Lofoten Islands, Norway - Dave Banks

Iceland - Visit No. 4

As a Christmas present between the 2 of us, we decided to head to Iceland for a long weekend and for me to hopefully get a timelapse of the Northern Lights. We booked the Nordica Hilton Hotel, just along the street a bit from my previous visit, where I stayed at the Hotel Cabin. Again I decided to hire a car for our stay. Due to Brexit, the exchange rate wasn't in our favour, so using Nordic Car Rental, I managed to get 2 days car rental for £140 for a Suzuki Grand Vitara automatic or equivalent. Other rental places wanted over £200, I would later find out why it was so cheap.

Knowing I had transport organised, I devised my own version of the Golden Circle and the South Coast Tours, allowing us to visit places missed by official tours. I also kept my eye on the weather and aurora forecasts in the week prior to our departure on the 16th of March 2017. That allowed us to take appropriate clothing, as it was forecast to be cold on the first night (-7C) and gradually getting warmer (2C) on our last day with the possibility of snow or sleet on the Saturday.

To save weight, I left the Canon 1D & 1Ds at home and took a Canon 100D and EOS-M as backup. A travel tripod was also taken and the whole kit could easily fit into a small rucksack.

We arrived in Iceland to clear blue skies and patches of snow on the ground and a temperature of -4C. The aurora and weather forecasts were favourable for that night, so we booked a Northern Lights tour for 9pm.

We walked into central Reykjavik via the waterfront to get something to eat. The place I ate at the last time couldn't be found, it looks like a new business has taken over the premises, so we had to find somewhere else. We found a nearby restaurant and this was when I found out how much prices had gone up in Iceland since my last visit 5 years ago. Two fish & chips with a bottle of beer and a bottle of cider came to ISK9250, this is approximately £70. We quickly realised this was going to be an expensive holiday, in fact, a very expensive holiday.

The Northern Lights tour was a bit disappointing, yes we did see them, but the planned timelapse didn't take place as the aurora wasn't particularly intense and there was also partial cloud cover. That remains a goal for another day.

The following day saw clear blue skies, but it was forecast to cloud over later in the day. The day started off cold (-4C) and warmed up slightly as the day went on. After a big breakfast, we walked into central Reykjavik to collect our hire car. We couldn't find the place, but with the help of a friendly local who gave us a lift in their delivery van, we eventually got dropped off outside the same building we had asked for directions in the first place. After a bit of a wait, we got the hire car sorted out. It wasn't a Grand Vitara, but the equivalent, namely a Toyota Rav 4.

All I can say about the car, is thank goodness I didn't take out the sand and ash insurance for the paintwork, which was an extra £60. The car was an older model, with 200,000 km on the clock and with rust commensurate with its age. The paintwork looked like the car had been washed with a Brillo Pad, as it was all flat and dull and full of micro-scratches. To be honest, I wasn't that bothered, as long as it drove OK for the 2 days we hired it for, that's all that mattered. Any scratches I might have done to the paintwork wouldn't be noticeable. On starting the car, I could see in a glass window there was only 1 headlight working. I went back into the office to get them to fix it, so the guy came out and "confirmed" that one headlight was indeed not working, like I couldn't be trusted. He then asked "Do you need it to work?". I replied, "Yes, I assume it is the law in Iceland to have both headlights working on your car". He phoned for a mechanic who would take 15 minutes to arrive. It was just a bad connection, finding out which connector he was playing with in case it happened again, we were quickly on our way. The car didn't come with a full tank of fuel, but luckily there was an unmanned petrol station just along the road a bit from our hotel. I couldn't get the pump to accept my credit card, so I had to get help from a member of staff in the adjoining shop. Again, the Icelanders are very helpful people. We then went to the hotel to get my camera gear and additional clothing, maps and other stuff we planned taking with us that day on my version of the Golden Circle Tour. By this time, we were behind schedule, it was 11:00 and we still hadn't got out of Reykjavik yet. We were lucky to get out of Reykjavik at all, as some nutter driver about took the nose of the car when he decided to cut me up as he undertook me then swerved into my lane to overtake a bus in the inside lane, if I hadn't braked in time, there would have been accident.

