An impractical dream
Sometime in 2015 when I was new to photography, I stumbled upon a video from my favorite photographer Elia Locardi and his work with FStoppers called "Photographing the World". Elia was standing in front of a rather unique mountain explaining what this series was going to be and how he was going about photographing this mountain. I had no idea where this location was and what that mountain was called until then. I fell in love. I dug into more videos from this series and that's how I got introduced to Iceland, a country I had no clue of how beautiful and out of the world it was.
More videos I saw of Iceland, more addicted I got. I shared it all with my the then girlfriend and now wife and in no time we both were drooling over pictures and videos from Iceland. I thought one day I'd stand at that very location which Elia introduced me to and take a photo I could call my own. At this point though, it was simply a dream that was unlikely to become reality and we were kinda okay with that given how expensive and hard to reach Iceland was. We were happy simply gawking on Iceland from the comfort of our home.
What if the dream becomes a reality?
Fast forward 2 years to 2017 - my girlfriend and I got married after quite some drama at home and are finally ready to live our lives the way we always wanted to. By this time, gawking at Iceland on YouTube and Instagram had become a therapeutic drug for us and it continued after marriage. Our addiction only multiplied with the fact that a lot of Game of Thrones was shot in Iceland.
After marriage the number of travel videos we watched on Iceland only increased and we knew deep inside we had to make our Iceland adventure a reality. While I kept hoping it would happen in a distant future, my wife is more of now or never personality. Sometime in early 2018, we decided we would go to Iceland. While I was dreading the practical problems and challenges involved, my wife wanted none of it. She just wanted to do it no matter what!
And thus began the research on the logistics of visiting Iceland. Immediately my concerns multiplied. This is not a country you take a bus tour to experience - That would be an insult to the out of the world beauty of Iceland. It's a country best experienced driving around all by yourselves. As Indians, we are expected to drive on the wrong side of the road and to top it off, staying in hotels and eating in restaurants is a super expensive affair. It was quickly evident that to do Iceland on a budget, the best option is to hire a car and camp at places around the country. But camping was not our cup of tea and then we discovered the perfect balance - A campervan. Campervans let you drive around at your own pace and double up as your bed anywhere anytime.
Now that stay and transport were figured out, soon itinerary and other logistics started falling into place one by one. We planned all the minute details and procrastinated about leave plans and other responsibilities that would come in the way till the end of 2018. By November of 2018, we decided we were going to do it in early summer of 2019. We began our visa process in Feb 2019, made our bookings and started buying all the winter gear.
We were in touching distance and still had so many uncertainties. How are we going to manage driving on the right side of the road? Where are we gonna camp? How are we going to manage our meals? How much time do we spend at a given location? What photographs should I take? When is the best time to photograph each location I had in mind? What iconic photos of ours should we take? The more we planned, more uncertain it became. This made it even more exciting (and terrifying). Probably more terrifying - Haha!
Moment of truth
The day arrived when we had to start our most important journey. We took our flight from Hyderabad to Delhi where we would begin our journey to Iceland the next day. After reaching Delhi around noon, we mostly spent our day in the room taking calls and messages from friends and family wishing us happy and safe travels. For the first time ever, this adventure felt like one that needed these blessings and messages.
The next day, we took our early morning flight from Delhi to Finland where we would switch flights to Iceland. The flight to Finland was a breeze. I slept most of the time and enjoyed the best meals we had on a flight. After reaching Finland, we had 1.5 hours to make it to our flight to Iceland and it was unexpected rush as the airport in Finland was huge and we are expected to go through immigration here (1st point of entry into SCHENGEN region). However, we made it comfortably in the end. There we were in the flight to Iceland waiting nervously for it to take off. This flight felt like the longest one ever given all the enthusiasm and nervousness, while in reality it was only 3.5 hours compared to the 11 hours from Delhi to Finland.
