Gone with the wind (and snow) - Iceland during late September 2021

Awesome days and even more days with rain and snow

Iceland during September 2021 experienced quite an extraordinary weather. If you visit Iceland you know, that there will be rain and even snow, especially during autumn. However it is very unusual that a certain weather pattern stays for days or weeks. Unfortunately this year has seen lots of snow during September, even the ringroad was closed during several days. A nasty low pressure area stayed for days and weeks north east of Iceland and kept on sending arctic air masses down to Iceland. When such air meets humid and warmer air it will  result in storms and snow and thats what happend right over Iceland for days and weeks. Therefore our Iceland trip 2021 was suffering a bit from this and distroyed lots of our plans!

The plan was, to cross Icelands remote highlands and visit places only accessably by a real 4x4. In the highlands most rivers are not bridged and you have to drive through the riverbeds. Thats the challange. In September the season comes to an end and most mountain huts are already closed, the tracks are deteriorating and you will meet hardly any people. You need a tent and you have to bring all supplies.

After crossing the highlands the next destination should have been the Westfjords and later Snaefellsness. That was the plan.

We wanted to cross the highlands from south to north using the Sprengisandur track, turn right after Nydalur towards Askja, visit Mount Herdubreid, turn south again to Kverkfjoell Mts and leave the highlands at Moedrudalur. We had fuel for about 850km of tracks and food for 10 days - and we left the highlands after one night! The weather started to play cat and mouse with us from the very first day!

The Sprenigsandur

 

 

Probably all people interested in Icelands Highlands have heard of the Spregisandur, it is a kind of magical name! I can remember the talks about Spregisandur, when I was on the ferry to Iceland for the first time in the mid 80ties. Then, only hard core off roaders dared to drive it and they all had custom equipped Landrovers, Hiluxes or Landcruisers and it was highly recommended to drive it only in convoys. The plush SUV was not born yet (with the exception of the british Range Rover)!

Nowadays the Spregisandur is still a rough track without bridges and is by far more demanding than the Kjölur (the second option to cross the highlands), but with a suitable 4x4 it is only a little challenge....

We started the second day after arriving in Iceland in pouring rain and the weather forecast was clear: cross the highlands now, it will hardly be possible during the next days due to rain (all rivers had to be forded, which is impossible or risky at high or very high water levels!) and storm. All the same we decided to go and if the forecast stayed as bad as predicted, get out of the highlands quickly, weather the strom at lake Myvatn and start all over again at Modrudalur to cross the highlands on the northern side from east to west.

 

 

And so it was. After only one night, which we spent in our tent at the campsite of the closed hut at Nydalur, we just kept on driving the Sprengisandur not turning right to Askja! In Iceland you have internet access nearly everywhere and we could check the forecast and the recommendations of the met office regarding driving. It was a good decision as the storm lasted about 2 days with heavy rain. We arrived at Myvatn in rain and storm and just took a hotel room for two nights.

I do not have many pictures from the landscape you cross driving Sprengisandur. It was just poor weather, with lots of rain and drizzle. At least the evening and night at Nydalur was dry, but very windy and the sun showed up for half an hour. This was it, I have to come back!

Lake Myvatn

Staying at Lake Myvatn is no pain at all, expecially as at least the rain started to ease and we had even some sunny spells. But the cold wind from the north started to blow harder and harder. Anyway it was fun to visit the places we knew well from our winter expeditions. The Sprengisandur was empty, but not the ring road. Godafoss was so crowded that we just skipped it and it rained anyway.....

We had a good time and the next days looked promising!

After a relaxing day driving along the eastern shore and a good soak in Myvatn bath with some wet snow flakes, we departed towards Dettifoss and Modrudalur. The foilage started to show beautiful colors and the wild atmosphere provided nice clouds. Not much to complain, if you forget the wind, which made it difficult to take pictures of anything with leaves. From now on the blog does not follow chronologically the chain of events. I decided to move to a sequence more suitable for a Geographer...

How we tried to dodge the winter storms will be just a short paragraph, as the pictures turned out very nice, because and despite of the weather!

All along the Jökulsa a Fjöllum, from the source to the sea

The Jökulsa a Fjöllum is one of the main rivers in Iceland and still untamed! The most famous part of it is mighty Dettifoss (picture above). It passes two national parks and therefore it will stay a wild river for the foreseeable future.
Without planning it upfront, we followed the path of this river, with some diversions to the east and west, from one of its main sources to the mouth!

