Moss Fields and Mountains 1/320 sec, f/8, ISO 200
I heard about Iceland for the first time, in passing, about 10 years ago. By pure chance, my mom and a friend had stumbled upon a fairly cheap 3-day package deal, which included a round-trip flight, accommodation, and some tours around the country. Nothing novel about this arrangement, except for the fact that I've never heard of someone going to Iceland. Where was it anyway? And what was it, an ice-packed island somewhere up near the arctic circle? At the time, Iceland was far from the tourist hotspot it is becoming today. In fact, I have not heard it spoken of before, not to mention someone actually visiting it, so I thought it was an unusual place for a long-weekend getaway. I thought nothing more of it after that, until my mom returned. With an alarming amount of enthusiasm and some very strange stories. I don't recall the specific now, but I remember some talk of lava beaches, hot springs, and elves. Yes, I said elves. The context escapes me now, but I remember the stories being told with so much excitement, and being so strange, that I became quite intrigued.
Earth's Ends Collide 1/100 sec, f/7.1, ISO 250
Almost a decade later, I am standing on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the junction of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, in awe of this incredible place and the workings of nature to create it. Iceland happens to be the only place on Earth where it's possible to do this, with the rest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge lying deep down on the ocean floor (there may be one other location above ground on the African continent). This is one of the things that make Thingvellir National Park such a popular attraction, for tourists and geologists alike. The filming of Game of Thrones here being another. It also happens to be the historic site of Iceland's parliament formation, the first in Europe, over 1,000 years ago.
A word of caution: use extreme care when approaching or walking on natural formations like the one above, whether it's rock, moss-covered ground, or any area near water or waterfalls. The terrain can be quite unpredictable and unforgiving, with openings deeper than you can see and other factors such as extreme heat and eruptions in geothermal areas.
The above two photographs were taken in April - on my second visit. Even the transition seasons in Iceland have their own unique charm, in contrast to the icy winters and blooming summers (the latter of which I have yet to experience). My first visit was in the dead of winter, late January, the darkest and coldest time of the year in Iceland. With only 5-hour-long days, the sun was rising as late as 11:00am! A trip at this time may sound counterintuitive, but it is probably Iceland's second most popular - with the Aurora Borealis in full force and glacier ice cave adventures at their peak. Not to mention the year-round hot springs and countless other attractions and destinations, which are absolutely stunning in the winter time.
On that note, another word of caution for winter travellers: be mindful of the seasonal road closures across the country, the occasional snowstorm which may catch you off-guard in the middle of nowhere, and the essential need of an SUV if you plan on leaving the city.
Land of Fire and Ice 1/400 sec, f/6.3, ISO 250
Above is a massive snow covered field just off Iceland's main highway, the Ring Road, with two small islands floating in a frozen lake ahead. I captured this image during that first visit, in January, as the sky went aglow with the morning light. We pulled off the road momentarily to enjoy this beautiful dawn view, just as a group of people were jumping onto their snowmobiles to begin an excursion into the snow fields ahead of us... We watched them as they seemingly floated over the blanket of snow and disappeared far into the distance.
Below is another image from Thingvellir National Park, taken in the winter. The same places may look almost unrecognizable between seasons in Iceland and I absolutely loved revisiting some of them. Don't be fooled by the calm and peaceful appearance of the scene below - the winds here were strong enough that I could barely hold my camera still while trying to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground. But as Icelanders like to say, "if you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes" (just remember that this works both ways).
Continent's Edge 1/320 sec, f/7.1, ISO 200
Ever since I stepped foot on this island for the first time two years ago, I've been thinking about going back. The dazzling dramatic landscapes, ever-changing as you drive through the country, are unlike anything I've seen elsewhere on the planet. Not that I've seen it all by any means, but probably just enough to tell that Iceland truly feels like a world of its own.
Sunset at Reynisfjara Beach 1/500 sec, f/9, ISO 100
Iceland lies just south of the Arctic Circle, halfway across the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America. In fact, the clash of these two continents, or rather the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, is how the island was formed - about 24 million years ago. Perhaps it's something to do with the island's location and formation that makes it so unique. Sitting atop of this plate junction, known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with a high concentration of active volcanoes while simultaneously known for its glacial climate is what gave it the nickname of "Land of Fire and Ice" (if you Google this in reverse order, "Ice and Fire" instead of "Fire and Ice", you'll get strictly Game of Thrones related content, while the former will be all about Iceland - just something to keep in mind).
