element of imagination and creation

Iceland by the end of September

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I’ve been planning this post about our trip to Iceland for the last three weeks. But work during vacation shit happens.

Since this post is the Director’s Cut version, I’m gonna point out the main subjects so you could jump directly to them.

  1. Preparation and planning (travel, accommodation, gear, and clothing)
  2. Golden Circle (Þingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss, Skálholt, Kerið)
  3. The South Coast #1 (Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Reynisfjara, Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon)
  4. The South Coast #2. The return (Jökulsárlón and Diamon Beach, Random rainbow)
  5. Snæfellsnes peninsula (Kirkjufell, Skarðsvík, Svörtuloft, Djúpalónssandur, Ytri Tunga)
  6. Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon
  7. Long story short

So, yeah … I took my wife and together we explored Iceland for five days and six nights looking for … nothing. Just to be there. This was a destination we both dreamed of visiting. Unlike all other places we’ve been, where we just had to accommodate in a single location for several days and then just roam the city in that given period, with Iceland things were a little bit different.

You can’t just go to Iceland on a city-break, day-trip, or anything similar like “Hey, I think I’m just going to visit Reykjavik and then turn back”. No, sir. You have to go and travel and explore all over.

You see, Iceland is a country on an island, on a huge magma column, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, at the edge of the Arctic Circle, closer to Greenland than Europe or another continent. It is truly a land of ice and fire.

The only city in this country is its capital, Reykjavík, and Iceland’s total population sums up to a bit over 300.000 souls. That’s 7 times lower than Bucharest. But compared to Bucharest, Iceland covers around 100.000 square kilometers while Romania’s capital is confined in 228 square kilometers. Which is awesome by me.

Iceland has so much to offer in regards of wild natural landscapes in so many shapes and sizes, that it would be a shame to go there for less than 4 days. At least that’s what everybody says on their traveling blogs. So we went for five days (plus another two for traveling from Romania and back).

Preparation and planning

Now, I know that Iceland is one of the favorite destinations for enthusiast photographers like me. I think all my favorite artist YouTubers have been there showing off their amazing shots with the unique landscape features this place has to offer. So, I admit that all those guys and their impressive work had some influence on my desire of visiting Iceland. Actually some of the famous landmarks like Kirkjufell mountain, “the plane in the desert” or the black sand beaches were the visual triggers for me whishing to visit Iceland, while watching Peter McKinnon or Matti Happoja doing their stuff out there. “I also want to shoot that”. So, visually, yeah, I knew Iceland mostly from these guys.

That meant that I had to bring some gear with me.

Clothing

While doing our research before planning the trip we learned A LOT of things. The most important thing I learned was that … research is paramount before going to Iceland. You don’t want to go there unprepared. Especially if you want to go on your own. So, one of the first things we learned was that knowing what the weather will be like is not that important when you go there. You have to be prepared for ANY kind of weather. For our travel window (23-29 September 2019), the forecast was rain showers. Every single day. And between 8 to 14 Celsius degrees during the day. So we kind of panicked and thought about our luggage, how many clothes could we carry. I was actually thinking of how can I still keep my tripod in the business.

But the more you read the more you find out. So the basic fact is that Iceland has very unstable weather. Fog, cold, storm, rain showers, sunny day and all warm outside, all these can happen in about 15 minutes. And we actually experienced that during one of the days over there. A piece of good advice that we got and that really helped was to prepare with layered clothing. Otherwise, we were ready to pack all of our winter clothes ’cause “we are going to the arctic circle! And it’s raining!”. So, instead, we took normal clothes, but that can be layered easily.

For me, the best deal was to buy not very expensive wind and water-resistant pants (that go over normal jeans easily, without taking the shoes off) and a really thin jacket (also waterproof and windproof) that could go over my hoodie. These two pieces were life-saving, I swear. The wind out there, at least at the end of September, is overkill.

Luckily my black high ankle sneakers did well during all the rains I’ve been through. I did not take any special boots for this trip.

gear

As for my gear, I had to let go of my camera bag. We only took two cabin bags each on the plane, so four in total. Two of them had to fit under the front seat in the plane.