The glaciers of Vatnajökull - where the Jökulsa a Fjöllum comes from

The size of Vatnajökull is hard to grasp and the size is nearly impossible to capture. It is just to big and all you see are just small parts. I tried it from close and far away, but all I can recommend is to experience it yourself! And by the way Jökulsa means literally glacier river, and that's what the Jökulsa a Fjöllum really is. Nearly all the water comes from Vatnajökull Glacier and later as a river it nearly always flows through desert like landscapes with nearly no tributaries. Do not expect lush meadows, not in the Highlands.

The Bardarbunga eruption

You probably remember that from 2014 to 2015 the Bardarbunga system had a presistent eruption resulting in huge lava flows in the already existing Holuhraun lava field. This affected the river manifold. The course of the river changed as new lava blocked the old river bed and the vulcanic ashes still silt up the area and the river! One track (road number 910) was also overflown and had to be changed. On the new 910 you pass the fresh lava fields and cross huge stretches of ash areas. The NP administration has develped two short hikes into the new lava. Quite nice! But the swaths of black ash impressed me much more!

The whole area close to the glacier is a pure desert, especially in the wide valley between Askja and the Kverkfjöll/Lindafjöll mountains. It sounds strange as there is lots of rain and snow! But the vulcanic rocks and ashes are so porous, that there is just no water on the surface. Moreover strong winds flowing down from Vatnajökull make it even harder, that vegetation can develop. The loose ashes are blown around easily and we experienced sand storm, where the ashes have been blown up several hundred meteres. The sun was hardly visible.... Not good for vegetation (neither for cars or tents....).

 

 

Through the barren volcanic Highlands

Of course everything is volcanic, not only the Bardarbunga area, and everything is barren. There are not many oasis in this area. Only one and we visited it a bit downstream. You can argue whether this can be called a beautiful landscape. It is definitly interesting, awesome and it is hard not be under its spell.

It is a brown landscape, with patches of black and white. As a photographer you can work just with structures, shapes and the hues of brown! If you are travelling through the highlands you are tempted to shot lots of pictures and you probably will be dissapointed looking at them later at home. Everything is looking brown, maybe light brown or dark brown or medium brown or yellow brown, I think you get what I mean. Careful composition especially with wideangle lenses is essential!

Colors are sparse, very sparse. During fall however there is an exception to the rule. The local willow is one of the few higher plants, which can survive in this environment. It keeps a low profile and looks more like a ground covering plant. Its colors during autumn are pure magic, especially in such an environment. A splash of color in the wide open brown surface emphasises the desert even more. Lovely to photograph.

Even more amazing are forests or meadows, or whatever you want to call it, of willows. Very photogenic, expecially in the fog or low clouds....

The Jökulsa a Fjöllum as a river is another welcome change in the otherwise monotonous landscape. It soon turns in a wild river and sometimes you come close or cross it. As fording is completely impossible, Iceland build very few bridges to cross this river! In fact there are only three options to move from east to west and vice versa. There is the ring road, there is the coastal road and one bridge which connects 4x4 tracks on the east and west side of the Jökulsa a Fjöllum in the inner highlands. This river is really a bottleneck. Last winter an ice dam close to the bridge of the ring road threatened the bridge and the road. It had to be closed for a while....

Askja - probably the busiest place in the highlands

Askja volcano is overlooking the Jökulsa a Fjöllum and it is one of the really nasty volcanos. If she is blowing up we all will have a problem......
I did not expect to much, when I visited her, but I must admit I was thrilled by the sight and size of this caldera! If something is happening here in similar dimensions as in the past Iceland will be in trouble, keep the fingers crossed. The Askja area is monitored very closely and just when we were there, there had been signs of acitivity and the local police was at Askja to evacuate everybody quickly in case of further more dangerous signs of activity. Fortunately she calmed down again.

Askja is also probably the busiest place in the highlands. Day trips are offered from Lake Myvatn, the tracks can be tackled by normal SUVs, at least when the fords are low and she is close to the ring road (if you call 120km one way close). Even during end of September the parking place filled pretty quickly. As nearly nobody stayed overnight nearby, we had the crater lake Viti for a while just for us!

One of the starting points for Askja is Mödrudalur, the highest inhabited place in Iceland, lush meadows, a farm, a campsite, a hotel and probably the nicest petrol station in Iceland. Not only because it is the last/first before/after the highlands, but as the owner invested in hiding it......

From Mödrudalur an quite easy track starts towards Askja and sometimes it is the only escape, as the other track has deep fords to cross, which is impossible after heavy rain. But Mödrudalur is a spot worthwhile to visit on its own!

