Iceland

“Turn left in 198km,” the SatNav spoke to us, on a road that was straight, so straight except for when it curved a little. And it rained, and rained, and rained, and rained. And then it didn’t rain. Then it rained again.

But despite the bar-briefly relentless rain there was so much that emerged from the clouds that filled us with awe.

The variety, the sheer variety of landscape in Iceland, the variety and vigour with which it changes, often-times in an instant between one blink of the eye and the next; the sheer variety overwhelms, marvellously. It commandeers your perceptions; your perception of place and perception of self within that place. One moment a flock of incongruously rounded green hillocks that you would as much expect to see Dipsy or Po emerge from as you would an elf. Then suddenly a sea of staccato fractal ridges that look like pain ensconced in green velvet gloves. A little further on, equally as suddenly, what appears very much to have the same type of structure as the last but somehow softened, more rounded, reduced, an echo of the visual passage that had passed shortly beforehand, pain worn down to lingering acceptance. Then, an unrelenting flatness of black, stretching on for miles. In the distance clouds that on closer approach emerge as mountains and mountains that on closer approach emerge as clouds.

As we summited the brow of another headland and the next view was unfurled in front of us, a magnificent banner draped from sky down to sea, a voice softly underscored with awe issued forth from the passenger seat to my right. “I feel so small,” said Amelia.

I’d had it in mind for quite some time to take her on a memorable journey of some form or another before she reached an age where she’d no longer be interested in hanging out with her dad. “I’ll never get bored of hanging out with you, Daddy!” she declared when I’d first raised this notion with her. We’ll see, I thought to myself :~) A specific plan manifested itself when Nichola and Marcus got engaged. Over a number of years I’d seen images made by a variety of wedding photographers that had travelled to Iceland, sometimes images relating to weddings, sometimes images from personal travels. I’d always found myself thinking what a beautiful place it looked but there are many beautiful places in the world, many on our own doorsteps even. Then in February of 2016, Nichola and Marcus travelled to Iceland with a small group of wedding photographers and videographers. During the trip, one day, the two took a turn adopting the role of models for a staged couple’s shoot, the backdrop a flotilla of icebergs, the stage an expanse of snow and blue water. Un-staged, Marcus dropped down onto one knee in the middle of the shoot and proposed to Nichola. The video and photographs were a joy to see. I sent Nichola a message to congratulate her and related to her this notion that I’d been formulating of a journey with Amelia, telling her that her images from Iceland had tipped me towards choosing that country as the destination. She asked when I planned to go. I told her that most likely it would be during the half-term school break in the February of the following year, shortly after Amelia’s eleventh birthday and to mark that occasion. It transpired that she and Marcus would be returning to the country during the same week, to get married. Nichola asked if I would photograph the wedding.

And here Amelia and I found ourselves, a year later, in Iceland. Over the space of the twelve months between choosing the destination and first setting foot in the country, she’d evolved from child to nascent teenager. I did wonder more and more how she’d take to hanging out with Daddy 24/7 for, well, the 7 part of the equation as well as the 24. Turns out it would be brilliantly; an excellent travelling partner for a grand adventure, which we agreed to refer to it all in place of ‘holiday’ as there wasn’t enough in the way of lay-ins and general rest for the latter term to legitimately apply. So brilliantly in fact, we’re now planning our return visit to the country to celebrate a landmark birthday of my own later this year.

I wished that there was a lay-by hemming the road for the entire length of our journey because there were so many sights that I wished I could be static for the contemplation of. Such incalculable variety, all dependent, I imagine, on which volcano had erupted when, from what depth, to what magnitude and in which direction; how broadly the lava had flowed, how deep and what it had met on its way towards the sea. It’s almost as though Iceland were the palette upon which Slartibartfast had mixed his paints for his rendition of the broader world.

