Iceland, February 2012 – Part 1

My flight to Iceland did not begin pleasantly. The passengers boarded the plane in the highly dysfunctional way that people tend to do and I watched the clock ticked down to departure time. 


Then just before the doors closed; she arrived. 


Close to falling down drunk, this wailing banshee made her way down the plane, stumbling and grabbing hold of seats to steady her along the way. Then the shrieking really began as he finally reached her row but was confused that her seat did not seem to exist. I’m sure a vast majority of people when confronted with a ticket stating seat ‘F’ and facing seats A, B & C would simply look on the other… side… of … the … plane. 


But drink had taken hold, and the hamster in the brain had long since stopped the working. She stood for a full five minutes first confused and then more and more angry that her seat was not right there in front of her. All the while people in the surrounding seats trying to calm her down and point out that all she needed to do was just turn around. 


Eventually the penny dropped and we all breathed a sigh of relief at the descending silence. It didn’t last long as we were soon to discover that the seatbelt had defeated her. Then her friend arrived, even drunker but with at least the faculties to find her seat. 


The newcomer then announced to the entire plane, and I do mean the entire plane in a voice on the edge of hysteria ‘sorry, I thought I lost my ticket’. This apparently was the funniest thing in the world as the two of them then dissolved into the kind of high pitched cackling laughter that can only occur between roaring drunk middle-aged women. This laughing continued long past take off, and passengers started to turn into their seats and stare in disbelief that it could go on. 


Finally the seatbelt light went off, and I have never seen so many people frantically reach for their headphones at one. Earbuds firmly wedged in, I settled in for the flight. 


Despite being a short flight compared to most I have taken recently, this felt much longer. But finally the in flight map showed we were at our destination and we started to descend. We passed through the cloud cover, and instantly the plane started to be buffeted by wind and rain. Thick fog hung in the air and I started to wonder if we would be able to land at all. The lights below us grew brighter, but we could not see anything else in the gloom. I recall wondering what would happen if we could not land. What was the alternative airport for Reykjavik? Canada, the USA?


Suddenly the nose of the plane reared up and we were pushed back into our seats as the thrust from the engines increased dramatically. We climbed back into the sky at a far greater pace than we had during take-off. Whilst this was occurring some people began to panic and their shouts could be heard about the roar of the engines. 


The extremely drunk duo screamed. 


We levelled out and the shouting became a murmur. I could hear disgruntled voices complaining about the severity of the climb. In truth I wanted to turn around and tell these people to shut up. How could they have the temerity to complain about the pilots taking actions intended to ensure the safety on board. Yes, it could be alarming, but compared to the alternative?


The captain came on the intercom to advise that we would have to circle and hope for a gap in the weather. If we were unable to land then we would have to head off to our alternative. Although only moments before I’d been pondering the question of our alternate airport, I did not want to find out where it was by actually landing there. 


We circled for what felt like an age before descending for another attempt. Again when we broke through cloud we entered thick sleet and fog. The light grew brighter once again, but from my vantage point there appeared little difference from last time. 


Just as I braced myself for the inevitable climb, we touched down. The fog was so thick that I could not see the side of the runway, simply the glow from the lights. I craned my neck against the window and could just make out the tarmac below.


It was slick with ice. 


In Kenya we aborted a landing and had to fly across the country to another airport because of the weather. That occurred in daylight and fog so light that we could see our surroundings clearly. Our friends watching from the terminal told us that every other plane that had landed that day. 


Here in Iceland we had just landed in the pitch black, in fog so thick that visibility was effectively zero. To top it all, we had landed on an ice covered runway. 


I don’t know how much a pilot earns flying for Iceland Express. But I’d guess it is not enough. 


Ninety minutes after originally planned I was walking through customs and in desperate search of a toilet. As I relieved myself I realised that my first action when I arrive somewhere is generally to urinate – like some dog marking his new territory. 


