Lofoten Islands, Norway - Dave Banks

Iceland - Visit No. 3

Sitting at work thinking of the Iceland break earlier in the year and how it was such a distant memory now, I had a quick look on the Icelandair website to see what they had to offer. With only a few days to go, they had a special offer to celebrate the return of direct flights from Iceland back to Glasgow. A few quick phone calls and the 3 of us decided it was too good an offer to let slip. We choose a suitable Hotel, the Hotel Cabin, which was about a mile further out from our previous hotel and very near the water front, and made the booking. We had to take the trip before the end of March, so that really limited us to the coach trips available due to the winter conditions. So we decided to hire a car as this would give us the freedom to do what we wanted to do. We pre-booked a car from Alp Car Hire again as they were really good the last time and they weren't too far from our hotel. We spent a bit extra and booked a small 4x4 with an automatic gearbox, I wasn't going through the gear changing fiasco I had the first time I hired a car here. The choice of car could either be a Suzuki Grand Vitara or similar. I could have hired a cheaper 2 wheel drive car, but that could have restricted where we could go, especially if the conditions were bad. Again we did a bit of checking on the Icelandic weather website to make sure we took appropriate clothing. To save some weight, I left the Canon 1Ds at home, but took a tripod for any potential Aurora photographs.

Thursday the 15th March 2013 arrived and we took off from Glasgow at 13:20 without any problems. We arrived to a light covering of snow in Iceland and as we arrived in daylight, my mother managed to see the drive from the airport to our hotel. That part of Iceland had also developed considerably since I last saw it 8 years ago.

The skies were quite clear and in the lobby of the hotel, there was a Northern Lights tour advertised. We decided to book it and would get picked up from our hotel at 22:00. That gave us plenty time to walk into the city centre to get our dinner. We saw this small, busy restaurant, so we took the chance and decided to eat there as time was starting to push on. The part of the restaurant we first saw looked very small, but it opened out to a much larger second level. The food was excellent and very reasonably priced, we would definitely go back there again.

It was getting dark by the time we got back to the hotel and someone said they saw the Northern Lights while we waited for the bus, so things were looking good. The bus picked us up and drove for about an hour to get away from the light pollution of Reykjavik. There were glimpses of the Northern Lights as we travelled, but the cloud cover was a bit thicker so it wasn't easy to see.

We arrived at our destination in the middle of no where, the area was covered in hard packed frozen snow. We could see the light pollution of Reykjavik on the horizon and the cloud was more broken than it was earlier. The Northern Lights were faintly visible, and as the evening went on, and with our eyes probably getting more accustomed to the dark, the Northern Lights became more spectacular. It was pretty cold, -5C and standing about for an hour on the frozen snow, the cold really started to penetrate even though we had warm winter clothing on. The night was a real success and was much better than the time we saw the Northern Lights on our first visit. Having a digital camera made taking photos much easier, so using ISO 800, I made varying exposures from 15 sec to 45 sec @ f4 to increase my chances of capturing the Aurora.

We woke the next day to overcast skies and a new light covering of snow. We got picked up by the car hire folk at 8:30 and taken to the depot. The driver was from New Zealand and had been here for 8 years. He said the 2008 economic downturn had hit the island badly, but they were almost back to where they before the economic downturn hit.

After filling out the necessary paperwork for our Suzuki Grand Vitara, we were on our way by 9:00, just in time for rush hour traffic. The roads had changed dramatically since I last drove there, I missed the turn off for Vik so I had to try and get back on course while negotiating rush hour traffic, and it was starting to snow just to make matters worse. As we headed south, the traffic lightened quite considerably but the snow got heavier and was almost blizzard like in places, so progress was slow, we were down to 30kph at times. We had hoped to maybe drive down to the glacial lagoon, but progress was so slow we soon realised that we might not have enough time to do that. We had very brief stops at the Seljalandfoss and Skogarfoss waterfalls as we had seen them before and headed to Dyrholaey with its black sand beach. The skies had cleared a bit at this point and we even had a little bit of sunshine. The winds there were strong, but it made for dramatic waves crashing against the cliffs. It soon started to snow again so we headed further south to Vik where we got our lunch and some petrol. After lunch, we continued east towards the lava fields. The weather had changed again and started to clear and blue sky could be seen. We realised that we wouldn't be able to go much further than this as time was running out, so decided to turn and head back west. We went up this dirt track to get a better view of a waterfall we had seen from the road and to find a place to turn. We saw this derelict looking place that looked pretty scary, we didn't go up to it, but made the U-turn and made our escape. It really looked like something from a horror movie.