My gear in Iceland
In the third day, I remembered I forgot to take this photo at home

Yeah, the image above pretty sums up everything I took with me. The only thing that’s missing is my tripod. A SLIK PRO 340DX, with a Cullmann ballhead that fits perfectly in a regular plane cabin sized travel bag. It was left in the trunk of the car at the moment of the family photo :(.

I took all my main lenses: 85mm, 24-70mm and the 14mm.

Luckily my 6D is weather resistant (not waterproof) but even so, I had some problems after shooting during the rain, but in the end (after sucking the water out of it around the settings wheel), it turned out ok. I totally recommend a raincoat for the camera.

I also took a GoPro 5 Black, for time-lapses. Cleaning accessories and lens filters (which I never got to use).

All the lenses and small accessories went in the clothing bag (total of 9 kilos), together with the tripod. While in the “under the front seat” backpack I put all the electronics that had to be taken out during the security check, in the airports (to speed up that process).

traveling and accommodation

Once we knew when was our window when we could both travel for a week, we started tracking (with Google Flights) all the flights to Reykjavik and back in that time period. At the moment we found some reasonable prices we bought the tickets (via kiwi.com) and at the same time, we rented a car from the airport (Alamo rental cars something). This was another tip from all the traveling blogs: first thing after acquiring the plane tickets, rent a car!

We rented an identical car with ours because I haven’t driven another car beside mine :|. No wonder the miss who gave us the car was confused of why we refused a 2019 car (different brand) for a 2017 car. This was also the first time I ever rented a car, and of course the first time I drove a different car than my own (although the same model). We also choose to pay for full warranty in case of anything, so the whole deal went up to 280EUR .

About the accommodation. We booked our nights in the last days before leaving because we actually did not know where we’ll be going. We just knew that we’ll travel all over for 5 days but yet we did not have a plan.

Before making a plan we had to know quite well the destination and the routes. Once we familiarized ourselves with the areas we were going to visit we could draw some nice routes and then we were able to set the places to spend the nights. We spent each night in a different place, and this was also a first for me. But booking several days before staying comes with its misfortunes: not many options left, and those left were quite expensive.

Another thing we considered when we choose the accommodation was the fact that right at this time the Northern Lights would be visible. That’s why most of our nights were booked in remote areas. So we could better see all the clouds and mist and feel the storms … Yeah, from this point of view we ran into a little bit of bad luck. But not 100%, just 98% :)) as you’ll see.

the adventure begins

Day 01: The Golden Circle

In Day 0 we landed almost at midnight in Keflavik airport and we went for our first night somewhere near the start of the Golden Circle route, in Hafnarfjördur (30 minutes from Keflavik, 10 minutes or so to Reykjavik). We wanted to avoid driving through the city right on the first day. To our surprise, we learned that all Icelandic tap water is safe for drinking and the hotel we were staying actually had geothermal water as hot water. So we were blessed with a healing geothermal egg smelling shower right from the first night, after a full day of travelling.

Iceland Day 01 route

So, the first day was dedicated to visiting The Golden Circle attractions. We managed to visit everything on our list in spite of leaving much later than planned from the hotel in the morning.

All-day was cloudy but luckily, it rained only while we were en route. The temperature was between 8 and 11 Celsius degrees.

Day 1 Highlights

  • 210 km, 3h42m driving
  • Þingvellir National Park: we stopped at Almannagja visitor center parking. There’s a lot to tell about this location, suffice to say that you can actually walk between two tectonic plates and be stunned by a surreal landscape. This was our first stop and we thought that nothing could be better than this. We were wrong :). The featured image for this post is shot from here. You can walk a lot around and visit many landmarks in this area but we had a long road ahead and we were late.
  • Geysir and Strokkur: Geysir (the mother of all geysers) is currently dormant, but when it errupts the water can reach up to 70m. Strokkur is slightly smaller but quite active, erupting every 7-10 minutes. This was also the first time I ever saw a geyser. There is a really nice shop here, called … Geysir, and from what we could tell all the sellers were Romanians. We didn’t say Hi. But the merchandise over there is quite awesome. Actually everywhere in Iceland, the souvenirs and merchandise are really hard to resist.
  • Gullfoss. Everything ending with “foss” is a waterfall. So this is one of the iconic waterfalls in Iceland. The golden waterfall if I am not mistaking. This is a peculiar waterfall because it is formed by several steps that twist the river at almost 90 degrees before continuing its course through a spectacular canyon. Waterproof clothing is a must if you want to get close.
  • Skálholt Cathedral. This is a historical area on the same river as Gullfoss. There are some ruins and a moss-covered house near the cathedral.
  • Kerið crater. You might say that the photos from this location are too saturated and the colors are not natural. Yeah, the colors of this otherworldly place are truly unnatural. The deep red soil and the deep blue-green water of the crater lake are there to drop your jaw. This is a 3000-year-old volcanic crater and that’s it. Its waters are somewhere between 7 and 14 meters deep.