The journey from Finland to Iceland had great views though. The landscape had dramatically changed in over half a day. We had some stunning views of the snow capped mountains of Norway and the Norwegian and North seas.
Iceland being an island, would be the first encounter of land after crossing Norway onto the sea. In reality though, after crossing the sea, we entered some dense dark clouds. While the navigation simulator in the flight showed that we cleared the sea, we couldn't see any land through the window. I have to admit, this really added to the anticipation.
Soon the flight started descending and we still had no view of the land beneath us. There was turbulence, seat belt signs, restricted movement and what not. But one thing was clear - Our Iceland adventure had truly begun and in quite a dramatic way.
After some anxious wait, we finally got a peak of the land beneath us - Brown lava fields filled with pitch black rocks. The landscape was already so dramatic unlike anything we had seen. Soon, we landed in Keflavik, Iceland. The moment we stepped out of the plane, spine chilling winds and drizzle welcomed us.
After collecting our luggage, we changed some Euros we carried into Icelandic Krona and picked up a sim card. We then hopped on our hotel pickup. It was a 30 minute drive in a thunderstorm. 3o minutes - we were drooling over the landscape through the window as though we were on another planet.
We checked into our room which was more than comfortable considering the price. It was 8pm and it was bright as noon - The sun sets around 11pm in Iceland in May. We quickly took a shower, pulled out all the winter wear and got cozy. We ate some cup noodles and stepped out to acclimatize ourselves to the climate. Oh my! Was it windy or what! The wind was so strong and chilly that our winter wear felt useless and we couldn't hold steady. To top it off, it kept drizzling since we landed. We took a few snaps around the hotel, walked around a bit. Barely surviving 15 mins outside, we headed back in, had some Icelandic vodka to keep us warm and went to bed.
Wheel on the left!
We woke up early next morning, took a nice hot shower given the uncertainty around when we would have our next proper shower, enjoyed some complimentary breakfast at the hotel and checked out of our room. While we waited in the lobby for our pickup from GoCampers, we noticed that to our dismay, it kept drizzling all through the night only varying in intensity. This was supposed to be start of summer in Iceland and there was no sun to be seen!
Soon, our pickup arrived and it was a female representative from GoCampers. This is the first instance of our long list of observations on women empowerment and gender equality in Iceland. We had a nice chat with her during the 30 minute drive to their office. She informed us that this drastic weather was unexpected at this time of the year and that it was actually nice and sunny till the day before we landed. While it only solidified the unpredictable and wild nature of Iceland, I started worrying about my photography and the cold. The temperatures were hovering around 1-5 degrees Celsius opposed to the expected 7-14.
Once we reached GoCampers, we completed the formalities and they made us aware of the driving and safety measures. While I would have simply nodded without paying attention anywhere else in the world, in Iceland it is incredibly crucial. After the formalities, they introduced us to our sweet home for the next 12 days - campervan.
For the first time in my life, I took the steering on the left side of an automobile and was admittedly nervous. It was bigger and harder to turn than anything I drove before. I carefully drove the camper over to the near by Bonus store, picked up some bread, processed meat and other supplies. The guy at the billing counter was very friendly and after some visible hesitation asked us if we were from India. On saying yes, he brought out a very bright smile saying how big a fan he was of Bollywood movies. And to top it off, he complimented my Handlebar Mustache and instantly became my favorite Icelander. Haha!
The Golden Circle
It was noon by the time we hit the road and started our adventure around the ring road in Iceland (Also called Road No.1 which goes around the entire country and is the best way to explore Iceland). We pretty much randomly decided to drive South.
The 3 most popular and easily reachable locations in Iceland form the Golden Circle and are usually covered in 1-2 days depending on how many minor attractions you add. We first drove to Þingvellir national park which is an hour's drive from GoCampers. Þingvellir national park is home to Iceland's open air parliament called Althing that took place for the first time in 1830. You also get to walk between the tectonic plates that separate Eurasia and America. These tectonic plates keep drifting apart ever so slightly every year.