Herdubreid

There is one landmark in the northern highlands, which is dominating anything else. The queen of iclandic mountains. When you drive from Mödrudalur towards Jökulsa a Fjöllum and Askja you will always see her - Herdubreid volcano!

Its distinct and unique landform is testimony of her quite unique origins. When Herdubreid was born, Iceland was coverd by a thick icesheet, thats the reason for her unique form.

At the foot of Herdubreid you can visit another unique place, one of the few true oasis in the highlands. Fresh water springs supply enough water for lush vegetation and a campground, which is the basecamp to climb Herdubreid. We took refuge there as more upstream violent stroms raged the valley of the Jökulsa. We have been the only tent there and the surroundings where a bit like a fairy tale, especially after the time in the barren highlands. By the way the place is called Herdubradarlindir and normally crowded.

Right after Herdubreidarlindir the Jökulsa a Fjöllum changes its behaviour, from violent white water to an amazing braided river. It forms an amazing network of branches. A true awesome sight!

But this is only the quiet before the storm which starts after the highlands! As short as our stay was and as driven as we had been by snow and storms, we liked it a lot and we want to come back to try the tracks again which had been impossible to drive now.

When we stayed at Askja, the forecast talked of heavy snowstorms for several days in the central highlands. They planned to close the tracks and they really closed all the tracks one or two days after we fled from the highlands. You might think that with a 4x4 with high clearance a bit of snow is no challange. Forget it! It is no the snow falling from the sky, it is the snowdrifts, which might pile up more than one meter. No way to cross it. I learned this lesson during my winter expeditions.....

The nights in the highland had been the last we spent in our tent. The snow came and stayed, even down to sea level. After the highlands we drove into the Westfjords, storm and snow. From the Westjords to Snaefellsness, again snow and storm. We have to come back......

But we have not yet finished with the Jökulsa a Fjöllum, the most famous and most visited parts of this mighty river are still to come!

Dettifoss, Sellfoss, Hafragilsfoss and Jökulsargljufur

Dettifoss is one of the number 1 attractions in Iceland, a must see! Nearly all tourists doing the ring road visit this waterfall, but not me. I tried for years, but I have not seen it during all the years I was travelling to Iceland. But this time I managed!

Dettifoss is a beast of a waterfall, not pretty, not delicate only brute force! It is thundering water, grey from the glacial sediments it is carrying! It is falling about 44 m into a canyon called Jökulsargljufur, a well known trekking area.

Only 20 min walking upstream you have a smaller waterfall which is pretty and photogenic and most people stay just at Dettifoss. Sellfoss looks as it was created by a garden planner. I spent 30 min at Dettifoss and was happy with the results, but I stayed 1,5 hours at Sellfoss and could have stayed longer.

 

 

It is horse shoe shaped and it splits in many smaller falls.  Endless options for photography. But you will get wet, very wet...... You can access both falls from the west or the east. We just managed to visit the east side. I guess it was a good choice!

A bit downstream, about 15min drive and a bit of a walk you can spot the third waterfall, Hafragilsfoss. Our Jökulsa a Fjöllum has carved a huge canyon and the view down the canyon is worth the walk and I envied the hikers a bit.....

Anyway you have to make choices and watching the waterfalls after so many attempts was great, even if a visit is not the big challenge.....

The Jökulsa a Fjöllum is now close to the sea, its mouth is quite unspectacular. However about 2000 years ago things would have been different, very different. For unknown reasons (at least to me) the Jökulsa decided to change its course leaving a now dry waterfall behind, which is dwarfing Dettifoss - Asbyrgi

Asbyrgi

Dettifoss falls 44m, the now dry cliffs of Asbyrgi are close to 100m high and the brim or edge measures about 3,5 km. The size is amazing.

It must have been a truly unique sight and the events creating the cliffs must have been unique as well. My fellow geomorphologists think that such a huge canyon was created by gigantic Jökulhlaups (glacial outburst floods), which might have happended several times after volcanic eruptions during the last 5000 years. We hiked at the edge of the eastern side of the canyon and besides the views I will never forget the blueberries. I did not need much food for a while, declicious and nobody picked them. What a pity. Some days later we found blueberries in one of the supermarkets, but from South America -carry coals to Newcastle!

Now we have to say good bye to our Jökulsa a Fjöllum and we follow our itinerary from Husavik to Akureyri to the Westfjords to Snaefellsness and back to Reykjavik.