To see snow. To feel snow. To throw snowballs. At me :~) Snow was the top agenda item for Amelia on this journey. She had last played in snow at the age of four; to me, yesterday; to her, two thirds of her lifetime ago. Iceland in February guaranteed an abundance of snow. Guarantees though tend to come with clauses. We exited Keflavík International Airport at ten minutes to midnight on a Friday night, each wearing three layers of clothing beneath windproof and waterproof coats. I immediately broke into a sweat. It was five degrees, at ten to midnight, in the middle of February, in Iceland. The air was near still. It had snowed pretty much most of the way on our drive from Bournemouth to Heathrow and the temperature in the south of England had registered lower in the middle of the day than the temperature that we encountered in the middle of the night so far to the North. A driver picked us up at the airport along with a few other travellers to take us to a car hire depot. I asked him what it was all about, the weather, the temperature. He told me that it had snowed on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, and again on Boxing Day. Since then it had just been rain. Rain all the time. (It snowed like it hadn’t snowed in decades though, a week or so after we left. In Reykjavík, 51cm in one night!) Full realisation of the practical impact of climate change is unshakeable when you find yourself in a part of the world less sheltered than many others. We stand, blinking like monkeys, in the face of it all. Where next?

For the one full day that we did spend in Reykjavik at the start of our visit, we stayed a night at the Ránargata 11 branch of the Captain Reykjavik Guesthouse (there are two of them in the city, owned by the same people), a happy place with friendly staff, cosy accommodation and a great breakfast, situated on a quiet street just a few minutes walk from the centre of the old harbour district. We both loved our stay there. After that day in the capital we set out to the North-West in preparation to photograph Nichola and Marcus’s wedding. We got our first glimpse of snow some way in to that journey, high on the side of the mountain above. Further again into our journey, we saw a little more…

I spy… a troll?…

Búðakirkja. Búðir Church. Sat beside the sea in the Búðahraun lava fields on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. I loved the sounds, even if I found myself unable to pronounce the words myself. The coast of Iceland is intermittently dotted with small churches and the black church at Búdir is possibly the most enigmatic of them. Nichola and Marcus had chosen it as the setting for their marriage…

Amelia and I stayed the night in the nearby Hotel Búdir (very nearby indeed; no more than a hundred footsteps away, I’d wager). It really was the most lovely of places to stay. Ancient lava fields filled our window view. My window view to be more precise. I imagine she was playing with lava in Minecraft…

The morning of the wedding…

My assistant for the day…

The rain maintained a respectful distance come the day of the wedding…

To the left, what I saw; to the right, what she saw…

I’d bought Amelia her first proper camera for her eleventh birthday. It’s receipt led to one of those potent leaps of concentrated enthusiasm that one sees from time to time in a person, young or old, a distinct mental leap of kinds coming in to play. She loves her camera and loves using it. Looking back, it was at the age of eleven that I received my first camera, a Bakelite bodied Brownie 127 roll-film camera with a single element lens. It had brought about in me the exact same leap of enthusiasm. She’d suggested a camera as her birthday present if she was to assist me at Nichola and Marcus’s wedding and the suggestion made perfect sense to me. A little time after the wedding she declared, “The one problem with being second shooter, Daddy, is that the first shooter always gets in the way of your shots!” I explained to her that this was just the way things are and all was right and proper in that being the case. The following image is one of hers. I don’t think my taking prime position hindered the quality of her work in the slightest :~) In fact, I was so impressed with what she produced that I gave her a blog post of her own to show what she made of Nichola and Marcus’s wedding. I’ve yet to do a blog post with my own work in!

Post-wedding ceremony hot chocolate…

On the road back to Reykjavík

After a night’s stop-over on the outskirts of Reykjavík we set out on a journey East along the south coast on Route 1 – the ring road that runs the whole way around Iceland – heading for Jökulsárlón where Nichola and Marcus had got engaged so we could take some portraits of them there and because we just had to see the place for ourselves! Aside from the photographs of the wedding, a few taken from the windows of an apartment that we stayed in a little later into the trip and the concluding set of images from a couple of guided tours that we took, all of the images in this blog post were taken from parking spots directly off the ring road. A smörgåsbord of profound scenery delivered to you on a plate. Or hlaðborð as it might be referred to in Iceland :~)

We reached Jökulsárlón in the last light of day, a luminosity of the like that I’ve never before seen seemingly emanating from the lagoon and its icebergs – though naturally of course reflected – a delineated dome of fluorescence amidst the surrounding dusk. It made for a magical experience.