We took a gazillion photos here before proceeding on to another major attraction inside the national park - Öxarárfoss waterfall. This was a like a dress rehearsal for all the beautiful waterfalls we were going to witness in Iceland.
The park was much bigger than we anticipated and required a lot of walking. We ended up getting very tired and spent more time than we intended as we got carried away taking so many photos. We then headed to the next destination - Geysir where we can observe some other worldly geothermal activity. We spent an hour trying to capture the water bubble up and blast into the skies.
By now, we were already lagging behind our schedule and decided to make some cuts. We headed onto Gulfoss - 3rd point in the Golden Circle, our last stop for the day. This is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland and it was unbearably cold due to all the mist around the waterfall. Get close enough and you get invariably wet! Having reached around 9pm we had it all to ourselves as there was virtually not another soul around.
After couple of hours, it was time to camp for the night. We drove 100kms through rain, reached around 12.30pm and hit the bed by 1.30am.
We planned to cover Seljalandsfoss around sunrise but all we saw waking up at 5am was dark clouds and drizzle. Being very tired, we went back to sleep. After a satisfying sleep, we woke up around 10am only to find that the rain has only intensified and pretty much spoiled our morning. We decided to have some breakfast, lay back and enjoy the view from the campsite instead.
It was past noon and the rain slowed down a bit. Majority of our day was already a damp squib so we decided we'd drive through the rain and cover Skogafoss, keeping Seljalandsfoss for the sunrise next morning.
Skogafoss is probably the most famous waterfall in Iceland having featured in Game of Thrones multiple times (Latest in S08E01 where Dany and Jon kiss) and Justin Beiber's I'll show you. Now this location had crowd! We spent 3-4 hours here just soaking in the madness of this waterfall and taking pictures. I spent a good bit taking some photographs of the waterfall.
After Skogafoss, we decided to call it a day as we wanted to cover Seljalandsfoss early next morning. As Gljufrabui waterfall was right in front of our campsite, we checked it out and got crazy wet before going to bed.
We woke up next morning only to have the rain and thick clouds spoil the sunrise yet again. At this point, I started to losing hope of making any great landscape photos. We freshened up and proceeded to visit Seljalandsfoss in the rain as we couldn't afford to lag behind anymore.
The interesting thing about Seljalandsfoss is that we can actually go around it and see the falls from behind. However, be prepared to be soaking wet! We put on our rain gear (don't remember not having it on for much really!) and went for the mind numbing experience. We could hardly feel our fingers behind the falls and it felt like torrential rain.
After Seljalandsfoss we grabbed some lunch and then headed on to the Solheimassandur beach to visit the famous DC plane wreck. We were on the fence about it as we were crunched for time. As an after thought, maybe we should've skipped it. The plane was by the beach in the middle of nowhere and with continuous drizzle and heavy winds near the beach, it was not a pleasant experience. With an hours slot between the to-fro shuttle, all we did was hurry up with some pictures and return which we didn't really enjoy.
From here on, we had two more stops planned for the day - Reynifjara black sand beach and Dyrholaey. We reached there alright despite the rain and dangerous roads but it was raining heavily and it kept getting darker. We waited around 2 hours hoping the rain would stop. With no luck, we decided to comeback the next morning instead and headed to the campground in Vik.
Suprise surprise! The campground was closed. While we could still park for the night, all the facilities including toilets were locked and due to open only the week after. We desperately needed to use the restroom and drove around trying to find any public restrooms to no vail. We even contemplated getting a hotel room. However, they were unbelievably expensive at such short notice. After drivin around an hour more, we finally found a nice little cafe where we could grab a bite and more importantly use their restrooms. Haha! We had some surprisingly spicy chicken wings and burger and returned to the campground to call it a night.
Owning it up
The next morning we realized that we have been following the cloud and it was probably a bad idea to drive South in the first place given the weather. At this point we had no choice but to accept our fate and move on. So, we headed back to Reynisfjara early and to our relief there was no rain initially although it was very cloudy. We spent good 4 hours here taking photos and watching the waves and the amazing view of waves crashing into Reynisdrangar.
