the back of the hand.

It’s a smart idea to gain some familiarity with a location before hand. But whatever my familiarity, I can generally leave my preconceptions at the door and see what I’m being served on that day in weather, light, mood.

A travel photographer generally wants to do some research before hand, even if you’ve visited the spot already. And then you want to plant yourself in the spots that grab you until you’ve done some good work. You want to show up and breath in the location, the view, the dynamics — and the current logistics.

And if it’s a good spot, you’re already hot to trot. Getting into this or that visual moment. Seeing if you got it. In the zone. [So, note to self, pls. include this in our shoot set-up.]

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Some background

My first visit to Reynisfjara beach was a couple of years ago, part of a 3 day road trip along the South Coast. I could see the potential of the place. But I didn’t show up until about 9 am, big mistake,  there were enough bodies climbing the basalt columns to frustrate.

March 2017

March 2017

First visit to Black Sand Beach, March 2017

This had been a nice moment, spray in the air, low tide so a longer expanse of beach, morning light is nice but undramatic. The top one captures more of the feeling for me, the feeling that this is one of the most visually composed spots in the world. The bottom image is close to being a moment but I may have to get it on the bench.

Road trip visit

So on my first full day in Iceland this last May, I showed up at Reynisfjara beach at 4:15 am. … Yeah, that’s just too early. Luckily, I was seriously jet lagged and by 3:30 I was fully awake. Peaked out the shutters, it’s after dawn. … By 4:10 I turned off Rt 1 and was heading south on Rt. 215 following the sign for the Vik beach (and restaurant).

I parked, pulled out my pack and tripod. The temperature was hovering just above freezing, with wind blast.

I read the little welcoming signs at the exit of the parking lot. Noticed the warning about “sneaker waves,” the rogue waves (wearing sneakers) that can carry an unsuspecting visitor to a cold death. And statistically, this beach gets a few deaths each year — a high rate in such a small population.

The surf is strong here, it’s Iceland’s tip reaching into the mighty North Atlantic. And the waves seem predictable. But on some days you get an wave that heads way up the beach. This was one of those days. 😉

When I got to the beach, I made sure to leave my gear pack above the high water mark. I’d rather walk 20 feet to grab a ND (neutral density) filter than run after a floating camera bag. I wasn’t too worried about getting carried away myself. If my focus is on the basalt columns, I will have to be shooting at the back end of the beach.

I got the tripod up and decided on my 24-105mm f4 (the Sigma version).

Breathing the place in

Vik Black Sand Beach

Black Sand Beach looking west to Dyrholaey

The beach is the southern-most point in Iceland and the fierce waves have pulled in more than a few folks. You feel the wildness of the place, and the clean, stripped down beauty.  The wind was whipping the waves into white froth. There was full cloud cover to the west, the east was starting to clear. Birds flying around the sea stacks, occasional waves forcing me to back up. It was a lot to take in.

The view west towards the Dyrholaey peninsula (above) was lovely in its way. But the eastern view, with so many design elements and the dawn light was the play for now. And with no climbing tourists, the distinctive basalt columns were the perfect foreground element. That part was already in my head, the columns and sea stack relationship, the waves coming in. Plus there was a rose coloring in the eastern clouds, above the blue. That’s the moment.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/250 sec., F8

On this day, the cliffs, wave action, sea stacks and light were the elements I wanted to focus on, to balance. I also wanted to get the waves just right. This was a raw day in early May and the waves were showing some muscle.

The above shot was a good first effort for me. The stark silhouette, a breaking wave, birds flying around the trolls. But the dawn light wasn’t great. The composition worked, the alignment of stacks, the clouds, wave coming in. But the basalt columns, my foreground element on the left, didn’t feel right, not enough of something.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/100 sec., F8

I wandered closer to the basalt, which changed the composition. I like this one too. … But let’s keep exploring.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/125 sec., F8

Then I got hit by the combination of high tide and a sneaker wave. Kinda cool (esp. my feet). Clearly I needed a bit more black sand.

I decided to see what would happen if I slowed my shutter speed a bit — just to play with how the foamy surf would look against the black sand. A slower shutter can add dynamism to the image — or not. So, playing aggressively with a longer shutter speed.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1.6 seconds, f22, ND filter

This slow shutter choice creates an accelerating blur in the waves. It’s a cool effect that catches the eye. But it has an undertone of edge, jitter, that overpowers the rest of the composition.

