Journal of a 23-day Icelandic road trip

Friday August 14

The night was glacial, reminding us that we were very close to the Arctic circle. I had some strange dreams, including a nightmare in which I moved house to Clichy-sous-bois, an eastern suburb of Paris that I’d never even visited.

We were awoken by daylight and the noise of our neighbors: catastrophe! It was 7.30 am! The iPhone we’d been using as an alarm clock was dead, lifeless. It would never reawaken, having succumbed to the cold.

We rushed to get onto Route 85 to Húsavík, arriving at 9.02 am, but it was too late!

At least this gave us a little time to wander around, and enjoy a slice of this fantastic carrot cake in the cafe overlooking the port.

We bought our tickets for midday, since the 10 am trip was already full up.

It was also a good opportunity to update our logbook. We saw quite a few other people run onto the quay, just as their boat was casting off. Clearly we weren’t the only ones to have overslept this morning!

HÚSAVÍK WHALE WATCHING, NORTHERN ICELAND

Midday! All aboard! We went up onto the roof of the cabin, where the captain was. It seems that’s the best place to take photographs. It was really cold, so they gave everyone thick overalls with hoods.

This was our ship’s boy and look-out. Clearly he didn’t fear the glacial wind of the Arctic Ocean, dressed as he was in a simple T-shirt!

The weather was constantly changing, alternating between torrential rain and sunshine. We were split into two boats, which communicated by radio, to better “comb” the bay.

Nothing to see for the moment. Our two boats decided to switch to another area. There was no certainty that we’d see the whales, so we kept our fingers crossed.

Let me introduce you to the captain (who looks like a prickly fellow) and the young woman next to him, who used a microphone to tell us about the different animals we were seeing. Just birds for the moment.

Puffins live on the water except during the nesting season in June and July. That’s why we saw so few of them, to my great despair! Several puffins did eventually make an appearance out on the bay, and I tried to capture their Christ-like (and energetic!) takeoff:

/

/

/

/

/

/

Here it is again from another angle:

/

/

/

/

/

/

/

Having spent an hour at sea without seeing anything, it was time for our ship’s boy to climb up to the lookout post.

 

Finally! We saw our first whale in the distance. Sure it wasn’t a 40-meter (130 foot) blue whale, but it was a start. It didn’t leap out of the water either, as promisingly depicted on the leaflet, since mating season was back in June.

Our guide explained that these were minke whales, which are small, just 7 meters (23 feet) long, but weighing five tons all the same!

 

Whales are visible when they surface to breathe. It’s difficult to know where they’ll appear. But we were suddenly surprised by the noise of a blowhole: the whale was right there, next to the ship’s hull, and everyone screamed with surprise.

The photograph below is blurred, but no matter. A whale did us the honor of jumping out of the water, something which is very rare in this season, and I was lucky to have been able to capture this image, despite not having time to focus properly!

Groups of birds are often a good signal that a whale will shortly appear. As soon as the captain saw some gathering, he steered toward them.

A squall whipped up, and it was time to head back to port. Not a bad catch!

Before leaving the boat, I took a photograph of the information sign about the whale we saw, which also gave its name in several languages.

We finished off our excursion with a few purchases: a woolen plaid to keep us warm at night, and a parka for me by the Icelandic brand 66°C North – with a promise that I’d be refunded the tax on it, for which I’m still waiting…! The parka changed my life for the rest of the trip, since my outdoor jacket and fleece weren’t enough to keep me warm in the evening.

It was 4 pm, and we had to get to Mývatn, or the Lake of Flies. This is a very touristy area, since it contains a number of curiosities. We'd spent a lot of time planning our schedule so that we’d be able to see everything, and it was a very full program. We’d lost precious time through our late start that morning, but the unexpected is part and parcel of any such trip. We decided to attempt the impossible, and see everything by the following evening. There wasn’t a moment to lose.

Here’s a couple of photographs I took while driving. The light was superb.

We’d made good progress. It was 4.30 pm and we could already see the very impressive Hverfjall crater. We’d arrived in the area.

