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Iceland, geography and me

People often ask me ‘why Iceland’. If you’ve spent any time with me you’ll know that Iceland holds a piece of my heart. I adore it for so many reasons, the rawness of the nature, the thrill of aurora chasing, the wonderful people and being able to ground as part of nature, like nowhere else on earth. I did geography at university and if feels like you are in a living text book there and with my passion for photography, it feels like I am in paradise. I’m an ADHD-er, I don’t do sitting on beach holidays, reading well. I recharge by immersing myself in nature and am always called northwards on adventures.

I am reflecting back on a trip where some unexpected things happened with the weather and we adapted and most brilliant trip I think I have experienced there. There were so many twists and turns and last minute adjustments, that the adventure we set off to experience, turned out to be one of replanning, road tripping and unbelievable moments.

This trip was booked with the purpose of visiting Greenland. You can’t fly there directly from the UK and have to go via either Iceland or Copenhagen as it is part of Denmark. We decided we’d go via Iceland as it was in the right direction and allow a buffer day or two for any adverse weather in Iceland that might affect flights. I was so excited as we were booked to fly on to Greenland on my birthday, a placed I’d dreamed of visiting for so long, I was trying to be cool with myself about how excited I was and as things were busy ahead of the trip it all arrived super quickly.

The excitement was met by an epic flight with Icelandair, a ringside seat for a really strong aurora display and so the photo taking had kicked off before we’d even touched down. A few days later, Iceland Monitor even published a story about the unique view of the aurora that I had that night! Tricky shots to shoot hand held, normally I’d use a tripod and I was buried under my coat to block cabin light reflections and trying to keep the camera still while it is ope for a second….but wow, the aurora I sat and watched that night!

A couple of days ahead of travelling our plans switched up a little and so we decided to book a night on the Westmann Islands off to the south of Iceland. We’ve never been but with a short 35 minute ferry ride and a night on a less visited island of Iceland had us hooked. However, about 3 hours after booking, I had an email to say the ferry I booked was actually fully booked and the port 35 minutes away was closed and would be re-routed from a port that would take 2h 45mins. For a lass with sea legs no sturdier than a bowl of jelly, this did not bode well and the later ferry didn’t our plans, so we were back to square one. We both love the coast towards Vik and Dyrholaey and I’d read about a hike from Vik to the cliffs above Reynisfjara beach, the weather looked good and so we were off.

En route south, we drove through snow on Reykjanes and into sunshine and blue skies. We decided to explore familiar spots from new angles. An explore along from iconic Seljalandsfoss and on to mighty Skogafoss. I have only ever climbed the steps beside the waterfall once in all my trips and that was over 5 years ago. Mark had read about the Fimmvörðuháls trail starting there and so we followed it for as long as we could but reached a path closure. We were already blown away by the glacial canyons that now only have the river running through and were planning away when we could get back in a summer to hike the whole trail deep into the highlands area of Thorsmork.

looking down on skogafoss waterfall iceland

Back down the steps and on to where we would lay our heads for the night. We stayed with panoramic views of Dyrholaey at the newly opened Black Beach Suites. They were exquisite and I can’t wait to plan a trip back to them one day. Ideally located for an aurora chase on the Reynisfjara and for an early start for our hike the next day.

The hike up to the clifftops was intense. We were kitted out in our arctic gear as it was freezing to start but once you got your hike on you were boiling. This led to frequent stops to de-coat, take in the view and cool down before pressing on. The views of this coastline were phenomenal. You could see all the way west probably to near Selfoss and East off towards Skaftafell. We were the only ones there and spend ages, sat in the warm sun, taking in the view, the sound of the waves and the squark of the fulmars. I wanted to bottle that feeling. In a land I feel so at home, there are moments like this that mark my heart forever.

