Stepping off the plane from Cuba I checked my phone and noticed a new message waiting for me. Ian, a friend from university that I hadn't seen for two years, was on his way to Iceland in three weeks and wanted to know if I was interested in joining. Having been a country I had been mentally drooling over for years now, I hastily told him to count me in.
Three weeks later I was stepping off the plane in Keflavik with a rucksack full of warm clothes and camping gear. I caught the first bus into Reykjavic and got to watch the morning sun rise over the city before quickly getting buried beneath the rain clouds.. From there a quick hug and hello to my old friends as we packed up the jeep and loaded the bags into the waterproof gear. As we stuffed in the last bag of food and camp fuel, I realized that the Jeep was at maximum capacity. It was bursting at all angles; every window was blocked by food or clothes, camera gear was in every knook and cranny, and even the exterior of the car bulged with bags strapped on the roof. Our living quarters for the next 13 days had been reduced down to the size of the seat our asses would occupy. None of this was a problem though, because this is what road trips are all about.
The first day we drove from the center of Reykjavik to Kirkjufell. While not being a overly long drive, it ended taking us until sunset to get there because we stopped about ever 20 minutes to take photos of the stunning Icelandic horses that dot the landscape. As well, we had our first camp lunch on the rocks by some unnamed roadside waterfall that was more scenic than most you'd find in other countries. As we pulled off on to a gravel road to set up our camp the sunset, and within the time we had unpacked and eaten, the auroras were already glowing green above us. We couldn't believe our luck, seeing them on the first day.
So for a few hours we wandered around the Kirkjufell waterfalls and took pictures, stopping frequently to stair up at the night sky. Eventually our boots were too soaked and frozen so we made our way back and crawled into our tent for the night. When we woke up we were greeted to a warm sunrise and a cloudless morning, as well as a few horses who had come near our camp to check out the foreigners camping in their field.
After the jeep was packed up we entered the GPS route for the town on Blönduós. It was a small fishing town with not a whole lot going on, but it was near the famous Hvitserkur basalt seastack, so we decided it would make a good resting point. People think the unique formation looks like a dragon drinking from the ocean, while others believe in the myth that it was a petrified troll. No matter what you believe, it was a pretty damn cool rock regardless. After catching the sunrise there, we packed back up and made our way to Akureyri, a fun town with nightlife and warm hostels to sleep in. We got their late in the evening and drank some beers and made dinner, all while drying our wet gear next to the stove heat.
With a slight hangover we rolled out of Akureyri to go explore Dettifoss - the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and one of the craziest I had ever seen in real life. Being that it was the off-season months (late october), we had the entire park to ourselves, bar one old Scottish man in his RV who generously left us a bottle of whisky in front of our tent before he drove off.
As we approached the falls we heard it before we saw it. The sun had already set so we were trudging through the dark on the trail as we began to hear the thunderous roar rolling over the hill. As we got to the top we peered out at the massive waterfall that seemed to consume half of the landscape. The water fell from it into the pitch darkness, leaving somewhere further down the canyon where we barely saw it widen. To our incredible luck, once again, the northern lights came out, this time tangled amongst the red in the clouds from the rising moon. It was hard to believe how everything aligned. I set up my tripod hastily and got the guys to run to the cliffside and illuminate the waterfall with their headlamps. After I grabbed a few shots I realized it was time to enjoy this with my eyes, and not the screen, so I packed up the bag and sat on the cliff edge with the other guys. It was an incredible moment, and one that we kept thinking about long after we awoke in our tents the next morning.
When we did awake, however, we had to crack the frozen snow off the zipper to get the tent undone. To sleep comfortably in the tent we had to find park the jeep next to a large boulder and put our tent up in between to shield it from the wind. Inside we wore our full clothes, hats, gloves and were zipped up to the max. Still, hardly a price to pay at all for the views we had the night before.
From Dettifoss we went to Lake Myvatn and spent the day warming up in the geothermal baths at Myvatn Nature Spas. It was beyond refreshing to sit in the aqua blue water, warmed by the jets of naturally heated (also incredibly hot) water that they had set up as showers all over. After spending probably 6 hours there, we utilized the bathrooms for a free shower (our first in 3 days) and to dry our boots. A quick lunch of jelly sandwiches on the boot of the car and were off for another surreal drive. The landscapes constantly change in Iceland and this time we were treating to wide open plains surrounded with peaked mountains and rivers laying gouging through the fields. As we drove towards Eglisstaoir we stopped frequently again and enjoyed the view. Iceland isn't a large country, but the frequent stops help spread out the journey in a dramatic fashion.
We spent the following morning hiking Litlanesfoss for sunrise. This was definitely one of the waterfalls that I found neglected in many other photographers journeys through Iceland. It seems most people are too eager to hit up the south's iconic waterfalls for easy pictures and forget that the entire country is jam-packed with hidden gems like this one. I can not recommend it enough. Eating our breakfast in front of the waterfall with sheep wandering around us, I couldn't help but think what a special place this was.