So we were on our way, heading north onto Route 36 and to Pingvallavegur. We stopped off at Oxararfoss waterfall, then further into Pingvallavegur to the church. By this time, the sky was becoming overcast, and the light wasn't as good for photography. The bad connection in the headlight had come back again. From there, we continued on Route 37 to Bruarfoss waterfall. This isn't part of the official Golden Circle Tour, so wasn't easily found. There is little parking, but we managed to find a spot and followed a very muddy path towards the falls. The ground was slightly frozen and there was still some light snow lying about, so it wasn't as muddy as it could have been.

From the falls we continued on Route 37 and headed up to Geysir, stopping on the way to see some Icelandic horses. Geysir has changed, the public are now restricted to certain areas, which spoils the experience, but I suppose Health & Safety has finally caught up with Iceland. To warm up after watching the geyser, we nipped into the cafe and bought 2 soups with a slice of bread and 2 coffees which cost us ISK4000, about £30.

We continued up Route 37 to Gullfoss. The car park at the visitors centre had some unusual busses in it, they are specially designed to take people into the interior highlands in bad weather. They are massive all wheel drive trucks converted into a bus. Again, the effects of Health & Safety were on show. The path down to the waterfall was covered in snow and was closed to the public, so I couldn't get any decent photographs of the falls. Before I left Gullfoss, I had another go at the bad connection in the headlight and managed to get it working again. I felt a bit happier, as I knew it would be dark by the time we got back to Reykjavik, and I wasn't looking forward to driving with just one headlight.

We retraced our steps and headed towards Skalholt Cathedral. By the time we arrived there, it was 18:30, the place closed at 18:00, so we couldn't get in. A few photos of the outside in the last of the evening light had to suffice. The bad connect on the headlight had come back again. No amount of mucking about with it could get it working again, so I then had the prospect of driving in the dark with just one headlight. I had to resort a personal hate of mine, and switch the front fog lights on to help light up the road, as the light from the one working headlight was abysmal.

Because of our late start, the plan to head to Selfoss and then onto the geothermal area at Graenavatn was no longer an option, so we headed towards Route 1 and back to Reykjavik.

We didn't have an evening meal that night, supplies acquired at breakfast time combined with the big breakfast and the soup was enough. We did nip down to the bar for a beer to relax. Two beers set us back ISK2500, about £19.

It had snowed lightly overnight, and the temperature just below freezing (-0.4C). Again we had a big breakfast and procured some supplies for our South Coast Tour. Instead of heading down Route 1 towards Selfoss and ultimately Vik, I could head to Selfoss via the Graenavatn geothermal area, basically do part of yesterdays route in reverse. Well that was the plan. As we left Reykjavik, it started to snow again, but as we headed further away from Reykjavik, the snow got a bit heavier, but the main problem was the wind was blowing the snow off the land and onto the road. The road went from, you could just about see the black surface, to about 6 inches of snow and white out conditions in the space of a few hundred meters. When I planned the route, it wasn't clear from the map how high the road climbed into the mountains, it was a lot higher than I expected. Conditions seemed to be getting worse, there was no sign of any other traffic and there was no mobile phone signal either. We were seriously considering turning back, but the conditions were that bad, and the road so narrow, that seemed to be a bigger risk than continuing, so we continued. I saw a set of car headlights in my rear view mirror, which was a bit of a relief as there would be some help available if we got into any difficulties. When we eventually arrived at the geothermal area, I was expecting to see it deserted as we were the only folk mad enough to drive in conditions like that, but no, the car park was full and there was even a tour coach there. Everybody must have been in the visitors centre, as no one was outside. I didn't drive through all that just to go into a visitors centre, so braving the snow, we wandered round the paths to see and smell the sights. That encouraged other people out as well, so we didn't get the place to ourselves. There were a couple of spots within the place where the smell of sulphur was really bad, you couldn't hang about there long, but the steam vents and bubbling mud pools were really interesting and worth the all the effort to get there.

Leaving the geothermal area we continued toward Selfoss via the coast road. This must have been the route used by people to get to the geothermal area, as the road conditions wasn't nearly as bad as the route I had taken, there wasn't much snow on the road at all. By the time we reached Selfoss the sun was out. The rest of the day was a mixture of sunshine and snow showers. We headed south towards Vik, but we weren't actually going to Vik itself, but the black sand beach at Reynisfjara a few kilometres before Vik. This place was mobbed, the car park was full of tour coaches, mini-busses and cars. There were easily 500 people there. Trying to get a photograph of the cave with the basalt columns was almost impossible, I had to wait about 10 minutes before I managed to grab a shot with no one in it. There was a constant queue of people getting their photograph taken pretending to hold up the roof of the cave. There were also about 6 people standing next to me trying to grab the same shot of the cave I was. In the end, we all managed to get our shots, free of people.

