Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part II

Hellnar, Iceland cliffs
Wild sea - Iceland

Snaefellsness and my first Aurora sighting


Breakfast was a variety of home made bread, slices of cheese, boiled eggs, salads, pickles, a variety of meat and preserved fish. The last item on the menu, I decided to pass,

The snow hit me straight on the face. I was caught in the bitter wind as soon as I stepped out and had sunk up to my calf in the fresh snow. Temperature was well below zero, with the 'feels like' hovering around -15 degrees Centigrade. I was better dressed for the weather today after the brutal familiarisation with Icelandic winter the day before (Winter Iceland and the search for Aurora - Part I). Double thermal layering on my legs, thick woollen socks under my waterproof walking boots, layered gloves, a three season jacket over a thermal layer and definitely a fleece lined hat. While the luggage was being loaded, I had a wander around. Not too far away, the white snow melted into the white waves of the sea and the navy blue sky above was being painted in pastel shades of pink and orange. Half past nine and it had only started to lighten up.

Langaholt Iceland
Langaholt morning
Langaholt, Iceland morning by the sea
Langaholt morning
We were moving further into Snaefellsness today, into a land of remoteness. Sometimes a farmhouse would appear after miles of nothingness. On the few by-roads which appeared to lead nowhere, some of the signs still held up against the weather. They would warn drivers about treacherous road conditions ahead.

Iceland morning
The night hasn't left yet and it is about 10 am
Iceland lone farmhouse
Lone farmhouses
We drove on, climbing hills and descending into valleys, following the black tarmac which frequently disappeared under the snow drift. About a quarter to an hour since we started, just about when the road was curving up a hill, the golden ball of fire emerged from a sea of white and gold on our left. We stopped by the side of the road to take in the glorious views.

The valley was stretching for miles ahead of us, everything covered in a thick snow blanket. As the sun climbed from the horizon, its golden glow spread over the white cover, its first light reflecting on the snow covered jagged hill tops surrounding the valley. It was one of the best sunrises I have ever seen in my life, at least the most surreal. Iceland must be amazing in summer, but under the pristine white snow and low winter sun, it definitely is mesmerising.

Iceland winter sunrise
A glorious Icelandic sunrise
It was only after the initial excitement had calmed down that I noticed the information board perched by the side of the road. It spoke of the chilling story of  Axlar Bjorn, Iceland's serial killer, who lived in these parts in the sixteenth century. He accommodated unsuspecting guests in his farmhouse in these remote settings and slaughtered them with his axe, sinking their bodies in the mere. He was only caught when one of his victims escaped and alerted the authorities. His execution was as brutal as his victims. I could feel the familiar chill of uncanniness running down my spine, how deceptive these serene surroundings could be. We all packed into the bus again, heading towards Arnarstapi and Hellnar.

As we approached the tiny village of Arnarstapi, the eyes are inevitable drawn to the perfectly triangular shape of Mount Stapafell and the huge rock sculpture of Bardur Snaefellsas, half ogre half human and the guardian of the region. We were in Jules Verne country now. Arnarstapi was the last stop in Jules Verne's journey before he climbs Snaefellsjokull to enter the crater to the centre.

Amarstapi Iceland Viking sculpture
Amarstapi
We were let loose in the snow. It had turned out to be a beautiful day. The huge expanse of Atlantic ocean lay beyond us as we stood on the viewing platforms overlooking the basalt cliffs. The huge swells forming in the open sea transformed into gigantic waves as they crashed spectacularly on to the steep cliffs, the sprays turning gold in the low winter sun. A path was marked out by the coast to stop visitors from going wayward into danger.