By this point in the roadtrip we were apporaching the far eastern region of Iceland, and what would turn out to be my favorite region in the entire country. From Litlanesfoss we made our way to Mjóifjörður, a fantastic fjord home to massive waterfalls that cascade in tiers of up to seven. The fjord is home to many iconic sights, such as Klifbrekkufossar Waterfall and a rusted out body of a ship sitting on the shores of the ocean. At the far end of the fjord lays a sleepy fishing community of less than 100 people, and in it's charm it is quintessential isolated Iceland.
We spent the bulk of the day around there hiking the waterfalls and chasing the wild horses that roamed the valley. As the sun began to set we decided to move on and packed back up there car.
Instead of camping in the fjord we decided to head north in the opposite direction and chase the northern lights. We had been following the cloud radar as well as solar activity charts and could tell that this small town called Borgarfjörður Eystri was the place to be that night. The whole rest of the island was covered in clouds as per our radar, and this small sliver was promising to be open. As we pulled into the town as night fell we weren't quite sure about our expectations. Thick clouds hung over the rainy fishing industry town, with no appearence of letting up. We bunkered down and rigged our tent and jeep sleeping arrangements and made a cold, wet dinner out in the rain. To our surprise, the rain fell slower and slower, until eventually the stars began to shine through the cracks in the clouds. Within another hour the entire sky was clear.
After securing our tent pegs down to battle the wind that had replaced the rain, we drove towards the ocean and found a perch ontop of a small cliffside that overlooked the ocean in most directions. We cracked the beers and rolled the joint, utilizing all of the 50$ gram we had bought in Akureyri, but hoping it would be worth it for the aurora show we were expecting to see. And sure enough, the lights delivered. Around midnight the first shimmer of green emerged on the horizon. Within 15 minutes the entire sky exploded, with auroras popping up in all directions. We were constantly shifitng the tripods to various locations and the lights cooperated, hanging around for over three hours. It was, by a landsclide, the most beautiful, active show of the lights I had ever seen.
Swirls of purple, green and blue erupted in vertical columns. Long, bright solid streams wrapped along the horizon in parallel lines above us. The entire ocean reflected the intensity of the solar storm above it. To this day, it was the most beautiful natural scene I have ever witnessed. We enjoyed the entire show in silence, only punctuated by one of us yelling "f***, look over there!" at one of the new aurora spots that would pop up. Long after the show began we crawled into our tent as the light show slowed down, and as I zipped up the tent to crawl into bed I admired the green glow one last time.
The next morning we awoke and decided to explore the local town. Being a small fishing village, we figured it would be an ideal time to try a local cuisine we had been searching for. Hákarl is a national dish of Iceland and we were lucky enough to be invited into a fish factory and shown the entire process as well as sharing laughs with the local workers as we tried to swallow some of the dish. Hákarl is fermented shark, usually Greenland or Sleeper shark, and it has a nickname as 'pee shark' due to the strong smell and taste of ammonia that the fermentation process leaves in the meat. The Greeland shark is poisonous to eat until it is cured, so the dish has evolved to be fermented for 5-6 months until it is safe for consumption. Rather than explain it with my limited knowledge, I've decided to let Wikipedia explain the rather.. unique, preparation process.
"The traditional method is by gutting and beheading a Greenland or sleeper shark and placing it in a shallow hole dug in gravelly sand, with the now cleaned cavity resting on a small mound of sand. The shark is then covered with sand and gravel, and stones are placed on top of the sand in order to press the shark. In this way the fluids are pressed out of the body. The shark ferments in this fashion for 6–12 weeks depending on the season. Following this curing period, the shark is then cut into strips and hung to dry for several months. During this drying period a brown crust will develop, which is removed prior to cutting the shark into small pieces and serving."
I managed to eat a few pieces of the shark while combining it with dried out catfish, but I can safely say it was a dish I gladly left behind in Iceland and felt no need to bring home with me. Most of my friends gagged before it even reached their mouths and some went as far as having to straight up spit it out.
From Borgarfjörður Eystri we made out way back south to explore Hofn and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. The remaining days of the trip were spent running around and seeing more of the well known highlights of the country that frequent many photographers instagram pages. Despite the south being incredible, I can say in my opinion if you go to the country and miss the north part of the country, then you missed the real gems and charm that is Iceland - isolation, small towns, rugged landscapes and void of human beings.
With the full circle of the island complete once we pulled into Reykjavik, we returned the Jeep and made our way for the airport. As we all left the rugged island behind as the plane made its way back across the ocean towards Canada, we knew that someday soon we would be back to explore the rest that we had missed.
Below is a full gallery of the images I shot in Iceland, as well as a map highlighting most of the things we saw and places we camped, as well as a day-by-day itinerary of our trip for you to model your own journey off of.
Day 1: Reykjavik to Kirkjufell
Day 2: Kirkjufell to Blönduós
Day 3: Blönduós to Akureyri
Day 4: Akureyri to Dettifoss
Day 5: Dettifoss - Lake Myvatn - Egilsstaðir
Day 6: Egilsstaðir - Reyðarfjörður
Day 7: Reyðarfjörður - Borgarfjörður Eystri
Day 8: Borgarfjörður Eystri - Höfn
Day 9: Höfn - Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Day 10: Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Day 11: Kirkjubæjarklaustur - Geysir
Day 12: Geysir - Saurbaer
Day 13: Saurbaer - Keflavik