The waves on the beach are quite dangerous, tourists have been swept out to sea by them. Every so often a large wave would appear out of nowhere and come right up the beach. On several occasions I saw people running to get away from the incoming wave. We left Reynisfjara and headed round to Dyrholaey as we started our journey back to Reykjavik. The sea arch at Dyrholaey is visible from Reynisfjara, and from Dyrholaey we could see the sea stacks at Reynisfjara. It was starting to snow, so we didn't stay long. We joined back into Route 1 and continued to head north until we came to the Solheimajokull Glacier. We didn't actually go onto the glacier, but went as far as the small glacial lagoon for photographs.

The next stop was Skogafoss. The original plan was to take the path up the side of the waterfall to get photos looking down it, but the weather had again closed in and it was snowing again, with little sign of it stopping anytime soon. As it was getting late in the day, we cut our losses and headed towards our last stop of the day at Seljalandsfoss. The plan was to walk behind the waterfall. Leaving the camera behind, I recorded the walk on my GoPro. The wind and spray from the force of the falling water was fierce and it wasn't long before we both got soaked. We then walked along the path 500m to the hidden waterfall of Gljufrabui. We weren't able to get to the base of the fall, as the water level in the narrow gorge was just a bit too high for normal boots, and there weren't any suitable stepping stones.

We left Seljalandsfoss as the light was starting to fade (19:50ish), and made our way back to Reykjavik. The evening light on the Westman Islands looked really good, so I pulled over to take a quick photo. Not wanting to get out of the warm car, I just put the window down. I found out the window only had 2 positions, closed or fully open, there was no in between setting. After taking the photo and putting the window up, there was a lot of wind noise that wasn't there before, the window had come out of its guides slightly and wasn't sitting right. I decided to hold onto the glass, to guide it into its proper position, while Elaine operated the window. This was a disaster, as the window really came out of its guides and overshot the top of the door frame, we were amazed it didn't fall out or the glass break. Another attempt got the window seated properly, so I decided it was best to leave the thing alone, and not tempt fate. We continued on our way to Reykjavik, admiring the Westman Islands in the last of the evening light.

Looking at the distance back to Reykjavik and the amount of fuel left in the car, it was touch and go whether I would need to put more petrol in it to leave it with a 1/4 tank like I received it. So a bit of economical driving allowed us to get back to the hotel with the fuel gauge sitting exactly on 1/4 tank. By the time we emptied our stuff from the car into the hotel room, it was 22:00. We still had 1 hour before we had to get the car back, so plenty time. By the time we drove the car to the car rental place, the fuel gauge needle had marginally dropped, but was still almost pointing to the quarter tank mark, so that was good enough for me. We handed the keys in and then looked for somewhere to get something to eat.

The place I had hoped to go for was too far away, and some places had already stopped serving food. We came across an Indian restaurant nearby that was still serving, so decided to eat there. The food wasn't like the Indian food you get in Scotland, but it was really good, and also really expensive. We ordered a bottle of wine, and a bottle of beer, 2 starters and 2 main courses with a portion of rice (which we got for free) and 2 small Naan breads, the bill was like this:

1 * Bottle of wine		6590 ISK
1 * Bottle of Cobra beer	1650 ISK
1 * Pappadoms			1760 ISK	(3 in total)
1 * Mug Kurkure			2495 ISK	(spicy chicken pieces with onion and peppers)
1 * Kozhi Mappas		4495 ISK	(chicken pieces in a sweet sauce)
1 * Raan Manjarabad		5495 ISK	(spicy lamb)
2 * Naan bread			1190 ISK

Total 23675 ISK
So our meal for 2 ended up costing £179.

By the time we left the restaurant, it was 00:15. In a lot of the shop windows there were waving cat ornaments, I believe they are meant to bring good luck. We didn't get back to the hotel until 00:45. It was overcast but dry, and just above freezing (0.6C). We packed our bags, but as we were getting up at 3:45 for the bus at 4:00, I didn't bother going to bed. I wasn't driving back from the airport, so the lack of sleep wasn't a problem for me. The sky was clear when left Iceland at 07:20, but not having a window seat I was unable to take full advantage of the views as we headed home.

I would like to go back to Iceland and travel further round the island, but at current prices, that will probably require a lottery win.

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