Despite overcast conditions I took some of my best photographs here. As an after thought, it was probably better this way!
Our second visit to Dyrholaey though wasn't any improvement. It rained heavily and there was not a single Puffin to be seen. So, we headed back to Vik to visit the famous Church on top of a hill after which we enjoyed some solitude at the Vik campground. If we could choose only one place to comeback in Iceland, it would be Vik. There is something about Vik that we fell in love with despite all the disappointment due to weather.
Back on the road, we decided to skip few places so that we could stay ahead of the rain and headed onto our next major stop - Diamond beach. On the way down there, we stopped at some scenic places by the road and even filled drinking water from a waterfall.
Jokulsarlon Diamond beach was probably the place my wife was most excited about. To see the glacier break off after melting slowly for days and wash up on the beach on the other side of the road is an experience that is beyond words. All in all we had a great time here playing with ice and taking pictures.
We headed to Skaftafell national park to camp for the night. We had the most grueling experience awaiting us the next day.
One step at a time
Today marked the most riveting and grueling activity on our program. Glacier hiking at Skaftafell. Our pre-booked provider picked us up at Skaftafell national park and took us on a bus to the starting point. The driver of the bus, a woman from London who fell in love with Iceland and relocated here was witty and informational. Once we reached, we were introduced to our guide for the day - Kesh (I could be spelling it wrong).
We initially walked through a lava field covered with moss to reach the tongue of the glacier. The landscape was breathtaking and the wild flora added another dimension to it. Our guide dropped tidbits of trivia and safety information along the way.
And of course, the rain returned and we still kept chugging along. The hike took us through some dangerous incline and naturally formed Ice caves. We even filled our bottle from a flowing glacier. The entire hike lasted 4 hours and for the first time in the entire trip, due to all the activity we felt hot and actually had to remove some layers of clothing.
Once we were back at the pickup point, our super funny driver inquired with everyone how we all liked it. She walked up to my wife and asked what makeup she was wearing and if she could borrow it coz it didn't wear off despite the rain and sweat. Haha!
Back at Skaftafell camping, we were very tired and took the opportunity to try out Iceland's favorite fast food - Fish and Chips. It was delicious and we continued to have it every once in a while for the rest of the tour.
One step that went wrong
After some much needed rest, we pushed on with a tiring 140km drive to Vestrahorn having to skip few places along the way due to time constraints. We reached Vestrahorn around 6pm and rested a while.
This was one location I had great plans for when it comes to photography. Once we felt well rested, we proceeded to the view point and parked our camper along the side of the gravel road as there was no dedicated parking. It was by the beach and extremely cold due to the winds and intermittent drizzle. While my wife stayed in the camper, I set out scouting the location for good photographs I can take once the sunset was upon us. With the bleak weather and intermittent rain, the sunset was a fail. I also didn't have the lenses necessary to make the best of the location. I was very distraught while my wife tried to console me.
We decided it was probably best we just experience the location the good old fashioned way putting the camera aside. Once we started enjoying the moody weather and the waves on the beach with the magnificent mountain in the backdrop, my creativity slowly started flowing in and I ended up taking some great photos here.
Once we were ready to get back, we hopped in our camper and started driving. That's when the most unexpected happened. Our tire got stuck in the loose black sand by the side of the gravel road. The more I accelerated, the worse it got. The day wasn't gonna end easily! As Indians living in a metro city, we had no clue what to do. We scrambled to see what tools we had on us. Luckily (maybe usual for Icelanders), we had some tools to pick out the sand to make way for the tire. While I desperately started digging out sand, an old man in the only other car in the vicinity, saw us struggling, came to us and offered his help. God-sent we thought! He asked me to continue digging out sand while he went looking for something to use as a ramp for the tire. He actually found some wood and with his help, I finally got the camper out of the ditch and ended our day feeling grateful and thinking how kind people can be!