MYVATN, NORTHERN ICELAND

See this mountain? We’d planned to climb to its summit, but more about that tomorrow.

I’d borrowed Emilie’s sunglasses, since I’d lost mine. She mercilessly mocked my “trashy rapper” attitude at the wheel of the Hummer.

We popped into Bjarg campground to book and pay for our pitch. It was a very big campground, with loads and loads of people, as expected. I found out that it was possible to drop off your dirty laundry and pick it up fresh and clean the next day, all for just 2,000 ISK (€12), a miraculous solution which saved us spending half a day doing it ourselves.

MYVATN - LEIRHNJUKUR, NORTHERN ICELAND

It was 5.30 pm, and we decided to visit the Leirhnjukur solfataras.

/

The hike takes you right through the middle of a lava field. The ground seems to be bubbling and smoking everywhere. You have to be careful not to leave the trail, since the ground temperature is often as high as 100 °C (212 °F).

We bumped into a couple when we got back to the start of the hike. When he saw my gear, the man said: “Hey, you like Really Right Stuff?” That’s the brand of my nodal slide (used to make panoramic photographs). I immediately noticed his Canon 1 DS Mark III, Canon’s most expensive camera body at the time (€8,000!) and the 100-400 L lens mounted on it. I was very far from having his level of gear, but he’d understood that I was a photographer.

Dimitri was the owner of a Moscow-based video game design firm. So we spent a pleasant moment chatting, since I know Moscow and Russia a little, and like them a lot. He was very friendly, very Russian, and told me they’d just returned from a week’s stay in Death Valley: “Oh yes, the best place!” He told me that they had:  “done the American National Parks six or seven times, Alaska, Namibia at the beginning of the year. I try and go away six or seven times a year, but not for long, just a week or ten days, because it’s the recession in Russia now.”

I was thinking that he must be a millionaire!

We walked together for a while, and he took a hip flask out of his pocket: “Let me offer you my French sin,” he said. I took a sip. It was strong dark liquor. “Whisky?” I asked him. He looked shocked, and shouted back: “Noooo! Cognac! French cognac!!” I could only apologize for not having recognized my country’s most famous strong liquor! Then he looked me straight in the eye: “But the most important here: what car have you got?”

When I told him I had a Hummer, I clearly went up in his estimation: “Oh good, that's a good car. I wish I had one.”

We parted in the car park, but agreed to meet at the Myvatn hot baths that evening. It’s true that banya culture is something the Russians share with the Icelanders.

What a guy that Dimitri was! I hope that he’ll see this portrait one day. He left me his email address, but I simply can’t read it!

We got back on the road, since it was already 8 pm.

My favorite time of day for taking photographs is the last light, so I took full advantage of it when we passed the Námafjall geothermal area, and the magical spectacle of its bubbling pools.

MYVATN - NÁMAFJALL, NORTHERN ICELAND

The colors switch between blues, grays, yellows and ochres, with the sky in counterpoint.

+ Note for readers of the eROADBOOK: have a look at the ULTRAPANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPH No. 12 / 19 +

A cloud so black it seems to create an eclipse rolls across the sky not far away.

These blue pools are acid baths that melt the ground.

A miniature volcano noisily whistles its sulfuric rage.

/

Return to a positively overcrowded Bjarg campground. We had to force a path between the cars to find a pitch. That done, I immediately started downloading the day’s photographs to my external hard disk, a process that took a good hour. But to my great despair, I wasn’t able to photograph a sublime sunset over the lake in front of me, since the camera was busy downloading! I was able to snap the last dregs, so to speak, a bit later, once the downloading was complete!

Clearly my RSS-made nodal slide wasn’t done attracting curious passersby, since a guy wandered up to chat to me about it! His name was Gunter and he’d come all the way from Germany by ferry with his little car. He was all on his own in Iceland, and so he was understandably in need of a little conversation. A rather shy man, very endearing, and extremely kind. We shared our experiences while poring over a road map, and we talked a lot about photography. When night had fallen, he slipped away to his tiny little one-man tent.

 Day 12            Day 14            Index