We stayed the night at Hotel Smyrlabjörg half an hour East of Jökulsárlón and both Amelia and I loved the place. I tried to book us in for our next trip to the area but it was fully occupied throughout the period. We hope though to drop in for dinner on the evening of my forthcoming birthday, having found the food to be fantastic during our stay. The hotel lays adjacent to Route 1 in an isolated spot beneath towering craggy outcrops overlooking the Atlantic. Our room was in a motel style building, cosy, clean and perfectly equipped for a good night’s sleep. Dinner and breakfast were served in a portion of the main building evocative of a village hall, busy with an United Nations of over-nighting coach tours and independent travellers. All of the staff were friendly and helpful, our dinner amongst the best tasting meals we’ve had anywhere and the breakfast buffet was bountiful and fantastically varied. We’re also enduringly grateful to the staff for finding Amelia’s favourite soft toy and travelling companion – not me, but Pusheen – and posting it back to us in the UK. We’d not discovered the loss until we were back in Reykjavík some five hours or more drive back to the West and were set to fly out of the country.

We arrived at Jökulsárlón in the first light of day to meet up with Nichola and Marcus, who had valiantly set out from their lodgings in Vík some two and a half hours earlier, driving through the dark of night.

Back to the spot where they got engaged…

Amelia caught me in action…

This one by Amelia. I’m blown away. She’ll be shooting album covers for famous bands one day…

Back West towards Reykjavík Amelia and I headed…

In the mountains above the city we had our first close sighting of snow…

A small pool of it gathered in a hollow made for an excited Amelia! :~)

Then to our accommodation for our final two nights in Iceland, at the Blue Mountain Apartments

We both agreed that we wanted to live here, in the Apartments, to make it our permanent home though maybe taking adjacent units in the medium to long term so we could visit each other easily whilst having our own space. Located on the outskirts of Reykjavík they might not be best suited to those planning to make a number of sorties per day on foot into the centre of the city but it’s an easy-going 15 minute drive to get downtown (by all accounts access by bus is simple too) so still a doddle for a day out in the heart of the capital. Most importantly to us, it made for the perfect location for excursions into the hinterlands. Highly pleasant a city as Reykjavík is, we were here for the landscapes and the snow. At least we could see some of the stuff from our window out here! :~) The window views were amazing. We’ve already booked our next stay and have asked for the same apartment. I’m certain that all the units are equally as lovely as ours was but I can’t help but imagine that it would be highly resonant to walk in to that exact same space again and say to ourselves, “We’re home!”

Our apartment was beautifully appointed, in some senses striking me as though it were a show-home for modern Scandinavian living. Even though I’d normally feel most at home in the likes of a farmhouse type setting, I really did love this. It had everything that we needed for ongoing independent living, a fridge that we adored for its style (and respected for its utility) and a supermarket just a short walk across the road to buy provisions to fill it with, an oven to cook our dinner in and even a pizza cutter of the type that I’ve been meaning to buy for years but haven’t yet got around to doing so.

Appointment and views aside, something that added particular value to our stay here was meeting the proprietor, Jóhanna. She checked us in on arrival and we enjoyed having a great chat with her about our travels in Iceland thus far. Her enthusiasm for her home country and her enthusiasm for the fact of us being there was abundant, distinctly genuine and personal; much, much more than just courteous conduct of business. Jóhanna is a great ambassador for Iceland and is that type of person you meet from time to time that you think would make a great ambassador for humanity in general. A couple of months after our stay I set about making our booking to come back to the Apartments later this year and because I hoped to secure the same apartment I ‘phoned rather than using the online booking system. “I recognise that voice!” exclaimed Jóhanna, as I was explaining that we’d stayed there in February and wondered if we could book into the same suite; “It’s Phillip Allen! Say hello to your lovely daughter from me.” In the foyer of the Apartments there is a large notice board which is plastered with hand written thank you notes addressed to Jóhanna from an array of guests from all over the world. That speaks of a consistency of demeanour likely to be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone that stays there. I’ll also make mention of Tanya, whom I met one morning when I stepped outside to check the temperature before Amelia and I were due to set off on an excursion. She was running the reception desk at that time and I enjoyed having a great chat with her too; bountifully helpful with advice on local amenities and equally as personable and enthusiastic as Jóhanna had been.