The day ended after the sunset when we reached the guesthouse, 50 km from Selfoss. A really quiet place, totally isolated with horse pasture. So you can watch horses if this is your thing. As we were going to learn throughout our travels in Iceland, all the guesthouses expect you to leave your shoes at the entrance. This was also a first for us and felt … different. The host was very kind and the dinner they served (not cheaper than regular restaurants, which are not cheap by the way) was excellent.

This was the first day and we were very tired. As you are right now reading all this, I assume.

Day 02: The South Coast #1

The plan for this day was to travel from Selfoss to Jokulsarlon Glacier and Diamond beach, to be there at sunset for great photos, and then to return to Hof for the night. So that we could travel back to Selfoss the next day.

Iceland day 02 route

This route had many landmarks to visit and we thought that maybe we’ll skip some of them in order to see them on the next day on return. Unfortunately, one cannot simply skip the marvels of nature when they unravel in front of you. So we didn’t skip anything, actually made a lot of stops just to WOW. More than that we also made a long list with places we did not stop so that we could stop the next day on the return.

Day 2 Highlights

  • 248 km, 5h driving
  • Seljalandsfoss. Yeap, waterfall. 60m high, you can go behind it and you can also find another hidden waterfall, Gljúfrabúi (we didn’t go to this one). This waterfall is on the river with the same name and actually I just found out that this river is originated in the Eyjafjallajökull volcano glacier. Don’t bother trying to spell that. You can buy mugs and t-shirts with its correct pronunciation. A lot of tourists, trying to take a decent shot only will frustrate you.
  • Skógafoss. Another waterfall. About the same size only much wider. Even more tourists. The sight is impressive.
  • Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Parking lot fully packed. We parked on the side of the road, outside the parking lot. Nothing much to say here, one of the top most-wanted locations for tourists in Iceland. It can’t let you down. The view is out of this world.
  • Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. The last stop for the day, almost dark outside. In order to reach this canyon, you have to destroy your car. Or take a helicopter. The road is really really bad. When we finally got there the rain started again. And the winds. From the parking lot to the first vantage point you had to hike for 5 or more minutes. There are many vantage points, but I checked out only the first two. I had enough rain. The waterproof clothing was on top of the situation. But the views … totally worth it.

All-day was really cloudy. Actually you could see that the clouds were very low. Some parts of the road were even foggy. But the landscapes … something taken from Prometheus, Oblivion, the last Mad MAx, Fallout 4, Interstellar. We really felt the need for soundtracks like Interstellar, Oblivion or Wardruna. We only had the Oblivion soundtrack from M83 and Solstafir on our phones. Good enough.

But these many stops and the bad weather by the end of the day made us stop at Hof (where we were supposed to sleep) for the day. It was already dark, raining like there’s no tomorrow and winds so strong that I could barely keep the car on the road. That part of the trip was truly terrifying, but it was just the first time we have encountered it. In the following days, we’ll have had some more of that.

Our plan was also to fuel the car in Hof, where we saw on the map that there was a gas station. Only that that gas station was actually 10-15 minutes away from Hof. We were extremely tired, pitch black outside, rain pouring like hell and the winds … as said before. And our fuel was estimated to last for another 40-50 km. So we were at the limit. In case the gas station was closed or something not working, we were kind of screwed. Especially on that weather.