I found my way through the terminal and onto the coach that would take me into Reykjavik. I sat in the dark for a long time as the coach filled up. An Irish couple sat behind me and started talking loudly about finance. Another man filled the seat opposite me and promptly fell asleep, snoring loudly. 


The coach made its way through fog. Absolutely nothing could be seen outside the window aside from the occasional road sign. The snores increased as passengers fell asleep. The Irish couple were deep in conversation about a book that the woman had read. I could not help but listen as she described a tale of a psychological personal hell. For his part he would Um and Ah in the right places, and chip in with the occasional comment. He deserved an Oscar for his feigning interest, because the book sounded trite and banal. His veneer slipped just the once, with an automatic canned response of “sounds terrifying”, followed by a much more natural “wait, what?” as his brain processed the admission that this story that was so thought provoking and so horrific was aimed at children.


I could hear the bafflement in his voice as he asked why she was reading children’s stories, and his relief as she explained that she hadn’t only just read it. The relief didn’t last long, because she then continued on to say she’d read it last year.


I prevented myself from laughing, but I turned out that I wasn’t the only person that had tuned into the conversation as guffaws broke out in the surrounding seats. 


Realising the thin ice that he was on, the man showed an admirable commitment to getting laid on this holiday by remarking how adult some children’s books could be. This did nothing to stop the guffaws. 


For another 90 minutes we plodded through the blackness, before coming to a stop at a tiny bus shelter in the middle of nowhere. An elderly man then got off and we drove off into the night leaving him stood beneath the only light I could see for miles. 


By this time it was gone 3am, and I was starting to feel a bit delusional. This feeling was reinforced by a television suddenly turning itself on and displaying nothing but a flickering blue screen. Finally we pulled alongside a hotel, and I got off the bus and into the freezing cold air. I was awake instantly. 


Gathering my gear and heading inside, I was greeted warmly by name and invited to head straight up to my room, and we could sort out any paperwork in the morning. There would be no argument from me and I headed straight to bed, pausing only to look out of my window on the way. 


A few hours later, I was washing the sleep out of my eyes in a rather pungent shower. This was no reflection upon the cleanliness of my hotel, but a by-product of the naturally heated water that is drawn directly from the hot-springs surrounding the area. Normally in Hotels, I would expect a sticker advising that the tap water is unfit for consumption. This was the first that I’d been to that actively encouraged drinking the water as it was pure mineral water.


I had a couple of hours to kill before I was picked up for my afternoon’s activities, and so I went for a walk. 


Reykjavik is an unpleasant looking city. The buildings are shabby and to my eye falling into a state of disrepair. The windowsills of m of the buildings appear to be rotting away, and many of those same windows do not have any form of curtains at all. Everything is grimy, and covered in what I presume to be the remnants of volcanic ash. 


I walked through the streets with the impression of walking through a rough housing estate. A place on the verge of being abandoned to the elements. 


In truth I was apprehensive walking though the area in a way that I would not usually be. 


Then I walked around a corner and was stopped in my tracks by the landscape before me. 


Snow covered land jutted from the sea and was illuminated by sunlight streaking though the clouds overhead. The sea was a rich blue, and in the distance I could see the peaks of mountains. 


I instantly feel in love with this view. I’d never come across a view that quite literally took my breath away as I came across it. Not New York at night, not the Grand Canyon nor the Peak in Hong Kong. This seafront had me stunned. 


I crossed the road and made my way down to the sea wall. Joggers came past as did all manner of dog walkers and cyclists. I felt like shouting to them to stop and just look at what is in front of us. But I realised that to the locals, this was an everyday sight. In fact they would have seen it looking even more beautiful than it appeared to me now – in much the same way that a sunset at home is just the norm. 


But views like this are exactly why I travel; to see the magnificence of this landscape with my own eyes. The best part was that I should be seeing even more spectacular landscapes over the next couple of days. 


Reluctantly, I made my way back to my hotel, where I prepared my gear in preparation for the afternoon. 