The first thing I booked for our trip to Iceland was the flights. The second thing I booked was a set of tours with Discover Iceland. I didn’t book anything else, accommodation included, until a few months after booking our means of getting to the country and our excursions with this company. To me, they had become the most important aspect of our visit to Iceland as tourists (as a professional, of course, I had a wedding that Amelia and I very much looked forward to too!)

I’d first stumbled across Discover Iceland when browsing Trip Advisor for information on attractions and outings in the country. The name of the company stood out to me immediately, being the name-sake of my friend Tim’s company, Discover Dorset. Over the years I’ve photographed all of Discover Dorset’s tours for their Web site and print based marketing materials and have thoroughly enjoyed being on each of those tours so I was happy to find something in Iceland that appeared to offer a similar format for exploration led by knowledgable and personable guides. I noted that there were also other companies offering similar services but the more that I read of their and others’ Trip Advisor reviews, the more I felt that Discover Iceland was the best choice. Having made bookings with them, following their social media feeds contributed greatly to my growing excitement as our trip to Iceland got closer and closer. Their direct communications throughout the process were fantastic too, not only rapidly, fully and clearly responding to any questions but also adding a spontaneous natural touch to some messages. I particularly remember Anna signing off an email (that concluded a small chain of questions and answers about booking options), excited to go watch Iceland play Portugal in the Euro 2016 tournament.

I booked us on to two tours with Discover Iceland. The first was one of their Northern Lights tours. I selected the first full night that we would be in the country to maximise opportunities to go out on a night later into our stay should the tour be cancelled due to weather conditions. In such an eventuality, the company would offer to take you out on the next tour (or provide a full refund should you prefer). We had a sky full of clouds that first night so the tour was indeed cancelled. Communications from the company were timely, clear and helpful. We re-booked for our return to Reykjavík after the wedding. The weather was no better on that night either so we re-booked for the night of our return from Jökulsárlón and third time lucky we were! The second tour I booked us on to was Discover Iceland’s Golden Circle Glacier tour. I sensed that this tour could prove to be the highlight of our trip to Iceland so I booked it for the last full day of our stay in the country in the hope that we would then be able to exit on a particular high; a hope that was fulfilled completely.

Amelia and I were practically hopping with excitement as we awaited pick-up from the Apartments for the Northern Lights tour. The super-jeep that rolled up in front of us in the car park was a sight to behold. The two of us, with four other passengers on board, were driven out of Reykjavík in search of the Lights. Our driver and guide, Reynir, was a gentle soul, attentive and kind with interesting stories to tell when engaged in conversation. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that with a group of friends, Reynir was involved in a hike all the way from Reykjavík along the South coast of Iceland to the far-eastern side of the country, not all in one go but a couple of days here and a few days there. In total the hike would take a whole month. I imagined that must make for the most deeply profound way of immersing oneself in the environment of that extraordinary coastline. A couple of tripods were kept onboard the super-jeep by the company and in addition to this, Reynir loaned me use of his personal tripod when I conceded to the fact that hand-held shooting (regardless of my typically being at home shooting in low light conditions) just wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

Our first stop was above a lake. I have never seen so many stars in the sky at once. My photographs at this juncture simply don’t do it justice. I’m no astro-photographer (though I’m inspired by this experience to try my hand at such in future). Even had we not seen the Northern Lights that night, I would have come away from this tour highly fulfilled just by the sight of that sky full of stars.

Aurora Headlightealis…

Amelia’s auto-focus assist light reaches out for the stars :~)…

When a tour bus turned up at the same spot, Reynir took us off into the night again in further hunt of the Lights.

And then he found them for us. And I have to pause a good while to see if I can muster words sufficient to convey how profound an experience it was.

I felt as though an angel – no hominine entity but the manifestation of a phenomenal universal force – was descending to Earth, its wings unfurling slowly, powerfully, ever so powerfully with grace, with ease but with unfathomable energy capable of creation, capable of destruction. And slowly, powerfully, it waved its wings above us and then it began to dance.

