Friday 26 August 2016

Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part IV

Aurora Borealis from Smyrlabjorg
Northern lights from Smyrlabjorg 

Finally the amazing Northern lights!  

The sighting of the Northern lights on our way to Smyrlabjörg had considerably delayed our arrival (Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part III). Once our rooms were allotted, a late dinner was served in the annex building. We were still finishing off our food when one of the staff burst in and announced the appearance of the aurora. Everyone scampered out, some dashed to get their cameras.

A fluorescent green band of light was stretching from the north to the east, curving like a river. By the time I had set up my camera, the band of light had changed its path and shape, and so it kept moving through the next hour or so. The light danced around, gradually changing its shape, weaving patterns in the dark and starry night sky.

The wind wasn't strong tonight which made the cold bearable and the camera stable. By now I had grasped the technique to photograph the aurora, though I was still as uncomfortable with the tripod (which I had borrowed from a good friend only for this trip) as I always have been. So set up my standard unconventional ways to stabilise - any stackable flat objects. On went my money purse and lens cap on a Detective Rebus book. Must have been an impressive sight since a few people who were struggling with their equipment started asking me for advice. So there I was, a veteran of two aurora sightings, giving tips to the novice photographers. However, what surprised me was, given the advancement in digital photography in recent years, this was one of those rare occasions when I realised the difference a DSLR makes to the captures.

Aurora Borealis from Smyrlabjorg
Northern lights
Aurora Borealis from Smyrlabjorg
Norther lights at Smyrlabjorg
Northern lights Iceland
Aurora Borealis
The aurora was still on full display after an hour, but things had started to quieten down on the ground. I had packed up my camera and was enjoying the unique phenomenon still in action above me. Some of the other guests had started to retire for the night. And then suddenly the sky came alive. The band which had been swaying gracefully through the past hour started rippling vigorously. Shades of red started erupting from the fluorescent green. I vaguely remember shrieking out in delight. I was too mesmerised to take out my camera. But then, I have no regrets. I would have definitely missed the amazing experience if I had tried to capture the moment on camera. It lasted only a few minutes and then the aurora started to go faint.

It was not easy to get to sleep that night as I kept replaying the images on my camera and in my head. It was getting closer to 2am now. We were having an start early the next day. The plan was to catch the sunrise at Jökulsárlón.

Woke up to an extremely windy morning. Even going to the annex building for breakfast was a struggle as we tried to fight against the wind. While we were still at our tables Siggi informed that we would have to delay our departure till the weather improved. Driving would not be possible in such high winds, especially for our high sided vehicle. It was blowing over 160 kph. Disappointed but not too unhappy, I went back to bed. This time the plan was to leave at eleven when it would be calmer as per the forecast.

Morning sun 
It was still windy, but calmer when we started off just after eleven. Our destination Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon at the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park, also the location for the Pierce Brosnan starrer James Bond movie Die Another Day.

Even before we had reached the lagoon, the ice cap was visible ahead of us, the highly compressed glacial blue ice spanning for miles. We were dropped off at the car park and asked to come back in an hour. It was an amazing experience seeing the blue icebergs floating around, breaking free from the blue glacier which spanned to infinity up ahead. In summer, boat trips on the lagoon take visitors closer to these icebergs. Some seals were swimming at a distance.

Glacier lagoon at Jokulsarlon
Jokulsarlon - black sand and blue ice
Blue ice at Jokulsarlon
Jokulsarlon blue ice
Jokulsarlon, glacier ahead
Blue ice
Icebergs from glacier - Jokulsarlon
We then headed over to the sea where the lagoon empties itself, depositing the icebergs on the black sand beach. The view of the blue ice on the black sand only adds to the surrealism of Iceland. In this country all rules of nature seems to be defied, colours here are not what we are used to seeing and the low sun adds to the effect. That's what makes Iceland so special.