Since travelling to Kenya, I have taken a single camera and a single lens when I’ve travelled. In Hong Kong for example, I shot everything using a 35mm lens. Its lighter and its more discrete. It also forces me to think more about a shot as I have to consider composition more carefully. For this trip however I had brought the works. – my big heavy, DSLR Five lenses covering from 10mm to 300mm. Batteries, chargers, cloths and my tripod. I fully expected to use it all. 


As well as a camera bag full of heavy gear, I was also wearing more clothes than I would usually go through in a weeks travel. Under a water and windproof fleece, I was wearing a woollen jumper, a t-shirt, a thermal undershirt, thermal long johns, thick woollen walking socks, khaki cargo trousers and hiking boots. Topping off the ensemble was a pair gloves and my amazing owl hat, which I bought in Hong Kong. 


This seemed more than overkill in the warm foyer of the hotel, but I knew that I’d not regret wearing it in an hour or so because I was heading out to sea. 


One of photographic ambitions has been to take photos of whales in the wild and I was hoping to realise that ambition that afternoon. I joined up with a local whale watching company who drove me down to the boat. As we arrived I was dismayed as the boat was already heaving with passengers. All available surfaces had already been claimed, and moving about the deck was going to prove impossible. 


I made my way to the bow, and staked a claim against one of the railings, just as we set off. 


The sky was beautifully clear and we had a great view of the picturesque harbour nestled in the shadow of the surrounding mountains. The air was cold, but tolerable but my main concern was the wind as it was beginning to pick up. As we left the harbour the swell of the sea increased massively. Alongside I could see huge waves crashing against the cliff face that made up the coastline. 


Thankfully the swell was predictable and I settled into the rhythm as we sailed along. 


Even over the roar of the wind and mechanical thumping of the engines excited chatter could be heard. Discussions about whales and other marine life were punctuated by the rollercoaster like gasps and groans of those souls that were unused to being on the sea whenever the ground beneath us dropped away as we crested another wave. Those that had not secured themselves with a decent handhold soon learned that freestanding was not the most sensible course of action. 


Our captain and guide spoke over the tannoy about our search, sharing tips on how to spot our elusive prey. After an hour the excitement had dimmed somewhat and the crowds on deck thinned somewhat as people headed below decks in search of shelter from the wind and something warm to drink. Others were not so fortunate, and the unmistakable sound of the seasick retching became commonplace.   


I stayed out on deck, effectively using my telephoto lens as a makeshift telescope. From here I could look out to the mountains, the cliffs and the lava fields. As we rounded one set of cliffs huge plumes of steam became visible on the horizon. This was from the geothermal powerplant, a by-product of which is Iceland’s famous blue lagoon.


The landscape, like all of Iceland that I had seen, did not cease to be spectacular but there was a distinct lack of any marine life at all. The Captain began to sound more and more exasperated and as we began to make our way back to harbour it became obvious that today was a washout. 


We were at sea for over five hours, but in that time we did not see anything other than gulls and cormorants – birds which are common in Guernsey. I can’t pretend that I was anything but disappointed. My face felt raw from the wind, and my famously dodgy knee was letting me know in no uncertain terms that it had taken enough abuse soaking up the bangs and bumps from the waves. 


As we boarded the bus the company gave us vouchers for another trip – valid for two years. As we drove along the crew came up to each of us to apologise. Personally I thought this was unnecessary, we had been out for hours and covered a huge area in our search. Above all was the simple fact that we were looking for live animals in their natural habitat. We weren’t in a zoo, and they could magically make something appear. Yes, I was disappointed but not angry. Unfortunately some of the other passengers didn’t have the same outlook. 


Despite the cold, the wind, the waves the amazing landscape and the ultimate failure of the whales to show, the bus ride back to Reykjavik was made memorable by a deliciously ironic sound of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s – ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ being the first song on the radio when it was turned on. 