It was quite something, then :~)

We very much enjoyed chatting with a couple from Nottinghamshire, fellow passengers on the tour. Felicity, a school teacher with a great enthusiasm for photography, took Amelia under her wing and taught her light painting with a torch. She then painted Amelia and I with torch-light in front of the Aurora Borealis, with a long exposure made on my camera. I’m very grateful for the act, for her kindness to Amelia and I will particularly cherish this image down the years to come :~)…

With the Lights dissipated after an enthralling display, we all climbed on board our super-jeep for the journey back to Reykjavík. As Reynir reversed the vehicle out of the spot he’d parked in, suddenly he stopped and declared, “They’re coming back!” None of the passengers were in a position to see the sky clearly and we appreciated Reynir’s consideration for our further enjoyment of the spectacle. We disembarked once again to witness a yet more powerful display than the one that had earlier enthralled us. I left my camera untouched this time, wanting to simply absorb the sight, unmediated. The awe lingers in me still.

Aurora Streetlightealis…

The following morning we were picked up from the Apartments by Stefán, for our Discover Iceland Golden Circle Glacier tour. Stefán had a wealth of knowledge to share with us and had a great sense of humour. We’ll always remember his tip on how to find your way out if you’re lost in an Icelandic forest. You’ll have to meet him to find out the answer for yourself :~) We were the first passengers onto the jeep and as we drove through the outer reaches of Reykjavík I asked him if we would be picking up more people. He informed us that we were the only two booked on to this vehicle that day. I’d enjoyed spending time with our fellow passengers on the previous night’s tour and would have enjoyed sharing the day with similar people again but it was particularly exciting to have the VIP treatment this time around.

Stefán did a good job of steering us clear of the larger crowds that throng the popular sites that we visited around the Golden Circle, though at some sites attempting to do so would be impossible without getting there at first light or waiting until the last light of day. The following were particular highlights of the tour for Amelia and I.

Our first stop brought us to Þingvellir, site of the original Viking Parliament and a place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, or more so are saying goodbye to each other as the gap widens by an inch a year. We started on a viewing platform above the gorge, scrutinising the fissure to see if we could detect signs of its inexorable movement…

Stefán drove around the roads to meet us at the other end of the walk through Þingvellir and we were grateful to him for getting us to this place when just a few other independent travellers were to be seen dotted about the landscape (as we came to the end of the path, we turned back to see a coach load of people descending into the gorge so his timing had been just perfect). We were able to enjoy soaking in the atmosphere of the place undisturbed.

The tour really came into its own when Stefán took us to a place where no tour buses could go, no travellers in standard vehicles either. He stopped by the roadside to deflate the tyres in preparation for our ascent to the Glacier Langjökull

This portion of the trip was also where Stefán really came into his own. He has worked as a professional tour guide for five years but for close to forty years, with groups of friends, he has been driving in the mountains of Iceland and his vast experience and skill truly showed through, creating a massively enthralling experience for Amelia and I. He drove us along an old ‘road’ trail down a steep, rocky escarpment through a babbling brook that at times might be a raging torrent, and back up again, along snow packed rutted roads that I’d balk at traversing on foot let alone in a motor-vehicle, off-piste and on-piste (in the mountain track sense of the terms) bringing us to a place filled with more snow than Amelia might conceivably have been dreaming of for this adventure of ours.

We were driven, quite literally, to the top of a mountain – albeit most of the mountain is still ensconced in ice, topped with snow; still having its form carved by the imperceptible motion of the glacier…

The view from atop our mountain was as blanket white as this photograph suggests. As could we with the naked eye, you can just make out the ribbon of the road that we came in on, just over half way down the image…

Never been happier :~)

Yay for us!…

Whilst I tried valiantly to evade Amelia’s snowballs, Stefán lent a hand to his friend at the snowmobile hire depot bringing snowmobiles out of a garage buried in snow…

Time to re-inflate the tyres before heading back down onto the road…

Manic! :~)…

The exterior of the jeep had become really quite dirty by this juncture and I found myself wondering what a task it must be to clean the fleet after a day of tours. Stefán drove us through the car wash on our way back to the highway…

Our final stop of the day. Stefán took us to Mars…

Our thanks to Discover Iceland, to Reynir and to Stefán for taking what had already been a fantastic adventure to another level altogether. I’ve already booked us a tour with them for our next trip to the North.