Lofoten Islands, Norway - Dave Banks

Iceland - Visit No. 1

On the 18th November 2004, I visited Iceland for a long weekend. It has been a place I have wanted to visit for years, and when the opportunity arose, I grabbed it with both hands.

In the 2 weeks before we left Scotland, there was a fury of Internet activity to find out as much as we could and to book tours etc. The Icelandic weather website was one that was visited frequently. Initial indications were that on the Thursday we arrived, it was going to be cold (-8C) but getting warmer (0C) and cloudy on the Saturday with a chance of snow on the Sunday when we were scheduled to leave.

This information allowed us to take the appropriate clothing and camera kit. I relied upon a 30 year old mechanical Minolta SRT 303b as my main camera with a Minolta X700 as a reserve and a Konica Revio APS camera for candid shots. The old Minolta worked perfectly until the last day when it too succumbed to the cold, the other, more modern cameras, had packed in much earlier on in the day. This was a bit of a surprise, as this was the warmest day we had (-4C).

The approach into Iceland was fantastic. Clear blue skies with a light covering of snow across the island. The temperature was a bit colder than the -8C the weather site had predicted. On the way from the airport to our hotel, various buildings which had outside temperature displays, showed temperatures ranging from -11 to -15C.

We had enough time to book into our hotel and have a quick visit around parts of Reykjavik and grab a few photographs before it got dark around 4 PM, which was roughly the same time as back home in Scotland. Iceland is on GMT all year round, but being further north, I thought it would get dark earlier than that.

We went out to a pub that night to see a band. We quickly found out how expensive Iceland was. A pint of lager was £5. Needless to say, we never got drunk that night. Everything on Iceland was expensive, except for petrol which was slightly cheaper than Scotland.

For our first full day, we had booked a coach tour for the "Golden Circle" with Iceland Excursions. We got picked up from our hotel at 8:30 when it was still dark. It didn't get fully light until about 10:00. As we were travelling on the coach at this time it didn't really matter. It was a beautiful sight, seeing the first light of the day appear. Temperature displays were showing a consistent -15C. Our first stop of the day was at the Pingvellir National Park. This is where the American and European tectonic plates pull apart. The sun hadn't risen yet, there was only a glow in the sky and it was bitterly cold. Even with thermal gloves on, it was still cold holding onto the camera. After about 20 minutes, we were glad to get back onto the bus. The next stop was to volcanic crater. We only stopped there for 5 minutes, so there wasn't enough time to get any decent photographs. The singer Bjork held a concert in it because of the craters natural acoustics.

Gullfoss was our next stop. It was about mid-day by now, but the temperature hadn't risen at all. We later found out that this was the coldest November Iceland has had in 100 years. It was the coldest I had experienced in a long time. The spray from the waterfall basically froze with anything it landed on and that included the camera lens and our skin. The only bit of skin that was exposed was our eyes. Everything else had to be covered up, as the cold was painful. Thank goodness we did a bit of research before we left and took suitable clothing. A coach load of Japanese tourists who were dressed as if they were on a summer holiday, were suffering terribly from the bitter conditions.

After an hour at Gullfoss, we moved on to the hot springs at Geysir. Before we got off the coach, we were warned not to put our hands in the water, as it was extremely hot. The tour guides English was excellent, but it obviously wasn't good enough for some people as they had to stick their hands in the water to prove it for themselves. Some people just have to learn the hard way.

I could have stayed there all day. An hour and a half just wasn't long enough. Geysir was an amazing place; pools of hot water surrounded by ice and what looks like a puddle in the ground exploding 20 metres into the air every 5 minutes.

We had to travel quite a bit to our next main stop. The scenery looked very much like Scotland in places, but with no trees. Most trees had been used long ago by the original settlers or lost in volcanic eruptions, so Iceland is now replanting areas to return it to its original state. This was going to take a long time. The tour guide pointed out some trees that were no more than 5 meters high. In Scotland, they would be approximately 10 - 15 years old. The Icelandic ones were over 100 years old. The growing season is only 2 months each year, so they grow very slowly. We never saw any animals on our trip except for Icelandic horses which seem to be everywhere. There are about 80,000 of them on the island. I saw one cat and two dogs in total. All the farm animals are taken into large barns during the winter months. There was very little bird life either except for Reykjavik where hundreds of ducks, swans and geese gather around the lake in the city centre where they get fed by the locals.

