Wednesday 24 August 2016

Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part III


Sea stacks, black sand beaches and spectacular waterfalls

The waffles came out perfect this time, simply needed a readjustment of the dials. Today after breakfast I would head off to the south coast of the beautiful island country with Extreme Iceland on a 2 day trip. Over breakfast met a lovely couple from Canada who asked me to join them at their table. They were very excited to hear about my aurora experience (Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part II). They had been out the previous evening but had missed the sighting. Once more I was reminded how lucky I was. We were soon joined by another guy, he was carrying a full-frame DSLR. We watched in awe as he showed his collection of photographs of aurora. He turned out to be an astronomer from the Midlands in Britain, who ran educational trips to Iceland, his speciality being the northern lights. I could only feel jealous, but then he had decided on his career while he was a kid and went for his dream, unlike many who get distracted on their way.

It was well past half nine when the minibus arrived at the hotel. Was surprised to see how quickly the days were growing longer. Only a couple of days ago it was much darker at this hour while today it was a proper morning. Our driver for this trip was Siggi, a very quiet man unlike Teitur. He also worked as a mountain rescuer. The mini bus this time was not as full as my earlier trip, neither the demographics as varied. On the trip to Snaefellsnes, we had a healthy mix from many parts of the world and some very interesting people. It had almost altered my perception about group travel, but then my apathy was to be reinforced after this particular trip. However, this blog is about the much more pleasant experiences, so will try to not divert from that.

We drove past Iceland's geothermal plants, smoke billowing from cracks in the ground as the winter sun cast a golden glow on the white landscape.

Iceland geothermal activities
Iceland's geothermal activities, smoke billowing from cracks in the ground as the winter sun casts a golden glow on the white landscape.
And we drove past Thjorsa, the country's longest river at 230 kms. Our first stop was at the impressive waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss, which plunges down 60m from a steep cliff. In summer months it is possible to walk behind the curtain of water. But at this time of the year, it was icy and extremely slippery. A few people landed on their bums while one skidded spectacularly on his belly. I tried to hover close but decided it was much more entertaining to stand at a safe distance and watch.

Seljalandsfoss waterfalls Iceland
Seljalandsfoss - Iceland 
Seljalandsfoss waterfalls Iceland
Seljalandsfoss - Iceland

The source of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall is the glacier in Eyjafjallajökull. This is the infamous volcano that had erupted in 2010 bringing all Transatlantic and European air traffic to a complete standstill. This was to be our next stop.

Eyjafjalajokul volcano Iceland
Eyjafjallajökull - the infamous volcano
Iceland traffic
Iceland traffic
I was not convinced Siggi was pointing in the right direction when he showed us where the volcano was. Unlike how we normally visualise a volcano, as a conical mass of subterranean debris, this was quite flat. But that's how volcanoes look in Iceland, in a country formed by geothermal activities, where the magma still flows relentlessly, erupting from fissures when the energy surpasses the tolerance level. Siggi reminisced how as a young boy they had gone trekking when an eruption happened right in front of them. Luckily, the magma had flowed north and they had a safe escape to the south. The volcano warning system has since then improved and now gives a three hours advance warning, enough to clear away the small number of people from the scantily scattered villages. The villagers also build a treeline on the hills, in the path of the magma flow if one were to happen. It is possible to trek in Eyjafjallajökull and go up to the glacier, but probably will not be easy in winter.
But before that we managed a photo shoot of these.

Icelandic horses
Icelandic horses
Tiny yet sturdy Icelandic horses are a familiar sight around the fields of Iceland, even when the grounds are covered in snow. We met a band of horses by the road and cameras came out.

Icelandic horses in snow covered field under the low winter sun
Further down the coast, our next stop was the magnificent waterfalls of Skogafoss in Skogar. Though apparently it drops the same height of 60m, it looks far more impressive and is considered as the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Stairs lead up to the top of the falls for a different perspective, however they were now covered in snow and ice and extremely tricky to walk on. I had an injured knee from a bike accident couple of months ago but still stumbled on hoping I was getting better. However the knee gave in in the thick snow and I had to turn back, disappointed.

Stogafoss waterfalls Iceland
Skogafoss - the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland
From Skogar we headed over to the village of Vik, which translates to the word 'Bay'. The place is renowned for it's black sand beach, basalt rock columns and the Reynisdrangar sea stacks. Though I knew what to expect, I still had to pick up the sand in my hand to actually convince myself that the expanse of black in front of me was actually a sandy beach. Siggi had warned us about the strong waves and soon I realised why. What appears normally as a definite safe distance by the sea was lost in seconds as the waves came gushing ferociously. Definitely stay away if you do not want to have wet feet, especially in sub zero temperatures. The basalt columns rose vertically from the beach and it is possible to walk around them and visit a cave with a patterned roof formed of the basalt columns. However, the water level was high and there was a probability of getting cut off, so not done.

Black sand beach and sea stacks in Vik
Black sand beach of Vik with the basalt columns on the left and two of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks in the background
Black sand beach in Vik
Black sand beach of Vik with sea stacks

After a beautiful sunny day, daylight was already waning when we reached Vik. We had our lunch in the village at Vikurskali, a standard stop for the tour coaches. We then headed off for our overnight accommodation at the Country Hotel Smyrlabjörg. The journey would take us through the beautiful Vatnajokull National Park, but not comprehended in the complete darkness. It was time for aurora hunting again, and we got lucky. But the night had more in store for us, so keep tuned for the next installment

Northern lights in Iceland
Norther lights on our way to Smyrlabjorg

For my earlier posts on the Iceland trip, follow these links
Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part I
Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part II

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1 comment:

  1. Great post. Thanks for sharing wonderful pictures and information about your Northern lights trips


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