Vik Black Sand Beach

.2 sec, F16

So I dialed back the shutter speed to .2 sec and pulled the trigger as the foamy surf was coming in. Since that section of the beach is closest to the camera, it has more of a blur than the breaking wave at right-center. And being adjacent to the basalt columns, the wave motion stands out in relief. Now the sky’s getting better too.

Vik Black Sand Beach

.2 sec, F16 (with more post work)

For my fav shot, I kept the same slower shutter but caught the incoming wave just at the balance point. There is a bit of motion in the breaking wave (center-right) but the overall feeling is settled, suspended. I also like the balance between columns and the trolls — and having that gold and blue overhead was the bonus.

My main discovery was to give the columns on the left more real estate. This element, with polished ebony columns, is just as intriguing as the sea stacks. And just featuring the columns as a sea sculpture opened up the feeling of the place.

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In post, I added a bit of sheen and focus to bring out the ebony in the basalt. And I cooled off the sky so none of the color or cloud texture was blown out.

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By 5:30 it was time to head back to bed for some shut-eye before the free guesthouse breakfast. 😉  But I did stop at the little church that’s just north of Reynisfjara Beach to take advantage of the sky.

Church N or Black Sand Beach

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A Wind and Wave Experiment

Dyrholaey (and Vik) are the southern tip of Iceland and the North Atlantic seas are particularly dangerous here. On this south-facing Dyrholaey overlook, the rock outcrop was being punished by an onslaught of wind and wave.  That conjunction of high wind and high seas was what made this overlook intriguing on this particular visit.

That’s one thing I care about, seeing what elements of nature are in play at a photo location.  On most days this southern overlook is pretty — rocks, waves, sea stacks in the distance, but nothing unique. But capture the forces of nature in a way that has visceral impact and the image can grab the imagination.

My Approach

I didn’t bother with a tripod, the wind was too strong. Plus any shutter speed below about 1/300 turned the wave action into a blur. My first step was to set up a workable composition that would include some foreground context, the distant sea stacks and that sky. Then just wait till the next wave hits and shoot the watery explosion at the right moment. I didn’t bother with continuous shooting, the waves moved slow enough for me to (generally) hit the moment. And who wants to wade through 500 images of the same seascape.

Some of the shots were duds. But several of the wave explosions captured the feeling, the drama, of being out there. This image reminded me how heavy-handed the wind was (something I could feel in my bones).

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This second shot had more of the elements I was going for, including one of the last rays of sunlight highlighting the wave. The sea stacks in the distance (left side) are in front of Vik Black Sand Beach.

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Even at the tail end of a wave, the harsh conditions are obvious with this image. 2G7A5944

I lucked out with this final image of the day. The wave explosion is particularly dramatic and the foreground cloud is bathed in sunlight.

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Post production notes

I decided not to brighten the final image too much. The shot was taken just after sunset and pushing the exposure much higher would have eliminated the “blue hour” feeling. What I mostly did was to pull out the detail in the wave explosion with more clarity, sharpness, white. I also did some “painting” of the wave shape to make it more three dimensional. The final touch was to enhance the reflected light from the cloud in the ocean.

 

 

 

 

 

The Eastern Fjord Country

Iceland’s East Coast seems to be the least visited section on the Ring Road. It’s on the other side of the country from Reykjavik so you don’t see the tour buses. And it doesn’t have as many “sights” and tourist infrastructure. But from my perspective as a photographer, all that’s to the good.

The eastern coast is classic Iceland though, long fjords punctuated by little fishing towns, snow tipped mountains and photo pull-off spots — if you take the time to see them. And spending a day or two enjoying the fjord country, stopping here and there, are why we do road trips.

Logistics

Most folks do the east with a stopover at Hofn at the southern end and the regional center, Egilsstadir, on the north. You can do the trip in a few hours. But I wanted to explore the Stokkesnes area just above Hofn on a photo walkabout. Stokksnes was overcast and rainy when I was there but I saw a bit of the magic of the place and worth a stop for the photographer.

And I had heard that the most charming of the towns along the east is Seydisfjordur, a short drive east of Egilsstadir. So I broke the eastern fjords into a two days with my first night in Djupivogur, my second in Seydisfjordur.

About 25 miles past Stokksnes, you run into another little known photo op, a black sand beach located by the Hvalnes Lighthouse. By now the rain was heavier so I continued onto Djupivogur.