The weather continued to change as we headed north, from snow, to just being overcast to clear skies. We stopped off at a few places for photographs and took the car down a snow covered track past a volcanic outcrop down towards the sea. We didn't get to the shore as the snow was getting too deep for the car. The black cliffs contrasted nicely against the white snow and the blue sky.

As a surprise for my mother, I headed up to the Solheimajokull Glacier. Our timing was perfect, a tour coach left just as we arrived and we got the place to ourselves. It was bitterly cold there and as we got to the glacier, we discovered caves in it, so not only did we stand on the glacier but we stood in it was well. We were there for just over an hour until the light started to fade. We left just before 8 PM for the drive back to Reykjavik, stopping off at Selfoss for something to eat on the way. We saw brief glimpses of the Aurora as we headed back. Arriving at Reykjavik, we used the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral as a navigation beacon and easily navigated through Reykjavik back to our hotel. We didn't get back to the hotel until well after 10 PM, it had been quite a long day.

There had been another light covering of snow that night, but the skies were reasonably clear and the sun was out as we headed north. We went through the Hvalfjorour tunnel, and at 5.8km long, it seemed to be never ending, and headed to the town of Akranes. There were a few cars driving about but the place was deserted apart from 3 people on the town centre. The temperature gauge in the car was showing -4C, but it felt much colder than that. We didn't stay long and headed further north.

Looking at the map we could take a route that would bring us out at Pingvellir National Park and we could then have a trip to see the geysir in better conditions. So we changed our route and followed the direct road as shown on the map. It took us away from the coast and into the countryside. The road wasn't metalled and eventually we came across a sign saying it was impassable ahead, so we had to turn and go back. We realised that this had taken up too much time and we wouldn't have the time to get to Pingvellir the long way round. The drive was nice and we saw a different bit of the countryside and some Icelandic Horses. They are more like ponies, but the Icelanders get upset if you call them that. It was getting near lunchtime by the time we got back onto a metalled road, so we headed to the nearby town of Borgarnes to get some fuel for the car and some lunch for ourselves. With the exchange rate in our favour, Iceland wasn't as expensive as it had been in the past and petrol was much cheaper than in Scotland. Most petrol stations in Iceland have a food outlet, so we had our lunch at the petrol station while we admired the view across the fjord to the mountains in the distance.

We headed back to Reykjavik and took the coastal route instead of the tunnel. There was a toll for using the tunnel, but we probably spent more in fuel taking the long way round, but the scenery was nice and we stopped in various places to get photos. The skies had become more overcast again. We got into Reykjavik just after 17:00 and dropped the camera gear off at the hotel and changed our clothes. We took the car back to the car hire place just before 18:00 and walked back into town taking photos on the way. We headed to the same restaurant we ate at on our last night the previous year. The food was up to the same high standard.

We got a taxi back to the hotel and on arrival we saw a greenish glow in the sky. We walked down to the water front, as it is slightly darker there, and we could see the Aurora through breaks in the cloud. That was third night is a row we saw them.

We woke very early the next day to yet another thin covering of snow. It was bitterly cold as we waited for the bus to take us to the airport, but he locals seemed impervious to this as they headed home after a night out clubbing.

The sun was just rising as we left Iceland at 07:35, the colours in the sky from the orange glow on the horizon, the blue of the sky darkening to the black of night was a nice finish to the holiday.

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