At the gas station, we found out that it was self-service only. Not a soul there. Couldn’t be that hard, could it? Especially when you’ve never used a self-service gas station and instructions were nowhere to be found. Not to mention that I could barely stand on my feet because of the wind and the rain. It was incredible. I could swear the rain had bits of ice cutting my face. At some point, I managed to figure out how things worked, and of course, later I also found the instruction on one side of the gas station elements. When everything was over, back in the car I thanked my waterproof clothing for the protection given.

But the night was far from over. At the hotel, I was over joyous to find out that they actually had a proper and quite fancy restaurant. All I needed was warm food and alcohol. “We’re sorry but the restaurant is fully booked.”. Our room was not in the same building but in a small cottage in another part of the village. Very cute cottages. The owners were very kind to prepare some delicious burgers and fries to go. So we had a proper dinner in the room, on the bed. Just like home.

What followed … was one of my worst nights. I love storms. Thunderstorms. But that night was a … wind-storm or something. I stayed up all night afraid that the cottage would be obliterated by the winds. I have never experienced such fear because of a storm. Especially without thunders or something. Just really really loud winds, whipping rain. The cottage proved sturdy enough in spite of the all-night shakings but it could totally help some soundproofing.

Day 03: THE SOUTH COAST #2

The forecast for this day was not very hopeful. In the morning we had planned to visit Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and the Diamond beach nearby, and then to turn back to Selfoss and visit all the things we put on the list on our way here in the day before.

We woke up destroyed by the previous nights’ lack of sleep and loads of fear and anxiety. At least for me. Actually the next days I was kind of traumatized by that night’s winds. Being as we were, we decided to skip all the little spots we wanted to stop on our way back. So we just went for several points of interest.

Iceland day 03 route

Day 3 Highlights

  • 336 km, 5h40min driving
  • Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. When we got here it was really cloudy, and ice raining. And dark. And windy, of course. But the sight of the lagoon … The color of the water and the huge chunks of ice that are actually icebergs from the I-never-bothered-spelling-its-name glacier (Breiðamerkurjökull). I felt like I was at the north pole. Or the south pole.
  • Diamond beach. That’s the actual name, no elfish or vikingish name. It is very close to Jökulsárlón, actually right across the street. It is a classic Icelandic black beach but littered with diamond clear chunks of ice, of all sizes. Luckily, because of the bad weather perhaps, there were not so many tourists, so we took our time there. I took so much time there that my hand froze on the camera.
  • Somewhere. All-day so far had been murky, rainy, windy and foggy. Difficult driving. But out of a sudden, in a certain place, can’t tell precisely where, there was the SUN. No wind. No rain. More than that it was really really warm outside. Even more than that a majestic rainbow thought to hug a whole mountain from a nearby glacier right to the other side of that mountain. Spectacular view. We stopped, like many other cars. And photographed the spectacle. My eyes were teary. But this time not because of the wind or the cold.

Other interesting stops along the way to Selfoss were LAVA interactive center. I think it’s a must if you want to learn about the geology of Iceland or just curious about their volcanic history. State-of-the-art technologies will immerse you in a unique experience. They also have a very generous gift shop. Another interesting stop was Midgard Base Camp. We stopped here to have dinner, but apparently the place has much more to offer. For another time.

After the sunset, we reached our destination for the night. Another isolated spot. But with all the clouds, it was useless. The design of the guesthouse and the room left a very good impression on us. We loved staying there, too bad it was only for a night. I also felt sick because of tiredness.

Day 4: The Snæfellsnes peninsula

A beautiful sunrise woke us up only to find out that there was no sugar with the coffee in the cupboard. Sugarless coffee it was. And it was the best.

No matter how much we wanted to stay there forever in the room with those wall-sized windows and the view to the large field of nothing but mountains, we had to hit the road.

Iceland day 04 route

On our way to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, we passed by Reykjavik. We left the capital city for the last day to visit. Meaning the next day. Leaving Reykjavik we went through a really long tunnel. So long that at some point we were arguing whether we were still descending or just going horizontally. Personally I felt very Metro2033-ish.

