Iceland 2018 - my winter workshop

Iceland during winter! A couple of years ago I was nearly alone, at least as soon as I left the Golden Circle. This feeling belongs to the past!

Many lines in this blog are dedicated to the changes I experienced during the last 5 years.

Do not get me wrong, this island is still as fascinating as it was, and a visit is highly rewarding!

This year I guided again a 14 day workshop and we covered following regions:

  • Reykjavik
  • Golden Circle
  • Vik
  • Skaftafjell NP
  • Jökulsarlon
  • Höfn
  • a bit of the fjordland in the east

As usual during winter we had some violent storms, but mostly during the nights and mornings. During the days however it was quite often splendid weather. And we managed to see and photograph nearly all locations I had in mind at least once, sometimes even twice. Moreover we had beautiful snow and good ice in the waterfalls and photography was really rewarding!

It was my forth visit in winter (2014, 2015, 2016) and in terms of beauty of landscape it was the best I had for the south and east of Iceland. Nearly no rain, no brown or dirty snow, good ice in the waterfalls, lots of ice on the beaches, really good! It can be very different!

When I arrived a rainstorm killed all the snow and ice, but a day later it was white again, very lucky!

All the same the weather dictated our itinery much more than you might think after reading my first paragraphs. Snow and wind means lots of snow drifts on the roads, I never plowed through so many snow banks in such a short time frame. After our last heavy storm I tried three roads and I had to turn around as the road was blocked by snow banks, even for Super Jeeps. I tried my last option and eventually we waited behind a huge snowblower until one lane was finally cleared. It was a snow bank about 100m long and 1-2m high.....

Driving was sometimes very tricky, lots of ice, wind, snow - no time to relax as a driver, but thanks to the excellent icelandic weather forecast and road condition pages everything was manageable. But you have to consult these pages one or two times a day to plan your next steps.

There are some parts of the road from Reykjavik to Höfn, which are very vulnerable to snow, ice and wind. With a group I start to plan one or two days ahead to make sure we can pass these places. For me  these names are a bit magical as during fine weather nobody will understand how tricky or impossible places like Hellisheidi, Nordan Reynisfjalls or Kvisker might become within hours!

In Skaftafjell I decided before breakfast to leave immediately after breakfast, one day early, changed all the bookings, informed the participants and two hours later we drove in magnificent sunshine towards Höfn and had two excellent days. The next day it would not have been possible to leave the hotel until late afternoon! Your itinery has to have some room for such changes.

Nearly daily I saw cars in snow banks or in the ditch next to a road. Driving in such conditions is nothing for daydreamers or to drive and shoot a video simultaneously (as I have seen....).

The change of weather and road conditions can come quickly from sunshine to storm and back again in just 8 hours.

Enough of the weather stories and most of the time the road conditions had been typical icelandic, very icy but no real issue as long as you have 4WD and spikes on your wheels!

I was talking about changes and tourism changed things a lot! For example many roads are now salted, even outside of Reykjavik, even in the countryside and especially on the Golden Circle. Touristic hot spots like Gullfoss or Jökulsarlon are now much better managed to accomodate the thousands of tourists they receive during a day, even in winter! I do not know the numbers but I guess it must have been at least 100 big buses per day on the golden circle. The busses come earlier and leave later, therefore it is hard to find a peaceful period at places like Geysir, even during winter.

Lots of facilities have been upgraded and no doubt to the better. Dyrholaey and Fjallsarlon have now toilet facilites and/or visitor center, the parking at Jökulsarlon has been upgraded, Gullfoss got new stairs and fences and so on. It is the right step and the only possible way to manage the surge of tourists. You may like it or not, times are changing! Drone flying is forbidden now at most locations (but only enforced during summer).

There are much more "stop" or "danger" signs at dangerous locations, but tourists often seem to forget their common sense at home. The Black Beach at Vik is VERY dangerous, during our visit two years ago we witnessed the death of a tourist (from 5 km away...), who was drawn into the sea. We have seen the crying widow. Last year was another fatal accident. There are many big signs to make sure that the tourists are careful or signs which show very clearly that access is forbidden.

On the black beach a tourist was caught by a wave and managed barely to escape, I was standing sheltered and safe just 25m away and could not believe my eyes. At Dyrholaey people passed a " stop, danger" signs to watch huge breakers from the shoreline. I see the coming of  more and more huge fences in the future......

However this sign was a big surprise and I could not believe my eyes: No underwater photography!

The day before we talked about Thingvellir one participant of the group mentioned a BBC documentary where divers have filmed the underwater world of the water filled faultlines in Thingvellir. As it seems the idea took off and everybody wants now to do underwater photography in Thingvellir. But the story gets even better. At one of the parking places close to the faultlines they rent out now thick wetsuits even in winter!

It seems the icelanders are trying to ride every wave even in a NP and historic site like Thingvellir. And the tourists are willing to pay for such "adventure events" whatever the operator asks. In Reykjavik there are many signs, where you can buy "adventure"!

This reminds me a bit of the touristic history of the ice caves. When a man from Ingolshöfdi had the idea to guide tourists into the ice caves of Vatnajoekull nobody really cared about it. The people flocked to Jökulsarlon watched the lagoon and the beach and left. Maybe one or two booked an ice cave tour, which was possible through a very simple web page. But more and more pics showed up in the  social media, videographers (and photographers, me too) published their work and it started another wave.

Now people are bussed to Jökulsarlon have a quick look at the lagoon and go (all??) to an ice cave. It is a bit like the Oktoberfest in Munich, but without beer....

We went into two caves with time intensive access, Super Jeep only track, about 1 hour walk through rubble and ice. the caves have been beautiful and we had plenty of time, but even in such a place there was a seemingly endless coming of small groups. Photography was good all the same!

The strange thing was that many people, I watched in the cave, did not take pictures of the cave, but of themselves only. They hardly watched how beautiful the ice was, it was not important, the event, the adventure itself is important. I am sure social media is full of pics now and the next wave will come. Cheap PR, let the customers market the product. And the adventure marketing works, these people take pictures of their adventure and they are right in the middle of the adventure they bought!

One last thing which changed are the prizes. 5 years ago Iceland was not cheap but reasonable, but now it is already very expensive again. Especially accomodation. Not only the prizes have increased, but the ISK is much stronger as well. Do not forget your big wallet!

One word about photography. It is as rewarding as it ever has been. The landscape is marvelous and it is extremely diverse. Within 1 hour drive you can have waterfalls, coastlines, glaciers and geothermal areas. Iceland is never boring, take that for granted.

Yes, the famous attractions are getting crowded and you have to adopt to this. But quite often, you are nearly alone as soon as you walk 10 min from the parking, at least in winter. Take your time and you will have fun.

What else is to say?

These lines have been written in Munich, Copenhagen and in Uummannaq. Right now I am chasing icebergs frozen into the sea ice in the fjordland of Uumannaq in Northern Greenland (good, they cannot swim away I can take my time.....).

My next trip is not yet scheduled, but it will be very likely in southern europe and some vacation would be nice as well! Lots of files are waiting to be processed and the next workshop (to lovely Uummannaq again) is already on the horizon.

Check out my workshop pages for my next workshops.

Für alle deutschsprachigen Leser: durch eine plötzliche Stornierung haben wir wieder Platz bei meinem Workshop auf den Falkland Inseln im Januar 2019. Diese Reise ist etwas ganz besonderes, bitte weitererzählen und schnell Kontakt aufnehmen


Uummannaq March 2018