view to dyrholaey in south iceland

We ambled back down, drove to Selfoss for a swim and a soak in the local pool and on to Reykjavik to check in at the airport hotel for our morning transfer to Greenland. We then went for dinner with a dear friend and leading Icelandic artist Bjork, home cooked lamb that was sublime and finally a purchase of one of her artworks. She painted ‘frozen’ the day before we saw her and we then took it on an adventure around Iceland, so I love that this has so many memories woven into it. Late into the evening when we were back at the hotel an aurora alert went off and so we went down to Grotta near Reykjavik which was mobbed with people and light pollution….but I found a spot by the lighthouse on the beach and watched my birthday arrive, toasting it with aurora!

bjork an iceland artist with her painting
aurora at grotta lighthouse reykjavik iceland

I woke up on my birthday full of excitement, but also slight trepidation as I could see from one of my fave apps windy.com (that allows you to see earth wind patterns) that there was one hell of a storm over Greenland. Similar wind patterns had me grounded in Iceland once, but this time we were going to be flying in a 36 seater plane, hmmmm! As we went to drop the hire car back, the text came through to say the flight was delayed and would be reviewed again in a couple of hours. Trying not to sob with disappointment, I got in the queue at the airport to see what was actually happening and while I was queuing the flight was cancelled.

I quickly shifted my mindset, nothing I could feel would make the wind stop and our flight leave. What it did open up was an opportunity to plan an adventure we had no idea we were going to experience and so we set about ideas. Several areas came to mind, Westmann Islands, but if the ferry was the long one then no thanks, Westfjords, we’d never been but some of the roads were still shut there with winter. Highlands, but again only super jeep access with closed roads or ‘The North’. The weather looked good in the north for the time we would be there and the road to Dettifoss was open again and there was still some night time so my dream of attempting to get the aurora at Godafoss could be realised.

sunset over snowy mountains akureryi north iceland

We knew the area pretty well as I’ve been there three times before and so we decided to find a room with a view and booked into Dimmuborgir Guest House. This was one of the loveliest places we have ever stayed. A cosy little cabin right on the edge of the lake, that each day in the evening sun was a little too cosy, so the door was open and the only sounds travelling through the still air were those of nature. I was in a little slice of heaven.

a dog carrying snow in its mouth in north iceland
myvatn at sunset north iceland

We woke up and set off to Dettifoss and I hoped it would still have some snow. As we climbed out of Myvatn over the mountains, all you could see was snow for miles. The road was easily passable but some extreme spots of snow and ice were a reminder of how lucky we were to be able to make our way up there. I have seen this waterfall and it’s neighbour Selfoss a few times, but for me, there is something even more majestic about seeing a waterfall in winter. The things that water does in all its various forms is just fascinating! We spent a good couple of hours immersed in the greatness of these beautiful waterfalls.

waterfall in iceland
selfoss waterfall north iceland in the snow

On the way back towards the road, I saw a sign for the third waterfall Hafragilsfoss, we stopped in the snow covered junction of the road leading to it, to take a photo of the name ‘for next time’, as it was clear our 4×4 was not equipped to follow the solitary set of tracks that led off into the distance. The Park Ranger pulled up next to us, I thought he was going to tell us off for stopping in the junction. Quite the opposite. He advised us that our car would not be suitable, but said that he had to drive up the track to keep the track marks there and if we wanted to, we could jump up with him and then hike the 2.5km back. With a smile he said ‘would you like to jump in’……’YESSSSS’ I said over-excitedly and too quickly.

a glacial canyon in north iceland

Siggi was the loveliest guy. He told us all about the geology of the area, how the canyon was formed, volcano chains that cross the canyon we were about to see and how we could see a magma chamber and plume in the strata on the opposite side of the canyon. He said drones were banned in Iceland because of falcons that nest in the area and showed us where he is watching for one to return. He said he had driven super jeeps his whole life, firstly as a guide and then later for over 6 years as a Park Ranger. It was an experience I was in disbelief was happening. After missing out on Greenland, none of that seemed to matter as a once in a lifetime chance happening was unfolding.