Towards the Westfjords - Husavik to Holmavik

Our next destination, at least according to our rough plan, was staying some days in the remote Westfjords of Iceland. After the stormy days in the Highlands I hoped that finally the weather pattern will change. We know now that this was not going to happen.

The last time I was in the Nordurfjördur area of the Westfjords, I had first dry then foggy weather, nothing special. During this time of the year I hoped for snow capped scenery - I got more than I was asking for... Starting in Husavik we had a stop over night in Saudarkrokur to arrive the next day in Holmavik, one of the gates to the Westfjords. This was the plan.

Husavik is now the whale watching hot spot in Iceland. Even at this time of the year the operators where busy and some ships sailed to watch whales. The speedboats stayed in the harbour, but the refurbished wooden former fishing boats had been busy and they are very photogenic!

Without many stops we drove from Husavik in one day towards Saudarkrokur and it started to be clear, that the weather will not improve and a severe snowstorm would hit the north and west of Iceland the next day, when we wanted to drive to Holmavik, the last town before the Nordurfjördur.

We skipped my favourite town in the North - Akureyri and stopped only at the Museum in Laufas (very nice...).

It was a long drive anyway, with dark clouds drifting in from the North Atlantic, the harbinger what will be sent down from the north...... 

It is about 6 hours from Saudarkrokur to Holmavik and I do not have any pictures of that drive. We started as early as possible to arrive in Holmavik before the snow and storm. The storm passed the 20m/s mark, where it really starts to get difficult, but we managed. The afternoon was dedicated to washing and resting. We had lunch at the very nice restaurant of the whitchcraft museum and I overheard the discussion in a group of german travellers. The guide tried to exlpain, that they cannot go out now, that they cannot drive the mountain pass and so on. All they could do was to wait until the roads had been cleared and the wind dropped. The group with lots of sad faces finally agreed on visiting the local hot tubs (which we did as well...).

 

 

Nordurfjördur - awesome days in awesome scenery

The storm created a landscape I had hoped for. Snow capped mountains, still lush meadows with the first autumn colors and crisp and clear air. Nordurfjördur is a wild and remote place, in fact the remotest permanently inhabited area in Iceland. The track is not difficult, but open to the North and sometimes buildt into crumbling rock faces. But is a beautiful drive and this year it was quite incredible.

We started at Holmavik in a drizzle and had clear skies by noon. The whole drive was a stop and go, because there had been so many foto opportunities. The area is known for its driftwood from sibiria, which is sometimes piling up at the shore. In former times it was the only source of timber and it was harvested. Nowadays only little driftwood is used and you find plenty driving along the coast - something unique to photograph.

By the end of the day I had shot more frames than the last four days alltogether. We stayed in a small but cozy self catering hut. It was a great drive and a great and rewarding day.

We even had an encounter with a group of harbour seals right behind Djupavik. Very relaxed animals in perfect light.

Just look at the pictures, some days are just special......

The day might have been over, but not the night, as I said, some days are special..... September/October is already nothern lights season. The days are getting shorter and around equinox the probability is quite good. So far we had no luck at all, for various reasons and when we went into Nordurfjördur we had full moon. Not the best situation. The aurora forecast for this night was just so so, but I tried anyway. It was the first time I used my new equipment for northern lights and I had some troubles with the controls when a faint northern light appeared. After a while I gave up, the aurora was to faint, and I drove back to our cottage. But I had the exercise I needed for the rest of the night and later on the never ending northern lights in Greenland.

Full moon makes northern lights photography more difficult. The moon can be so bright that only very strong aurora in combination with a massive underexposing (and later pushing in post) will get suitable results. In our cottage I checked the aurora forecast and it showed again a slight, but still modest peak in the very early morning between one and two o'clock. I decided to try again, more to exercise the handling of the equipment than hoping for nice pics.

It was not the best aurora I had seen, but the scenery was special. Full moon in my back, the peaceful waters of a fjord with the greens of the aurora reflected, the snowcapped Dranga glacier with some clouds. Very exciting. And the handling of the camera and lenses worked much better as well. Only the fact that this spot was the only one in the vicintiy of 45 min driving facing in the right direction was not so nice. But this made me got to bed at three and not later.... Some days are special

During the night clouds had slowly been drifting in. I woke up quite early and still very tired, but I could not believe my eyes when I saw the red morning sky. I crawled out of bed more at sleep than awake, grabbed the camery bag and drove to my morning location. When I am on tour, I always decide the evening where to go for sunrise or northern lights. Therefore not much thinking and location searching was involved. I was a bit late, but it was still the best sunrise I had for a long time in Iceland.