I just had time to pop out and grab a sandwich and a coke from a nearby store before I was heading out again. I’d booked a place with to go in search of the Northern Lights. As we drove back to the hotel from the boat, I’d been nervously watching as the clear blue sky slowly started to cloud over. I knew that any cloud cover would be a killing blow to any hopes I’d have of seeing the lights. 


It was because of this possibility that I’d decided to go with the significantly more expensive Superjeep (About £90 at the then exchange rates) than the standard coach trip (£20) to a viewing point. From the website testimonials, they had a reputation for searching far and wide, a sense of humour for some crazy driving over rough terrain. 


My first impression was favourable. A huge 4×4 pulled up outside and my driver for the evening announced his arrival. I was a little surprised to find 5 already aboard, and even more so when we then collected another two. Despite the size of the vehicle, the cabin space was no larger than a normal estate car, and so besides the driver and the passenger in the front seats, 6 of us were jammed into two rows together with rucksacks, tripods etc. 


We then drove for a short while before pulling into a service station, where other jeeps were waiting. As we waited, we each expressed surprise at seeing each other as we were all under the impression this was a much smaller bespoke trip. Still everyone was pleasant enough, and we were all excited at the prospect of what was ahead. 


We then drove for about 20 minutes before pulling down a side road. We parked up and everyone got out. Between the jeeps there much have been a 60 or 70 people and we were pointed in the directed of a smudge on the horizon and told that these were the lights. 


To say that they were unspectacular to the naked eye would be a gross understatement. It looked like a small cloud illuminated by light pollution. In fact to our left we had Reykjavik, the city itself clearly visible, and to our right was the powerplant with its orange lights spewing out even more light pollution. Given that the previous night we had travelled for hours in the pitch dark, I was staggered that they would bring up to a location sandwiched between two huge sources of light pollution to view the night sky. To top it off, all of the jeeps had their headlights turned on, lighting up the surrounding area as if it was daylight. 


Almost as soon as the lights were pointed out, then the flashes of cameras started. Quite why people think that the tiny flash of a compact camera is going to illuminate the night sky, I can’t even begin to guess. 


At this point I didn’t even bother getting my camera out. One of the drivers asked me why I was not taking any photos and I replied that it wasn’t worth it whilst the jeeps were all lit up, and that it was practically impossible to see the lights as they were destroying everyone’s night vision. He then called out to the other drivers to cut the lights, and the as we all started to adjust to the darkness the lights started to take on a little the green colour that we had come to expect. 


I heard someone ask another driver if we were going to move on to darker skies to get a better view, and he replied that as we’d seen them now we would be staying here.


For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights. When I first wrote the list of adventures that wanted to have, seeing the lights was the first thing that I wrote down. I dreamed of a bottle of champagne chilling in deep fresh powder snow. I dreamt of peace, quiet and solitude. Of setting my camera and then watching them dance across the sky as I sipped my champagne. 


None of this was like I’d dreamed of – a huge crowd, loud, shouty and bickering. The night sky brightly illuminated by a nearby city and power station. A myriad of camera flashes and disgruntled groans as yet another photo came out totally dark, and to top it all the lights themselves were nothing but a milky stain on the sky. 


I’d known that there was a chance I wouldn’t see the lights, but I’d given myself the best chance possible. I’d come to one of the best places in the world, at the best time of year and I’d paid a lot of money for guides with a good reputation. But seeing them like this felt worst then not seeing them at all. It was just so frustrating. When we’d set out that evening, I’d prepared myself for the clouds to spoil everything. But I was looking forward to the consolation of the crazy driving funny guys in the jeeps. But even this wasn’t going to happen as this muddy slip-road marked the end of road. 


I asked another driver how long we’d be here and found out that it would be an hour or so. With this is mind, I walked away from the rabble heading further down to slip-road until the cacophony died away, and I was no longer being blinded by all the torches and headlights. On the way I passed a couple of people that had also decided to get away. We spoke a little, and I showed them set their camera up for the best chance of getting some shots. 