Day 4 Highlights

  • 382 km, 6h17min driving
  • general landscape until the peninsula: fields littered with huge drops of lava covered with green moss
  • Kirkjufell mountain. The first thing that came to my mind whenever I heard of Iceland before actually getting there. It is a peculiarly shaped mountain, like a cone from a certain spot (where everyone photographs it). It literally means the Church Mountain.
  • Skarðsvík Beach. We are now in the Snæfellsnes Natural Park. This is a tiny secluded beach. What is special about it? Well, it actually is a golden sand beach, unlike the majority of beaches in Iceland. There is a nice contrast between the black charred rocks, the golden sand, and the green water. The rod to this beach is very narrow but it is quite a nice ride.
  • Svörtuloft Lighthouse. Following the road from the Skarðsvík beach, you will arrive to an out of the picture bright orange lighthouse. The road to the lighthouse, though, is really really bad. But the view from this place, even though you cannot go inside the lighthouse, is fokking amazing! And the winds were on the same level of the awesomeness of the view. Actually I was really afraid I would drop my camera if I wasn’t careful enough.
  • Djúpalónssandur beach. The path to the beach is straight out of the Jurrasic park.
  • Lóndrangar. We just stopped in the parking lot. But because of the strong winds, we didn’t venture up to the viewing point. But even from the parking the view with the upcoming sunset was unbelievable. Yet too far for taking photos with my short lenses.
  • Ytri Tunga beach. We came here for the seals. But we only found super strong winds and exquisite sunset. Actually, after freezing for almost 10 minutes on the beach I got to see some seal heads coming out of the water. I bet they were saying “Yeap, he’s still here. Duck!”.
  • NORTHERN LIGHTS! This night was actually the first night of maximum intensity for the Northern lights, amplified by some solar activity related geo storms. We only saw glimpses of the auroras, because of course, asshole clouds everywhere. Our accommodation was specially chosen for a view with Kirkjuffel and loads of sky. Unfortunately, the clouds were too low and dense all night.

I think on this day the winds were stronger than anything we experienced the days before (the exception being that night in the cottage). I felt like I could barely control the car. Quite scary. And this was all around the peninsula.

The route around the peninsula is quite short and you can see the Snæfellsnes volcano while driving around it and stopping at the aforementioned landmarks. That if there are no clouds, of course. We got some glimpses of it at some point. The funny thing about the accommodation: we booked a room with “mountain view”. Since the Kirkjufell mountain is the star of the area, we thought that this was the “mountain” from the view. Only to find out that the room had the view in the opposite direction, to other mountains. So, yeah :).

Day 5: Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon

This was our last day in Iceland. Obviously, we did not have enough time to thoroughly visit the capital city in just a few hours. So we just parked somewhere close to the center (or so we thought). we visited the Hallgrímskirkja church (the spaceship church) and walked around the streets and bought too many souvenirs and books.

Day 5 highlights

  • Hallgrímskirkja church.
  • Rainbow street.
  • Icelandic punk museum.
  • Blue Lagoon. Easy to get here. Big parking lot. Bring towels and make reservations. We didn’t so we just looked at the “samples” of the white-bluish warm water outside the compound. Good enough.

Most of the photos in the city were just point and shoot, nothing fancy. Nothing to see in this gallery.

Long story short

  • couple travelers, just me and my wife
  • self-driving, no paid tours, group tours or whatsoever
  • each night in a different place
  • over 1200 km of driving in 5 full days (speed limit is 90 km/h)
  • card is king, never used cash (not even for public toilets in the middle of nowhere)
  • layered and water and windproof clothing
  • there will be wind
  • food is expensive
  • take all your favorite SF and Fantasy movie landscapes, combine them, and you get Iceland
  • don’t trust blindly the forecast you read at home (the best forecast is the Icelandic Metorological Office at vedur.is), it will rain anyway.
  • I used the tripod only for the Nothern Lights. Otherwise, I really did not have time to use it. All the photos were taken handheld. Even the landscape panoramas.
  • Continuing the previous idea, if you go solely for photography, not tourism, choose just a few targets and try to spend more time with each. Speeding from one location to another is not good for good photography. My opinion.

If you got so far, you truly deserve a beer. If you have similar or different experiences in Iceland or have any questions please post them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear about your experience in Iceland.

Thank you for reading, I hope it will be of some help if you decide to travel to the land of Ice and Fire by the end of a September.

Go to Iceland. It will be fun!

They

Cheers, Laur.

About the author

Laurentiu-Marian Angheluta

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