The show was very short and very soon the sun was behind the low clouds. I did some more exposures including some very long exposures at some sea stacks (first pic of the blog). What a night and what a morning and a very tired photographer.

After breakfast I had a good sleep and went out to explore another Fjord, where I have not been so far. Part of it was a quite tricky 4x4 track to two deserted villages. Interesting, but the clouds stayed and the light was not very special. But I found some good locations for next years workshop.

The next day we packed up and left Nordurfördur. Storm and snow came back and did not ease until we arrived in Reykjavik. On the lee side of the Westfjords, the clouds dissolved due to strong cathabatic winds, but we decided not stay as we once had planned.

Snaefellsness and back to Reykjavik

Snaefellsness Peninsula is a beautiful place with some iconic (and crowded) locations, but also with more quiet areas. We still had some days before we had to be back in Reykjavik and decided to stay on the peninsula, again in a self catering place.

The weather however did not change, lots of wind, storms and snow. Even the ring road was closed several times. Not good for driving not for photography, I spare you the details.

We did have a good time during the last days, but we had to cut down expectations regarding travelling and photography. Weather rules and you have to be flexible or the weather will eventually break you. We once even decided to move camp at noon to have a good drive and some nicer weather at another place.

 

 

Back in Reykjavik we hoped for some activity at the new volcano, but she was quiet and stayed quiet until now. It was a special experience anyway.

Reykjavik was as interesting as it ever was. Lots of places changed, the new waterfront buidlings at the harbour are now nearly completed, not the best architecture Iceland has produced, I must say. We visited some museums we always wanted to see and enjoyed the city.

Finally Christina departed towards Munich and I towards Greenland, where I had wonderful weather and some more extraordinary days for photography (read here).

That's it for the moment! During my last night I had another wonderful sunset and the sun pointed my way towards west to Tasiilaq in East Greenland right across the Denmark Strait......

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

If you want you can check out my calenders, puzzles and prints as a present or your own fun. There are english and german versions.....

The final word in german, next workshops

Das Sommerprogramm 2022 führt uns nach Grönland und Island. Drei sehr spannende Reisen! Islands Westfjorde sind ein einsames Fjordland mit einsamen Stränden (nicht so wie in Vik.....), wilden Pässen und Hochebenen. Und dann gibts noch den Dynjandi, den viele für den schönsten Wasserfall Islands halten! Wir fahren im Herbst, eine gute Möglichkeit neben der Landschaft auch Nordlicht zu sehen und zu fotografieren. Und hoffentlich haben wir nächstes Jahr nicht so viel Wind und Schnee wie ich es dieses Jahr erleben durfte.

Im Westen Grönlands besuchen wir neben dem touristischen Zentrum Ilulissat noch zwei andere Regionen, die seltener oder (fast) nie von Touristen besucht werden. Es ist eine intensive Tour, die unterschiedliche Landschaften und Orte beinhaltet. Dazu gehört auch wieder Uummannaq meine Lieblingsregion in Grönland. Die Ostgrönlandtour beschäftigt sich intensiv mit einer Region, dem Fjordland um Tasiilaq. Einfach einmal in die Beschreibung schauen.....

Beide Regionen waren die letzten Monate trotz Corona gut zu bereisen und wir hoffen natürlich, daß es auch so bleiben wird. Ich denke auch, daß sich die prinzipielle Situation in den nächsten Monaten nicht ändern wird. Auf bessere Zeiten hoffen, zumindest für die nächsten Monate, macht für Reisen keinen Sinn. Eins ist aber klar, ohne Impfung, Booster und PCR Tests wird keine dieser Regionen bereisbar sein.

Dann abschließend noch ein Wort zur Falkland/Südgeorgien/Antarktis Reise in 2023. Wir haben schon eine lange Liste mit Interessenten und die Plätze sind begrenzt! Auch Falkland Januar 2023 ist schon offen für Buchungen und Falkland füllt sich normalerweise sehr schnell!

 

 

Unsere Fotoreisen und Foto-Workshops

Ein Klick auf die Reise bringt Sie zu einer Beschreibung der Reise. Dabei steht weniger der Reiseverlauf sondern was wie und wo fotografiert wird im Vordergrund. Der eigentliche Reiseverlauf und die Konditionen werden über links zu Auf Kurs! Inselreisen erreicht. Man kann sich natürlich auch gleich den ganzen Katalog holen (bitte Corona-bedingte Änderungen bei J. Stock nachfragen)!

Thats it for the moment! Stay tuned and healthy!

Munich, December 2021