Game of Thrones and the perils that followed
Today was best know as the day Game of Thrones ended. A rather disappointing season but it was something we loved with all heart for over 8 years. It was a fitting adieu in a way as we got to watch it in Iceland that morning given how much of the series and especially season 8 was shot in Iceland.
Once we could pick us back up from the sadness, we checked out the near by Viking town film set.
This marked the end of our itinerary along the south of Iceland and we started the longest stretch of drive yet! 350kms to Myvatn, North Iceland. Little did we know how dangerous this drive was going to be. The roads got thinner and riskier. Most of this drive was on mountainous roads with steep inclines and declines with very little in the way of pit stops. We did enjoy a short break near an unknown waterfall along the way.
After this though, it just kept getting more challenging. As we got higher in altitude, the low hanging clouds completely blinded us. We were so scared, my wife didn't even dare record anything and was equally attentive to point out anything I might miss. We literally had our hearts in our mouths and as the driver, I had to keep my composure and not frighten my wife and more importantly, myself. At one point, I drove around 20 mins completely blinded by low hanging clouds only keeping my eyes on the lane separator. If the cars coming from the other side hadn't done the same, this blog would've never happened and our adventure would've ended there.
I wish I had a recording of it. No amount of words would give you a remote idea of how dangerous and scary it was. As we kept chugging along, we finally drove through the cloud and it all changed in a matter of seconds and the view got all clear. More importantly, the view opened up to snow! Full fledged snow.
After a 6 hour grueling drive, we finally reached Myvatn where we camped for the night. I didn't tell my wife long after we got back that I accidentally fell asleep on the wheel couple of times during this drive. The stress really got to me and the physical strain was setting in. Luckily we were unharmed. It was in our destiny to go to Iceland and return in one piece.
Myvatn brings the fire in Iceland - The land of Fire and Ice. We observe very high geothermal activity in this region. We started our day visiting the geothermal fields of Hverfjall where we can see hot boiling Sulphur. The landscape here is so different from what we had seen so far. Feels like middle earth. We spent about an hour or two here before proceeding to the more fan favorite cave from Game of Thrones where Ygritte and Jon snow make out.
After the caves, we checked out the Dimmuborgir rock formations. This was a park where most of the landscape had restricted access. So, we didn't enjoy it as much as we'd like despite the amazing rock formations.
We then headed to the main attraction of the day - Godafoss.
After Godafoss, we drove to Akureyri. This was the first City experience we had in Iceland after spending over a week in Wilderness. We visited the famous Akureyri Church, a botanical garden, did some shopping and had some authentic Italian pasta thanks to a fine gentleman Lallo Marino, who offered his wifi and personal time to help us pay a toll online which we forgot. If you ever visit Akureyri, don't forget to strike up a conversation with him.
After a scrumptious meal, we headed back to our campsite and called it a night.
The dream beckons!
The next morning, we embarked on another grueling 450 kms drive to Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This time however, we were better prepared and started quite early in the morning. We did more pit stops along the way so that we wouldn't fall asleep and drive off into the valley somewhere. Haha!
The second half of this stretch though had bad roads - mostly gravel roads with some unbelievably steep incline and decline. Snaefellsnes is also relatively less visited by tourists which meant we went through multiple large patches of drive where we didn't encounter anyone else on the road.
We reached the campsite at Grundarfjordur by noon. While it had minimal facilities, it was the closest to the locations we wanted to cover.
After having our lunch, we drove to the famous Black Church of Budir, which was a short but extremely challenging drive. There were again very few people here and we spent some good time exploring and taking pictures.
We then drove back to Grundarfjordur to explore some small waterfalls near by as we had some time to kill before the sunset.