Safe on Black Sand 1/2 sec, f/6.3, ISO 200
Both my trips to Iceland were spent primarily in the Southern Region, exploring well known places around what is known as the Golden Circle. And somewhere along this stretch of the Ring Road, on the black sands of Sólheimasandur, lies this eerie piece of structure...
The journey out to the plane wreck was an adventure in itself. Having no clear indication on the map and being unaccessible by car, we had to rely on vague instructions from blogs I was able to dig up. The walk from the road is several kilometres and the terrain of the rocky beach was somewhat challenging, especially through harsh weather. But once we got a first glimpse of the shiny aluminum structure laying far in the distance amidst a sea of black sand, we were in absolute awe. By the way, the crew of this DC-3 aircraft survived the crash landing, which was nice to know as we walked the interior of its bare metal structure. One story is that due to a drastic drop in temperature the engines froze solid as they started sucking in ice. This just as the plane ended up in fog so thick that the crew couldn't see the tips of its wings. The 26-year old lieutenant, a pilot-in-training who had only flown 21 hours in this aircraft type, feared the worst: certain death upon crashing into a mountain. In a daring attempt to save himself and his passengers, he opted for the better of a few bad choices - trying to land on the waters of the Atlantic. As the plane lost altitude, the pilot remarked that they were gliding over “some goddam thing that looked like the moon” (I'd say that's a fair description). He was able to bring the plane down onto the frozen black sand beach. The US Navy having received a mayday call, along with local farmers, quickly came to their rescue.
Be prepared when embarking on such an adventure - Iceland has no shortage of gloomy days and unpredictable, even violent, weather. On another occasion, we were hours out of Reykjavik and driving on the Ring Road towards the southern coast, when we got caught in the heaviest rainstorm I have probably witnessed in my entire life. It hit hard without warning. The road ahead was lost in fog and the clouds above were nowhere to be seen through the heavy showers. The world turned a uniform light grey. The never-ending highway was empty; occasional headlights would appear out of the mist, zoom past us dangerously swaying our car to the side, and then disappear back into the nothingness. The road was single-lane in each direction but the dividing line became hardly visible. We'd often catch ourselves too close to a passing vehicle for comfort, or within inches of the steep edge to the right. But we had a destination in mind, and with our time here limited we were not turning back.
Atlantic Coast 1/640 sec, f/7.1, ISO 250
The car doors swung violently open as we got out near the coastal town of Vik, at the Atlantic shore. We walked towards the water, on the black basalt sand formed by the rapid cooling of lava many years ago. The mountain of Reynisfjall towered over the black beach, and inside that mountain was a cave. As we stepped inside, the raging storm seemed to take a brief pause. In the cave you could still feel the occasional mist on your face, carried over by winds from outside, but the atmosphere within was calm. This is a shelter that apparently even local sheep use to shield themselves from the not-so-uncommon local storms.
Shelter in a Cave 1/25 sec, f/5, ISO 400
After exploring the shore with torrential rain coming down on us and watching waves smash violently into the basalt rock formations, we drove over to the nearby Dyrhólaey peninsula.
At Land's End 1/50 sec, f/8, ISO 200
After walking up the trail against heavy winds, we were completely soaked though, and spent just enough time at the top to get a few good glimpses of the incredible views and snap a couple photographs. I did my best to hold my camera still, while having difficulty keeping my feet planted on the ground, as the strong wind and torrential rain were hitting me sideways, sometimes rapidly changing direction and throwing me off balance. We've already been thoroughly soaked for a half hour, and so at this very moment I hardly felt the wetness anymore. Nevertheless, the second we jumped back into the car, we turned up the heat. It his us then - we were absolutely freezing, to the point of shivering.
Gate to Sea 1/50 sec, f/7.1, ISO 200
The route back was probably the most uncomfortable 200 kilometre drive I have ever done, being thoroughly soaked through several layers of clothes. On the way, seeing a pair of hitchhikers at Skógafoss waterfall, in the same miserable state as ourselves but without a means of transport, we decided to help them out. It was a tough decision to make, being in the state we were in ourselves, but we wouldn't feel right letting them soak out there for much longer. Why anyone would endeavour to hitchhike in Iceland (or anywhere for that matter) I couldn't tell you. It's definitely not something I'd recommend. But you absolutely must make it out to this island one day if you get a chance, it is beyond incredible!
My full Iceland image collection can be found here.
Behind the Falls 1/200 sec, f/6.3, ISO 320