Jokulsarlon - a very rough sea in the high winds
Blue ice on black sand beach
Jokulsarlon - icebergs deposited on the black sand
The previous night on our way to Smyrlabjörg, we had travelled through the Vatnajökull National Park in complete darkness. Today we could actually see the renowned beauty of this place and also the reason why the place holds so much ecological importance. Vatnajökull is the largest ice cap in Iceland covering about eight percent of the country. The vast glacier seemed to be everywhere, it's blue dispersing into the bluish white of the sky. Global warming has caused extensive melting of these ice caps and Siggi showed us the point where the glacier used to be when he was younger. Hundreds of metres of glacial bed now covered in black dirt and rocks. It is fast receding, a fact many responsible organisations refuse to accept unfortunately.

Vatnajokul national park
Blue glacial ice - now fast receding due to global warming
Glacier straight ahead
Driving pat glacier
The highlight of the south coast trip is the glacier walk either at Skaftafell or Myrdasjökull, two other glaciers after Vatnajökull. We would visit the later which would also involve seeing ice caves. After the debacle with my knee at Skógafoss, I was apprehensive about walking on unstable ground, but Siggi assured me I would be fine. The wind was still strong as we stopped for lunch. Roadside signs warned of gusts of 140 kph. The glacier walk was uncertain before they were finally confirmed to be cancelled. The road to the glacier was under heavy snow from the strong winds. A four wheel drive jeep had attempted the route and was now completely stuck. It was a big disappointment but at the same time a relief for me.

Extreme Iceland
Iceland longest bridge
The longest bridge in Iceland, close to a kilometre
The wind persists
We were now on our way back to Reykjavik as the sun started to set. I would spend the next day in the capital city, not having enough time to visit the Golden Circle. The experience of actually seeing the tectonic plates of America and Eurasia is a unique experience as like many others in Iceland, so probably will need at least another trip.

Before I visited Iceland, I was not sure what to expect and now the magnificent journey was finally ending. It was an experience I would definitely remember for my entire life. The weather hadn't been favourable always, but I had seen the country in its true elements and there is still so much to tempt me back. I definitely have been really lucky with the northern lights. I met a few people on my trip who have been traveling here for past three years but still haven't been lucky and not even on this occasion as they were not at the right place at the right time. A colleague at work spent a week in the highlands, further north, but the aurora eluded them. But then on the other hand, Iceland has a lot to offer even without the aurora, though after that spectacular display cannot deny the lights definitely is the crowning glory.

I had mixed experiences traveling in a group, but would definitely recommend a tour if anyone is willing to visit in winter. Have seen instances of the inexperienced driver swerving off the road or getting stuck in the deep snow, the roads can be treacherous in the extreme weather.

Extreme Iceland was a pleasant experience and they even refunded part of the trip price since the glacier walk was not possible. Teitur also conducts his own private tours if someone wants to have a more personal experience, he is a very good guide, the main reason being he loves to travel himself and understands the woes of not having a knowledgeable guide. Contact me if you need his details.

Day end at Vik
You can read about my previous days through these links and please leave a comment
Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part I
Winter Iceland and the search for Aurora - Part II
Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part III

For more stories and regular updates, follow me on Facebook Breaking out Solo


  1. These are really beautiful pictures. Is there an Instagram page I could follow?

    1. Thank you neetolemitra!
      I am not yet on Instagram, but you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @breakingoutsolo. You will find more photographs and posts on my Facebook page

  2. Wonderful pictures. I always love to see northern lights and my last Northern lights fairbanks alaska was so good.

  3. Excellent description of the strange place with most spectacular celestial show. Your beautifully written travelogue you have supplemented with a bouquet of fantastic pictures. I have enjoyed the read and looking forward to many more. Thank you and best wishes

  4. Wonderful pictures. and yes, to see this nature beauty is rare. Iceland is amazing place to see this beautiful northern lights and yes winter is the best time. So, pack your bags now for Northern lights photo tour


A blog is not a blog without comments. So, please do leave your thoughts...thank you! :-)