It was around 9pm, time to head to the main event - Kirkjufell, the mountain that introduced us to Iceland. It was a very short drive to Kirkjufell from Grundarfjordur and we were there in no time and I took my spot for the iconic photo of Kirkjufell before other photographers flocked in. There was a good two hours to go for the sunset and in the mean time, we just took a stroll across the place and took some pictures of us.
As time went on more and more photographers took spots around me. I sparked up some conversations with few photographers from around the world like Germany, China, UK and of course USA. Such is the allure of this location. It's the most photographed mountain in the world. Can you believe that!
Soon the golden hour was upon us. We were going to witness our first golden hour since arriving in Iceland. As the sky started changing hues from mid-day blue to purples and oranges, I recounted the journey that led us here. As my impractical dream played in my head, I stood in front of Kirkjufell just like Elia did, told my self what I was going to photograph and created what would be a photograph that I could truly call my own. A photo that had destiny written all over it. The location that made me fall in love with Iceland, location that made me come all this way overcoming all our fears and limitations. Lastly the stars aligned to provide me one good sunset that I needed to realize my dream!
All good things come to an end
Next morning, we visited some less explored places in Snaefellsnes peninsula. The weather was back to it's moody self with overcast skies and intermittent rains. This only solidified my belief that our day at Kirkjufell was destiny all along.
We first went to Londrangar where we witnessed some amazing rock formations and sea stacks. The sound of birds flying around and the waves hitting the rocks was a soothing experience.
After Londrangar we headed to Arnastapi which is another location with some otherworldly rock formations and sea stacks.
Post these locations, we were very tired as it involved quite a bit of hiking. After resting in the campervan for a bit, we drove straight to Reykjavik. While driving in Iceland is hectic and dangerous in general, driving for the first time in a city of a first world country is very stressful in it's own way. After having missed several turns and roundabouts in the city, we finally reached our campsite around 8pm and hit the bed almost immediately.
The next day, it was all about the Touristy stuff. First we took a Puffin bird watching tour as we were unlucky not to spot any at Dyrholaey due to rains. However, this tour was barely an improvement I'd say. But it was the best we got after the washout at Dyrholaey.
After couple of hours on a boat watching Puffins from quite a distance, we got back and went around the city shopping and exploring. I finally had the opportunity to try some Icelandic beer. We visited the tallest church in Iceland - Hallgrimskirkja, ate at the famous Loki cafe in front of it. Over the course of the day we also tried the famous Lobster soup and fish & chips at the old harbour. The city is beautiful with it's amazing street art and architecture.
The next morning, we had the first appointment at Iceland's most touristy place - The Blue Lagoon. While it is very touristy, you can't call your Iceland trip complete without going there. We spent a good 3 to 4 hours soaking in the geothermal hot waters.
With Blue Lagoon done, it was the end of our Icelandic adventure. We returned our campervan and checked-in to our hotel for the night. Our flight back to India was next morning. We ordered in some dominos pizza and coke to keep us company and spent rest of the evening recounting our experience and realizing how fortunate we were.
Early next morning, we left for the airport where we began our journey back to reality from the dream that was Iceland!
I'm glad you spent the time reading a rather long account of our trip. While it's long, I assure you that it's from the heart. And with that I'd like to sign-off underlining some important things to keep in mind if you are planning to visit Iceland.
1. In Iceland, weather is the boss. One should have healthy respect for it. Don't take any risks, even something that appears harmless. Keep yourself safe.
2. Remember that you are a guest. Please leave your self-entitled attitude back home. In Iceland, you do everything yourself. Please respect the people and the nature equally.
3. Don't leave any trace of you behind. Iceland is unique. Let's try to keep it that way and not turn it into just another overcrowded and under-maintained tourist place by littering and being irresponsible.
4. Your photos and few likes on social media shouldn't come at the cost of Iceland. Iceland's ecosystem is incredibly fragile. Be it a plant, a flower or even a rock. Don't step on moss. It takes centuries to grow back. I beg you to respect it.
Feel free to contact me on Tripoto/Instagram for any queries you have.