This section between Hofn and Djupivogur has a rawness to it. And on a cold day in May, I could have just driven to my warm hotel, that’s what I really wanted to do. But by now I was realizing that you take whatever Iceland gives you, that  the place is just south of the Arctic Circle and not a comfy tourist destination. And once I got my head around that fact, I started to see the beauty in the bleakness.

Before Djupavegur

Pull-off @ 20 miles past Stokksnes

Before Djupavegur

Djupivogur. Forty five minutes north of the lighthouse, you’re fully into fjord country at the town of Djupivogur. Djupivogur has a couple of nice places to stay and eat, a working harbor area, impressive swimming pool and 500 or so residents. I checked in at the Hotel Framtid, an old style place with wood-frame walls and an excellent restaurant. And, since it had finally stopped raining, I wandered along the harbor.

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Djupivogur harbor as seen from a nearby hill.

Flashes of Mortality

My day had started with shooting Diamond Beach at 6 AM, then a couple hours in the cold rain at Stokksnes so I was ready for a nice meal. And the Framtid Hotel definitely did the job. Their restaurant has a great view of the harbor and fjord and great (and pricey) food for a town of a few hundred folks.

Their cauliflower soup was quite excellent. But I wasn’t. I’m not totally sure what triggered the attack, maybe exhaustion. Suddenly the posh dining room started spinning, my heart spiked, I was sweating. I tried to get the waiter’s attention. This was a serious attack and I had to get back to the room. When he didn’t come around, I made my way out of the restaurant, told the man at the front desk to bill the room. I made my way down the long corridor hugging the wall so I wouldn’t  fall.

The problem wasn’t the soup, not even the road fatigue. I had been having attacks of dizziness, nausea, loss of hearing for months on and off. And just before I left, my ENT doctor told me that I probably had a hole in the bone that separates the inner ear from the brain, a rare condition called Superior Semicircular Canal Dehiscence.

For the most part, the biggest hassle of this condition was a low grade motion sickness, no big deal. This perception that the “room is spinning” was something I had only experienced twice before, both times when I had pushed myself hard and done stimulants like caffeine. So this incident was concerning, it indicated things were progressing.

The symptoms did’t last long. I spent twenty minutes revisiting the soup, got cleaned up and went to bed. The next morning I was totally fine.

I didn’t need to think too much about my options. The spinning visual field symptom was rare. The other symptoms, loss of hearing, mild motion sickness, were things I had been dealing with for months. And there was no way I could fix any of this here on the road.

The only treatment would have required getting a Iceland doctor up to speed, doing a CT scan, neurosurgery, a month of recovery. (I’m saying this having gone through neurocranial surgery 5 days ago.)  My only takeaway was to listen to the body, get extra rest, make the most of my time. Life goes on.

The next morning was another easy day. An hour and a half drive along the coast, lunch at Egilsstadir, then on to my next night’s stay, Seydisfjordur.

Eastern Fjords, Day Two

At this point Rt. 1 hugs the coast, heading inland on one side of the fjord then heading east on the other side. It’s lovely country to drive through with plenty of nice pull-off possibilities. In fact, just on the other side of the fjord from Djupivogur, I found a waterfall that I haven’t found mentioned in any of my resource materials, not even in the excellent Concise Guide to the Waterfalls of Iceland.

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Road pull-off, Eastern Fjord country

The next fjord:

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Ring Road pull-off. The raggedy-edge coastline and mountainous fjords are part of what makes the East so distinctive.

Each fjord seems to have it’s own tiny fishing village with occasional tourist points of interest (the guidebooks cover this stuff better than I possibly could).

Tip: Most of the villages aren’t big enough to sustain much interest. But the little town of Breiðdalsvík, at the junction of Rt. 1 and 95 is a nice stopping point if only to stop at Kaupfjelagid, an old general store and cafe. The cafe is inviting and the folks who work there are helpful. In fact, that was where I found out about the national forest along Lake Lagarfljot, just west of Egilsstadir.

Eventually Rt. 1 gets tired of the fjords and heads northwest, up-valley to Egilsstadir, the only real commercial center in the East Coast.

Egilsstadir area. Egilsstadir doesn’t have much history (being founded in 1947). But it has several places to stay and eat. But there are several photo possibilities in the area: the famous Hengifoss waterfall, Lake Lagarfljot and Hallormsstadur, a lovely national forest with a bunch of hiking trails.

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The arboretum in Hallormsstadir. With so few forests in Iceland, hiking in this forest park is a perfect change of pace. The tourist info center in Egilsstadir has maps. 

Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss. There are a couple of  waterfalls on the lake’s far side, Litlanesfoss and further up-trail, Hengifoss. They’re about 20 miles from town on the other side of the lake. You drive right by Hallormsstadir on the way so it’s a nice twofer. Hengifoss is the better known — being the third tallest waterfall in Iceland. Litlanesfoss, with it’s basalt columns, is more photogenic in my eyes.

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Litlanesfoss with its basalt cliffs. Hengifoss waterfall in the distance

Seydisfjordur. Egilsstadir is also your starting point for visiting the only truly scenic town on the East Coast, Seydisfjordur. Seydisfjordur is on another fjord, 20 miles east of Egilsstadir.  This fjord town was established by Norwegian fishermen in 1848. The village has some historical buildings and a thriving art community. The town also gets visited by a weekly car ferry from Denmark. I spent a lovely evening shooting there.

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Evening, Seydisfjordur (here with a 60 second exposure)

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One of the art shops, along the rainbow road to the church

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Seydisfjordur church

Skipping the eastern fjords. The eastern fjords are nice but someone who’s in a hurry can skip the northern section of the Ring Road and head straight northwest from Breiddalsvik to Egilsstadir on Rt 95. This option is only about a half hour less driving but you’ll be less enticed to stop.

Welcome to Iceland

There was lots of snow on the road leaving Keflavik Airport that Friday morning. I had a cheap rental car, a front wheel drive Dacia Logan. I took things slow. I hadn’t driven in snow for years — or a stick shift. And since it was just me on this Ring Road trip, I had to navigate the Reykjavik suburbs in a clunky and unfamiliar car at 6:30.

By 7AM I’d gotten to Route 1 and was heading east and south… off the plateau towards Selfoss and the South Coast lowlands. The South Coast communities along the Ring Road were still waking.  It was cold, mid 30s (2 degrees C) , typical Iceland weather for March (except it was May) with wind blowing between 15 and 25 mph.

Once you’re into the South Coast, the land starts to get spare and big. Iceland’s golden southeast. Mountains and high plateaus on the left; wide-shouldered farms and black sand beaches over on the right.

I had been looking for a cafe, none were open. So I decided to power on till I got to Seljalandsfoss, the popular waterfall tour stop.  Seljalandsfoss is a 2 hour drive from the airport at 90 kmph speed limit (standard throughout Iceland).

Rt. 1 / Ring Road. The Ring Road is a 2 lane blacktop for most of it’s 840 miles. The road is well taken care of. But it can be tricky to drive, especially in a rental. And as you drive, you’ll notice the road has no shoulder, just a foot of blacktop outside the lane lines — then the sloped grading. So if you leave your lane, you’re looking at a 6-8 foot drop-off.

Knowing that fact made me more hesitant to push my speed much past 100 kph even if that section of road is clear and straight. There’s too little margin of error. Plus the road is graded as 2 lane blacktop, not highway. That means any time you go faster than 90, you feel it.

Ring Road Safety: Pull-offs. The lack of a shoulder makes it essential that you take extra care when pulling over. Tourists in Iceland have gotten a bad rep for stopping their cars there on the road to take pictures. Trouble is, there are lots of scenic spots along the road that don’t have a safe pull-off.

So as I drive, if I absolutely must photograph a spot along the road, I slow down just a bit and look for safe places to park. Often there’s a farm road or the occasional raised gravel areas right next to the road. There are also lots of pull-offs with parking for spots the highway planners decided were scenic.

Road pull-offs are one of the hallmarks of a true scenic highway. Pull-offs are also an opportunity for true photo enthusiasts to show what they’ve got. Instead of being a packaged site like a waterfall, a roadside pull-off spot doesn’t even exist until a good photographer sees it and shoots it.  They’re like instant photo improvisations. But do safe pull-offs.

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So I was on my way to the first marquee photo location, Seljalandsfoss. (Fossbeing the Icelandic word for waterfall.)  Two hours from Keflavik International. Still an hour to the Guesthouse Vellir, my final destination for that day.

Three hours isn’t much driving for the day when doing a Ring Road trip. And this was Day 1 of 14; doing a 7 day Ring Road is a different beast. But let’s remember that I flew out of LA on Thursday at noon. So when I started the drive, I was already fried.

That’s one reason I had scheduled a second day along the South East Coast. First because Iceland’s South Coast deserves it, it’s a treasure trove for landscape photogs. Second, because if you do a 9 hours flight from LA, you need to take a day, minimum, to work past the jetlag.

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