Eventually, I was far enough away to get a little peace. Although not so far that I’d not see them if they suddenly started to pack up! 


Away from the lights my night vision picked up, and I started to realise why the lights were so unimpressive. The entire sky was covered in a thin layer of cloud. Not thick enough to block the entire display, but enough to mask the colour and remove all definition. It was one of the few occasions where the view in the camera was more impressive than the real thing, as the long exposures increased the saturation of the view. I sat down on a lava rock, and just watched. Occasionally a break in the cloud cover would give a tantalising glimpse of the beauty they obscured.



I did in fact have a small bottle of champagne with me. I thought about opening it, but it didn’t feel like the right time. Instead it returned to the hotel with me a short time later.


So it was that I found myself back in my room, hours earlier than expected feeling confused. I’d seen the thing I’d always wanted to see, but I could not shake the feeling of disappointment about the circumstances. The Superjeep guys did what they said they would – take us to the lights – but I felt that they did the absolute bare minimum that they could on that day. I certainly did not feel that I received value for money. In truth it would have cost less to take a taxi, such was the distance we travelled. Because of this I would have a hard time recommending them for anything other than the cool cars. I did speak to people that said they had been on a day trip with them they had been brilliant. Perhaps I caught them on a bad day, but I can only report on the experience that I had. 


So that was it. A bitterly cold day, zero evidence of marine life in Iceland’s coastal waters and an evening that ended prematurely with the just a glimpse of what I’d travelled so far to see. I ended the night by soaking in a hot shower and watching a film on my iPad. It was a melancholy end to my birthday.


The next morning I was up stupidly early and piling on the clothes again. Today I would be heading out to do a tour of the Golden Circle, the name given to an area containing some of Iceland’s most magnificent geological features. 


Throwing back the curtains I looked out in horror. The sky was a troubling shade of gray, and the visibility was none existent. Judging by the way TV antennas were wobbling, the wind had increased once more since yesterday. 


As I climbed aboard the bus that would take me on my trip, the heaven opened and the rain began to hammer down. 


We left Reykjavik by the same road the jeeps had taken last night. In the daytime I could see that we had stopped barely away from the outskirts of the city, in a lava field that was now completely covered by snow. As we climbed up into the mountain passes, the visibility dropped to near zero. Looking out the window you would only see white. Only by looking closely would you begin to make out the outlines of the mountains, or the occasional structure in a field. It was a picture made up of shades of white.  


As we crested the mountain, the view changed dramatically as the valley below us was devoid of snow. This was a geothermal hotspot, meaning that the snow could not settle. It stood out against the white blanket of snow like ink spilled on paper. The area was dotted with large greenhouses as growers took advantage of the situation to produce fresh vegetables all year round. 


Our first stop was a church that was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It stood alone with no other buildings in sight. As the others scrambled for the warmth of the church, I walked around its grounds. The snow had stopped, and for a few minutes the air cleared and I could see back to the mountains that we had just come from. Almost immediately the weather closed in again and it started sleeting. Tired of walking through the thick snow, I walked along the side of the road for a while, but after a few yards I realised that the entire surface was covered in a thin layer of ice, with a thick ridge in the centre where the tyres of passing vehicles had thrown any melt. Remembering that on ice I have a lack of co-ordination that would make even Bambi blush, I then stuck to the snow until I reached the bus. 


The others that were now leaving the church had to cross a par park to reach the bus. This was completely iced over, and I watched as people at first started walking as normal, and then extremely gingerly as they started to slip. Just before boarding the bus, I took a quick look at its tires. I couldn’t see anything about them that made them more suitable for driving on ice than those of normal bus tyres. Watching people sliding around put me in awe of the way that our driver was able to drive along with seemingly little difficulty. 


As we drove on we began to pass small villages and settlements. Many of these would have a small heard of horses; they began to be a regular sight. They would stand huddled tightly together often the only dash of colour on the landscape for miles around. 


Continued in part 2.


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