Our final stop of the day was at the Garden of Eden. This place had massive greenhouses, which were heated by geothermal power and illuminated 24 hours a day by grow lamps. As a result, Iceland is self sufficient in fruit and vegetables. There was also a souvenir shop there. It sold the same rubbish there as the souvenir shops back home in Scotland do, but with an Icelandic theme. There must be a factory somewhere that supplies all the world's souvenir shops with the same old tat. We didn't buy anything.

We returned to Reykjavik as it got dark.

That evening saw us on our 2nd coach trip of the day. It was a Northern Light's tour. We were taken from Reykjavik to a remote part of the countryside, away from any light pollution. Once your eyes got accustomed to the dark we could start to see a faint glow in the sky. As the night progressed the Northern Lights became more intense, with a band of light reaching right across the sky. People were trying to take photographs of it with compact cameras with the flash going off, which was totally pointless. I did a bit of research on the internet on taking photographs of the Aurora, so the images I captured were taken on 400 ASA Fuji Sensia slide film at f2.8 The exposure varied from 30 seconds to 1 minute. A small table top tripod was used hold the camera steady which was easily stored in my coat pocket.

For the Saturday, we decided to hire a car. The guys at Alp Car Hire were very friendly. They picked us up at the hotel and took us to the depot to collect the car. Before we set off, one asked if I had driven in snow and ice before. I replied that we were from Scotland. At that point I was handed the keys and off we went.

It was my first time driving abroad and it took a bit of getting used to. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have driven a car with a manual gearbox in the last 12 years. I kept forgetting the gear lever was to my right, so I was fumbling around in the door bin with my left hand looking for the gear lever. When I remembered the gear lever wasn't on my left, and stopped going from second gear to fifth, I got on fine.

We headed south from Reykjavik towards Vik, which was about 180 km away. Once we passed the town of Selfoss, the roads were quite empty and we managed to make good progress and we were able to safely reach speeds of 100 kph with just the occasional patch of drifting snow requiring us to slow down. This still wasn't fast enough for the locals who still overtook me as if I was standing still. Four wheel drives with massive balloon tyres seem to be the thing in Iceland.

We stopped at the side of the road to take photographs of the frozen sea looking towards the Westman Islands. When I got out the car, I almost fell on my backside. It was then I realised that the road was actually covered in rutted ice. It was a bit of a shock at first when I thought of the speeds I had been doing, but the car had steel studs in the tyres which bit into the ice and gave really good grip.

The weather had changed quite dramatically. It had warmed up to -4C, but the wind was very strong. As a result the wind chill made it feel every bit as cold as the previous 2 days. The sky had also changed from being almost cloudless to completely overcast. We never saw the sun once. We stopped off at various places on the road south: the waterfalls of Seljalandfoss and Skogarfoss, the frozen sea looking towards Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) and the Solheimajokull Glacier.

We finally reached our destination of Dyrholaey with its black sand beach, just as the light started to disappear. The wind came straight in from the Atlantic and it was bitterly cold. Even the old mechanical Minolta, which was the last camera that was still working, gave up due to the cold. I think it was moisture in the air from the sea that caused the camera to freeze. As the last light of the day disappeared, we headed north back to Reykjavik, stopping of at Selfoss on the way for something to eat.

We arrived back in Reykjavik at 9 PM, just in time to do a bit of late night shopping and to have a walk round the city centre to see what a Saturday night is like. Saturday night extends well into Sunday morning. As we were leaving for the airport at 5 AM, to catch our 7:45 plane, people were still out and about drinking and they seemed to have no intention of going home.

The Icelanders are very friendly people, with almost everybody speaking good English. They cater for visitors very well. It is a place that is well worth visiting, and I will definitely be going back for another visit.

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