At the Klaustur Roundabout

Heading east of Vik on Rt. 1, the southeastern section of the Ring Road is fairly average by Iceland standards. Farmland, black sand beaches, and then miles and miles of lava fields with thick, green moss. A little weird that moss. At that point you get to a traffic circle and if you look close, you’ll see it’s the tiny the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur (“church farm cloister”). 

Klaustur, the local nickname for the town, is quickly forgotten by the roadtrip visitor – they’re biding their time, heading east to Glacier Lagoon. But look closely, just beyond the roundabout you’ll has a thousand years of history, a cataclysmic eruption and Fjaðrárgljúfur, a Geopark that’s a visual feast (and was the setting for a Justin Bieber video).

The roundabout is central hub for a church, market, bank, tourist center, fast food joint and gas station, several guesthouses, even a hotel. I would be staying at the Klaustur Guesthouse because it’s so close to the river canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur, my favorite shot location in the area. But my plan was to shoot this canyon in the evening light. So I stopped by the gas station/fast food joint for lunch and to see if the town offered anything for the curious tourist. 

I ordered the grilled chicken sandwich and lemonade and continued talking to my server, a young guy from Hungary. He started off with a story about his grandfather and the Nazis worthy of Tarentino. Then conversation turned to life for a guest worker in Iceland; he and the others here were summer workers from Eastern Europe. They made good money and my new friend was an enthusiastic explainer of the local sights.

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Of moss and history. Klaustur was probably where a group of Irish monks settled a century before the Norse arrived and began farming these lowlands. By 1186 a Catholic cloister was founded. Their farm was on the ridge, set next to the lake, Systravatn (“water of the sisters”). Just below that was the locally famous sight Systrafoss (“waterfall of the sisters”). My guesthouse in Klauster was adjacent to the falls. A few miles north of all this where the Laki volcano erupted a few centuries ago. The local visitors center at 10 Klausturvegur has a film about it. 

Guesthouse Klauster and Systrafoss falls as seen from a pull-off on Rt. 1.

It was too early to check in Klaustur Guesthouse so I stopped by the Visitors Center on the way — it’s on Klausturvegur road, the roundabout turn just before the one for the gas station. Besides the local travel flyers and books, they have a little exhibit going, 10 or 12 types of moss under glass bell-jars plus the afore mentioned video on the Laki volcano. The documentary runs for 20 minutes and is worth a listen.

The volcanic eruptions that happened at Laki from the summer of 1783 till early 1784 were the largest of the last thousand years in Europe. For a full 8 months, 42 billion tons of lava, 120 million tons of poison gases and ash blasted out of the fissure at Laki, killing 25% of Iceland’s population. The hydrogen fluoride gases killed 80% of the country’s sheep and 50% of the horses and cattle.

The release of the sulfur dioxide gases also had a cataclysmic effect in Europe. The thick haze decreased the amount of sunlight by enough to make that winter a deadly one in Europe. Even in North America the effects were significant, causing the Mississippi River to freeze over at New Orleans.

The dark haze caused crop failure as far away as Egypt. The famine in France was more deadly, one of the causes of the French Revolution. Remember “Let them eat cake”? Marie-Antoinette may not have said the iconic line, but the famine was real and killed many, indirectly even the queen herself. According to the film, the Laki volcano killed a million people world-wide. 

Klaustur, just south of the epicenter, was the town hardest hit. The scope of the lava flow was immense by any standards and the farmers in the area were devastated. After a month and a half of nightmarish damage, the people were certain their lives were over. That Sunday in July, 1783, they gathered at the Klaustur church with a major lava flow bearing down on them.

The pastor, Jon Steingrimsson, delivered the sermon. He understood clearly that this nightmare was God’s doing, that evil was walking the Earth. And he gave his eldmesse, his “Fire Sermon,” demanding that the congregation look within, acknowledge their sins. He must have been particularly effective in urging the congregation to re-dedicate themselves to God. By the time the service was over, the lava had stopped. The worst of it was over.

After 20 minutes, the historical video was over as well. So I checked out the display on the ecology of moss and lava. And yes, moss is another part of the Laki story. The moss I drove past that day was nature’s answer to the square miles of new-made lava The eruption of 1783 is still recent in terms of geological history. And ever since, the moss has slowly turned black stone into vegetative earth. 

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The pull-offs in this area offer several vantage points for photographing how the Laki event looks today. The experience, miles of moss and black lava, is almost otherworldly — and hard to capture in a composition. But finding a bit of hillside allowed me to make sense of the amorphous blobs and use Rt. 1 as a leading line.

I headed to the guesthouse to check in. The Klaustur Guesthouse is just down the Klausturvegur road from the visitors center. The folks at the front desk know all about the town’s history and mentioned that path behind the guesthouse leads past the waterfall and up the plateau. So once I showered, I headed up the trail, camera in hand. 

An old sod-roof shed, a path into a dark wood, the sound of a waterfall. In Iceland, the old world, the world of the Sagas, runs parallel to the contemporary. … If you follow that path.
Forests are hard for the camera to make sense of — too many design elements mushed together. But I opened up the lens, narrowed the DOF to capture the mood.
Systrafoss from the trail viewpoint. Not sure who the model on the rock was. 
From higher up the trail, the substratum of Laki lava gets obvious.

The trails behind Klaustur Guesthouse are open to anyone; this landscape is a piece of history. The walk is popular with families and couples. Nothing spectacular by Iceland standards. But a pleasant walk in a quiet forest has its own rewards.

And that’s Klaustur, the cloister town, the village at the traffic circle. Very little of this stuff makes its way into the guidebooks. The tour buses drive by, on their way to Skaftafell National Park and Jokulsaron Glacier Lagoon. But Pastor Steingrimsson and his Fire Sermon are a part of every Icelander’s heritage and Klaustur is a tourist destination for them.

Up next: Photo Walkabout at Fjaðrárgljúfur river canyon

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.

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