We reached the end of the track and jumped out and oh my, the canyon was breath-taking. I literally gasped and then cried. I could not believe we were probably some of the few people to see it in winter and that we were the only ones there. We sat for a little bit just looking at it all. We kept giggling at the chances of something like this happening. And then we set off for the hike. We followed Siggi’s fresh tracks, squinting in the bright sun reflecting off the snow. We decided we’d go to Myvatn Baths as we’d done so much hiking that day, about 7 miles, we wanted to rest our bones.

waterfall canyon in north iceland
snowy volcanic landscape in full sunshine

I love the geothermal springs in Iceland, you float around trying to work out where the hottest bits are. We’d found a corner in the lower pool and out of the corner of my eye I saw a man and woman reverse walking past us into the hot part. Good on them, I thought. Then I looked again and whispered to Mark, ‘I think that is my geography teacher’, Mark frowned and said no way, we’re in such a remote place. Then he called to a group of kids, remarking about the hot bit. I was even more convinced it was him. I waited a few moments to see if any of them said his name and they didn’t. And so I said ‘Are you Graham Letley’ and everyone around him fell about laughing.

Myvatn geothermal baths in iceland with a volcano in the distance

Sure enough, over 8 hours from the airport, in remote north Iceland, I bump into my geography teacher in the land of geography! It was ridiculous and brilliant. I think I have just completed geography. He inspired me to do geography at university and I feel that geography has given me a way of seeing the world and the connection between people and places that I capture with photography. His colleague also went to my old school and so we were all chatting away about how hilarious it all was! Just brilliant.

a outdoor geothermal shower in iceland

So within 24 hours of the crushing cancellation, I feel like the universe was guiding me to be in north Iceland to have that once in a lifetime trip to the waterfall with the Park Ranger and then bump into the one who singled handedly inspired me to pursue geography! And then to top it all, the aurora was off the hook that evening!

aurora borealis over Myvatn north iceland

During the remainder of our time in the North, we hiked a giant volcano carter Hverfjall and chased the aurora over a bucket list spot at Godafoss. That was an intense night, with the aurora peaking towards midnight and then again at 3am, I had a couple of hours sleep before we bundled into the car to head north to Husavik to try and go whale watching. The experience was epic, the weather was flat calm and we were lucky enough to see a pod of porpoises and three hump back whales. It was so early in the season, the fact we saw anything was wonderful! We spent a long time trying to find the whales and the time with them was over all too soon. I literally can’t wait to spend more time in peak season with them one day. We rounded our day off at a new spa called GeoSea Iceland, next to a natural geothermal vent and using the sea water from the bay, it was just amazing to think we were bathing in water which these great mammals of the sea swim in too.

whale watching boat north iceland
a humpback whale swimming under water
a humpback whale tale entering the sea water
Geosea pool and light house in north iceland

On our return south, we stopped of at a favourite Fjord side swimming pool in the small town of Hofsos, before adventuring on to a unique sea stack at Hvítserkur. We had a few hours of daylight left and I mentioned to Mark about two waterfalls ‘just off Route 1’ well in Iceland anything about an hour off the ring road is ‘just’ off it! We journeyed on, stopping at Glanni a lovely little waterfall before reaching Barnafoss and the majorly impressive Hraunfossar, which sees the waterfall literally hiss out from in between the lava rock rather than flow over like every other waterfall I’ve seen in Iceland. Our final stop was at beautiful Krauma, a geothermal bath when we had dinner and then continued on to Keflavik for a few hours shut eye and an early flight back to the UK.

woman swimming in hofsos swimming pool mountains in the background
man stood on basalt stack hofsos iceland

This trip is one of my all time favourite trips to Iceland as I didn’t expect it to be about going to Iceland and to be able to spontaneously book to travel to where there was good weather was a total treat. It has made me think more about booking accommodation more last minute, based on the weather and then building a trip around that. Forever my favourite place, with so many memories that only coincidence could provide.

Basalt sea stack iceland

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