Amarstapi Iceland sea cliffs waves crashing
Wild sea at Amarstapi
From Arnarstapi, a short drive through lava fields covered in sharp jagged rocks took us to the lava cave of Vatnashellir. The lava cave was only opened in 2011 and entry is only allowed with a guide. The cave is in pitch darkness and head torches are the only source of light. The entrance of the cave was blocked in snow which was shovelled out just as we arrived. We then climbed down a spiral staircase to reach the lava tunnels. Walking through lava tunnels, our guide explained how the volcanic activity left its mark all around us, distinct patterns drawn by how quickly or slowly the lava had cooled. In places the presence of minerals were made obvious by the colours, red, green, purple and then there were patches of gold, not from the metal but from the bacteria which thrives in these surroundings. A sign has been aptly put up on one of the entry tunnels pointing to Stromboli, reminiscent of Jules Verne's journey. Our guide gave us a moment to experience the caves by asking us to switch off all our torches and requesting everyone to be quiet. Despite a few sniffles, coughs and uncomfortable shuffling, the eeriness was deafening in the pitch darkness - the sound of dripping water the only company if one manages to lose their way. Was a very uncomfortable reminder and I was glad to have the lights switched on and clambering back to sunlight.

Iceland lava cave
Entering the lava tunnel
Iceland lava cave
Our guide
From the caves another short drive through lava fields took us to Hellnar, a place of spectacular rock formations and black pebbled beaches. The low winter sun gave a golden touch to the dramatic settings of the coast.

Hellnar, Iceland natural arch
Hellnar arch
Hellnar, Iceland rock structure
Hellnar
Hellnar, Iceland beautiful black pebble beach
Pebble beach in Hellnar
Hellnar, Iceland beautiful black pebble beach
Pebbles
Hellnar, Iceland lighthouse
Lighthouse, Hellnar
We had a quick lunch break where I feasted on some delicious meatballs and then headed for Kirkjufell, the most iconic mountain of Iceland. We passed through fishing villages but since daylight was fast fading, everyone agreed we do not stop though they were in the itinerary. When we reached Kirkjufell the sun had already set and the golden glow was almost vanishing. With the waterfalls and the distinct shape of the mountain, no wonder it is such an iconic image.

Kirkjufell, Iceland iconic view
Kirkjufell iconic view
We were to return to Reykjavik tonight and everyone had requested a dinner stop. Teitur had planned to stop at Borgarnes. It was dark as the bus rumbled towards our destination. Suddenly Teitur stopped by the side of the road. His trained eyes had picked up something. We got off the bus and were greeted by a blast of snow drift. A camera was taken out and focussed to the north and lo! A green glow appeared just above the horizon. Everyone was excited and more and more cameras came out. I had captured my first aurora, a rather shaky and out of focus one, yet could see red and green columns rising from the horizon. I was ecstatic. But to the the naked there was nothing. I was disappointed. The cold wind was numbing and I had lost all sense in my fingers and was in intense pain. So clambered up the bus and soon everyone followed suite. A lot of excitement in the bus and everyone had their eyes peeled on the window.

My first aurora on camera
We had just about reached Borgarnes when someone spotted a green flare in the north. We were on the highway so took a bit of effort to find a stopping place but Teitur managed. He kept an eye of anyone drifting towards the road in the excitement. This time, the aurora was for real, for the eyes to feast on.

As a kid we used to throw iron dust on a sheet of paper and then run a magnet below the sheet. The dust moved around in a cohesive force. Tonight, the sky was the sheet of paper and the iron dust had turned fluorescent green. An invisible hand was pulling onto an invisible magnet, and the fluorescent green dust danced to it's tune. It was beautiful. I tried to take some photographs, but despite my theoretical knowledge from all the reading I had done earlier about photographing auroras, my photographs ended up being very surreal. The blustery wind was not helping either as it vigorously shook up every support in the open fields, blurring the long exposure shots. We stood there, watching, clicking till the activity diminished.

Aurora on the highway
That night when I returned to my hotel in Reykjavik, I was still grinning from the evening's adventure. The Aurora forecast had gone down to 2 on the day, so considered myself very lucky that could see such a display. The photographs could have been much better. But at least I knew my mistakes and hoped to get one more shot at this spectacular celestial activity. And not having a blustery wind would definitely help.

Next day I would be visiting the south coast of Iceland

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